Henry II died and left no heir to the throne; and so the lords and freemen of the Empire gathered together to choose a new ruler. On a great plain in the broad valley of the Rhine, between the towns of Mainz and Worms, they met. It was a glittering assembly. Dukes and bishops, nobles great and small, knights and freemen all mingled together. The plain was white with their tents, and the autumn sun glowed warmly upon many-coloured banners and rich robes, and was reflected in a thousand shining points from helmet and hauberk.
Earnestly the nobles talked together. Now one or another of their number was proposed and rejected. One seemed too old, another too young, another lacking in valour or in wisdom. At length the choice was narrowed down to two. They were princes of the noble house of Franconia, both brave men, and both named Conrad. To distinguish them one from another the one was called Conrad the Elder and the other Conrad the Younger.
It seemed as if most would choose Conrad the Elder, for he was a strong and fearless man, generous and wise, and skilled in every knightly art. Yet some hesitated, for Conrad the Younger was very powerful. He himself had great hopes of the throne, and there was danger of strife between the two parties.
Then Conrad the Elder took his young cousin aside, and spoke to him long and earnestly. "Let us not quarrel," he said. "If by the voice of the people you are chosen King, I will not try by any treachery or lying to turn that fortune away from you. I will, indeed, rejoice more than any other. But should I be chosen, I do not doubt that you on your side will rejoice with me."
"That is my desire," answered Conrad the Younger; "and if you are chosen I promise, my dear cousin, to honour you as my King."
At these words Conrad the Elder bent down and kissed his cousin tenderly. And when the princes and nobles who had looked on at a distance while the cousins talked saw that, they rejoiced greatly. The news that the cousins had come to a friendly understanding spread like lightning through the camp. The nobles resolved to hesitate no longer, but to put an end to all doubt and choose a King. In a huge circle stood the nobles and freemen, the prelates and knights, behind them, row upon row, thronged the eager people. A tense silence of expectation fell upon them, only the rustle of the wind in the trees was heard.
Then into the open space stepped the Archbishop of Mainz, clad in splendid robes. He raised his hand, and in a clear and sonorous voice he cried, "I, Aribo, Archbishop of Mainz, do choose Conrad the Elder to be my Lord and King, to be the leader and protector of our Fatherland."
After him followed, one by one, the bishops and abbots, and, as with one voice, they chose Conrad the Elder to be their King.
Then first of all the nobles Conrad the Younger sprang forth, and in his ringing boyish voice he cried, "I choose Conrad for my King and Lord."
Then Conrad, with a joyful smile, stretched out his hand to his young and generous cousin, and drew him to his side.
The die was cast, the choice was made. Noble after noble stepped from his place and made known his will. To Conrad the Elder every vote was given.
Cheer upon cheer broke the stillness, and with thundering applause the people greeted their new King. Then Kunigunde, the widowed Empress, stepped into the open space. In her hands she carried the crown, and sceptre, and kingly jewels. These she presented to Conrad, vowing in noble words to honour him as her King.
And thus the crown of Germany passed from the house of Saxony to the house of Franconia.
In joyful haste the chosen King was hurried to the Cathedral of Mainz, there to be crowned. All along the way the people thronged about him, shouting and rejoicing. The priests marched before him chanting hymns of praise and thanksgiving. Never in the memory of man had there been such a gladsome scene. Had Charles the Great returned to earth in all his might and glory he could hardly have been received with greater joy, it was said.
But as the procession passed merrily along, three poorly-clad, miserable figures thrust their way through the glittering throng of knights and nobles who surrounded the King. They were a peasant, a widow, and an orphan, who, casting themselves at the King's feet, cried aloud for justice.
The nobles would have thrust them forth, angry that they should disturb the King at such a moment. But Conrad forbade it. He commanded the procession to stop until he had heard the complaint of the poor people.
Provoked at the interruption, one of the bishops urged Conrad to hurry on to the Cathedral. But the King answered him calmly, "How often have you said to me that not the hearer of the law but the doer is blessed? It is a heavy office that I have taken up, and surely I must walk in the paths of righteousness." So he refused to move from the spot until he had judged the cause of these poor and needy folk.
