Episode 4 – A Foe Wherever You Go

Last week we watched Otto’s astounding recovery from disaster at the battle of Andernach in October 939. Otto has now successfully broken the rebellion of his brother Henry who was supported by a powerful alliance of the dukes of Franconia and Lothringia, Saxon nobles and a number of senior bishops including that primate of Germany, Archbishop Friedrich of Mainz. 

Otto beat them all, not by superior tactics, exceptional bravery or military might, no by sheer unbelievable luck. In both key battles, Birten and Andernach, Otto’s troops were seriously outnumbered. By September 939 Otto’s fortune had sunk so low he talked about seeking an honourable death.  That makes the final success at the battle of Andernach nothing short of a miracle.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 4 – A Foe Wherever you Go

Thanks a lot for coming back or, if you accidentally started here, welcome to the show.

And I would also like to thank you all for your very useful feedback, please keep it coming. This is my first podcast and there is still a lot I can do better.

Now back to the show.

Last week we watched Otto’s astounding recovery from disaster at the battle of Andernach in October 939. Otto has now successfully broken the rebellion of his brother Henry who was supported by a powerful alliance of the dukes of Franconia and Lothringia, Saxon nobles and a number of senior bishops including that primate of Germany, Archbishop Friedrich of Mainz. 

Otto beat them all, not by superior tactics, exceptional bravery or military might, no by sheer unbelievable luck. In both key battles, Birten and Andernach, Otto’s troops were seriously outnumbered. By September 939 Otto’s fortune had sunk so low he talked about seeking an honourable death.  That makes the final success at the battle of Andernach nothing short of a miracle.

In the perception of the times this added up to exactly that an act of god confirming, beyond any doubt, that Otto is the rightful king. And even beyond the immediate impact on Otto’s reign, it sanctioned the constitutional reform of Henry the Fowler that the kingdom should no longer be divided between the sons of the previous king. These two, by all accounts, minor skirmishes put the keystone into the edifice that would later be called the Holy Roman Empire.

Otto used his triumph to move away from his father’s style of kingship to the kind of rule he had envisaged for himself at his coronation in Aachen 5 years before. He did not see himself as a First Amongst Equals like his father, he saw himself as a new Charlemagne who ruled as the anointed representative of Christ on earth, controlling both the lords temporal as well as the church itself.

He immediately went to work and reorganised the kingdom. He confiscated Eberhard’s  duchy of Franconia, one of the mightiest polities in the realm and added it to the crown estate. The duchy of Lothringia was initially awarded to the previous duke’s son under the guardianship of one of Otto’s closest associates. When that system proved to be too complex for this rather difficult to manage duchy, he gave it to his son in law –  Conrad the Red.

As we heard last Episode Otto made his rebellious and murderous brother and now bet mate Henry into the Duke of Bavaria. Henry had married the daughter of the previous incumbent to make it look a bit less illegal.

And then Otto played the same trick on duke Herman of Swabia, his most loyal ally during the civil war by marrying his son Liudolf to the duke’s daughter paving the way to a takeover of that duchy as well, which happened in 949.

That means 10 years after the rebellion had been suppressed Otto and his closest family held all five duchies.

The bishops who had joined the rebellion were also subdued. Archbishop Friedrich of Mainz who was one of the main conspirators was put in jail at the abbey of Fulda. Conditions became harsh after letters were found indicating the scheming archbishop was still trying to keep the fight against Otto going. But after a year of penance he was back in the royal favour. He returned to his bishopric where he remained a pain in the proverbial until his very last breath.

With his house in order, Otto could now turns his interest and resources to foreign policy.

I have posted a map of the Ottonian kingdom on my Facebook page “ History of the Germans Podcast”  to make this a bit easier.

Let’s go round clockwise from the north.  The Danes are more or less calm as they prefer raiding the richer and more distant English and French. Moving on the North East, we have the Redarier, a pagan Slavic tribe. They were beaten in a campaign conducted by Hermann Billung in 936 which stabilised the situation. The same cannot be said for the Slavs living between the Elbe and the Oder rivers which are being instructed in the benevolence of Christianity by Margrave Gero. These pagans really struggle on that learning curve despite the generous application of fire and sword. In the Southeast you have the Bohemians, who shook off the Ottonian yoke in 938. Even further south you have the Hungarians who still raid regularly into Italy and southern Germany.  And finally In the South you have the Italians and then in the South West the Burgundians, which will take up most of our story today.  Last but not least, you have the Louis king of France, who and like every French king before him and every French king after him, wants Lothringia back.

Let’s start our detailed review with the French

There is still one of the conspirators in Henry’s rebellion we need to talk about – Louis IV, King of France. Admittedly Louis involvement ended up being more symbolic than practical. However, Otto needed to neutralise him if not for questions of honour than to protect Lothringia.

Lothringia had moved back and forth between France and Germany for more than a hundred years. The Lothringian magnates liked this a lot because it meant they could play the French and the German king off against each other as they pleased. They did that during the rebellion of brother Henry when they asked Louis of France to become their overlord again. Their game failed in 939 when Otto managed to regain control of the duchy shortly after the battle of Andernach. However, the problem did not go away with death of duke Gilbert and the collapse of the rebellion.

You may remember that Otto got hold of the young sons of Gilbert, but he did not get hold of his widow, Gerberga. Louis IV managed to capture her and presumably out of sudden love and passion married her. And to make absolutely clear what this is all about, he christened his oldest son Lothar giving him his mission in life. If that that was not unusual enough, note that Gerberga was Otto’s sister and despite the abduction and all that, she was and remained the main support to Louis through all that happened next.

In 939 Otto had called upon the major nobles of France, namely William Longsword of Normandy, Heribert of Vermandois and Hugh Capet to help against Gilbert and Louis. In 940 it was payback time and he met up with them again bringing along a large German army to fight king Louis. The allies had already occupied Reims and installed a new archbishop in this, the most important bishopric in France and the place of royal coronation. From there they moved to Laon, the most important and most impressive looking stronghold of the Carolingian kings of France. He may or may not have captured Laon, in any case king Louis is next seen in and forgive me because this is now very confusing, in the duchy of Burgundy whose duke succumbs to Otto and his allies. That duchy is the third of the Burgundies, existing in the 10th century, which include the duchy of Burgundy, the kingdom of upper Burgundy and the Kingdom of Lower Burgundy. Do not worry about that, we will look at Burgundies again later on.

Back to simpler things. This campaign very much put Louis back into his box. And that was exactly where Otto wanted him to be. Well, he seems to have squashed him a bit too far down into that box and now had to work hard convincing the French magnates to keep Louis on as king. Otto did not want Louis to be completely defeated, because in that case one of Louis’s powerful magnates would have taken the throne and become an serious adversary. It was much better to keep Louis on as a king as long as he and his magnates were preoccupied with their perennial quarrels.

Over the next couple of decades Otto would support the magnates whenever Louis was about to get hold of a real power base as he nearly did in Normandy, and he would side with Louis when he was down on his luck, as he quite often was. That way France remained weak, Lothringia German and Otto the de facto decision maker.

These regular incursions into France offered great opportunities for the fine sports of pointless sieges, burning of crops and massacring of peasants but also for the displays of childish boasts. Hugh Capet, the most powerful of the French nobles stated that the Saxons were Useless in war and that he could “swallow seven of the Saxon lances in one go”. Otto’s measured response was to order his entire army to wear women’s straw hats which was supposed to make the French wild. Needless to say that nobody ever really won in that war but it kept the French down – result.

Just as an aside, a hundred years earlier when Arnulf of Carinthia had a similar position to Otto, the magnates had offered Arnulf the crown of France. That they never offered to Otto. Over a period of just 60-70 years the identities of the two separate kingdoms of East and West Francia had firmed up so much, that a return to the empire of Charlemagne had now become very unlikely. That does not mean the inhabitants saw themselves as either French or German in any modern sense of national identity. It is more that power structures had developed that worked best within an either West Francian or East Francian context. A Hugh Capet was happy to fight his fellow French magnates over control of the kingdom with help from a German king, whilst a duke of Franconia or Bavaria was mostly focused on the affairs of East Francia occasionally using the king of France to support his objectives. But neither would Hugh Capet submit to a German King nor would the duke of Franconia ever swear allegiance to a King of France.  

And in that way affairs in France continued throughout Otto’s reign without much preoccupying anyone after the larger campaigns of 946.

Going round the dial clockwise we need to talk about the Slavs

In the 940s the kingdom of Otto ended pretty much on the Elbe river. The people living on the opposite shore were mostly Slavs who had moved in after the great migration had led to a shift westwards of the Germanic tribes. The Slavs were not a coherent nation but split into several, often warring, tribes. The two largest coherent groups were the Poles and the Bohemians. At that time there was a buffer zone between the Germans and the Poles defined by the Elbe and Oder rivers. This area was inhabited by a variety of different smaller Slavic tribes including the Redariers, the Abodrites, the Veleti, the Hevelli and the Sorbs. The fighting on the eastern border had started in 929 when King Henry the Fowler tried out his shiny new army in battles with the Slavs. From that time onwards fighting never actually stopped.

The two main actors on the North Eastern frontier were Otto’s friends Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero. As you may remember from episode 2, their appointment resulted in much grumbling amongst the Saxon nobles and in the case of Gero led straight away to Thankmar’s rebellion.

These two leaders seemed to have employed quite different strategies.

Hermann Billung led a successful campaign against the Redarier in 936 but afterwards records of his activities become scarce. He might have had some run-ins with the Danes, though that is only recorded in one unreliable source. Apart from the Redariers the other main tribe in his area of responsibility were the Abodrites with whom he conducted friendly relationships. He seems to have been more focused on domestic affairs, namely in subjugating his elder brother Wichman and his family.

His colleague Margrave Gero was taking a tougher line. His approach was by all accounts as bloody, as endless and as relentless as the conquest of Saxony itself by Charlemagne 150 years earlier. We already met him in the last episode when he had murdered 30 helpless drunken Slavic leaders at a feast. Not exactly the way to make friends. He specialised in wanton destruction of sacred pagan shrines and enforced baptisms which resulted in the exactly the kind of eternal rebellions and resentment you would expect. Over the decades Gero managed to push the boundaries of the kingdom east and north almost up to the Polish border.

On the back of this successful demonstration of Christian charity King Otto founded a total of 5 new bishoprics in the Slavic lands. One of these was Brandenburg, which was the nucleus of what would later become Prussia. We will see how much the Slavs appreciated this generosity when we talk about the reign of Otto’s unlucky son, Otto II.

The Bohemians

Another pressing issue was further south, Bohemia. Bohemia is an area roughly where the modern Czech Republic is found today. Bohemia had been ruled by “good king” Wenceslaus – yes that good king Wenceslaus- until the year 935. Wenceslaus who wasn’t really a king but just a duke had to submit to Henry the Fowler in 929. As part of the submission, he had to accept German missionaries to come over and introduce the Latin cult. That sat awkwardly with his subjects and so his brother Boleslav had good king Wenceslaus killed.

When in 938 Otto became pre-occupied with his brothers’ rebellions, Boleslav decided to shed the Frankish oppressors once and for all and refused to give homage to Otto. Otto’s response was to invade. However his elite household troops were otherwise occupied so he had to send a division of what Widukind of Corvey describes as “The legion of Thieves”. These troops consisted of offenders from across the realm who were offered the choice between punishment -usually involving a reduction in the number of available limbs- or joining the army. These valiant knights set off from Merseburg for Prague. As it happened, they had not fully changed their spots and when they had won a smaller skirmish, they focused more on plundering the corpses of the Bohemians than keeping watch. Boleslav fell on them with the might of his remaining forces and the thieves lost their limbs after all.

This quarrel lasted until 950 when Otto joined up with his brother Henry to invade Bohemia with a more sizeable and presumably more professional army. Boleslav, smart general that he was,  almost immediately succumbed and swore fealty to Otto.

From then on Bohemia was an integral part of the kingdom until 1806. If you ever needed proof that the middle ages had little notion of national identity, the role of Bohemia is proof. The Bohemians were Slavs and spoke ancient Czech. Their nobles were, at least until the 14th century Czechs, not Franks or Germans.

Despite these differences Bohemia was an integral part of the Holy Roman Empire. Though the kings of Bohemia were named kings, their political role was similar to the dukes and other prices of the realm. The king of Bohemia was one of the nobles that were considered essential for a royal election to be valid and would later become one if the 7 Electors. 

And Let us not forget Good King Wenceslaus who for his pains became a saint much revered in England for reasons that I still do not quite understand


And finally, there is Hungary. The battle of Ried and a subsequent battle in 938 diverted their efforts to Italy and minor incursions into Bavaria. In 944 Duke Berthold allegedly put a stop to that. Despite these successes the fear of the Hungarians did not go away. Throughout the whole period castle building kept going at a rapid pace in expectation of a major invasion.

Italy and Burgundy

Now we have come almost full circle and reach the south and southwest, Italy and the kingdoms of Burgundy. And that is where it becomes complicated.

Last time we mentioned Italy on this podcast was when Charlemagne went down to Pavia to pick up the crown of the Lombards. Since then, things had gone a bit out of control.

Italy has fragmented into multiple states and cities. The biggest states were the kingdom of the Lombards or often called kingdom of Italy which comprised Northern Italy. Then you had the Papal States around Rome, further south the three 3 Lombard duchies of Spoleto, Benevento and Capua that were loosely related to the kingdom of Italy. South of them were the Byzantines who still ruled the heel and toe of Italy. The Muslims had taken over Sicily and had a beachhead at Fraxinetum, today the gorgeous village of la Garde Freinet above St. Tropez the Côte d’Azur. Finally you had the independent cities of Naples, Amalfi, Genoa and most important of these, Venice. Venice was impossible to conquer for traditional land forces and had already become that crucial link between East and West that nobody could afford to lose. 

