Chapter 1: So It Begins...
The County of Oldenburg is a remote principality on the northern coast of the Holy Roman Reich, ruled by the capable diplomat Christian VI von Oldenburg (ADM 4, DIP 6, MIL 4), descendent of one of the most aged dynasties in Germany; perhaps therein lays the origin of the name. In a sense, Christian VI was fortunate; he had succeeded to the throne just one year earlier, in early 1398, after the death of his father, Christian V, who had been forced to accept joint rule of Oldenburg, first with his brother, Konrad II, and later with his nephew, Maurice II. Christian VI, however, ruled singularly. His heir was not of his own issue, but was his little brother of nine years, who’s ability to dodge trouble in his youthful escapades had already earned him the nickname “Dietrich der Glücklich,” or Dietrich the Lucky. While not exceptionally skilled, the younger von Oldenburg was already showing a certain aptitude for diplomacy and administration, but remained disinterested in combat.
The County has never been a major player in Imperial or European politics, having been born into statehood as vassals of the Saxon dukes, a status which had only ended when the venerable Kaiser Friedrich I Barbarossa dissolved the Duchy of Saxony in 1180 AD. None of the Oldenburger counts had been especially noteworthy; even the dynastic founder, Elimar I, was only noteworthy for just that, founding the House of Oldenburg. Sparsely populated, consisting of a mere 2000 citizens, 1,000 feudal levies, and a further 1,000 town militia that functioned as a garrison, Oldenburg relied on its relatively rich salt mines for much of its income, though they were generally unable to capitalize on this wealth via foreign markets; more often than not, it was Hanseatic rather than Oldenburger merchants who profited from this trade.
While the County of Oldenburg had almost naught to boast at home, they did have a relatively solid diplomatic position in the form of an alliance and trade league compact with the Hansa, the premier power of the northern section of the Reich, on account of the Margraviate of Brandenburg’s status as Jobst I von Luxemburg’s plaything- while generally seen as a personal union of sorts, the reality was that Margrave Otto I had sold his throne to Kaiser Charles IV von Luxemburg back in 1373 for the sum of 500,000 guilders. This was a fact that aggravated the Brandenburg Estates, and since the ascension of Jobst I, relations had been strained between the two far-flung states. While for now, Count Christian VI could rest easy knowing that the powerhouse Hanseatic League, his close ally, was the dominant force in the northern region of the empire, it was clear that in the near future, the Prince-Electors of Brandenburg would come to power in the region.
Without further ado, let us take a closer look into the internal goings-on of the court of the not-so-significant Christian VI von Oldenburg. When one looks at the surface of Oldenburg, they saw a weak state with a weak army and a weak economy; when one delves further in, they found the situation was much worse. Despite the small size of the county, the central monarchy was almost utterly lacking in authority; most of the taxes were administered by the Oldenburg Estates, the landed nobles, who kept a fairly large sum of the revenue for their own devices before somewhat reluctantly handing it over to the County. The aristocrats held a great deal of authority over the state in other respects, as well; the Counts of Oldenburg accepted their crown from the noble-run Landtag, and the peasants were bound to the Estate upon which they were born, with almost no ability to leave. While this ensured that Oldenburg’s population was relatively stable, it also prevented anyone but the nobility from advancing in the society. The localized interests of the landed nobility encouraged them to lobby the Count to maintain a large degree of protectionism, a system which may have worked for trade republics like Venezia, Genoa, and the Hansa, but was stifling for a small state like Oldenburg. Militarily, there was almost no standing doctrine aside from a slight focus on the army rather than Oldenburg’s minute flotilla. The army of feudal levies was loyal to the Estates first and the County second, and their equipment varied from area to area, but the Oldenburger army overwhelmingly relied on poorly-trained spearmen, as that weapon was the easiest for a recruit to use. Finally, like all European states, there was a degree of religious fervor within the realm, but Oldenburg was relatively open-minded, compared to many of its German and Dutch neighbors, a fact that did little to especially endear them to the Pope.
Oldenburg was averagely engaged in encouraging cultural tradition within the state, but its small population and smaller aristocracy prevented it from gaining any significant advisers for the court. Even now, court politics were centered more around various noble interests rather than any advisers loyal to the crown, something which Christian VI hoped to change.
Christian VI, while rather lackluster when it came to military organization, was surprisingly adept when it came to leading an army; certainly, he was no Hannibal Barca or Friedrich Barbarossa, but he was a cut above many of his predecessors in this regard.
Meager beginnings, to be sure. But Rome was not built in a day, Christian VI was fond of saying; from a single city, an empire could be born, though he would dejectedly admit it was unlikely to happen during his reign. There were many battles to be fought, at home and abroad, before Oldenburg could claim its place as a power.
Count Christian VI von Oldenburg sat upon the gilded throne in the small citadel that functioned as the seat of government for his principality, arms folded as he irritably surveyed an assembly of nobles gathered in his tiny throne room. It was the same scene as just about every other day in Oldenburg; one Estate representative would present a complaint against a rival Estate, the representative of which would immediately appeal to the Count for support, each hoping to further his own position. In this case, it was an argument over the sale of the products of one of Oldenburg’s more profitable salt mines, which sat directly on the boundary between the Estate of the von Gundingen and von Derfflinger families; Baron Emelrich von Gundingen had claimed that his rival, Heinrich von Derfflinger, had illegally seized a shipment mined by Gundingen’s serfs, while Derfflinger insisted that the salt had been mined from a section of the mine beneath his soil, and he was therefore well within his rights to take and sell it. It was a rare situation, simply because the rest of the Estates had opted against choosing sides, leaving it entirely to the Count.
“There are documents!” Emelrich von Gundingen roared, pointing a finger at Derfflinger. “Those who gather the resources in disputed areas are entitled to sell those resources!”
“A load of horse dung,” Derfflinger snorted. “My family’s claim to the region outdates yours by over a century. By rights, all of that salt is mine; I am doing you a favor by not seizing control of the whole thing.”
“Are you threatening me?” Gundingen demanded hotly, taking a step forward, but halting as two palace guards banged their spears ominously against the cold stone floor.
Count Christian sighed. “I grow weary of this petty dispute; I have ruled on it no less than five times in the last year, and I’m beginning to think my leniency is encouraging this bad behavior.”
“Oh, not at all, Your Comital Grace,” Gundingen said hurriedly, bowing respectfully. “If the honorable Freiherr von Derfflinger would actually recognize those agreements, this issue would halt.”
“As I recall,” Derfflinger said coolly, “His Comital Grace ruled in my favor the last two times you brought this up.”
“Enough,” Christian VI snapped, cutting off a reply from Gundingen. “As of right now, the Gundingen-Derfflinger mine is to be placed under county control.”
“What?!” the feuding nobles gasped, staring incredulously at their liegelord.
“This is an outrage!” Derfflinger growled, pointing a finger at Christian. “What about our privileges?”
“You’ve proved you are both unworthy of those privileges,” Christian replied coldly. “Rest assured, you shall both receive royalties from the profits of those salt sales when they go to market in Lübeck, provided neither of you hinder the transport of those goods.”
Before either baron could raise another objection, the sound of slow clapping echoed through the chamber from near the back of the room, and all turned to see Reinhard Hinrichs, an influential trader with ties to many of the greater aristocratic families of Oldenburg, walking steadily to the front of the room. The assembled nobles gave just enough space for him to walk to the front between Derfflinger and Gundingen. “A most wise move, Your Comital Grace,” he said, smiling as he dipped into a low bow. “We cannot allow such lowly squabbles to compromise the greatness of our state. Taking control of this vital mine and removing the local tolls on its trade will be an excellent first step into asserting ourselves abroad.”
“Asserting ourselves abroad?” Gundingen laughed. “What concern are foreign lands to us? We have an excellent system going here; for nigh on four centuries it has kept Oldenburg afloat. Why break that trend now?”
“The world is changing, Freiherr von Gundingen,” Reinhard said coolly. “The Luxemburgs and the Habsburgs grow stronger by the day, while the Oldenburgs stand idly by, allowing local interest to run rampant even as the world moves around us. If we are to keep pace with any of our neighbors, we must accept that protectionism will get us nowhere so long as we rely on foreign markets for our trade income.”
“That is folly,” Derfflinger declared. “If His Comital Grace insists on stomping on our privileges, then he shall find no support from Derfflinger merchants.”
“Nor from those of House Gundingen,” his rival added.
“That is well enough,” Christian VI said absently. “I took the liberty of having the honorable Lord Hinrichs dispatch a couple of extra traders to Lübeck with our salt. We should receive results within a month or two.”
Derfflinger’s eyes bulged furiously. “Our salt? You mean my shipment?”
“No, he means my shipment,” Gundingen reminded him.
“No, I mean the crown’s shipment,” Christian replied. “Remember? I just took control of the mines. Can you really not remember? Truly, I must have made a wise decision to take the mines if neither of you can remember an event that occurred mere minutes ago.”
There was a disembodied laugh then, not from the back of the room, but from behind Count Christian VI, just before another figure emerged from the shadows behind the throne; the bearded countenance of nobleman Freidrich August Engel, a statesman who had received training in the Thuringian city of Dresden in his early years. “Friends, you cannot fault His Comital Grace for this effort. He seeks only to strengthen our principality through commerce. Money brings power, and the more wealth we have in Oldenburg, the more there is to go around, no? It is time to begin setting aside our small-scale mercantile disputes in favor of operating as a collective. Only by working together can Oldenburg’s traders rival those of Holland and the Hansa; if we continue to argue with and tax one another’s shipments, we are weakening ourselves to the advantage of our rivals, are we not?”
A murmur of general assent went up among the assembled nobles, save for Gundingen and Derfflinger, who exchanged mutinous glances. Neither were happy with how this routine dispute was turning out.
“I have ruled, and so it shall be,” Christian VI declared, taking his scepter from beside the throne and banging it twice against the ground. “The mines are to be placed under county control, and levies on the transport of those goods are to be lessened.”
Reinhard and Friedrich Augustus took up positions on either side of the elevated throne, looking out over the assembled nobles. The latter nodded and said, “It is settled. Are there any other plaintiffs who wish to bring a dispute to the court?”
There was silence; clearly, none of the remaining nobles wished to see their own claims be compromised by a sudden surge in monarchical dedication. Christian VI smiled amiably and said, “If that is all, I would thank you all for your time. You are dismissed.”
With that, the palace guards began ushering the affronted aristocrats from the room, a process which took no less than five minutes, and the wrought iron doors were slammed shut as the robes of the last nobleman whipped behind him as he exited. When he was confident that the nobility were out of hearing range, Christian VI allowed himself a hearty laugh. “Well done, you two,” he said, grinning like a hyena. “You have both earned a place at my court, if you so choose to accept.”
“But of course,” Reinhard said, smiling. “It would be an honor to serve my liege in such a capacity.”
“Likewise,” Friedrich added.
“Good,” the Count said, nodding in satisfaction. “So, what is the next order of business?”
“Well, I would avoid doing anything to further aggravate the Estates,” Friedrich advised. “It is rare for an Oldenburgian Count to move contrary to the will of the nobility, even in such a relatively minor manner. Now I would recommend doing something to appease their interests, though not in such a way as to harm our domestic policy.”
“Many of the Estates do feel that Oldenburg is somewhat…excluded from Imperial politics, what with our far-off location from the court in Prague,” the statesman said. “In order to remedy this, many feel that we should extend our dynastic ties to nearby states. The strongest faction are those favoring ties with our Dutch neighbors in Friesland, where the van Wassenburg dynasty has just risen to power. Count Hendrik III of Friesland has no heirs at present, and many others view his claim to that region to be shaky at best. I would suggest marrying your daughter, Anna, to Hendrik; if things work out well, we could convince the Imperial community that we have a legitimate claim to the Frisian throne. If not, well, we have a new friend, and it is good to have friends.”
“Make it happen,” Christian VI nodded.
“Of course, my liege. Anything else?”
“Ja. Dispatch diplomats to Braunschweig, Hesse, Saxe-Lauenburg, and Kleve,” the count ordered. “Offer a military alliance with the Hessians and Cleves, and see about arranging state marriages with Braunschweig and Lauenburg.”
“Ja, meinen Graf,” Friedrich bowed again. “By your leave?“
With that, the statesman turned and strode across the throne room to the wrought iron doors, which were opened by the two guards stationed by it on the inside. Christian watched him go before turning to his right and looking up at Reinhard. “As for you…keep an eye on Derfflinger and Gundingen and let me know when word arrives from your merchants in Lübeck.”
“Jawohl,” the nobleman replied simply. “By your leave?”
Christian nodded impatiently, and the trader marched from the hall through the open doors.
Christian VI von Oldenburg’s overtures worked almost flawlessly; Henrik III van Wassenburg was eager to cement his claim to Friesland, and there were few better ways to do so than through state marriages. Unfortunately, he was already promised to a Frisian noblewoman, and so Anna von Oldenburg was married, instead, to the Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg. Landgrave Hermann II von Hessen and Duke Adolf I von der Mark of Hesse and Kleve, respectively, were eager to have an ally on the northern coast, each deciding that it could only help their position in northern Germany. The Braunschweiger and Lauenburger sovereigns were both more than willing to marry into one of the oldest German dynasties in existence, even despite their weak standing in the Empire.
