The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5

Author: Wolfgang Menzel  | Date: A.D. 911-936

Henry the Fowler Founds the Saxon Line of German Kings;
Origin of the German Burghers or Middle Classes

A.D. 911-936


The famous treaty of Verdun (843) was the culmination of a series of civil wars between the descendants of Charlemagne. By it the great empire which Charlemagne had built up was divided among his three grandsons, Lothair, Charles the Bald, and Louis. With this treaty the history of the Franks closes, and Germany and France take their places, along with ltaly, as distinct and separate nations.

The Teutonic kingdom, or Germany, fell to Louis. On his death, in 876, after an uneventful reign, he was succeeded by his sons Charles the Fat, Carloman, and Louis. The latter two dying, Charles the Fat became sole King of Germany. A little later he became ruler of Italy, and was crowned emperor by the pope. Then he was invited by the West Franks to become their king. Thus almost the whole empire of the great Charlemagne was reunited in the hands of Charles the Fat. However, his people soon became disgusted with his weak efforts in the treatment of a series of invasions by the Northmen, and he was deposed in 887. He died the next year, and the Carlovingian empire fell to pieces, never to be united again.

Charles the Fat was succeeded in Germany by his nephew, Arnulf, who also took possession of Italy and was crowned emperor by the pope, though his power in Italy was merely nominal. On his death in 889 his second son, Ludwig (Louis III) the child, became king in Germany.

The race of Charlemagne in Germany ended in 911 by the death of Ludwig. Though a mere child he had been enthroned through the intrigues of Otto, Duke of Saxony, and Hatto, Archbishop of Mayence, who virtually governed the empire during Ludwig’s short reign.

The empire at that time was composed of various nations, each under the rule of a powerful duke. The bond of union between these nations was slight. The dukes were constantly waging war against each other, and these internal dissensions greatly weakened the central government.

At the same time the empire was exposed to the incursions of the Magyars or Hungarians, whose wholesale depredations and cruelties so dismayed the child-king that he concluded a treaty of peace with the invaders and consented to pay them a ten-years’ tribute.

The Germans were deeply sensible of the dishonor incurred by this ignominious tribute, and of the dangers of their internal dissensions. They longed for a stronger government, and on the death of Ludwig the crown was offered to Otto of Saxony, the strongest of the dukes. He declined in favor of Conrad, Duke of Franconia, a descendant in the female line from Charlemagne. But Conrad’s rule was weak, and during his short reign of seven years civil war continued, part of the time with Henry the Fowler, son of Duke Otto (who died in 912), owing to Conrad’s attempt to separate Thuringia from Saxony in order to weaken Henry’s ducal power. The empire also was again invaded by the Slavs and Hungarians.

Conrad died without male issue in 918, whereupon the Germans elected as emperor Henry the Fowler, who thus became the first of the Saxon dynasty in Germany, and proved himself to be the wisest and most vigorous sovereign who had ruled in Germany since the days of Charlemagne.

The extinction of the Carlovingian line did not sever the bond of union that existed between the different nations of Germany, although a contention arose between them concerning the election of the new emperor, each claiming that privilege for itself; and as the increase of the ducal power had naturally led to a wider distinction between them, the diet convoked for the purpose represented nations instead of classes. There were consequently four nations and four votes: the Franks under Duke Conrad, whose authority, nevertheless, could not compete with that of the now venerable Hatto, Archbishop of Mayence, who may be said to have been, at that period, the pope in Germany; the Saxons, Frieslanders, Thuringians, and some of the subdued Slavi, under Duke Otto; the Swabians, with Switzerland and Elsace, under different grafs, who, as the immediate officers of the crown, were named kammerboten, in order to distinguish them from the grafs nominated by the dukes; the Bavarians, with the Tyrolese and some of the subdued eastern Slavi, under Duke Arnulf the Bad, the son of the brave duke Luitpold. The Lothringians formed a fifth nation, under their duke Regingar, but were at that period incorporated with France.

