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Henry the Fowler

Henry the Fowler
Henry's seal from a document of 30 March 925. He is portrayed as a warrior, with a sword (or spear) and shield. The words are HEINRICUS REX (King Henry).
King of Germany
(formally King of East Francia)
Reign 24 May 919 – 2 July 936
Predecessor Conrad the Younger
Successor Otto the Great
Duke of Saxony
Reign 30 November 912 – 2 July 936
Predecessor Otto the Illustrious
Successor Otto the Great
Spouse Hatheburg
Matilda of Ringelheim
Issue Thankmar
Hedwig of Saxony
Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor
Gerberga, Queen of France
Henry I, Duke of Bavaria
Bruno the Great, Archbishop of Cologne
Dynasty Ottonian
Father Otto the Illustrious
Mother Hedwiga
Born c. 876
Died 2 July 936
Burial Quedlinburg Abbey
Religion Roman Catholic

Henry the Fowler (German: Heinrich der Finkler or Heinrich der Vogler; Latin: Henricius Auceps) (876 – 2 July 936) was the Duke of Saxony from 912 and the King of Germany from 919 until his death. First of the Ottonian Dynasty of German kings and emperors, he is generally considered to be the founder and first king of the medieval German state, known until then as East Francia. An avid hunter, he obtained the epithet "the Fowler"[1] because he was allegedly fixing his birding nets when messengers arrived to inform him that he was to be king.


  • Family 1
  • Succession 2
  • Reign 3
  • Death 4
  • Legacy 5
  • Family and children 6
  • Ancestry 7
  • See also 8
  • In the arts 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11


Born in Memleben, in what is now Saxony-Anhalt, Henry was the son of Otto the Illustrious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Hedwiga, daughter of Henry of Franconia and Ingeltrude and a great-great-granddaughter of Charlemagne, or Charles I. In 906 he married Hatheburg, daughter of the Saxon count Erwin. She had previously been a nun. The marriage was annulled in 909 because her vows as a nun were deemed by the church to remain valid. She had already given birth to Henry's son Thankmar. The annulment placed a question mark over Thankmar's legitimacy. Later that year he married St Matilda of Ringelheim, daughter of Dietrich, Count of Westphalia. Matilda bore him three sons, one called Otto, and two daughters, Hedwig and Gerberga, and founded many religious institutions, including the abbey of Quedlinburg where Henry is buried. She was later canonized.


Henry became Duke of Saxony upon his father's death in 912. An able ruler, he continued to strengthen the position of his duchy within the developing Kingdom of Germany, frequently in conflict with his neighbors to the South, the dukes of Franconia.

On 23 December 918 Conrad I, King of East Francia and Franconian duke, died. Although they had been at odds with each other from 912–15 over the title to lands in Thuringia, before he died Conrad recommended Henry as his successor. Conrad's choice was conveyed by Duke Eberhard of Franconia, Conrad's brother and heir, at the Imperial Diet of Fritzlar in 919. The assembled Franconian and Saxon nobles duly elected Henry to be king. Archbishop Heriger of Mainz offered to anoint Henry according to the usual ceremony, but he refused to be anointed by a high church official — the only King of his time not to undergo that rite — allegedly because he wished to be king not by the church's but by the people's acclaim. Duke Burchard II of Swabia soon swore fealty to the new King, but Duke Arnulf of Bavaria did not submit until Henry defeated him in two campaigns in 921. Last, Henry besieged his residence at Ratisbon (Regensburg) and forced Arnulf into submission.

In 920, the West Frankish king Charles the Simple invaded Germany and marched as far as Pfeddersheim near Worms, but he retired on hearing that Henry was arming against him.[2] On 7 November 921 Henry and Charles met each other and concluded a treaty of friendship between them. However, with the beginning of civil war in France upon the coronation of King Robert I, Henry sought to wrest the Duchy of Lorraine from the Western Kingdom. In 923 Henry crossed the Rhine twice. Later in the year he entered Lorraine with an army, capturing a large part of the country. Until October 924 the eastern part of Lorraine was left in Henry's possession.


Henry regarded the German kingdom as a confederation of stem duchies rather than as a feudal monarchy and saw himself as primus inter pares. Instead of seeking to administer the empire through counts, as Charlemagne had done and as his successors had attempted, Henry allowed the dukes of Franconia, Swabia, and Bavaria to maintain complete internal control of their holdings. In 925, Duke Gilbert of Lorraine again rebelled. Henry invaded the duchy and besieged Gilbert at Zülpich (Tolbiac), captured the town, and became master of a large portion of his lands. Thus he brought that realm, which had been lost in 910, back into the German kingdom as the fifth stem duchy. Allowing Gilbert to remain in power as duke, Henry arranged the marriage of his daughter Gerberga to his new vassal in 928.

Legend of the German crown offered to Henry, Hermann Vogel (1854–1921)

Henry was an able military leader. In 921 Hungarians (Magyars) invaded Germany and Italy. Although a sizable force was routed near Bleiburg in the Bavarian March of Carinthia by Eberhard and the Count of Meran[3] and another group was routed by Liutfried, count of Elsass (French reading: Alsace), the Magyars repeatedly raided Germany. Nevertheless Henry, having captured a Hungarian prince, managed to arrange a ten-year-truce in 926, though he was forced to pay tributes. By doing so he and the German dukes gained time to fortify towns and train a new elite cavalry force.

