His brother and his biggest vassals are rebelling, the kingdom remains under threat from Hungarians and Slavs – and now the king of France comes in on the side of the opposition. Only a series of very fortunate events can rescue king Otto, or a man of short stature, fierce temper, extraordinary bravery and a dislike of apples and women?
Episode 3 – A Series of Fortunate Events.
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 3 – A Series of Fortunate Events.
Last week we left Otto at the end of the year 937 thinking he had successfully put down a rebellion by his half-brother Thankmar and would now be able to consolidate his rule, bring peace, build roads and castles and make babies.
Little does he know that his most important vassal Eberhard of Franconia and his younger brother Henry are conspiring against him. But even before that avalanche of manure drops down on him, the year 938 has a couple of other challenges at the ready.
First up we have the traditional annual Hungarian invasion, which was repelled successfully, again without support from the other dukes. Widukind makes this out to be a great success that stopped the Hungarians from coming back to Saxony for 30 years. That at least would be a nice success in an otherwise bleak year.
In the meantime, the old Bavarian duke Arnulf had died. You remember Arnulf, he was the big competitor in the early years of Henry the Fowler but had joined him in a friendship agreement in the end. That friendship agreement left Arnulf with the right to rule pretty much like a king in Bavaria and do whatever he wants as long as he does not challenge Henry. But his son, another Eberhard, in his arrogance, refused the order of the king to attend the royal court. Otto goes to war in Bavaria and, at the second attempt, replaces Eberhard with his brother Berthold. Berthold is now told that “pretty much whatever you want” no longer includes investing bishops and abbots.
After this campaign Otto is exhausted and his resources are depleted. For the last 2 years he had to pursue civil wars against his brother and his major vassals whilst at the same time having to fight the Hungarians, the Bohemians and the Slavs. He has lost the support of Franconia, which in his father’s time was part of the core power base of his family. His control of the realm is now quite fragile.
And that brings us back to brother Henry. Still burning with a desire to oust his brother and rule himself, Henry holds a great party at his castle in Saalfeld. He invites important nobles of Franconia and Saxony and showers them with gifts. Most likely Eberhard is there as is Friedrich, the Archbishop of Mainz and many of the Saxons who had sided with Thankmar the year before. After the drinking and feasting, Henry gets the nobles to pledge support against Otto. Pledge they did, but then they shied away from making their support public. The failure of Thankmar’s rebellion must have dented the conspirator’s confidence at least a touch. More support was needed. With Bavaria out of the picture and Swabia firmly in Otto’s camp, Lothringia was the one that needs to be brought on board. Following the advice of his fellow conspirators, Henry departed Saxony, leaving garrisons in all of his strongholds, and came to the Lotharingians in person along with his friends.
Thing is, the brother of the king going to Lothringia without leave was as close to a declaration of war as it can be. When Otto first heard reports of what was happening, he could not believe it. But when he had it confirmed that war was afoot, he led his army without delay in pursuit of his brother.
Otto’s army reached the Rhine river at a place called Birten near Cologne. His army had begun to cross the river, unaware that Henry and a large contingent of Lotharingians were nearby. A few men maybe a couple of hundred had landed from the boats and were just able to mount their horses and put on their armour, when they saw the enemy attacking at speed. There was scant hope for success and with the river behind there was no hope of retreat.
Otto stood helplessly on the opposite shore without boats to send more troops across or any other means of support. There was only one thing to do. According to Liudprand of Cremona, Otto leapt down from his horse and with all of his army burst into tearful prayer, kneeling before the Holy Lance, you remember the spear that was believed to have the Nails of the Crucifixion embedded in it.