The first impulse of the diet was to bestow the crown on the most powerful among the different competitors, and it was accordingly offered to Otto of Saxony, who not only possessed the most extensive territory and the most warlike subjects, but whose authority, having descended to him from his father and grandfather, was also the most firmly secured. But both Otto and his ancient ally, the bishop Hatto, had found the system they had hitherto pursued, of reigning in the name of an imbecile monarch, so greatly conducive to their interest that they were disinclined to abandon it. Otto was a man who mistook the prudence inculcated by private interest for wisdom, and his mind, narrow as the limits of his dukedom, and solely intent upon the interests of his family, was incapable of the comprehensive views requisite in a German emperor, and indifferent to the welfare of the great body of the nation. The examples of Boso, of Odo, of Rudolph of Upper Burgundy, and of Berenger, who, favored by the difference in descent of the people they governed, had all succeeded in severing themselves from the empire, were ever present to his imagination, and he believed that as, on the other side of the Rhine, the Frank, the Burgundian, and the Lombard severally obeyed an independent sovereign, the East Frank, the Saxon, the Swabian, and the Bavarian, on this side of the Rhine, were also desirous of asserting a similar independence, and that it would be easier and less hazardous to found a hereditary dukedom in a powerful and separate state than to maintain the imperial dignity, undermined, as it was, by universal hostility.

The influence of Hatto and the consent of Otto placed Conrad, Duke of Franconia, on the imperial throne. Sprung from a newly risen family, a mere creature of the bishop, his nobility as a feudal lord only dating from the period of the Babenberg feud, he was regarded by the Church as a pliable tool and by the dukes as little to be feared. His weakness was quickly demonstrated by his inability to retain the rich allods of the Carlovingian dynasty as heir to the imperial crown, and his being constrained to share them with the rest of the dukes; he was, nevertheless, more fully sensible of the dignity and of the duties of his station than those to whom he owed his election probably expected. His first step was to recall Regingar of Lothringia, who was oppressed by France, to his allegiance as vassal of the empire.

Otto died in 912, and his son Henry, a high-spirited youth, who had greatly distinguished himself against the Slavi, ere long quarrelled with the aged bishop Hatto. According to the legendary account, the bishop sent him a golden chain so skilfully contrived as to strangle its wearer. The truth is that the ancient family feud between the house of Conrad and that of Otto, which was connected with the Babenbergers, again broke out, and that the Emperor attempted again to separate Thuringia, which Otto had governed since the death of Burkhard, from Saxony, in order to hinder the overpreponderance of that ducal house. Hatto, it is probable, counselled this step, as a considerable portion of Thuringia belonged to the diocese of Mayence, and a collision between him and the duke was therefore unavoidable. Henry flew to arms, and expelled the adherents of the bishop from Thuringia, which forced the Emperor to take the field in the name of the empire against his haughty vassal. This unfortunate civil war was a signal for a fresh irruption of the Slavi and Hungarians. During this year the Bohemians and Sorbi also made an inroad into Thuringia and Bavaria, and in 913 the Hungarians advanced as far as Swabia, but being surprised near OEtting by the Bavarians under Arnulf, who on this occasion bloodily avenged his father’s death, and by the Swabians under the kammerboten Erchanger and Berthold, they were all, with the exception of thirty of their number, cut to pieces. Arnulf subsequently embraced a contrary line of policy, married the daughter of Geisa, King of Hungary, and entered into a confederacy with the Hungarian and the Swabian kammerboten, for the purpose of founding an independent state in the south of Germany, where he had already strengthened himself by the appointment of several markgrafs, Rudiger of Pechlarn in Austria, Rathold in Carinthia, and Berthold in the Tyrol. He then instigated all the enemies of the empire simultaneously to attack the Franks and Saxons, at that crisis at war with each other, in 915, and while the Danes under Gorm the Old, and the Obotrites, destroyed Hamburg, immense hordes of Hungarians, Bohemians, and Sorbi laid the country waste as far as Bremen.

The Emperor was, meanwhile, engaged with the Saxons. On one occasion Henry narrowly escaped being taken prisoner, being merely saved by the stratagem of his faithful servant, Thiatmar, who caused the Emperor to retreat by falsely announcing to him the arrival of a body of auxiliaries. At length a pitched battle was fought near Merseburg, in 915, between Henry and Eberhard, the Emperor’s brother, in which the Franks1 were defeated, and the superiority of the Saxons remained, henceforward, unquestioned for more than a century. The Emperor was forced to negotiate with the victor, whom he induced to protect the northern frontiers of the empire while he applied himself in person to the reestablishment of order in the south.

