Saxon War (Henry IV)

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The Saxon War is the name given to the conflicts between the Salian royal house and the rebellious Saxons. This partly armed conflict reached its climax under King Henry IV in the period from the summer of 1073 to the end of 1075. It is to be distinguished from the Saxon Wars of Charlemagne in the years 772 to 804.


Ill-feeling between the Salian royal house and the Saxons was already latent under Henry’s father Henry III. This may have been due above all to his southern German origins and his numerous stays in the imperial palace of Goslar, which were associated with disproportionately high economic burdens for the surrounding population. With the accession of Henry IV to power in 1065, this conflict intensified, as Henry reclaimed numerous crown estates in the middle of the Saxon heartland in the Harz Mountains. To secure this royal property, he set up a castle-building programme and erected numerous castles around the mountains, the most prominent of which was the Harzburg. Other castles included the Wigantenstein, the Moseburg, the Sassenstein, the Spatenburg, the Heimburg and the Asenburg.[1]

This was perceived as a threat by the Saxons. In addition, these castles were occupied by ministerials of Swabian origin, who, due to lack of pay, indulged in numerous assaults on the Saxon population.[2]

Motives of the parties involved

In order to grasp the reason for the outbreak of the uprising, it is important to look at the individuals and parties involved.
In this case it is Henry IV, the Saxon nobility and the other imperial princes.

Henry IV

The king had his own reasons, which were also justified with the coup d’état of Kaiserswerth and had far-reaching consequences. The time after the coup d’état was used by the princes of the empire to further expand their power base within the empire, since there was de facto no ruler who could have hindered them.[3] Empress Agnes herself was too weak and had fallen from grace, and the young king was in the hands of Anno of Cologne. When Henry received his Schwertleite in 1065, he was able to counteract these momentous developments. However, the process is not to be understood as a policy of recuperation, for the loss of royal lands is to be regarded as minor in the Harz region and therefore not a major motive.[4] These territories were already a bone of contention between the Salians and Saxons under Henry III. The castles are rather to be seen as an expression of royal power, for Henry relied mainly on ministerials, who were dependent on his benevolence[5]in order to break away from the imperial princes. In doing so, he in turn incurred the displeasure of the princes.[6]

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The Saxon nobility

The motives of the Saxon nobles are now obvious, since they were after all massively affected by Henry’s actions. They were consequently outraged and did not want to give up so easily the influence they had built up during the sovereign’s abstinence.[7] This independence, which the king was now trying to gain himself, led to a sense of competition with the king, which led to discontent among the Saxon princes.[8] Henry’s aspirations led to a desire for a ruler who was easier to control and he was accused of abuse of office by the Saxons.[9] There was also a conflict due to the so-called “proximity of the king”, a regular presence of the king in the parts of the empire, although this circumstance is a dramatization of the conditions, because the king stayed just as long in other parts of the empire without similar complications.[10] Among the Saxon princes, Otto of Northeim should be mentioned in particular, who was a particular thorn in the king’s side because of his participation in the coup d’état of Kaiserswerth and because of his expansion of possessions in the Harz Mountains.[11] Due to this dispute and the later loss of his estates, in the course of the alleged murder plot against the king, he takes a leading role during the uprising.

The Imperial Princes

The quarrels about the ministers continued to spread and did not even stop at the non-insurgents. The resulting fear of losing power made the great men of the empire passively support the uprising. Thus Rudolf of Rheinfelden (Rudolf of Swabia), Berthold of Carinthia and Welf of Bavaria broke away from the king.

“Duke Rudolf of Swabia, Duke Berthold of Carinthia, and Duke Welf of Bavaria broke away, because they saw clearly that their counsel with the king was no longer worth anything, because other counselors had found their way to him.”[12]

Rudolf of Rheinfelden

The later counter-king Rudolf of Rheinfelden had long had a quarrel with the king, based on the monastic reform of the imperial monasticism, which provided for a diminution of the royal powers.[13] The duke was accused of high treason in 1072, just as Otto of Northeim had been in 1070. However, he was able to get out of the affair far better than his fellow sufferer by securing the support of the Empress Agnes, Anno of Cologne and Siegfried of Mainz.
This clearly strained the relationship with the king.

