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Episode 29 - The Last Years of Henry III
Episode 2926th August 2021 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:29:26

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In 1046 Henry III reached the zenith of his rule. He deposed three unworthy popes and replaced them with serious churchmen who will bring the necessary reforms about. Domestically he is in control of the three Eastern European states, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary and the restless Lotharingians seem settled.

How did it come about that by 1056 the chronicler writes that "both the foremost men and the lesser men of the kingdom began more and more to murmur against the emperor. They complained he had long since departed from his original conduct of justice, peace, piety, fear of god and manifold virtues in which he ought to have made progress"

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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Episode 29 – The last Years of Henry III

Hello and welcome to the history of the Germans – Episode 29 The last years of Henry III.

discipline in monasteries. In:

Oh Henry, cherish the moment, because this is not to last.

xony and its major nobles. In:

At the same time the Slavs to the east of the duchy resumed hostilities. The defending nobles did not receive any support from the emperor, and even the bishoprics in Saxony failed to contribute to the defence of the realm. In 1056 a major Saxon army was defeated near the mouth of the Havel River, a defeat blamed on the absent emperor and his hostile policy towards the ancient heartland of the empire. Miraculously Saxony does not rebel yet.

tly subjugated Hungarians. In:

The new king of Hungary was Andreas, son of Vazul who was so brutally executed by Saint Stephen. Despite all possible grudges Andreas might have had against the emperor he did sent envoys with humble entreaties, offered subjugation to imperial rule and restitution for the treatment of Peter. Admittedly Andreas had not many options since a pagan uprising was still raging across Hungary and he needed calm frontiers to sort that out.

Henry III was given the choice between accepting Andreas as his new unruly vassal or fighting to avenge the feckless Peter. He chose, not to choose, which is probably the worst of all available options. Admittedly he was distracted by events in Lothringia we will talk about in a second. Doing nothing was particularly bad because it allowed Andreas to sort out his domestic issues without ending up in an obligation to the emperor. And when Henry III finally got round to attacking Hungary Andreas had built a string of border defences and renewed his army.


In between these military campaigns the Hungarians would regularly offer peace and submission provided the emperor accepts Andreas as king. Even pope Leo IX intervenes on Andreas’ behalf. But Henry III remains stubborn.

emia links up with Hungary in:

Henry III’s Eastern European policy has not yet collapsed but is under severe threat.

y fight. You remember that in:

While in Rome, Henry issued another one of his peace proclamations where he forgave all his enemies and in turn expected everyone else to forgive those who had trespassed against them. Godfrey the bearded was explicitly excluded from this act of mercy, a terrible affront that is hard to explain given Henry III had just received Godfrey back into his grace.

Despite this rudeness Godfrey still towed the line and remained a faithful servant. That only changed when the Dietrich, count of Holland continued his attempts to expand his territory at the expense of the empire and the bishop of Utrecht. Rumours were going around that the King of France had offered Dietrich support. Henry’s attempt to bring Dietrich to heel fell short as he struggled with the waterlogged conditions. On his return the locals were chasing the imperial troops with small ships like pirates killing many.

Henry III had got married in:

What does Henry III do? He raises a previously unknown count, Adalbert of Longwy to be the new duke of upper Lothringia. That does not last long since Godfrey killed Adalbert in an ambush within a year. Henry III now appoints his brother, Gerard of Chatenois to be the new duke. Just as an aside, his family would rule Lorraine until the 18th century and with Francis I marriage to Maria Theresia become the ancestors of the Habsburgs in the male line. Not bad for a second rate count. But apart from this great optionality the count of Chatenois gets very little in terms of help from the emperor.

ned in Henry’s favour after:

The final blow came when Henry III took advantage of having a pet pope in the form of Leo IX. He excommunicated both Baldwin of Flanders and Godfrey the Bearded. Godfrey succumbed and surrendered to the imperial mercy in Aachen in 1049. Baldwin of Flanders held out a bit longer but finally had to give up and sign a peace agreement with Henry III.

