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The Medieval World

Otto the Great

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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A brief summary of the factors which gave rise to the foundation of the German kingdom throws light on the problems which faced Otto and which he would have to solve. An important factor was that the east Frankish state was in many ways different from the western.

Apart from Lotharingia and Franconia, the east had not been part of the Merovingian kingdom but had been conquered by the Carolingians. This made its independence not far removed or forgotten. With the collapse of the Carolingians and the inability of the kings to control the Magyar invasions, local leadership came to be relied upon.

This restored the not- forgotten ancient traditions as local land-owners became military leaders, calling themselves dukes, with power based on land and influence - the beginning of the feudal system. These dukes, at first with no power over counts or the church, were quick to seize that power.

It was said of the time of Charlemagne that the church sought the re-establishment of a unified Roman Empire. Only a hundred years after the death of that Emperor, it can be presumed that church history remained much the same.

The church still favoured a strong and unified monarchy. From their point of view, it would be better to deal with one king rather than with four, apart from the fact that one strong king would better repulse the Magyar invasions. It was the Magyars in fact who made the unified monarchy essential, for those invasions came to their peak during the first half of the 10th century.

At first the dukes tried to create a unified monarchy through a compromise, by choosing their weakest member as king in 911, the duke Conrad of Franconia. However, such a compromise could not adequately fulfil its purpose and so a stronger man was elected upon the death of Conrad, Henry the Fowler, duke of Saxony.

See:
  • S Painter, A History of the Middle Ages (London, 1966), pp164-5.
  • The basic problem, therefore, which faced Henry and, after him, his son, Otto, was the breaking of the power of the dukes. Only by this means could full monarchical authority be established in Germany. Henry attempted to do this by demanding homage from the dukes and making them vassals, breaking their power over the counts.

    They once again came directly under the king and again making bishops and abbots his direct agents. The bishops received again the land which they had lost under Louis the Child and were given authority of counts within their lands. This Otto inherited and was able to build upon.

    See:
  • C Davies, The Emergence of Western Society (Glascow, 1969), pp192-3.
  • The background to Otto's coronation is an indication of the stance which Otto was to take towards the dukes. It was taken that his title would be hereditary. Henry designated Otto "to ensure the succession and play down the arbitrary element of election".

    In the second place, the coronation took place at Aachen, thus identifying Otto's reign with the Carolingian tradition. He was crowned by two archbishops, thus ensuring that the monarchy had the total support of the church. After the ceremony, the banquet was served by the dukes, thus recognising their position as vassals.

    The death of a king is the ideal time for the vassals to attempt to re-assert their independence. It was natural, therefore, that, on the death of Henry, the dukes would attempt to regain their power. This they did and Otto was faced with immediate problems within the first few years of his reign as three of the four dukes revolted.

    The problem which Otto had to solve was this: if they were allowed to remain semi-independent, their loyalty could not be depended upon and it would be contrary to the aims of a firmly unified monarchy. But, at the same time, any attempt to remove their power and impose monarchical authority would lead to revolt.

    The abolition of the duchies was a possibility but not desired for they formed a strong ring of defence for the kingdom and any attempt at its destruction would lay the kingdom wide open for attack from the Magyars or any other strong power. Otto had to keep the duchies but at the same time they had to be loyal.

    Conrad had married Otto's daughter, Liutgard.

    The exception to this rule was Franconia for she did not fully form part of the ring defence. In 935, when her duke Eberhard revolted, he was killed and not replaced; Franconia was now ruled directly. In Saxony, much land was given to Otto's favourite, Magnus Billung, but with no ducal title.

    The other duchies were kept but, as each duke died, he was replaced by a relative of Otto. By 947 all the duchies were in the hands of relatives: his brother Henry in Bavaria, his son Liudolf in Swabia, his son-in-law Conrad in Lotharingia.

    He forced the dukes to give up their right of appointing bishops and abbots and forced Burgundy into recognizing him as overlord.

    See:
  • M Scott, Medieval Europe (London, 1975), pp67-8.
  • Otto's solution had two immediate effects. It stopped the duchies from becoming hereditary and it also placed them, for a time at least, under people whom Otto could trust. As a short term answer it was satisfactory because, while they were new to their office and strangers in the territory, they could not count on local support against the crown.

    See:
  • CW Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, Vol I (Cambridge, 1953), p432.


  • (Henry himself had been disloyal on a number of earlier occasions, each time pardoned.)

    However, in the long term, it could not be guaranteed, for loyalty of relatives, especially in the middle ages, was a tenuous affair. As Previté-Orton put it, they were all unpopular in their duchies and all, save Henry, disloyal to the king.

    That Otto's solution was not a permanent one can be seen in the fact that in 953, Otto had to content with disloyalty and revolt from his son and his son-in-law. After those revolts, Henry, because of his loyalty, kept Bavaria but Swabia was given to Burchard and Lotharingia to Otto's youngest brother, Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne.

    Although the king had placed the counts directly under him, which weakened the authority of the dukes, they were still not totally reliable because, being nobles, their main concern lay in increasing their own landed-possessions and power.

    Otto therefore turned to the Church for support and found a willing one because of their desire for the establishment of a strong, unified monarchy and maintained the belief of the king being a ruler appointed by God.

    See:
  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p434.
  • Use of the church had many advantages. Otto had little capital to pay officials and soldiers. The church, however, could call on voluntary services and sent strong bodies of soldiers to supplement the royal army when needed.

    It was found that their military service was greater than that of the lay magnates and in the Italian campaign of 981, during the reign of Otto II, the church supplied 1,504 knights while the lay magnates only 600.

    See:
  • Painter, A History of the Middle Ages, p166;

  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p434.
  • The church army was reliable and was a firm ally to the crown in all the duchies. If a duke rebelled, the church would draw up its forces against him. Apart from this, the bishops and abbots, because they were celibate, in theory at least, they could not hand on their land and power as hereditary possessions and the king could make certain of appointing people he could trust.

    On top of this, they were the only educated and literary class, and therefore were responsible for the court records and court business and acted as chancellors and envoys. They were also capable of conceiving the idea of a German kingdom and empire which made them valuable assets.

    Otto therefore placed bishops and abbots alongside the dukes and counts as princes of his kingdom. The estates of the church were, as has been mentioned, removed from the jurisdiction of the counts and he gave the bishops several counties.

    Franconia was practically divided between Wurzburg and Bamburg and the title of count was given to the archbishops of Mainz and Cologne, the latter eventually taking over the duchy of Lotharingia. He gave the bishops jurisdiction over more land, control of tolls and mints.

    See:
  • S Painter, Feudal Monarchies (Ithaca, 1968), p90;

  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p436;

  • Scott, Medieval Europe , p69.
  • For this to succeed, however, Otto had to have control of the Church to be able to nominate and appoint the bishops and abbots. Appointment of the higher-clergy therefore became the concern of the king.

    All newly elected bishops had to do homage to him for which they were invested with their office, given their ring and crozier and then showered with lands and immunities, with rights of taxation and jurisdiction.

    He also strengthened their loyalties, as he had done with the dukes, by giving the posts to members of his own family, Cologne to his brother, Treves to his cousin and Mainz to his bastard-son.

    See:
  • Painter, History of the Middle Ages, p166;

  • Painter, Feudal Monarchies, pp91-2.
  • Like the Carolingians, Otto also used the church to keep order in the new establishments in the east. Once he had conquered the slavs, he established garrisons of German settlers to protect the territory and set up new bishoprics.

    The slavs were forced to pay a tithe to the church. In 962, he established the bishopric of Magdeburg with no eastern boundary so that it could incorporate any further slav lands which he conquered.

    See:
  • Davies, The Emergence of Western Society, p198.
  • Once Otto had conquered Lombardy and Italy, he set up an indirect rule over Lombardy, again using bishops as his instruments of government. He confirmed the powers which the bishops there had usurped from the counts in return for their oath of loyalty.

    He also tried to gain their loyalty through the donation of large areas of land and by allowing them to extend their control over the monasteries within their territory.

    Another threat to Otto's kingdom lay in the Magyar tribes who sporadically invaded the territory during the first half of the 10th century, The Magyar threat was also a paradox, for although it was a danger to the kingdom, its danger at the same time tended to bind the kingdom together.

    Without this threat it is possible that the kingdom would not have formed in the first place. However, because of the existence of this threat, the dukes rallied together so that in 955, at the last invasion of the Magyars, the invaders found themselves confronted with an entire kingdom and not just a strong duchy.

    In 953, open revolt had broken out in Swabia, Lotharingia and Saxony. Although Otto had the upper hand in these revolts, the defences were weakened when the Magyars attacked in 955. This danger rallied all five duchies and the Magyar power was annihilated at the battle of Lechfield. Hence the Magyar invasion was at once a destructive and a unifying factor.

    Mention has been made already to the revolutions with which Otto had to deal. Attention must again be turned to them for Otto, in trying to establish his monarchical authority, was forced by them to turn his attention to matters of far greater import than the mere putting of relatives on the ducal thrones.

