Stories from German History - Florence Aston

Henry the Emperor


When Henry the Saint died in the year 1024, the Saxon dynasty was ended, and there was no direct descendant to succeed him. On his death-bed he had recommended as emperor Conrad of Franconia, but a younger cousin of the same name also put forward a claim to the throne.

Since the days of Henry the Fowler, the Germans had elected a suitable king from among their princely families, but the Saxon dynasty being extinct, they met on the banks of the Rhine between Mayence and Oppenheim to choose their ruler. Duke, counts, archbishops, bishops and abbots met together, attended by a vast concourse of laymen, and encamped on both sides of the river; Franks and Lothringians on the left bank, Saxons, Swabian and other Germans on the right.

The moment was critical, since both candidates had claims of some weight to the imperial throne. Both were grandsons of the old Duke Conrad of Franconia, who had married a daughter of Otto I, and the elder had been recommended by the late emperor, but the younger had a strong title, in that he was the son of an elder brother and was a man of unusual skill and ability. But the elder Conrad averted the danger by persuading his cousin that it was surely better for one of them to be merely the relative of the reigning emperor than that the crown should pass into a different family altogether on account of their disputes. So the two princes embraced before the whole assembly and swore friendship, each promising to support the one who should be elected by the people.

Conrad the elder was chosen with only two dissentient votes, and he placed his cousin by his side amid the acclamations of all present. The Archbishop of Mayence anointed him king as Conrad II, and the nobles took the oath of allegiance. The new Emperor made a tour of his dominions, redressing wrongs as he went. He then visited Italy, where he found the people on the point of electing the King of France as their ruler, since they thought that the hereditary right had died out with the Saxon dynasty.

Conrad disputed this claim stoutly and remained in Italy for some time, being detained before Pavia for a whole year. At length he reached Rome, and was crowned with much pomp and ceremony. Two foreign kings were present at the coronation, Rudolph of Burgundy and the great Canute, King of Scandinavia and England. With the latter Conrad formed a great friendship, and Canute gave his daughter as a wife to Conrad's son, while Conrad granted him the province of Schleswig in return. When the Emperor returned home, he set to work to redress the wrongs that he found existing there. He was an able monarch, and during his reign made several laws that were of great benefit to the German people. He it was who made the smaller fiefs hereditary both in Italy and Germany. Hitherto the vassals who had received fiefs from more powerful lords, not directly from the Crown, had been completely at the mercy of their masters, and abuses had been of frequent occurrence. But Conrad provided that every fief should be regularly transmitted from father to son, so that the vassals could not be suddenly deprived of their lands, as had often happened. Also he provided that vassals should be tried by a jury of their equals instead of being at the sole mercy of their lord, and gave them the right of appeal to the Emperor himself, should they be dissatisfied with their treatment.

During Conrad's reign the Empire gained more territory, since the kingdom of Burgundy was annexed to the Crown, a kingdom which included Provence, Dauphin, Savoy and parts of Switzerland. Conrad II died in 1089, and was succeeded by his son Henry or Heinrich III, a young man of twenty-two. Like his father, he was an able man and contributed his share toward the building up of the German Empire. He exercised absolute authority over Church as well as State.

After quelling rebellions in Bohemia and Burgundy, Henry entered Italy, where the people had elected three popes, and now appealed to him to arbitrate among them. He listened to the claims of the three, and then deposed them all and placed a German, known as Clement II, on the papal throne. Clement's death occurred not long afterward, when Henry elected Bruno, a relation of his own, as Pope Leo IX, and this election took place actually in Germany, at the Diet of Worms, and was afterward confirmed by the Roman clergy and people. During Henry's reign also further territory was added to the German dominions, in that Hungary was annexed to the Crown.

Henry I, King of France, ventured to dispute the possession of Burgundy and Lorraine in the year 1056, and Henry of Germany challenged him to single combat at Ivois, throwing down his gauntlet, as was the custom at that time. But the French king was too deeply impressed by his meeting with his brother sovereign to dare to accept it, and he quitted the place at once, and returned to his own capital without pressing his claim.

In the same year gloom fell upon Germany, for the land was devastated by famine and pestilence, and shocks of earthquake terrified the people, who murmured secretly to each other that these were omens of evil to come. And in the midst of Germany's gloom and misery, her king died, in the thirty-ninth year of his age.


