Episode 5: The Father, the Son and the Uncle

Adelheid’s incarceration created political uproar across Europe. She was related to practically anyone who was anyone in early medieval Europe. Not only that, she was extraordinarily rich due to inheritances from her husband, her father, and her mother. Finally, and politically most importantly as the former queen, she could confer some legitimacy to whoever wanted to become king of Italy. Though she was not able to name the future king, in 10th century tradition a conquering duke or king would typically marry the wife or daughter of the previous incumbent as a form of compensation. That was a tried and tested model that drove the marriages of Henry of Bavaria, Liudolf of Swabia and Louis IV of France.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 5 – The Father, the Son and the Uncle

Again, thanks a lot for joining me today, when I finally make good on my promise of more shenanigans and why Otto’s brother Henry is an even bigger pain when he is with you then when he is against you.

Last time we left the ultimate Fairy-tale princess, Adelheid, widowed queen of Italy, languishing in a damp prison on the Rocca de la Garda. The man who put her there, Berengar of Ivrea had meanwhile crowned himself king of Italy and got ready for the things to come.

Adelheid’s incarceration created political uproar across Europe. She was related to practically anyone who was anyone in early medieval Europe. Not only that, she was extraordinarily rich due to inheritances from her husband, her father, and her mother. Finally, and politically most importantly as the former queen, she could confer some legitimacy to whoever wanted to become king of Italy. Though she was not able to name the future king, in 10th century tradition a conquering duke or king would typically marry the wife or daughter of the previous incumbent as a form of compensation. That was a tried and tested model that drove the marriages of Henry of Bavaria, Liudolf of Swabia and Louis IV of France.

In other words, anyone who could dislodge Berengar and marry the 19 year old and allegedly very attractive Adelheid would become king of Italy.  That is the kind of offer that brings out the best in men.

The first suitor might have been our friend Duke Henry of Bavaria, brother of Otto and Grade A pain in the backside. Henry controlled two of the five routes into Italy, the Brenner pass and the Tauern pass. He might have brought his armies across into North Easter Italy and according to one not entirely clear reference in Widukind of Corvey’s chronicles, managed to take the town and fortress of Aquileia. Assuming that happened, it was to no avail since his advance stopped, 260km off target on lake Garda.

Next contender for the role of saviour of the lady’s life and honour is Otto’s son Liudolf. Liudolf has appeared in our narrative a few times already, but I have never introduced him properly. It is high time to do that.

Liudolf was born probably in late 930, the only son from Otto’s marriage with Eadgith, the Anglo-Saxon princess he had married in 930. Eadgith or Edith enjoys a positive reputation amongst the chroniclers of the time, who praise her piety, good works and her noble descent from Alfred the Great. But what I find most interesting amongst the comments on her life is Widukind’s statement that she “shared in the rule of the kingdom for 10 years”. This formulation appears again and again in the description of royal women during the Ottonian period. There is no detail, but we hear that Eadgith saved Otto from many open and secret dangers during the dark days of Henry’s rebellion. She is explicitly credited with the reconciliation between Otto and his mother that made the final reconciliation between Henry and Otto possible. She clearly had an important role, less important maybe than  Mathilda of Ringelheim, Adelheid, Theophanu and Kunigunde. Her description as co-ruler suggests that the elevated political role of these more famous Queens and Empresses wasn’t an exception. We find other active powerful women in Germany during the period, usually either as abbesses or as wives of important dukes and counts. That is quite bit more agency  than I had assumed before I started writing up these episodes. In Italy that was even more the case than in Germany as we will see in the next few episodes.

Eadgith died in 946, just 36 years old. Reading the contemporary chronicles it seems that Otto really mourned his wife and transferred a lot of his love and affection to his son, Liudolf. Liudolf was named his successor and might even have been formally elected king in the year of her death. Furthermore Otto arranged for Liudolf to marry Ida, the daughter of the duke of Swabia which in 949 led to Liudolf becoming duke of Swabia.

By the year 950, when Adelheid was thrown in prison, Liudolf was 20 years old, the designated future king and the second most powerful magnates after the king. There were a number of reasons for Liudolf to get involved in the case of Adelheid. The dukes of Swabia, whose southern border touched on Lombardy and Piemonte had been meddling in Italian affairs forever. Plus, Adelheid was a close relative of his wife Ida. Whether that were the sole or even the main reasons for his intervention we do not know. Maybe he was aiming for the crown of Italy or just simply wanted to impress his father and earn glory. Anyway, down he came the alpine passes with a smallish army. And then he turned back almost as quickly as he had come down.