And it seemed to the people that happy days must be dawning for them when their King began his reign with deeds of mercy, when he seemed more eager to do justice to the oppressed than to adorn himself with robes and crowns.
The whole Empire, however, did not at once accept Conrad as ruler. As soon as Henry II died the bold and rebellious Duke of Poland at once threw off all pretence of vassalage, and proclaimed himself King of Poland. He would not bend the knee to Conrad, but in little more than a year he died. He was succeeded by his son Mesco, who also took the title of King. Conrad looked upon this as rebellion, and war began.
But it was only after many defeats and much bitter warfare that Poland was again subdued. At length, however, Mesco was forced to submit, and although his heart was still filled with hatred to the Germans he gave up his title of King and swore to be Conrad's faithful vassal. Soon afterwards he died. Then the land was torn asunder by civil wars. Noble fought against noble, town against town, until the land was filled with blood and ashes, and the kingdom which Boleslaw the Glorious had built up was scattered to the winds.
There was trouble too in Italy, and plots to seize the throne there. But they came to nothing. It 1026 Conrad was crowned King of Italy, and a year later Emperor in Rome.
It was a very grand ceremony, and among the glittering throng of kings and nobles there was Canute the Great, King of England and of Denmark, and also Rudolph III, King of Burgundy.
With Canute the Great Conrad had made friends and had even given up to him the Mark of Schleswig which Henry I had wrested from the Danes. And to make the friendship more secure, Canute married his daughter Gunhilda to Conrad's young son Henry.
Rudolph III, too, was friendly, although at first he had been unwilling to recognise Conrad as his heir, for he said he had promised his throne to Henry II personally, and not to the King of the Germans. But Conrad had no mind to give up Burgundy, and he forced Rudolph to acknowledge him as his heir. And when in 1032 Rudolph died Conrad took possession of his kingdom. This included the land we now call Switzerland, and the valley of the Rhone, right to the Mediterranean.
Thus Switzerland became, and remained for many a long day, part of the German Empire. But the Emperor had really little sway over the country. For the nobles were very powerful, and they ruled the land much as they liked.
It is well to remember that this kingdom of Burgundy did not include the Duchy of Burgundy. That belonged to the French King.
Of all Conrad's enemies his stepson, Ernst of Swabia, was perhaps the most dangerous and troublesome. He thought that he had a better right to the throne of Burgundy than had Conrad, and so, soon after Conrad came to the throne of Germany, Ernst rose in rebellion. He was joined by many other nobles, among them Conrad the Younger. For he very quickly regretted his generous deed on the day of election, and quarrelled with the King.
Conrad, however, easily overcame this rebellion. One after another the conspirators fell away from their comrades. Duke Ernst came to the King and humbly begged forgiveness, others crept away to their castles in fear of his wrath.
Conrad forgave Ernst and his companions, but it was not long before they rebelled a second time, and many others who feared the Emperor too much to rebel openly, joined them in secret. Among these were his nearest relatives, even his mother.
Now Conrad, seeing the danger in which he stood, called a Parliament to Augsburg, and commanded Duke Ernst to appear before him to answer for his deeds.
Ernst came, but in no humble mood. He came full of insolence and pride. He was ready to treat with the Emperor as with an equal, to bargain for the throne of Burgundy. And if the Emperor did not willingly give all he wanted, he trusted to the swords of his many followers to win it for him.
But when at length the Duke's vassals understood that he had called them to arms to fight against their Emperor, many of them refused to obey him.
"We do not deny," they said, "that we have sworn an oath of fealty to you, that we have sworn to fight for you against every foe. But our faith to our lord the King and Emperor is the highest protector of our freedom. If we fight against him we forfeit our freedom, which is the one thing a brave man will fight for to his last breath. Ask us to do what is right and honourable, and we will obey you. Ask more than that, and we are free of our oath, and we will return every man to the Emperor, who is above us all."
Such being the mind of his vassals, Duke Ernst saw no hope for his cause. So he yielded, and threw himself upon the Emperor's mercy. This time the rebel was not so lightly forgiven, but was cast into prison.
Others too yielded. Some were deprived of all their lands and imprisoned, Conrad the Younger among them. Others were forced to become monks. But Count Werner of Kiburg, Duke Ernst's greatest friend, would not yield. For three months he held out in his castle of Kiburg, and when at length the castle was taken he escaped.