Henry IV was only five years old when his father died, and he was left in the care of his mother Agnes, who, as regent, ruled the land in his stead. This lady was of a devout and pious nature, and possessed much intelligence, but her knowledge of the world was too limited to allow her to cope successfully with the enemies of her house, for when the strong hand of Henry HI was removed, the nobles, who had previously been kept in check, saw an opportunity of reviving old customs of lawlessness and resistance to authority.

Agnes made a fatal mistake in her dealings with these nobles, in that she tried to conciliate her enemies by granting them land and privileges instead of sternly repressing them. Her gentle, unsuspicious nature caused her to imagine that by this means she would make friends and bind the hostile nobles to her interest, and she never realized that she was dealing with men incapable of gratitude, men whose oaths were made to be broken, and to whom the word of honour was a mockery and derision.

One of these men, named Rudolph of Rheinfelden, had carried off her daughter, a child of only eleven years, but instead of punishing him for his crime, Agnes bestowed on him the dukedom of Swabia and the vice-royalty of Burgundy. But Swabia had already been promised by Henry III to Berthold of Zahringen, and he protested vigorously and not too respectfully against what he considered an infringement of his rights, and was only pacified by the gift of the dukedom of Carinthia and Verona in Italy. Other dukedoms, such as those of Lorraine and Bavaria, also fell into the hands of enemies, and Agnes soon found herself and her son surrounded by a band of ambitious men, whose only care was the aggrandizement of themselves and their own families.

Agnes in her distress sought the advice of her trusty friend and counsellor, Henry, Bishop of Augsburg, but this only made matters worse, for, although an upright and just man, the good Bishop was stern and inflexible, and his interference caused more strife than had existed before.

The poor Queen was maligned and misunderstood on every hand. Each noble grumbled at his share of the spoil, and they only united to charge their liege lady with favoritism and to form a plot to deprive her of the guardianship of her little son.

At the head of these malcontents was Anno, Archbishop of Cologne, and he it was who finally succeeded in accomplishing their desire. He invited the Queen to celebrate the Easter festival at the island of Kaiserwerth, which lies in the Rhine, not far from Dusseldorf. The Archbishop arrived to pay his respects with much state in a beautiful ship, and the nobles who accompanied him sumptuously feasted at a magnificent banquet, after which he invited the young King to inspect his ship. Unsuspicious of treachery, the Queen-mother allowed the boy to go on board, and Henry, who was then twelve years old, was rowed out in a small boat, and clambered on board, eager to inspect the handsome ship.

Delighted as he was with what he saw, the young King was already too familiar with danger to be easily thrown off his guard, and he soon perceived that the rowers had taken their places and had swung the ship out into the swiftly flowing stream.

He looked up, found himself surrounded by prelates and nobles, realized their intention of separating him from his mother, and with a spring the plucky lad reached the side of the vessel and flung himself headlong into the river.

The current was running too swiftly and strongly for so young a swimmer to battle against it, and he would have been drowned, had not Egbert, Count of Brunswick, sprung into the stream and dragged him back again to the ship. In vain did the agonized mother implore her attendants to interfere, for the Archbishop was already speeding up the river, and pursuit was hopeless.

His captors sought to soothe the young King with flattering words and promises, and they carried him safely to Cologne, where he was placed under the guardianship of the Archbishop, who proclaimed himself Regent of the Empire.

Anno was a stern and gloomy man, and treated the young captive with severity, obliging him to live a life almost as strict as that of the cloister, and educating him with harshness and rigid formality. Subjected to this treatment, the boy learnt to hate his guardian and to dissemble his feelings, and the natural spontaneity of childhood gave way to reserve and a bitter hatred of his taskmaster. But Anno knew quite well that plenty of others existed who would gladly take possession of the young King's person, so he prevailed on the nobles to pass a law saying that the King should remain in the hands of the bishop in whose diocese he should reside, and that such bishop should be entrusted with the administration of the kingdom.

After this Anno arranged that Henry should reside for a while at the court of Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen, and the two ecclesiastics should administer the affairs of the kingdom conjointly. This he did, hoping to retain a portion of power in his own hands, lest, striving to maintain the whole, he should lose all.

Adalbert was a man of very different caliber from Anno, having nothing in common with him except love of power and desire for plunder. He loved luxury and display, and pleased himself by dazzling his neighbours with the glittering magnificence of his banquets, his enormous suite of servants and the dependents that crowded his court. He was very extravagant, and would waste great sums of money on his pleasures and his gardens, and his palace was thronged with mountebanks, actors, minstrels and disreputable women. Young Henry possessed an unusually impressionable nature, and his introduction to this court only continued the process of corruption which had already begun. The most serious affairs of State were discussed over the wine-cups, and Henry was early accustomed to witness scenes of licentiousness that were a disgrace to both Church and State. He was taught that the German people were dull and stupid, fit for nothing but blows and burdens. Particularly he was prejudiced against the Saxons, whom Adalbert hated because they opposed him, and this prejudice was destined to bear bitter fruit later on.

Under the care of such a guardian, Henry grew frivolous, arrogant and selfish. He had been taught to look upon the noblemen of the kingdom as his natural enemies, to be outwitted and repressed, instead of regarding them as his future friends, and he had imbibed the dangerous doctrine that kings are accountable for their actions to God alone


At the age of thirteen Henry accompanied Archbishop Adalbert on an expedition against the Hungarians, which was so successful that he came back more pleased than ever with himself and his instructor. At fifteen he was declared of age and invested with the golden spurs of knighthood.

It is said that his first act upon being declared a man was to draw his sword and playfully threaten his old tutor, Anno of Cologne, whom he treated thenceforward with undisguised contempt.

The young King now took up his residence at Goslar in Saxony, and commenced a career of shameless profligacy that shocked and grieved the German people. Like Belshazzar of old, he would drink from the sacred vessels of the altar at his banquets. Archbishop Adalbert carried on a disgraceful trade in ecclesiastical preferments to minister to his own and his young master's extravagance, and he even tore the jewels from the priests' robes to deck the dresses of shameless women, and melted down the altar candlesticks for gold.

It was the custom in those days for the King to be maintained by the people in whose district he resided, and the wicked extravagance of this youthful Franconian king was a sore burden to the Saxons who lived in the neighbourhood of Goslar. Remonstrances were treated with contempt, and so scandalous were the stories current among the people of the life at court, that at last the Archbishops of Cologne and Mayence called a meeting of princes and nobles at Tribur to consider what to do.

Henry and Adalbert hastened thither to defend themselves and frustrate any designs on their liberty of action, but the nobles were firm, and finally announced that Henry must choose between his favourite and the crown.

Henry dissembled for a time, but was captured one night while trying to escape with the Crown jewels, and his palace was surrounded with a guard.

A second council was held, at which Adalbert was offered personal violence by the infuriated princes, and narrowly escaped with his life. They would brook no further delay, and imposed upon the King three conditions—he should dismiss his favourite, renounce his profligate habits, and marry the lady Bertha, daughter of the Italian Margrave of Susa, to whom he had already been betrothed.

So Adalbert was dismissed from his see, and deprived of his wealth; he wandered forth, friendless and lonely, and lived in a state of abject poverty.

Henry returned to his castle at Goslar, and resumed his former profligate life, treating his new wife with neglect and occasional great cruelty. He even persuaded the Archbishop of Mayence to apply to the Pope for a divorce, which the Holy Father promptly refused to grant, and the German princes signified their approval of his refusal in full diet assembled.

So Henry was obliged to keep his wife, and as time passed on he was touched by the gentle patience with which she bore her wrongs, and began to treat her kindly, and he loved her as far as his corrupt nature was capable of love. In return he always found in her a true friend and wise counsellor.

In the year 1069 the Emperor's evil genius appeared once more at Goslar.

Humiliated and much improved by misfortune, Adalbert was at first harmless enough, but his natural disposition soon asserted itself, and he commenced once more a career of extravagance and vice which encouraged Henry to plunge more deeply into his old dissipations.

Adalbert had always hated the Saxons, and had trained the Emperor in the same opinions. Henry had looked upon them as beasts of burden, who must be kept in their places by repression, and to whom he must make it clear that he was the Emperor and they but churls.

Although he was a Franconian, and his home in Franconia, Henry had always lived in Saxony, at the expense of Saxon people. He had caused huge castles to be built in Thuringia and the Harz, the strongest of which was the Harzburg. Swabian and Franconian soldiers garrisoned these castles and oppressed the unhappy Saxon peasantry with extortion and deeds of violence for which they could gain no redress. All the peasants in the neighbourhood were forced to contribute a certain amount of their services at the fortresses, and the burden soon grew too heavy for them to bear.

Meanwhile Adalbert was meditating revenge for his humiliation at the Diet of Tribur. The chief object of his its wrath was Otto, Duke of Bavaria, who had played a prominent part in bringing about his reverse. So a witness was produced who was bribed to swear that Otto had hired him to assassinate the Emperor, and he even showed the sword with which the deed was to be done. When confronted with this accusation, the Duke indignantly denied it, but when, according to the custom of the day, he was summoned to make trial of his innocence by battle, he refused.

So a second council was assembled, which consisted entirely of his enemies, and Henry was called upon by them to invade Bavaria and Saxony. This was exactly what he wanted to do, and war broke out at once, Otto on his part harrying the 'Crown lands in Thuringia.

The Saxons sent a deputation of their nobles to wait on the Emperor and to ask once more for redress of their wrongs before war became general. But the deputation was only received with insult.

Having waited a whole day in the Emperor's ante-room, they were informed that he had gone out riding and would not see them until the morrow, so, determined to bear it no longer, they departed to take matters into their own hands.

Messengers were sent to all the provinces in Germany, begging them not to support the Emperor in his attempts on the lives and liberties of the Saxons.

The Saxon princes themselves met by night in a lonely chapel outside Goslar, Otto of Bavaria at their head, and before the altar they clasped hands and swore to deliver their brethren from the yoke of oppression. With an army of 60,000 men, they surprised the Emperor in Goslar, and he fled in terror to the fortress of Harzburg.

There he was besieged, but succeeded in escaping one night with a few followers through the kindness of a huntsman, who guided him southward through the intricacies of the forest, until he was able to reach Franconia.

So large a force as the Saxon army, however, was not to be ignored, and a day was appointed for a meeting to hear the demands of the rebels. These demands stipulated that Henry should dismantle all the fortresses that he had built in Saxony, and depart, together with his court, to another part of the country. He was to release Duke Magnus of Saxony, whom he had thrown into prison, and dismiss all his evil advisers. Henry thought that if he granted these concessions, all would be well, but he soon discovered that the nobles were only plotting a larger and much more dangerous rebellion than he had ever imagined.

A diet was held at Ratisbon, before which a certain man named Reginar appeared, who swore that he had been bribed by Henry to assassinate the Dukes of Swabia and Carinthia. The whole assembly pretended to believe this accusation, and discussed the advisability of deposing Henry and electing Rudolph of Swabia as Emperor in his stead.

Henry's position was desperate, but help was at hand from a quarter of which he had never dreamed, for the city of worms opened its gates and invites him to take refuge within its walls. So powerful were the burghers of Worms, that when their bishop, who was a brother of Rudolph of Swabia, refused to allow them to admit the Emperor, he was promptly expelled, and the citizens marched out in arms and conducted Henry into the town in triumph. The people were enthusiastic; the Emperor was to be protected, they would fight for him, and a certain might, named Ulrich von Cosheim, offered to do battle on his behalf against the accuser Reginar. Before the meeting could take place, however, Reginar became insane, and died raving mad, which the superstitious people regarded as an omen and considered it a vindication of their Emperor's innocence by the hand of God Himself Seeing him so well supported, the Saxons made a treaty with Henry, demanding that all the royal fortresses in Saxony should be delivered into their hands to be destroyed. When this was done, they set, to work and razed them to the ground with much barbarity.

It had been stipulated that holy places were to be left untouched, but when the Saxon peasants were destroying the Hamburg, their wrath knew no bounds, and they threw down the altar, burnt the beautiful church, and, disinterring the body of the Emperor's son, exposed it to disgusting insults and scattered the bones over the earth. This desecration aroused all the Emperor's ancient hatred of the Saxons. The nobles, too, were disgusted, and thronged to his banner, and a great battle was fought at Langensalza in the year 1075.

For a whole day they fought, but the Saxons lost 8000 men and were obliged to own themselves beaten.

Beaten they were, but not subdued, for they bided their time until they could find a suitable ally who would support them against the Emperor, and this ally they found in the person of the Pope, Gregory VII.