History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Conrad III

At Würzburg the princes of the realm were gathered to welcome the grey-haired hero on his victorious return. But in place of Lothar there came to them a messenger of grief; "the Emperor is dead," he said. So instead of feasting and rejoicing the princes went in sad procession to lay their Emperor to rest.

And now once more the question arose who should be Emperor, for Lothar left no son.

Among the many powerful princes Henry the Proud was the most powerful. It seemed to himself that he had the greatest right to the throne. For he was married to Lothar's only daughter Gertrude; he had great possessions both in Italy and in Germany, for Lothar had loaded him with lands and honours, making him Marquess of Tuscany and Duke both of Saxony and of Bavaria. Besides all this he was in possession of the crown and the royal jewels, which in dying Lothar had given into his keeping. But Henry had, through his pride, made many enemies. Many feared him because of his might and his arrogance. "If he is made Emperor," they said, he will turn free Germany into a land of slaves."

Among Henry's enemies was a wily priest, Albero, Archbishop of Trier. He made up his mind that Henry should not be chosen.

Now the day upon which the election of the King should take place had been fixed for May. But early in March Albero called many of the bishops and nobles who were friendly to him together. Among them were no Saxon or Bavarian nobles, none that might be friendly to Henry. But both Frederick and Conrad of Hohenstaufen, his sworn enemies, were there.

And when these princes were gathered together Albero bade them choose a King. This they did, and Conrad of Hohenstaufen was chosen and crowned with great haste. Thus the man who for so many years had been a rebel against Lothar, and who for seven years had called himself King, was now King indeed.

But he was elected in a hole-and-corner fashion. It was not a true election, and by it Albero had shown his scorn of the rights of the nobles, and of the old customs of the realm. Conrad too, by accepting his throne in such a manner, put himself more under the power of the Church, and more into the hands of the Pope, than any German Emperor before him.

As soon as the Bavarian and other princes heard that a new King had been crowned and anointed without their knowledge or leave, they were very angry. They raised a great outcry against the election. They had been cheated of their rights, they said. It was against the law, and no true election, and Conrad was no true King.

But Albero's bold stroke of state had won the day. The anger of the princes calmed by degrees, and one after another they submitted to the new King. Only Henry the Proud refused to acknowledge him. He was very powerful. All Bavaria and Saxony were his. And well Conrad knew that there was no security for his throne so long as his enemy thus held half the Empire in fief. So Conrad commanded Henry the Proud to give up the dukedom of Saxony, as, he said, no man might hold two dukedoms.

Henry indignantly refused to give up anything that was his, so he was declared an outlaw, and Saxony was given to another great noble named Albert the Bear.

Then Henry took up arms against the King. In answer to this the King took from him his second dukedom and gave it to another noble, Leopold of Austria.

At this the wrath of Henry the Proud was terrible. "Like a lion," says a man who lived at the time, "did he fall upon Saxony, and utterly did he destroy the castles and towns of all his enemies there." So fiercely did he fight that Albert the Bear was hunted forth from his new dukedom, and Henry the Proud was once more master in Saxony.

Once master of Saxony, Henry next prepared to carry the war into Bavaria. In the midst of his preparations, however, he suddenly fell ill and died. He was only thirty-five, but he was the richest and mightiest prince in Germany, and one of the greatest soldiers of his time. He left a little son ten years old to succeed him, and before he died he begged the Saxons to accept this little boy as their Duke and fight for his rights.

Henry's widow, the Duchess Gertrude, and her mother, the Empress Richenza, were also determined to fight for their boy. So if Conrad hoped that the death of his great enemy would bring peace, he was mistaken. The Saxons accepted the little boy Henry as their Duke and refused to acknowledge Albert the Bear. The war therefore went on. In Saxony Gertrude and Richenza fought. In Bavaria Welf, Henry's brother, led the rebel troops, and Leopold was driven forth.

At length, near the town of Weinsberg, Welf was defeated. Weinsberg had been besieged by the King's troops for many weeks. It was now mid-winter. Yet, in spite of much suffering, the town held out. For it was known that Welf was marching with a large army to relieve the town. At length he came; and on December 21 a great battle was fought.

