Episode 2 – A Dog’s breakfast

Last week we watched King Henry the Fowler’s meteoric rise from inauspicious beginnings to the dominant position within the ancient Carolingian empire. Henry the Fowler’s last and probably most significant act came at the end of his life when he broke the Merovingian tradition of dividing the kingdom amongst the sons of the ruler. Instead, Henry determined that his son Otto and only his son Otto should be king.

So far, so wise. But, and there is always a but, what he did not work out was what to do with the spares. And there were quite a few spares about, three brothers to be precise.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 2 – A Dog’s Breakfast

Thank you all for coming bac and for all the feedback. I really appreciate that.

Anyway back to the show

Last week we watched King Henry the Fowler’s meteoric rise from inauspicious beginnings to the dominant position within the ancient Carolingian empire. Henry the Fowler’s last and probably most significant act came at the end of his life when he broke the Merovingian tradition of dividing the kingdom amongst the sons of the ruler. Instead, Henry determined that his son Otto and only his son Otto should be king.

So far, so wise. But, and there is always a but, what he did not work out was what to do with the spares. And there were quite a few spares about, three brothers to be precise.

The oldest brother was Thankmar. Thankmar was 26 years old, i.e., four years older than Otto. Thankmar was the son of Henry the Fowler from his first marriage.

His mother was Hatheburg of Merseburg. Hatheburg was a, a rich heiress from Saxony. When Henry first met her, he was – at least according to the chronicler Widukind, so “enticed by her beauty and the usefulness of her inherited wealth” that he married her on the spot. That was rash, very rash. Thing is, he did not meet Hatheburg at a debutant ball or at a dinner party in her parent’s house. No, he found her in a convent where she was about to become a nun. As a prospective nun, she could only marry under dispensation from at least a bishop. Blinded by passion, Henry somehow forgot to put the application in the post and, very much to Thankmar’s chagrin, no dispensation has ever been forthcoming.

The lack of dispensation was a bit of a scandal, but nobody really challenged the son of the duke of Saxony. The illegality of the marriage only became an issue after Henry the Fowler’s two older brothers had died and Henry suddenly became the future duke of Saxony.

Hatheburg may have may have been a rich heiress, but was she a rich enough heiress for the future duke of Saxony? Hatheburg had brought a sizeable dowry, the city and county of Merseburg, but there were other, more politically valuable prizes around.

And so, Henry started to burn for another, even better endowed beauty, Mathilda of Ringelheim. Mathilda was top of the tree Saxon nobility being a descendant of Widukind, the enemy of Charlemagne and Saxon folk hero (and despicable coward, but let’s just leave that aside). Her family, the Immedingers were a clan of important Saxon counts and also related to another large clan, the Billunger. Hence much more suitable for Henry, future duke of Saxony.

Hatheburg marriage was swiftly declared null and void, she returned to her convent and her dowry, Merseburg, was casually added to the ducal estate. Poor Thankmar suddenly dropped down from oldest son and future, future duke of Saxony to landless bastard. Best guess is that Thankmar may have held a bit of grudge against his younger brother Otto.

The second brother was named Henry after his father. He was Otto’s younger full brother. Otto was born when Henry the Fowler had only been duke of Saxony whilst his younger brother was born “in aula regis”, which means at a time when his father was already king. Since Henry the Fowler had only just invented the concept of the undivided inheritance of the kingdom, there were no rules yet. We Europeans have been brought up to  believe that in a monarchy it is always the oldest son or daughter who succeeds to the throne. But that was not always so.  The Carolingians sometimes recognised horizontal inheritance from brother to brother as is the case in Saudi Arabia today. The Byzantines made a distinction on whether the successor was “born in the purple”, i.e., born during the reign of his father. There was even the concept that the wife would inherit the throne and if she remarried her new husband would become king. To make a long story short, Henry was not without an argument that he should become king instead. Henry was also considered of age, being somewhere between 14 and 16 years old.

To add to Henry’s claims and Otto’s woes, their mother Mathilda may have supported Henry over Otto. That has to be taken with a grain of salt because that information comes mainly from a life of Mathilda written 70 years later when Henry’s descendants had assumed the throne.  But it is not improbable that she preferred her second son Henry over Otto.

