German Hamlet, or The Tragedy of Friedrich, Palatine of Saxony

“Germany is Hamlet” – Ferdinand Freiligrath (1844)


Not much remains of the original complex of Kloster Zscheiplitz. Most of its buildings were demolished soon after the end of the WWII to give way to new residential quarters for refugees from Prussia, Eastern Pomerania and Silesia. It underwent even greater transformations in the late 16th, early 17th and 18th centuries, when the Benedictine nunnery was closed, the land and buildings expropriated and passed to the crown, along with hundreds of other church properties.

Yet, among many former monasteries, Kloster Zscheiplitz is unique, as it came about as an atonement for one of the most notorious crimes ever recorded in early medieval history. Indeed, at its foundation lies a drama of deceit, adultery and lust for power known as “Saga of Count Ludwig and beautiful Adelheid”.
 It was a place of betrayal, but can it also be a birthplace of the protagonist of one of the most famous literary personages – Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark?

Innikenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet, 1964

The story of the Lady of Weissenburg become one of the most well-known dramas of the early medieval Europe. Its ‘theatrical’ quality, its dramatic power — a collision of love, betrayal and retribution — for centuries aroused the imagination of poets, singers, writers and painters. It entered the folklore of German-speaking people form Holland to northern Italy. In Slovakia, the version of the Ballade of the Lady of Weissenburg was known — and sung — up until after the WWII.


Count Friedrich, Imperial Palatine of Saxony, marries Adelheid, doughter of powerful Count of Stade. Soon after, Adelheid falls in love with the neighbour – young Loius, Count of Thuringia. Together, they conspire to murder Friedrich, staging is as a hunting accident: One gloomy winter day a party of hunters enter the forest near Friedrich’s residence. Aroused by Adelheid, he dashes off to intercept and to arrest the trespassers. Ambushed and killed, his body is buried at the Goseck monstery.

Louis weds Adelhed soon after, but not before she delivers Friedrich’s son, who is to inherit the Palatinate. His father’s son and heir, Friedrich IV openly accuses his mother and Count Louis of the murder. He challenges Count Louis to a duel. However, his calls for justice is ignored by the emperor Heinrich.

Edwin Austin Abbey, The play scene in Hamlet, 1897. Yale University Art Gallery

According to chronicle, Count Palatine Friedrich III was born to the powerful Counts of Goseck family (most probably the junior branch of the Wettin clan) in 1060. He wed Adelheid of Stade sometime in early 1080s, most probably, a year or two before his death. It is believed that the couple first met Ludwig, the scion of the Counts of Thuringia soon afterwards, while he was visiting the Weissenburg residence for the first time.

We do not know when the affair began and how it lead to the conspiracy to murder Friedrich. However, according to the chroniqueur, by the winter of 1085 the scene was set for Adelheid to become free from his marriage and to wed Ludwig as soon as circumstances allowed.

The Annalista Saxo records that “palatinus comes Fridericus”, son of Friedrich [II], was murdered by “Lodewicus comes de Thuringia”. The Chronicon Gozecense records that “iunior palatinus Fridericus” was murdered “1085 Non Feb” by “duo fratres Theodericus et Udalricus de Deidenlibe, et Reinhardus de Runenstide” and buried at Goseck monastery.

 Soon after and, according to some sources, without strictly observing the customary period of morning, the Dowager Countess Adelheid wed Count Ludwig.

Intense as it may be, the drama had yet another turn for both: Sometime in 1085, in a few months after her widowhood, Adelheid delivers a son, named after his late father, Friedrich. Whether the boy was, indeed, the son of late Count Palatine, or the fruit of passion between Adelheid and Ludwig, we will never know. The fact is that he was given the traditional name of the Goseck family. Was it to confer the legitimacy on him as a heir of the Saxonian Palatinate, or an attempt to cover up the act of adultery? I tis unlikely that we would ever know the answer.

Briefly detained Ludwig ends his imprisonment abruptly (by jumping into the River Saale, hence the name Jumper), soon to regain his favours with the Emperor Heinrich IV. The Count becomes not only young Friedrich’s step-father, but a custodian of the Palatinate. This he uses to great advantage, appropriating land, building fortifications, rewarding his followers with land and privileges. In 1090, three years since the tragic death of the Palatine, the Count of Thuringia founds the Castle of Neuenburg, only three kilometres away and in direct visual proximity to the Palatine family seat of Weissenburg. An obvious and direct affront to the comital family and the memory of the late Count Friedrich.

