Episode 9 – A Matter of Habit

When Otto II succeeds his father Otto the Great he inherits a strange construct of interwoven rights, relationships and privileges. He might rely on the church’s resources to a degree but to succeed he needs military skill, charisma, proof of the grace of god and luck. With his father being the luckiest man in German history is there any of that elusive substance left for his son…

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Episode 9 – A Matter of Habit

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 9 – A Matter of Habit.

Last episode we buried emperor Otto the Great under a simple stone slab in the cathedral of Magdeburg. In his last waking moments, Otto the Great could look at his succession plan and feel confident that his son would not have to face as much uncertainty as he did in the first 10 years of his reign.

Otto II had been crowned German king as long ago as 961 and was made co-emperor in 967. The people spontaneously hailed him emperor again at the funeral of his father. And, crucially, there were no contesting claims from any full or half-brothers. Otto II only had a sister.

The frontiers in all directions were calm. In the South, the Byzantine empire had made peace with the two Ottos and sent an imperial bride. In the West, the king of France was Otto’s cousin, married to his stepsister and had sworn fealty to his father. In the North, the king of Denmark had been defeated 10 years ago and had accepted both Christianity and the Ottonians as his overlord, the rulers of Bohemia and Poland in the East have sworn allegiance to the emperor as recently as the previous year.

But as we will see, even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry!

Within the next 10 years Otto will manage to make and lose war on all frontiers – not I believe because of incompetence, but mainly because he was simply unlucky. If you are one of those people that believe the universe is in some sort of balance, that makes sense. Otto the Great has consumed all the luck ever allocated to his family, leaving none at all for his unfortunate son and grandson.

Before we wade through all the misfortune that befalls our new emperor it may be time to take stock of the state of this empire in 973.

Let’s start with a very obvious thing, a thing so obvious I have completely forgotten to mention it in the last 10 episodes. It would not have come to my mind or the mind of Otto II either, had he not married the lovely Theophanu, the not quite a niece of the Byzantine emperor. What is this obvious thing, it is tax. The Ottonian rulers were not able to raise any taxes, zero, nada, zilch.

Their monetary resources were limited to (i) what was left of the royal estate from Carolingian times, (II) the tributes and plunder from recent conquests and (iii) their personal assets.

The royal estate comprised not just land but also rights, like the right to mint coins, to hold markets, to build infrastructure like bridges and castles, and it included a share in the judicial fines. But they could not go and simply tax income or assets of their subjects.

There was a state in Europe in the 10th century that could raise taxes, Byzantium. And that made for a very different organisational structure. Warren Treadgold estimates Byzantium’s tax revenues in the mid tenth century to be 4m gold coins , equivalent to c. 18t of 24 carat gold. With that the emperor could maintain an army of 150,000 soldiers and allocate the remaining 30% to the bureaucracy and the magnates. In a system where the emperor pays the soldiers, the generals can be moved in and out of position quite easily. A little less than 10% of funds went on “Imperial largesse”, which is bribing the senior aristocrats. Once a year the emperor would pay the state employees, these being actual bureaucrats with genuine administrative roles, but it also included the court officials. These court officials did not perform strictly speaking useful roles unless you consider looking after the emperor’s bath salts as a crucial role. The purpose of having these roles and paying them exceedingly well was to keep the magnates in the capital and make them financially dependent upon the emperor.

You can imagine Otto II and Theophanu after the initial thrill of their honeymoon swapping tales of their respective homeland. Otto II must have stood there with his mouth open.

We do not know the number of soldiers the East Francian kingdom could raise, but let us take the battle at the Lechfeld where Otto fielded at max 8,000 soldiers and compare it to the 150,000 soldiers the basileus commanded.

But the bigger issue than the absolute numbers was how loyal these soldiers were to the Ottonian emperor. Otto II like his father had a troop of knights who were personally attached to him, i.e., had received a fief from the emperor directly and owed him service. Some of those were permanently present at his court and could be instantly deployed. For instance, the troops that Otto I lead to the battle of Birten were mostly comprised of this “household cavalry”. If he needed a larger army, he needed to call upon his dukes, counts and bishops to send soldiers they were paying.

There is a piece of paper, or more precisely parchment currently held in the State library in Bamberg that sets out in detail a demand for additional troops by emperor Otto II to his German subjects. It is the only such record in existence. According to this record, Otto II demanded 2,100 armed knights to supplement his army in Italy. The orders are directed at 19 bishops, 12 abbots and 20 temporal lords, each requested to send between 10 and 100 knights. About half the knights are sent by the bishops, another fifth by the abbots and only a third by the temporal lords. Since it is the only such document, we do not know whether this kind of distribution between church and temporal lords is typical for Otto IIs reign. But there are some good reasons to believe it might.

The first thing to note is that when the previous Otto began his reign, he was himself duke of Saxony and a mere 4 years later confiscated the duchy of Franconia. Between 940 and 955 he brought all other duchies under the direct control of his close family, with Swabia under his son Liudolf, Lothringia under his son-in law Konrad the red and Bavaria under his brother Henry.

Now when Otto II began his reign, he controlled not a single duchy by himself or through sons or siblings. What has happened? After Liudolf’s rebellion Otto’s policy regarding the duchies and senior temporal roles had changed. Liudolf had been supported by a large number of previously loyal aristocratic clans who saw their opportunities to achieve senior positions curtailed by Otto’s policy to keep the big jobs in the family. After Liudolf’s rebellion we find Otto handing all the plum jobs to the powerful clans. Hermann Billung becomes duke of Saxony, the duchy of Swabia is reverted to its previous ruling clan, the Konradiner in Franconia are allowed to rebuild a powerbase and Lothringia is broken up into two parts that went to local aristocratic magnates related to the previous duke Gilbert. The lands of Margrave Gero which were extensive enough to be seen as a duchy was again not put under direct royal control but handed to aristocratic clans. Only Bavaria is technically in the family, though the current duke, Henry the Quarrelsome is only a cousin of Otto II and, as we will see, not much support at all.

When Otto I changed tack on the duchies and counties in 955, he tilted his efforts towards the church. You may remember that his brother Brun became archbishop of Cologne and his son William became Archbishop of Mainz, the German equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also founded a number of bishoprics, namely Merseburg, Brandenburg, Havelberg and most prominently, the archbishopric of Magdeburg.

The underlying logic was that whilst it is very hard to control mighty lords, bishops and abbots are a lot more malleable. Under canon law a bishop would be elected as shepherd of his flock by the congregation or their representatives, the cathedral or abbey chapter. However, for a bishop to receive the temporal rights of the bishopric, i.e., the lands, cities, castles, and other possessions, he had to be invested by the king. That gave the king a lot of leverage at the election of bishops and abbots.

Furthermore, donations made to churches and abbeys often came with the proviso that the lord who donated it retained most of the use and income from the donation, including the ability to grant fiefs to knights in their armies. Therefore, when things go really well for the king, these bishoprics and abbeys are like trust funds to the ruler rather than property of the church. He does not technically own them, but he has still full control over them.

That is why during the Ottonian and later Salian Emperors large sways of lands and even whole counties are donated to the church. That turned bishops and abbots gradually into not only large landowners but mighty princes with their own contingents of knights and soldiers. These Prince bishops are not very different to dukes and counts apart from the fact that they had no legitimate heirs and their investiture was in principle the king’s decision.

And a further support mechanism was invented by Otto’s brother Brun. Brun set up his personal ecclesiastical shock troop of members of the king’s chapel, the chaplains, or chancellors. These chancellors were young priests who receive a thorough education at the court and were put in charge of drafting and designing the royal charters essentially the administration of the kingdom. Once they have proven to be competent and loyal, they would be installed in vacant bishoprics or abbeys. These former chaplains know the king and his objectives well are loyal and therefore should project his power.

This system of government has been called the imperial church system by historians. Up until fairly recently it was considered a smooth and efficient model of kingly rule that was at the heart of the medieval Reich.

However, these are the middle ages and things do not run smoothly full stop. The legal system, both canon law and state law are a complete mess of exceptions, counter exceptions, ancient privileges, and raw political power. Magdeburg is a great example for that. The creation of the archbishopric of Magdeburg was a huge deal for Otto and I should have slotted it into the narrative before. But there was never a good moment for that so I will do it now.

Otto the great’s plan was that an archbishopric in Magdeburg would be close enough to the eastern border to manage and drive the missionary efforts amongst the Slavs, Poles and even beyond. Not a lot of people would disagree with that. The problem was that ecclesiastical sovereignty over all these regions were in principle already part of another archbishopric, the archbishopric of Mainz. The archbishop of Mainz unsurprisingly was not too happy to consent to a split of his area of responsibility. When Otto tried to push it, the archbishop wrote an angry letter to the pope and declared himself willing to die for the cause of his archbishopric. Clearly Otto did not have that much control over his bishops. What makes this even more astonishing is that this reluctant archbishop was his own son, William who he otherwise trusted blindly. Otto only overcame the resistance of Mainz after William had died and a new archbishop was elevated. That archbishop’s investiture was made dependent on consent to the creation of Magdeburg, which he duly provided. But that still did not solve it. Another bishop, Bernward of Halberstadt now refuses to have part of his diocese be subsumed into Magdeburg. In the end Bernward had to be bribed with large amounts of land from the king’s own purse.

