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Ep. 53 - Sacrum Imperium - The moment when the Empire becomes Holy and Roman
Episode 5331st March 2022 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:34:13

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(1155-1158) This week we will see how Barbarossa addresses the big issue he had in his first Italian campaign, the size of the army and how he creates the Holy Roman Empire in the process.

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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To make it easier for you to share the podcast, I have created separate playlists for some of the seasons that are set up as individual podcasts. they have the exact same episodes as in the History of the Germans, but they may be a helpful device for those who want to concentrate on only one season.

So far I have:

The Ottonians

Salian Emperors and Investiture Controversy

Fredrick Barbarossa and Early Hohenstaufen

Frederick II Stupor Mundi

Saxony and Eastward Expansion

The Hanseatic League

The Teutonic Knights

The Holy Roman Empire 1250-1356


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 53 – Sacrum Imperium

This week we will see how Barbarossa addresses the big issue he had in his first Italian campaign, the size of the army and how he creates the Holy Roman Empire in the process..

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Andrew C., Andrew K. and Charles Lothar who have already signed up.

Last week our imperial hero, Frederick Barbarossa returned back to Germany after a year and a half of brutal fighting in Italy that got him the imperial crown, but not much else.

One of the limiting factors was the size of the army he had brought along, just 1,800 knights which translates into an overall force of maybe 5-7,000 soldiers. The modest strength of his German contingent meant he had to rely on Italian allies to provide the muscle and most significantly the siege engines needed to break the heavily fortified cities of Italy. As he discovered, Italy was a place where each of the cities was constantly at war with its neighbours. And as they fought their immediate neighbours, they formed alliances with their enemies’ enemies so that the whole of Italy resembled a chessboard where all the white cities were fighting all the black cities all the time.

Barbarossa had sort of stumbled into this hornet’s nest by more or less accidentally taking the side of little Lodi in its conflict with Milan. That meant that all the allies of Lodi, so, Como, Novara, Cremona and the most powerful amongst them, Pavia saw Barbarossa as their friend. On the flipside, their enemies, most senior amongst them Milan and its allies, such as Tortona became the emperor’s enemies.

If Barbarossa had had a larger force, he could have pursued a more independent policy, as he had set out to do on the fields of Roncaglia when he first arrived. But he did not. As time went by and problems piled up, he became more and more dependent upon Pavia. Pavia made him besiege Tortona which cost him valuable time. Always remember that there is only a short time window for any Northern European army to operate in central and southern Italy. Once the summer comes, the northerners need to flee into the mountains or go home if they want to avoid dying of Malaria, dysentery and all the other goodies of a hot climate. Because he lost time in Tortona, he got to Rome in June which meant he could not fulfil his promise to recapture Thecity for the pope and subdue the king of Sicily.

So, in the final analysis the situation looks as follows: Inability to raise enough troops in the north meant inability to establish control over northern Italy and slowed progress to Rome, which in turn meant papal disappointment and an ultimately unsatisfactory campaign, despite the imperial crown.

The solution had to be, to try again, but this time to come with overwhelming force.

Let’s remember why he only had a small force. The old hands had been sceptical that after 80 years of endless feuding and chaos a lasting peace had finally come upon the land. Was it really sensible to strip your castles of soldiers to follow the emperor to Italy when your greedy second cousins stayed back? The thing about old hands in the Middle Ages is that they are old because they had made fewer mistakes than those who had gone before their time. And they were right this time too.

Whilst the emperor was down in Italy his not so loyal subjects went back to their old tricks. There were a number of feuds ongoing, some in Saxony where the archbishop Hartwich of Bremen had tried to rebuild his shattered position but the worst was the Mainzer feud. What happened was that the new archbishop of Mainz, Arnold had attempted to regain lands and privileges that his predecessors had alienated. That unsurprisingly irritated episcopal vassals and ministeriales who currently held all these lands and rights the bishop wants back.