The two armies dashed upon each other, the rebels shouting "Welf," the King's men shouting "Waiblingen." It was the first time these war-cries were used, but they came to be the names of the two great parties which for many long years divided the Empire; the Welfs siding with the Popes, the Waiblingens with the Emperors. Welf was the family name of Henry the Proud's house, Waiblingen the name of a castle belonging to the Hohenstaufens. The Italians changed the names to Guelph and Ghibelline, and we too generally use the Italian spelling.

As the battle raged the King himself did mighty deeds, for he felt that his very crown was in the balance. He must win or die. So in the thickest of the battle he was found. Fierce and long was the struggle, but Welf was beaten. His army fled in wild panic. Many were slain in the pursuit, many were drowned in the river Neckar, many more were taken prisoner. Welf himself barely escaped with his life.

Then the people of Weinsberg sent messengers to the King promising to yield on condition that the women should go free, and be allowed to take with them what they held most precious. To this the King agreed. So next morning the great gates of Weinsberg were slowly swung open, and a long line of women as slowly marched out, bending beneath the weights upon their shoulders.

Truly, thought some, these women had taken full advantage of the King's promise. There was like to be little treasure left, little booty as the soldier's reward. Slowly the long procession stumbled on. Then, as it came near, the astonished army saw that what the women carried were no bundles of treasure, but men. Each woman had come forth bearing on her shoulders her husband, or father, or brother.

Loud were the shouts of anger in the royal camp. They had been betrayed, said the men. They had been cheated of their prisoners. Duke Frederick too was angry, and he would have seized and slain the men. But King Conrad forbade it. "A King's word must neither be strained nor broken," he said. And he not only bade the men go free, but allowed the brave women to return to the town and bring forth all their treasures And because of this great deed the town was afterward called Weiberstreue or Womansfaith.

But although Welf was defeated the war was not yet at an end. At length, however, Conrad became anxious for peace, and in May 1142 he acknowledged young Henry, who soon became known as Henry the Lion, as Duke of Saxony. And to make peace quite sure the young Duke's mother, Gertrude, married the King's brother Henry. So for a time there was peace between Welf and Waiblingen. Only Count Welf, who had not been considered, was still wrathful against the King.

Meantime, while these things had been happening is Germany, St. Bernard had been preaching the Second Crusade in France. The First Crusade had already taken place in the time of Henry IV, but it had made little impression on Germany. Now, however, St. Bernard came to Germany to preach, and arouse the people to set forth upon the Holy War.

But at first Conrad had no wish to go. Germany was still torn asunder by feuds, Welf was ever ready to rebel; without and within there were enemies. It was no time for the King to forsake his post and go to fight in a far-off land.

But St. Bernard was not to be denied. He preached before the King with such stirring words that at length, with tears running down his cheeks, Conrad cried out, "I am ready to serve the Lord, for He Himself calls me to it."

As the King spoke a thundering cheer rang through the great building. Again and again it was repeated as he knelt before St. Bernard to receive from his hands the sacred banner and the cross which marked him as a leader in God's wars. Then, following Conrad, noble after noble knelt to take the sign.

Throughout Germany the enthusiasm spread. From all sides high and low, rich and poor, crowded to follow the banner of the King, to fight for the Holy Sepulchre.

Great were the preparations made. Conrad's little son Henry was chosen and anointed King, so that while his father was in Palestine he might take his place. But as he was only ten years old the real power lay in the hand of a regent named Abbot Wibald. A general peace within the land was declared. The strife between Welf and Waiblingen seemed buried for the time. All thoughts were turned to the Holy Land. At length, in June 1147, the mighty army of a hundred thousand men left German soil and marched on its way to the East.

The huge army was made up of all kinds of men, bad and good. Some were thirsting only for blood and plunder, some sought new adventures, some were filled with holy zeal. It was a disorderly crowd rather than an army. There was little or no discipline in the ranks, and each man did as he would.

Still, without serious mishap Conrad reached Constantinople and crossed into Asia Minor. But from there onwards the difficulties of the crusaders began. They were passing now through the land of the Unbeliever. They were beset on all sides by dangers; it was difficult even to get food enough to feed so great an army. Conrad, therefore, made up his mind to divide his force. He, with the greater part, took the shortest but most dangerous route; Bishop Otto of Freising led the smaller part by the longer and safer route along the seashore.