    The problem of the southern duchies was such that it led Otto into direct intervention in Italy as a solution, which in turn brought to him the crown of emperor.

    With the death of Henry I in 936, Otto was not only faced with revolution by dukes attempting to re-establish their power and independence but also the possibility of the southern duchies of Swabia and Bavaria strengthening their political power through interference in Italy.

    With the death of Rudolf of Burgundy in 936, Hugh of Italy attempted to gain both Provence and upper Burgundy through marriage to Rudolf's widow and through the marriage of his son to Rudolf's daughter, Adelaide.

    Otto, seeing the danger to his kingdom, invaded Burgundy on the pretext of protecting Rudolf's son, Conrad, who was now given an education in Germany and then restored to Burgundy as a vassal of Otto, although Burgundy and Germany were not formally united.

    Otto, viewing Hugh as a danger, watched his movements so as to prevent him consolidate his power. When Hugh gained the Lombard crown, Otto attempted to create a balance by supporting Hugh's rival, Berengar, who became a vassal of Otto and in 945 attacked Hugh.

    In a campaign in 950, Hugh and his son were killed. But, with Hugh out of the way, Berengar immediately attempted to gain his throne and at the same time the duke of Swabia, his son, Liudolf, decided to interfere in Italy in the hopes of gaining power and territory through Italy's weakness.

    See:
  • G Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (Oxford, 1972), pp48-51.
  • The situation was perilous for Otto's German kingdom, for if the southern dukes were successful, they would have created a permanent division of north and south Germany. At the same time, Otto did not want Berengar, supposedly his vassal, consolidating his power.

    Adelaide called upon Otto to deliver her from Berengar who, she said, had usurped her rights. Otto had no wish to see Berengar marry Adelaide, for this would give him rival rights to Burgundy should anything happen to Conrad. Otto's authority and kingdom in Germany stood to be weakened unless he intervened in Italy.

    See:
  • P Hughes, A History of the Church, Vol 2 (London, 1961), pp192-4;

  • Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany, p52.
  • In 951, Otto marched on Italy, took the Lombard crown and married Adelaide. At this stage, Otto thought of taking the imperial crown as well and requested it of the Pope. Things were not ready for him to take it, however.

    In Rome, the Pope was under the control of Alberic, as the Papacy had for over half a century been under Alberic's mother, Marozia and his grandfather, Theophylact. His aim was to build up a secular principality in Rome under a Papal Patrimony and therefore he would prevent a revival of the Empire because an empire would be his rival.

    On top of this, Otto's plans upset those of Liudolf who was angered at the preferential treatment given to Bavaria. He formed a conspiracy with Franconia, hoping for support from Berengar.

    This revolt and the civil was which ensued from 953 - 955, together with the last Magyar invasion, forced Otto to turn his attention away from Italy. It also forced him to recognise Berengar to whom he gave the Italian crown in return for a promise of allegiance.

    See:
  • Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany, p53.
  • With Otto involved elsewhere, Berengar was again free to press for his ambitions, to break free of German control and to conquer Rome. By this time Alberic's son was on the Papal throne as John XII and ruler of Italy.

    He now called upon Otto to rescue him and, finding himself in a similar position to Charlemagne, Otto could not refuse. By this stage, he had restored order in Germany and had annihilated the Magyars at Lechfield.

    In 961 therefore he again turned to Italy, expelling Berengar and taking the Italian crown for himself. He continued to Rome and this time there was nothing in the way of his taking the imperial crown; in 962 he was crowned emperor by the Pope.

    In defence of Otto's Italian and imperial policy, intervention must have appeared to Otto as the most practical solution to the threat to his authority and kingdom that the southern duchies and Italy held. He had to prevent the strengthening of the southern duchies at the expense of Italy and, indirectly, Germany.

    If Otto did not control Italy, then the southern duchies would and that would be in opposition to his kingdom. He also saw the need for maintaining a balance in Italy to prevent Italy from becoming a rival and a danger to his Germanic kingdom.

    He had to prevent the widow Adelaide from falling into the hands of an opportunist with the possibility then of uniting Lombardy and Burgundy. Otto had built himself the reputation of being the defender of the faith: as such could he refuse to rescue the Pope when called to do so?

    Church policy demanded this last of Otto. Otto had established his authority in Germany largely through the aid of the church. For this, he needed the Pope's co-operation.