The so-called kingdom of Italy had been part of the kingdom of Lothar – you remember that short lived political entity created in 843 slot between France and Germany that has already and will continue to cause endless headaches.

After Lothar’s immediate successors had died out, the southern part of his kingdom had split into upper Burgundy around Besancon and Basel, lower Burgundy or now often called Provence or the kingdom of Arles that stretched all the way from Lyon to Marseille and east towards Nice, and Last but not least the old kingdom of Italy. The rulers of these three entities were constantly attempting to consolidate into one kingdom under their control.

I better spare you the ins and outs of this. Luitprand of Cremona has written a totally biased but supremely amusing chronicle of the goings on including all the smutty gossip. Over the next week I will publish his juiciest bits on my Facebook Page – History of the Germans Podcast. Sign up so you won’t miss out.

What follows here is a very stripped-down version of the political and dynastic movements in Italy and Burgundy up until 950.

The key protagonist we are interested in is Adelheid. Adelheid was the daughter of King Rudolf of Upper Burgundy. We have met Rudolf before, he is the one who sold the Holy Lance to Henry the Fowler. Rudolf had made an attempt to get hold of the kingdom of Italy in the 930s but was sent back home packing. Anyway, when her father died in 937 and her six-year-old brother Konrad became king of Upper Burgundy, his neighbour to the south Hugh who was already King of lower Burgundy and King of Italy tried to annex Upper Burgundy. He invaded and forced Adelheid’s mother Bertha to marry him and Adelheid herself was married to his son Lothar.

Allowing Hugh to control Italy, lower and Upper Burgundy would leave Otto with one excessively powerful ruler all along his southern and south-western border. That was a bit too close for comfort to Otto and he decided to intervene. Otto declared himself protector of Adelheid’s brother, the young king of Upper Burgundy, who had fled to his court. Otto banged a few swords to shields and that seemed to have done the trick since Hugh left Upper Burgundy with only Bertha and Adelheid as his spoils of war.

The next decade Otto and Hugh rubbed along fine. Hugh was busy bashing local Italian lords and getting involved with a very interesting Roman lady you will meet next week. Hugh had to give up these distractions when one of his vassals, Margrave Berengar of Ivrea kept trying to dislodge him as king of Italy. Berengar with some moral support from Otto was finally successful in 945 forcing Hugh to abdicate in favour of his son Lothar.

With Lothar becoming King of Italy, our Adelheid, now 15 years old, became Queen of Italy. That was a quite neat arrangement as it combined the three contenders for the crown of Italy.  Adelheid representing Upper Burgundy, Lothar representing Lower Burgundy and Berengar representing Italy. It might look neat, but in reality, Lothar was just a puppet king. Berengar held total control of the reins of power.

This neat arrangement fell apart when Lothar unexpectedly died in 950.  Berengar had to take the plunge and declare himself King of Italy without really having much legitimacy apart from having the bigger guns.

That was not his only problem. He also had to figure out what to do with the young queen Adelheid. You see, Adelheid was not only blood-related to almost everyone who was anyone in 10th century Europe, she was also enormously rich in her own right. To top it up, it was customary for usurpers to derive their right to rule from marriage to the wife or daughter of a recently deceased ruler, just ask king Louis of France, duke Henry of Bavaria and duke Liudolf of Swabia.

You see why Adelheid was now the hottest potato in all of Italy, if not all of Europe if they had had potatoes then. Maybe a hot parsnip?

According to some chroniclers, Berengar proposed for her to marry his son Adalbert, but Adelheid refused. But even if that was not true, allowing such a powerful person run around free in Italy to be picked up by some random chancer was not an option. So Berengar had her thrown in a prison in a fortress on lake Garda.

Whilst Adelheid, the richest heiress in Europe and a 19year old beauty lay in her cell contemplating what to do, world politics were set in motion. Ok, let’s go back to the last sentence, Adelheid, Europe’s richest heiress and an acclaimed beauty is held in a jail by some jumped-up Margrave – any takers, anyone?

And just when it gets interesting the music starts playing. Time is up. Next week we will see how all this blows up, first in Berengar’s face and then in Otto’s as well. Lots of shenanigans to come. I really hope you will join us next week.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and since you are there, why don’t you leave a positive rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. I do not know what that does, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. And that is nice when one is locked up in COVID jail.