Beginnings: The Early Counts of Savoy (1003-1323)

The Romans knew the area of Savoy as Saubauda. The Burgundians overran the Alpine region after the fall of the Empire in the 5th Century and quickly annexed it to their domains. Almost a century later, the Franks followed the Burgundians and by the 9th Century, Savoy was an integral part of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne,s Empire. The Emperor and his descendants carved up the area into fiefdoms and counties. The subsequent disintegration of the Carolingian Empire brought Savoy once again in the sphere of the Burgundian Kingdom. Petty nobles who ruled the parts of the terrain frequently contested sovereignty over the area.

The founder of the Savoy dynasty,šHumbert,šthe "Whitehanded" (980-1048), was born in the year 980 of possibly Teutonic ancestry. He was a knight of the Holy Roman Empire and assisted in the campaign of King Conrad the Salic to solidify his claims to Burgundy. (The basis of his nickname is not recorded and has been the subject of speculation. Two theories are that he was extremely pale or that his hands were snow-like in appearance owing to the Alpine climate. Another attributes it to a mistranslation of the white walls of his castle.)

By 1003, the Emperor had accorded him the title of Count of Salmourenc in the Viennois. By 1017, he assumed the County of Nyon by Lake Geneva, and in rapid succession, received the territory now known as the Val d'Aosta, with its strategic mountain passes through the Alps. By 1034, he had control of the counties of Savoy, Maurienne, Belley, part of the Chablis and the Tarantaise. Count Humbert I of Savoy commanded access to three Alpine passes; namely Mount Cenis and the two St. Bernard passes.

The first Count of Savoy married the daughter of the lay rector of the Abbey of St. Maurice d'Agaune, a site that would later figure prominently in the history of the House and the Order of Sts. Maurice and Lazarus. Humbert had established the foundation of his dynastic house in Savoy and proven himself an able vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor. In an age of uncertain alliances and even shorter longevity, he had a successful and long life, pacifying the area of Savoy and its surroundings and emphasizing the charitable work of the monasteries and churches. When he died in 1048, he was buried in the Cathedral of St. Jean de Maurienne.

Humbert I was succeeded by his son, Amadeus I (died 1051), whose reign as Second Count of Savoy lasted a brief three years, ending in 1051. His notable accomplishment was the founding of the Priory of Bourget-du-Lac.

Humbert's second son, Otto (died 1060), Third Count of Savoy, succeeded his brother. Otto had married well: his wife, Adelaide, was the daughter and heiress of Odelrico Manfredi, the Marquess of Susa, who ruled over most of modern day Piedmont and Liguria, including the County of Turin. The Holy Roman Emperor affirmed his new domains and Otto, in turn, proclaimed his authority by minting coins. He also dominated territories on both sides of the Alps, critical to Savoy's territorial integrity and independence. This would be a fundamental aspect of the state's foreign policy until 1859. He died in 1060 and was the first Savoy count to be interred in the Cathedral of St. Giovanni in Turin.

The Fourth Count of Savoy was Peter I, the "Youth" (1048-1078), who ruled initially through a regent, his mother, Adelaide.

He died in 1078 and was succeeded by his brother, Amadeus II (died 1080), as Fifth Count of Savoy. He added substantially to the Savoy patrimony through the dowry he received on his marriage to Giovanna of Geneva. After a reign of only two years, Amadeus was buried close to Humbert I.

The accession of the Sixth Count of Savoy, his son, Humbert II "The Fat" (died 1103), saw the first open insurrection of the communes against the authority of the Count of Savoy. Humbert attempted to reconcile the Piedmontese communes with his central authority and achieved a degree of peace.

That reconciliation with the communes was complete with the accession of his son, Amadeus III "The Crusader" (1095-1148). Deeply devout and loyal to the Church, the Seventh Count of Savoy restored the Abbey of St. Maurice d'Agaune and founded the Abbey of Hautecombe on the banks of the Lake Bourget in 1125. He also preferred and used the style of Count of Savoy instead of his other titles and was a Vicar of the Holy Roman Emperor. Amadeus III adopted as the family heraldic charge the cross of Savoy. He led many Savoyard knights alongside his nephew, King Louis VII of France, on the Second Crusade and died in 1148 on Cyprus, where he was buried in the Abbey of the Holy Cross.

His son, Humbert III, called "The Blessed" (1129-1189), inherited Amadeus' religious convictions. Contemporary writings suggest that the Eighth Count of Savoy was deeply pious, preferring the life of a monk to that of a sovereign. He gave entitlements to monasteries and churches and encouraged them to increase their charitable works among the poor of Savoy and Piedmont. He played a decisive role in the organization of the chapter at the Abbey of Hautecombe. He desperately needed an heir and married four times in the effort. He died in 1189 and was the first Count of Savoy to be buried at Hautecombe. In 1838, Pope Gregory XVI decreed that he was Blessed Umberto III of Savoy and fixed his feast day as March 4th, the date of his death.