In Swabia, Salomon, Bishop of Constance, who was supported by the commonalty, adhered to the imperial cause, while the kammerboten were unable to palliate their treason, and were gradually driven to extremities. Erchanger, relying upon aid from Arnulf and the Hungarians, usurped the ducal crown and took the bishop prisoner. Salomon’s extreme popularity filled him with such rage that he caused the feet of some shepherds, who threw themselves on their knees as the captured prelate passed by, to be chopped off. His wife, Bertha, terror-stricken at the rashness of her husband, and foreseeing his destruction, received the prisoner with every demonstration of humility, and secretly aided his escape. He no sooner reappeared than the people flocked in thousands around him. "Heil Herro! Heil Liebo!" ("Hail, master! Hail, beloved one!") they shouted, and in their zeal attacked and defeated the traitors and their adherents. Berthold vainly defended himself in his mountain stronghold of Hohentwiel. The people so urgently demanded the death of these traitors to their country that the Emperor convoked a general assembly at Albingen in Swabia, sentenced Erchanger and Berthold to be publicly beheaded, and nominated Burkhard, in 917, whose father and uncle had been assassinated by order of Erchanger, as successor to the ducal throne. Arnulf withdrew to his fortress at Salzburg, and quietly awaited more favorable times. His name was branded with infamy by the people, who henceforth affixed to it the epithet of "the Bad," and the Nibelungenlied has perpetuated his detested memory.

Conrad died in 918 without issue. On his death-bed, mindful only of the welfare of the empire, he proved himself deserving even by his latest act of the crown he had so worthily worn, by charging his brother Eberhard to forget the ancient feud between their houses, and to deliver the crown with his own hands to his enemy, the free-spirited Henry, whom he judged alone capable of meeting all the exigencies of the State. Eberhard obeyed his brother’s injunctions, and the princes respected the will of their dying sovereign.

The princes, with the exception of Burkhard and of Arnulf, assembled at Fritzlar, elected the absent Henry king, and despatched an embassy to inform him of their decision. It is said that the young duke was at the time among the Harz Mountains, and that the ambassadors found him in the homely attire of a sportsman in the fowling floor. He obeyed the call of the nation without delay and without manifesting surprise. The error he had committed in rebelling against the State, it was his firm purpose to atone for by his conduct as emperor. Of a lofty and majestic stature, although slight and youthful in form, powerful and active in person, with a commanding and penetrating glance, his very appearance attracted popular favor; besides these personal advantages, he was prudent and learned, and possessed a mind replete with intelligence. The influence of such a monarch on the progressive development of society in Germany could not fail of producing results fully equalling the improvements introduced by Charlemagne.

The youthful Henry, the first of the Saxon line, was proclaimed king of Germany at Fritzlar, in 919, by the majority of votes, and, according to ancient custom, raised upon the shield. The Archbishop of Mayence offered to anoint him according to the usual ceremony, but Henry refused, alleging that he was content to owe his election to the grace of God and to the piety of the German princes, and that he left the ceremony of anointment to those who wished to be still more pious.

Before Henry could pursue his more elevated projects, the assent of the southern Germans, who had not acknowledged the choice of their northern compatriots, had to be gained. Burkhard of Swabia, who had asserted his independence, and who was at that time carrying on a bitter feud with Rudolph, King of Burgundy, whom he had defeated, in 919, in a bloody engagement near Winterthur, was the first against whom he directed the united forces of the empire, in whose name he, at the same time, offered him peace and pardon. Burkhard, seeing himself constrained to yield, took the oath of fealty to the new-elected King at Worms, but continued to act with almost his former unlimited authority in Swabia, and even undertook an expedition into Italy in favor of Rudolph, with whom he had become reconciled. The Italians, enraged at the wantonness with which he mocked them, assassinated him. Henry bestowed the dukedom of Swabia on Hermann, one of his relations, to whom he gave Burkhard’s widow in marriage. He also bestowed a portion of the south of Alemannia on King Rudolph in order to win him over, and in return received from him the holy lance with which the side of the Saviour had been pierced as he hung on the cross. Finding it no longer possible to dissolve the dukedoms and great fiefs, Henry, in order to strengthen the unity of the empire, introduced the novel policy of bestowing the dukedoms, as they fell vacant, on his relations and personal adherents, and of allying the rest of the dukes with himself by intermarriage, thus uniting the different powerful houses in the State into one family.

Bavaria still remained in an unsettled state. Arnulf the Bad, leagued with the Hungarians, against whom Henry had great designs, had still much in his power, and Henry, resolved at any price to dissolve this dangerous alliance, not only concluded peace with this traitor on that condition, but also married his son Henry to Judith, Arnulf’s daughter, in 921. Arnulf deprived the rich churches of great part of their treasures, and was consequently abhorred by the clergy, the chroniclers of those times, who, chiefly on that account, depicted his character in such unfavorable colors.

