De Gouden Koning

Willem II consolidates the Low Countries with a new sword (Solving the Sword, Part 3)

In the mid-13th century, Frederick II had been excommunicated by two different Popes, deposed as Holy Roman Emperor, a crusade against him was preached, and two different anti-kings had been elected to invade his territories, and, if possible, do him in. While certainly troubled by these events, rather than sulking, he had simply withdrawn from northern Germany and continued his consolidation of the Italian peninsula. Despite the second of the anti-kings, Willem II’s coronation in full regalia, series of battlefield victories, and the embattled HRE’s shift of focus to the south, the German princes had still not closed ranks behind a ruler they still regarded with some suspicion as Pope Innocent’s pawn: those presiding over Willem’s election had been almost entirely ecclesiastical, and some of the princes, such as the Duke of Saxony, had even directly opposed it. While still continuing to attempt to politic his way through this imperial/ pontifical mess, the anti-king withdrew his forces from the south in order to directing them instead toward goals closer to home.

This opportunity came about via Jean I d’Avesnes, Willem’s brother in law. He had married Willem’s sister, Aleid, in 1246, and supported him in the siege of Aachen. With that accomplished, Jean had a bone to pick with his mother, Marguerite II, Countess of Flanders, and entreated his new and powerful relative to take his part. Indeed the timing of his marriage suggests that it was specifically intended to gain him an ally in the Wars of Flemish Succession (as marriage often had strategic aims in those days), though it had preceded William’s election, which event must then have seemed fortunate beyond Jean’s wildest dreams. On the other hand, Willem’s ambitions in the region were already clear as well.

The bad blood between Jean and Marguerite came following the first conflict in the War of the Flemish Succession, in which Jean had battled his younger half-brother, Guillaume III de Dampierre. King Louis IX of France and Bishop Odo of Tusculum had finally intervened, settling Flanders on Guillaume and Hainault on Jean.¹

Now however, with Louis away on the Seventh Crusade, it had become clear that Marguerite had no plans to relinquish Hainault, so Jean turned on both her and the king, asking Willem to annex Hainault to his lands and give it to Jean to rule as its count which should already have been his right twice over. Hainault, along with much of central Europe, was already an Imperial fiefdom, so this act, like Willem’s later declaration of his kingship of Zeeland, was merely taking something that was his by right and attempting to make it his in fact. As for the newly crowned Emperor, the appeal of extending his rule in the Low Countries was clear. He seems to have allowed himself to be persuaded, adding Hainault to his titles. And here, finally, is where the Witham sword enters the story.

To the trained eye, the Witham sword differs greatly from the Zeremonienschwert. Although not as elaborate as ceremonial swords were to become, the latter blade is clearly meant for symbolic rather than martial use. The square grip would make it painful to wield, and it looks blade-heavy as well. As I noted earlier, the pommel has been changed. The original could have been a heavier one—based on the style of the parts of the sword that are original, I’d guess it was a large, square cross-sectioned disk—and again fairly unergonomical. The square guard is bulky and its shape ineffective. The blade is unadorned, its cross section is flat—overall it seems intended simply to look impressive sheathed, which in fact it would typically be, as the coronation ceremony has the officiant gird the king with the scabbarded sword. It was apparently used for knightings under the Habsburgs, which would have involved unsheathing it, but by then it would have been fully anachronistic and impressive mainly for its glitter and history.

Everything about the blade from Lincolnshire, by contrast, says it is a weapon of war: It has a heavy pommel to balance the weight of the blade and a sturdy, double-fullered, lenticular cross-section. The guard is thin but functional with flared ends to arrest a foe’s blade. The grip is missing, having likely decomposed in the river, which means it was of organic material, likely wood and leather, to absorb the shocks of cuts, thrusts, and parries. Shark- or rayskin, called shagreen, was a popular grip covering as the scaly surface was naturally nonslip. Even the inscription is in keeping with its warlike purpose; the invocation is meant to gain the favor of God and inspire valor in battle. It is now my conjecture that this sword was created upon the declaration of William’s kingship of Hainault, perhaps Jean’s gift to his brother in-law. It also makes sense as the last title presented in the inscription with the purpose of going to war with the Dampierres, which is exactly what occurred. Willem seems to have declared his kingship over Hainault in 1249, while his title Duke of Swabia was appended in 1254, giving a five-year window for the inscription, as the Witham sword does not bear that title. He also became King of Zeeland in 1256.

The war seems to have been focused in Zeeland, sitting between Flanders and Willem’s base in Holland.² Here Willem and Jean, and their Brabantine allies scored a series of victories in the five-year conflict. These culminated with the decisive battle of Westkapelle, in 1253, which crushed military resistance in the area, forcing Marguerite and Gui de Dampierre (his older brother, Guillaume, having been killed earlier in the conflict) to acknowledge the earlier settlement granting Hainault to Jean.

This treaty was not worth the parchment it was written on, however, as the treacherous Marguerite promised Hainault to Louis IX’s brother Charles d’Anjou. Willem entreated aid from Henry III of England to balance the scales. Charles attacked Jean at Valenciennes, where the Frenchman was soundly defeated and nearly killed. In the end it took King Louis’ return from the crusades to settle the matter and set Jean firmly on the Hainault throne. But even before all this was resolved, apparently dissatisfied with his gains in the Flemish wars, Willem had already turned to his forces against the West Frisians, his neighbors to the northeast, in a new series of battles.

