Sunday, May 5, 2013


Henry being offered the position of
King of Germany, while working with his nets.
(1900, Hermann Vogel)
Richard Wagner's opera, Lohengrin (1850), portrayed a king who was trying to gain the support of the Duchy of Brabant against the Hungarian Magyars. For Wagner, this king was a symbol of a unified Germany. His name in the opera was Heinrich der Vogler, but we know him better as Henry the Fowler.

Henry (876-936) was the son of King Otto the Illustrious, Duke of Saxony. When his father died in 912, Henry proved to be an able ruler. In his lifetime, the empire assembled by Charlemagne  was now divided into seven different kingdoms, none of them wanting to be ruled by the others. Henry strengthened the standing of Saxony and defended it able against territorial incursions from neighboring states, such as Franconia to the south.

Conrad I, Duke of Franconia, was Henry's rival for years over rights to Thuringia. When Conrad died in December 918, however, he told his nobles that Henry of Saxony was the right man to follow in a united Germany. At a meeting of nobles in 918, it was agreed that they would seek out the Duke of Saxony and ask him to lead. A delegation was sent to offer Henry their loyalty.

Henry, like many aristocrats of the Middle Ages, enjoyed hunting of all kinds. Henry was supposedly known for being an avid fan of hunting birds. He is supposed to have been hunting high up in the Hartz mountains and working at his nets when they found him, as portrayed in the picture above; hence the name Henry the Fowler.

No sooner was he enthroned than the Germans were invaded by the Magyars. In the process of countering it, Henry's forces took as hostage the son of the Magyar king, which paused the wars for many years. When the Magyar king asked for the return of his son, Henry offered him terms that were too good to pass up: Henry wanted a nine-year truce, during which he would pay 5000 gold pieces per year for there to be no threats from Hungary. The Magyar king agreed.

Henry spent the next nine years building up and drilling his army to make them a fearsome fighting force. He also built fortresses along his borders. When the Magyars tried to invade during the tenth year since the truce, Henry's forces defeated them. The German army also easily defeated an invasion from the Danes. When Henry died in 936, he left behind him a peaceful Germany and a son, Otto, who claimed Charlemagne's old title of emperor, ruling over a united federation of German duchies.

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