It is no wonder that, with time, the rift between Ludwig and young Friedrich widens. In 1107, an open conflict erupts between him and his step-father. At a Fürstentag — princely meeting — held in Merseburg on May the 30th, 1108 young Friedrich openly accuses the Count of Thuringia of eroding his authority over Palatine. Friedrich also confronts his powerful adversary with an accusation of murder of his late father, Count Palatine Friedrich III and challenges Ludwig to a duel.

Edwin Austin Abbey, The Queen in Hamlet, 1897. Private collection

Friedrich leaves Saxony the same year to marry Agnes van Limburg (daughter of Count Henrik van Limburg) with whom, by 1114, he has two children. He lives long enough to see count Ludwig die (in 1123 or 1126). His mother Adelheid dies in 1111 as a nun, at Kloster Zscheiplitz, which she establishes in Weißenburg in 1089 as a place of repentance and perpetual remembrance of the murdered Palatine.

Thus ends one of the most remarkable family feuds of the early medieval Germany. The one which focuses not on military conquests or beautiful maidens, but on a tragedy of betrayal, lust for power, and preoccupation with mundane and unavenged sorrow. The story which, we believe, became an inspiration for a number of medieval romances, such as one of the best known Middle English romances still in existence, Bevis of Hampton, or the monumental Deeds of the Danes (Gesta Dannorum). The story, which may have inspired one of the greatest theatrical amsterpices of all times – The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.


Bevis of Hampton

Originally a French chanson de geste, or epic poem, sometime also termed ‘ancestral romance’, the narrative focuses on a hero whose exploits take him from callow youth to hard-won maturity:

Bevis is the son of Man, the count of Hampton, and Man’s young wife, who is a daughter of the King of Scotland. Discontented with her marriage, Bevis’s mother asks a former suitor, Doon or Devoun, emperor of Almaine (Germany), to send an army to murder Man in a forest. The plot succeeds, and the countess marries Doon. Threatened with future vengeance by her ten-year-old son, she determines to do away with him also, but Bevis is saved from death by a faithful tutor, etc.

The earliest form of the Bevis saga, Beuve de Hantone (also cited as Beuves de Hanstone), appeared in northern France during the twelfth century, and from there the story spread throughout Europe and the British Isles. Scholars generally agree that the English Bevis is based on the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, probably composed around 1200.

There are numerous parallels between the legend of the Adelheid & Ludwig and the Bevis saga: Bevis’s father, the earl of Southampton, marries a woman who despises him. Staged as a hunting incident she has him murdered and then marries the man who killed him. Sold into slavery by his mother, Bevis engages in a series of perilous adventures, including conflicts with Saracens, giants, lions, and a dragon. Eventually, he returns to England to kill his father’s murderer and witness his mother’s death, and repeatedly endures the treachery of trusted aides and allies. Bevis weds Josian, and she gives birth to twin boys.

Twentieth-century commentators have compared Bevis with other Middle English romances, analyzed its structure and principal characters, and evaluated its treatment of political issues. Some commentators have begun to challenge the traditional opinion that Bevis is a loosely constructed series of disparate episodes: Dieter Mehl and Sheila Spector have asserted that it has a unified design. Such uniformity can be explained if the legend of Adelheid and Ludwig was, indeed, the basis of the romance’s plot.

Fragment of Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, containing the legend of Amleth


Deeds of the Danes

Attributed to Saxo Grammaticus, an early medieval Danish chronicist and writer, known for his monumental Deeds of the Danes (Gesta Dannorum), the story is belived to derive from the earlier Chronicon Lethrense, written in third quarter of 12th century.

The chronic tells a story of the king Rorik (Rørik Slængeborræ), who,

after conquering Curland, Wendland and Sweden, set up Orwendel and Feng as rulers in Jutland. The king gave Orwendel his sister, for the good work he had done. With her, he had a son called Amblothe. Then Feng killed Orwendel out of envy and took his woman as his wife. Then, Amblothe devised a plan to save his life, and acted the fool. Feng was wary of Ambothe and sent him to the King of England with two of his servants and a letter saying Amblothe should be put to death. He scraped it off while they slept and wrote saying that the two servants should be hanged and that Amblothe should marry the king’s daughter; and that’s what happened. A year to the day, as Feng drank to the memory of Amblothe, he came to Denmark and killed Feng, his father’s murderer, and burned all Feng’s men in a tent, and so became the King of Jutland, etc.

In the Chronicon, Orwendel is a governor of the province of Jutland. Feng kills Orwendel ‘out of envy’. Feng marries Orwendel’s unnamed widow. In order to save his life Amblothe plays fool, and then travels abroad to marry a daughter of the distant ruler…

Chronicon Lethrense, Danish National Archive

The Chronicon Lethrense cannot be dated precisely, and it is believed to be written almost a century after the events of 1087, and no less then two generations after Friedrich IV death.


Though well researched and appreciated on their own, the legends of Breves and Amblothe were never considered as instance of the Firedrich’s story. Considered to be pure fiction, the legendary personages or events were never linked to any of the known episodes of European history. Although some suggestion were made as to the possible historical protagonists of Orwendel and Feng neither appear outside of the Chronicon or are mentioned in other records.

Yet, the originality of the Friedrich III — Adelheid — Ludwig — Friedrich IV plot, its evident consistency across geographical boundaries and genres alludes to a certain historical ‘reality’ — chain of events, which took place sometime in 11-, early 12th cc. Is it conceivable that the story of Friedrich and Adelheid was, indeed, the source of inspiration for the authors of the romance and the Chronicon, who modified, edited and ‘localised’ it for their respective readership?

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 23.26.21.png
Trade routs in early 11c AD

Throughout its history distant parts of Western Europe were linked with each other by the network of trade routes. New inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted by people moving from one place to another to conduct business. By the end of the 12the c. a new ‘avenue’ — River Elbe — was opened, linking European heartland with the distant  Hamburg and Lübeck, shores of the North Sea and, from there, with Scandinavia, England and Normandy.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, that the connection between Saxony and  the North Sea basin was far better and wider then with many other ‘older’ inland Christian states and provinces of the Holy Roman Empire.

One of the most notable examples of political and cultural proximity between Denmark and Saxony, was the figure of Archbishop Adalbert (Weissenburg? c. 1000 – Goslar 16 March 1072), uncle of Pfalzgraf Friedrich III, who was closely involved with Danish politics, attempting to place the metropolitan jurisdiction over Scandinavia in his hands for his archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen.

Another is the marriage between Ludwig’s grandson Ludwig III – the first of Ludovingians  to hold the title of Count Palatine of Saxony and Dowager Queen of Denmark. In 1184 he proposed and, shortly after, married Sophia of Polotsk — a remarkably educated woman with broad interests and knowledge of many languages. She was the daughter of Prince Vladimir of Polotsk and RIcheza, Queen of Sweden. Ingeborg, her daughter form the marriage with Valdemar I of Denmark, became the queen of France, another — Queen of Sweden.

Interestingly, in 1190 after her marriage to Ludwig was repudiated the Queen Sophia returned to Denmark accompanied by the large entourage of courtiers, artists and musicians. Her return to roughly coincides with the completion of Chronicon Lethrense.

By the end of the 12th century the court of Thuringian counts was one of the most extravagant and opulent in Europe. Ludwig III’s son Hermann I has assembled a remarkable ‘artistic community’: From 1172 to 1211, his residence — the Wartburg castle — became a place of frequent visits and residence of Heinrich von Veldecke, Herbort von Fritzlar, Albrecht von Halberstadt,  Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach who wrote part of his Parzival there in 1203. More poems can be traced back to the ‘Thüringer Musenhof’: Alexander-poem by Biterolf, the crusade and minne novel ‘Graf Rudolf’, or the ‘Eraclius’, assumed to have been written by the poet ‘Otte’. It would not be an exaggeration to say, that the court of landgraf of Thuringia and Count Palatine of Saxony was the place where reality and fiction collaborated in creating what is to become the core of European literary tradition.

Not surprisingly the ‘psychological thriller’ par excellence Die Sage von Adelheid und Ludwig dem Springer had become one of the most favourite stories in the renaissance Europe. Since the early days of book printing it has seen many, often richly illustrated editions all across the Empire. Known under different names and, often, creatively re-interpreted, the story has entered the realm of popular culture, becoming an integral part of Europe’s rich theatrical life.



Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

In 1586, about 15 years before the first production of Hamlet at the Globe, a group of English players visited the castle of Elsinore to perform at the inaugural celebrations of a newly rebuilt royal residence – Kronborg Castle. It seems quite probable that Shakespeare knew the Saga of Ludwig and Adelheid. If not in its entirety, the drama of betrayal and murder of Count Friedrich should have been known to him or his close companions.

As in the legend of Ludwig the Jumper, William Shakespeare play’s central character is the usurper, who sizes power and denies the rightful heir his dignity and inheritance.

The parallels are numerous. To outline a few :

  • treacherous murder of the Count Palatine Friedrich by his cousin Count of Thuringia and the poisoning of king Hamlet by his brother Claudius;
  • the death of count Friedrich proclaimed to be an accident;
  • Ludwig marries the wife of his rival, as does Claudius;
  • Adelheid marries Ludwig before the official mourning ends;
  • the only son of his father and legitimate heir of the Palatinate Friedrich IV’s life is in constant peril;
  • Friedrich rejects comfortable life at princely court instead becoming an open opponent of one of the most powerful princes of the Empire;
  • Friedrich travels to distant Limburg, as does Hamlet travelling to England;
  • Friedrich is determined not only to expose the crime but also avenge his father’s death, as is Hamlet…

The main difference between the legend of Ludwig and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the ‘leitmotif’: The Saga focuses on the personality of the count of Thuringia, his seemingly unstoppable drive to power, wealth and fame while Shakespeare is interested in the personal and psychological vulnerability of the young prince.

Friedrich acts, and acts resolutely, with determination and vigour, stops at nothing, goes as far as it takes; He openly accuses his step-father of murder. Hamlet, on the other hand, chooses a way of allusion rather then of action: Shakespeare makes him unsure of himself, of the people who surround him, of reality itself. Everything is not what it is, seems to be, or should be. Yet, both the Saga and the drama tall the story of honour — family and personal: lost (Ludwig, Claudius) and recovered (young Friedrich, Hamlet).

Friedrich, as is Hamlet, is viewed as an obstacle, a nuisance with no real place in the ‘new order of things’ following his father’s death. A rather unfortunate and clearly unforeseen, Friedrich’s posthumous birth — his very existence — constitutes a problem, as does Hamlet’s. Young Palatine’s attempts to fight his all-powerful step-father were as futile and as foolish as that of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. An act of desperation, mania, madness – this is how, undoubtedly, it was viewed by his contemporaries.

Indeed, the essence of both drama and Saga is identical — power, both earthly and divine, authority, its nature and its source. Usurped, it may last a lifetime, but is fundamentally unjust and, therefore, untrue, futile. Claudius becomes an epitome of despotism; Ludwig enters the annals of history with the nick-name ‘Jumper’ — a social climber, a man who stops at nothing to achieve his goal. Ludwig’s legacy forever tainted by the treacherous murder, as is that of Claudius…



The remarkable similarity between the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Friedrich Count Palatine of Saxony gives us a rare opportunity to root otherwise mythical story in the historical reality of medieval Germany. Dreamy Weissenburg, where, after his father’s demise, Friedrich/Hamlet was born; cliff-hanging castle of Wartburg – Luwdig’s/Claudius’ favourite residence, surrounded by the sea of dense Thuringian forests.

Legendary names carved on historical gravestones, fabulous heroes appear in chronicles, their descendants still alive, bearing their arms, keeping the legend alive…

(c) January 2017 Alexander v. Hahn text, Danslav Slavenskoj editing

Further reading & bibliography


Chronica Reinhardsbrunnenis

Düringische Chronik des Johann Rothe

Bange, Johann: Newe Cronick von der Hessen- und Thüringer Landschafft, Mühlhausen, 1600

Die deutschen Sagen der Brueder Grimm.
Main Author: Aschner, Siegfried, b. 1882

Johann Beers „Die Geschicht und Histori von Land-Graff Ludwig dem Springer“

Autoren und Redaktoren als Editoren: Internationale Fachtagung der …

D. Huschenbett, Eine Mord- und Minnegeschichte aus Thüringen. Zur Darstellung der Ermordung des sächsischen Pfalzgrafen Friedrich II. durch Ludwig den Springer, Graf von Thüringen, in: Strukturen der Gesellschaft im Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Mediävistik in Würzburg, cur. D. Rödel – J. Schneider, Wiesbaden 1996, pp. 35-49 (non vidi)

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