Episode 10 – The Misfortunes one can endure…

After last weeks more descriptive episode this week we have an action-packed 25 minutes for you to enjoy. To get you back in the picture, we are in the year 977 and Otto II, together with two more Ottos has just put down the rebellion of the three Henries. Though the rebellion was challenging, Otto II seemed to have remained in control of the situation throughout. Some disaffected nobles had joined Henry’s banner but the major dukes, counts and bishops have remained loyal. But that lack of jeopardy will also be a weakness in Otto IIs reign. Without the sign of divine favour that was so obviously bestowed upon Otto the Great in Birten and Andernach, Otto II’s PR was not much better after the rebellion than before. The harsh treatment of Henry and his co-conspirators was a long way off the medieval ideal of the merciful ruler. Resentment continued which narrowed his room to manoeuvre.

Hello and welcome to the History of the German People – Episode 10 – The Misfortunes one can endure…

After last weeks more descriptive episode this week we have an action-packed 25 minutes for you to enjoy. To get you back in the picture, we are in the year 977 and Otto II, together with two more Ottos has just put down the rebellion of the three Henries. Though the rebellion was challenging, Otto II seemed to have remained in control of the situation throughout. Some disaffected nobles had joined Henry’s banner but the major dukes, counts and bishops have remained loyal. But that lack of jeopardy will also be a weakness in Otto IIs reign. Without the sign of divine favour that was so obviously bestowed upon Otto the Great in Birten and Andernach, Otto II’s PR was not much better after the rebellion than before. The harsh treatment of Henry and his co-conspirators was a long way off the medieval ideal of the merciful ruler. Resentment continued which narrowed his room to manoeuvre.

As Otto IIs family is quite small, it is crucial that he keeps them in strong positions dotted around the realm and aligned with his political objectives. One of the most important family members is his mother, Adelheid. Adelheid was a significant political player in her own right. During the reign of her husband, she was regularly referred to as the co-ruler of the empire. She had a particularly important role in Italy, where she had been queen before her husband had intervened. The Italian magnates saw her as the main reference point within the Ottonian family and she generously sponsored certain families, including the counts of Canossa, who became one of the most powerful families in Italy. She was also the sister of the King of Burgundy and the mother-in-law of the King of France. Her daughter Emma from her first marriage had married king Lothar of France. And let us not dismiss the fact that she had been involved in top level European politics since she was 15 and now, in her 45th year was a treasure trove of experience and knowledge crucial to the success of Otto IIs reign. In his first years as emperor, Adelheid was constantly by his side, providing advice and support. And he knew that falling out with his mother was something he could not afford. But he managed.

Events in Lothringia brought their relationship to the brink. Lothringia had forever been a difficult to run territory as the French kings remained of the view that it should be part of their kingdom. That gave the Lothringian nobles a permanent option to reject orders from the Ottonian rulers by threatening to shift allegiance to the French king. As long as Otto’s uncle Brun had been archbishop of Cologne and duke of Lothringia at the same time, the duchy was fairly stable. Brun passed away in 962 and subsequently the duchy was divided into two, Upper and Lower Lothringia, held by local senior aristocratic families. These families stayed loyal to Otto the Great, but when the old emperor died, the ancient quarrels re-emerged.

By 977 one of these, the duchy of Lower Lothringia had become vacant. That duchy was huge sway of land, comprising today’s Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and the bits of Germany on the western shore of the Rhine including the important cities of Cologne and Aachen. As we highlighted before, the Ottonians no longer confiscated vacant duchies for themselves or their families but gave them to members of the powerful families as a way to avoid large scale rebellions.

In the case of Lower Lothringia, Otto IIs choice of new duke was unusual. He chose his cousin Charles to be the new duke. Charles was not just Otto’s cousin, but much more importantly, he was the brother of Lothar, king of France. That was a very odd choice for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, Charles was blatantly not a powerful German noble with a large family Otto had to placate, his links were in France.
  • Secondly, Charles had fallen out with his brother Lothar over the honour of Queen Emma, Lothar’s wife. Charles had accused Emma of adultery with bishop Adalbero of Laon[1]. Lothar sided with his wife and threw Charles out.
  • Thirdly Charles only 2 years earlier had fought Otto II together with some Lothringian nobles who had forever been opposed to the Ottonians

If we net all this out, I find very little usefulness in appointing Charles as duke of such an important duchy. He brings no support from any German clan. He brings no French support either, au contraire, his appointment invites war with France.

