Episode 8 – An Imperial Bride

This week we finally say goodbye to emperor Otto the Great after seven episodes. I hope you agree he was worth it.

When we last saw him, he was celebrating the end of his successful campaign with a great assembly at Cologne. This great gathering in 965 was even more of a confirmation of his role as successor to the great Charlemagne than the coronation itself. The assembled rulers of western Europe did not just show up for the party, they recognised him as emperor, as a ruler above mere kings. And that included Lothar the young king of France.

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans Episode 8 – The Imperial bride

This week we finally say goodbye to emperor Otto the Great after seven episodes. I hope you agree he was worth it.

When we last saw him, he was celebrating the end of his successful campaign with a great assembly at Cologne. This great gathering in 965 was even more of a confirmation of his role as successor to the great Charlemagne than the coronation itself. The assembled rulers of western Europe did not just show up for the party, they recognised him as emperor, as a ruler above mere kings. And that included Lothar the young king of France.

After three years in Italy, what he now needs to do is stick around with his German subjects and give them a bit of TLC. Early medieval monarchs were not supposed to be away for so long. Because there is no real bureaucracy of any kind, all decisions, deliberations, and orders are best done face to face. It was management by walking around. Since Carolingian times the court had followed a largely consistent itinerary going from one royal palace, called a Pfalz, to the next. For instance, Ottonian emperors would regularly celebrate Easter in Quedlinburg and Christmas in Frankfurt. They would call regularly at Fritzlar, Memleben, Magdeburg, Ingelheim, Worms and Aachen to name a few. That constant travel was in part necessary because no single location could feed the hundreds, if not thousands of people that made up the entourage of the king.

But more importantly, the presence of the king or emperor projected power. Wherever the royal party stopped he would issue judgements, consult with his barons, plan military campaigns, award positions and solve administrative problems. If he does not show up for a long time, fewer decisions are being taken. Quarrels between the highest-ranking nobles and between the church and nobles remain unresolved, often ending up in feuds. Key positions may be left vacant until an answer can be obtained leaving borders unmanaged. Even worse it weakens the bonds that hold the kingdom together. Medieval vassalage is in the end a personal, not an institutional relationship. The noble has his rights and obligation first and foremost towards the king as an individual, not to the king as an institution. Therefore, the major nobles expect the king to call on their support in person, not always, but at least from time to time. Equally the major nobles are entitled to advise the king and the king was obliged to take their advice into account – and that could only happen when the king was around.  Failure to do so leads to frustration and ultimately revolt.

Therefore, it is paramount that Otto remains in Germany for the next few years and re-establishes his relationship with the magnates of his kingdom. As with most things paramount, Otto decides not to do this either.

Events in Rome demanded another journey across the alps.

Pope Leo VIII had died and the Romans, now a bit more circumspect than before, asked Otto’s permission before electing a new pope. They raised John XIII to the seat of St. Peter. John was a more worthy vicar of Christ by 10th century standards, having received a proper ecclesiastical education and been ordained as a bishop. Though that was not the reason he was elected.  He was first and foremost a senior member of the Crescenti family. The Crescenti were the other Roman clan that vied for prominence against the Theophylacts. You may remember the Theophylacts. They are the clan of Mariucca and randy Pope John the XII.

That could not go down well and by Christmas 965 the Romans under Theophylacts leadership rose up. Pope John XIII disappeared into a cell in the Castel Sant’ Angelo. 

In the meantime, Berengar’s son Adalbert had returned from Corsica as soon as he saw the last of Otto’s soldiers turn the corner of the Brenner pass. As you can see, Italy is no different to Germany. Once the ruler is physically absent, the power balance shifts and magnates begin to rise up. That explains why Adalbert managed to gain instant support amongst the Italian magnates. Otto’s political position in Italy was wiped out. Members of the pro-Ottonian party that empress Adelheid had built so carefully were either joining Adalbert or hid in their strongholds. Even the bishops Otto had appointed as his representatives in Italy switched sides.

Otto had no option than to go down to Italy. He called a diet in Worms to set the kingdom up for another extended stay down south.

