Conrad II, 12th-century stained glass depiction, Strasbourg Cathedral
The first monarch of the new royal dynasty of the Salians, Conrad (Konrad) II was born circa 990 to Heinrich, son of Duke Otto of Carinthia and grandson of Duke Conrad of Lotharingia (d. 955). After his fathers death, he was raised by his grandfather and uncle Conrad until he was taken into the episcopal household of Bishop Burchard of Worms (1000—d. 1025), supposedly because of ill-treatment at the hands of his relatives. In 1016, he married Gisela (d. 1043), daughter of Hermann II of Bavaria, thereby allying himself with one of the noblest families in the Reich (empire). The future king Henry III was born to the couple one year later in 1017.
When King Henry II died childless early in 1024, the nobility of the Reich was presented with the opportunity to elect a new monarch and ruling house. The royal election, recounted in unusual detail by the royal biographer and chaplain Wipo, was held at Kamba on the Rhine on September 4, 1024. Chosen over his rival and cousin Conrad the Younger (d. 1039), Conrad II was consecrated and crowned king by Archbishop Aribo of Mainz on September 8.
Once crowned king, Conrad had to make his kingship, his royal presentia, felt throughout his realm by establishing the personal bonds with local ecclesiastics, monasteries, and nobles that were the true guarantees of his kingship’s power and stability. Furthermore, he had to gain the support of the Saxons and the members of the Lotharingian nobility who had not consented to his election. Therefore, following the tradition of his Ottonian predecessors, he devoted the next fifteen months to a royal iter (journey) that enabled him to meet and negotiate with nobles from Lotharingia to Saxony as well as those in Alemannia, Bavaria, Franconia, and Swabia.
In February 1026, Conrad assembled an army of thousands of armored knights for an expedition into Italy, including troops commanded by both Archbishop Aribo of Mainz and Archbishop Pilgrim of Cologne. Conrad’s army marched south, besieging Pavia, but the city walls blocked the attackers.
Conrad II, circa 990 – 4.6.1039, Holy Roman Emperor 26.3.1027 – 4.6.1039, full length, crowned by archbishop Aribo of Mainz and archbishop Pilgrim of Cologne, miniature, 1st half 11th century,
With his rule thus consolidated by late 1025, Conrad embarked upon an expedition to Italy that lasted from the spring of 1026 until early summer of 1027. There he reestablished his authority over such rebellious cities of northern Italy as Pavia and Ravenna and broke down the opposition to royal rule within the Italian nobility through a combination of diplomacy and military might. Crowned Roman emperor by Pope John XIX (1024—1032) on Easter (March 26) of 1027 with King Cnut of England and Denmark and King Rudolf III of Burgundy in attendance, Conrad then headed south into Apulia, where he reestablished nominal German sovereignty over the Lombard princes and attempted to secure the frontier with Byzantine southern Italy.
Back in Germany, Conrad pondered the future of the dynasty, At Regensburg in June of 1027, he elevated his son Henry as duke of Bavaria and, on Easter of 1028, had him crowned king at Aachen with the consent of the princes of the Reich. The death in 1033 of King Rudolf III enabled the Salian monarch to expand his hegemony by incorporating the kingdom of Burgundy into the Reich. Around 1034, after his earlier bid for a marriage alliance with Byzantium had failed, Conrad turned to Denmark for a bride for his son; Henry III married King Cnut’s (1017–1035) daughter Kunigunde in 1036. With the deaths of the reigning dukes of Swabia and Carinthia in 1038 and 1039 respectively, Conrad invested Henry III with those duchies, thereby giving him a unique position of power in the three southernmost duchies of the German Reich.
Despite the extent of his power, Conrad II faced several internal rebellions and significant foreign challenges during his reign. Just two years after Conrad’s election, a group of conspirators led by his rival Conrad the Younger rebelled during the king ‘s first expedition to Italy. After an initial show of loyalty, the king’s stepson Duke Ernst II of Swabia later joined this rebellion; he persisted in his opposition to Conrad, despite brief returns to grace and appointments to office, until he was killed in August of 1030.