Welf IV of Bavaria

After Otto of Northeim had been deprived of the duchy of Bavaria in 1070, Henry, on the advice of Rudolf, installed Welf IV as duke. Usually, under the Salians, tribal strangers were placed in such duchies, but because Welf possessed Bavarian lands, he was better able to come to terms with the local nobility. He was always loyally on Rudolf’s side, which is also shown by the fact that he chose him as counter-king in 1077.[14] Lampert of Hersfeld, however, portrays him as a person who placed power above loyalty and decency.[15] In war this was also shown, for his loyalty depended on how the relationship between Henry IV and Otto of Northeim continued. It should be mentioned here that Welf was married to the daughter of Northeim, whom, however, he disowned after the latter’s ostracism.

Berthold of Carinthia

Berthold of Carinthia played a somewhat subordinate role. Lampert only reports that Berthold felt disadvantaged in relation to the king. He was dispossessed of his fief and blamed Henry for his lack of assertiveness in his lands.[16] Just like Welf IV, he stood by Rudolf of Rheinfelden.

The course of the war

The beginning of the uprising

According to the chronicler Lampert von Hersfeld, on 29 June 1073, the Saxon greats marched before the imperial palace of Goslar to draw attention to these grievances and to demand improvement. Henry IV refused the dialogue and fled from the Saxons, who were approaching with a large army, to the nearby Harzburg, where the Saxon rebels led by Otto of Northeim and Bishop Burchard of Halberstadt besieged him. However, he managed to escape during the night of August 10, 1073. Heinrich first went to Eschwege and from there moved on to southern Germany via Hersfeld. However, he found little support among the princes of the empire, who were not willing to fight with him against the Saxons.

The Peace of Gerstungen

Therefore, on 27 January 1074, Henry faced the much larger Saxon army at Hersfeld with only a small army. Both sides, however, shied away from the battle for different reasons. Henry probably because of the obvious inferiority. The Saxon leaders, on the other hand, knew that a victory of their army, consisting mainly of peasants, would have strengthened their position, which was not in their interest. Thus, on February 2, 1074, peace negotiations took place in Gerstungen, where an agreement was reached between the feuding parties. The most important result was that Henry IV agreed to the demolition of the castles on the edge of the Harz Mountains.

The plundering of the Harzburg

This also included the Harzburg, which, however, had a collegiate church and a burial place with Henry’s deceased son and brother. In order to protect these, Heinrich ordered that only the towers and walls of the Harzburg be moved. This in turn outraged the surrounding peasantry, who in March 1074 demolished the castle and collegiate church down to the foundation walls and desecrated the royal graves. As much as Henry may have been personally affected by this event, politically it played all the trump cards into his hands: the looting of the church and the desecration of the royal tomb caused the highest indignation in the empire, numerous princes turned back to Henry’s side. The Saxon princes rejected any blame for the actions of the peasant population and immediately offered to restore the castle and church at their own expense.

The battle of Homburg an der Unstrut

Henry, however, was now again clearly intent on confrontation and gathered a much larger army this time, which he was not able to lead towards Saxony until 1075. In the battle of Homburg an der Unstrut (former monastery of Homburg near Bad Langensalza) on June 9, 1075, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Saxon army, again consisting mainly of simple peasants, and then went on a devastating campaign through Saxony and Thuringia. Among those who fought as King Henry’s henchmen were. Rudolf of Rheinfelden, the Bohemian Duke Vratislav II, Margrave Ernst of Austria (fallen), the Lorraine Duke Dietrich II, the Bishop of Bamberg, and Count Hermann II of Gleiberg. On the side of the Saxon greats, besides Otto of Northeim and Burchard II of Halberstadt, were: the Billungian Saxon Duke Magnus, the Margrave of Nordmark Lothar Udo II, Gebhard of Süpplingenburg (fallen), the Saxon Palatine Count Friedrich II of Goseck and Count Dietrich II of Katlenburg.

One of the two leaders, Bishop Burchard II of Halberstadt, was arrested by royal troops at Homburg and finally handed over as a prisoner to the Bishop of Bamberg on June 13.

The chronicler Lampert von Hersfeld reports in his “Annales”:

“The battle had already dragged on from noon to the ninth hour, and it was already near that two host of two countries, Swabia and Bavaria, turned to flight, and repeatedly messengers reported to the king that their people were in the greatest danger, when suddenly Count Hermann of Gleiberg on the one side, on the other the Bamberg men advanced to the attack. Now also the Duke of Bohemia, now the Duke Gozelo of Lorraine, threw their horsemen into the fray with reins suspended. This mighty onslaught the Saxons could no longer withstand, and slowly retreated.”