First item on the agenda was the regency, which again went to his son, archbishop William of Mainz. King Otto II now 11 years old and was again left behind with his uncle.

The other big items on the agenda were two inheritances. The first one was Margrave Gero, the bloodthirsty conqueror of what is today’s states of Saxony and Brandenburg. Gero had died without a direct male heir, giving Otto the opportunity to allocate his enormous possessions fairly freely. Before Liudolf’s uprising, he might have taken the inheritance and given it to a member of his family or a close confidant. By 965 that had changed. Otto realised that he needed to reward the powerful families if he wanted to be safe from rebellions.

Consequently, he split Gero’s inheritance into six separate counties and marches that he handed to either senior members of Gero’s extended clan or scions of mighty Saxon families, some of whom may have even been loyal supporters. That had some long-term consequences. By handing these rare and unexpected windfalls back to the aristocratic clans, he allowed new and powerful entities to grow up. These entities over time challenged the emperors.  One of those entities, the March of Brandenburg was the county that would later turn into the kingdom of Prussia. Otto’s approach is very different to the French kings who consolidated any vacant duchy, county, baronetcy, village aldermanship into the direct ownership of the king whenever they could. That way the French kings managed to build a unified kingdom, whilst Germany… well you will see.

The other sad loss was Archbishop Brun of Cologne, Otto’s brother and most loyal counsellor. He was replaced as archbishop of Cologne by Folkmar but again, Folkmar did not receive the duchy of Lothringia. The two sub-duchies of upper and lower Lothringia that Brun had created for administrative purposes were elevated to full duchies and given to local powerful lords.

 In August 966 Otto crossed the alps via the Gotthard passes with a much smaller army than last time. This time most of the German dukes, counts and bishops stayed back home.

The Italian nobles immediately succumbed. Adalbert had already left the country – courtesy of an advance party led by duke Burkhard of Swabia a couple of months earlier. Otto moved into the capital, Pavia and took control of Northern Italy. He replaced his previous unreliable administrators with others, no less flighty ones.

After the, his third attempt at the Italian crown Adalbert gave up his ambitions. He retired to his wife’s possessions in Burgundy and gave his only son the name Otto as a sign of submission. That is not the end of Berengar’s family quest for the crown of Italy but we get a reprieve for 30 years.

Once it was cold enough Otto went down to Rome, took the city, freed the pope and instigated a Christmas bloodbath amongst the supporters of the Theophylacts. The leader of the rebellion was hanged from the neck of the statue of Marcus Aurelius the one that still stands on the Capitol today, the rest had their necks snapped in the more traditional manner or were whipped naked through the streets, walk of shame style. After that Otto I had no more trouble from the Romans for the rest of his reign.

That being done, Otto expanded his control south of Rome forcing the Lombard dukes of Capua, Spoleto and Benevento to acknowledge him as their overlord. In an effort to simplify things he had the three duchies put under control of one of them, Pandulf Ironhead, who became Otto’s man for the South.

Otto now had a border with the eastern Roman empire in Byzantium, which still held most of southern Italy.

Byzantium had been very much on the up over the last 50 years. Under a succession of warlike leaders, namely Romanos Lekapinos and Nikephoros Phokas, the empire had pushed the Muslim Kalifate back towards Baghdad and reconquered Crete, Antioch and other centres of the ancient Roman empire. For the first time in a long time, they were in a position where they could project power in Italy had Otto become too much of a nuisance. And him taking over the Lombard duchies made him a bit of a nuisance. The Byzantines begun mustering an army to send over to Italy.

Otto had absolutely no interest in a confrontation with the emperor in Constantinople, in fact the exact opposite was the case. Despite all his success and power, Otto had a serious inferiority complex. He knew the inhabitants of the eastern empire looked down on the uncivilised Germanic boors that had grabbed hold of the ancient western empire. Just think about the fact that Otto I had only just learned to read and write whilst the nobles of the eastern empire were majoring in intricate theological differences.

What Otto really, really wanted was to be acknowledged as an equal by the Byzantines. To that aim he proposed a marriage between his son, Otto II and Anna, daughter of emperor Romanos II and stepdaughter of the current emperor Nikephoros Phokas. Anna was the highest category of Byzantine princess, as she was born in the purple, i.e., she was born in a special room in the imperial palace that was covered in purple porphyry stone where only reigning empresses were giving birth. Otto was confident this would be a straightforward deal and called his son down from Germany to get ready for marriage and coronation.