In France, Charles the Simple was still the tool and jest of the vassals. His most dangerous enemy was Robert, Count of Paris, brother to Odo, the late King. Both solicited aid from Henry, but in a battle that shortly ensued near Soissons, Count Robert losing his life and Charles being defeated, Rudolph of Burgundy, one of Boso’s nephews, set himself up as king of France, and imprisoned Charles the Simple, who craved assistance from the German monarch, to whom he promised to perform homage as his liege lord. Henry, meanwhile, contented himself with expelling Rudolph from Lotharingia, and, after taking possession of Metz, bestowed that dukedom upon Gisilbrecht, the son of Regingar, and reincorporated it with the empire. These successes now roused the apprehensions of the Hungarians, who again poured their invading hordes across the frontier. In 926 they plundered St. Gall, but were routed near Seckingen by the peasantry, headed by the country people of Hirminger, who had been roused by alarm fires; and again in Alsace, by Count Liutfried: another horde was cut to pieces near Bleiburg, in Carinthia, by Eberhard and the Count of Meran. The Hungarian King, probably Zoldan, was, by chance, taken prisoner during an incursion by the Germans, a circumstance turned by Henry to a very judicious use. He restored the captured prince to liberty, and also agreed to pay him a yearly tribute, on condition of his entering into a solemn truce for nine years. The experience of earlier times had taught Henry that a completely new organization was necessary in the management of military affairs in Germany before this dangerous enemy could be rendered innoxious, and, as an undertaking of this nature required time, he prudently resolved to incur a seeming disgrace by means of which he in fact secured the honor of the State. During this interval of nine years he aimed at bringing the other enemies of the empire, more particularly the Slavi, into subjection, and making preparations for an expedition against Hungary by which her power should receive a fatal blow.

In the mean time Gisilbrecht, the youthful Duke of Lotharingia, again rebelled, but was besieged and taken prisoner in Zuelpich by Henry, who, struck by his noble appearance, restored to him his dukedom, and bestowed upon him his daughter, Gerberga, in marriage. Rudolph of France also sued for peace, being hard pressed by his powerful rival, Hugo the Great or wise, the son of Robert. Charles the Simple was, on Henry’s demand, restored to liberty, but quickly fell anew into the power of his faithless vassals.

Peace was now established throughout the empire, and afforded Henry an opportunity for turning his attention to the introduction of measures, in the interior economy of the State, calculated to obviate for the future the dangers that had hitherto threatened it from without. The best expedient against the irruptions of the Hungarians appeared to him to be the circumvallation of the most important districts, the erection of forts and of fortified cities. The most important point, however, was to place the garrisons immediately under him as citizens of the State, commanded by his immediate officers, instead of their being indirectly governed by the feudal aristocracy and by the clergy. As these garrisons were intended not only for the protection of the walls, but also for open warfare, he had them trained to fight in rank and file, and formed them into a body of infantry, whose solid masses were calculated to withstand the furious onset of the Hungarian horse. These garrisons were solely composed of the ancient freemen, and the whole measure was, in fact, merely a reform of the ancient arrier-ban, which no longer sufficed for the protection of the State, and whose deficiency had long been supplied by the addition of vassals under the command of their temporal or spiritual lieges, and by the mercenaries or bodyguards of the emperors. The ancient class of freemen, who originally composed the arrier-ban, had been gradually converted into feudal vassals; but they were at that time still so numerous as to enable Henry to give them a completely new military organization, which at once secured to them their freedom, hitherto endangered by the preponderating power of the feudal aristocracy, and rendered them a powerful support to the throne. By collecting them into the cities, he afforded them a secure retreat against the attempts of the grafs, dukes, abbots, and bishops, and created for himself a body of trusty friends, of whom it would naturally be expected that they would ever side with the Emperor against the nobility.

This new regulation appears to have been founded on the ancient mode of division. At first, out of every nine freemen—which recalls the decania—one only was placed within the new fortress, and the remaining eight were bound—perhaps on account of their ancient association into corporations or guilds—to nourish and support him; but the remaining freemen, in the neighborhood of the new cities, appear to have been also gradually collected within their walls, and to have committed the cultivation of their lands in the vicinity to their bondmen. However that may be, the ancient class of freemen completely disappeared as the cities increased in importance, and it was only among the wild mountains, where no cities sprang up, that the centen or cantons and whole districts or gauen of free peasantry were to be met with.

