A decisive turn in German history: How Brandenburg got its crucial role in the Holy Roman Empire under Margrave Albert the Bear, Protector of the Northern March (c. 1150)


Do you know, which role played a German margrave in the Middle Ages? Here you will find out. The Margrave of Brandenburg has turned his function into a coin picture.


Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Brandenburg. We are in the years between 1134 and 1157.


Today we meet a powerful man. His name is Albert the Bear and he carries the insignia of his office with pride. Albert was a margrave. That means he ruled one of the constantly threatened border areas of the German empire in the name of the king. And in order to protect those areas he was given quite special powers and privileges.


In his right hand, Albert holds a sword, pointing upwards. It is a symbol for the Ius gladii, the “sword of justice” which stands for high justice. It means that Albert was authorised to execute crimes by punishment of death or mayhem.


In his left, Albert carries a banner. Banners were used to assemble knights and infantry before going into battle. So the banner symbolises that Albert had the right to call the “Heerbann”. In the Holy Roman Empire, the “Heerbann” was used to call free landowners able to bear arms to participation in military campaigns.  Thus, Albert could assemble a large army to defend the march if necessary.


Another important privilege owned by margraves was their right to autonomously decide about the construction of new castles. This, too, is indicated on our coin: the margrave’s bust is embedded in a complicated architectural element featuring three towers.


Being a margrave really was something special. In the hierarchy of the Holy Roman Empire, margraves came right after the great dukes, like the Duke of Bavaria, the Duke of Saxony or the Duke of Swabia. Once, Albert had only been a small Count of Ballenstedt supporting Emperor Lothair II. In 1134, Lothair appointed him Margrave of the Northern March and that was an especially promising mandate.


The small Northern March bordered an area ruled by the Slavs. It was settled by the Hevelli and the Sprevane. The tribes had been fighting each other for centuries and Albert the Bear believed this was a good opportunity to work some diplomacy and then rule the area himself. He simply supported the considerably older ruler of the Hevelli, Pribislaw. In exchange, Pribislaw gave Albert the Zauche region and declared him his successor.


When Pribislaw died in 1150, Albert the Bear moved into the former residence of the Hevelli, Castle Brandenburg. But Jaxa of Köpenick, king of the Sprevane, contested Albert’s position. It came to an armed conflict. On the 11th of June 1157, Albert the Bear won the battle. In a legal document from the 3rd of October of the same year, he called himself Margrave of Brandenburg for the first time.


This was a decisive turn in the history of Germany. The Margraviate of Brandenburg grew and prospered until it became part of the newly created Duchy of Prussia under the House of Hohenzollern.


But until the end of the old empire, the King of Prussia, in his office as Margrave of Brandenburg and hence Arch-Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Empire, carried the king’s sceptre during the coronation procession and handed him water and towel to wash his hands before the coronation meal.


Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.

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