Episode 12 – The Regency of Theophanu and Adelheid

Having rescued the reign and possibly life of 4-year-old king Otto III his mother, the byzantine princess Theophanu and later his grandmother Adelheid continue Ottonian policies. This time gives birth to the election of the French dynasty that will rule until 1789 (1830), a length of reign only surpassed by the emperors of Japan. It also witnesses the emergence of Poland as a sovereign nation under the pope.

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Hello and Welcome to The History of the Germans – Episode 12 –The regency of Theophanu and Adelheid

Just a bit of housekeeping first. You may have noticed that this episode did not hit your inbox on the customary Thursday. That is basically because I have just left my job and had to do quite a bid of admin to bed everything down. It is quite remarkeable how much time one can waste with these things or how much time putting this podcast together actually consumes. In any event, the next episode will come on a Thursday, albeit Thursday the 15th of April, as Easter and the easing of lockdown means we can spend some more time with friends and family. I am sorry to deprive you of podcast listening pleasure over the holidays but let’s take your earphones out for a while and talk to our children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins twice removed, friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, gym buddies and baristas – don’t we all miss it.

Back to the show. Last week little king Otto III was rescued from the clutches of the kind of cousin twice removed you don’t want to talk to, Henry the Quarrelsome. Members of the odd rescue squad, namely his mother Theophanu, his Grandmother Adelheid and archbishop Willigis of Mainz now formed a regency council that would run the country for the next 11 years. Theophanu will be in charge from 984 to 991 when she dies at only 40 years of age. Adelheid will then take over for the remaining roughly 4 years when Otto III gradually comes into maturity and takes over control of the kingdom.

Saving the 4-year-old king and gaining the regency over the kingdom was no mean feat, but it did not solve the fundamental problems of the kingdom. If you have listened to all 12 episodes so far, you are now quite familiar with the main objectives of any German ruler of the time, which are:

• Holding on to the Duchy of Lothringia,

• Secure the eastern border and expand where possible,

• Establish a sustainable rule in Northern Italy,

• Keep control over the Papacy, and

• Hold down the powerful dukes, counts, barons and their extended clans.

Having five often conflicting policy objectives at the same time condemned the Kaisers to a perennial game of whack a mole. If he spends too much time down in Italy trying to establish control there and organising the papacy, he risks his magnates going awol, the king of France nibbling away at Lothringia and Slavs throwing off their chains. If he pushes hard on the eastward expansion, the local magnates tend to pick up the spoils making them more powerful, whilst back down in Rome, the population cuts off the noses and ears of the Kaiser’s envoys.

That is why in the 30 years since Otto the Great’s marriage to Adelheid our two emperors have been frantically rushing back and forth across the alps without a moment of rest.

What makes the next 11 years of the regency of Theophanu and later Adelheid such an achievement is that pretty much nothing bad happened. That may be a painful state of affairs for historians and podcasters, but great news for peasants who do not have to endure constant raiding and pillaging.

The way the imperial regency achieves this relative calm has some element of luck in it, but it is also down to a coherent policy of the two imperial ladies. When I talk about policy, this is not a policy in the modern sense with white papers developed by think tanks, ministerial working groups and discussions in cabinet, let alone debate in parliament. A lot of it is created on the hoof and by trial and error. But the absence of policy documents and the vagueness of stated objectives does not mean that rulers in the middle ages acted purely on impulse or to achieve short-term goals. There are things that are known to work and which imperial policy reverts to again and again.

Each imperial administration differs in the way they deploy or deviate from these basic policy approaches. When I look at Theophanu and Adelheid, I find their choices smarter than most, which makes the positive outcome of the regency more than just a function of luck.

Let us look at their approach in more detail, starting with policy objective number 1: Holding on to the Duchy of Lothringia

is only really put to bed in:

- King Lothair of France had been brought up by his father and his mother with the explicit objective of getting Lothringia back. His mother was the wife of Gilbert, the former duke of Lothringia who had drowned at Andernach. And his father named him Lothair after the Lothair who created Lothringia.

- King Lothair’s archenemy was his brother Charles. Charles had accused Lothair’s wife Emma of adultery with the bishop of Laon. When she was acquitted by a synod of bishops, Charles had been sent into exile. Otto II then threw oil in the fire by making Charles the duke of lower Lothringia – at which point the red mist came down in front of Lothair’s eyes. You may remember the in episode 11 Lothair invaded and nearly captured the imperial couple in Aachen.

n reconciliation was taken in:

The established Ottonian policy towards France was to exploit the constant squabbles between the king and his magnates, in particular between the king and his largest vassal, Hugh Capet. These squabbles were practically eternal because their resources were roughly evenly matched and they each held almost impregnable fortresses. Hugh Capet had Paris, and specifically the Ile de la Cite, which was surrounded by the Seine river on all sides. The king held Laon, which sits atop a solitary hill with 100m sheer cliff faces. Next time you drive down the Autoroute des Anglais look to your right halfway between Calais and Reims you will see what the French call the Montagne Couronne, the crowned mountain.

Theophanu policy follows in the same vein. After the capture of the defenders of Verdun she prods Hugh Capet to intervene. Hugh Capet disrupts a major gathering of Lothairs supporter by force, which stalls further aggression from the French king.

Theophanu then benefits from the last Carolingian monarchs in France going into self-destruct mode. King Lothair died in 986 and his wife Emma becomes regent. Emma is swiftly pushed aside by her son Louis V who warms up the allegations of adultery. That conflict between mother and son paralyses the kings of France politically until Louis V succumbs to a hunting accident.

After Louis’ death the time is ripe for the last real change in the reigning dynasty of France. In 987 Hugh Capet is elected king of France. That now causes a problem for Theophanu. She urgently needs a challenger to the French king who re-establishes the previous internal divisions in the kingdom.

Fortunately, one is at hand, Charles of Lower Lothringia. As brother of the before-last king he considers himself the heir to the kingdom. Since Charles is her vassal, he can expect some support from her against Hugh Capet, making the two sides evenly matched. Charles is quite successful in this war and gets hold of Laon and even the most prestigious archdiocese in France, Reims. Hugh Capet makes multiple attempts to storm Laon but without success. Theophanu now has the French where she wants them to be. Hugh Capet and Charles of Lothringia are beating each other over the head for several years, a period during which Theophanu gets Verdun back and the prisoners are released.

The conflict only ends when the bishop of Laon feigns a reconciliation with Charles. How Charles could believe that the man he accused of adultery would ever come round to his side is another one of these 10th century things we struggle to understand. Anyway, the bishop clearly had not found a great affection for Charles and lets Hugh Capet’s troops into the otherwise impregnable fortress of Laon where Charles is captured. Charles dies a year later in prison.

As a consequence by 991 Hugh Capet controls both his own land and the Carolingian crown lands making him a more powerful French king than his predecessor. Since Theophanu had died in 991 this becomes Adelheid’s problem. The fact that the French king is now stronger than before is offset by the fact that the Capetins are less obsessed with Lothringia compared to the Carolingians. All Adelheid can do is keeping a level of unhelpful interference in a fierce dispute over who is the legitimate archbishop of Reims.

Hugh Capet dies in 995 and his son Robert II takes over. Under Robert II French policy changes focus towards increasing the domestic holdings of the Capet family at the expense of their powerful magnates, the dukes of Normandy, Aquitaine and Burgundy, the counts of Flanders and Provence and anyone else who was either weak or had a daughter with a sizeable dowry.

With this the Regency had achieved its main objectives, regaining Verdun and safeguarding the duchy of Lothringia.

Objective 2 is – Managing the eastern border

When Theophanu took over in 984 the eastern border barely held together. The Slavs living between the Elbe and the Oder rivers had flattened the Christian towns and churches in a major uprising in 983, massacred or thrown out whatever military forces occupied their land and could just about been stopped from crossing into core Saxon territory by an emergency force.

Ensuring the integrity of the Saxon lands was probably the #1 objective of the regency. To do that there were multiple policy options, which break down into two choices.

The first question is whether to actually conquer territory and Christianise the peoples in it, or to just forward defend the home territory. The second question is who to ally with.

Under Otto the Great the policy was very clearly aimed at conquering the land and converting the local populace. Otto the great founded towns and established bishoprics in the lands east of the Elbe river. His general, Margrave Gero converted the locals with fire and sword. Under Otto II this system collapsed virtually overnight when the Slavs sensed a weakening of the imperial power after the defeat of Capo Colonna. Under the regency of Theophanu and later Adelheid, the imperial policy seemed to have changed. Though they invaded in regular intervals and at one point re-occupied the town of Brandenburg, there was no attempt to establish a permanent presence east of the Elbe. That suggests the objective was to create a deterrent and go for loot and enforce tribute.

Once the choice is made to stall rather than to conquer the lands of the Slavs, there are multiple options to join forces with other powers in the region.

The Danes can be ruled out, in part because they have reverted back to paganism after Sweyn Forkbeard had his father Harald Bluetooth killed. Furthermore, Sweyn and his mor famous son Canute were keener on England than on the Slavic lands. In fact, the Danes made some incursions into the empire during the Regency.

The other power in the region were the Bohemians. They were vassals of the empire and as such should support the regency. However, duke Boleslav of Bohemia had sided forcefully with Henry the Quarrelsome and captured the Saxon county of Meissen in the process. That put him on a collision course with Theophanu and Adelheid.

That puts the Poles in pole position. Poland is geographically ideal for a policy of containment. They occupy the lands to the east of the pagan slavs. Furthermore, Poland had become Christian in 966 through missionary conviction rather than blood and steel, which seems to have been more sustainable. The Polish dukes had been involved in the Holy Roman empire since then and their duke Miesco had attended several royal assemblies. He had sided with Henry the Quarrelsome in 984 but was not as committed as his neighbour to the south Boleslav of Bohemia, making that easier to overlook.

So, Poland was chosen to be the ally. When Otto III was six years old he was send to fight the Slavs in a joint operation with the dukes of Poland. How much fighting he did himself is doubtful, but the duke of Poland gave him a camel for his bravery. The fascinating thing about this story is that nobody asks by which route the camel had managed to get to Poland in the first place.

The politically more significant move came in 991 when the duke of Poland gives his lands to the pope. What that means is not so much that the duke of Poland now becomes a vassal of the pope and has to send him troops or taxes. The most significant effect is that from now on the archbishop of Magdeburg who may have believed Poland to be part of his diocese to lose his rights in the area.

The duke of Poland is unlikely to have done this without agreement with the empress and the archbishop of Magdeburg. Miesco had met with Theophanu just months earlier in Quedlinburg, suggesting that the move had been discussed . We also see no mention of any adverse reaction from the German side. Au contraire, the joint operations against the Slavs continue.

This policy of supporting the duke of Poland as a “friend” of the empire rather than as a vassal like the duke of Bohemia will continue and even intensify under Otto III. It is a major fork in the road for Poland, and this document, the Dagome Iudex is the foundation document of Poland. In many ways the decision by Theophanu and Adelheid may be the most significant of their reign. In the future the policy towards the East in general and Poland in particular will become the key differentiator between different emperors. But whichever policy they pursued, Poland is never integrated into the Roman empire, whilst Bohemia is.

The next major policy objective is #3 – Managing Northern Italy.

You may remember that one of Otto II’s flagship policies was to integrate the kingdoms of Italy and Germany. Otto II himself became first king of the Germans by election of the German nobles and coronation in Aachen by German archbishops. At a alater stage he was elected king of Italy by Italian nobles and then consecrated in Pavia by an Italian archbishop. Otto III on the other hand was elected by both Italian and German nobles and was crowned by both German and Italian archbishops. The idea was to create one source of legitimacy for a unified kingdom. This legitimacy seemed to have held out because when Otto III finally gets to Pavia in 996, he is not crowned king of Italy, but the nobles just repeat the allegiance they have already sworn in 983.

To manage Italy Theophanu started by doing the smartest thing she could do. She asked her mother-in-law, Adelheid, who had been queen of Italy since she was 15, who knew everybody and who owned vast tracts of land in Italy to run the country for her grandson. There is not much documentary evidence of her rule of Italy, but if we look at the end result, Adelheid must have done a great job. When Otto II died, Italy was convulsed by uprisings of the anti-Ottonian party. Supporters of the Ottonians like Pope John XIV and Gerbert of Aurillac were in fear of their life or even lost it. Adelheid arrived in July 985 and can relatively quickly put Ottonian supporters back into their former positions . One of the pillars of Ottonian rule was Hugh of Tuscany who ruled not just Tuscany but also the Southern duchy of Spoleto. Hugh was exactly what the Ottonian wanted, an Italian magnate who was integrated into the imperial policy. He was regularly seen at court in Germany, he was even there when Theophanu died. He built himself a palace near the imperial Pfalz in Ingelheim and in most aspects acted like a duke of Bavaria or Swabia.

Theophanu stayed out of Adelheid’s way at least until 988 when she makes one of her Greek advisors, Johannes Philagathos archbishop of Piacenza and chancellor of the kingdom of Italy. In 989 she decides to travel to Italy and further on to Rome. This is the one moment when the two empresses have a serious policy disagreement.

So far, they seem to have been able to stay out of each other’s way without major clashes. In Italy that may have been more problematic. Johannes Philagathos was not very popular and his judgements were considered harsh. Adelheid may have tried to mellow things down whilst she was in Pavia, but when Theophanu travelled through Pavia, Adelheid made sure she was out of town, leaving Philogathus free rein. Adelheid’s first act after she had taken from Theophanu was to sack Johannes Philogathos who barely managed to get back into Germany alive.

After that interlude Italy held together fine, even after Adelheid returned north of the Alps to take over the regency.

Which gets us to part 4 – controlling the papacy.

Policy towards the papacy breaks down into two separate components.

On the one hand there is the control over the papal states, the city of Rome and the person of the pope, which is what preoccupied us so far. The pope however has another side to his power, which is the moral and spiritual leadership. The reason it did not matter was that there was no real moral superiority. The pope may be the Vicar of Christ by virtue of his office, but these last few popes had little if any personal qualities that made them suitable to lead Christendom in prayer.

One of those was (anti) pope Boniface VII who had returned from Byzantium shorty after Otto IIs death and proceeded to kill his predecessor, Benedict VII, making him one of the few popes who killed not just one, but two popes. Boniface lasted for just 11 months but quickly became isolated and abandoned by his Crescenti supporters it has been assumed he was either assassinated or may even have committed suicide. So hated was he that after his death men cut and pierced his body with spears, then dragged it, stripped and naked, by the feet to the Campus Martius and threw the corpse on the ground before the feet of the Horse of Constantine, i.e., the statue of Markus Aurelius. The next morning some more compassionate monks found the body parts and buried them.

After that Rome remained out of control for a month as the Crescenti tried to get control of the situation. It seems they had to ultimately accept a new pope, John XV who was a Roman, but from a rival faction of the aristocracy. John XV held out for 11 years which is pretty much a record by pursuing a policy of balancing the local Crescenti and the imperial forces. John XV was hated due to his avarice and general meanness, but in moral and spiritual terms he was a material step up from his predecessors, which may explain his longevity.

Theophanu travelled to Rome in 989 to pray at her husband’s grave, a luxury she did not enjoy in the tumultuous days of December 983. Her presence re-established some control over the papacy, albeit not so tight to provoke a Crescenti rebellion.

Some Historians suggest that Theophanu’s trip to Rome was aimed at a resurrection of her late husband’s policy of bringing Southern Italy under Ottonian rule. That is based on just one document issued in Rome relating to a monastery in the South. Quite frankly that is fairly thin evidence. Last time I checked her husband took the largest army ever seen to pursue his dream. Theophanu travelled with just a personal bodyguard…

Adelheid did not interfere significantly in Roman affairs. When pope John XV finally gets into hot water with the Crescenti and asks the imperial leadership for help, it is Otto III himself who musters an army to do what emperors have now been doing for a while – go to Rome, get crowned, get out.

For now all that matters is control of Rome, the moral superiority still resides with the emperor.

And finally, policy number 5 – keeping control of the magnates in Germany.

There is nothing to report, no uprisings, no grumblings, no disobedience, nothing, which is probably the best rate card you can get. Henry the Quarrelsome seems to have been a regular presence at court supporting the new regime. When he died a few years later in 995 he is supposed to have told his son that he should never oppose his king and lord, something he had regretted ever doing.

Interestingly, apart from Henry of Bavaria we hear very little about the other dukes. That might be down to the fact that monasteries are better at retaining documents and most chroniclers are churchmen. But it is still noticeable that when we hear of great assemblies, most of the named attendants are bishops, whilst under Otto the Great the emphasis was on the temporal rulers. This is also the time when we first hear that a whole county is given to a bishop, making him a prince bishop. The lack of documentation on the duchies is so severe that we are not exactly sure who was duke of Carinthia at certain points of time, and Carinthia is one of only 6 duchies at the time. The Imperial church system is clearly expanding at a rapid pace during the regency.

th century there were nearly:

Supporting the reform of the church is a double-edged sword for the imperial system. A chunk of the authority the Kaiser exerts stems from his moral authority as the anointed quasi-religious leader. That authority is heightened when it is held against a profoundly corrupt papacy and lazy monks. As the church implements reforms and grows its moral authority, the moral authority of the Kaiser diminishes. And that results in some sort of religious arms race where the temporal rulers try to outpace their abbots and bishops and eve the pope in displays of extreme devotion. You will get what I mean by that when we get to Otto III in the next episode.

The last, but by no means least significant act of the regency was an economic one. I already mentioned that the Ottonioan benefitted from a combination of improving climate and loosening of the rules of servitude. That created a surplus of agricultural product, which in turn drove the creation of markets and trade. What turbocharged these trends was the increase in production of small silver pennies, the Adelheid and Otto Penny. Adelheid increased the production of the silver in mines near Goslar. The increased availability of coins must have hugely facilitated the exchange of day-to-day goods. Her coins were minted for another 100 years and are the most commonly found coins of the 10th and early 11th century.

Apart from the political and economic agenda, the main job of Theophanu and Adelheid was to bring up little Otto III.

His education was one of the most thorough and most broad of any medieval ruler. Otto III has several teachers, several of them were from Byzantium, like John Philagathos, the chancellor for Italy and Gregory of Cassano. His main tutor was Bernward, bishop of Hildesheim who taught him the “sciences”, which in the 10th century were mostly focused on mathematics, astronomy and some natural sciences. Above the sciences ranked law, history, philosophy and theology, topics that young Otto III seemed to have also excelled at. The general view is that Western Europe had been cut off from the knowledge of antiquity since very few people spoke Greek and manuscripts were rare. In the case of Otto III that does not apply. He did speak Greek thanks to his mother and had access to her library as well that of his Byzantine teachers. I might be going out on limb here, but Otto III’s education was not only absolutely exceptional for his time but for all of the European middle ages. The only rulers with a comparable depth of reading and knowledge that I can think of are Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and Alfonso the Wise of Castile, over 200 years later. Later in life he would maintain correspondence with Gerbert of Aurillac, the greatest intellectual of his time talking not just about politics, but about philosophy, theology, history, law and music. He did read the great writers of antiquity and always travelled with a large library. His contemporaries called him the “wonder of the world” for the depth and breadth of his knowledge.

As for his personality, it is not much of a surprise he is a bit of a mixed-up kid when he takes over gradually from his 14th birthday.

His father had died when he was just 4 years old and for 2 years he was held as a pawn between Henry the Quarrelsome and his family. We have no information about the conditions he was held in but even if conditions were benign, separating a small child from his parents at that age cannot help with mental health.

After that, his mother was almost constantly by his side, except for her trip to Rome. She had remained a Byzantine princess in demeanour and appearance all throughout her life. She is likely to have told him stories about the splendour of Constantinople and the power of its emperors, shaping his ambitions.

After his mother’s death he spent most of his time in Aachen, the capital of Charlemagne. Again, the magnificence of the enormous Carolingian palace must have had an impact on little Otto’s world view. His grandmother Adelheid will have introduced him to the inside story of Otto the Great’s reign and success.

Before we go into Otto III in more detail in the next two to three episodes, I just wanted to close the chapters on Theophanu and Adelheid.

Theophanu died in Nijmwegen in 991 when Otto III is just 11 years old. She is buried in St. Pantaleon in Cologne, one of the few churches form that period still standing. If you go to Cologne, don’t waste your time staring at the western facade of the Dom, which is a pastiche from the 19th century, go around three blocks and look at St. Panataleon, whose facade is largely unchanged since 980 AD and take a look at Theophanu’s modest grave.

Her biography remains one of the most astounding of the 10th century –born and brought up at the sophisticated Byzantine imperial court, then sent to the Ottonian court with a 50/50 chance of being buried in a monsastry or being married to the heir of the throne, finally ruling the empire together with her husband for 10 years and then taking sole control as guardian for her son for another successful 7 years. Theophanu has forever animated German imagination and views have shifted back and forth between genius politician and hapless puppet of the main courtiers. I personally do not think she was a genius, but that she had common sense. She chose to continue policies that had proven to work and changed those that had not. That is more than one can say about many of her successors up to the present day.

When Theophanu died the situation could have easily gone out of hand again. Luckily Otto’s grandmother Adelheid stepped up to the guardianship. Adelheid had kept a low profile these last few years but had remained close to the court and her grandson so that the transition went comparatively smoothly.

Adelheid’s effective rule lasted just 3 years as Otto III was considered of age around age 14. When Otto III was declared of age at the royal assembly in Solingen in 994, Adelheid gradually retired from high politics. The official end of her guardianship came with the coronation of Otto III in Rome in 996. She enters the monastery of Seltz in Alsace she had founded in 991.

She died on December 16th, 999 at the age of 68.

Adelheid was one of the most remarkable female figures in early medieval history, of which there are a lot more than one would think. She had been incarcerated and probably tortured by Berengar but managed to escape and rose to become empress. For nearly 40 years she played a decisive role in shaping one of the key axes of medieval German politics, the link between Italy and Germany. She brings the Italian crown into the Ottonian family and through her contacts and relationships makes it possible for this regime to endure. Whether the orientation towards Italy has been a good or a bad thing for the development of Germany is an endless debate, but that it was hugely important, nobody can deny.

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Next time we will dive into Otto III, the great “what if” of German medieval history. He will continue many of his mother’s policies but will make some audacious moves toward what might have been a very different medieval world, a world that never materialised.

I hope you are going to join us. And if you enjoyed this episode, let your friends know on social media or in that old fashioned way – talking, now that we are allowed to do that again.

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