    If the Pope fell into the hands of a serious rival, Otto's authority in Germany could have been weakened and, on the other hand, with the creation of closer relations with the Pope, Otto's control of the church in turn could be tightened.

    There existed too the fact that, although Otto could create a bishop, he could not depose one. Hence, if a bishop sided with one of his enemies, as the archbishop of Mainz sided with Liudolf, Otto would need the Pope's aid to depose him.

    Otto could also not create new bishoprics. If any one bishopric grew too large, it would destroy the balance between church and state. The archdiocese of Mainz had the possibility of becoming ever- greater through eastward expansion. Otto needed Papal sanction for the creation of a new archdiocese at Magdeburg.

    See:
  • Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany, p54.
  • Another reason for interference is presented in Barraclough. Otto's kingdom was much the same as Lothar's Middle Kingdom and Lothar had combined the title of king with that of emperor. Possession of the imperial crown therefore would also mean possession of the lands of the Middle Kingdom, i.e. Italy, Burgundy and Lotharingia.

    To gain the title would put an end to the century of instability, and would be the highest expression of legitimate right not just over Italy but of the Middle Kingdom and therefore of Otto's Kingdom. This would be of importance since the principle of hereditary rights had not yet been fully confirmed.

    On top of this, the kingdom up until 955 had not shown itself to be totally united. But the resounding victory at Lechfield had made Otto famous so that the title of "emperor" began to be used of him. His victory over the Magyars placed him among the ranks of the saviours of Europe and protector of the faith, a title allied to that of emperor.

    This identity with the title of emperor, together with the symbolic identification by the coronation at Aachen at the beginning of his reign, set in motion the natural desire to take the imperial crown when the chance presented itself.

    The close similarity of Charlemagne's rescue of the Pope with Otto's achievement in 962 would reinforce the desire. Then too Otto was the most powerful ruler of western Europe, recognised as overlord not only in his own kingdom but in Burgundy, Spain and Denmark and had successfully arbitrated in France.

    See:
  • Davies, The Emergence of Western Society, p195.
  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p436.
  • Strong reasons can be given to deter a German from interference in Italy. The climate with its malaria and plagues, the Alps as a barrier to communication with the rest of the German kingdom, the fact that the king's position in Germany would be weakened without much substantial gain from Italy.

    Moreover, the Italians regarded the Germans as barbarians as well as the differences in their culture and political evolutions, it must nevertheless be realised that the grass does appear greener on the other side of the fence. Italy did appear desirable and alluring and the land rich.

    Furthermore, conquest of Italy would give Otto's kingdom access to the Mediterranean Sea with its trade with the east, whereas the Magyars had cut off overland trade.

    Some of the results of Otto's policy have already been seen for the result led to new action; for example, as a result of his policy towards gaining and maintaining the loyalty of the dukes, Otto was forced into penetrating deeper and deeper south, until he took Italy.

    This in itself had further consequences, both for himself and for his successors, for once they had taken Italy, they found they were saddled with her. Otto spent ten of his last twelve years in Italy, without gaining the complete loyalty of the Italians and yet, at the same time, weakening his own German kingdom.

    Interference in Italy too meant that little time could be spent on gaining an effective and lasting form of government in Germany. The gaining of Italy too meant that energy had to be spent further and further south, bringing the Saxon Empire into contact with the Byzantine which dominated southern Italy.

    It became clear that, once Otto had intervened in Italy, he could not rest, nor could his successors, until he had gained control of all Italy, an impossible task.

    A misunderstanding seemed to have developed between the Pope and the Emperor. Otto, in confirming the donation of Pepin and giving larger territorial grants, saw it simply in the same light as the immunities which he gave to his German church.

    The Pope, on the other hand, saw it as a confirmation of absolute independence. Hence, in 963, when Otto asked for an oath of allegiance from John XII, the Pope tried to build up a coalition against him and found himself deposed. This brought on rioting and the emperor was forced to return continually to Rome to restore or depose popes.

    Otto's church policy too had dangers. The church was soon the largest landowner in Germany but it was in a position of subservience to the crown. Otto made no attempt at ruling the church but later Henry III would.

    However, a king who was weaker than Otto or less careful about his choice of bishops could find himself in a dangerous situation. The more power that was given to the church, the more disastrous could it be for the kingdom.

    The church already had the power, through its army, to depose dukes in the name of the king. Such power could be turned against a weaker king to depose the king himself. The Investiture Controversy would prove this.

    In the meantime, unlike Charlemagne, Otto was lucky enough to have a series of strong successors who were able to keep the kingdom intact and even expand upon it.

    See also:


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