Otto was born into a family of Saxon magnates with possessions in the Harz mountains. He was one of the most accomplished military and political leaders in Germany during the reign of Henry IV. The Empress Agnes made him duke of Bavaria in 1061 to lead a campaign into Hungary. A mere 12 months later he repaid her by becoming one of the leaders in the coup of Kaiserswerth. He and his co-conspirators abducted the 12-year old King Henry IV. Henry IV never forgave him for that.
In 1070 he was accused of having hired thugs to murder king Henry IV. Absent any proof, other than the word of the thug himself, King Henry IV. ordered a trial by combat. When Otto did not show, he was deposed as duke of Bavaria and lost all his possessions. He was captured and imprisoned for 2 years before the king released him. He returned some of his personal property back to him. The Saxon chroniclers claim that all of that was a plot by the king to depose Otto of Northeim.
Northeim’s revenge came when the Saxons had gathered in Hötensleben in 1073 to discuss what to do about the king’s encroachment on to their land and ancient freedoms. The king had built a string of castles, including the famous Harzburg (see previous post) in order to create a new royal territory.
Though the Saxons had been insulted by the king just weeks earlier and had been seething under the Salian rule for decades, outright rebellion is no easy decision. That is when Otto takes a stand and delivers a speech, which must be one of the first political speeches by someone not a king or pope ever recorded in Germany:
“The calamities and disgraces that our king has brought upon each one of you for a long time are great and unbearable, but what he still intends to do, if the Almighty God permits him, is even greater and more severe. Strong castles he has erected, as you know, numerous in places already firm by nature, and has placed in them a great multitude of his vassals, and abundantly provided with weapons of all kinds. These castles are not erected against the heathen, who have completely devastated our land where it borders theirs, but in the midst of our country, where no one ever thought of making war against him; he has fortified them with such great effort, and what they mean for this land some of you have already experienced, and if God’s mercy and your bravery do not intervene, you will soon all experience it.
They take your possessions by force and hide them in their castles; they abuse your wives and daughters for their pleasure when they please; they demand your servants and your cattle, and all that they like, for their service; yes, they even force you yourselves to bear every burden, however odious, on your free shoulders.
But when I imagine in my thoughts what is still waiting for us, then everything that you are now enduring still seems to me to be bearable. For when he will have built his castles in our whole country at his discretion and will have equipped them with armed warriors and all other necessities, then he will no longer plunder your possessions one by one, but he will snatch from you all that you possess with one blow, will give your goods to strangers, and will make you yourselves, you freeborn men, oblige unknown men as servants. And all this, you brave men, will you let it happen to you? Is it not better to fall in brave fight than to live a miserable and ignominious life, being made a shameful mockery by these people?
Even Serfs who are bought for money do not endure the unreasonable commands of their masters, and you, who were born free, should patiently endure servitude? Perhaps you, as Christians, are afraid to violate the oath with which you have paid homage to the king. Indeed, to the king you have sworn. As long as he was a king to me and acted royally, I also kept the oath I swore to him freely and faithfully; but after he ceased to be a king, the one to whom I had to keep loyalty was no longer there. So not against the king, but against the unjust robber of my freedom; not against the fatherland, but for the fatherland, and for freedom, which no good man surrenders other than with his life at the same time, I take up arms, and I demand of you that you also take them up. Awake, therefore, and preserve for your children the inheritance which your fathers have left you; beware lest through your carelessness or slothfulness you yourselves and your children become serfs of strangers”
(Rough translation based on W. Wattenbachs translation of Bruno’s Buch vom Sachsenkrieg)
Now before you go and think that here is the first outburst of German nationalism, I have to stop you there. When Northeim talks of “patria” or “fatherland” he talks about Saxony, not Germany. And when he talks about freedom, he is not talking about human rights, but ancestral privileges, the “Freedoms” as they will be later called.
The speech was successful, and the Saxons rebelled, a rebellion that was ultimately crushed in the first of many brutal battles of the ensuing 50 years of civil war. Success in this first battle encouraged young King Henry to take the fight to the papacy and its most formidable leader, Pope Gregory VII, a fight that neither side would win, but would leave Germany on a path towards a weaker centre controlled by the princes, a structure known as the Holy Roman Empire (again see previous post).
Otto was, despite his great oratory, a turncoat. Once the rebellion had failed, he joined the king and became his administrator in Saxony. In a twist of irony, he was put in charge of rebuilding all these castles he had railed against.
He changed sides again in 1078 and joined the anti-king Rudolf of Rheinfelden in his campaign against Henry IV. That was the last time he swapped sides. Even after Rudolf had lost and died, Otto remained in arms against the now emperor Henry IV. Otto of Northeim died in 1083.
Otto is a typical example of a magnate of the 11th century. He was not opposed to the dynasty as such or the king specifically. What he fought against was the rise of territorial kingship that would reduce the senior lords influence on imperial decision making. And in that, despite the regular setbacks, he was successful.
Otto’s speech features heavily in episode 31 of the History of the Germans Podcast that looks more closely at the conflict between Henry IV and his magnates. To listen for free on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcast, Podbean etc., follow this link: https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/listen or go to my website www.historyofthegermans.com where you can also find ways to support the Podcast and Blog.
Picture: From Froissart’s Chronicles, so clearly not a depiction of Otto of Northeim, but the only picture of a medieval speech I could find.