With ties established with Friesland, the Estates shifted their focus, oddly enough, to the Nordsee, and began insisting that, despite Oldenburger-Frisian relations, it was in the state’s interest to build up a navy superior to that of the Dutch minor. Count Christian VI was willing to admit that naval superiority could be a boon, but the problem really came down to funding; the Frisian fleet consisted of two carracks and two cogs, whereas the Oldenburgian fleet consisted of a single cog, the Graf Anton Günther. Even if they took the cheapest rout and built a fleet of galleys (which would be foolish, in the open waters of the Nordsee), it would still cost about 36 ducats. With current funds, the County could build up to three galleys or two cogs, but either one would be useless without large ships to form the backbone of the navy; even a single carrack was out of reach for the Oldenburger administration at present. Christian VI toyed with the idea of abandoning this quest, but decided, instead, to make a steady move in that direction and ordered the construction of a new cog, which, at the insistence of his councilors, he christened the Christian VI.
Then, there was the problem of finances. Although the treasury, at 20 ducats, was solid, the state was facing a potential deficit if more income wasn’t added to the company; Christian VI had little alternative but to pray that his merchants would find success in Lübeck.
At the onset of November, Lord Reinhard Hinrichs returned to the citadel with good news; he had received a dove from Lübeck, and his two associates had met a certain amount of success. The first merchant had failed to establish himself in the center of trade, but his competition had driven a Bremian trader to bankruptcy, leaving an opening for the second merchant to set up shop in the Bremian’s vacated warehouse. Furthermore, Lord Friedrich August Engel’s efforts had smoothed over tensions with the Gundingen faction, and he had accepted the loss of his mining rights in exchange for a fair royalty from the sales.
Unfortunately, December brought bittersweet news. The good news was that the Derfflingers and their allies had also let the issue of the salt mines go; the bad news was that Count Hendrik III’s wife had birthed a son and heir, Willem Frederik, preventing Count Christian VI from pressing claims on the region.
On the plus side, Oldenburg’s ambassador to Saxe-Lauenburg revealed that the aging Erich IV Askanier, reigning since 1368, had no legal heir, and already, a number of the Estates supported a union with Oldenburg if he were to die, even without a formal claim to the local throne.
Christian VI convened a meeting at the onset of the new century with his advisers and a handful of leading Estates representatives to determine a course of action in this issue, not sure of what he wished to do with his potential claim.
“Seize it,” Herr Joachim von Delmenhorst urged, leaning over the table. “No one will take us seriously if we do not reach out and take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Saxe-Lauenburg is a small state, doing naught with the land they have been gifted with. Already, their Estates look to us for guidance, and who are we to deny them?”
“Saxe-Lauenburg is allied with Köln, and guaranteed by Braunschweig,” Freiherr Emelrich von Gundingen reminded him, tapping his finger on the table.
“And we are allied with the Hansa, Hesse, and Kleve,” Friedrich August Engel reminded Gundingen in turn. “Additionally, the sovereigns of Saxe-Lauenburg enjoy the privileges and respect owed to a Duke of the Holy Roman Empire. If we take their throne, that respect becomes owed unto us, and His Comital Grace shall be addressed, not as a mere count, but as the Duke of Oldenburg-Saxe-Lauenburg.”
“Seems like a bit of a mouthful,” Heinrich von Derfflinger joked.
“If we wait,” Engel continued, ignoring Derfflinger, “then Duke Erich IV will search for a way to secure his position, through alliances or guarantees from greater powers, until Duchess Anna bears him a child and secures his family’s claim. If we act now, we will quadruple our taxable population.”
“We don’t even border them!” Gundingen protested.
Christian VI waited patiently as Engel, Gundingen, and Delmenhorst argued over the issue, occasionally exchanging wry comments with Reinhard Hinrichs as the debate went on. After a solid quarter hour of bickering, Engel finally said, “Ultimately, the decision falls to His Comital Grace.” With that, the assembled representatives looked expectantly to their liege, who yawned, stretched, and scratched his chin.
“I do believe,” he said at length, “that we must start somewhere, if we are to assert ourselves as an international power, and get the ear of the Kaiser. Saxe-Lauenburg is somewhere. Friedrich, draft the claim and have it distributed throughout Lauenburg.”
“By your will, meinen Graf,” the statesman nodded, smiling beneath his full beard.
And so it was that the Count of Oldenburg declared himself the rightful Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg. The action received mixed responses from Oldenburg’s ties abroad; Hesse and Kleve both offered nominal support, while Friesland and Braunschweig protested what they viewed as a powerplay- not without merit, of course. The Hansa, on the other hand, declared full support for the Oldenburgian count.