Finally, on October 27, at Spier (Sondershausen), the Saxon leaders submitted to the king, publicly, that is, before the whole army. Henry did not show any leniency, but savored his triumph. According to Lampert, the submission was made barefoot, without exception and unconditionally. Henry then imprisoned numerous Saxon greats in various places and gave their fiefs elsewhere.

The further course

Beginning almost simultaneously with the capitulation, the Investiture Controversy attracted Henry’s full attention for the following years. The unrest in Saxony flared up again and again, especially in the course of this, but no longer reached the political dimensions of the years 1073 to 1075.

At the Princely Diet of Trebur in October 1076, Otto of Northeim once again sided with the opposition. Although a potential candidate themselves at any time, the princes elected Rudolf of Rheinfelden and later Hermann of Salm as counter-king in 1077 in Forchheim, rather than him. Nevertheless, Otto’s influence on opposition politics remained great. He also continued to excel militarily, fighting in the front line in the battles of Mellrichstadt, Flarchheim and on the Elster.

Even Henry’s son, Henry V, still had to fight with the Saxons. For example, he lost the Battle of Welfesholz (1115) against the Saxons fighting under the leadership of the later Emperor Lothar III.


Although the Roman-German Emperor’s wars against the Saxons were among the “most extensive and harshest military conflicts” on Saxon soil until the Thirty Years’ War, they were systematically suppressed from the historical consciousness of Germans in the 19th century.[17] In a Middle Ages as a projection surface for the nation state of all Germans longed for in the 19th century, there was no room for a civil war in which Germans slaughtered each other.


  • Brunonis Saxonicum bellum*. Bruno’s Saxon War, translated by Franz-Josef Schmale. In: Quellen zur Geschichte Kaiser Heinrichs IV, Darmstadt, 1968 (= Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters. Freiherr vom Stein Memorial Edition; 12), pp. 191-405.
  • Carmen de bello saxonico. Das Lied vom Sachsenkrieg, translated by Franz-Josef Schmale. In: Quellen zur Geschichte Kaiser Heinrichs IV, Darmstadt, 1968. (= Selected sources on German medieval history. Freiherr vom Stein Memorial Edition; 12), pp. 142-189.
  • Lampert von Hersfeld*: Annalen, Darmstadt 1957. (= Selected sources on German history of the Middle Ages. Freiherr vom Stein Memorial Edition; 13)
  • Berthold Chronicle (Second Version), ed Ian Stuart Robinson and Helga Robinson-Hammerstein.
  • Johannes Laudage, Matthias Schrör: Der Investiturstreit. Sources and Materials (= UTB. Vol. 2769). 2., completely revised and greatly expanded edition. Böhlau, Cologne et al. 2006, ISBN 3-8252-2769-3.

*Note: The two known authors, Bruno and Lampert von Hersfeld, describe the conflict from the point of view of the Saxons, while the unknown author of the “Carmen” was a partisan of Henry.


  • Gerd Althoff: Henry IV Darmstadt 2006, p. 86ff, ISBN 3-534-11273-3 (review)
  • Matthias Becher: Henry IV’s confrontation with the Saxons. Freedom struggle or noble revolt? In: Jörg Jarnut, Matthias Wemhoff (eds.): Vom Umbruch zur Erneuerung? Das 11. und beginnende 12. Jahrhundert – Positionen der Forschung. Historical volume accompanying the exhibition “Canossa 1077, Erschütterung der Welt. History, Art and Culture at the Rise of the Romanesque” (= MittelalterStudien des Instituts zur Interdisziplinären Erforschung des Mittelalters und seines Nachwirkens, Paderborn. 13). Fink, Paderborn et al. 2006, ISBN 3-7705-4282-7, pp. 357-378.
  • Sabine Borchert: Herzog Otto von Northeim (ca. 1025-1083). Reichspolitik und personelles Umfeld (= Publications of the Historical Commission for Lower Saxony and Bremen. Vol. 227). Hahn, Hannover 2005, ISBN 3-7752-6027-7.
  • Lutz Fenske: Adelsopposition und kirchliche Reformbewegung im östlichen Sachsen. Entstehung und Wirkung des sächsischen Widerstandes gegen das salische Königtum während des Investiturstreits (= Publications of the Max Planck Institute for History. Vol. 47). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1977, ISBN 3-525-35356-1.
  • Wolfgang Giese: Reichsstrukturprobleme unter den Saliern – der Adel in Ostsachsen. In: Stefan Weinfurter (ed.), Die Salier und das Reich. Volume 1: Salier, Adel und Reichsverfassung, Sigmaringen 1991, pp. 273-308.
  • Johannes Laudage: The Salians. Das erste deutsche Königshaus (= Beck’sche Reihe. C.-H.-Beck-Wissen 2397). Beck, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-406-53597-6 (4th, revised and updated edition, Munich 2017).
  • Johannes Laudage: Welf IV. und die Kirchenreform des 11. Jahrhunderts. In: Dieter R. Bauer, Matthias Becher (eds.): Welf IV. Schlüsselfigur einer Wendezeit. Regional and European Perspectives (= Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte, Beiheft, Reihe B. Band 24). Beck, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-406-10665-X, pp. 280-313.
  • Stefan Weinfurter: Canossa. The Disenchantment of the World. Beck, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-406-53590-9.