This may all look like a great outcome for Henry III. But by breaking the ducal authority in Lothringia he also created a political vacuum. As it happened the empire was either unwilling or unable to step into this vacuum which ultimately led to a fragmentation of power in Lothringia that weakened the realm’s western frontier.

f the law. So war returns. In:

The situation is so dire that Henry III calls Godfrey the Bearded back. Not that he makes him duke again, but he gets some of his lands back. He even gets a role in the war against Baldwin of Flanders. This gradual reconciliation may have been brought about by pope Leo IX. Leo IX had been bishop of Toul and had been close to the family of Godfrey the Bearded. Godfrey’s brother, Frederick was Leo IX’s chancellor.

down, but Godfrey himself. In:

Boniface was the most powerful secular lord in Northern Italy. He was a creature of the imperial rule in Italy through and through. His family owed its rise from obscurity to Empress Adelheid who awarded them with Mantua and other counties iin the 960s and Konrad II had awarded Boniface the mighty county of Tuscany in 1027. His relationship with the imperial house was further strengthened when he married Beatrix, a wealthy niece of Konrad II. His lands comprised a band of cities and fortresses going east to west across Italy including Mantua, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Brescia and Verona. Imperial rule in Italy was simply unimaginable without Boniface’ support. Boniface stopped French ambitions on the Italian crown after Henry II’s death and fought Odo of Blois for Konrad II

he two men met in Florence in:

But do you notice something here? A lot of Henry III’s problems after 1046 stem from his stubbornness. Why did he insist on fighting king Andreas of Hungary who was constantly trying to become his vassal? What is it Godfrey the bearded had done to be excluded from the indulgence of 1046? And now he is clearly falling out with his most powerful vassal in Italy. Historians have two explanations. One is that henry III had a notion of imperial dignity that did not allow the slightest compromise or challenge to his rule. Hence King Peter, incompetent as he was, needed to be avenged, Godfrey and Boniface were simply too powerful to be tolerated. The other theory is that the change in behaviour came about after his illness in 1045. During that illness the magnates feared for the emperor’s life and -since he had no son at the time – lined up a Count Palatinate as his successor, just in case. It seems something in this period had changed Henry’s personality and outlook that contributed to the tensions with his magnates.

No bonus points for guessing Henry’s reaction when he realises his archenemy Godfrey has just got hold of a big chunk of Northern Italy by marrying the widow of Boniface. Imagine Godfrey teams up with the Normans who had just won the battle of Civitate. Suddenly Godfrey would be the master of Rome and hence of the Papacy.

managed even before the year:

You would think that with Saxony grumbling, Hungary resisting, Lothringia in perennial revolt and a key ally in Northern Italy lost, this would be the full compliment of later rule issues for an emperor.

But no. You may remember that two episodes ago I said we would get back to the awarding of the Southern duchies to major magnates. Now is the time.

well as king of Burgundy. By:

By 1052 the duke of Bavaria is Konrad, member of the powerful Ezzonian family. The Ezzonians’ main territories lay along the Rhine north of Cologne. By now they were no longer nouveau riche but highest nobility, tracing their line back to Otto the Great. Konrad of Bavaria like his predecessors, had been appointed directly by the emperor without regard to ancient Bavarian traditions that allowed for an election of their duke. All that should have made sure he had little support amongst the Bavarian nobility.

What happens next is a bit unclear. Some sources talk about a personal clash between Konrad and Henry over a marriage proposal. And there is also the question of what to do with regards to Hungary. Bavaria was the main battlefield of the Hungarian war which caused a lot of damage. It seems Konrad could not quite see the point of perennial, un-winnable conflict for the sake of revenge for an inept and now long dead former king. On this point he clashed with the Gebhard, bishop of Regensburg who took a hard line. The feud between Gebhard and Konrad escalated into full on revolt by the duke, who found support amongst the Bavarian nobles tired of having their lands raided.

Henry III deposes Konrad who flees to Hungary. He then awards the duchy successively to his 2-year-old son Henry, then Henry’s little brother and finally his wife, Agnes of Poitou. When Gebhard of Regensburg did not get the regency over Bavaria, he joined the rebels as well, as did duke Welf of Carinthia. This is now a major, major problem. The conspirators are putting plans together to have Henry murdered and Konrad to be made king. This plan would have had a good chance of succeeding given the issues in Saxony and Lothringia and the fact that henry III’s heir was a child of 4 or five at the time.

and Welf of Carinthia died in:

This highlights the big difference between the way the emperors managed their realm and the way the French kings go about it. No French king in the 11th to 13th century would ever, in his wildest dreams, hand over a vacant duchy or county to another magnate, unless forced. Because the French nobles are constantly at war with the king, the logic for the king is to grab hold of any plot of land he can get his hands on and build an infrastructure that allows him to administrate this land without having to enfeoff it to someone else. When Phillippe Auguste in the 13th century rebuilds the French monarchy, he takes over Normandy and the County of Toulouse amongst others and incorporates them into the crown lands.

Compared to France, the empire is largely at peace. The prevailing ideology is that the empire is run through a consensus between the emperor and his major vassals who give him support in war and advice in peacetime. Yes, the emperors did try to build a territorial structure in the crown lands of Saxony around Goslar and in Franconia around Speyer. But that is small fry compared with whole duchies they often held in their hands. They did not create a bureaucracy that could manage a whole duchy directly on their behalf. It seems that ducal positions had to be granted to members of the highest nobility to maintain that semblance of consensual rule. The emperors increasingly relied on the church to provide administration, military support and a counterbalance to the dukes..

Talking about the church, Henry III even managed to weaken that pillar of his realm. The first incidence involved the bishop of Cambrai. The bishop’s lands had been subject to raids by the rebels in the endless Lothringian wars. One of his particular scourges was his neighbour, John of Arras. At some point in the fighting Henry III needed the support of John of Arras. He offered John the role of count of Cambrai if he would switch sides. Henry may well have thought that the bishop of Cambrai would accept this tactical decision. But he did not. Henry, caught between his promise to John and his obligation to the loyal bishop took the wrong decision. He forced the bishop to accept John using force. That caused no end of concern amongst the bishops of Lothringia who had been the main combatant on the imperial side. Equally bishop Wazo of Liege found himself exposed to imperial displeasure when he signed a truce with Godfrey the Bearded after a long siege and the emperor had failed to send relief.

he bishops and abbots were in:

Polemic against the burden of military service on the churches is circulating and at a Synod in Rheims, presided over by pope Leo IX the bishops reiterate the ancient ban on military service for the clergy.

rch. Wazo of Liege wonders in:

Anonymous treatises start to circulate which condemn Henry III for his uncanonical marriage to Agnes of Poitou who was too closely related. This incestuous marriage makes him an infamus, a man without honour, who cannot even sit in judgement over laymen, let alone judge clerics or even popes.

ated to archbishop of Lyon in:

The fact that the marriage to Agnes of Poitou was uncanonical is a recurring issue in the relationship with the church and undermines Henry’s position as leader of the church reform. The abbot of the important reform monastery of Gorze publicly and private criticised the marriage and the whole atmosphere at court and Henry’s choice of advisers.

And even in Rome Pope Leo IX was disappointed in the lacklustre support he received for his plans to fight the Normans. Henry III offered a small number of troops and allowed ambitious men to follow the papal flag, which attracted rogues and adventurers rather than proper fighting men who ran for cover at Civitate.

Towards the end of his reign Hermann of Reichenau, our most reliable chronicler writes: quote “At this time both the foremost men and the lesser men of the kingdom began more and more to murmur against the emperor. They complained he had long since departed from his original conduct of justice, peace, piety, fear of god and manifold virtues in which he ought to have made progress from day to day; that he was gradually turning towards acquisitiveness and a certain negligence and that he would become much worse than he was before”.

Henry III died on October 5th at his palace in Bodfeld in the Harz mountains aged just 39. He leaves behind his eldest son, Henry IV who is just 6 years old when his father succumbs.


All this looks smooth, though the election of henry IV had an unusual quirk. The nobles elected him and swore to serve him for as long as he reigned as a “just king”. In other words, they reserved the right to refuse suit in case young Henry IV does not turn out a good king who respects the rights of the nobility.

Well, we will find out in the next few episodes whether Henry IV is going to live up to these standards, whether the foremost and the lower men of the kingdom will give him suit as the just king when it is most crucial.

But before we go there, I have something special for you. As you know the History of the Germans Podcast has no advertising and I have no intention to go down that route in the future. However, what I am happy to do is help promote other podcasters whose work I respect and admire. Hence next week you will find Episode 1 of the Thugs and Miracle podcast by Benjamin Bernier in your feed. Benjamin is an exceptional storyteller who has taken it upon himself to bring you the story of France from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Guillotine. In his more than 50 episodes to date he brings the ancient kingdom of the Franks to life. As you may know, I am not a huge fan of the so-called dark ages and have skipped over them somewhat casually. Listening to Benjamin I am wondering whether that was such a good idea. There are some truly fabulous stories there I missed. But only because I missed out does not mean you have to miss out. So listen in to Thugs and Miracles next week. I will be back on air on Sep