In 982 the unlucky emperor Otto II loses a battle in Southern Italy, which triggers an uprising of the pagan Slavs east of the Elbe River giving Poland enough wiggle room to plough its own furrow.

When Otto II takes over from his father in 973 the Ottonian dynasty is at its peak. Otto I had defeated his domestic enemies, the Magyars and expanded aggressively east of the Elbe River.  He was crowned emperor in 962 and Byzantium had sent a “princess” for his son to marry.

Like many sons of successful fathers, Otto II tried to best his old man. Otto I had attempted to take Bari, the main base of Byzantine power in Italy. His son wanted to complete the task. And then go after the ultimate prize, the rich, Muslim held island of Sicily.

Otto II assembled the largest army Europe in this period had seen and marched south. He conquered the Byzantine duchy of Puglia and stayed in Taranto until June 982. As Otto expected, the Emir of Sicily brought his army across the straights of Messina to fight the northerners.

As the emir approached the Ottonian encampment near Rossano Calabro in the deep south he realised that the emperor’s army was a lot larger than he had bargained for. He turned his army around and marched at speed towards Messina to take ships home. He never made it.

As the emir’s troops ran home along the coast, they were spotted by Byzantine merchant ships coming up the coast. They told Otto and Otto’s heavy cavalry began the pursuit.  Somewhere near Capo Colonna (or Stilo) the Emir halted the flight and set up in full battle order.

Otto’s heavily armoured knights crashed into the emir’s troops and pushed all the way to the centre. The emir’s bodyguard crumbled, and the emir was killed. Job done.

No, not done at all. Whilst the German cavalry were busy slaughtering the emir, unbeknownst to them a reserve detachment of about 5,000 Muslim cavalrymen joined the fray. They encircled the fighting Germans and having restricted their room to manoeuvre, massacred them.

Many senior nobles died including the duke of Benevento, the bishop Henry of Augsburg, the Margrave of Merseburg, the abbot of Fulda and a further 19 counts. Otto II fled by hailing a Byzantine ship – oh irony of ironies.

He convinced the captain that he had enough and was just picking up the imperial treasury to retire on. The greedy captain pushed his rowing slaves go double time only to find that when they arrived back at Rossano, the emperor simply jumped into the sea and swam ashore.

The impact was felt al throughout Europe. Though the defeat was not catastrophic, the failure of Ottonian arms gave heart to the Slavs east of the Elbe who had been brutally subjugated and forcibly converted.

The ensuing Slav revolt pushed the borders of the empire back to the Elbe River. As a consequence, the empire needed the help of the dukes of Poland to contain the fallout, allowing this polity to ultimately become an independent state, unlike Bohemia/Czech Republic. 

In Southern Italy the Byzantines, Lombard dukes and Muslim Emirs kept squabbling until the Normans unified the territory. The Southern Normans were crucial support for the papacy in the Investiture Conflict which weakened the empire. More on this really almost completely forgotten battle is available on episode 10 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on all major podcasting platforms.

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In 955 king Otto I annihilated the largest army the Magyars ever fielded, ending their raids into his territory.  His soldiers hailed him emperor, kicking off the (Holy Roman) Empire.

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In the 9th and 10th century pagan raiders threatened Europe. Most famously the Vikings but in Germany, Western France and Itay the Magyars, horse archers with composite bows from the steppes were feared even more. In 954 they raided all the way to Spain.

The following year, 955 they put together the largest army they ever fielded ~ 10,000 fighters plus slaves and labourers to build and operate siege engines. This time it wasn’t just a raid, this time they came to stay.

Their target was the city of Augsburg at the intersection of two ancient Roman roads. The siege started August 8th, 955. The dilapidated walls of the city and its small band of valiant defenders can hold out at best for a few days.

Time is of the essence. Otto I pulls together whatever troops he can get hold of at short notice, in total about 7,000 men. Augsburg is about to fall when Otto I arrives in the area. Luckily, the Hungarians decide to abandon the siege and tackle the arriving army first.

In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved onto the Lechfeld, a gravel floodplain near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there before. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments and marched under the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, the Hungarians went behind him and attacked his rear guard.  They captured the baggage train, and wounded and captured the defenders, 3 out of the 8 detachments are now down.

But once the Magyars had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Otto’s generals to bring down a detachment of Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. Otto’s forces regroup and he holds a rousing speech:

“As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord.” and We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals.”

That worked. Item 1 on the list was the most important. The fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres.

Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured knights could break a Hungarian force. They have to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the enemy line and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines.

There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured knights from Augsburg who tried to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw the enemy dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories about the battle. In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat s blamed in a sudden rainfall that made the composite bows unusable. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day.

Whichever way it happened, the Hungarians were annihilated, their leaders captured and killed. The raids stopped for good and by 1000 King/Saint Stephen formally converted to Christianity.

This was Otto’s greatest military and political success. The chronicler Widukind of Corvey reports that the assembled troops declared Otto emperor on the field of battle, just like the ancient roman legions had done.

It will take until 962 before Otto I is crowned emperor, but after the battle on the Lechfeld he was the undisputed leader of Western Europe. From this point the political entity that will later be called the Holy Roman Empire comes into existence. If you want to hear the whole story, check out Episode 6 of the History of the Germans available on all podcasting platforms:

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Part of a series about 20 crucial moments in German Medieval History. In 950 King Lothar of Italy dies, leaving behind his 19-year-old widow, Adelheid/Adelaide. With her begins the entanglement of the medieval emperors in Northern Italy.