But although Conrad punished the rebels severely he did not long nurse his wrath against them. Many were soon again set at liberty, among them Conrad the Younger, who ever after remained true to the throne. Even Duke Ernst was given his freedom, and the Emperor promised to return to him his dukedom if he would betray his friend Werner and deliver him up to justice.
But Ernst proudly refused to betray the friend who had shared every danger and hardship with him. In vain Conrad pleaded with him. "It is your twofold duty," he said. "As my son I command you no more to keep company with your father's bitterest enemy. As a German Prince I command you never more to harbour a disturber of the peace."
"Call it what you will," cried Ernst wrathfully, "it is not faith, it is not friendship, it is not gratitude. All forbid me to do this thing. I am not yet so broken down by long imprisonment as thus to betray my only friend."
In wrath Conrad replied. Then with still more bitter words of scorn and anger Ernst hastily left the Emperor's presence, followed by a few companions.
This haughty refusal to do his will roused the Emperor's anger against Duke Ernst more than all his rebellion. He deprived him for ever of his dukedom; he proclaimed him to be an outlaw and enemy of his country; he caused him to be excommunicated. Even the Empress was forced to give up her misguided son, and in the presence of the assembled nobles she swore solemnly never to avenge any ill that might befall him, never to punish any one who might lift up his hand against him.
And now, forsaken by all, with the hand of every man against him, Ernst joined his one remaining friend Werner. Together they fled to the wildest district of the Black Forest. Here they gained possession of a fortress, high perched upon a stony height, and here for several months they lived a wild life of raid and robbery, defying the laws of the Empire.
But not for long were these outlawed nobles left to lead their lawless life. The news of their deeds soon reached Conrad, and ere long the outlaws found their castle surrounded by soldiers of the Empire.
The rock-bound fortress was too strong to storm, so Count Mangold, who led the Emperor's troops, resolved to starve the outlaws into surrender. But rather than die like wild animals caught in a trap, they made up their minds to make a desperate dash for freedom, and die, if need be, sword in hand. So from their rocky fortress the gallant little band of desperate warriors sallied forth. A terrible struggle followed. Like a very angel of death Werner smote with his sword. It flashed and fell now on this side, now on that, until the foe lay in heaps about him, and the ground was sodden with blood.
Like a lion at bay fought Ernst. For he and his few comrades had nothing to lose. They sought but to sell their lives as dearly as might be.
So stubbornly did the little band of outlaws fight, that for long the victory seemed doubtful. They were, however, far outnumbered by the Emperor's soldiers, and in the end numbers told. But not till Duke Ernst, Count Werner, and nearly every man of their comrades lay among the dead did the fighting cease. Thus ended the greatest rebellion of King Conrad's reign.
But the common folk had loved Duke Ernst. In their hearts they took sides with him against his stern step-father and Emperor. Now they grieved for him, and made great tales about his sorrows and his bravery. For hundreds of years minstrels sang of his great deeds and of the love that there was between him and Count Werner. So all through the ages his memory has lasted, and the Song of Duke Ernst is one of the great poems of old German literature.
With a strong hand Conrad curbed the pride of the nobles, and wrought peace in the land.
Towards the end of his reign there were once more disturbances in Italy, and a second time he crossed the Alps to quiet the unruly Italians. For so long as he remained in Italy the fear of his might and wrath subdued them.
It was while Conrad was in Italy that he issued a famous Edict. By this Edict he proclaimed that all fiefs should be heritable, and descend from father to son. He also decreed that no overlord should dispossess a vassal of his fief for any cause, except by the judgment of his peers. And should the vassal consider himself wrongfully treated he was given the right of appeal to the Emperor. This law was meant to curb the power of the great nobles and help the lesser vassals by making them feel that the Emperor was their friend, and mightier than their overlords. At first this law only held good in Italy, but it soon extended to Germany, and greatly strengthened the Emperor's power there. Conrad also befriended the burghers, and did all he could to make them look upon their Emperor as their protector against the tyranny of the nobles. In this way too he strengthened the power of the Crown.
About two years after Conrad's last visit to Italy he died. We are not quite sure of his age, but he was about forty when he was chosen as Emperor. He had reigned fourteen years.