If you think Otto has now finally achieved what he wanted, wait for this. For years Otto had a prelate in mind to become archbishop of Magdeburg. However, just when he was about to announce the creation of the archbishopric and the elevation of his chosen priest, he received a letter. A letter that changed his mind. We do not know who sent the letter or what was in it. What we do know is that Otto elevated Adalbert to become the first archbishop of Magdeburg instead of his chosen man. Adalbert was a highly competent churchman, a former missionary in Russia and writer of very useful chronicle of the times. But he was also closely related to the great noble families of Saxony, namely the Billungs. And when push came to shove in 971 it was that same Adalbert who welcomed duke Hermann Billung into Magdeburg with royal honours, thereby threatening Otto’s whole reign.

Bottom line of this story is that the Ottonian emperors, and in particular our new guy, Otto II have some significant control over the church assets and soldiers, but they are not fully in control. If the bishop does not want to do something, he probably will not.

With ultimate control over the military resources in the hands of dukes, counts, bishops and abbots, how can Otto II get them to fight his battles?

There are three broad models:

The first one is the simplest one – just pay them. That may not be particularly chivalric, but it works. The Ottonian emperors did hit a bit of a sweet spot. Agricultural productivity improved dramatically during their reign. In the previous centuries unfree peasants had worked as gang-slaves on their master’s land. Now they were allowed to rent small plots of land to cultivate on their own alongside their service to the master. The only estimates for the impact of something like this comes from when the Soviet Union eased the rules for their Kolkhoz workers, letting them tend to a small field alongside their normal duties. That increased overall productivity conservatively estimated by factor 5x and stopped the famine.


The other source of funds were the silver mines in Goslar. They were at the time the largest silver mines in Europe giving the kings another major source of ready cash.

Money on its own is not enough though. People who fight for payment make astute risk vs. reward decisions. How likely is that military adventure to succeed? How probable is it that I will make it there and back again, and finally, how much risk do I take by leaving my homeland short of soldiers?

The second possible incentive for offering soldiers to the emperor was the promise of booty or new lands. That worked really well on the eastern border with the Slavs. These were lands generally considered to be free since their pagan owners were considered lawless. People like Margrave Gero and Hermann Billung became extraordinary rich in that game. It was harder to do on the Western side of the kingdom and even in Italy where ownership rights were long established. Otto I initially awarded land and positions to his German followers in Italy, which presumably did not much endear him to the locals. When he awarded more or less half off Northern Italy to his brother Henry it did not go down well even with the German magnates. By his latter campaigns, these land grants had become rarer and under the later Ottonian they almost stopped. Where Italian lands were re-allocated, they were given to Italian followers of the emperor, usually upon advice of empress Adelheid. Service in Italy therefore had to be renumerated in land and rights in Germany as above.

The third and for us modern people hardest to understand incentive is the religious motivation. A king and even more so an emperor was a religious figure as well as an active ruler. The process of the coronation is modelled on the consecration of a bishop or pope. The King swears to protect the church and to defend Christendom and is blessed with the chrism like the pope.

If you were a bishop in the 10th century, which authority would you recognise, the emperor who is personally pious, leads a scandal free life and claims to be on a mission to convert the pagans, or would you take orders from a randy pope in Rome with a harem of mistresses and a propensity to blind and torture his local opponents. The religious underpinning of kingship was intensely practical in so far as bishops would reject orders from Rome and instead turn to their emperor as the decision maker on issues including theology and church appointments.

And the last bit that an emperor need is that famous elusive, unexplainable thing called charisma. Like a democratic leader today, all these tools of power are effectively useless if people do not like you.

For an emperor to be successful, he needs to be able to play all these three different angles expertly. Henry the Fowler was the absolute master of charisma. He had no real power at the start of his reign, but everyone succumbed to his charms, signed friendship agreements, and just generally did what he asked them to do. He was also generous, a successful military leader, and pious. Otto the Great put less emphasis on people liking him, he was generous and merciful but first and foremost he enjoyed God’s grace because he won the battles of Birten and Andernach against all the odds.

