Famous Men of the Middle Ages/Henry the Fowler
About a hundred years had passed since the death of Charlemagne, and his great empire had fallen to pieces. Seven kings ruled where he had once been sole emperor.
West of the Rhine, where the Germans lived, the last descendant of Charlemagne died when he was a mere boy. The German nobles were not willing for any foreign prince to govern them, and yet they saw that they must unite to defend their country against the invasions of the barbarians called Magyars (ma-järz’). So they met and elected Conrad, duke of Franconia, to be their king.
However, although he became king in name, Conrad never had much power over his nobles. Some of them refused to recognize him as king and his reign was disturbed by quarrels and wars. He died in 919, and on his death-bed he said to his brother, “Henry, Duke of Saxony, is the ablest ruler in the empire. Elect him king, and Germany will have peace.”
A few months after Conrad’s death, the nobles met at Aix-la-Chapelle and elected Henry to be their king.
At this time it was the custom in Europe to hunt various birds, such as the wild duck and partridge, with falcons. The falcons were long-winged birds of prey, resembling hawks. They were trained to perch on their master’s wrist and wait patiently until they were told to fly. Then they would swiftly dart at their prey and bear it to the ground. Henry was very fond of falconry and hence was known as Henry the Fowler, or Falconer.
As soon as the other dukes had elected him king a messenger was sent to Saxony to inform him of the honor done him. After a search of some days he was at last found, far up in the Hartz Mountains, hunting with his falcons. Kneeling at his feet, the messenger said:
“God save you, Henry of Saxony. I come to announce the death of King Conrad and to tell you that the nobles have elected you to succeed him as king of the Germans.”
For a moment the duke was speechless with amazement. Then he exclaimed:
“Elected me king? I cannot believe it. I am a Saxon, and King Conrad was a Frank and a bitter enemy to me.”
“It is true,” replied the messenger. “Conrad, when dying, advised that the nobles should choose you as his successor.”
Henry was silent for while and then he said, “King Conrad was a good man. I know it now; and I am sorry that I did not understand him better when he was alive. I accept the position offered to me and I pray that I may be guided by Heaven in ruling his people.”
So Henry the Fowler left the chase to take up his duties as king of the Germans.
In proper time Henry was proclaimed king of Germany; but he was hardly seated on the throne when the country was invaded by thousands of Magyars, from the land which we now know as Hungary.
As soon as possible Henry gathered an army and marched to meet the barbarians. He came upon a small force under the command of the son of the Magyar king. The Germans easily routed the Magyars and took the king’s son prisoner.
This proved to be a very fortunate thing, because it stopped the war for a long term of years. When the Magyar king learned that his son was a prisoner in the hands of King Henry he was overwhelmed with grief. He mourned for his son day and night and at last sent to the German camp a Magyar chief with a flag of truce, to bet that the prince might be given up.
“Our king says that he will give whatever you demand for the release of his son,” said the chief to the German monarch.
“I will give up the prince on this condition only,” was the reply, "the Magyars must leave the soil of Germany immediately and promise not to war on us for nine years. During those years I will pay to the king yearly five thousand pieces of gold.”
“I accept the terms in the king’s name,” responded the chief. The prince was, therefore, given up and the Magyars withdrew.
During the nine years of truce King Henry paid great attention to the organization of an army. Before this the German soldiers had fought chiefly on foot, not, as the Magyars did, on horseback. For this reason they were at a great disadvantage in battle. The king now raised a strong force of horsemen and had them drilled so thoroughly that they became almost invincible. The infantry also were carefully drilled.
Besides this, Henry built a number of forts in different parts of his kingdom and had all the fortified cities made stronger.
The following year the Magyar chief appeared at the German court and demanded a tenth payment.
“Not a piece of gold will be given you,” replied King Henry. “Our truce is ended.”
In less than a week a vast body of Magyars entered Germany to renew the war. Henry held his army in waiting until lack of food compelled the barbarians to divide their forces into two separate bodies. One division was sent to one part of the country, the other to another part.
Henry completely routed both divisions, and the power of the Magyars in Germany was broken.
The Danes also invaded Henry’s kingdom, but he defeated them and drove them back.
Henry reigned for eighteen years; and when he died all Germany was peaceful and prosperous. His son Otto succeeded him. He assumed the title of “Emperor,” which Charlemagne had borne more than a hundred years before.
From that time on, for nearly one thousand years, all the German emperors claimed to be the successors of Charlemagne. They called their domain “the Holy Roman Empire,” and took the title “Emperor" or “Emperor of the Romans,” until the year 1806, when Francis II resigned it.