To his chagrin, none of the Italian nobles opened the gates of their castles to him,  even those who were openly opposed to Berengar. Liudolf had expected to ride down to Pavia on a wave of support for Adelheid and his family. But nobody came to his banner.

This what Adalbert of Magdeburg said happened: “..his uncle duke Henry, envious of all his offices and successes, sent his legates from Bavaria via Trent to Italy and turned against him the minds of all the Italians that he could, to the extent that not a town or fortress which subsequently opened to the king’s cooks and bakers was opened to the king’s son, and he was subject to every inconvenience and copious annoyances”. 

In other words, whilst Liudolf was taking his troops down the Gotthard pass, Henry’s envoys raced across the Brenner to sabotage his nephew’s project. Why did Henry do that? Best guess, Adalbert is right and it was simple, straightforward jalousie.

Before Liudolf elevation to heir apparent., Henry might have still held up some hope to become king upon Otto’s death.   Under ancient Germanic law, similar to the system in Saudi Arabia today, kingdoms could pass to the brother of the former king, not necessarily the son. When Liudolf was elevated to be the future king, this hope was dashed. Assuming, as I do, that Henry was still craving the crown, he now has two options. One is to rebel again, which I guess based on precedent does not look like a great idea. The other alternative is to drive a wedge between Otto and Liudolf, making Otto change his mind.

Liudolf’s invasion was a perfect opportunity to achieve this. You see, Liudolf made a major tactical mistake by not asking his dad for permission to invade Italy. He wanted to be  the knight in shining armour who rescues the damsel in distress. That narrative would not fly if he first had to ask dad whether it is ok to stay out late. So, he didn’t.

To say it mildly, that was not a good idea. Do you remember three episodes ago when we talked about Otto’s coronation? After an elaborate anointment and consecration, he sat down of Charlemagne’s throne. What did Otto say with that other than “I am the new Charlemagne!” And what was the first thing Charlemagne did once he had control of the Frankish kingdom? Yes, he invaded Italy and made himself king of the Lombards.

What do you think Otto was planning to do in the year 951? Yes, 10 points to Gryffindor, it was indeed invading Italy and making himself king of the Lombards. What was not in the plan was for his little boy to snatch victory and putting him in the shadow.

With Liudolf back home, in the spring of 951 Otto took a massive army down to Italy. As a special treat he took not only Henry of Bavaria, Konrad the Red and two archbishops but also poor Liudolf along for the journey. We can only imagine what Liudolf thought when the Italian lords willingly opened their gates to his father’s host after they stayed grimly behind closed doors when he had passed through just months earlier.

Well, apart from the family tensions the campaign went exceptionally smoothly. As soon as Berengar saw the first armoured riders coming down the Alpine passes he packed his bags and ran as fast as he could to his fortified castles in Ivrea. Otto rode down to the capital of Italy in Pavia, sat himself on the royal throne and put the iron crown of the Lombards on his head.

What about Adelheid? Shouldn’t Otto first go to Garda and release the girl that all the fuss was about? Well, as it happened Adelheid wasn’t the helpless Disney princess you may have imagined. She was incarcerated from April 20th 951 to August 20th, 951. We do not know whether she was tortured as some later chroniclers stated, but she always referred to it as painful period of her life. What we do know is that she escaped, some said by digging a tunnel out of the stronghold on top of lake Garda, whilst others believe it was simple bribery combined with fear of the consequences once the Germans had come. In any event she got away and was next seen in fateful castle of Canossa then one of the strongholds of the bishop of Reggio.

The next step was obvious, Otto did what he came to do in Italy – courtship. Otto was a very eligible widower – with his white hair, red face, bushy beard, moderate sized belly and a chest covered in hair like the mane of a lion. But his good looks alone did not seem to have done the trick. He had to strengthen the queen’s love for him with gold. Having received enough gifts as well as probably concessions about her future role, Adelheid accepted Otto’s advances. The wily Henry pulled off another coup. Henry managed to get himself tasked with bringing Adelheid down to meet Otto in Pavia and used the time alone with her to make her into a close friend and ally.