But the most crucial thing is that Adelheid is Emma’s mother, and she did not take kindly to Charles besmirching the honour of her daughter. Sorry, besmirching of honour sounds is a bit too benign. What it really meant is that had Emma been found guilty of adultery, she would have been lucky to get away with permanent incarceration in a monastery.

Adelheid was now snubbed twice. First her protégé Henry the Quarrelsome had been mistreated. But now her daughter and her son-in-law’s arch enemy gets promoted for what seemed no reason, other than to demean her. And off she went to stay with her brother in Burgundy[2].

Otto II had now lost one of his most important councillors. As it happened, he did not have a lot of them. What alienated people even more was that his few councillors were mostly people of modest backgrounds who had made their careers in the church. As we said before, personal interaction with the emperor is crucially important to the nobles. It gives them access to justice and opportunities for advancement and reward. And let us not forget, these guys have vassals of their own so they need to appear to them as if they had access to the 31st floor. Otto’s strategy of relying on people with limited or no connections takes away their entry badge.

Apart from these advisors, the other person Otto listened to was his wife, Theophanu. Theophanu was now 17 and has probably learned the language and began finding her feet. But to understand the intricate network of personal, military and economic interconnections between the magnates in her husband’s kingdom is not easy. Her personal entourage is probably equally lost at sea. She cannot even rely on support from Constantinople any more where her clan, the Skleros are in open rebellion against the new emperor Basil II.

Compare that to Otto’s  grandfather Henry the Fowler who was friend with everyone, married to a Saxon noblewoman deeply connected to all the major clans in Saxony, readily accessible to his dukes and nobles and happy to take their advice.

Otto’s unpopularity was not lost on king Lothar of France. When the duke of Upper Lothringia also dies[3], he sees the chance and makes a surprise attack on Lothringia. He pushed all the way to Charlemagne’s ancient capital in Aachen[4]. As it happened, the imperial family had literally sat down to dinner when Lothar and his troops arrived. Otto and Theophanu had to run as fast as they could to escape and Lothar took over the palace, grabbed the insignia of imperial power and turned the eagle on the roof from west to east as a sign of the change of times[5].

This was a psychological shock to the system. The emperor running away is another one of those images that are extremely difficult to eradicate, a bit like the dog carrying in Magdeburg. Militarily the whole thing was a nonsense. The king of France had barely the resources to hold on to the little bits of his kingdom not controlled by his overbearing vassals, let alone enough to seriously threaten the emperor.

Otto II had to and did retaliate. He took an army to France burning and pillaging the countryside around Reims, Laon and Paris[6]. Otto’s army camped on the hill of Montmartre outside Paris and shouted Hallelujah at the top of their voices, which for some reason was not frightening enough for the Parisians to open the gates[7].  In the end, he did not manage to capture any of these towns. Moreover, none of the major French vassals joined Otto II as they had done under Otto I reign. Whether that was down to Otto II’s personality and reputation or down to the beginnings of a French national consciousness is subject to an endless debate. Safe to assume it was probably a bit of both. After a couple of months mistreating peasants, Otto II headed back home. Almost home, the French attacked his rear guard and captured the wagons full of plunder[8]. The French celebrated this as a major victory. Lothar kept trying to take advantage of the situation and besieged Cambrai, but a few months later has to sign a peace agreement with Otto II[9] and give up his claim on Lothringia. That peace agreement was signed in the border town of Margut-sur-Chiers, in other words, Lothar does not come to the emperor at his palace, as he did in 965. We are back to the early times of Henry the Fowler when the king of France saw himself as equal to the German ruler. That is a step down from Otto the Great’s reign and confidence in Otto’s rule diminishes further.

