Saxon Kings and the Holy Roman Emperors

“Oh, welcome death for Fatherland! Whene’er our sinking head
With blood bedecked, then we will die..With fame for Fatherland”
From Klopstock’s “Heinrich der Vogler”

To begin to tell the story of the Holy Roman Empire, we must go deep into the hills and forests of old Saxony, for the first Holy Roman Emperor was a Saxon. The territory of Saxony in prehistoric times was the site of some of the largest ancient Central European monumental temples, dating from the 5th millennium BC. Notable sites have been discovered in Dresden and in villages near Leipzig. The first Germanic presence in the territory of today’s Saxony is thought to have been in the first millennium B.C.E. Parts of Saxony were possibly under the control of Germanic King Marobod during the Roman era. By the late Roman period, several Saxon tribes were counted in the area.

A late Early Middle Ages “Carolingian stem duchy” was the first medieval Duchy of Saxony. It emerged about AD 700, and eventually covered the greater part of Northern Germany. Charlemagne violently forced the pagan Saxons to convert to Christianity despite fierce resistance by Saxon chieftains. At this same time, Slav were pushing westward into German lands.

Heinrich der Vogler, or Henry the Fowler, 876-936, was the founder of the Saxon dynasty of kings and emperors in Germany and considered to be technically the first of the true Holy Roman emperors. He was called “fowler” because he was hunting birds when informed of his election as king. Heinrich was the son of Otto the Illustrious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Hedwiga, the great, great, great granddaughter of Charlemagne, and a daughter of Carloman of Bavaria. When Otto died in 912, Heinrich became Duke of Saxony. The German nobles had elected Frankonian Duke Conrad as their king because they feared danger from the invasions of the barbarian Magyars and impending incursions of the Danes, but Conrad’s weak reign was plagued by quarrels and wars.

As Conrad lay dying in 919, he is said to have uttered: “Heinrich, Duke of Saxony, is the ablest ruler in the empire. Elect him king, and Germany will have peace.” Those words would one day prove prophetic. Upon the death of Conrad I, Heinrich became heir in 919.

Heinrich was the duke of Saxony from 912 and was king of the Germans from 919 until his death. First of the Ottonian Dynasty of German kings and emperors, he is generally considered to be the founder and first king of the medieval German state which was known until then as East Francia.

At the time of his taking the throne, Heinrich controlled two of the four most significant duchies in Germany, the nobles of which had elected him King of Germany. However, the other two important duchies, Bavaria and Swabia, did not recognize him as their king. Heinrich wanted a confederation of the various German duchies born of their common need to protect German lands, but one in which they would each stay independent. The obstacle was the petty bickering among the various nobles. Recognizing their needs instead of administering the empire through counts, Heinrich allowed the various dukes to maintain internal control of their lands. By doing this, Heinrich ensured the unity needed to vigorously defend against invasion by violent Magyars and prowling Slavic tribes.

In 924, the Magyars again invaded Germany. The Magyars used horses expertly in battle, and Heinrich realized his foot soldiers had no chance against them. Considering his odds, he agreed to pay them tribute and to return a hostage chief in exchange for a nine-year halt to raids on German lands. Heinrich used the time cleverly and built fortified towns, strong walls and turned his new Saxon horse mounted warriors into a formidable army, leading them into some encouraging victories against various Slavic tribes. When the nine-year truce ended, Heinrich predictably refused to pay one more ducat of gold for tribute and the Magyars immediately resumed their raids, unaware of Heinrich’s military preparations. Heinrich crushed them at Riade in March of 933, putting an end to the Magyar threat to Germans once and for all, also making it more difficult for Slavs to invade and pillage. He took Brandenburg from the Wends, attracted some permanent settlers in his more desolate regions and made the territory of Schleswig part of Germany.

Heinrich suffered from a cerebral stroke and died July 2, 936 in Memleben, one of his favourite places. At this time all German tribes were united in a single kingdom. Heinrich I is therefore considered the first German king and the founder of the eventual Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Heinrich reigned for eighteen years and when he died all Germany was peaceful and prosperous. He was buried at the abbey of Quedlinburg, an ancient Harz Mountain hamlet, dated from before the early ninth century, and it mentions a donation by Heinrich in 922. After Heinrich’s death in 936, his widow founded a women’s convent for daughters of the higher nobility there. The first abbess of the convent was Mathilde, the granddaughter of Mathilde and Heinrich, who is sometimes referred to as Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich I. From his time on, for nearly 1,000 years, all the German emperors could claim to be the successors of Charlemagne.