This is quite a typical feud. If you think about it, the reason why medieval princes fight each other are very rarely down to some irrational urge to attack your neighbour for some perceived sleight. In most cases these are disagreements over ownership rights where either side refers to contracts, inheritance, ancient privileges and the like. Such disagreements could be resolved in court, but only if both sides are happy to accept the authority of that court. During Conrad III’s reign feuds went out of control because he lacked the respect of either party.

What makes Barbarossa so much more successful in preventing or ending feuds is because the princes recognise his authority, and the question is why?

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The reason his fellow princes accepted his judgements was very simple, they regarded them as just and impartial. One way for Barbarossa to ensure he was seen as just was by not actually making the judgements himself but asking a court of princes to adjudicate. Effectively a jury of peers/ I think I have said that three times now, so I will shut up about this point. Just remember – in Barbarossa’s Empire the court of princes takes all the decisions.

But that is not all. Barbarossa also needs to prove his impartiality. Maintaining impartiality in a society where blood ties count more than might or right is having its litmus test when family gets involved.

And that litmus test was the Mainzer feud. The strongest opponent of the archbishop was the Count Platinate, Hermann of Stahleck. Hermann of Stahleck had married Barbarossa’s aunt and was hence family.

Hermann was a pretty typical prince of the post- Salian period. He had received the title from Conrad III but had to fight for against another contender. Once Hermann had captured his opponent, he had him strangled. His lands lay in the Middle Rhine between roughly speaking Cologne and Heidelberg, bordering both the archbishoprics of Trier and Mainz. For about a decade he fought wars with the archbishop of Trier, Albero one of the most martial of German medieval archbishops. He lost this fight which meant he now concentrated more on the Rhine valley.

As I mentioned Issues arose when the archbishop of Mainz began his drive to regain his ancient rights and privileges vis-à-vis his vassals. Hermann of Stahleck held some of these fiefs and rights from Mainz. Hostilities between the archbishop and his vassals descended into more of a regional war once Barbarossa had left for Italy. On Hermann’s side were several of his relatives as well as many ministeriales of the archbishop, whilst the archbishop could also recruit some of the local counts. According to a letter from the archbishop, Hermann’s troops had destroyed castles, devastated manors, plundered consecrated cemeteries , churches, and monasteries, despoiled reliquaries, and, as is obligatory, abducted nuns and monks. This was pretty much standard practice in a feud. That is why many of these “romantic” in inverted commas castles along the Rhine were built or extended in that period.

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Barbarossa’s judgement was harsh, both parties were ordered to carry dogs – a punishment worse than death for a proud aristocrat. In case of Hermann, who was after all his uncle, it was one of its worst forms. Hermann and 10 other counts had to carry the dogs over their shoulders, i.e., holding the front paws, barefoot in the freezing December cold. Imagine you have to go for a mile with a stressed-out dog jabbing his hind claws into your back. Herrmann of Stahleck was broken by this penance. He retired to his monastery where he died 6 months later. His successor as Count palatinate was Barbarossa’s stepbrother, young Conrad.

This display of harsh justice without regard for family obligations had a major impact on the empire. Otto von Freising said this severe punishment had put the fear of God into the castellans so that they would rather keep peace than enter any more fights. Now that is certainly an exaggeration, but the judgement did strengthen the imperial standing.

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Before we go on, let me take the opportunity to explain what the Count Palatinate is. I have been thinking of doing that for a while. It never found a good slot for it. Now it has become pressing as the palatinate has become a thing.

The title of count palatinate goes way back. In the administrative system of Charlemagne there were three kinds of Counts. The run of the mill counts who administrated a particular region, providing justice and organised the military levy. Then you had the margrave, marquess or marcher lord, who was a count managing a border county. These Margraves were of a higher rank than normal counts as they had responsibility for the defence of the realm. And finally, you had the counts palatine, the palace counts who were close to the king. They would manage the royal estates and would be sent on various missions on the king’s behalf. Their decision overruled those of simple counts or margraves the most famous of these Paladins was Roland of the Song of Roland.