I am not entirely convinced the prayer was the most decisive part of the military strategy. Remember that Otto had to chase after Henry as soon as he had heard about the treason, therefore, his troops were most likely his household knights. These are highly trained, well equipped professional soldiers, not the general levy. These guys knew what they were doing I.e, they knew there was no chance to run and that they were seriously outnumbered. They could have surrendered but dropping weapons without at least an attempt at battle would lead to eternal embarrassment. Therefore, some effort had to be made. Here is Widukind of Corvey: “Since there was a fishpond between our men and the enemy, the Saxons divided into two forces. One part attacked the enemy from the front. The other part attacked the enemy from the rear. They crushed the enemy between the two forces so that the few were able to hem in the many. For it is reported that on our side there were not more than one hundred armoured men, and the army of the enemy was quite large. But when they were attacked from the front and back at the same time, the enemy did not decide quickly which side ought to be defended with greater strength. In addition, some of our men knew how to speak the Gallic language. They raised up a great shout in Gallic urging their enemies to flee. Since the enemy thought that it was their comrades who had shouted, they fled as they had been called upon to do.” Note that a bit of schoolboy French can come in handy at times.
Duke Gilbert and Henry had to flee. Henry was stuck heavily on the arm. The triple mail of his cuirass prevented the sword from piercing his flesh, but the cruel force of the blow turned the skin completely black. In spite of all his doctor’s care that bruise never healed and caused him excruciating pain for the rest of his life.
The success at Birten was indeed a miracle. For Liudprand of Cremona Birten was proof “clearer than the light of day” that Otto was the rightful king and that the Holy Lance was the item that bestowed the reign and invincibility to its legitimate owner.
In the real world, Henry was now seriously down on his luck. Not only did the Lothringian forces break up, but his garrisons in Saxony and Thuringia opened their gates to Otto’s troops having been told that Henry had fallen in the battle. Therefore, when he raced back to his own lands, he found all but 2 castles barred to him until he reached Merseburg, 450km to the east. By that time, his once mighty force was down to just 9 companions. Somehow, he was able to hold out against Otto’s siege for 2 months, but in the end Henry surrendered. But Henry was not completely defeated. Otto had to allow him to leave with his troops and the promise of a 30-day truce.
The reason Otto could not close down the rebellion there and then was an uprising by Slavs that required all available troops. What happened was that his commander of the eastern frontier, Gero, had given a splendid feast for 30 of the leaders of the Slavic tribes, at the end of which he had them all killed in their drunken stupor. Only afterwards dawned it on Gero that he did not have enough troops to quell the inevitable uprising that followed. So, Otto had to let Henry go and come to Gero’s aid. Defence of the realm takes precedence over family matters.
Letting Henry go is something Otto will learn to regret.
Whilst Otto was tied up in Merseburg and then with the Slavs, Henry’s position improved suddenly when Louis IV, King of West Francia, aka France got involved. This King of France - like all kings of France before him and all kings of France after him- believed that the duchy of Lothringia should by rights be part of France, as it had been before Henry the Fowler took it off his predecessor. When after the battle of Birten duke Gilbert of Lothringia needed insurance against Otto, Louis happily took him on as a vassal and incorporated the duchy back into France. Duke Eberhard of Franconia saw that the King of France had come in on the side of the rebels and realised it was now or never. He openly joined the rebellion. I mean he had been a silent partner for some time, but now he did show his true colours.
Otto was in really deep, deep doodoo. Of the five duchies, Lothringia and Franconia were in open revolt, parts of Saxony were still silently supporting Henry and the Bavarian duke was anything but a firm ally. Plus, the King of France was backing up the rebels.
Only the Swabian dukes, despite being close relatives of Eberhard of Franconia stood with him – because of that Gebhard thing. What have they done to that guy that was so awful?
There is now a small problem with the chronology. I have been following the story as reported by Widukind of Corvey who tends to be more factual with a lot less involvement of heavenly forces compared to Liudprand of Cremona. According to Widukind Otto is in Merseburg and the border in May 939. According to Luiddrand of Cremona, he is at the other end of the country, besieging Chevremont where duke Gilbert had fled after the battle of Birten. In that chronology duke Gilbert appealed to King Louis IV of France from Chevremont. When Louis the IV mobilised his army, Otto had to raise the siege to confront the king of France, letting duke Gilbert go.
The way to match the stories is to believe that after the battle of Birten one part of Otto’s army pursued duke Gilbert to Chevremont whilst another detachment chased after Henry. That would also explain why Widukind tells a totally weird story about Otto having bribed one of Gilbert’s closest associates to defect. That guy would then attack the fleeing Gilbert first by stealing the duke’s pigs and then by attacking him with beehives.