Let’s see which one of these skills his son, Otto II excels at, if any.

Let us look at Otto II from the perspective of his German nobles. Otto II was 18 years old, maybe a bit short in stature but a very athletic man. He was well-educated, probably the first medieval emperor who could read and write thanks to his mother, the glamourous Queen Adelheid of Italy. The last 5 years Otto II had lived in Italy and may have spoken German with a foreign accent.

He was married to the ultimate trophy wife of 10th century western Europe, Theophanu, who came with clothes, perfumes and jewels not seen in Germany before and who spoke Greek and Latin to her exotic attendants. For all her glamour, what she missed were the deep connections into German and Italian nobility that had made Mathilda of Ringelheim and Adelheid so useful to the previous kings.

And that can become a problem. Otto’s vassals may be dab hands with the sword and axe, but they would not for the life of them know which way round to hold a book. What their wives should be chatting to Theophanu about, god only knows.

Otto’s direct family is actually quite small. He only has one sister left, Mathilda who has become abbess of Quedlinburg. He has two nephews, both called Otto, one is the son of Liudolf who had rebelled against their father and the other is the son of Konrad the Red, who had also rebelled against his father. And then there is one more niece, who is also an abbess, this time in Essen.

The next closest relative was Henry, duke of Bavaria, son of that other Henry duke of Bavaria, bane, and brother of Otto the Great. History calls this Henry “Heinrich den Zaenker” which translates as Henry the wrangler or Henry the Quarrelsome.

Given Otto’s marriage to the lovely Theophanu was a mere 1 year old and no child had yet arrived, right now his presumptive heir is none other than Henry the Quarrelsome.

When Otto II takes over, the relationship between the two cousins is all harmony. One of his first sets of documents include a number of donations to monasteries dear to Henry and his mother’s heart. One of these generous donations is the city of Bamberg, not bad for a cousin.

Months later things start turning sour. The seat of the bishop of Augsburg has become vacant. The previous incumbent, Saint Ulrich, defender against the Hungarians had died. A suitable candidate had been put forward by the old bishop on his deathbed. However, by some trickery Henry the Quarrelsome and his mother Judith get one of her relatives elected. That puts Otto on the spot. either he overturns the formal election of the bishop and exposes his cousin, or he caves, inviting more of such shenanigans. Otto II caves.

In November 973, a mere six months after Otto the Great’s death, things really heat up. The old duke of Swabia had died and Henry the Quarrelsome expects to be made duke of Swabia on top of already being duke of Bavaria. His sister is the widow of the old duke, which he thinks gives him somehow a claim. This time Otto II stands his ground and refuses. He raises his nephew also called Otto to become duke of Swabia .

Henry the Quarrelsome and his extended family regarded this as a massive snub. But from Otto’s perspective it made a lot of sense. Combining the duchies of Bavaria and Swabia would have created not only a huge powerbase in the south, it would have also cut Otto off from Italy. A combined Swabia and Bavaria Would control all Alpine passes.

Henry is not prepared to accept this verdict and mobilises his own supporters in Bavaria. He goes even further and involves the duke of Poland, Miesco and duke Boleslav II of Bohemia, son of fratricidal Boleslav. To say it with John le Carre: treason is very much a matter of habit.

It took almost 6 months for Otto to discover the plot, but when he did, he called the conspirators to be tried at court. The conspirators, ex the Bohemian and Polish duke do appear in front of Otto II and he has them locked up right away. Henry is brought to the luxurious Pfalz in Ingelheim, whilst his mother has to enter a nunnery .

Bang! Let’s just think about what has just happened. Some rumours link Henry the Quarrelsome to a rebellion and without even a trial or chance for him to defend his position Otto II picks him up and puts him in jail. Compare that to his father Otto the Great who was offering leniency again and again. He even embraced his brother after he had tried to kill him in his sleep. Otto II clearly takes a different approach.

Did this heavy-handed approach work? The harsh treatment of Henry must have been a severe shock to the system of governance in the German kingdom. Henry was not just anyone, he led the second most powerful clan in the kingdom, he was, as of now, heir to that kingdom, brother to the dowager duchess of Swabia, brother-in-law to the king of Burgundy and closely related to Queen Adelheid, Otto II’s mother. Locking him up for forcing through what he believed was his right without even yet using military might was an extreme act. Indignation was strongest in Saxony.