In 1036 Conrad journeyed again to Lombardy to settle widespread disputes between subvassals and their lay and ecclesiastical overlords over the security of the subvassals’ legal status and rights. After overcoming the resistance of the Italian episcopate and their attempt to introduce Count Odo of Champagne (995–1037) as king, Conrad finally settled the dispute in favor of the subvassals with his decree Constitutio de feudis of 1037, which represented a major departure from the earlier, proepiscopal policies of his Ottonian predecessors.
On his eastern frontiers, Conrad responded to the repeated political challenges posed by Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary through a combination of military might, alliances with neighboring princes, territorial exchanges, and diplomacy, designed essentially to maintain the status quo rather than expand German hegemony.
Perhaps the most debated aspect today of Conrad’s kingship is his ecclesiastical policy. Earlier scholarship stressed the secularity of Conrad II’s reign and the king’s calculated development and exploitation of the Reichskirche (imperial church) to achieve secular political aims. More recent studies, however, while not ignoring Conrad’s political and economic reliance on ecclesiastical and monastic structures, have offered a more balanced assessment that highlights Conrad’s personal association with leading monastic reformers of his time, including Odilo of Cluny, William of Dijon, and Poppo of Stablo; his efforts to further their reforms; his swift change in policy after a unique case of simony reported by Wipo; and his support of reformers such as Bruno of Egisheim, the future Pope Leo IX. Finally, they argue that, although Conrad undoubtedly saw himself as the head of the imperial Church, this position of leadership remained, in his mind, a religious as well as a secular office, an attitude certainly manifested by his son Henry III.
Dying on June 4, 1039, Conrad II was laid to rest by Empress Gisela and King Henry III in the cathedral of Speyer.
Boshof, Egon. Die Salier, 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin: Kohlhammer, 1995, pp. 33–91.
Die Urkunden Conrads II., ed. Harry Bresslau and P. Kehr. Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1909; rpt. 1980.
Hoffmann, Hartmut. Monchskönig und “rex idiota”. Studien zur Kirchenpolitik Heinrichs II. und Conrads II. Hannover: Hahn, 1995.
Morrison, K.F. “The Deeds of Conrad II.” In Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, ed. Theodor E.Mommsen and Karl F.Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.
Trillmich, Werner. Kaiser Conrad II. und seine Zeit, ed. Otto Bardong. Bonn: Europa Union Verlag, 1991.
Wipo. Gesta Chuonradi, ed. Harry Bresslau. Hannover: Hahn, 1878; rpt. 1993.
“Empire” (Reich) is a term used throughout the German Middle Ages to refer to various political constellations. To the inner circle at Charlemagne’s court in 800, his adoption of the title “emperor” gave expression to the fact that he was more than just the king of the Franks, or king of the Lombards; with the exception of Anglo-Saxon England and Christian Spain, every Christian area of the Latin West was subject to him, and many non-Christian areas to the east recognized his suzerainty. There was to some large degree a correspondence between his realm and Latin Christendom.
Very quickly, however, the relationship between theory and practice changed. With the Treaty of Verdun (843), the idea of an ecumenical empire gave way to a more limited one. Lothar I received the title of emperor along with the Middle Kingdom, but when his lands were subdivided in 855, the imperial title went to his son Louis II as ruler of Italy. In short, the significance of the imperial title contracted almost to the point of meaninglessness.
In theory, however, the imperial title implied a claim to the disputed lands of the Middle Kingdom, and by the early tenth century it was a hotly contested prize. The winner in this go-around was the German king Otto I, who, in 962, assumed the imperial title, signifying the union of Germany, Italy, and Lorraine. His concept of empire, and the realities as well, looked back to Lothar I far more than to Charlemagne for its model. For the next three centuries, the term Reich had reference to this area, in which Germany exercised hegemony over the other two regions. Maintaining some substance for the theory required considerable effort, however, and from time to time German rulers ignored the imperial dimensions of their office, focusing on matters north of the Alps.
