History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Conrad I

Lewis the Child left no son. There was indeed no direct heir to the throne. A Carolingian, it is true, still sat upon the throne of France. But never once did the German nobles think of offering the kingdom to him, and thus once more uniting the East and West kingdoms. No, they had grown too independent for that. So they met together to choose a new King from their own number.

Among the nobles there were two whose claims seemed almost equal, for they were both distantly related to the kingly house. One of these was Otto the Illustrious, Duke of Saxony; the other was Duke Conrad, of whom you have already heard.

Duke Otto was wise and good, and the first choice fell on him. But he was old, he felt that he had no longer the strength to bear the burden of the crown, that his arm which had often wielded a sword was no longer strong enough to hold the sceptre. That a greybeard should follow a child upon the throne would be a great misfortune for the land, he thought. The man who would save Germany from the foes within and foes without must not only be wise but strong. So Otto refused the crown, and the next choice fell upon the young and warlike Duke Conrad.

King Conrad I loved his country; he wished his people to be happy and prosperous. But somehow he was always unfortunate. He never succeeded in doing anything great for his people and kingdom until he lay on his death-bed. Then, as you shall hear, he did a great deed.

Meanwhile the new King was led into war almost at once. He fought with the French King, and tried, but tried in vain, to recover Lorraine from him. It was a sad misfortune for the new King that his first war should be thus unsuccessful. But a greater misfortune befell him. Otto the Illustrious died. He had given the young King good advice, and kept the bishops in check. For bishops and nobles looked upon each other with jealous eyes, each fearful of the growing power of the other. But now that Otto was dead the bishops were once more all-powerful. They soon made their power felt.

After Duke Otto's death his son Henry became Duke. But Conrad had begun to be afraid of this great vassal. It seemed to him that unless his power was checked the Duke would soon be as great as the King. So Conrad took part of Henry's inheritance from him, and gave it to Bishop Hatto.

At this the whole of Saxony was filled with wrath. How could the King forget that he owed his crown to Duke Otto? asked the people. They prayed their Duke not weakly to allow himself thus to be robbed, but to fight for his rights, and they gathered to him, both knights and barons and their followers, until he had a mighty army.

Now when Conrad saw how the people gathered to the Duke, and how they looked darkly on him, his heart misgave him. He dared not fight the Duke openly because of his great army, so he listened to the wily Bishop and sought to overcome Henry by treachery.

The Bishop, so the story goes, asked Henry to a great feast, promising him many favours and rich presents in order to entice him to come. Henry promised to come, and then the wicked Bishop went to a goldsmith and ordered him to make a beautiful chain of gold so cunningly contrived that it would be easy to strangle with it the person who wore it. This was to be Henry's gift at the feast.

All went well. As the day of the feast drew near the Bishop went to the goldsmith's workshop to see how he was getting on. As he watched the goldsmith work he sighed.

"Why do you sigh so deeply?" asked the gold-smith in surprise.

"I sigh," replied the Bishop, "because that chain must be dyed with the blood of a brave man, with Duke Henry's blood."

The goldsmith answered never a word. He told no man what he had heard, but as he worked his heart was sorrowful and heavy. When the chain was finished he took it to the Bishop, then he hurried away to Duke Henry.

As the goldsmith neared the castle he found Duke Henry mounted upon his horse, and ready to set forth as if on a journey.

"Stay, noble Duke," he cried, "whither will ye ride?"

"I am invited to a feast," answered Henry, "and to a great present-giving. I would even be on my way."

"Nay, but go not," cried the goldsmith. Then he told Duke Henry of the golden chain, and how it was wrought to cause his death.

And when he heard it Duke Henry was right ireful. He called the messengers to him who had come to bid him to the feast. Darkly he looked upon them so that they trembled before him.

"Go," he cried, "thank your master for his friendly invitation. Say to him that Henry's neck is no harder than Adalbert's. Say to him that I will not trouble him with my great train of servants, that I will rather sit at home and think how I may best serve him."

The messengers sped away. But no long time did Duke Henry sit at home and think. In great wrath he fell upon the Bishop's possessions in Saxony and in Thuringia and conquered them.

Shortly after this the Bishop died. We do not really know how he met his death. But the people hated him so that they said that the wrath of God had overtaken him in his wickedness, and that he had been struck down by a thunderbolt. Others said that he met with a still more terrible death which came about in this wise.

Many of the poor people were in great distress, for the land had been wasted by the Hungarians, and by the armies of the rival nobles. Their crops had been trampled and destroyed, their houses burned. Then followed a terrible year when the harvest failed and the winter was long and hard, so that the land was filled with starving, beggared people.