You see Mathilda  and king Henry seemed to have had an almost modern marriage. She had significant influence on events not just for being the wife of the king but on her own account as a leading figure amongst the Saxon nobility. If she had become used to having that kind of influence, she might have preferred the much younger and hence more malleable Henry over Otto. Furthermore, Otto had been married to Eadgyth the granddaughter of king Alfred the Great, a lady of even more formidable lineage than Mathilda. Judging by what has been a consistent trait of this dynasty, Eadgith may have had a similar relationship with Otto as his mother had with her husband. And in that case, if Otto becomes king, Eadgyth would outrank Mathilda.

Finally, Ottos had another brother, Brun. Brun was only 5 years old when their father died and was destined to join the church – and would forever be Ottos most reliable and most competent ally and confidant.

Things should and may have come to a head during the election of Otto as king, though we have no record of any election. That suggests that the election happened either in Erfurt in 935 when Henry the Fowler was still alive and presumably urged the nobles to recognise Otto. Alternatively, the election took place during the 6 weeks between Henry the Fowler’s death and the coronation in Aachen. In the latter case the election may well have been a lot more contentious than Otto’s chroniclers imply. Young Henry’s legal claim and his formidable mother’s connections should have made for a close result. But, and that is not really in doubt, Otto was ultimately elected to become king.

It would have been a rather uncomfortable family gathering in Aachen in August 936 for Otto’s coronation. Well, very much “would have”, since young Henry was made to stay behind with his tutor in Saxony to “catch up on some homework”. And Mathilda decided she would rather tend to the convent she built upon her dead husband’s grave in Quedlinburg than to attend her eldest son’s inauguration. So, a grumpy Thankmar and little Brun were the only family members present.

Otto’s coronation was the diametrical opposite of his father’s low-key event in Fritzlar 17 years earlier.

Firstly, the coronation took place in Aachen the capital of Charlemagne and spiritual centre of the mighty though largely defunct Carolingian empire. The palace in Aachen was the largest structures north of the Alps. its Palatine chapel, which I strongly suggest you visit is an octagonal two-story building modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Inside Charlemagne had erected ancient Roman columns brought up from Rome and Ravenna. That is a vastly different backdrop to a coronation compared to the more workaday royal castle in Fritzlar.

Outside the church in the palace courtyard, Otto is being hailed king by all the assembled magnates of his realm, all the five dukes, the leading bishops and a throng of counts, abbots and other potentates.

 Then Otto enters the cathedral led by the archbishop of Mainz the common people get a chance to acclaim him as well.

During the mass, the archbishop of Cologne then invests him with the insignia of his office, the sword, the mantle and the orb. More bishops come and anoint and consecrate the new king. The crown is laid on his head under recitation of prayers and singing. And, in the climax of the ceremony, Otto wearing all the insignia of his rank, climbs the steps of the throne of Charlemagne and sits down. 

That does not look like the inauguration of a first amongst equals. This is the coronation of an absolute monarch who intends to rule like Charlemagne with an iron fist. It shouts out loud – no more friendship agreements, no more negotiations – I am the ruler.

Since Otto wants to rule like Charlemagne, he needs three things, overwhelming military might, political experience and luck in battle. There were two things we know Otto sadly lacked, which were overwhelming military might and political experience. We will see about the luck in battle.

Otto’s military power was based mainly on the resources of his duchy of Saxony. His father could also draw on the resources of Franconia thanks to the pact the two dukes had made at Henry’s coronation in 918. Let us assume for arguments sake that this pact also extends to Henry’s successor. That is two duchies out of five, a large power base, but not an overwhelming one.

 And then our friend Otto was probably between 22 and 24 years old when he ascended the throne. His father had not entrusted him with any major roles or endeavours whilst he still was still king. Otto was essentially entirely green, or to say it with Lord Percy in Blackadder, he was a nugget of purest green.

Otto had inherited a kingdom that was built on a subtle balancing of power and aspirations between mighty dukes, haughty counts and wily bishops held together by agreements of friendship and mutual support. This is not a modern state or even the Roman empire where state institutions and bureaucracy stop the structure from complete collapse should the ruler seriously misstep. And that is exactly what Otto will do over the next five years – one massive misstep after another.

The first of those was to eliminate his mother Mathilda from the imperial power system. On the one hand it is likely that Mathilda had been a supporter of his brother Henry’s claim to kingship, on the other she is a powerful player in her own right. Otto needs to tread carefully. By law and by tradition, she should have been at least made the warden of his father’s memory and as such should have become the abbess of Quedlinburg, the convent that was created over Henry the Fowlers grave. That does not sound too bad, right. She gets a rich abbey that keeps her busy, so she will be mostly absent from court. Solid compromise I would say.  So, Otto went for it, and he went for it full tilt – no abbey, no presence at court, not even a royal pension. Mathilda disappears from the records which means she is likely to have been exiled to one of her family’s possessions.

As he was already doing some cleaning up, he went on to the next agenda item. Still in the year 936 Otto decided to resume fighting with the Slavic tribes on Saxony’s eastern border. Command of the expedition should by tradition have gone to Wichman Billung a powerful Saxon noble who was highly regarded for his military skill. Wichman Billung was also married to Mathilda’s sister Bia. Never holding a grudge, Otto decided to give the command to Wichman’s younger brother Herman Billung instead.

With this Otto had quite blatantly disregarded the unwritten aristocratic code and rights and privileges that the previous generation had earned from his father. The Saxon nobles who had already raised an eyebrow over the treatment of queen Mathilda are now getting properly restless.

A first indication of things to come was when a Saxon noble and distant relative of Otto named Ekkehard felt so desperate about his prospects under the new regime that he charged the Slav army alone with just 18 companions to “either find glory or die in the pursuit”. Needless to say, his search for glory ended in the mud east of the Elbe river.

In the meantime, Bohemia, which is roughly the area of today’s Czech Republic took advantage of the rising instability of the German kingdom and shook Otto off as their overlord. Otto sent an army to bring the duke of Bohemia back to heel, but that endeavour failed.

To top it up the Hungarians came back. Otto’s father had beaten them at the battle of Ried with a unified German army recruited from all the duchies. Otto was only able to muster his own Saxon troops. The other dukes and major nobles must have got the message from the coronation ceremony and refused to help this pretentious young upstart. They did not want a new Charlemagne, even if that meant letting the Hungarians burn the land.

The third mistake came, when he tried to reverse the first mistake. In 937 Otto saw that his antagonism to his mother and brother had created more hassle than it was worth. He finally made his mother Abbess of Quedlinburg and called Henry back from his schoolwork to come to court.

And instantly Henry got to work. Just wait.

It starts with an otherwise quite insignificant court case involving duke Eberhard of Franconia. Do you remember Eberhard? He was the brother of King Konrad the First who gave up his claim to the crown allowing Otto’s father to become king. In the following decades Eberhard was one of the stoutest supporters of the regime. As a reward his extended family called the Konradiner after king Konrad became the most powerful clan after the royal family. King Henry the Fowler made one of Eberhard’s cousins duke of Swabia, so that the family controlled two out of the five duchies. In summary  Eberhard is a big deal, like a really big deal. Like a 2/5th of the kingdom big deal.

The calamity started when one of Eberhard’s vassals a certain Bruning refused to pay him homage and declared he would prefer to serve the king, and only the king. Eberhard went to Bruning’s castle and burned it down. Bruning complained to Otto, and Otto decided in favour of Bruning.

Why? Eberhard’s vassal had rebelled, and he had put him back in his box. What was wrong with that?

What was wrong, was young, and recently readmitted to the royal grace, brother Henry.

Henry had possessions nearby and seems to have encouraged Bruning to rebel. Why did Henry do that? What is he trying to achieve? Hard to say, but by what we will learn about him in the next few episodes, it was either part of an immensely complex and sophisticated plan, or he just did it for a laugh. He is a teenager, he is 16!

Otto could not see the funny side. Otto had to make the choice between his brother Henry who he just reconciled with and his father’s old friend and #2 in the kingdom, duke Eberhard.

If Otto prioritised the stability within the family over the justified demands of his most powerful duke there would have been a way to get that done. Some sort of judgement on procedure, an under the table compensation and a word man to man about you know, the kiddo.

But no, Otto went in deep.

He decided in favour of Bruning and ordered Eberhard’s men to carry dogs all the way to Magdeburg. Yes, carrying dogs, you know the four-legged animals known as men’s best friend.

That was a horrific punishment. In the medieval world where books were rare and newspapers unknown, images replace facts. If something looks like a unanimous election of a king, it is a unanimous election of the king. Important events are staged to create the right impression, like the elaborate reconciliation rituals of rebellious nobles who are raised up after prostrating themselves before the king.