For Liudolf this was clearly bad news. His father’s 19year old new wife could and will give him more children. Liudolf should have been ok with that since he was the official successor and hence in an infinitely stronger position than say Thankmar who had been written out of the succession as an illegitimate son. But the rules of succession in the 10th century were by no means fixed and new potential heirs could become major problems down the line. On top of that his father’s new wife was best friends with his enemy uncle. Jointly they started to pull Otto into their orbit and turned him against his son.

Soon Liudolf had enough and travelled back to Germany. Whilst his father celebrated sumptuous nuptials with his new wife and had her crowned queen of Italy (for the second time), Liudolf celebrated a great feast of his own in Saalfeld with our old friend the arch-conspirator Friedrich of Mainz and the great and the good of the kingdom.

Saalfeld you may remember is where Henry celebrated his own great party that kicked off his rebellion. What Liudolf is saying here is this: Dad, do you remember that your brother who you love so much now tried to have you killed a mere 10 years ago, and, by the way, I could do that too!

But so far nothing came of it. To get to a proper rebellion going you need one of Otto’s gaffes he is so brilliant at. As ever with Otto, such mistakes never take too long to materialise.

This time he managed to alienate one of his closest allies, his son in law Konrad the Red. Otto had made him Duke of Lothringia after the death of his predecessor, the scheming duke Gilbert. Otto and Konrad have been through thick and thin for the last 10 years and trusted each other instinctively.

When Otto realised he had to get back to Germany to put a stop to Liudolf’s murmurings, he trusted Konrad to clean up the situation in Italy.  With Otto and most of the army  back home cleaning up meant negotiating a settlement with Berengar that asserted Otto’s superior position rather than completely crushing him.

And negotiating is pretty much what Konrad did. Given distances, Konrad could not keep in close contact with Otto to agree the exact terms, but as he knew Otto well, he believed he had come to an acceptable agreement. He brought Berengar down to Magdeburg where the German nobles who believed the same came out of the city to greet him as if he was still king of Italy. But Otto was not happy about it at all. He left Berengar waiting for 3 days before he allowed him an audience. There he made him swear fealty and asked him to come back again next year to a royal assembly in Augsburg to make proper peace. That was a major snub not just to Berengar but also to Otto’s old ally, Konrad the Red.

What has happened? Maybe Otto had changed under the influence of Adelheid who, let’s not forget, had been imprisoned and possibly tortured by Berengar. Konrad the Red and Liudolf put the blame squarely on Henry believing he had acted out of jealousy and greed. Henry responded by insulting Liudolf in open court. Liudolf left seething that his father had not intervened.

This is the second time Otto makes the same mistake. Do you remember when he dismissed the terms Friedrich of Mainz had negotiated with Eberhard of Franconia?  Then, as now, there is only one way to react for a major aristocrat so humiliated, he had to rebel.  So, Konrad left the court and joined Liudolf’s camp.

Things stayed calm for another 6 months. Liudolf and Konrad joined the court in Augsburg for a great synod of German and Italian bishops. There Otto signed the final agreement with Berengar. Berengar and his son had to submit themselves to Otto as his vassals. Most significantly he had to cede the marches of Verona and Aquileia to duke Henry of Bavaria. That was almost half of the kingdom of Italy.

That must have further enraged Liudolf who received the square root of nothing. When he complained, Henry used the opportunity again to tease and torment his nephew in front of the entire court. Otto again did not intervene.

That was it. Liudolf and Konrad had enough. They gathered a group of young nobles and made plans to capture Otto when he got to his palace at Ingelheim to celebrate Easter.

What was the objective here? It could be that Liudolf and Konrad wanted to depose Otto and make Liudolf king. However, I find that unlikely. After Birten and Andernach Otto’s right to rule was confirmed by act of god and hence unassailable. As things escalate the demands brought forward are directed mainly against the behaviour of Henry, not against Otto. And that sort of makes sense. Henry had picked up literally all the gains from the Italian campaign, leaving not only Liudolf and Konrad empty handed, but also their younger retainers who may have hoped for a juicy county or town in Italy. The restructuring of the duchies had also taught the junior members of the great families like the Konradiner, Arnulfinger and Billunger not to expect their own duchies any time soon, since these are reserved to the royal family. What these guys look for is not to get rid of the king, but to capture him and force him to acknowledge their rights and expectations.

But before they got to the imperial palace in Ingelheim, Otto got wind of the plan at the very last minute and fled behind the walls of the nearby city of Mainz. That was better than being captured by Liudolf and Konrad, but not by much. Mainz was ruled by, guess who, yes, Friedrich, Archbishop of Mainz the one who Otto had humiliated 10 years ago and who was involved in this conspiracy as well.