Under the Ottonians the role of Counts palatinate began to change. The Ottonian system had duchies as a mid-layer between simple counts and the king, which made the dukes extremely powerful. To counteract ducal power the king placed count palatinates into each duchy to look after the royal lands, rights and estates. In a way the counts palatinate was the eyes and ears of the king inside the duchy and would keep the duke in check. Counts Palatinate were initially set up as offices that could not be inherited, same as duchies. But over time, they turned into inheritable fiefs. Otto von Wittelsbach the great friend of Barbarossa was count palatinate of Bavaria, a position he had inherited from his father.

During the 12th and 13th century the counts palatinate would merge with the ducal title, spoiler alert, otto von Wittelsbach will become duke of Bavaria. The great exception is the Count Palatinate on the Rhine. This role was originally that of the count platinate of Lothringia which came with the management of the imperial palace in Aachen, making it the most prestigious of the paladins. But the counts palatinate on the Rhine were also more aggressive than their brethren building up large property along the Rhine river. The Ezzonen, one of the important families of the later Ottonian period were counts palatinate on the Rhine. Over time the Counts palatinate on the Rhine lost more and more of their possessions on the lower Rhine and gained property east and west of the Middle section of the river with their centre in Heidelberg. Essentially their territory gradually travelled south. The area West of the Rhine is today called the Pfalz or the Palatinate, not because it was an imperial palace or imperial land, but because it was the land of the counts palatinate. Thanks to a combination of sizeable territory and the prestigious title, they became imperial princes of the highest rank and ultimately one of the seven imperial electors. There we go, one of the weirder German princely titles explained.

But back to the question of how Barbarossa can make sure he has a larger army next time he goes down to Italy. Providing peace and justice is great, but that is not all.

The other way to make this work is handing out baubles. One of the biggest bauble was given to the duke of Bohemia. Despite being culturally and linguistically Czech, Bohemia was a duchy within the empire. But there was always a bit of a difference. At times emperors have allowed the duke of Bohemia to call himself king as a personal, non-inheritable title. Barbarossa needed the support of duke Vladislav II of Bohemia and granted him and all his descendants the right to wear a crown on certain holy days and have people call him king. This title was purely honorific and did not change his status as a duke.

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Another side effect of the Babenberger reconciliation was the relationship with Hungary. As you may remember Conrad III’s policy was heavily influenced by his Babenberger siblings. The Babenbergers were constantly pushing for war with Hungary in collaboration with Constantinople. The Constantinople alliance had already been sacrificed for better relationships with the papacy and now that the Babenberger were brought into the fold, peace could be made with Hungary. King Geza even offered soldiers for an Italian campaign.

Finally Barbarossa ran a short campaign in Poland making its king promising another 500 knights for the Italian campaign.

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And finally, there is the border to the Slavic territories in the east. Lothar III had begun colonising the lands that we today know as Mecklenburg, Pomerania and Brandenburg. That process was rudely interrupted by the altogether pointless Wendish crusade. But by 1155 action resumed. Barbarossa in another move to bring Henry the Lion close to him had granted the duke the right to invest the bishops of Oldenburg, Mecklenburg and one more bishopric. This profoundly imperial privilege was a major concession, even though these bishoprics were so poor, some did not even have a church, so the bishop celebrated mass on a mound of snow.

Equally Albrecht the Baer was made happy when his right to the margraviate of Brandenburg was acknowledged and Berthold von Zaehringen was given the right to invest the bishops of Lyon and Geneva. Handouts, handouts and more handouts.

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What Barbarossa gave his subjects was the idea that if they followed him, they could gain riches far beyond what they could gain squabbling amongst themselves. The Bishoprics in the north and the campaign against Poland were measures of the emperor paving the way for his princes to build power-bases further east.

He also handed over titles and promises to lands that he did not own, like the margraviate of Istria, which is basically modern day Croatia and even titles like duke of Merania, a territory nobody knows where exactly it is. The Welf were given the lands of Matilda in Tuscany as an incentive to come down.

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Peace and stability in their backyard and the promise of titles and riches was however still not enough to build that great army Barbarossa needed to subdue Milan and make himself the effective ruler of Northern Italy. What he needed was an ideology, an idea that his men would follow.