Back home in Magdeburg a true Game of Thrones type event takes place. During the royal assembly, a certain Waldo accuses count Gero of Morazenigau of betrayal[10]. The court of leading princes rules that the case should be resolved by single combat. In the fight Waldo receives two severe blows but soldiers on. Once up again, he manages to land a massive blow on Gero’s head. Gero goes down and has to concede. Waldo lays down his weapons and gets a drink of water. The water is not half- way down his throat when he keels over dead. Now we have a problem. Gero lost the fight and is hence proven guilty. However, Waldo died almost instantly after the fight from Gero’s blow  which must mean something. Otto II is in the unfortunate position of having to decide and states that since Gero had conceded whilst Waldo was still alive, Waldo’s claim stands and hence Gero is to be beheaded. Several nobles intervened, including duke Otto of Swabia, but to no avail. Gero was beheaded in the morning. This judgement was one of those which “pleased nobody” and made Otto’s life even harder.

After the humiliation in France Otto’s luck brightened up a little In the spring of 980 his wife Theophanu had delivered him a son, named Otto after three daughters[11].

Otto IIs next move was to go down to Italy. After his father’s death things in Italy in general and in Rome in particular had gone out of hand.

Pope John XIII who had been appointed by Otto the First and compliant in all end everything had passed in 972. The imperial party in Rome then pushed through the election of Benedict VI. Benedict VI lasted just 18 months. Once news came that Otto the Great had died and his son was tied up with his nobles, the Romans rose up. The Romans appointed a new pope, Boniface VII, whose first pious act was to relieve his predecessor from the pains of earthly existence.

Boniface VII’s rule was over even more quickly. After 1 month and 12 days he fled from imperial troops into the Castel Sant Angelo. There he grabbed the papal treasure and fled to Byzantine controlled areas of Southern Italy[12].

The Roman people upon gentle prodding of the imperial spears elected a new Pope, a comparatively virtuous man who took the name Benedict the VII. As this going to get complicated, here is the basic rule – Boniface is bad, Benedict is good.

Good Benedict ruled from 974 to 983, but in 980 he got under severe pressure from the Roman population[13] and it might have been that Boniface, the bad pope, returned[14] and managed to take control of Rome. In March 981, Otto II came down to Rome to bring back pope Benedict (the good one).  Bad Boniface briskly bolted to Byzantium.

Not only did Otto get the Pope he wanted, after long and complex negotiations Otto and his mother Adelheid reconciled[15]. Adelheid was crucial since she had all the connections in Italy. With her support he was able to bring the Italian nobles onto his side for his real grand project.

In 981 Otto II called a royal assembly in Rome where lords, bishops from all over the empire and even the king of Burgundy in person came to pay him respect[16]. He was even called upon to resolve some dispute between king Lothar and one of his major vassals, the last time an emperor would have a say over the affairs of France. It felt a bit like the good old days of Otto the Great. At the assembly plans were hatched for what to do in the autumn campaign season.

Having avoided the summer heat and malaria of Rome by staying in a specially built imperial Pfalz in the Abruzzo Mountains, Otto came back to Rome in the autumn of 981 and mustered his troops for what was his true objective in Italy, the conquest of the south[17].

Bringing both the south and the north of Italy under one rule would end the constant struggles over the papacy as the king/emperor had the Roman warring factions bottled up inside the holy city and thereby make imperial rule much more robust.

For most of the previous century Southern Italy was kept in balance between three main powers, The Lombard dukes who held the territory immediately south and east of Rome, the Byzantines, who held the rest of Southern Italy and the Muslim emirs of Sicily who controlled the island of Sicily.

Otto the Great had managed Southern Italy through a loyal and competent Lombard duke called Pandulf Ironhead. Pandulf had the audacity to die in 781 and, being a Germanic leader had split his inheritance amongst a number of more or less competent sons and nephews. In good old Germanic tradition, these guys wasted no time allying themselves with other local powers and going at each other’s throats.

Within all that fighting, the Byzantines held on by the skin of their teeth occasionally losing Bari and Taranto, their main strongholds to the Muslims. Looks like Southern Italy is quite fragmented and should be an easy pick, right?

