Patriots and Tyrants - Marion Lansing

The Choosing of a King

It was a hundred years since the death of Charlemagne. His empire had been divided into three parts, which later became France, Germany, and Italy, and Germany was governed by a king chosen from the dukes of one or other of the six tribes. Conrad, the Frank, had been king, and now he was dying. When he felt that his end was near, he called to him his brother Eberhard and said: "I feel, my brother, that I am to bear no longer the burden of this life; God wills it so, and I must die. What is to become now of the kingdom rests principally with you. Therefore pay good heed and consider the advice of your brother. We have tried to rule as the great Charles ruled; we have tried to keep up the glory of his line and of the Franks. We have many followers; we have castles and weapons; in our hands are the crown and scepter of the kingly office. But the people of Germany have never followed us; their hearts are not with us. The power to lead Germany, if it can be led as one people, lies with the Saxons; the love of the Germans rests on Henry, Duke of the Saxons. Take therefore, when I am gone, the symbols of royalty, the scepter, the gold armlets, the king's mantle of royal purple, the sword, and the crown of our ancient kings. Go with them to Henry and salute him as king."

"But he is our enemy," replied Eberhard in amazement. "Have you forgotten this? Have you forgotten how lately you were at war with him?"

"The future of Germany lies with Henry," replied the dying king. "Go to him and make your peace with him, for truly he will be king and lord of many peoples."

So spoke Conrad, and Eberhard promised to do as his brother had commanded, and the other nobles who were at the king's bedside promised likewise. Truly this last act of Conrad's was the grandest of his life, and was to be remembered to his honor for all generations, for, as you shall see, he forgave his enemy for the sake of the nation.

Conrad died, deeply lamented by the Franks, and was buried in the cloister of Fulda, and the Frankish nobles, true to their promise, took the symbols of kingship and brought them to Saxony. But before I tell how they found Duke Henry, I must tell you how it had happened that King Conrad and Henry had quarreled and become enemies, so that Eberhard was right when he said that the king had but lately been at war with him. The quarrel came about through a queer accident. When Henry was a young man, but lately appointed Duke of the Saxons, Archbishop Hatto of Mainz sent to the young duke a present of a necklace, fashioned by his craftsmen in a new way which they had just learned. It was made of twisted gold formed in a coil to act as a spring, so that the wearer need not clasp nor unclasp it, but could stretch the chain of gold and pass it over his head, and it would close again around his neck. Henry was pleased when the gift was brought to him, and after he had handled it and admired its workmanship he put it on. But the craftsmen had never seen Henry, who was a fine, tall man with a strong neck and big shoulders, and they had made it too small. It shrank so tight as nearly to throttle him, and had to be cut off his neck. Henry was very angry, and the Saxons were more angry. They said that the bishop had wanted to strangle their young duke, and that the scheme had been planned by him and King Conrad, who was jealous of him and of the Saxon power. So they went to war at once, and Conrad had to defend himself and his archbishop, and that was the beginning of the difference between Conrad and Henry. Since then many things had happened to widen the breach, for Henry did not believe in the way that Conrad ruled. Henry thought that the people and the other dukes should have more chance to speak their minds than they were given by Conrad, who was a king after the old imperial system of Charlemagne.

Now Conrad's brother was on his way to Saxony, carrying to Henry at Conrad's command the insignia of royalty.

There is in Saxony a beautiful region, with high mountains and swift-flowing streams, which is called the Harz. The mountain sides are covered with oak and beech forests, and streams of clear water from mountain springs flow down into green valleys. Here lived happily Henry, Duke of the Saxons, during the months when his duchy did not need him, and hither were sent the Frankish nobles when they came to Saxony asking for the duke. By a trail up the mountain side they made their way, and all at once the foremost of them heard a sound of a man whistling, which was answered by a chorus of bird notes. The nobles pressed on, and in a moment they were in the presence of their future king. Henry was seated in the shade of a great oak, whistling to his birds, who answered him with bell-like calls from the branches where they perched, or settled on his hands and shoulders.

Henry Fowler

The duke rose at the sight of the strangers, and the birds flew away to the upper branches, from which they looked down on the strange scene which took place in this forest retreat. Eberhard came forward first, and as Henry rose to greet him with a word of welcome, he stretched forth to him the crown which he bore, and the others came forward with the other symbols of kingship,—the scepter and the gold armlets and the king's mantle of royal purple.

"King Conrad is dead, God rest his soul," said Eberhard solemnly, "and by his wish and the wish of ourselves, the nobles of Franconia, we bring to you the symbols of royalty, and ask of you that you become King of the Germans."

"I king!" said Henry. "You come to me with these! But I was Conrad's enemy. He could never have desired you to come to me."

"By Conrad's wish we come," insisted Eberhard, and he told him of the king's words on his deathbed. Henry listened, and when Eberhard had finished speaking, he bowed his head.

"Truly he was a good man," he said, "and if it be that the welfare of the German nation lies with me as king, I will obey his word, provided the people of all the tribes shall so decide."

"It is well," replied the nobles, and they went away to summon the people to a great assembly at Fritzlar, which lies on the boundary between Franconia and Saxony. At Eberhard's call there came together all the nobles of the tribes on the fourteenth of April in the year 919, and Eberhard stepped out before the great company and said: "Behold I here present to you Henry, proposed by King Conrad, and nominated by all the princes, for your king! If this choice be acceptable to you, you will show it by raising your right hands toward heaven."

All the people raised their right hands toward heaven, and shouted with one accord, "King Henry!" and they prepared to set him on the throne. The archbishop came forward and would have anointed him with oil, as had been the custom of many kings. Henry stopped him.

"That have I not deserved," he said. "To me it is enough that I, through God's mercy and the love of you, my people, am called to be king. Let the anointing with oil be reserved for another. Of so great an honor I am not worthy."

This he did partly through modesty and partly to show to the church that, though he meant to defend it powerfully in its true rights, he felt that the right to choose a king rested with the German people and with them alone. If the church had part in the coronation, and thought there could be no proper king without its having this part, it might sometime happen that the church would say: "Germany cannot have this king that the people have chosen. We do not want him." Then the independence of Germany would be gone.

Henry's words pleased the assembled company, and once more they raised the right hand to heaven and swore fidelity to the king and shouted in loud acclaim, "Hail and blessing to King Henry!"

This was the true crowning of Henry, first king of the Germans; but the people loved to remember that he did not go out to seek his crown, but that it was first brought to him as he sat among his birds in the forest; and in memory of that hour they called him, as every one has come to call him, "Henry the Fowler," or, as the German speech puts it, "Henry the Bird-Man."