The Legend of Ernst von Bayern

The Legend of Ernst von Bayern is a German hero saga. It tells of the epic journey of the young duke Ernst, who is unjustly banished by the emperor, is lost on sea on his way to the holy land and survives numerous adventures to eventually find his way back to present the emperor with the most mystical of all gems in the empirical crown: the Orphan. The saga is based on a story written in Latin verse, originating likely around 1180 in the Rhineland. Themes of this story can be found in legends from other cultures, such as Homer’s Odyssey and the Arabian tales of 1001 nights. Despite its popularity up to the 19th century, the legend of Ernst is less well known today. Only parts of a version from the 13th century survived and modern versions are largely based on 15th century documents. 

Plot Summary

Herzog Ernst of Swabia
Herzog Ernst of Swabia – Kolorierter Holzstich, um 1883. – © Museum bei der Kaiserpfalz Ingelheim; Foto: Albrecht Haag

Ernst grows up in Bavaria under the tutelage of his mentor Wetzel, after his father, the duke, died when Ernst was very young. One day, emperor Otto sends his close advisor Heinrich, the count palatine, to ask to marry Ernst’s mother, Adelheit. Very quickly, Heinrich takes a dislike to Ernst, who excels in knightly pursuits, but has a temper that can get him into difficult situations. Ernst impresses the emperor, who quickly adopts him as if he was his own son. Heinrich plots against Ernst, who eventually kills his adversary in anger and is banished from the empire by Otto, who believed the false rumours Heinrich had fabricated. 

To escape execution, Ernst, his mentor Wetzel and a small group of knights set out to Jerusalem. They travel via Constantinople and set sail to the holy land, only to be caught in a storm and end up in unknown waters. After much hardship, they arrive in a strange, abandoned city where they try unsuccessfully to free a woman who had been captured by bird-men. After fleeing, their ship gets destroyed on the mystical magnet mountain and they need to trick a couple of griffins into flying them to the main land. Following a river, the now much diminished group build a raft and travel under the mountain, where Ernst finds a huge gem, which he intends to present to Otto on their return. 

Eventually the group find their way to civilisation, although people in this region look very differently, some with only one eye, others with one foot or long earlobes. After supporting the local king fighting a number of these creatures, Ernst is finally able to board a new ship. He arrives with a tribe of pygmies, who he frees from the bird-men he encountered previously. At last, he manages to arrive in India, where he first helps the king to fight the Sultan of Babylon, before using the Sultan’s help to travel to Jerusalem and finally arriving home, where the emperor is merciful and Ernst hands over the gem he had kept. 

Historic Background

The historic background to the saga is the revolt of Ernst II. of Swabia against his step-father Conrad II. in 1030. Ernst’s father had died after a hunting accident and his mother, Gisela, married Conrad, with whom she had another son, Heinrich. Ernst himself was mentored by Poppo of Babenberg, as he was a minor. Conrad became emperor, after Heinrich II., the last of the line of emperor Otto, had died in 1024. Ernst and a number of others opposed him unsuccessfully. Konrad showed mercy, likely based on Ernst participating in the wars in Italy. However, when Ernst refused to commit against a friend, Konrad stripped him to titles and riches and even his mother denounced him. Ernst was killed in 1030 when he was attacked in one of his last strongholds in the black forest. After his death, Conrad talked about him being put down lake a ‘rabid dog’. 

German Imperial Crown
German Imperial Crown – Von CSvBibra (Gryffindor) – Eigenes Werk, Gemeinfrei,

Whilst the saga itself is not modelled on accurate facts, it does describe the conflict of the king and his step-son. Artistic licence added medieval ideas of chivalry and forgiveness creating a tale that is based on international folklore as well as makes reference to creatures commonly found drawn on contemporary maps.

One interesting aspect is the gem, which Ernst in the story gives the emperor as a present. It is called ‘Der Waise’ (the orphan) and it existed as part of the imperial crown from around 1200. It was described as a large white and red stone that was the main piece at the front of the crown. Due to its unusual nature, it became a symbol for royalty and poets such as Walter von der Vogelweide and Otto von Botenlauben sang and wrote about it. The Orphan is rumoured to have been lost in the 14th century. The fittings of the imperial crown, which is in a museum in Vienna today, show clearly that a larger stone was at the front of the crown previously and the modern version has been adjusted to fit a smaller one. However, it is unclear if this fitting really housed the legendary stone, how it actually looked like or if it is in fact largely an invention by Walter von der Vogelweide, as reports differ and might unreliable, some even claiming that the stone glowed in the dark. Considering that the Orphan was described and became a popular symbol of royalty after the story of Ernst had already emerged, it seems likely that his retrieval of the stone was an addition. However, it also illustrates the flexible nature of sagas and of the legend of Ernst in particular, knitting various aspects of culture and literature into one.

To read a modern re-telling of the story, click below: