When 4-year-old king Otto III is crowned king riders bang on the door of Aachen Cathedral with news that his father, Otto II had died 16 days earlier. Immediately the archenemy of the family, Henry the Quarrelsome is released from prison where he was held for treason and is made guardian of the child. Otto III’s chance of survival is bleak and his only hope is his mother, the Byzantine princes Theophanu who musters an odd assembly of ladies and geeks to rescue her son…
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans - Episode 11 – Woe to the land that is governed by a child….
Last week we watched the unlucky Otto II stumble through his 10 years of imperial rule, suffering defeat and loss of the eastern parts of Saxony to the Slavs. Otto II died on December 7th, 983 in Rome of Malaria. And whilst Otto II lay on his deathbed, his three-year old son Otto was travelling a thousand miles north to Aachen for his coronation as king.
Otto had been elected king a couple of months earlier in Verona, by both the German and the Italian nobles. When Otto reaches Aachen either on Christmas eve or Christmas day 983 he is crowned king by both the archbishop of Mainz and the archbishop of Ravenna, the respective leading churchmen of Germany and Italy.it all looks as if we finally have a ruler over a joint German and Italian Reich. But not so. All this happened 16 days after his father had died, though nobody knew that during the ceremony.
Literally on the same day the messengers arrive with news that Otto II had died in Rome. You can almost imagine the riders banging on the church doors whilst inside the crown is put on the toddler’s head. As we will see that was extremely lucky for young Otto, now king Otto III. Having been anointed and consecrated properly has moved him from the realm of mere mortals into a higher level of human being, a ruler that has been chosen by god.
How much that matters we will see. Otto II had been just 28 years old when he died. His death was certainly unexpected. But, when we look back at previous expeditions to Rome, the Kaisers were always concerned about the risk of unexpected death in battle or more likely from disease. I mentioned before that Rome was a malaria infested swamp where northern warriors tended to fade away like gelato in the summer heat. That concern about an unexpected death drove Otto II’s coronation at the age of six and probably was also a driver behind the decision to have little Otto III crowned when he was only a child.
The one good thing about the timing of Otto II’s death was that most of the magnates of Germany were in Aachen for the coronation when the news arrived. That meant they could make a decision on what to do next. Little Otto III could obviously not rule in his own capacity and needed a guardian or guardians until he comes of age.
Who should be this guardian or these guardians? According to Germanic law, the closest male relative would automatically be guardian. Let us just think who is Otto III’s closest male relative? His father, Otto II had only one half-brother, Liudolf, who had already died in episode 5. Liudolf himself had a son, called Otto, who was later made duke of Swabia and Bavaria. That Otto had died in the last Episode, without a male heir.
That means we need to go up one level, to the brothers of Otto the Great. Only one of them had a male descendent, and you guessed it, that closest male relative of Otto III is none other than Henry the Quarrelsome. And therefore, in line with law and customs the German barons decided the Quarrelsome should become the guardian of little Otto III and sent for him. That was on December 26th.
When the German nobles took this decision, Henry had spent most of the last 10 years incarcerated for treason against Kaiser Otto II. The length of his incarceration was extreme by the standards of the time. Henry’s punishment looks even harsher when you compare it to his co-conspirators who have got back into the royal favour and one of them was even given Henry’s old duchy of Bavaria. Moreover, his branch of the royal family still held the view that they were cheated out of kingship by Otto the Great, who was born the son of a duke, whilst their ancestor was born “in aula regis” i.e., as the son of a king.
Despite all that backstory the German nobles voted for Henry as guardian and therefore de facto ruler of the country. Nobody in their right mind could have expected Henry to have any warm feelings for his cousin twice removed. They did not even care that of all people in the world Henry the Quarellsome was the last one Otto II would have wanted as guardian for his son. So, why did they do that? Two reasons spring to mind.
The first one was that the Slavs had rebelled and expelled the German occupiers from their lands, had flattened Brandenburg and Havelberg, reverted to paganism and only at the last minute been stopped from crossing the Elbe and threatening the core of Saxony. Decisive leadership was urgently required. Henry was a recognised leader and warrior who could be trusted to hold the eastern frontier.
The second reason was that the only theoretical alternative was the child’s mother, Theophanu. Theophanu was not only a long way away, in Rome, but also not very popular. Apart from a solid dose of xenophobia, the German barons accused her of being behind the suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg which -as we all know- caused the lord to forsake the kingdom and create the Slav uprising. Bottom line, Henry was the better solution.
At the time of Otto’s coronation on Christmas day, Henry was locked up in Utrecht, just 200km from Aachen and 250km from Cologne. Henry is freed two days later on December 27th or 28th and rides hell for leather to Cologne, where Otto III had gone to stay with the archbishop. Henry reaches Cologne in the last days of 983 and physically grabs hold of the child. Possession being 9/10th of the law, henry is now the de facto leader of the Reich.
It is fair to assume that Henry had spent the last 10 years in jail pondering about ways he could take over the kingdom and bury Otto II and his family in a shallow grave. So, when he came free, he is likely to have had a fully developed master plan how to take over as king, not just as guardian. This masterplan needed to address three main items:
Item one, he needed a decisive victory over the Slavs to justify him setting aside the anointed king. That meant he needed to have soldiers and money enough to mount a massive campaign east of the Elbe river.
Secondly it is fair to assume that the coup would not go smoothly and that traditional allies of Otto the Great’s family such as the dukes of Swabia would resist militarily. That meant he also needed some soldiers and some money to fight them.
And thirdly, a civil war in Germany would bring king Lothar of France back into the fray. You remember from last episode that king Lothar of France hankered after the duchy of Lothringia since forever. His mother was the widow of the last indigenous duke of Lothringia and his father had named him Lothar as a reminder that it was his job to regain the duchy. There was no question that if Henry the Quarrelsome would be busy fighting two wars, Lothar would invade Lothringia and turn the eagle on the imperial palace of Aachen round again. To prevent that, Henry would have needed even more soldiers and money, and that was more soldiers and more money than he could ever hope to raise.
That means there was only one thing that could be done – Henry the Quarrelsome had to make peace with Lothar right now, before the King of France invades. The price for peace with Lothar is pretty straightforward: Henry has to hand over the duchy of Lothringia on a silver plate.
Given the subsequent timing of events Henry must have sketched out his offer to Lothar literally whilst sitting on his horse riding down to Cologne to pick up his little cousin. The details of the offer are unknown, but he did swear an oath to Lothar that he would come to a meeting in Breisach scheduled for February 1 where a formal treaty was to be negotiated and signed.
At this point the chances for little Otto III to become ruler, or to be frank, making it to adulthood at all look pretty bleak. If Henry can keep the western front calm and throw the majority of his forces against the Slavs, he would get the level of support needed to shut down the Ottonian party and push little Otto III aside.
Otto IIIs only hope now is his mother, the byzantine princess Theophanu. She was last seen at Otto IIs deathbed in Rome. After Otto’s death on December 7th the situation in Rome had become extremely volatile extremely quickly.
The once so obedient bishops and counts rapidly disappeared back to their homelands to hunker down and see what will happens next. The Roman population grew restless. One of Otto II’s last acts had been to appoint his archchancellor for Italy as pope John XIV. John XIV had not really been elected by anyone other than Otto II and hence had no friends or supporters in the holy city. He barricaded himself into the Lateran palace waiting for the end.
In other words, Rome was not safe for Theophanu, but where should she go, and who could she rely upon? Northern Italy was convulsed by raids on the members of the pro-Ottonian party and nobody knew what was going on in Germany.
There was one other member of the Ottonian family still in Rome, Mathilda, sister of Otto II and Abbess of Quedlinburg. Whilst Theophanu had little standing amongst the German barons, Mathilda was a as close to the top of the pyramid as you could get. She was the granddaughter of Saint Mathilda, her predecessor as abbess of Quedlinburg. The convent of Quedlinburg was not only one of the richest abbey’s in the empire and a major landowner, but also home to king Henry the Fowler’s grave making it the spiritual centre for the whole dynasty. Mathilda herself was highly regarded in her own right and had been a member of the regency council during her father’s and her brother’s wars in Italy.
Mathilda and Theophanu could not have heard about the release of the Quarrelsome yet, but it would not require a genius to figure out that little Otto III and with him the whole branch of the family was in serious danger.
The two ladies, with the few friends and followers they still had left, fled Rome together and raced to Pavia where they arrived just before Christmas. In Pavia they joined forces with a third and the most powerful female member of the family, Adelheid, the widow of Otto the Great and Grandmother of Otto III.
Allegedly Theophanu and Adelheid have never seen eye to eye in the past and some historians suggest that Theophanu may have been instrumental in the estrangement between Adelheid and her son Otto II. But now, as the dynasty itself was under threat both sides let bygones be bygones.
The last piece of the jigsaw came in the person of Gerbert of Aurillac. Gerbert was the towering intellectual and polymath of 10th century Europe. Gerbert was a French monk who had spent years in Northern Spain and at least a short period in Cordoba, the centre of Muslim culture and learning in Europe. There he developed an interest in mathematics and astronomy that led to the reintroduction of the Abacus and the Astrolabe into Europe. His most important contribution was the introduction of Arabic numerals replacing the clumsy Roman numerals for most calculations.
He had access to the writing of antiquity including Cicero, Virgil and Boethius, he was familiar with Aristotle and main elements of Greek philosophy. He wrote treatises on logic and reorganised the logical and dialectic studies. Moreover, he was an accomplished musician who constructed several organs.
His connection to the Ottonian family came when he was recommended as a tutor for Otto II in 970. He had stayed in contact with the emperor who made him abbot of the rich abbey of Bobbio, north of Rome. When Otto II died, Gerbert was in a bit of a pickle. His stint as abbot was not going too well. He had irritated his tenants and forced his monks to behave in a saintlier fashion. Gerbert quite rightly feared that if Otto III would be replaced by Henry the Quarrelsome, he would lose his abbey and probably some crucial bits of his anatomy. So, he joined the three ladies in Pavia to hatch a plan.
And that plan had to be audacious. The Quarrelsome had the law on his side as far as his guardianship was concerned. He also had possession of the child and the support of most of the magnates.
The three ladies and the monk realised that the key to breaking Henry’s hold lay in Lothringia. If they can put a wedge between Henry and Lothar of France, then Henry will be forced into a war on three fronts he would not be able to win.
They dispatch Gerbert of Aurillac to Reims, just across the border from Lothringia. Reims is also the seat of the preeminent archbishop of France who also happens to be a close friend of Gerbert. Gerbert gets busy organising resistance to Henry’s plans in Lothringia. He wrote letters to all and sundry pointing out that Henry was not just becoming little Otto III’s guardian but wanted to make himself king in his place.
Henry thought that with the royal child under his control he could take hold of Lothringia quite easily. That worked in so far as the two archbishops of Cologne and Trier were concerned but failed to convince a number of the important counts. It crucially misread the position of the duke of Lower Lothringia, Charles who was Lothar’s arch-enemy, going back to some slander he had directed at Lothar’s wife. And Gerberts letters made the locals suspicious.
Bottom line was, Henry did not have the political authority or the military might to control Lothringia. And then he makes his first big mistake. Instead of going to Breisach and discuss options with king Lothar, he went to Saxony to gather his followers, presumably planning to come back to Lothringia afterwards.
Whether Henry tried to let Lothar know that he was not coming, is not reported, but even if he did, Lothar did not get the message. Lothar travelled to Breisach. There he found not his new best mate Henry who he expected to hand him Lothringia on a silver plate, but duke Konrad of Swabia, recently appointed by Otto II and a fully paid-up member of the Konradiner family who offered him a piece of his mind on the sharp end of a sword. How Konrad knew about Lothar’s arrival is unclear, but it may well be that Gerbert, who saw Lothar coming through Reims had tipped him off.
The French army suffered a defeat by the Swabians and king Lothar rushed back to Laon. King Lothar is now really p.o. with his no longer best mate Henry the Quarrelsome.
Gerbert of Aurillac now goes to hyperspace. Within just a few weeks he brings together a coalition of the Lothringian magnates and the French king who was now so angry with Henry he joined his enemies just for a laugh, recognising Otto III as king and declaring Henry an usurper.
Whilst all this is going down in Lothringia, Henry is in Saxony trying to rally his supporters.
But even there he started off on the wrong foot. Whilst en route, two important counts begged forgiveness from him for a not further explained ancient misdemeanour. Henry refused. His refusal indicated to the other Saxon nobles that he now lacked a crucial royal quality, clemency. For the nobles, who had not seen Henry for a decade that was a massive red flag.
Combine that with Henry’s odds now much shorter than before, it is understandable that the Saxon nobles became a bit hesitant to declare him king or co-regent or whatever he was hoping for. In a meeting in March the Saxon nobles offered to make Henry king alongside Otto III only on condition that they get the permission of the now 4-year-old child. Not the kind of unanimous support Henry was hoping for.
The rumblings got worse for him after the royal assembly in Quedlinburg in April. Though he is received into the city with all the honours of a king, a few days later a number of Saxon barons left and gathered a few miles down the road in Asselburg. They declare themselves unwilling to break their oath to the anointed and consecrated little boy Otto III.
There might have been some genuine fear of breaking an oath to the anointed king, but we may also witness a nascent national sentiment. Giving away Lothringia to the French may have struck many barons as too high a price to pay just to get a more pro-active monarch. Henry tries to break the rebellion but lacks the resources to attack his opponents at Asselburg. Even worse, the guys in Asselburg are striking back, capture his war chest and and free Otto III’s little sister.
Henry needs more supporters and goes looking for them in his old duchy of Bavaria. That is also not going as swimmingly as hoped because there is already a duke of Bavaria who is not best pleased that Henry starts gathering support in his duchy. Henry manages to get some important nobles and bishops to join his banner, but by no means the whole duchy.