During the truce with the Magyars, Henry subdued the Polabian Slavs, settling on the eastern border of his realm. In the winter of 928, he marched against the Slavic Hevelli tribes and seized their capital, Brandenburg. He then invaded the Glomacze lands on the middle Elbe river, conquering the capital Gana (Jahna) after a siege, and had a fortress (the later Albrechtsburg) built at Meissen. In 929, with the help of Arnulf of Bavaria, Henry entered Bohemia and forced Duke Wenceslaus I to resume the yearly payment of tribute to the king. Meanwhile, the Slavic Redarii had driven away their chief, captured the town of Walsleben, and massacred the inhabitants. Counts Bernard and Thietmar marched against the fortress of Lenzen beyond the Elbe, and, after fierce fighting, completely routed the enemy on 4 September 929. The Lusatians and the Ukrani on the lower Oder were subdued and made tributary in 932 and 934, respectively.[4] However, Henry left no consistent march administration, which was implemented by his successor Otto I.

In 932 Henry finally refused to pay the regular tribute to the Magyars. When they began raiding again, he led a unified army of all German duchies to victory at the Battle of Riade in 933 near the river Unstrut, thus stopping the Magyar advance into Germany. He also pacified territories to the north, where the Danes had been harrying the Frisians by sea. The monk and chronicler Widukind of Corvey in his Res gestae Saxonicae reports that the Danes were subjects of Henry the Fowler. Henry incorporated into his kingdom territories held by the Wends, who together with the Danes had attacked Germany, and also conquered Schleswig in 934.


Henry died on 2 July 936 in his palatium in Memleben, one of his favourite places. By then all German peoples were united in a single kingdom. He was buried at Quedlinburg Abbey, established by his wife Matilda in his honor.

His son Otto succeeded him as king, and in 962 would be crowned Emperor. His second son, Henry, became Duke of Bavaria. A third son, Brun (or Bruno), became archbishop of Cologne. His son from his first marriage, Thankmar, rebelled against his half-brother Otto and was killed in battle in 936. After the death of her husband Duke Giselbert of Lotharingia, Henry's daughter Gerberga of Saxony married King Louis IV of France. His youngest daughter, Hedwige of Saxony, married Duke Hugh the Great of France and was the mother of Hugh Capet, the first Capetian king of France.


Himmler at Henry's grave, 1938

Henry returned to public attention as a character in Richard Wagner's opera, Lohengrin (1850), trying to gain the support of the Brabantian nobles against the Magyars. After the attempts to achieve German national unity failed with the Revolutions of 1848, Wagner strongly relied on the picture of Henry as the actual ruler of all German tribes as advocated by pan-Germanist activists like Friedrich Ludwig Jahn.

There are indications that Heinrich Himmler saw himself as the reincarnation of the first king of Germany.[5] Nazi ideology referred to Henry as a founding father of the German nation, fighting both the Latin Western Franks and the Slavic tribes of the East, thereby a precursor of the German Drang nach Osten.

Family and children

German royal dynasties
Ottonian dynasty
Henry I 919936
Otto I 936973
Otto II 973983
Otto III 9831002
Henry II 10021024
Family tree of the German monarchs
Preceded by
Conradine dynasty
Followed by
Salian dynasty

As the first Saxon ruler of Germany, Henry was the founder of the Ottonian dynasty of German rulers. He and his descendants would rule Germany (later the Holy Roman Empire) from 919 until 1024. In relation to the other members of his dynasty, Henry I was the father of Otto I, grandfather of Otto II, great-grandfather of Otto III, and great-grandfather of Henry II. Henry had two wives and at least six children.

  • With Hatheburg:
  1. Thankmar (908 – 938)
  1. Hedwig (910 – 965) - wife of the West Frankish Duke Hugh the Great, mother of King Hugh Capet of France
  2. Otto I (912 – 973) - Duke of Saxony, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor
  3. Gerberga (913 – 984) - wife of (1) Duke Giselbert of Lorraine and (2) King Louis IV of France
  4. Henry I (919 – 955) - Duke of Bavaria
  5. Bruno (925 – 965) - Archbishop of Cologne and Duke of Lorraine


See also

In the arts

Henry the Fowler is a main character of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin.


  1. ^ A fowler is one who hunts wildfowl.
  2. ^ Gwatkin ,The Cambridge Medieval History: Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.p 180
  3. ^ Menzel, W. Germany from the Earliest Period
  4. ^ Gwatkin, The Cambridge Medieval History: Volume III.
  5. ^ Frischauer, Willi. Himmler, the Evil Genius of the Third Reich. London: Odhams, 1953, pages 85-88; Kersten, Felix. The Kersten Memoirs: 1940-1945. New York: Macmillan, 1957, page 238.


  • Bachrach. David S. "Restructuring the Eastern Frontier: Henry I of Germany, 924-936," Journal of Military History (Jan 2014) 78#1 pp 9-36
  • Gwatkin, H. M., Whitney, J. P. (ed) et al. The Cambridge Medieval History: Volume III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.
  • Menzel, W. Germany from the Earliest Period. Vol I

Henry the Fowler
Born: 876 Died: 2 July 936
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Conrad the Younger
King of the Germans
Succeeded by
Otto the Great
Preceded by
Otto the Illustrious
Duke of Saxony
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