History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Henry II the Halt

Otto III had never married, and he left no son to succeed him. There was indeed no near heir to the throne, and at once three of the great princes of the Empire claimed it. These were Henry, Duke of Bavaria, son of Henry the Quarrelsome; Eckard, Marquess of Meissen, the bravest soldier of his time; and Hermann, Duke of Swabia.

The last, Hermann of Swabia, only claimed the throne in a half-hearted way. He was led on by the persuasions of others more than by his own desires, for he was already an old man and cared little about the throne. So the real struggle lay between Henry and Eckard. They were both young and warlike, and they both meant to win.

Even before Otto was buried Henry seized the crown jewels as belonging to him by right of inheritance, for he was related to the royal house. Eckard was not. He could claim nothing by right of inheritance, but he hoped to win support by his fame as a warrior. "He was," says a writer of the time, "the flower of the kingdom, the pillar of the Fatherland, the hope of the people, and the terror of his foes." So he had great hopes of the throne. For after all the right of inheritance counted for little, as the German peoples had never given up their right to choose their ruler. And Eckard was so sure of being chosen that he began keep great state as a king.

But although Eckard had many friends he had enemies too, and one night as he journeyed through the Hartz Mountains these enemies set upon him and slew him. It was never known by whose orders this was done, or who was at the bottom of the plot. It by been suspected, however, that Henry knew of it. If so it leaves a dark blot upon his story. Certain it is the murderers were never punished.

After the death of Eckard the princes of the Empire hesitated no longer, and Henry was chosen and anointed as King. But although Henry was acknowledged a King it did not bring peace to him or to the Empire The weak rule of Otto had left the Empire in confusion. Both within and without were enemies ready to take advantage of that confusion, and many were the battles Henry had to fight ere he could bring order out of disorder.

First upon the East there was the great and warlike Boleslaw, Duke of Poland, surnamed the Glorious. It irked his proud spirit to be a vassal of the Emperor, and he vowed to make himself King of Poland. So again and again he rose in rebellion. Far and wide through the land he swept with his warriors. Against him Henry waged three fierce wars lasting for fourteen years. And in the end, although Boleslaw owned himself a vassal, he was not really conquered. He bowed the knee indeed to the King, paid him indeed an empty show of homage, but for this empty show he received in fief those German lands which he had already conquered and which Henry was powerless to wrest from him. And so, in name a vassal, in reality an independent King, Boleslaw ruled as a tyrant, and none dared oppose him, not even Henry himself.

But besides his war with Poland, Henry had to fight in Italy. Henry did not wish to make Italy the centre of his Empire as Otto III had done. He loved Germany first; he had, however, no mind to lose Italy. But already before the Germans had decided who should be their King, a noble named Arduin of Ivrea had seized the throne of Italy and been crowned at Pavia. So Henry marched across the Alps to wrest the crown from him.

His descent into Italy was rapid and unexpected. Fear seized upon the troops of Arduin and they fled in all directions, and town after town opened their gates to Henry. Almost without striking a blow all Lombardy was conquered. It seemed as if the cause of Arduin was utterly lost, and with solemn ceremony Henry was crowned King of Italy at Pavia.

But as the King and his nobles sat at the feast after the coronation, cries and shouts were heard, and clash of arms. Nearer and nearer came the noise, until at last the palace where the King sat was surrounded by a furious mob, and a hail of stones and arrows crashed and rattled upon its walls. It was Arduin's followers who had rallied and who now attacked the new-crowned King.

A fierce fight followed. Night came on, but still the fight lasted. Then, in order to see and the better to defend the palace, the Germans set fire to some of the houses near. So, lit up with the glare of burning houses, the battle raged all through the night. But the town was mostly built of wood, and from street to street the fire leaped with devouring fury, until Pavia was a sea of flames. From burning street to burning street the battle surged and swayed, and those who escaped the sword fell fearful victims to the flames.

At length even the palace was alight, and the King only saved himself by leaping from a window. He fell, hurt his thigh, and all his life after he limped, so that he was called Henry the Halt.

When morning came it showed a fearful sight. The royal city of Lombardy was a heap of ashes, and among the charred and blackened ruins thousands of its citizens lay dead. Those who still lived, the victorious Germans hunted and slew mercilessly, until at length the King bade the slaughter cease.