The Saxons were particularly unimpressed with Otto II. Remember, the Ottonian dynasty were originally the dukes of Saxony and are descendants of the Saxon folk hero Widukind. But the Saxons had already gone off Otto the Great because of his long-term entanglement in Italy and now they had a king and emperor who seemed more Italian than German, let alone Saxon – that just would not do. What makes this particularly galling is that some of Henry’s new supporters were the counts who had been awarded the inheritance of Margrave Gero in 965 specifically to appease them. It just is never enough. They preferred Henry who presented himself as German through and through with little interest in foreign adventures.

When Henry managed to escape in 976 several Saxon and Swabian nobles joined him in armed rebellion. In time honoured tradition, Henry and the other rebels gather in Regensburg. Otto II puts up an army and arrives at the gates of Regensburg in mid-July. By the 21st of July Otto has taken the city. It seems the citizens of Regensburg either have lost their appetite for resisting emperors after being sacked and burned by imperial troops on 955, or they may remember that the guy sacking and burning the town was Henry the Quarrelsome’s father. Bottom line is that Henry fled to Bohemia before the siege had really begun.

Not losing a minute, Otto II deposes Henry as duke of Bavaria and then dismantles the duchy. In 976 the duchy of Bavaria was a lot further Southeast of the modern state of Bavaria and included all of Austria and the eastern part of Northern Italy, roughly from Verona to Trieste. Otto carved out a new Duchy of Carinthia, which encompassed what is now Austria and the Italian parts. This new duchy was given to another Henry, hoping this one would be more loyal than Cousin Henry. What was then left of Bavaria was given to the emperor’s nephew, Otto of Swabia.

Admin done Otto saddles his horse again and pursues his cousin to Bohemia. However, that trip ended in a bathing accident. When his troops went for a swim in the river near the city of Pilsen, they were surprised by the Bohemians and cut to pieces. I do not want to go off on a tangent about bathing in the middle ages, but this is another indication that personal hygiene was known about, but clearly considered dangerous.

Not being able to catch Henry in the summer of 976 meant the rebellion was not over. During the winter months henry managed to gather new allies against Otto II. The first was another Henry, bishop of Augsburg, the one he had put into his post just 2 years earlier. Two Henries are good but not good enough, so he acquired a third. That third henry was the most unexpected one, it was Henry, duke of Carinthia, the guy Otto II had made duke just 12 months earlier. Even more bewildering this Henry was the son of a previous duke of Bavaria who had been pushed aside in favour of Henry the Quarrelsome dad. Why did he join? Maybe some convoluted hope that if the Quarrelsome was made king he would be made duke of a re-unified Bavaria or maybe he was just irritated about something Otto II has said or done. The latter seems to be happening a lot.

Anyway, we now have what is called the war of the three Henries. This one Otto II finally wins. First, he beats duke Boleslav of Bohemia who swears never-ending loyalty and promises to appear in front of the court next year. Meanwhile the henries had taken the city of Passau. There fighting was a bit more intense, but after just about a month of siege the three Henrys had to yield. Passau may or may not have been burnt to the ground, though it is not quite clear what the poor citizens of Passau had done to deserve that.

Next spring Otto holds a great court assembly in Magdeburg. Duke Boleslav of Bohemia appears and after swearing unending love and fealty again is allowed to go home. The three Henrys lose all their positions and are put in jail. Henry the Quarrelsome will remain in jail until the day the message of Otto IIs death arrives. The other two Henrys are released a few years down the line and one of them, Henry of Carinthia will die fighting for Otto II. As for the duchy of Carinthia, that bit that comprises Austria and North-Eastern Italy, that goes to Otto of Worms, the son of Konrad the red and a nephew of emperor Otto II. And hence the war of the three Henrys ends with the three Otto’s possessions much increased.

Again, we see something happening that is becoming a uniquely German trait. The duchy of Carinthia that Otto created with a strike of a pen is not coming under direct royal control, as it would have been in France, it is re-distributed to senior nobles. Otto of Carinthia may be Otto’s nephew, but he is first and foremost the head of the Konradiner clan who are busy rebuilding their lost duchy of Franconia.

The other thing to note is that Otto II had a much easier time of bringing down the rebellion of the Henrys than his dad. However, he did not come out of it with the same elevation of prestige his father achieved. It was because Otto the Great had to rely on miracles to secure his reign, his ultimate success was proof that he was God’s anointed. Otto II’s quick success did not prove anything other than that a large number of soldiers is better than a small number.

Next week we will see how Otto’s reputation develops as he encounters new foes and even gets a chance to play with a really, really large number of soldiers.

I hope you will come along.

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