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Charles Morris

The Misfortunes of Duke Ernst

In the reign of Conrad II., Emperor of Germany, took place the event which we have now to tell, one of those interesting examples of romance which give vitality to history. On the death of Henry II., the last of the great house of the Othos, a vast assembly from all the states of the empire was called together to decide who their next emperor should be. From every side they came, dukes, margraves, counts and barons, attended by hosts of their vassals; archbishops, bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, with their proud retainers; Saxons, Swabians, Bavarians, Bohemians, and numerous other nationalities, great and small; all marching towards the great plain between Worms and Mayence, where they gathered on both sides of the Rhine, until its borders seemed covered by a countless multitude of armed men. The scene was a magnificent one, with its far-spreading display of rich tents, floating banners, showy armor, and everything that could give honor and splendor to the occasion.

We are not specially concerned with what took place. There were two competitors for the throne, both of them Conrad by name. By birth they were cousins, and descendants of the emperor Conrad I. The younger of these, but the son of the elder brother, and the most distinguished for ability, was elected, and took the throne as Conrad II. He was to prove one of the noblest sovereigns that ever held the sceptre of the German empire. The election decided, the great assembly dispersed, and back to their homes marched the host of warriors who had collected for once with peaceful purpose.


Peasant wedding procession.

Two years afterwards, in 1026, Conrad crossed the Alps with an army, and marched through Italy, that land which had so perilous an attraction for German emperors, and so sadly disturbed the peace and progress of the Teutonic realm. Conrad was not permitted to remain there long. Troubles in Germany recalled him to his native soil. Swabia had broken out in hot troubles. Duke Ernst, step-son of Conrad, claimed Burgundy as his inheritance, in opposition to the emperor himself, who had the better claim. He not only claimed it, but attempted to seize it. With him were united two Swabian counts of ancient descent, Rudolf Welf, or Guelph, and Werner of Kyburg.

Swabia was in a blaze when Conrad returned. He convoked a great diet at Ulm, as the legal means of settling the dispute. Thither Ernst came, at the head of his Swabian men-at-arms, and still full of rebellious spirit, although his mother, Gisela, the empress, begged him to submit and to return to his allegiance.

The angry rebel, however, soon learned that his followers were not willing to take up arms against the emperor. They declared that their oath of allegiance to their duke did not release them from their higher obligations to the emperor and the state, that if their lord was at feud with the empire it was their duty to aid the latter, and that if their chiefs wished to quarrel with the state, they must fight for themselves.

This defection left the rebels powerless. Duke Ernst was arrested and imprisoned on a charge of high treason. Eudolf was exiled. Werner, who took refuge in his castle, was besieged there by the imperial troops, against whom he valiantly defended himself for several months. At length, however, finding that his stronghold was no longer tenable, he contrived to make his escape, leaving the nest to the imperialists empty of its bird.

Three years Ernst remained in prison. Then Conrad restored him to liberty, perhaps moved by the appeals of his mother Gisela, and promised to restore him to his dukedom of Swabia if he would betray the secret of the retreat of Werner, who was still at large despite all efforts to take him.

This request touched deeply the honor of the deposed duke. It was much to regain his ducal station; it was more to remain true to the fugitive who had trusted and aided him in his need.

"How can I betray my only true friend?" asked the unfortunate duke, with touching pathos.

His faithfulness was not appreciated by the emperor and his nobles. They placed Ernst under the ban of the empire, and thus deprived him of rank, wealth, and property, reducing him by a word from high estate to abject beggary. His life and liberty were left him, but nothing more, and, driven by despair, he sought the retreat of his fugitive friend Werner, who had taken refuge in the depths of the Black Forest.

Here the two outlaws, deprived of all honest means of livelihood, became robbers, and entered upon a life of plunder, exacting contributions from all subjects of the empire who fell into their hands. They soon found a friend in Adalbert of Falkenstein, who gave them the use of his castle as a stronghold and centre of operations, and joined them with his followers in their freebooting raids.

For a considerable time the robber chiefs maintained themselves in their new mode of life, sallying from the castle, laying the country far and wide under contribution, and returning to the fortress for safety from pursuit. Their exactions became in time so annoying, that the castle was besieged by a strong force of Swabians, headed by Count Mangold of Veringen, and the freebooters were closely confined within their walls. Impatient of this, a sally in force was made by the garrison, headed by the two robber chiefs, and an obstinate contest ensued. The struggle ended in the death of Mangold on the one side and of Ernst and Werner on the other, with the definite defeat and dispersal of the robber band.

Thus ended an interesting episode of mediŠval German history. But the valor and misfortunes of Duke Ernst did not die unsung. He became a popular hero, and the subject of many a ballad, in which numerous adventures were invented for him during his career as an opponent of the emperor and an outlaw in the Black Forest. For the step-son of an emperor to be reduced to such a strait was indeed an event likely to arouse public interest and sympathy, and for centuries the doings of the robber duke were sung.

In the century after his death the imagination of the people went to extremes in their conception of the adventures of Duke Ernst, mixing up ideas concerning him with fancies derived from the Crusades, the whole taking form in a legend which is still preserved in the popular ballad literature of Germany. This strange conception takes Ernst to the East, where he finds himself opposed by terrific creatures in human and brute form, they being allegorical representations of his misfortunes. Each monster signifies an enemy. He reaches a black mountain, which represents his prison. He is borne into the clouds by an old man; this is typical of his ambition. His ship is wrecked on the Magnet mountain; a personification of his contest with the emperor. The nails fly out of the ship and it falls to pieces; an emblem of the falling off of his vassals. There are other adventures, and the whole circle of legends is a curious one, as showing the vagaries of imagination, and the strong interest taken by the people in the fortunes and misfortunes of their chieftains.