Otto I and Otto II both appeared as plain imperator augustus (noble emperor), but Otto III’s chancery used the more pretentious imperator Romanorum (emperor of the Roman Empire). Though the Capetian kings of France were anxious to live on good terms with the empire, they were never prepared to admit to being imperial vassals. When Emperor Henry II and King Robert the Pious met on the banks of the Meuse in August 1023, they did so as equals; similarly, when Henry III and the French King Henry I met at Ivois in 1056, they did so on terms of equality. Henry III saw his imperial role not so much in territorial terms as in his obligation to purify and reinvigorate the papacy, the other universal head of the respublica Christiana (Christian republic). He did, however, object to the use of the title Hispaniae imperator (Hispanic emperor), which the Spanish king, Ferdinand the Great of Castile, had adopted after a great victory over the Moors.
German emperors often sought legitimization of their title and claims by marrying into the Byzantine imperial family. Otto II was the only one to do so, though appropriate spouses had been sought for both Otto III and Henry III. The securing of the hand of Isabella/Yolande of Brienne, heiress to the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, by Frederick II of Staufen in 1223, gave a similar boost to the pretentions of the leader of the Christian world.
The accession of Frederick Barbarossa in 1152 brought a change in his attitude toward Italy, over what had prevailed for some time. In correspondence with the Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, he declared that the kings of Europe were constantly sending ambassadors to his court, to show their respect and obedience, and to offer oaths of loyalty and hostages. His chancery spoke disdainfully of the kinglets, or reguli (little kings), in at least one instance meaning thereby the kings of France, England, and Denmark who were reges provinciales (provincial kings). John of Salisbury waxed indignant over the implications of such claims for the king of France, but in the historian Rahewin’s continuation of the Gesta Friderici (The Deeds of Frederick), we find a letter of Henry II of England that (although disputed) is made to say to Barbarossa: “We offer you our kingdom and all the lands under our dominion, we hand them over to your power, so that you may dispose of them as seems good to you, and so that your imperial will may be accomplished in all things.” According to the English chronicler Hovedon, England’s independence was compromised beyond that expressed in Henry’s letter when Richard I, “by the advice of his mother Eleanor stripped himself of the kingdom of England and delivered it over to the emperor as lord of the world,” a reference to the enforced homage of Richard to Barbarossa’s son Henry VI in 1193.
Frederick Barbarossa found his plans for a reinvigorated empire challenged not only by the rising power of the Italian cities but by the theocratic pretensions of Pope Hadrian IV. To counter papal claims that the emperor held the empire as a “benefice conferred by the pope,” Frederick declared that he held his kingdom and his empire from God alone. To buttress this argument, his chancery began to use the adjective sacrum (holy) or sanctissimum (most holy) in connection with the empire in 1157, contrasting it with sacra ecclesia (Holy Church). Several years later, Frederick secured the canonization of Charlemagne, who, in effect, became the patron saint of the empire; the beatification of Charles the Great symbolized the rebirth of the empire yet again under Frederick’s rule.
Henry VI of Hohenstaufen’s accession in 1190, and his abortive attempt to effect a union of the kingdom of Sicily with the empire, marked a decided departure from earlier imperial policy. Henry’s son, Frederick II, in turn abandoned Germany in large measure, though there were still those who promoted the twelfth-century Staufen notion of the universal empire. At the Fourth Lateran (Papal) Council in 1215, Archbishop Siegfried II of Mainz, as arch-chancellor of the empire, objected to the announcement by Pope Innocent III that King John of England had surrendered his realm to the papacy and received it back as a fief during his efforts at reconciliation with Rome; the archbishop’s protest that the empire exercised suzerainty over the regnum Angliae (rule of Anglia) was rejected.