Otto II thought so and declared that Southern Italy had come to him as dowry for his wife Theophanu. Most western scholars dismiss this claim, probably correctly. However, there might be a connection to Theophanu. As you may remember from episode 8, Theophanu was a member of the Skleros clan and a niece by marriage of emperor John Tzimiskis. When John Tzimiskis died in 976, her uncle, Bardas Skleros staged an attempt to become emperor alongside or instead the new emperor Basil II. That rebellion ended in a battle in 979, but Bradas Skleros and presumably her father Christopheros Skleros were still alive in exile in Baghdad, plotting their return. There is no evidence of any coordination between the German imperial government and the Skleros family, but it is not far fetched to believe that Otto expected that a domestic civil war in Byzantium would make his conquest of Southern Italy easier. In the end it did not matter much because the Skleros only returned to Byzantium five years later in 987. One thing that may indicate this to be a possibility is that from this moment on Otto calls himself Imperator Romanorum Augustus, that is Augustus, Emperor of the Romans. His father had simply called himself Caesar or Kaiser, without the reference to the Romans. Otto II’s is the same title as the title of a Byzantine emperor, which may be justified if his father or uncle in law had recognised him as co-emperor of the Byzantine empire.

Back to more tangible things. The game plan was to leave Pandolf’s offspring to their own fighting, take over the Byzantine lands and then secure that conquest against the Muslims.

Part one of the campaign went exactly to plan. Otto II assembled the largest army the Ottonian period had ever seen and marched south. He conquered the Byzantine duchy of Salerno and stayed in its capital Taranto until June[18].

As Otto expected, in the spring of 982 the Emir of Sicily brought his army across the straights of Messina to fight the German emperor. When the emir approached the Ottonian encampment near  the small town of Rossano Calabro in the deep south he realised that the emperor’s army was a lot larger than he had bargained for. He turned his troops around and marched as fast as he could towards the straights of Messina with the plan to take ships back home. But he never made it.

As the emir’s troops ran home along the coast, they were spotted by Byzantine merchant ships coming up the coast. They told Otto and Otto’s heavy cavalry began the pursuit[19].  

Somewhere near Capo Colonna, though that is disputed, the Emir realise that he would not make it back in time. He halted the flight and set up in full battle order. Otto’s heavily armoured knights crashed into the emir’s troops and pushed all the way to the centre. The emir’s bodyguard crumbled and the emir was killed. Job done.

No, not done at all. Whilst the German cavalry were busy slaughtering the emir, unbeknownst to them a reserve detachment of about 5’000 Muslim cavalrymen joined the fray. They encircled the fighting Germans and having restricted their room to manoeuvre began systematically massacring Otto’s army[20]. Many senior nobles died including the duke of Benevento, the bishop Henry of Augsburg, the Margrave of Merseburg, the abbot of Fulda and a further 19 counts.

Otto II fled by hailing a Byzantine ship – oh irony of ironies. He convinced the captain of the ship that he had enough and that he wanted to just pick up his wife and the imperial treasury before retiring to Constantinople. The greedy captain pushed his rowing slaves go double time only to find that when his ship arrived back at the town of Rossano, the emperor simply jumped into the sea and swam ashore.

In most reports the defeat is described as catastrophic. Reports of the fallen purple flower of the fatherland, the pride of blond Germans reached as far as the kingdom of Wessex. But when I examined the movements of Otto II after the battle, it did not look like a flight for his life at all. He stayed in Rossana[21], a few miles from the battlefield for a few weeks before moving leisurely back to Salerno and Capua[22], taking care of administrative burdens. He only gets to Rome by December or even March 983, 9 months after the “catastrophe” of Capo Colonna. That suggests the Muslims had returned to Sicily with the body of their fallen leader and the Byzantines had remained unable or unwilling to reconquer Salerno.

In the meantime, Otto II had sent his nephew Otto of Swabia and Bavaria back home to raise fresh troops. He only made it to Lucca where he and his companions died, probably of Malaria[23]. As we said before, Otto II does not have a lot of close relatives, making the loss of Otto of Swabia and Bavaria one of his most important vassals and closest confidants a severe blow.

In order to stabilise the situation Otto called a royal diet in Verona where the senior nobles of Italy and Germany elected his 3-year-old son Otto III as king[24]. This election was the only election of a future Roman emperor to have taken place on Italian soil. But what is even more striking is that the child king was elected by both German and Italian nobles. Not only that, but when he sets off to be crowned king in Aachen, he is accompanied by both the archbishop Willigis of Mainz as the highest-ranking churchman in Germany and the Archbishop of Ravenna as the primate of the Italian church.

