King Conrad II tries to thwart prophecy, but fails

Pocket Bard’s notes: I love all the tropes that show up in this story. It’s a little Oedipus and a little Hamlet (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but with a happy ending). You’ve got your “child that should be dead but isn’t,” your “trying to thwart prophecy makes it happen,” and even your “meddlesome priest saves the day,” in a classic deux ex machina. I love it all.


King Conrad II tries to thwart prophecy, but fails
The Golden Legend, Volume II, trans. William Granger Ryan, p.380-381

In Conrad [II]’s time, about A.D. 1025, Count Leopold, fearing the king’s wrath, fled with his wife to an island and hid in a hut in the forest. One day Conrad was hunting in the forest and at nightfall took shelter in this same hut. The countess, who was pregnant and close to childbirth, made him as comfortable as she could and ministered to his needs. That very night the lady gave birth to a son, and the king heard a voice three times, saying: “Conrad, this newborn child will be your son-in-law.” In the morning Conrad summoned two squires who were his confidants and told them: “Go and take this infant by force from his mother’s arms, split him down the middle, and bring me his heart!” They sped on their errand and snatched the child from his mother’s breast; but, moved to compassion by his beauty, they spared his life and placed him at the top of a tree to save him from being devoured by wild beasts. Then they cut open a hare and delivered the heart to the emperor.

That same day a certain duke passed that way and, hearing the child’s wailing, had him brought down to him; and since he had no son, he took the infant to his wife and they raised him as their own son and named him Henry. When he was grown up, he was physically handsome, spoke eloquently, and won everyone’s favor. The emperor, seeing how fair and prudent the youth was, asked the father to grant him his son, and the young man came to dwell at court; but then Conrad, aware that Henry was favored and commended by all, began to suspect that he might be the child that he had ordered killed and was destined to succeed him. He wanted to be sure that this would not happen, so with his own hand he wrote a letter to his wife and sent it to her with young Henry. The letter read: “As your life is dear to you, as soon as you receive this letter, have the bearer killed>”

On his way to carry out his errand the youth stopped to rest in a church and fell asleep on a bench on which he hung the pouch containing the letter. A priest, being curious, opened the pouch and read the letter without breaking the seal. Shocked at the proposed crime, he carefully erased the words “have the bearer killed,” and wrote in, “wed our daughter to this man.” The queen saw the seal on the letter and recognized the emperor’s handwriting, so she convoked the princes, celebrated the nuptials, and gave the daughter to be Henry’s wife. The wedding took place at Aix-la-Chapelle. Conrad was stunned when he heard that his daughter was duly married, and by questioning the squires, the duke, and the priest, learned the whole truth of the matter. There was no longer any sense in resisting God’s will, so he sent for the young man, approved him as his son-in-law, and decreed that he should reign after him. At the place where the child Henry was born, a noble monastery was built and to this day is called Ursania (Hirschau).

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