A year in the saddle – Emperor Henry II’s 1017 itinerary

How utterly exhaustive a mediaeval itinerant king’s life must have been (and how blessed we motoring tourists are today) is shown by this map of the travels that Emperor Henry II undertook throughout his territory in 1017 alone.

Map of Henry II's 1017 itinerary
Emperor Henry II’s 1017 itinerary. From: Ehlers, C. (ed.), Mitteralterliche Königspfalzen (Göttingen 2002).

Kings and emperors travelled their realms from palace to palace until the late Middle Ages, accompanied by the whole court. They did this to confirm their authority over the local rulers governing in their names, to rule as judges, show themselves to the people and gain legitimacy, to meet the lords of the realm, often to wage war but also simply because agriculture in those days did not produce enough surplus to feed a large and demanding court in one place for too long.

As we can see, Henry started his itinerary in the mountainous Harz region in middle Germany. We have more detailed information on some parts of his trip than for others as much of the data comes from the chronicle of Thietmar, the Abbot of Merseburg, who probably recorded the nights spent in his own vicinity (eastern Saxony and the Harz) more precisely than those in other parts of Germany. Moving away from the Harz area, Henry travelled southwest to Ingelheim and Mainz, where he celebrated Easter. After that, the Emperor sailed down the river Rhine and visited an important meeting with the grandees of the realm. He subsequently made his way East, back to the Harz mountains, following the ancient royal road known as the Westphalia Hellweg. On the way, Henry attended Pentecost celebrations at the Werden monastery near Essen.

Emperor Henry II entering a church, accompanied by two bishops. Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Msc. Lit. 53, fol. 2v
Emperor Henry II entering a church, accompanied by two bishops. Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Msc. Lit. 53, fol. 2v

The large distances the Emperor travelled towards Ingelheim (in Spring) and Frankfurt (in December) show that royal attendance to important feasts like Easter and Christmas was planned long in advance. Towns and abbeys vied with each other to have the monarch spend important religious festivals at their location.

Emperor Henry spent the summer, as was often the case, waging war. In the year 1017 he campaigned against Poland – unsuccessfully. The campaign is indicated on the map in dotted lines – but doesn’t show the full extent of the army’s eastwards travels.

Returning from Poland, the Emperor again visited Saxony and the Harz, and then started on a southwestern tack towards Frankfurt for Christmas, with a wide diversion via Bamberg and Würzburg. All together, Henry and his court would have travelled a minimum of 2600 km in this year. Estimating daily progress at 25 km, this means over a hundred days spent in the saddle.

Despite the fact that historians have been able to reconstruct royal itineraries for most individual years of the early German imperial era (usually based on royal charters from archives, which were always signed with a date and place), it is often not quite clear why the court chose a specific itinerary and places of lodging. Possibly palaces and abbeys were selected based on available dwellings, a good relationship with a host, such as an abbot, available food stores, or just the personal preference of the Emperor. An important factor was also whether the  palace was part of the royal domain, thus belonging to the King himself, or was the property of some other authority. The importance and prestige of a palace could be judged by the number of visits paid by the monarch over the years, and, as we’ve seen, the religious festivals attended there.

Just as we do not really know why the court selected certain routes of travel, we are not sure why certain parts of the realm were skipped, sometimes for years on end. Were they too insecure for royal travel? Or was the King so sure of his authority in those places that he could afford to leave them unvisited?

You may have noted that I use “King” and “Emperor” intermittently here. “King” would be proper, as the perambulating mode of government was part and parcel of being German King, whether the King would eventually be crowned Emperor or not. The palaces of the royal domain also fell to the King upon his election. But obviously “Imperial” has a ring of its own (explaining why German Kings went to such great lengths to get the Pope to crown them as Emperors), and many stopping places on the Emperor’s itinerary started calling themselves “Imperial Palaces” from an early date. Certainly repeat visits by Emperors lent a special appeal to such palace town. This, for example, explains why Henry III’s palace at Goslar, restored at the height of the 19th century mediaeval revival, is referred to as the “Kaiserpfalz” (imperial palace), not “Köningspfalz” (royal palace).