Whilst sort of in custody of the archbishop, Otto signed an agreement with Liudolf and Konrad. We do not know what was in the agreement, but most likely a reconfirmation of Liudolf’s right to become king, Konrad as duke and maybe a re-allocation of the spoils from Italy. After he had signed the agreement, Otto was allowed to leave Mainz.

If we had understood something about Otto’s character from the last episodes, it is that he would rather not live than not rule. So, Otto left Mainz for Cologne and immediately declared the agreement null and void. Then he called all the nobles of the realm to an assembly in Fritzlar. There he provided a stage for his brother Henry to go full blast after Archbishop Friedrich. We do not know what Friedrich was specifically accused of, but it does not matter, he was obviously guilty. Friedrich was stripped of his role as archchancellor of the kingdom, though he remained as archbishop of Mainz and was otherwise left unharmed. Friedrich ran off to the near impregnable fortress in Breisach and kept a low profile for his remaining few years.

At the same diet, Otto removed the Duchy of Lothringia from Konrad the Red, though he left Liudolf as duke of Swabia. Finally, he banished some senior Saxon nobles who he held responsible for the indignity of the agreement of Mainz and gave them to Henry as his prisoners. Some of these men were old allies of Otto who had fought with or more precisely for him at the battle of Birten.

Then Otto mustered his troops and travelled down to Mainz, where Liudolf and Konrad had set up their base of operations.

The siege of Mainz did not go well for Otto. The ancient roman walls of the city were strong and breaking city walls in the 10th century without cannon was hard and time-consuming work. The fighting seemed to have been fiercer and bloodier than was usual even for the time. Widukind describes it as worse than a civil war, or any other calamity. Otto brought siege engines against the walls but the defenders again and again managed to burn them outside the gates after vicious fighting.

To make matters worse, more and more of the nobles saw Liudolf’s and particularly Konrad’s grievances as justified. Some nobles joined the rebellion, but even more just left Otto’s camp and returned home.  After 2 months of fruitless warfare Otto had to start negotiations again.

Liudolf and Konrad came into Otto’s camp and kneeled before him. They swore to lay down arms and subject themselves to Otto’s judgement provided he would leave their allies unharmed. In other words, they asked for what they came for – recognition of the rights and aspirations of the aristocrats. It is very unlikely that Otto would have severely punished his son and son in law. Having them executed was not really an option and long prison sentences were still quite rare.

Otto refused. He needed at least a few accomplices to hang to make his point that all senior roles and lands are in his gift. Liudolf and Konrad could not hand them over because they were bound to them by mutual oath, so that was a no go.

The situation is hopeless, but not serious. The 10th century politicians were masters of the impossible fudge and I am sure there would have devised a cunning scenario with temporary imprisonment, some great pageantry and kneeling in the snow that could have been conjured up to solve the issue. But it did not happen. Why, trust brother Henry to mess it up.

Henry lashed out at Liudolf, calling him a usurper and invader of the kingdom. Henry called him up on the claim that Liudolf was not rebelling against his father but against him, essentially challenging him to single combat. As the shouting match between Liudolf and Henry escalated. Otto did not intervene and that meant for Liudolf that he had to go back to war.

Failure to accept the submission turned public opinion strongly into Liudolf’s favour. More nobles joined him, including a count Arnulf who was the son of the last Arnulf duke of Bavaria but was set aside in order to bring henry to the ducal throne. That Arnulf had been in charge of managing Bavaria in Henry’s absence. Liudolf and Konrad left Mainz and marched on Regensburg, the capital of Bavaria where they got hold of Henry’s war chest.

Hermann Billung sent a relief army from Saxony to support Otto. But that army ended up being pinned down by Liudolf and Konrad’s forces and its commanders joined the rebels.

Otto with his small army attempted to lay siege to Regensburg but had to give in after 3 months and returned to Saxony. The only silver lining for Otto was the installation of his little brother Brun, first as Archbishop of Cologne and then as duke of Lothringia. Brun was unwaveringly loyal to Otto, the intellectual powerhouse in the family and now one of the most influential men in the kingdom. Brun quickly mobilised badly needed troops for Otto and Henry to go after the rebels.