When Byzantium heard of the proposal, the laughter of derision must have been heard up and down the Mediterranean Sea. Marrying a purple-born princess destined for the church to this barbarian usurper – you must be joking. 

Otto was hurt and when a 10th century monarch is feeling pain, a lot of poor peasants will feel a lot more pain. He readied his army and invaded the byzantine duchy of Puglia in the very south east of Italy. As per their military manual the Byzantine troops disappeared behind the walls of the big cities and Otto raided the countryside. To force a decision, he laid siege to the city of Bari. Bari was the major harbour liking Italy to Greece since Roman times. As a harbour it was quite easy to resupply since the Byzantines controlled the sea. Otto had overlooked that crucial piece of military intelligence and had to raise the siege. He returned to his new palace in Ravenna empty handed.

 As he was already there, Otto had his son crowned Emperor Otto II in Rome in December 967.

Negotiations started up again. This time our old friend Liudprand of Cremona was dispatched to Constantinople to deal with Nikephoros Phocas. Nikephoros offered the hand of Anna in exchange for Ravenna, Rome and all Otto held in Southern Italy. That was a bit too much for Otto. Otto took his army down to Bari again, to find out the city was still by the sea. Meanwhile on the shore of the Bosporus, Nikephoros had our hapless envoy put in jail, which earned him a scolding description as a short, ugly, boorish man in Liudprand’s memoires.

And it would have gone on forever like that had not Nikephoros been murdered during a palace coup. The new emperor was his nephew and murderer John Tzimiskes. John had to shore up his reign and had no time for skirmishes with some barbaric western pseudo emperor. John agreed to send a princess for Otto II. And with that, enter stage left, the most glamorous female figure of medieval German history, Theophanu Skleraina.

Theophanu was the daughter of Constantinos Skleros and Sophia Phokaina. Both the Skleros clan and the Phokas clan were prominent military families. However, Theophanu’s blood relationship with actual emperors was at best tangential. Through her mother she was a great niece of the emperor Nikephoros Phokas. She was also related to the usurper John Tzimiskes who had previously been married to her aunt.  Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes were career emperors who acquired the throne through military success, they were not hereditary emperors. The true blue blooded imperial family of the Macedonians ranked well above them and towered over Theophanu. Her rank in the line of succession to the imperial throne was roughly equivalent to Savannah Philips claim to the British throne stands today. You do not know who Savannah Philips is? Well, nor do I.

When John Tzimiskes chose this very minor royal to be married to the young emperor Otto II, he knew that this was a slap in the face. It is not that Otto’s court was ignorant of the affairs and intrigues in Constantinople. There were regular embassies between the two courts and Greek churchmen took up important roles in Rome and elsewhere. Otto and his advisors knew full well that what had arrived was not a purple-born Macedonian princess. They knew she was not even a blood relative of the current emperor. They also knew that in 927 an actual daughter of the emperor Christopher Lekapenos had been married to the Bulgarian ruler. And to add even more irony, in 988 the much desired, purple-born princess Anna was married to Vladimir, the Grand Duke of the Kiev Rus. I doubt there was any ambiguity about what has just happened. The Byzantines did not mind marrying their princesses to barbarians, they just minded marrying them to this barbarian.

The other person who knew full well that she had been sent on suicide mission was 12-year-old Theophanu Skleraina. She was given all the trappings of a byzantine princess, robes of gold and purple, diadems and earrings and a train of exotic looking attendants. But underneath all that bling she must have been scared shitless. The most positive outcome of this journey was that she would be sent back which meant she would be damaged goods for any future marriage in Constantinople and she would end up in a monastery, but at least she would be back home. The worse option was that she would be rejected and then held in a monastery somewhere in this barbaric north, places with terrifying names like Essen or Gandersheim. And Alternative 3, she may have to spend the rest of her life with an uncouth ginger bloke whose father was famously hirsute.