Be that as it may, by June 939 Otto is racing down to the German/French border in the south believing that a French army led by king Louis himself was heading there to attack his allies in Swabia. That turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since the French king had already turned back. The immensely powerful magnates of France, namely Hugh Capet, William Longsword of Normandy and Heribert of Vermandois had taken against a strengthening of royal power through the acquisition of Lothringia. Hence Louis IV had to abandon his great plan, leaving Otto in principle free to go back to Saxony and sort out the mess.
Nevertheless, Otto decided to stay south, on the border to Alsace and besiege the castle of Breisach that was held by some of Eberhard’s soldiers. Breisach is a massive rock that at the time was in the middle of the Rhine river with fortifications from Roman times on top of it. Breisach was not only near impregnable, it was also a long, long way from the centre of events. What he was doing there is somewhat unclear. Liudprand of Cremona says that Eberhards soldiers harassed the king’s loyal subjects and so the good king considering his people’s interests before his own lay siege to the castle.
This bout of altruism -if that is what it was- did not go down well with his army. As soon as they realised what the plan was, Otto’s allies, namely the bishops started “under the cover of night deserting their king, secretly retiring to their cities”. Otto’s advisors made it clear that should Henry realise how precarious the situation was, he could come down with fresh troops and pin Otto and his forces against the walls of the castle of Breisach with no chance of escape. Otto is unmoved and responds: If our time has come, let us die like brave man and not cast a slur about our good name” and then gives a rousing speech about honour, righteousness etc., etc., pp.
What is going on? Best guess, Otto has a nervous breakdown. He is utterly trapped between his belief that he is an absolute ruler in the mould of Charlemagne and the reality of being almost alone in a marshy field outside a not very relevant but still totally impregnable fortress. This kind of cognitive dissonance we have become so painfully familiar with in the last four years has been around for a long time.
Though he is clearly a deer in the headlights he has enough grasp on reality that he makes one last attempt at resolving the situation. He started negotiations with Eberhard. He sent Friedrich, Archbishop of Mainz, the highest-ranking bishop in Germany and a relative of duke Gilbert to negotiate a truce. Friedrich of Mainz did just that and swore an oath to Eberhard that he would guarantee Otto’s approval of the terms.
Well, that gave Otto the chance for his last and final blunder. First up, he should have known that archbishop Friedrich of Mainz had been a co-conspirator and confidant of Eberhard. Sending him to negotiate with Eberhard was at best an unusual choice. But that is not all. When the archbishop came back with the agreement, Otto told him publicly that this was not what he had in mind and that he should go back to Eberhard and renegotiate.
The proud archbishop had given his word to Eberhard that all will go smoothly, so having been rebuffed publicly the only way to avoid humiliation was to join the rebellion, assuming he had not done so before. I mean poor Otto – how many allies has he left to lose before you are completely alone? He will soon find out.
That was the starting gun for everybody else to leave the king. He bishop of Strasburg was the last of the bishops still in the camp and he now left. One very wealthy count thought Otto so weak that he sent him a message threatening to leave unless he was given the Abbey of Lorsch, one of the richest in the land, as his personal property. Otto’s reaction: “You shall never receive this, or anything else from me. If it pleases you to join the traitors, the sooner you go the better”.
That could and should have been the end, was it not for Konrad Short’n’Bold (in German Konrad Kurzbold).
Thank god for these nicknames. When half the protagonists are called Henry, Konrad, Otto or Eberhard nicknames the only way to figure out who is who. And they are also brilliant, with Short’n’bold being one of best.
Konrad Short’n’Bold was unsurprisingly a man of short stature, fierce temper, extraordinary bravery and a strong dislike of both women and apples. Even more importantly he was one of Otto’s last remaining allies. Short’n’bold was a member of the branch of the Konradiner family of Swabia that supported Otto because of that unexplained Gebhard thing
Whilst Otto was pointlessly tied up outside Breisach with his ever-dwindling band of supporters, Short’n’bold and his cousin Udo had their lands around Limburg raided by Eberhard and Gilbert the rebellious dukes of Franconia and Lothringia.