Up until then the Kings of East Francia were elected exclusively by German magnates and crowned exclusively by German archbishops, whilst the Kings of Italy were elected by Italian nobles and crowned by Italian archbishops[25]. Otto III’s election and later coronation is an attempt to merge the German and the Italian part of the Ottonian realm into one Reich. It is another step in the direction of a rebirth of a pan-European political entity that is a key feature of the later Ottonians.

Apart from the election of little Otto III, the assembly of Verona was extremely productive. The inheritance of Otto of Swabia and Bavaria was redistributed, again back to old aristocratic clans, the Konradiner in Swabia and the Liutpoldinger in Bavaria. The latter is particularly noteworthy, as the lucky winner of the duchy of Bavaria is none other than Henry of Carinthia, one of the rebellious three Henries. I actually made a mistake in the last episode when I said this henry would be the one to die in the service of the emperor, whilst the one who actually died was Henry Bishop of Augsburg. You see, you are not the only one struggling with an excess of Henries in this narrative.

The other thing of note is that Otto invests Adalbert with the bishopric of Prague. Adalbert will appear again in our story a few episodes down the line, but for now let me just say that he would die as a missionary to the Pruzzi, the Prussians making their debut on the global stage in time honoured bloody fashion. He would also become one of the national saints of Poland.

And then there is the dispute with the Venetians who have been subjected to what I think is the first case of trade sanctions since the ancient Roman empire[26]. Since it was impossible to conquer Venice without a fleet and the empire had no fleet, they had begun to act independently from the imperial government in Pavia. A trade embargo was the only way to enforce control, however, even though some agreements were signed in Verona, these did not stick and Venice kept pushing for independence.

One last thing about Verona, they also debated another campaign against Muslim Sicily[27], which again suggests the war had not been lost.

But while Otto dreamt of retribution and little Otto III travelled north to Aachen for his coronation an actual catastrophe befell the dynasties homeland, Saxony.

Since I have been harping on about it so many times, you may remember that Otto the Great’s two famous generals, Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero had pushed the boundaries of the duchy decisively east by subjugating and converting the Slavs who lived east of the Elbe River. Most of that Christianisation involved more cold steel than the lord’s prayer.

In 983 the Slavs had enough of forced baptisms and wanton destruction of their pagan shrines and rebelled. The rebellion ran like wildfire. The Abodrites in the north had not forgotten the slaughter of the 700 in 955 and burned the city of Hamburg (again). The Liutzen and Heveller flattened the hated cathedrals and towns of Brandenburg and Havelberg.

The leaders of the border counties and the bishops finally gather troops to stop the flood of raging pagans. Battle is joined near Stendal and the Slavs are allegedly beaten comprehensively. I say allegedly because after the battle the Saxon troops return behind the Elbe River and effectively abandon the Slavic lands to their people who continued in their pagan beliefs. In my book that means the Slavs have won.

Instead of blaming the rebellion on the brutal suppression of Slavic religion and culture, the contemporaries laid the blame straight at Otto II’s feet. It was seen as a punishment for his sins.

And that sin was having suppressed the bishopric of Merseburg in eastern Saxony in 982. Merseburg was one of the bishoprics founded by his father Otto the Great. His bishop was Giselher, a member of the royal chapel and one of Otto’s closest advisers. Merseburg was one of the smaller and less prestigious bishoprics, which is why Giselher got very excited when the much larger and more prosperous archbishopric of Magdeburg became vacant during Otto IIs reign. He convinced Otto II to make him archbishop of Magdeburg. There was one small problem though. According to canon law in the 10th century, a bishop was forever attached to his bishopric and could not move up the food chain. Therefore the decision was taken to suppress the bishopric of Merseburg on a technicality which would make Giselher free to become archbishop of Magdeburg.  Suppressing a bishopric is not only a complicated thing to do under church law, in the eyes of the 10th century it is also close to sacrilege. Therefore, when the Saxons try to find a reason for the Slav rebellion they conclude that it could not possibly have been the indiscriminate slaughter of pagans and enslavement of wives and children, but quite obviously the suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg, which in turn was Otto’s fault.

Otto II hears about the Slav rebellion in Rome where he is waiting for new troops. These troops never came as all resources had now to be moved to the defence of the eastern border.

