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

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

In 1087 AD, almost one thousand years ago, one gloomy February day, a rider entered the forest. Unarmed and unprepared for what is to come, he rode directly into a trap set by his wife’s lover. There was assaulted and killed, his body laying on the frozen, snowbound ground. Soon after the lover wed the widow to establish a dynasty which ruled over much of the central Germany for almost two centuries.

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.

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 the latter was visiting Weissenburg for the first time.

We do not know when the affair began and how it lead to the conspiracy to murder Friedrich. What we know is that, 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. For Ludwig, the death of Palatine meant a chance to become one of the most powerful landlords of the realm:

 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 delivered 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 that he was given the traditional name of the Goseck family is twofold: it could have been a way to confer the legitimacy on him as a heir, as well as an attempt to cover up the act of adultery.

Briefly detained by the Emperor Heinrich IV, Ludwig ends his imprisonment abruptly (by jumping into the River Saale, hence the name Jumper), soon to regain his favours with him, as well as to acquire new ones. The Count becomes not only young Friedrich’s step-father, but a custodian of the Palatinate of Saxonia. 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 founded 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 him and young Friedrich grows. Although the latter is treated with decency, growing up at the one of the most opulent and illustrious courts in Europe, his estrangement from his step-father grows.

In 1107, a conflict erupts between him and his step-father. Was he denied the opportunity to sort things out privately, or was his humiliation made intolerable by a multitude of court poets, musicians and storytellers, only too eager to praise the virtues of the Count of Thuringia?

Whatever the circumstances, at a Fürstentag — princely meeting — held in Merseburg on May the 30th, 1108 young Friedrich openly accuses the Count of Thuringia to quietly 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

Apart from making Ludwig his mortal enemy, Friedrich achieves nothing, as Heinrich V needed Ludwig as a powerful ally, not as an adversary. Count Palatine’s demands for retribution were ignored.

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. For the first time since antiquity, its main protagonist is not a hero with magic powers, not a saint or a brave military commander, but a dubious murderer opposed by an innocent youth. The story that bears striking similarity to the one written by William Shakespeare some 500 years later: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.


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 :

  • Friedrich bears the name of his father, as does Hamlet;
  • 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;
  • after marrying the Count of Thuringia she is repentant of her part in the murder of her husband;
  • 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;
  • Hamlet dies at a duel, as, no doubt, was Friedrich’s wish then he challenged Ludwig to a fight at Fürstentag.

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

Also, there is a difference in Friedrich’s and Hamlet’s personalities. 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, while Hamlet chooses a way of allusion rather then of action: further, Shakespeare makes Hamlet unsure of himself, of the people who surround him, of reality itself. Everything is not what it is, seems to be, or should be. However, 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, it was, undoubtedly, viewed as a form of mania 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 futile: Claudius becomes an epitome of despotism. Ludwig enters the annals of history with the nick-name ‘Jumper’ attached to his own — 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.

So, is it possible that Shakespeare was aware of the story what took place in the distant Saxony some 500 years before him, even knew the story of the murder of the count Friedrich III by the count of Thuringia?

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

It is assumed that the English writer became familiar with the plot through the work of Saxo Grammaticus, an early medieval Danish chronicist and writer, known for his monumental “Deeds of the Danes” (Gesta Dannorum), finished not before 1208 AD.

In his turn, Saxo has lifted the story from the 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 [Hamlet of Shakespeare’s drama]. 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. Then, 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. Then he went back to England and killed his father-in-law who wanted to avenge Feng’s death. Then he took the Queen of Scotland as his wife. As soon as he came home, he was killed in battle.

In the Chronicon, Orwendel — Shakespeare’s King Hamlet — is not a king, but a governor of the province of Jutland, as was Friedrich – a Royal Palatine of Saxonia. Feng kills Orwendel ‘out of envy’ — the most probably explanation of Ludwig’s crime as well. Feng marries Orwendel’s unnamed widow, as does Ludwig. Amblothe (Hamlet) travels far to marry a daughter of the distant ruler, as does young Friedrich travelling to the distant Limburg.

Hamlet plays fool to ‘save his life’. Wether the young Friedrich had to resort to the similar tactics we know not — there are no written accounts of his life. However, it is clear that his opposition to Ludwig may have been considered by many to be most unreasonable, even foolish, if not outright suicidal.

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. Importantly, up until now researchers have fail to identify the source of the story of Amblothe’s avenging his father’s death.

There are various suggestions as to the origin and meaning of the name of its main protagonist. In the early modern Icelandic romance and folk tales, the Icelandic Amlóði is recorded as a term for a fool or simpleton. Another suggestion is based on the “fool” or “trickster” interpretation of the name, composing the name from Old Norse ama “to vex, annoy, molest” and óðr “fierceness, madness” (also in the theonym Odin).

In the Skáldskaparmál section of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson quotes a poem by the skald Snæbjörn, which could be older than the version found in Gesta Dannorum and Chronicon Lethrense. The mysterious lines are quoted in Skáldskaparmál as an example of Amlóði’s churn as a kenning for the sea. Thus, one may conclude that Amblothe ‘existed’ not only as a historical personage, but also as mythical creature.

No other personages and events described at the Chronicon can be linked – even remotely – to any of the known episodes of Scandinavian history. Although some suggestion as 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 plot appears to be derived from reality. The story, in all its complexity and exuberance is no match for the imagination of a monk living in a secluded monastery in a remote Danish island of Zealand. Is it, therefore, conceivable that the story of Friedrich and Adelheid was, indeed, the source of inspiration for the Chronicon’s author, who modified, edited and ‘localised’ the legend for his readership? Perhaps, the legend reached Denmark already much ‘folklorised’ with names changed and settings adopted to suit the tastes of the new audience?

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Trade routs in early 11c AD

Despite the seemingly great distance between Denmark and Saxony the two countries were closely linked with each other all through the early medieval times:

  • by trade, through the waterways of Unstrut-Salle-Elbe, which linked Saxony and Thuringia directly with the North See and the coastal trade roots;
  • by politics, military and religious affairs; and, consequently,
  • by family alliances and dynastic interests.

In many senses, the connections of Saxony with Scandinavia were far better and wider then of many ‘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 “Die Sage von Adelheid und Ludwig dem Springer” had become one of the most favourite stories in the renaissance Germany, as well. Since the early days of book printing it has seen many, often richly illustrated editions all across the Empire. Brothers Grimm included it into their compilation of the German Tales. 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.

In Shakespeare’s time, travelling bands of players roamed the continent. 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 inconceivable that Shakespeare did not know the Saga of Ludwig and Adelheid. If not the entire story, the drama of betrayal and murder of Count Friedrich should have been known to him or his close companions. Is it possible that Shakespeare has borrowed if not the entire plot, then some key elements of it, such as queen Gertrude repenting her marriage to Claudius — possibly a direct allusion to Adelheid who is known to bitterly regret the murder of her husband?


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 legeng 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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