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Hadrian IV. was very disappointed with Barbarossa’s efforts. The papacy had been asking German emperors to come down and help against the Sicilians and the Roman Commune since the last effort by Lothar III had failed in 1139. When after 15 years Barbarossa arrives, he makes things worse in Rome and then refuses to attack Sicily – or his army does which comes to the same thing.

Barbarossa may have promised he would come down again with a larger army, but judging by past performance, this is not something Hadrian IV thinks he can wait for.

Initially there is some hope to get rid of the pesky Normans. You remember the small army of emperor Manuel of Constantinople that had camped in Ancona? These guys had to go it alone and – to everyone’s surprise, were able to make some major inroads into Puglia and Calabria. The Byzantines came fairly close to victory when king William of Sicily becomes gravely ill, and the uprisings extended to Sicily itself.

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This peace of Benevento is a slap in the face of emperor Barbarossa. Not only is it a breach of the treaty of Constance, it also implies the pope sees himself as the sole feudal overlord of Southern Italy.

Hadrian IV was well aware that he was sailing his relationship with Barbarossa into heavy weather. To forestall difficulties he sent two cardinals north, not just any cardinals, but some of the most senior, Bernard of San Clemente and his own chancellor Roland Bandinelli.

They meet the emperor in Besancon in Burgundy where he is holding a splendid imperial assembly. This assembly is one of the early highpoints of Barbarossa’s reign. For the first time in almost a century the emperor is exercising some form of authority in Burgundy. He appoints a new archchancellor for the kingdom, pronounces judgements and just generally picks up the reins of rulership. He receives embassies from both Henry II of England and Louis VII of France, again it had been a long time since that has happened at an imperial assembly. France and England taking the emperor seriously as a potential factor in their eternal struggle over the Plantagenet possessions in France shows just how fast and how far the prestige of the Reich has risen in 4 short years.

Into this walks Roland Bandinelli, the papal chancellor. He greets the emperor with the words, “Our most blessed father, pope Hadrian salutes you, and the College of cardinals, he as father, they as brethren”. Not a good start. The pope as father makes the emperor look small as the son. But they let this one go and wait for the reading of the papal message the next day.

This message is written in Latin, like all important communication which means it needs to be translated. The person who will translate this letter is the new imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel. Let me leave this name standing for now. We will talk about him in a lot more detail later.

The gist of the papal letter is that Hadrian complains about the treatment of the archbishop of Lund who had been robbed and taken prisoner somewhere in the German lands.

Now that is not the way I would soften up an emperor who is upset about the breach of their treaty and feudal overreach. But it gets worse. The pope accuses the emperor to be neglecting his duty to provide peace in his lands by leaving such a dreadful and accursed deed unpunished. Though he did not accuse Barbarossa directly of having ordered the abduction of the venerable prelate, he expressed disbelief at the emperor’s indifference to the archbishop’s fate. He, the pope was unaware in what way he may have offended his most beloved son and most Christian prince. He reminded him how he had received the emperor in Rome just two years hence and had satisfied all his wishes and quote “had conferred on him the imperial dignity and would have rejoiced if he could have bestowed upon Frederick maiora beneficia” end quote.

The German chancellor Rainald von Dassel translates the words “maiora beneficia” as “additional fiefs”. In other words, the papal letter suggests that the imperial crown was granted to Frederick as a fief and that he would therefore be a papal vassal. These words being spoken the room explodes in uproar. Everyone shouts at the cardinals.

Then the topic of the fresco comes up. In Episode 45 I mentioned that pope Innocent II had an image painted on the walls of the Lateran palace showing emperor Lothar III receiving the imperial crown on his knees and with clasped hands as liegeman of the pope. When Barbarossa met Hadrian IV he had asked for this image to be removed which Hadrian promised to do, but clearly had not done since it was still there in the 16th century.

People shout that the fresco -that by the way nobody present had seen – was to be taken down. Then Roland Bandinelli, chancellor of the church and most senior of the roman cardinals throws a barrel of oil on the fire by saying “From whom then does he have the empire if not from the lord pope?” Otto von Wittelsbach, the greatest fighter of the times cannot take it any longer. He unsheathes his sword and almost runs the legate through. At the last minute does Barbarossa intervene citing that he had promised safe conduct to the cardinals. The papal envoys were taken to a safe place and were sent home the next day.

As listeners to the History of the Germans know too well, conflicts between popes and emperors are nothing new. But this is different in several ways.

Firstly, it is the first time these differences are debated in public between the emperor and some senior cardinals. Previous altercations happened in writing. Seeing a cardinal being attacked with a sword by an imperial paladin has a very different impact on public opinion than the writing of angry letters.

But the other more significant component is that Roland’s claim the emperor had received his crown from the pope was not just an attack on the emperor, but on the empire as a whole. If the imperial coronation had been the one and only thing that turned a man into an emperor, then what was the election by the princes? If the emperor was a papal vassal, did he still have any obligations to his magnates?

No, this could not be the way. A king did not become king because of his coronation, he became king because he was either elected or inherited the crown. The bishop who crowns the king had not decided that this man was to become king, he just executed the decision of the Lord that this man should be king.

Why would that be different for the emperor?

Barbarossa published a circular outlining his view in the immediate aftermath of the assembly at Besancon. In it he describes the events calls the cardinals arrogant and haughty and accuses the pope of being a source of dissension and evil. And then he states that he had received the kingdom and the empire “from God alone” who expressed his will through the election by the Princes. He calls upon his subject not to let the honour of the empire be disparaged, an empire that had stood, glorious and undiminished since the founding of the city of Rome. In other words, the empire is older than the papacy, even older than Christianity itself.

Hadrian responded by upping the ante, declaring now explicitly that he sees the imperial crown as a fief and that Barbarossa was hence his vassal. He calls upon the German bishops to “calm the monarch down” since that was in their own interest to preserve their rights and freedoms.

Well, that did not happen. The German bishops write back to the pope that they had talked to the emperor and that they had received the following response that they essentially agreed with.

“The empire is ruled by two things, the sacred laws of the empire (which means the codex of Justinian or Roman Law), and the good customs of our forefathers and our fathers”. And based on those, the imperial crown was solely in the gift of God, which by tradition was expressed through the election by the princes. And the bishops highlight that the first vote is that of the archbishop of Mainz.

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This whole idea that the empire predates the church and stands on the same level as the church manifested itself in the use of the words Sacrum imperium in many imperial charters. Sacrum imperium translates as the Holy Empire. For the linguists amongst you there are two words in Latin for holy, sacrum and sanctum. Sanctum means that something or someone is holy through association with actual holiness. For instance, a saint is holy not by himself but because of his deeds and the fact that the church recognises the sanctity. Even the church itself is sancta ecclesia, holy because holiness is bestowed upon it by Christ through the apostles. Sacrum means something is holy from its inception. In late antiquity Imperial institutions and palaces were sacrum, not sanctum. Hence the Holy Empire is Holy in and of itself not derived from an act of the Holy Mother Church.

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Just to bring this story to a close. Hadrian IV wrote a letter saying that the word “beneficium” that caused all that boohoo was simply mistranslated. What the pope always had wanted to say was that he wanted to do the emperor more “good deed” bene ficium and that it was all a terrible misunderstanding. This reconciliation was in no small way thanks to the involvement of Otto von Freising who took over the translation of papal letters from Rainald von Dassel for the time being.

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Henry the Lion had built a bridge just three miles upstream from Foehring at a location known as the Monk’s cell or just monks. These two bridges and market competed intensely. Some sources claim that Henry the Lion had destroyed the bridge at Foehring though this is not 100% clear. In any event, Otto demanded henry’s bridge to be closed and his exclusive right to hold a market recognised. Well, he did not get that. What he got was a revenue sharing agreement. He was given 1/3rd of the revenue of the new market and bridge. This new market was called moench, later moenchen, then München a place you know as the city of Munich. That was a sad outcome for our chronicler but a good thing for English speakers because who knows what would happen to the name Föhring after a few Steins at the Octoberfest.

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