At length in their distress and hunger they came to the great Bishop, begging for bread, for well they knew that his vast granaries were still filled to overflowing with last year's corn. Hatto listened to their prayers coldly. Their poor weak bodies and pale thin faces, their trembling hands, awakened in his heart no pity. He saw in them only a crowd of useless beggars who could neither fight nor dig. Of what good were they? he asked. They were fit for nothing but to eat bread, and take it from the mouths of others. If they could only be put out of the way the famine would the sooner cease, and there would be more corn left for others who were of far more use in the world.

With such thoughts in his heart Bishop Hatto laid his wicked plans. He bade the people come to him on an appointed day, and he would satisfy all their wants. The day came. The joyful people gathered in crowds, and were all told to go into the Bishop's great barn.

In they went, more and more of them, till the barn was so full that it could hold no more. Then the Bishop locked the door and set fire to the barn, so that the wretched people were all burned up.

"A good riddance," said the Bishop. "They were just like mice, fit for nothing but to eat corn."

"But," says an old writer, "Almighty God, the just revenger of the poore folk's quarrel, did not long suffer this hainous tyranny, this detestable fact, unpunished. For He mustred up an army of mice against the Archbishop, and sent them to persecute him. So that they afflicted him both night and day, and would not suffer him to take his rest in any place."

Like a plague of Egypt were the mice. They followed the Bishop everywhere; they ate up all his corn; they swarmed in his bed and over his dinner-table. He could neither eat nor sleep for them.

At last he resolved to flee to his strong tower, which he had built for himself on a little green island in the river Rhine. There he would surely be safe from them. For, he said, The walls are high, and the shores are steep, And the stream is strong, and the water deep.

So in all haste Bishop Hatto set off. He crossed the Rhine, and reached his tower in safety. There he carefully barred the doors and windows, and stopped up every loophole. But all his care was of little use. "For the innumerable troupes of mice continually chased him very eagerly, and swumme unto him upon the top of the water to execute the just judgement of God. And so at last he was most miserably devoured by those silly creatures."

For they have swum over the river so deep,

And they have climb'd the shores so steep,

And up the Tower their way is bent,

To do the work for which they were sent.

They are not to be told by the dozen or score,

By thousands they come, and by myriads and more,

Such numbers had never been heard of before,

Such a judgement had never been witness'd of yore.

Down on his knees the Bishop fell,

And faster and faster his beads did he tell,

As louder and louder, drawing near,

The gnawing of their teeth he could hear.

And in at the windows, and in at the door,

And through the walls helter-skelter they pour,

And down from the ceiling, and up from the floor,

From the right and the left, from behind and before,

From within and without, from above and below,

And all at once to the Bishop they go.

Thus miserably, said the common folk, who hated him, perished the wily Bishop. And still to this day, among the vine-clad hills of the Rhine, there stands the Mäusethurm or Mouse Tower on its little green island opposite the town of Bingen.

Even after the death of the Bishop fierce war raged between King Conrad and his mighty vassal, Duke Henry. But the King could not subdue his vassal. For no knight in all Germany was so brave and splendid as Henry, no ruler more beloved of his people.

And Conrad could not give all his mind to conquering Henry, for other nobles too rose against him, and, worst of all, the Hungarians again laid waste the land. They burned the churches, slew the priests at the altar, and hewed down and insulted the crucifixes.

Conrad marched now here, now there, against his foes. Often enough he won a victory, but as soon as his back was turned the unsubdued enemy rose again. His reign was one long struggle. At length, sorely wounded, sick at heart and worn out by the long struggle, he lay down to die. "He felt," says an old writer, "that his lucky star had set."

In spite of all his mistakes and misfortunes Conrad loved his country, and now he gave his great proof of it.

As the King lay on his death-bed he called his brother Eberhard to him. "My brother," he said, "I feel that I can no longer bear the burden of life. It is God's will that I should die. Now what shall become of the kingdom lies with you. Therefore take counsel with yourself, and listen to my advice, the advice of your brother. We have, my brother, troops and armies, we have towns and weapons in our hands, we have the crown and the sceptre. We have all that belongs to royal state, save only fortune and kingly puissance. Fortune, my brother, together with this kingly force, stands ever on Duke Henry's side, and the salvation of the state lies in his hand. Take, then, the sacred lance, the golden brooches, and the royal mantle, the sword and the crown of the old King. Go to Henry, greet him as King, and make your peace with him, so that you may have him henceforth as a friend. For he will be a true King and a ruler over many peoples."

And when Conrad had ceased speaking Eberhard promised him with tears running down his cheeks that all should be done as he wished.

Conrad then called the great nobles about his bed. He bade them to think of peace. "After my death do not be torn asunder by jealousy and greed of power. Choose Henry for your King, set him over you as lord. For he is wise and knows well how to hold the sceptre. I do not only counsel you, I beg and pray of you to obey him."

Then, having done the greatest deed of his life, Conrad folded his hands and died, at peace with all the world.