For ten days Henry stayed by the smoking ruins of the once splendid city. And there to him in fear and trembling came messengers and hostages from many a rebel lord. For the burning of Pavia had struck terror to the hearts of the people. Fear conquered them. The Italians bowed the knee to their German master, but they had no love for him, and when a few weeks later he recrossed the Alps he was followed by the curses of the people.

Arduin, who had fled before Henry, was not yet subdued. Scarcely had the King recrossed the Alps when once more Arduin appeared, and the people began to flock to him. But many remained true to Henry, and so there were two kings in Italy.

Eight years later, however, Henry once more marched into Italy. And now, as before, in terror at his coming the people forsook Arduin, and towns and cities yielded to the German. Even Arduin humbled himself, and offered to do homage to Henry as his King, and to give up his claim to the crown of Italy in return for a countship.

But Henry now paid no heed to Arduin and marched onward victoriously to Rome. There on February 14, 1013, he was crowned as Emperor. Then, having once more received the homage of the people, and set the affairs of Italy in order, Henry returned homeward.

But again, as soon as he was gone, rebellion broke out. This time, however, Arduin found his friends were few, his enemies many. Weary of the struggle, sick in mind and body, he fled to a monastery. There he laid down the crown and sceptre, shaved his head, and became a monk. And there, little more than a year later, he died.

Henceforward Henry was undisputed King of Italy. He took the title of King of the Romans. And after this all the German kings took this title until they received that of Emperor.

But although Henry took the title of King of the Romans, he did not try to make Rome the capital of his Empire, as Otto had done. Aachen was his capital, and to the Court at Aachen Italian nobles came to attend the Parliament of the Empire, and do homage to their King.

On the western boundaries of the kingdom Henry had also to fight. There was war with Flanders, there was fighting in Luxemburg, but chiefly there was war with Burgundy.

The King of Burgundy, Rudolph III, was Henry's uncle. He had no children, and Henry was looked upon as heir to the throne. But Henry was not content with that, he wished to add Burgundy to the Empire at once. Rudolph was weak and yielding, and was quite ready to give up his throne to his nephew. But the nobles of Burgundy were angry, and rose in arms against Henry. And although Henry twice led an army into Burgundy, he could not conquer the proud Burgundian nobles. At last he was forced to make peace, to give up all claim to the throne during his uncle's lifetime, and content himself with the promise of it at his death.

Besides all these wars upon the borders of his empire Henry had many battles to fight within its borders. For noble after noble rebelled. It was not only the great dukes, as in the time of Otto the Great, who rebelled, but many lesser nobles too rose, eager to show defiance to the Emperor. And so for twenty years Henry ruled, sword in hand. Yet in Henry's reign the meetings of the Parliament or Diet were frequent. For Henry found that it was no longer possible for him to rule by his own will alone as Otto the Great had done. The nobles had grown so powerful that he was forced to ask their advice in all the great affairs of the nation.

But as a check on the ever-growing power of the nobles Henry tried to increase the power of the clergy. He gave great gifts to the Church, and half the land in Germany now belonged to it. He was himself, too, very good and pious, and when he died he was made a saint.

For the time being the power of the clergy seemed to safeguard the King against the power of the nobles; but in the long run the clergy became as dangerous to the crown as the nobles; and in later times, when the Pope and the Emperor quarrelled, the clergy nearly always took the side of the Pope.

Henry's last war led him again into Italy. He went to fight the Greeks and Saracens, who again and again attacked, and who had now gained possession of much of Southern Italy. Henry won victories and took towns from these foes, but he was not able quite to drive them out of the country. For the summer came on, plague and sickness attacked his northern soldiers, unused to the heat of Italy, and with a sorely diminished army the Emperor turned homeward.

But although the Greeks and Saracens still harboured in Southern Italy, the North and middle were at peace, and secure to the Empire. Germany too was at peace within, when on July 13, 1024, Henry died after a reign of twenty-three years as King, and eleven as Emperor—a reign filled with many wars. He was the last of the Saxon Emperors, for he left no son to succeed him on the throne.