Although history is somewhat obsessed with battles and conflicts, in Willem’s case it also records some of his more productive works. In 1250 he began construction of the western part of what is now known as the Schielands High Seawall—a critical piece of infrastructure for the Low Countries. He granted charters to the towns of Haarlem (1245), Delft (1246), ‘s-Gravenzande (1246), and Alkmaar (1254), thus officially recognizing these municipalities and granting them important privileges. Most of these were to become major cities thereafter. He also confirmed and extended the rights of Middelburg (1217) and Zierikzee (1248). The above image is a painting by Caesar van Everdingen from 1655 commemorating Willem’s granting of a charter to the local Dike-wardens of Spaarndam in 1255. This organization later became known as Hoogheemraadschap Rijnland, the Dutch Water Board agency of Holland, based in Leiden to this day.

He also commissioned the building of two palaces, one in Haarlem and an earlier one in des Graven Haghe, around which the city of The Hague was to grow. The latter came to be called the Binnenhof, and is today adorned with a golden statue of its builder. Though he is little known elsewhere, the Dutch venerate him as a founding father, and the continued popularity of the name Willem dates from his rule.

The statue bears the inscription:

Ter nagedachtenis van Willem II Roomsch Koning en Graaf van Holland, Begunstiger der stedelijke vrijheden, beschermer der kunst, stichter der kasteelen in ‘s-Gravenhage en Haarlem, geb. MCCXXVII †MCCLVI†

In memory of William II, King of the Romans and Count of Holland, supporter of urban liberties, protector of art, founder of castles in The Hague and Haarlem, born 1227, died 1256

Widening our focus back to Europe’s ongoing political turmoil, in 1250, Frederick II died, and was succeeded by his son Conrad IV. The pope swiftly excommunicated him, deposed him as HRE, and stripped him of his duchy of Swabia, conferring it on the anti-king instead. Already in the previous year at the papal Council of Lyon, Willem had started negotiations for an imperial coronation in Rome, even performing the Officum Stratoris et Strepae, a strange ceremony that originated with Emperor Constantine. He describes it thus:

[H]olding the rein of [the Pope’s] horse, out of reverence for blessed Peter we performed for him the office of a groom

Essentially, this was an act of humility before the Church and as such, many rulers flatly refused to do it.

The next year Willem married Elizabeth, the daughter of Otto the Child, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, thereby becoming the symbolic head of the Guelphs. The Guelfs and the Ghibellines were two opposing parties that Dante often referenced in his Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). The Hohenstaufens (to which Frederick II belonged) essentially headed up the latter, refusing to acknowledge the church’s authority over temporal matters, while the church—predictably—backed the former. This alliance added secular backing to Willem’s former, mainly ecclesiastical support, and allowed his re-election as the German King in 1252.

These events snowballed with the death of Frederick’s successor, Conrad, even in spite of Innocent IX perishing in the same year, with disarray created in both successions. In 1254 the Rhenish League decided to pay homage to the anti-king, and his indisputable re-coronation in Rome was planned for 1256. But this was not to be.

Even with his kingship of Germany seemingly about to be settled, Willem still was focused on the consolidation of the Low Countries under his rule. He continued his campaign in West Frisia, where an expedition near the town of Hoogwoud in 28 January 1256 proved his undoing. Cut off from his troops and having lost his bearings, he tried to cross a frozen lake called the Berkmeer. The ice could not support him cap-a-pie in mail atop his destrier, so horse and rider plunged into the frigid morass beneath. In this soggy, cold, dismounted, and bemired state, the Frisians made short work of him, and buried him under a house in the region.

There are several versions of the above image, all of which seem to depict the Frisians as brutish and cruel, but really they were only trying to remain free from feudal subjugation. In this one, at least, there seems to be one dissenter among them.

It is not recorded what was done with Willem’s arms and armor, including, according to my theory, the Witham sword, but as expensive and well-wrought trophies, one can imagine the Frisians did not want to part with such gear easily. Perhaps they split the loot, each carrying off a few items.

Oh and just by the way, Willem is my 25th great-uncle. I only found this out about a week before this article’s publication. My mother-in law’s hobby is genealogy; she’s been working on my wife’s side of the family for several years now but has recently turned to mine. Closely following my penning of Part 1 (which is to say in completely independent research), she excitedly told me that I was related to Edward III of England, tracing back from my mother’s grandfather, Peter Keplinger. I found this interesting but not especially so until she mentioned his wife: Phillipa of Hainault. Yep, that’s right; I am a direct descendant of Jean d’Avesnes and Willem II’s sister Aleid.


Unexpectedly while reading Prague in Black and Gold I ran across an interesting take on the renewal of Willem’s attempt at the German kingship:

At the beginning of his reign, Otakar [II of Bohemia] supported the candidacy of Wilhelm of Holland, who was also backed by a league of Rhenish towns, but by 1254 his own chances were propitious: the German princes were not unwilling to consider him, the rich son of a Hohenstaufen princess, secret negotiations were held, and Wilhelm of Holland suggested his willingness to withdraw his candidacy if it paid off sufficiently.⁴

This fits my view that Willem was much more concerned with consolidating his power in the Low Countries than tilting at the windmill of the HRE.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor


  1. I use the French forms here as this seems to reflect both the extraction and loyalties of this family (at least initially). Jean is often given as John or Jan as well.
  2. A map representing the proper time period and region was impossible to find, so I had to adapt one; the political regions shown are generally correct.
  3. I have stressed the English translation of the ceremony’s name here.
  4. The book’s author, Peter Demetz incorrectly uses the German form of Willem’s name.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: