History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Henry IV

Henry III was one of the greatest of German rulers. Never perhaps has the power of the Empire stood higher than in his days, but unfortunately he left a child only six years old to succeed him.

Already in his father's lifetime the baby Prince had been chosen and crowned as King, so now he succeeded without opposition, and his mother the Empress Agnes was chosen as Regent. This was not the fair-haired English Princess Gunhilda to whom you remember Henry had been married as a boy. She had died before he became King, and later he married the beautiful and wealthy French Princess Agnes of Poitiers.

But although the little King succeeded without opposition his throne was surrounded by many dangers. For with only a child and a woman to withstand them, the powerful, discontented nobles now saw their chance of gaining all they desired. Soon the Court was full of plots and conspiracies, the land of desperate feuds and bloodshed.

The Empress tried to make friends with the unruly nobles by giving them lands and money. But she could not buy their faith, she only made them more powerful against the Crown. Every man sought his own greatness not that of the Empire. There was not one among the selfish, grasping crowd that the Empress could trust. But her greatest enemy, the soul of all the plots, was Hanno, Archbishop of Cologne. He was a man of low degree, but he was wily, haughty, and greedy of power. And when the little King was about twelve years old he decided to get possession of him.

Henry and his mother were staying at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, when one day Archbishop Hanno and his friends, together with a great company of soldiers, came sailing down the Rhine in a splendid ship.

They had come, it seemed, to pay the King a friendly visit. The Queen received them courteously, and made a great feast for them. The meal was right merry, every one was in the gayest of moods, for the April sun shone brightly, and spring was in the air.

After dinner Hanno asked the King if he would like to come on board his ship, and see all the fine things there. The King was delighted. It was just what he longed for, and without more ado they set off for the ship.

By the way Hanno and his friends smiled and jested with the King. But once on board all was different, their faces grew stern, orders were shouted, men hurried to and fro, and the ship steered out into midstream.

It seemed to the little King as if he were forgotten. His heart sank. These big, splendidly dressed men who a few minutes before had been his friends, were changed. Suddenly he knew them to be his enemies. He was afraid of their stern faces, afraid of their sharp swords. He felt sure they meant to kill him, and with a scream of wild terror he leaped over the side of the ship into the river.

The Rhine is deep and very swift, and the King was borne rapidly down stream. His death seemed certain. A cry of fear and anger rose from the ship. But quick as thought Count Ekbert, one of Hanno's companions, sprang into the water. He was a strong swimmer, manfully he battled with the stream, and at length he reached the boy, and, well-nigh exhausted with the effort, dragged. him on board the ship.

At once the little King was surrounded, made much of, flattered and coaxed. And in spite of his struggles and entreaties the ship was rapidly rowed up stream. The Empress upon the balcony of her palace wept and cried aloud in grief, and followed the ship with streaming eyes. For a long way, too, it was accompanied by crowds of angry people who ran along the bank cursing the robbers. But tears and curses were alike in vain, and the little King was borne away.

Hanno's plot was quite successful. The Empress, though she wept and wrung her hands, made no effort to get her son back again. Her spirit was utterly broken. She was tired of the troubles and hardships of ruling. So she went away to live quietly on her own estates, and took no further share in the government.

Hanno would now have liked to become Regent. But the other bishops had no desire that he alone should have the power. So it was proposed that the King should live with each Bishop of the kingdom in turn, and that the Bishop where he stayed should be Regent for the time being.

Thus it was arranged. But it was nearly always with friends of Hanno that the King lived. The King, however, hated Hanno, for he could never forget how he had stolen him from his mother. So he did all he could to make friends with another powerful man, Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen. Of noble birth, he was even more haughty than Hanno, and no less greedy of power.

Adalbert taught the King much that was wicked; he also gave way to his evil passion and flattered him. So Henry liked him much better than the coarse and stern Hanno, who made him do his will. The two Archbishops pretended to be friends, but really they hated each other, for each wanted all the power. "Their tongues spoke friendship," says a writer of the time, "but their hearts fought against each other in deadly hate."

So between them the King grew up with bitterness and mistrust in his heart.

Thus the years passed, the King remaining ever in the power of one or other of these greedy, self-seeking prelates. But at length, when he was fifteen, Henry was declared to be of age to rule. He was made a knight, a sword was girt about him, and a staff of office placed in his hand.

It was chiefly Adalbert who brought this about. For he believed that he had gained such power over the young King that he would now be able to do as he liked with him. But he was mistaken, he was soon thrust from power and died in misery.

And now Henry began to show that he would be no King in leading-strings, but that he indeed meant to rule. One of the first things he determined to do was to tame the Saxons, who were in a state of wild revolt. In order the better to do this he built strong castles throughout the land, and filled them with soldiers. But such terrible deeds were done in these castles—the King's soldiers harried the country, and oppressed the people so brutally—that the whole of Saxony, princes and people alike, rose in revolt like one man.