Slowly the German host, with the King at its head, advanced through the land. The cloudless sky burned overhead, the glaring yellow sand burned underfoot. Led by Greek guides the men pressed onward, weary and thirsty. Soon food began to fail. Towns and villages shut their gates against the invaders, and would sell them nothing. Treacherous traders sold them flour mixed with chalk, so that those who ate of it died in agony. Day by day the misery of the march increased.

Then suddenly one morning the guides vanished, and the German army found themselves abandoned in a great barren desert without knowledge of the way without food or water for man or beast. Almost treeless, with neither mountain nor river to mark the way, the great plain stretched for miles and miles around. Worn out by many miseries, with famine staring them in the face, none knew what to do. Some counselled this, some that. Some wanted to advance rapidly and reach better country. Some wanted to go back.

But while they still debated far on the horizon dust-clouds arose. Nearer and nearer they came, till out of the desert haze turbaned horsemen dashed.

On all sides the Germans saw themselves surrounded. Neither in going forward or back was any safety to be found. There was nothing to do but fight, and with stolid bravery they fought. But mere bravery was of no avail. The Turks, mounted upon swift horses, armed with bows and arrows, from a safe distance poured death upon the German ranks. They, heavily armed indeed, but without bows and arrows, and mounted upon wornout war-steeds, could do little.

It was a terrible massacre which took place beneath the burning Syrian sun. Of seventy thousand men scarce seven thousand escaped. Slowly these fought their way back, harassed at every step by a pitiless foe.

At Nicea, Conrad and his shattered army met King Louis of France. With tears running down their cheeks the two Kings kissed each other, and swore never more to part, but to march side by side to the Holy Land.

Many of the Germans, however, had no more heart to continue the fight. They returned homewards, and when they reached Germany, and told their tale of disaster and loss, the land was filled with woe and lamentation.

What was left of the German army now followed the French along the coast. But even here many difficulties and dangers had to be overcome, and at length Conrad became so ill that he turned back to Constantinople. Here the Emperor of the East treated him with all kindness, and a few months later he once more set out for Jerusalem.

When at length he reached the Holy City, Baldwin, the Christian King of Jerusalem, with nobles and priests and a great concourse of people, came forth to meet him. And with palm branches waving around him, and the sound of chanting in his ears, he rode in solemn procession into the city.

But as yet the Crusaders had done nothing to free the Holy Land from the power of the Turks. So now it was decided to besiege Damascus. And to that town both French and German armies marched.

But Damascus did not fall as it had been expected to fall. The Christians were constantly deceived and betrayed by those who promised help. There was strife and treachery in the Christian army itself. And at length, disappointed and embittered, Conrad resolved to turn homeward. He went with shame in his heart, for the Crusade had been an utter failure.

Conrad had been away two years, and he returned to find that in his absence his kingdom had been but badly ruled. Many of the lawless nobles, it is true, had taken the cross, and the land had been all the more peaceful for their absence. But many too had returned to stir up strife. Among these was Count Welf, and one of the first things King Conrad had to do was to march against him.

No sooner was Count Welf subdued than others rebelled. So at the end of his reign Conrad found himself fighting for his crown just as at the beginning. In the midst of all these troubles his son Henry died. This was a terrible blow for the King, already growing old, and worn out by his sufferings in Palestine. His spirit sank under it.

At length he became very ill. He knew that his end had come, and as he lay dying he thought with grief upon the state of the Empire. His only remaining son was but a child of eight. How was it possible for a child of eight to rule in these stormy times? Conrad knew it could not be. So, calling the nobles about him, he bade them choose for their King, not his son, but his nephew, Duke Frederick Redbeard. To him ere he died he gave the crown and the royal jewels. In his hand, too, he laid the hand of his little son and begged him to love and care for him. And so he died.

Conrad was a brave soldier, but a poor weak King. He reigned for nearly fourteen years, and he accomplished nothing, he succeeded in nothing. He left the kingdom in confusion, and the kingly power at its lowest ebb. He was little more than the Pope's vassal. Yet he never went to Italy to receive the Emperor's crown at the hands of the Pope.