Meet the medieval German warlord with a message for modern politicians

Michael Stuchbery
Michael Stuchbery - [email protected]
Meet the medieval German warlord with a message for modern politicians
The statue of a lion outside Braunschweig cathedral. Photo: DPA

In an age of uncertainty and upheaval, it pays to have strong leaders. Perhaps Germany could draw from history for inspiration, says Michael Stuchbery.


Of course, Henry the Lion (Heinrich der Löwe) who died 824 years ago this week, was a medieval warlord with a penchant for a good scrap, but that doesn't mean he didn't have his good points.

Truth be told, he did have a leg up in life – born around 1129, he inherited both the Duchies of Saxony and Bavaria, a vast expanse of territory encompassing some of the richest land and resources in Europe. 

As a young nobleman in 12th century Europe, Henry was born to a life of fairly constant warfare. Much of his young manhood – indeed, a considerable portion of his adult life – was spent supporting Frederick Barbarossa in his attempts to consolidate and stabilize the Holy Roman Empire. 

This fighting was expensive business, and Henry ended up establishing toll bridges and other revenues to fund his campaigns. In fact one of his projects was established in 1157, in a poky little backwater, that would grow to become Munich.

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Map showing the areas ruled by Henry the Lion. Photo: Wikicommons

Power couple

In between forays to the frontier of his holdings, and giving the Italian states a good kicking, Henry managed to marry well. After a rather disastrous first marriage to a Swabian noblewoman, Henry married Mathilda, daughter of the English king Henry II, and Richard the Lionheart's sister, in 1168. 

The pair could be called an early version of a power couple. In their capital, today's Braunschweig, they were big sponsors of the arts, education and the development of the city. They had the magnificent Dom, or cathedral built, as well as several other churches, hospitals and other buildings.

To this day, a bronze statue of a lion stands outside the cathedral – the original erected by the man himself.

When Mathilda died young, aged only 33, Henry was heartbroken. Henry eventually withdrew his support for Frederick Barbarossa in 1174 because he wanted to concentrate on defending his own borders. This resulted in him losing most of his lands to the Emperor. Indeed, he was declared an outlaw and had to leave the German lands for a while. 

Picture of Henry the Lion. Photo: Wikicommons

Nonetheless, he did manage to retain some lands and held onto them until he was able to make peace with Frederick. Braunschweig remained his capital throughout the remainder of his life, and centuries after his death in 1195, it remains a powerful centre of education, trade and diplomacy. 

SEE ALSO: Braunschweig: The German city that deserves to be put on the map

Struggling to see what relevance any of this might have to a modern leader? Well, it's like this: Henry's continual investment in his lands, and his balance between military conquest and encouraging the cultural life of his subjects left his realms – even the ones he lost – more developed and stable than when he inherited them. 

21st century leaders need more than a single point vision to create and maintain a thriving environment. One simply can't hope for everything else to fall in to place. Henry, in a similarly fractious age, knew this. 

In the nineties, a beautifully illuminated copy of the Gospel Henry had made in 1170 sold for over eight million pounds, and remains to this day one of Germany's historic treasures – paid for by the descendants of many of his former subjects.

I like to think this shows that over 800 years after his death, Henry's legacy as a leader is very much alive. Can our current crop of politicians hope for anything similar?


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