  1. L.F. Hesse and W. Wattenbach: Die Jahrbücher des Lambert von Hersfeld. Leipzig 1893, p. 138
  2. Johannes Laudage, Matthias Schrör (eds.): Der Investiturstreit – Quellen und Materialien, 2nd ed. Cologne 2006, p. 87.
  3. Lambert of Hersfeld, Annals 1063.
  4. Stefan Weinfurter: Canossa – Die Entzauberung der Welt, Munich 2006, p. 59.
  5. Gerhard Baaken: Königtum, Burgen und Königsfreie. Studies on their history in East Saxony. In: Theodor Mayer (ed.): Vorträge und Forschungen, vol. VI, Stuttgart 1961, pp. 9-95, here: S. 83.
  6. Karl Bosl: Die Reichsministerialität der Salier und Staufer. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des hochmittelalterlichen deutschen Volkes, Staates und Reiches. Stuttgart 1950, p. 621.
  7. Lutz Fenske: Adelsopposition und kirchliche Reformbewegung im östlichen Sachsen Entstehung und Wirkung des sächsischen Widerstandes gegen das salische Königtum während des Investiturstreites. Göttingen 1977, p. 34.
  8. Ernst Schubert: Königsabsetzungen im deutschen Mittelalter, Eine Studie zum Werden der Reichsverfassung. Göttingen 2005, p. 117.
  9. Michael Borgolte: Europa entdeckt seine Vielfalt, 1050-1250 A.D. Stuttgart 2002, p. 45.
  10. Matthias Becher, “Henry IV’s confrontation with the Saxons. Freedom Fight or Noble Revolt?” In: Jörg Jarnut, Matthias Wemhoff (eds.), From upheaval to renewal? The 11th and beginning 12th century. Positionen der Forschung, Munich 2006, pp. 357-378, here: S. 359.
  11. Lampert von Hersfeld, Annalen 1070.
  12. Berthold, 1073.
  13. Jörgen Vogel: Rudolf von Rheinfelden, die Fürstenopposition gegen Heinrich IV. im Jahr 1072 und die Reform des Klosters St. Blasien. In: Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins (ZGO), 132 (1984), pp. 1-30, here: S. 30.
  14. Johannes Laudage: Welf IV and the church reform of the 11th century. In: Welf IV. – Schlüsselfigur einer Wendezeit Regional and European Perspective, eds Dieter Bauer and Matthias Becher Munich 2004, pp. 280-313, here: S. 300.
  15. Lampert von Hersfeld, Annalen 1071.
  16. Matthias Becher, “Henry IV’s confrontation with the Saxons. Freedom Fight or Noble Revolt?” In: Jörg Jarnut, Matthias Wemhoff (eds.), From upheaval to renewal? The 11th and beginning 12th century. Positionen der Forschung, Munich 2006, pp. 357-378, here: S. 377.
  17. Malte Prietzel: Burying the dead, plundering enemies, holding the field. Perception and representation of Henry IV’s battles against the Saxons. In: Christian von Boetticher, Christine von der Have: (eds.): Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte. (Vol. 79) Hahn, Hannover 2007, pp. 207-222, here p. 209.