Heinrich’s son Otto (912 to 973) succeeded him. Most of medieval central Europe and Italy were under the rule of the German kings from 962, when Otto and Pope John XII cooperated in a “second revival” of the Roman empire called “The Holy Roman Empire,” similar to Charlemagne’s “Roman Empire” from 800 to 925. Otto I was bestowed the title of “Emperor” which Charlemagne had borne more than a hundred years before. Otto I, also known as Otto the Great and Duke Otto II of Saxony, consolidated the German Reich and made significant advances for secular influence in papal politics.

In 936, Otto 1 was crowned emperor in the cathedral in Charlemagne’s own Aachen and the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned in Aachen for the next 600 years. Germany was stable under Otto’s rule and experienced a small cultural renaissance. He erected a castle in Quedlinburg in 936, and from 961-963 a monastery was established. The rule of the Emperor over various territorial sovereigns by means of this complex governmental system flowed directly back to Charlemagne who drew boundaries of the various ecclesiastical provinces and settled disputes.

Heinrich der Vogler. Otto I. Heinrich and Kunigunda

Frankonian King Heinrich II (1002 AD) was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in 1002 and he remained in Bamberg where he ruled until his death in 1024. With his beloved wife Kunigunde, he built the city’s first cathedral and proclaimed Bamberg the new capital of the empire. An important ecclesiastic city, Bamberg bishops played a vital role in the empire, serving as chancellors. It was in the presence of Heinrich and Kunigunde that Archbishop Hartwig consecrated the chapel at Nonnberg in Salzburg in 996. At the same time Hartwig received the right to coin money. Kunigunde is depicted as a loving, caring “mother” to her citizens and a very wise woman. When she was once accused of infidelity, she walked on red hot plowshares to prove her innocence. Heinrich and Kunigunde remained childless, marking the end of the Ottonian dynasty.

The German kings, from the time of Heinrich der Vogler until the middle of the 13th century, succeeded to their position partly by heredity, based on primitive Germanic tribal practise which regarded the men chosen as kings to be directly descended from Wotan, and partly by election. In medieval Germany, the principle of heredity eventually declined, often because of the absence of heirs among the kings, and the elective principle took its place.

However, soon difficulties arose with the old practice of election which had been used in the 12th century, and by the 13th century the election of the German king rested with a body of seven German prince-electors who crowned as emperors and acted as a secular arm of the church with a firm responsibility to spread of the Christian faith and protect the Papacy.

The Prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire: Archbishop of Cologne, Archbishop of Mainz, Archbishop of Trier, Count Palatine, Duke of Saxony, Margrave of Brandenburg and King of Bohemia. Electors (Kurfilrsten) were a body of German princes, originally seven in number, with whom rested the election of the German king from the 13th until the beginning of the 19th century.

For the past 15 centuries, the land of Saxony has shifted, at one time occupying nearly all of the territory between the Elbe and Saale rivers on the east and the Rhine on the west, and Frankonia and Thuringia on the south. By 1356, electoral Saxony was a relatively small area along the middle Elbe. To the South extended the Margraviate of Meissen, ruled by the increasingly powerful house of Wettin. The Margraves of Meissen acquired larger parts of Thuringia and Lower Lusatia in the 13th and 14th centuries, and in 1423, Margrave Friedrich the Warlike added Electoral Saxony, becoming Elector Friedrich 1 in 1425.

Saxony shifted to East central and East Germany from Northwest Germany. The Wettin lands were partitioned between two sons of Elector Friedrich II in 1485; Ernst, founder of the Ernestine branch of Wettin, received Electoral Saxony with Wittenberg and most of the Thuringian lands. Albert, founder of the Albertine branch, received the Meissen territories, including Dresden and Leipzig. Protestant Maurice of Saxony, a grandson of Albert, received the electoral title in the 16th century and it remained in the Albertine branch until the dissolution of the the Empire in 1806.

The Saxon House of Wettin, a royal German dynasty, lasted longer than every other German dynasty and was in power for 829 years until World War One, the longest time any European house ruled a country. The dynasty we usually associate the Holy Roman Empire with, however, is the Habsburg family.

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