Meanwhile, in 1202 Innocent III in the decretal Per Venerabilem had declared that the king of France was emperor within his own realm, “cum rex superiorem in temporalibus minime recognoscat”—he recognized no temporal superior. The epithet Augustus given to Philip II by his biographer and retained by history is a sharp reflection of his attitude to the imperial daydreams, and the collapse of the Hohenstaufen after 1250 placed the question of empire in the forefront of European politics. Pierre Dubois and John of Jandun maintained that the French king was the natural successor to the imperial dignity of the Hohenstaufen, and in fact the integrity of the western boundary of the empire began to erode toward the end of the century. Rudolf of Hapsburg was less interested in perpetuating the imperial ideas than in establishing an hereditary monarchy. It was during his reign that the lands of the bishopric of Toul west of the Meuse fell into French hands (1291), while in 1297 the French established control over the entire bishopric of Metz. But even in the fourteenth century there were still political theorists in France who recognized a certain validity to the emperor’s claims of universal overlordship.
From 962 onward the rulers of Germany were, either actually or potentially, emperors. Only Otto II was consecrated emperor in his father’s lifetime, and even then he had been king for some years before his imperial coronation. Otto III and Henry II did not become emperor until 996 and 1014, respectively, in each case more than a decade after they had succeeded to the throne. Conrad II was crowned in Rome in 1027 after a gap of only three years; his son Henry III waited seven years before crossing the Alps and receiving imperial coronation in 1046. Elected in 1212 and crowned at Aachen in 1215, Frederick II did not receive imperial consecration until November 1220. In short, the imperial crown could not simply be assumed; it had to be received from the pope at Rome.
This factor helps explain the frequent bitter struggles that went on between certain German monarchs and the papacy. Many German rulers made do with the title rex Romanorum, indicating that although they had been duly elected king, they had not yet received imperial coronation. Only in the fourteenth century did the German electors challenge this practice, and by then the imperial dignity was much less preoccupied with Italy than with Central Europe. Meeting at Rhens on the Rhine in July 1338, the German estates declared that the imperial dignity was held directly of God, and that a king elected by the majority was the legitimate ruler, entitled from the day of his election to exercise his functions without papal consent or confirmation. This was reaffirmed in the Golden Bull that Charles IV published in 1356.
The concept of the Holy Roman Empire—the full term appears first in 1254—lasted in one form or another until 1806, but a second empire was created in 1870–1871, to be followed by a third Reich in the early twentieth century. As a symbol of overlordship, the term emperor was also taken over by Napoléon in 1804, whose imperial coronation at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was clearly influenced by that of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, at Rome.
Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Medieval Empire: Idea and Reality. London: G.Phillip, 1950, rpt. 1964.
Bryce, James. The Holy Roman Empire. New York: Macmillan, 1903, rpt. 1961.
Ficker, Julius. Deutsches Königthum und Kaiserthum. Innsbruck: Wagner, 1862.
Fichtenau, Heinrich. The Carolingian Empire, trans. Peter Munz. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Koch, Walter. Die Reichskanzlei in den Jahren 1167 bis 1174. Publicationen der historischen Kommission der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaft, Phil.hist. Klasse, Denkschriften, 115. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademien der Wissenschaften, 1973.
Leyser, Karl. Medieval Germany and Its Neighbors, 900–1250. London: Hambledon, 1982.
Michael, Wolfgang. Die Formen des unmittelbaren Verkehrs zwischen den deutschen Kaisern und souveränen Fürsten vornehmlich in X., XI. und XII. Jahrhundert. Hamburg: Voß, 1888.
Schramm, Percy Ernst. Kaiser, Rom und Renovatio. 2 vols.; rpt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962.
Struve, Tilman. “Kaisertum und Romgedanke in salischer Zeit.” Deutsches Archiv 44 (1988): 424–454.