So, not that different to today where we exchange views more and more through heavily curated pictures, videos, memes and podcasts whilst reading less and less text. What events or people or places look like on Instagram and Facebook is more important than what they really are. Rulers stage these events for effect like Vladimir Putin wrestling bare-chested or Donald Trump holding up a bible in front of a church. When powerful people do that today, they are getting memed mercilessly until either the picture or the meme wins out. In the middle ages there were no memes – what the powerful show you is the only picture you will ever see.

Therefore, the image of a fierce armoured knight carrying a pink poodle in his arms is a staged powerful message. It says, Eberhard, duke of Franconia cannot protect his men from being laughed at. For Eberhard this is worse than death, as this picture cannot ever be erased, and people will talk about it – thousands of years later – as we do.

Otto and Eberhard might have publicly reconciled in another staged event, but the relationship was broken. In 938 Eberhard did not show up for the royal assembly at Steele, a deliberate snub at Otto.

At that same royal diet Otto managed to make his fourth mistake. The Southern March of Saxony, an important border county had become vacant. Otto’s half-brother Thankmar believed himself entitled to this post. Not only was he the son of the previous king but also Otto had awarded Merseburg, which was Thankmar’s mother’s inheritance after all, to his brother Henry. So as compensation it would only be fair to award Thankmar the March. However, Otto decided against Thankmar and installed Gero, the brother of the previous incumbent as Margrave.

Putting Gero in charge of the Saxon March is when Thankmar loses it. Being the oldest son and having to forsake the crown and now not even getting any position in line with his rank was just too much. Too much not just for him but also for a lot of other Saxon nobles disgruntled by the treatment of Mathilda, the elevation of Herman Billung and the judgement against Eberhard.

Thankmar and his companions join Eberhard who is now also going into open rebellion. They besiege the castle of Belecke where Otto’s brother Henry was holed up at the time. The castle falls and Henry is captured. Thankmar sends Henry down to Eberhard who puts him in a presumably comfortable jail cell in one of his castles.

Meanwhile Thankmar and his forces move on to the Eresburg, one of the largest and best defended Saxon castles. Otto’s army follows him there and besieges the castle. Thankmar’s troops lose confidence in their leader and open the gates. Otto’s troops storm in and even though Thankmar throws down his weapons as a sign of unconditional surrender and flees into a church, a soldier runs him through with a lance allegedly through the back. This display of fraternal hatred was for once, not staged.

Eberhard sees that the case is lost and surrenders to Henry, who is still his prisoner. That should have been the end, right. Otto receives his father’s old friend Eberhard back into the royal favour, all is forgotten, and they all live happily ever after.

Not so. You see there is one obstacle here and that is Young Henry. Young, impulsive, impetuous, rash, irresponsible and madcap Henry.

Just as Eberhard stands in Henry’s cell, cap in hand and asking sheepishly for terms, Henry flips the whole chessboard. With a broad smile Henry suggests to bury the hatchet, be friends and go after Otto together.

The cheek of it all! Remember, the only reason Otto and Eberhard have a fall-out, the only reason Thankmar did not get his inheritance were all because of Henry. Otto went through all this to really reconcile with his brother. And now brother Henry rewards this kindness by teaming up with the enemy. If Thankmar and Eberhard as the opposing team were a problem for Otto, Eberhard and Henry are an even more serious problem. Eberhard has the guns and Henry has the claim to kingship.

But for now, nothing happens. Eberhard’s troops are exhausted and Henry probably first needs to talk to some people before they can strike. They decide to play for time and Eberhard surrenders, asks Otto for forgiveness and with Henry’s help is welcomed back in the fold.

937 was hence a year to forget for Otto. His half brother in rebellion and now dead, his brother captured and – though Otto does not know yet –plotting against him.

However, two people die which means two good things happened.

First a certain Dedi dies, who was close to Wichman Billung. That brings Wichman and his Saxon supporters back into the fold with Otto. What, how, why no chronicler explains, but whatever that is helpful for now.

The other, infinitely more important one was the death of a certain Gebhard. Gebhard was a relative of the duke of Swabia which means he was also a relative of Eberhard. Gebhard somehow finds his end in the siege of Belecke, the castle where Henry was captured. We do not know what exactly happened, but something about the way Gebhard was killed so appalled his Swabian relatives, that they broke with Eberhard and their Franconian cousins and sided with Otto and joined Otto for good.

Next week we will see how Henry’s rebellion fares and why it will matter so much that the Swabian dukes and their extended clan stick with Otto in his darkest hour.

I really hope you are going to join us.

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