Ingelheim, May 1154
Volmar presented the letter of invitation stamped with the royal seal to a guard. We were ushered through an arched tunnel into the inner courtyard, where brightly-dressed courtiers and clerics in dark lawyers’ robes came and went between the buildings ranged along the perimeter. I noted signs of both greatness and decay as we followed another soldier past the castle church, with an arched dome roof and a row of small windows. To one side, I glimpsed a hall stretching the length of the wall, likely the royal residence, with a colonnaded façade that looked elegant but worn, the stone of the capitals chipping in many places. Crossing the courtyard, we arrived at a large rectangular building, whose longer far side formed a part of the rear wall of the compound. It easily towered over all the other structures but bore the same marks of age as the hall. It was the aula regia, where the king held his court.
The presence chamber occupied the entirety of the building and resembled an enormous single-nave church lined with clerestory windows on both sides. It had to be over thirty feet high, and a buzz of conversation rose to the coffered ceiling, creating an echo. I had imagined a royal audience would be held in reverent silence, much like the moment of transubstantiation during Mass. Instead, the chamber was full of knights and ladies in sumptuous dress, laughing and chatting; senior officials with gold chains of office discussing business while their attendants held scrolls of documents; and prelates in their finest robes carrying conversations in small groups. Above the heads of the crowd, military banners and flags of the different imperial territories lined the length of the walls. Among them, I recognized the silver wheel of the archbishopric of Mainz and the golden lions of the Palatinate of the Rhine.
Our escort whispered something to yet another guard, who disappeared into the crowd. He returned some moments later with a richly dressed courtier who motioned us to follow him down the central aisle. As we walked along the checkered marble floor, people stepped aside, some with curious looks or pausing in mid-sentence at the sight of our Benedictine habits, others barely noticing as they carried on their chats.
When we finally cleared the crowd, we found ourselves in an open area at the far end of the hall that ended in an apse framed by a wide and graceful arch. It was there that the throne stood on a three-step elevation, with the imperial banner depicting a black eagle against a golden background draped on the wall above it.
The King of Germany, and soon-to-be-crowned Holy Roman Emperor, was seated on a high-backed chair of carved dark oak, with courtiers in attendance on both sides. He was conversing with the nobleman closest to him, leaning slightly to one side while his beringed hand was casually draped over the opposite armrest. Our guide bid us stop some distance away and wait. When Frederick had finished with the courtier, he turned to us and made a beckoning gesture, and the guide prompted me to step forward to the foot of the throne.
Frederick was a man of medium build, and his large throne only enhanced that impression. But, true to his reputation for physical strength and vigor, he was muscular and broad-shouldered, and his erect posture gave him a commanding presence. Earlier, Volmar had calculated that the king was around thirty years old, but his handsome face, framed by a small reddish beard, looked youthful and unscarred, even though he had already led men to battle in the Holy Land. Only the brownish tint of what once must have been a fair complexion betrayed a life of adventure. His dark blue eyes had a keen, intelligent look of a man of broad learning and deep curiosity. I contemplated him until he spoke: a fervent crusader, he had a serenity about him that spoke of piety but also of a sense of mission, and of confidence in his divine mandate.
“Abbess Hildegard, your fame had reached us even before our election,” he addressed me in a surprisingly warm voice that carried well despite the conversations behind us continuing unabated. “Scivias is a soothing reminder of God’s power and mercy.”
The Column of Burning Spices, based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician, was released on Feb. 1, 2019. It’s now available on Amazon along with part one, The Greenest Branch. Both are FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited.