That Time When Sixty Members of Nobility Died in a Latrine Disaster
It was 1184 in the Duchy of Thuringia.
Ludwig the Pious was feuding with an Archbishop.
A German king, soon to become Holy Roman Emperor,
stepped in to try to settle things down.
Sixty nobles from across the Holy Roman Empire fell two stories
into gruesome death, drowning in liquified excrement.
It all began with Henry the Lion.
Known locally as Heinrich der Löwe,
he became Duke of Saxony in 1142 and Duke of Bavaria in 1156.
At his peak, he ruled a two-part territory stretching from
the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts in the north to the Alps in the south,
and extending from Westphalia in the west to Pomerania in the east.
Contemporary depiction of Henry the Lion from the Historia Welforum.
Henry took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1172.
He spent Easter in Constantinople on the way there,
and arrived in Jerusalem for midsummer, staying for June and July.
He met there with the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.
By Christmas he was back in Bavaria.
Henry's cousin Barbarossa was ruling as
Emperor Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire.
Which, as one is required to observe,
was neither holy, nor Roman, nor truly an Empire.
In 1174, Barbarossa decided to continue his battles with the
city-states of Lombardy, in northern Italy, and with the Pope.
He asked for Henry's help.
Henry had taken part in Barbarossa's earlier Italian adventures,
but now he was preoccupied with securing his own eastern borders.
Barbarossa's military expedition into Lombardy failed,
and he resented Henry for not helping.
Barbarossa enlisted the help of other German princes who envied
In 1180 they organized a court of bishops and princes to try Henry
in absentia for insubordination.
They declared Henry to be an outlaw, and his lands to be confiscated.
Then Barbarossa invaded Saxony to enforce the decision.
Henry had to appear before the Emperor in Erfurt in November 1181.
The meeting happened in Saint Peter's Church in the citadel,
where the disaster would happen three years later.
In early 1182 Henry was exiled for three years, and went to live with his
father-in-law in Normandy until 1885.
The Feud Before the Fall
Ludwig III was Landgrave of Thuringia.
He was known as Ludwig the Pious and Ludwig the Mild.
He was also a nephew of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
Contrary to his nicknames, Ludwig feuded with noble families in Thuringia,
with the rulers of neighboring territories,
and with the Archbishop of Mainz.
Grave plate of Ludwig III.
Konrad of Wittelsbach was Archbishop of Mainz
from 1161 to 1165 and again from 1183 to his death in 1200.
Barbarossa had appointed Konrad as Archbishop in 1161,
at the same council in which he appointed Victor IV as Antipope
in opposition to Pope Alexander III.
Victor was one of multiple Antipopes opposing Alexander III.
As if this wasn't already confusing enough, there had been an
earlier Antipope Victor IV in 1138.
The Pope, Bishop of Rome, wasn't necessarily loved throughout Europe.
The Papal Belvedere by Lucas Cranach the Elder,
in the 1545 publication of Martin Luther's
Depiction of the Papacy.
Antipope Victor IV died in 1164, and Konrad refused to support
his successor Antipope Paschal III.
Konrad lost the Emperor's support and the position as Archbishop,
and fled first to France and then to Rome.
The Pope is Adored as an Earthly God by Lucas Cranach the Elder,
in the 1545 publication of Martin Luther's
Depiction of the Papacy.
Konrad's replacement died in 1183.
Konrad returned to his former position as Archbishop of Mainz.
And, of course, he immediately got into a feud with Ludwig
over Henry's recent vacated holdings.
Konrad I, Archbishop of Mainz.
This feud between Margrave and Archbishop quickly escalated
to the point that adult supervision was needed.
It came in the form of Heinrich VI or Henry VI,
who was King of Germany, styled King of the Romans.
He was the second son of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
That position had no more to do with actual Rome than the Holy Roman Empire,
which is to say none at all.
Germany was a confederation of various duchies, and
King of Germany was the ruler over that.
The Imperial Diet
Henry VI called for a Diet, a formal meeting, at Erfurt.
The city of Erfurt was first mentioned in 742 in a letter
from Saint Boniface to Pope Zachary, related to the
establishment of the Catholic Diocese of Erfurt.
1730 map of Erfurt Petersberg,
with the citadel and Saint Peter's Church near the top center.
The meeting would take place in the Peterskirche,
or Saint Peter's Church, the oldest building within the Petersberg Citadel.
Henry called for nobles from throughout the Holy Roman Empire.
The Erfurt Latrine Disaster
The nobility, along with the feuding
Ludwig III, Landgrave of Thuringia, and
along with King Henry VI,
gathered on 25 July 1184 in a large room in the church.
The toilet of a medieval castle was typically a
This was a small structure protruding from the exterior wall of a castle,
looking like a small window bay.
A wooden seat with a hole was open out the bottom of the garderobe.
Waste simply dropped down the outer wall.
Peterskirche was part of a monastery, and had its own latrine.
This was a room with benches along the walls, with holes open into
a cesspit below.
The cesspit would be manually emptied from time to time.
That's an unpleasant job, and so the cesspit would be large
and infrequently emptied.
The fateful 1184 meeting was in the room directly above the latrine.
The load of all the well-fed nobility was too much for the floor.
The wooden floor beams gave way, and the group of German nobility
along with the flooring and beams crashed down onto the latrine floor.
The latrine floor also gave way under the impact, and screaming
nobility plus two levels of flooring and beams descended into the cesspit.
About sixty members of the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire
died on that day, drowning in the liquified waste.
The principals managed to survive.
King Henry VI and Archbishop Konrad
had been sitting in alcoves within the stone wall,
so they had a perfect view of the disaster.
They had to wait for ladders to be set up before they could get out
of their perches above what was now a two-story drop into a debris-filled
Once rescued, the king immediately left the city.
Ludwig III was out on the floor and fell into the cesspit.
However, he didn't drown, and he somehow managed not to die
from infection in the cuts and scrapes he must have suffered.
Ludwig joined the Third Crusade of 1189-1192.
Barbarossa and his army marched through the Balkans and across Asia Minor.
Ludwig and his entourage sailed from Brindisi in southern Italy to Tyre,
and took part in the siege of Acre.
Barbarossa and his army still hadn't arrived when Ludwig became ill
and decided to return home.
He died on board a ship near Cyprus in October 1190.
His entrails were buried on that island,
and his bones were transported to a monastery in Thuringia.
Konrad had been doing well.
Mainzer Hoffest or the Diet of Pentecost had begun on 20 May 1184,
two months before the latrine disaster.
Considered the largest feast of the Middle Ages, Konrad helped to
organize the event for Barbarossa.
Having survived the latrine disaster, Konrad prospered,
leading an army on a Crusade in 1197.
Once in the Holy Land he acted as legate for Pope Celestine III
for two years.
He returned to Germany in 1199 with further powers as papal legate.
He established an armistice between factions in Germany in April 1200,
and reconciled a political rivalry in Hungary in October of that year.
He died on the way home from Hungary.
Barbarossa set off for the Third Crusade in April 1189.
In March 1190 his army crossed the Dardanelles into Asia Minor.
They were victorious in battles against the Turks around Konya,
and had progressed as far as Cilician Armenia, near the northwest
corner of the Mediterranean.
Barbarossa drowned in the Saleph river near Silifke Castle in June 1190.
Thousands of German soldiers left the force and started the long trek home.
His son continued with the remaining German force plus the accompanying
They wanted to bury the Emperor in Jerusalem,
and so they attempted to preserve his body in vinegar.
This did not work, so they buried his heart and other internal organs
in Tarsus, his flesh in Antioch, and his bones in Tyre.
This left the Crusader army under the joint but feuding command of
Philip II of France and Richard Lion-Heart of England.
Richard fought Saladin and captured some territory along the coastline,
but failed to capture Jerusalem.
Richard Lion-Heart kissing the feet of Henry VI,
from Liber ad Honorem Augusti by Petrus de Ebulo.
On his way home from the Crusade,
Richard was captured just before Christmas 1192 near Vienna and imprisoned,
accused of arranging a murder during the Crusade.
Henry VI had now replaced his father as Holy Roman Emperor.
The Austrians gave Richard to Henry, who was bitter over the support
the Plantagenets had given Henry the Lion.
The Pope excommunicated Henry, as detaining a crusader violated public law,
but Henry didn't care.
Not to be outdone, Richard didn't show deference to the Emperor,
the above German propaganda to the contrary.
Richard famously said "I am born of a rank which recognizes
no superior but God."
Henry demanded an enormous ransom for Richard,
equivalent to 100,000 pounds of silver, two to three times the
annual income for the English Crown.
Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, got to work collecting the ransom.
Gold and silver treasures of churches were confiscated, and both
laymen and clergy were taxed for a quarter of the value of their property.
The ransom was delivered and in February 1994,
after about 14 months in captivity, Richard was released.
As for Henry the Lion, last seen exiled to his father-in-law's place in
the Netherlands, he was allowed back into Germany in 1185, but exiled
again in 1888.
When Frederick Barbarossa left on the Crusade of 1189,
from which he would not return, Henry took advantage of his absense
to return to Saxony.
He organized an army of his still-faithful followers, and destroyed
the wealthy city of Bardowick as punishment for its having taken
the Emperor's side.
Newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, in one of his early acts
as Emperor, defeated Henry the Lion.
Henry the Lion made peace with the Emperor, settled down on his much
reduced territory around Brunswick, and peacefully sponsored art
and architecture projects until his death in 1195.
Ba'al's Shrine Becomes a Latrine