With his kingdom shrunk and under threat, his Italian policy stalled and his standing as a holy roman emperor trashed, Otto had come to the end of the road. On December 7th, 983 Otto II died of malaria in Rome. He is buried in St. Peter in Rome, the only medieval emperor to be buried in the holly city.

Otto II has been judged very harshly by his contemporaries and history, if they take any notice of him at all. In preparation of this episode, I could not find any biography of Otto II at all. There are biographies of Otto the Great, Theophanu and Otto III galore, but Otto II none. That is quite odd.

Otto II mustered one of the greatest armies the Ottonian dynasty ever put into the field in an attempt to conquer Southern Italy which, if successful, would have fundamentally changed the history of the empire.  An empire that included both Northern and Southern Italy would have been able to control the papacy much more effectively. A papacy under control of the emperor would have been forced to accept the imperial Church system in perpetuity making it easier for the future emperors to form a coherent state.

And it wasn’t some obvious military error that led to his defeat, just bad luck. If Otto II had only had a 10th of the luck his father had, he would have succeeded in this endeavour.

It is also not fair to blame the Slav rebellion on Otto II. The rebellion was very much the result of his father’s policy of Christian conversion by fire and sword. Again, it was bad luck the rebellion broke out during his reign and not before or afterwards.

We may talk about bad luck, but people in the 10th century did not believe in luck, they believed in all things being ordained by God. That included even the smallest things like a stubbed toe or a late flowering of vines. When all and everything is controlled by God, then losing a battle is a decision by the lord against the ruler. The string of misfortunes Otto II endured were not bad luck but a judgement by the lord against him. If the lord was not on his side, then he cannot be the ruler by the grace of God. And why did God remove his grace from the properly anointed king? In the eyes of the 10th century that was obvious, it was the unforgiveable sin of suppressing the bishopric of Merseburg,

Though later historians did not think along those lines, they seem to have absorbed the general notion that Otto II was somehow not quite right as a ruler. His failings really come down to his inability to relate to his subjects on a personal level. He always appeared to be separate from his magnates, be it on account of his better education, his glamorous wife or his choice of advisors. But that matters more than anything else in a political structure that is entirely built upon personal relationships. Therefore, Otto II would still have had a hard time had he beaten the Emir of Sicily and if the Slavs had not rebelled.

Next week Otto III will arrive in Aachen and be crowned, just a day before the news arrive that his father is dead. That drops the German kingdom into chaos as the boy king’s closest male relative Henry the Quarrelsome is instantly released and his mother fight over the guardianship and by extension the control over the kingdom.  The mathematically inclined amongst you may now expect the reign of Otto III will start with an epic fight between 9 Ottos and 9 Henries. Nope, history is neither linear nor exponential. This time is just one Henry against three ladies, a geek and a 3 year old – I am taking bets.

I hope you will join as again for an action-packed episode.

And if you enjoyed this episode, why don’t you follow the podcast on Apple or Spotify and from then on you will get every new episode fresh into your inbox, every week.

[1]RI II,2 n. 742a

[2] RI, II, 2n, 771b

[3] RI, II,2n 769c

[4] RI, II,2n 770a

[5] Thietmar III,8

[6] RI, II,2n 771d

[7] Schneidmueller, Weinfurter, Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters, p.67

[8] RI, II, 2n, 771d

[9] RI, II, 2n. 811a

[10] Thietmar III, 9

[11] RI, II 2n, 815a

[12] John Julius Norwich, the Pope, p.83

[13] Catholic Encyclopaedia: Benedict VII

[14] Norwich, p.83

[15] RI II, 2n, 833a

[16] RI II 2n, 840a

[17] RI, II 2n, 856c{a}

[18] RI II 2n,871

[19] Barkowski, Robert F. (2015). Crotone 982 (in Polish). Warszawa: Bellona. ISBN 978-83-11-13732-5.

[20] Reuter, Timothy. Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800–1056. New York: Longman, 1991.

[21] RI II 2n, 876

[22] RI II 2n, 877-890

[23] RI II 2n, 884a

[24] RI II 2n, 898b


[26] RI II 2n, 899-901

[27] RI II 2n, 902a