But When the two Ottos unpacked the parcel from the Vasilev, they realised they had been played. Yes, they could send her back or put her into a monastery, but what then? Start another attempt at conquering Bari? The city still had a harbour and the Germans still did not have a fleet. And if it really came to war, John Tzimiskes was a famous general, hero of the campaigns against the Saracens. If he arrived in Italy, the still fragile Italian situation would very quickly turn against them. Last, but by no means least, by 972 Otto had already been in Italy for 6 years, far too long to leave his vassals north of the alps unsupervised.

Best solution for Otto was to grin and bear it. Theophanu was presented to the German people in all her exotic, Byzantine finery and hailed as the finest of blue-blooded princesses. And it worked. When I learned about Theophanu in the 1980s, it was still in all the schoolbooks that she was a Byzantine princess, not just some distant relative.

On the 14th of April 972 she was married to the now 17-year-old emperor Otto II with all pomp and circumstance in St. Peters in Rome. Thephanu was also crowned empress for good measure and received her personal apanage in a sumptuously decorated title deed which you can see on The History of the Germans Facebook page.

Otto really had to go home now. He had been in Italy for 6 years and if you add the previous journey, he had been away for almost 10 years. Because Otto had failed to show for such a long time, grumblings had begun about a possible rebellion. Not from Bavaria or Lothringia, where rebellions had been endemic for decades, no, this time from Otto’s heartland, Saxony.

Otto had left his old friend Hermann Billung, in charge of Saxony. In the last 30 years Hermann, Margrave Gero and the Saxon armies had pushed the borders of the realm further and further east until they had reached Poland. Not content with that success, they waged war against the Polish duke Miesco. Miesco finally succumbed, accepted Christianity, married a Christian Saxon Noblewoman and accepted a sort of overlordship by the German kings.

For all that Hermann was elevated to be Duke, Gero’s associates had become counts of the border marches but still he and his fellow nobles did not feel they got the recognition they deserved from their absent king.

Rumours were going round that Otto had died in Italy. For instance his instructions to continue to fight the Redariers in the North were ignored and generally the whole place had become restless.

As a deliberate act of insubordination, on Palm Sunday Hermann entered Magdeburg, Ottos favourite palace and received reverence from the archbishop as if he was the king, he took Otto’s seat at the table and even slept in Otto’s own bed. That message was clear, come home or there will not be a home to come back to.

When Otto came home in 973 all was fine again. Hermann came to see him, bent the knee and gave huge presents, as did the archbishop of Magdeburg. The Saxon leaders regained their access to the king and whatever sedition there might have been, it stopped.

Otto celebrated his rule one last time in Quedlinburg, where the Kings of Poland and Denmark and the duke of Bohemia came in person to pay their respects whilst every European power including the Kalif in Cordoba and the Emperor in Constantinople sent envoys.

A few weeks later, on the 7th of May 973 at the age of 61 at his palace in Memleben, Otto grew feverish and tired. I let Widukind of Corvey take over from here:

His men understood what was happening and lay him on a bench. His head was dropping as if he were already dead, but they revived him. He was just able to receive the sacraments before he gave his last breath, without a groan and at peace.

The people said a great deal in praise of him and remembered that he had governed his subjects with paternal mercy and had freed them from their enemies. He had conquered with arms his arrogant enemies, namely the Magyars, Saracens and Danes. He had subjugated Italy. He had destroyed the shrines of the gods among the neighbouring peoples. He had established churches and orders of priests. They recalled many other good things as they participated in the royal funeral.

When the morning came, although he had already been anointed as king, and designated emperor by the pope, the people eagerly gave their hands to the son of the emperor, the unique hope of the entire church, as they had done before, promised their loyalty and support against all the adversaries, and confirmed this with military oaths. Thus he was elected anew by the entire people as their ruler. He transferred his father’s body to the city, which his father, himself, had built, called Magdeburg. So died the emperor of the Romans, the king of peoples, on the seventh of May. The Wednesday before Pentecost.”

Otto had been king of East Francia for 37 years and had been formally Roman Emperor for 11. He lies under a simple marble slab in the Dom in Magdeburg, next to his beloved first wife, Eadgyth.

See you next week.