Adelaide was born the daughter of the King of Upper Burgundy (~Fench speaking switzerland + soutwest France) Her father acquired the crown of the Kingdom of the Lombards (= Norther Italy) in the 920s but had to cede it to Hugh of Provence already in 925

Hugh of Provence invaded Upper Burgundy in 937 and abducted Adelaide and her mother. Adelaide was only 6 years old at that time. Once she was 15, Hugh married her to his son Lothar who he had elecated and crowned as King of Italy.

Now it is time for Hugh to lose his power. In 945 the margrave of Ivrea, Berengar ousts Hugh who retires back to Provence. Berengar however leaves Lothar and Adelheid as King and Queen of Italy.

That was a neat arrangement as it combined the three contenders for the crown of Italy. Adelheid for Upper Burgundy, Lothar representing Provence and Berengar representing Italy. It might look neat, but in reality, Berengar held total control of the reins of power.

This neat arrangement fell apart when Lothar unexpectedly died in 950. Berengar had to take the plunge and declare himself King of Italy without really having much legitimacy apart from having the bigger guns.

That was not his only problem. He also had to figure out what to do with the young queen Adelheid. You see, Adelheid was not only blood-related to almost everyone who was anyone in 10th century Europe, she was also enormously rich in her own right.

o top it up, it was customary for usurpers to derive their right to rule from marriage to the wife or daughter of a recently deceased ruler, just ask king Louis of France, duke Henry of Bavaria and duke Liudolf of Swabia.

You see why Adelheid was now the hottest potato in all of Italy, if not all of Europe. Though they did not have potatoes then. Maybe the hottest parsnip? Berengar proposed for her to marry his son Adalbert, but Adelheid refused.

At that point Adelheid becomes a risk. Leaving the key to the kingdom run around free in Italy to be picked up by some random chancer was not an option. So Berengar had her thrown in a prison in a fortress on lake Garda.

Whilst Adelheid, richest heiress in Europe and 19year old beauty lay in her cell contemplating what to do, world politics are set in motion. Hang on, Adelheid, Europe’s richest and most beautiful heiress and is held in a jail by some jumped-up Margrave – any takers, anyone?

Well, plenty. anyone who could dislodge Berengar and marry the 19-year-old and allegedly very attractive Adelheid would become king of Italy. That is the kind of offer that brings out the best in men.

First suitor was Henry, Duke of Bavaria and brother of King Otto I of East Francia. Though he is closest and has a significant followership his efforts stalled at Aquileia, 250km off target on Lake Garda.

Next up was the son of King Otto I, Liudolf. Luidolf was the oldest son and heir of the kingdom. Otto had him acknowledged by his magnates as his successor. All was good for him. So he wanted to crown his achievements by rescuing a damsel in distress.

That backfires badly. Not only does his uncle Henry stiffen the resistance of the Italian barons, little Liudolf has also failed to ask for permission from Dad. Otto I is not happy about his son’s move south and orders him back home

And now Otto I makes his own move. He takes a large army down to Italy to finally release the chained princess. Berengar sees him coming and hides in one of his castles. Otto I takes Pavia, capital of the kingdom of the Lombards, without much resistance.

Adelheid, it turns out did not need the help. She had escaped from the Rocca di Garda all by herself and found shelter with the bishop of Reggio on the castle of Canossa, a place that will become of even greater significance in German history

Castello de Carpienti, part of the set of defences that protect Canossa

Otto I, recently widowed now asks for Adelheid’s hand in marriage. Otto was a very eligible widower – with his white hair, red face, bushy beard, moderate sized belly and a chest covered in hair like the mane of a lion.

But his good looks alone did not seem to have done the trick. He had to strengthen the queen’s love for him with gold. Having received enough gifts as well as probably concessions about her future role, Adelheid accepted Otto’s advances.

And with that Otto I could pick up the iron crown of the Lombards. From this time onwards the Italian crown was (with one interruption), part of the Empire and whoever was elected King of the Romans had automatically authority over Lombardy.

This will be one part of the “Italian Entanglement” that makes medieval emperors cross the Alps again and again, seeking fame and fortune. Heinrich v. Sybel (1817-95) blamed this for the delayed nation building in Germany.

Modern historians have a more differentiated perspective. However, the rule over Italy did take up a lot of the resources and headspace of medieval emperors, in particular Henry IV, Barbarossa, Henry VI and Frederick II.

More on this story and many more, check out the History of the Germans Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms.

Part of a series about 20 crucial moments in German Medieval History, some of which are almost forgotten A key moment that rescues the kingship of Otto I without whom the (Holy Roman) Empire might not have come into existence.

Otto I had been crowned king of East Francia in 936. Within just 3 years he has managed to rub everyone in the kingdom up the wrong way. His autocratic style differed sharply from his father’s more cooperative approach to the mighty dules. (2/

Through a sequence of events, which involved condemning his most powerful vassal, the duke Eberhard of Franconia to the shameful punishment of dog-carrying things escalate. His younger brother Henry takes the leadership of the discontented.

In 939 Otto finds himself besieging the impregnable castle of Breisach in the deep southwest whilst his enemies are taking control of the kingdom. His followers disappear and he despairs: “If our time has come, let us die like brave man and not cast a slur about our good name”

Enter stage left Konrad Short’n’Bold. 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 the unexplained horrors that had been inflicted on one of their relatives, a man called Gebhard.

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.

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.

Sending their soldiers first means the dukes will have to carry the plunder. 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 Luitprand 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 already lost the earlier 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.

There are two more crucial moments before Otto becomes Emperor Otto the Great and founds what would later be called the Holy Roman Empire. If you want to listen or read ahead, check out episode 3