Humbert's son by Clemenza of Zharinghen, Thomas I (1177-1233), succeeded as Ninth Count of Savoy in 1189. He reorganized the administration of the county, granting more rights to the communes. By allying himself with the Holy Roman Emperor he also increased the stature of the dynasty: the Emperor made him an Imperial Vicar and extended his authority to other areas, including Geneva, Savona and Saluzzo. At his death in 1233, Humbert's various territories were divided among his heirs. Amadeus IV (1197-1253) succeeded as Tenth Count of Savoy while his brother, Thomas II, obtained Piedmont, Aimone the County of Chablais, and Peter and Philip received other fiefs. The brothers agreed to be nominal vassals of Amadeus IV.

Amadeus IV was a scholar and diplomat. He devoted much of his time securing a balance between the Holy Roman Empire and France. One notes that he was the first ruler of Savoy to employ the additional title of Duke of Aosta and that the coins he minted used the ancient Latin name of Sabaudia, or Savoy. He was buried at Hautecombe after his death in 1253 and was succeeded by his son, Boniface (1224-1263).

Young Boniface was a youth of 19 when he succeeded as Eleventh Count of Savoy and had little training. His regent was his uncle Peter. He was captured by Piedmontese rebels of his uncle Thomas II and died a prisoner in Piedmont in 1263. He was interred at the Cathedral of St. Jean de Maurienne, near Humbert I and Amadeus II.

With no progeny, Boniface was succeeded as Twelfth Count of Savoy by his uncle and former Regent, Peter II (1203-1268), in 1263. Peter was styled the "Little Charlemagne". As a youth he had spent much time in England at the court of King Henry III, whose Queen, Eleanor of Provence, was also Peter's aunt. He was a favorite of Henry's who created him Earl of Richmond and gave him a palace alongside the River Thames that became known as Savoy House. Peter nurtured the English alliance to his benefit and used it against the rival claims of France and the Empire. He acquired more territories in the Vaud, defeated Rudolph of Habsburg at Chillon and stopped the Habsburg threat to Savoy. Time and money was spent on securing the defenses of the county by a string of castles. But there was also family animosity because he imposed himself as Boniface's successor over the rival claims of the sons of his elder brother, Thomas of Piedmont.

Ironically, while Peter II devoted most of his life to increasing and securing the Savoy patrimony, he had no heirs himself. He gave the sacred ring used for the consecration of the Kings of Burgundy to the Abbey of St. Maurice d'Agaune, wrote the first Statutes of Savoy and created a Peer's Council at Chambery. He was buried at Hautecombe on his death in 1268.

The Little Charlemagne was succeeded by his brother Philip I (1207-1285), another son of Thomas I. His was not the usual path to the throne. As a younger son, he had been groomed for a role in the church rather than the state. In 1245, he was appointed Archbishop of Lyon – but, since he never took final vows of holy order, he could and did marry Alice, the widow of the Count of Bourgogne, in 1267. The married Archbishop succeeded his brother as Thirteenth Count of Savoy in 1268 and allied himself with the Pope against the Habsburgs in Switzerland. He died without heirs and was buried at Hautecombe in 1285.

Of all the sons of Thomas I only Thomas II, inheritor of Piedmont, produced sons who survived Philip I. Amadeus V was this Thomas' son [Thomas II was a Savoy, though he never succeeded as Count of Savoy since he had been granted the fiefdom of Piedmont only and therefore is not recognized as a Count of Savoy] and came to be called the Great. He was born in 1243 and became the brother-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII of Luxembourg, on his marriage to Maria of Brabant. He reconciled Savoy with the Empire and also curtailed his predecessor's support of the Swiss against the Empire.

The Fourteenth Count of Savoy, Amadeus V (1243-1323), is known as the "Great". As a younger son of Thomas II, Count of Piedmont, he would have made less than a footnote in dynastic history but for the misfortune of the deaths of his uncle, Count Philip I of Savoy, and his older brother, Count Thomas III of Piedmont, in year 1285. He succeeded as Count of Savoy and also became Regent for his brother's son Philip, Prince of Achaia.

The Savoy patrimony was divided since Piedmont was the domain of the heirs of Thomas III and the County of Vaud was that of Amadeus' younger brother, Louis. Amadeus knew that if the family was to survive the stormy and bloody political arena of the Middle Ages, it would have to act as one. He therefore imposed his nominal authority over his nephew in Piedmont and his brother in Vaud, who recognized him as their liege. In return he granted them liberal authority in their domains.

By producing a united front, Amadeus was able to successfully conclude a treaty of alliance with the Habsburgs and became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Ambitions and cunning, Amadeus the Great appreciated the advantages of strategic marriage alliances and contracted a prized diplomatic coup by marrying his daughter, Giovanna, to Andronicus Paleologus, the Emperor of Byzantium.

Like the earlier counts, Amadeus was deeply religious and a fierce soldier who knew neither fear nor harbored rancor. It was appropriate that he died while he was with the Pope at Avignon making preparations for a Crusade in 1323. He was buried at the Abbey of Hautecombe.