Miraculously Otto’s regime did not have to concede. This time it wasn’t some obscure nobleman like Short’n’Bold who rescued his reign, it was an enemy. The Hungarians who had been defeated by his father had come back every time Otto had a disagreement with a relative. And this time again, they marched in. The Hungarian invasion gave the son the opportunity to out-mistake his dad. Liudolf entered into an agreement with the Hungarians against the king. He provided the Hungarians with scouts helping them to raid, plunder, ransack and maraud freely across the kingdom.

That gave Otto finally the upper hand in the public relations battle. Otto turned his troops against the Hungarians and pursued them. He may have not been particularly successful, since the Hungarians went home laden with booty, but it made him out as the defender of the fatherland. It completely undermined Liudolf’s case of “being the good one”. Liudolf later claimed that he only associated with the Hungarians because they had been paid by his father to attack him. Quite possible. Based on all we know about Otto he could have been that reckless. But the muck did not stick to Otto, it stuck to Liudolf.

With the Hungarians gone, reinforcement coming and nobles joining his banner again, Otto took his army to Bavaria to confront Liudolf. At Illertissen, both armies faced each other. Nevertheless, a battle was avoided as the bishops of Chur and Augsburg negotiated a truce. The main protagonists then met for peace negotiations.

Otto and Henry milked the Hungarian story to the absolute max. All the evil was laid at the conspirators’ feet. Lots of declamation about desolation of the kingdom, people killed, fortresses destroyed, churches burned down, and priests murdered. Liudolf tried to defend himself but to no avail. Given the tide had turned Konrad the Red bent the knee and was received back into the king’s favour. Friedrich of Mainz as per his playbook said he had always been loyal to the king. But Liudolf did not give in. He left the conference and barricaded himself into Regensburg.

Another city, another siege. Regensburg was the biggest and richest city in the East Francian kingdom. Its defences had just been strengthened and increased by duke Arnulf.  The ferocity of the fighting seemed to have increased even further and the surroundings the city were being ransacked mercilessly. This time Otto and Henry were more successful. Famine broke out in Regensburg and Liudolf had to agree to come to another set of peace negotiations. That agreement did not end the siege, but it allowed Otto to leave for some rest at a hunting lodge and Henry was put in charge of cleaning up.

Liudolf must have realised that the game was well and truly up. He snuck out of Regensburg and rode as fast as he could to his dad’s hunting lodge. There he prostrated himself and asked for forgiveness, which was granted. We will never know what exactly made Otto accept Liudolf’s plea on this, the third occasion he was kneeling in front of him. My guess is a combination of military failure and evil uncle Henry not being present to

Meanwhile Henry entered his own capital of Regensburg and burned it to the ground.

I am still unsure what Henry’s plan was in all that. Did he just hope Liudolf would die in a battle leaving a tiny baby as Otto’s only successor? Or was he just one of these characters like Tullius Destructivus who thrive in conspiracies and civil war? If it is the latter, it has become a family trait. The only reason this Henry is not called Henry “the Quarrelsome” is because that was the name given to his son – so more fun and games to come.

Despite Otto and Henry’s ultimate success, things had to change. Lothringia stayed in the hands of Brun, Otto’s youngest brother. However, Brun split the duchy into two, upper and lower Lothringia, creating two new positions for members of the powerful families to fill.

Liudolf had to give up Swabia, which was handed back to Burkhart III a scion of the old ducal family and uncle of Queen Adelheid. In saxony Hermann Billung was put into a position officially as duke, though probably with less authority than other dukes. Henry regained control of Bavaria despite strong resistance from several counts and the archbishop of Salzburg. Henry beat them all in battle and had the archbishop blinded, an act even in these brutal times considered unfathomable. But hey, Henry was definitely not out for the most popular duke award.

And finally, the unreliable Friedrich of Mainz had conveniently died, allowing Otto to put his illegitimate son William in charge of the largest archbishopric in the country. That leaves Otto in a net, net unchanged position. Yes, he had to give up some of the direct control of the duchies but in return got a closer control over the church. As for Liudolf, he was not formally stripped of his role as heir apparent, but it was also not reconfirmed, leaving his position essentially vacant.

In 954 Otto may have reasserted his control over the kingdom, but that did not make the Hungarians go away. In 955 they return with their biggest force ever, this time not just intent on plunder, but intent to conquer and stay for good. Next week we will see how Otto deals with this, probably the biggest challenge of his reign. Will he screw up again and be rescued by some fluke of fortune or will he for once win fair and square? We will find out.

I hope to see you then.

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