This is not going too well for Henry. In his masterplan he should by now be mustering a large army to fight the Slavs, the Western front should be calm and gradually the remaining neutrals in Bavaria, Franconia and the important archbishop of Mainz should come to his banner. Instead, he does not even have enough troops to bring down the renegades in Asselburg.
What further tilts the game is that Willigis, archbishop of Mainz declares for Otto III and the three ladies. The Archbishop of Mainz is not only the most important churchman in Germany he is also by law and tradition the one who anoints the true king. Willigis had anointed Otto III and when Henry declared his intention to cast Otto III aside, it challenged the archbishop’s spiritual powers. Plus, Willigis was a crafty operator and realised that Henry’s chips were down. Willigis makes himself the ladies’ champion and sends notice to Pavia that it is safe for them to come to Germany and claim the guardianship over Otto III.
Henry still thinks his control of the child and support in Saxony and Bavaria gives him the upper hand and calls the opposing barons led by Konrad of Swabia and Willigis of Mainz to negotiate in Burstadt in May. Negotiate they did and despite all his charm and rhetoric, Henry cannot convince the barons of his claim to kingship. In the end he realises the only way to avoid a war that he would invariably lose, was to promise to hand over the boy king to his mother when she comes to Germany in June.
At a meeting in Rohr on the 29th of June 984 all the protagonists are finally in the same place. The three ladies, Empress Theophanu, Empress Adelheid and the Mathilda of Quedlinburg, Archbishop Willigis, Gerbert of Aurillac and duke Konrad of Swabia all for the Ottonian party and on the other side, just Henry the Quarrelsome with his ward Otto III.
Henry had used the intervening weeks in an attempt to rally the duke of Bohemia and his Saxon supporters but finally realised that this would not happen. All he achieved was letting Meissen fall into the hands of the Bohemians. On June 20th he sends his followers home and arrives at the royal assembly alone with his ward, now 4-year-old Otto III.
He may have given up hope to be made king alongside Otto III but his hope was still to at least keep the guardianship. Under Germanic law he might still have a right to the guardianship despite all that had gone on before.
That is where our friend Gerbert brings it home for good or ill. Gerbert argued that under Roman law guardianship goes to the mother as long as she has not been remarried. And, Gerbert argues, Roman law applies here because Theophanu is a Byzantine princess and therefore subject to byzantine aka Roman law, and so is her son. That argument wins the day, albeit at a cost. The cost being that Otto III is now officially classed as a non-German, a notion that ultimately sticks as he becomes more and more Romanoi...
For now, the ladies have won, Henry has lost, and he hands over little Otto to his mother and grandmother.
He tries for another year or so to gather supporters in Lothringia and Bavaria but ultimately has little success. He even tries to bring king Lothar of France back into his camp but in the end he had to plead for forgiveness and succumb again to the three ladies and the boy king in Frankfurt at the end of the same year. Then, and only then was he received back in the bosom of the family and had the duchy of Bavaria, minus Carinthia, returned to him.
At easter the coming year little Otto III held a coronation meal where the major dukes including Henry of Bavaria had to serve him at table. Like his father, Henry was from then on no longer Quarrelsome but a loyal supporter of the boy king until his own death in 995.
Control of the empire was put in the hands of a council of guardians comprising Otto IIIs mother, the empress Theophanu, his grandmother Adelheid, Bishop Willigis of Mainz and bishop Hildibald of Worms.
The issue of succession resolved does not mean however that all problems are resolved. King Lothar had taken advantage of the mess and captured Verdun, the key border defence on the Meuse river. The Lothringian nobles remained unreliable since they may not want to be French subjects but have also little interest in being dominated by a German empire. The Slavs are riding high on their success in 983 and threaten the border cities of Merseburg and Hamburg. The duke of Bohemia has a nice time in his newly acquired county of Meissen. And then there is Italy with hostile popes and Otto II’s policy in tatters. You may remember hapless pope John XIV last seen cowering in the Lateran palace when Theophanu fled to Pavia. Well, his end came quickly when bad pope Boniface VII returned with Byzantine and local Crescenti support . Boniface VII put John XIV into the now well set up prison in the Castel Sant’ Angelo where he died 4 months later of starvation or poison. That makes Boniface VII a member of a very exclusive club, the club of popes who have killed more than one other pope.
All these problems were laid on the feet of Theophanu, our Byzantine princess who chairs a regency council of the wiliest of prelates, her powerful mother-in-law and a crooked bishop of Worms.
If you want to know how she manages that, tune in again next week. I hope to see you then. And if you enjoyed this episode, please tell others about this podcast. Maybe they will enjoy it too.