What fascinates me about itinerant Kingship is how any man could be capable of sustaining this exhausting way of life, repeating this great journey throughout a very large empire year upon year, continuing to reconfirm their authority to their imperial grandees, while maintaining focus on governing the country as a whole.  Of course, the fame and respect that the office of King or Emperor commanded would have helped, as would the fact that royal authority was very much based on ancient magical and sacred traditions, and most people were honoured by a royal visit.

Just by following mediaeval Kings along their itinerary for a bit, driving along provincial roads from town to town, you start realising the mind-boggling tenacity these people must have had to up this rate of travel, on horse-back, in wind and weather. The modern traveller’s reward, as it may have been the ancient Emperor’s, is to discover yet another of Germany’s spots of beauty, whether it’s an ancient cathedral, a monastery or a royal palace, hidden in provincial towns that are insignificant today, but whose treasures bear witness to a culturally rich and diverse past.

Dead Emperors’ HQ and the spires of Speyer Cathedral

Speer cathedral from the southwest. The west facade's restoration was finished last.
Speyer cathedral from the southwest. The west facade’s restoration was finished last.

Soon after calling my historical blog “Dead Emperors’ Society” – which started life as a students’ joke between friends – I realised that it doesn’t live up to its name much. The subjects of my posts are sometimes emperors, and true, they are invariably dead, but so far there hasn’t been much necrophilia (except for one hazy picture of Wilhelm II’s tomb in this post).

The West facade. Note the famous 'dwarf colonnade' towards the top of the Westwork. It runs all the way around the building.
The West facade. Note the famous ‘dwarf colonnade’ towards the top of the Westwork. It runs all the way around the building.

Until now. Because this week, on the return trip of our family holiday around Switzerland, the French Alps and Alsace, we made a stop at Speyer (or Spires) on the Rhine. This lovely town was a capital of sorts of the Salian dynasty – the family that supplied the Holy Roman Emperors between 1027 and 1125. Four of them (and another four from later dynasties) lie buried in the crypt of Speyer Cathedral.

Dead emperors - and someone actually brings them flowers!
Dead emperors – and someone actually brings them flowers!

The cathedral, the largest Romanesque one in the world since Cluny was destroyed, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. Because of its situation in the Rhine valley, and because the town doesn’t have many high rise buildings (except for a technology museum with a Lufthansa Boeing 747 mounted on a stick) the cathedral can be seen from far afield. As it would have been in the Middle Ages, again, except for the Jumbo.

From the Cathedral tower, you can see the Technikmuseum with its hallmark 747.
From the Cathedral tower, you can see the Technikmuseum with its hallmark 747.

The cathedral is huge, and completely dominates the quaint town centre. French troops destroyed it to such an extent during the Napoleonic wars (as they did, in fact, destroy Cluny) that it was no longer considered fit for religious service. At one point in the early nineteenth century, plans were even made to tear it down. Then a series of restorations set in – some less fortunate, some more so, until the cathedral ended up with a western facade that is reimagination of what its romanesque front must have looked like when it was built.

Nave, transept and river Rhine - a view well worth the 60 metres of steps
Nave, transept and river Rhine – a view well worth the 60 metres of steps

The cathedral has thus been externally complete since the late 1960s – but of course such a work of art is never finished, and fortunately, neither are the funds available for arts and culture in Germany. In 2012, the cathedral opened the next stage in its revenge on Napoleon: the Emperor’s Hall in the Westwork. Joining that, as a great public attraction, a new spiral staircase was built inside the south tower. Reaching 60 meters high, from the viewing platform at the top you get a great view of the Rhine valley, the hills of the Rhineland-Palatinate, and Heidelberg and the foothills of the Black Forest in the distance. It almost competes with the view of the eight dead emperors’ tombs down in the crypt…

The cathedral's Crypt is also the largest of its type.
The cathedral’s Crypt is also the largest of its type.