Henry’s original intention in the introduction of this new system was, it is evident, solely to provide a military force answering to the exigencies of the State; still there is no reason to suppose him blind to the great political advantage to be derived from the formation of an independent class of citizens; and that he had in reality premeditated a civil as well as a military reformation may be concluded from the fact of his having established fairs, markets, and public assemblies, which, of themselves, would be closely connected with civil industry, within the walls of the cities; and, even if these trading warriors were at first merely feudatories of the Emperor, they must naturally in the end have formed a class of free citizens, the more so as, attracted within the cities by the advantages offered to them, their number rapidly and annually increased.

The same military reasons which induced the emperor Henry to enroll the ancient freemen into a regular corps of infantry, and to form them into a civil corporation, caused him also to metamorphose the feudal aristocracy into a regular troop of cavalry and a knightly institution. The wild disorder with which the mounted vassals of the empire, the dukes, grafs, bishops, and abbots, each distinguished by his own banner, rushed to the attack, or vied with each other in the fury of the assault, was now changed by Henry, who was well versed in every knightly art, to the disciplined manoeuvres of the line, and to that of fighting in close ranks, so well calculated to withstand the furious onset of their Hungarian foe. The discipline necessary for carrying these new military tactics into practice among a nobility habituated to license could alone be enforced by motives of honor, and Henry accordingly formed a chivalric institution, which gave rise to new manners and to an enthusiasm that imparted a new character to the age. The tournament—from the ancient verb turnen, to wrestle or fight, a public contest in every species of warfare, carried on by the knights in the presence of noble dames and maidens, whose favor they sought to gain by their prowess, and which chiefly consisted of tilting and jousting either singly or in troops, the day concluding with a banquet and a dance—was then instituted. In these tournaments the ancient heroism of the Germans revived; they were in reality founded upon the ancient pagan legends of the heroes who carried on an eternal contest in their Walhalla, in order to win the smiles of the Walkyren, now represented by earth’s well-born dames.

The ancient spirit of brotherhood in arms, which had been almost quenched by that of self-interest, by the desire of acquiring feudal possessions, by the slavish subjection of the vassals under their lieges, and by the intrigues of the bishops, who intermeddled with all feudal matters, also reappeared. A great universal society of Christian knights, bound to the observance of peculiar laws, whose highest aim was to fight only for God—before long also for the ladies—and who swore never to make use of dishonorable means for success, but solely to live and to die for honor, was formed; an innovation which, although merely military in its origin, speedily became of political importance, for, by means of this knightly honor, the little vassal of a minor lord was no longer viewed as a mere underling, but as a confederate in the great universal chivalric fraternity. There were also many freemen who sometimes gained their livelihood by offering their services to different courts, or by robbing on the highways, and who were too proud to serve on foot; Henry offered them free pardon, and formed them into a body of light cavalry. In the cities the free citizens, who were originally intended only to serve as foot soldiery, appear ere long to have formed themselves into mounted troops, and to have created a fresh body of infantry out of their artificers and apprentices. It is certain that every freeman could pretend to knighthood.

Although the chivalric regulations ascribed to the emperor Henry, and to his most distinguished vassals, may not be genuine, they offer nevertheless infallible proofs of the most ancient spirit of knighthood. Henry ordained that no one should be created a knight who either by word or by deed injured the holy Church; the Pfalzgraf Conrad added, "no one who either by word or by deed injured the holy German empire"; Hermann of Swabia, "no one who injured a woman or a maiden"; Berthold, the brother of Arnulf of Bavaria, "no one who had ever deceived another or had broken his word"; Conrad of Franconia, "no one who had ever run away from the field of battle." These appear to have been, in fact, the first chivalric laws, for they spring from the spirit of the times, while all the regulations concerning nobility of birth, the number of ancestors, the exclusion of all those who were engaged in trade, etc., are, it is evident from their very nature, of a much later origin.

1So great a slaughter took place that the Saxons said on the occasion:
"Twere difficult to find a hellWhere so many Franks might dwell!"


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Chicago: Wolfgang Menzel, "Henry the Fowler Founds the Saxon Line of German Kings; Origin of the German Burghers or Middle Classes," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: Menzel, Wolfgang. "Henry the Fowler Founds the Saxon Line of German Kings; Origin of the German Burghers or Middle Classes." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Menzel, W, 'Henry the Fowler Founds the Saxon Line of German Kings; Origin of the German Burghers or Middle Classes' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from