Having taken all and everything that was not bolted to the floor, the two dukes were heading home. They had to cross the Rhine near Andernach if they wanted to stow away the booty in the safety of Lothringia.
On the shores of the Rhine, they faced the good old wolf, goat and cabbage problem. Sending the soldiers first means the dukes will have to carry the plunder themselves. Going across first means the soldiers going to run away with the plunder. Well, they went for the worst possible option. They sent the soldiers and the plunder across first and sat down for a meal.
Hearing the dukes were barely defended on their shore of the river, Short’n’Bold and his cousin Udo came down - as Liudprand of Cremona said ”as if they were flying rather than running”. Eberhard, who was a cousin of Short’n’bold rose to fight but was hacked to pieces. Gilbert the old schemer jumped on to a boat to make it across the Rhine. The river is running fast across a narrow gap at Andernach, it turned over the boat, and blub, blub, blub down goes the heavily armoured duke of Lothringia.
That changed everything. The manner of their death was seen as an act of god reconfirming Otto’s right to kingship. The nobles who just moments before supported Henry, turned their horses around and rallied to Otto’s banner. The common people took Otto’s side and threw the archbishop and arch-conspirator Friedrich of Mainz out of his city. Henry fled to his new best mate Louis IV in Paris. Louis quickly understood that the tide has turned and sent Henry back post haste.
That was a very narrow escape. Not just narrow, that was an incredibly lucky escape. By rights he should have lost the battle of Birten, but prevailed thanks to well either the Holy Lance or some incredibly competent officer with a plan. When he lay before Breisach, he was on his last leg with nobles leaving him left right and centre. Without that unplanned skirmish at Andernach, Otto’s reign would have ended there and then, and he would be known today as Otto the short-lived rather than as Otto the Great.
But Otto did prevail. Having put down the rebellion of almost all of his dukes and half his archbishops with what clearly must have been god’s help he now held almost total control of the kingdom, or what goes for total control in the middle ages.
And what about his rebellious brother Henry? Making a claim for the throne with sword in hand is not enough to lose a brother’s love and friendship, provided you ask for forgiveness in the proper way. And that he did. Otto received him back into the fold and gave him land and castles in Lothringia.
But Henry is a schemer and corruptor and hothead and he just can’t stop himself. When in 941 the soldiers on the eastern frontier had been unlucky in battle against the Slavs and hence were short of pay and booty he got another shot at kingship. Their anger with their commander extended to the king who refused to move him on. Henry teamed up with the disgruntled officers and planned to kill Otto during the Easter celebrations in Quedlinburg. Otto hears about it and waits for the conspirators to appear at court. He has them arrested and beheaded. Henry is locked up in Ingelheim.
By Christmas 942 Henry escapes from Ingelheim and shows up in Frankfurt wearing a hare shirt and asking for forgiveness kneeling in the snow. And what did Otto do? I mean his brother tried not just to fight him honourably in battle, no, he did try to have him murdered in his own home when he was celebrating with friends and family. I do not claim to understand the perceptions of the times, but if this is not a capital offence, I really do not know what is.
And therefore, Otto did what had to be done. He raised his little brother up and embraced him for the second time and 6 years later he makes him duke of Bavaria.
As duke of Bavaria Henry found his vocation. Bavaria was for all intents and purposes a kingdom in and of itself. It bordered Hungary and Bohemia, offering great opportunities for glory and plunder, which Henry became quite adept at.
Maybe the inherent problem of these first years was that nobody knew what to do with the younger sons who did not inherit their own kingdoms. Once Otto found something for Henry to do that gave him status and purpose, he stopped rebelling.
All seems settled now and Otto having beaten all his enemies and risen to the leading position in Charlemagne’s realm should now consolidate his rule, bring peace, build roads and castles and make babies. Well, that is what he should have done.
Next week we will see what he does instead, which is falling first for another woman and then another country starting the long and terribly destructive entanglement of German kings in Italy. And in between such valiant efforts he finds out that his sweet brother Henry can be an even bigger pain when he is on your side than when he is fighting you.
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