With an army 60,000 strong they marched against the King. The castle where he was was strongly built, and perched upon a high hill. The path up to it was steep and difficult. Behind it stretched a vast uninhabited forest, crossed and recrossed by a wilderness of narrow pathways.

The castle was too strong to take by storm, but the rebels lay around watching every outlet, for well they knew that they had the King in a trap, and that soon hunger would make him yield.

But the King too saw that. He knew that his only safety lay in flight, and he resolved to escape.

The rebels kept a strict and constant watch; but it was impossible to guard all the many paths through the forest, and by the forest the King made up his mind to escape.

A huntsman who knew every path in it promised to behis guide. Then one August night, with a few followers, he silently and secretly left the castle. Before he left he gave the castle into the keeping of his faithful soldiers, and bade them pretend to the enemy that he was still there, and hold the castle against them as long as possible. Then, with a last murmured farewell, the little company slipped silently away, and were swallowed up in the darkness of the wood.

For three days they wandered by unknown paths without food or shelter. One behind the other along the narrow ways they went, in anxious dread, now pausing to listen, now hurrying onward. In every thicket they feared to see the lurking foe. Even the rustle of the wind in the trees, or the cry of some wild beast, startled them.

But at length, on the fourth day, worn out by hunger and want of sleep, utterly exhausted by the long tramp, they reached a small town in safety. Here they refreshed themselves with food and sleep. Next day they set out again, and at length reached the Abbey of Hersfeld.

Henry now called upon the princes of the Empire to gather their vassals, and march with him against the rebel Saxons. But the princes refused to come. They would fight against the enemies of the Empire, they said, but not against their brothers and comrades.

This answer filled Henry with bitter wrath, but he was helpless. His very crown seemed in danger, and he could do naught to save it. Hated and despised by all, there was none to whom he could turn for help.

Sick at heart, worn out by disappointments and hardships, he fell ill. For some days it seemed as if he would die. The princes waited, hoping that he might, for his death would end the strife. But Henry did not die. Quickly he recovered, and wearily he set forth once more upon his journey towards Worms, a town he knew to be still true to him. And now it was that Henry, forsaken by the nobles, found help in the burghers and townsfolk.

The Emperors Conrad II and Henry III had befriended the towns, and protected them against the greed and oppression of the nobles. As a result the merchants and townsfolk had grown rich and prosperous. Now they repaid the friendship which the Emperors had shown them. First Worms declared for Henry. The citizens there armed themselves and flocked to his banner, and one after another many rich and prosperous towns followed this example. Once more Henry had an army.

Meanwhile the Saxons had been doing as they would. They took and razed to the ground many of Henry's castles, shouting with joy as these signs of tyranny disappeared. But they did not stop there. They were mad with a desire of vengeance, and in their madness they sacked and burned the churches, they desecrated the churchyards, and scattered the ashes of the dead to the winds.

These deeds of violence lost the Saxons many friends. The Saxon nobles, too, were no longer all united, some of them went over to the King's side. And when at last Henry marched against the rebels he had an army behind him such as had never been seen before.

The Saxons were cowed. Willingly now would they have made peace. But it was too late; Henry's wrath was kindled against them, and war he would have.

At Langensalza a great battle was fought. It was a terrible fight. The foes dashed upon each other with fury. Their spears were shivered to atoms. Then they gripped their swords, and it became a hand-to-hand fight. It was with swords that the Saxons were most used to fight, and often they went to battle with two or three girt about them, and they used them with so much skill and strength that their enemies were filled with admiration as much as with fear. Right good service now they did, many a marvellous sword stroke was given, many a brave deed was done.

At twelve the battle began, at nine it still raged fiercely, the victory still uncertain.

But at length the Saxons wavered, they turned, they fled. The victory was the King's.

In wild triumph the victors pursued the fleeing foe. They sought shelter in their camp. There was none there; for the pursuers were upon their heels and drove them forth. And so for many miles the flight and pursuit lasted, all the way red with blood and strewn with dead and dying. At length night put an end to the slaughter, and the victors returned to plunder the rebel camp. There they found such costly food and drink, such rich clothing, so much gold and silver, that it seemed to them as if the Saxons must have come forth, not to do battle, but to feast.

The victory was complete. With one blow Henry was again master of his kingdom. But even in the moment of victory sorrow was great, for it had been a fight of German against German. And when among the dead, men found their fathers and brothers and best-loved friends, joy was turned into mourning.

Yet Henry rejoiced more than he sorrowed. And when a few months later the hated Hanno died he rejoiced still more. Now at length he could think without shame of that day when he had been stolen from his mother. Now at length he felt that he was King indeed.