Otto II (973-983)

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Otto II (973-983 AD) -  History of the Germans
Otto II (973-983 AD) – History of the Germans
As much as Otto the Great was lucky, Otto II was unlucky. He gets ambushed by the king of France, loses the largest battle of the century in the South of Italy and in his last year the Slavs, having been brutally oppressed by his father's generals rise up, burn cities and churches and regain their freedom"A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad" (Gregory of Tours 539-594). From the Coronation of Henry the Fowler in 919 CE to German Reunification in 1990 in weekly chronological 20-30 min episodes.
Episode 9 – A Matter of Habit
by Dirk Hoffmann-Becking

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…

Episode 9 – A Matter of Habit
Episode 10 – The Misfortunes One Can Endure

30 second summary

The son of Otto the Great and the father of the Miracle of the World, Otto III is one of the lesser known German emperors of the early middle ages. That being said, he is even more interesting for that. He was crowned king in 961, aged just 6 years and became emperor alongside his father in 973. He married Theophanu, the glamorous princes from Byzantium who played a major role during his reign. When his father died in 973, Otto II takes over .

The main thrust of his policies are in Italy. He tries to unify the Norther (“German”) kingdom and his Italian possessions into one entity under one king. Hi efforts to conquer southern Italy end in disaster and before he can do anything about it, he dies in Rome. He is the only German emperor buried in Rome .

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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[1], 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.

Add to that the beginning of the medieval warming period that lasted from 900 to 1300 and you have a proper, sustained economic boom. Note that boom periods in the middle ages did not result in an increase of income per capita, it only increased the headcount as less people starved to death. Villages and towns expanded, castles, churches and abbeys get built, new markets, fairs and courts are set up. The dukes, counts, bishops and abbots needed royal approval if they wanted to build castles, churches, and abbeys, they needed approval to open a market, lay a bridge and charge tolls. Hence the Ottonian emperors had a ready supply of goodies to pay their followers with.

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[2].

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[3].

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.

And if you enjoyed this episode, why don’t you subscribe to the podcast and from then on you will get every new episode into your inbox, every week.


[1] Warren T. Treadgold A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 1997, p.575

[2] RI II,2n643a November 973

[3] RI II,2n 667b June 974

Episode 10 – The Misfortunes One Can Endure

Hello and welcome to the History of the German People – Episode 10 – The Misfortunes One Can Endure…

After last weeks more descriptive episode this week we have an action-packed 25 minutes for you to enjoy. To get you back in the picture, we are in the year 977 and Otto II, together with two more Ottos has just put down the rebellion of the three Henries. Though the rebellion was challenging, Otto II seemed to have remained in control of the situation throughout. Some disaffected nobles had joined Henry’s banner but the major dukes, counts and bishops have remained loyal. But that lack of jeopardy will also be a weakness in Otto IIs reign. Without the sign of divine favour that was so obviously bestowed upon Otto the Great in Birten and Andernach, Otto II’s PR was not much better after the rebellion than before. The harsh treatment of Henry and his co-conspirators was a long way off the medieval ideal of the merciful ruler. Resentment continued which narrowed his room to manoeuvre.

As Otto IIs family is quite small, it is crucial that he keeps them in strong positions dotted around the realm and aligned with his political objectives. One of the most important family members is his mother, Adelheid. Adelheid was a significant political player in her own right. During the reign of her husband, she was regularly referred to as the co-ruler of the empire. She had a particularly important role in Italy, where she had been queen before her husband had intervened. The Italian magnates saw her as the main reference point within the Ottonian family and she generously sponsored certain families, including the counts of Canossa, who became one of the most powerful families in Italy. She was also the sister of the King of Burgundy and the mother-in-law of the King of France. Her daughter Emma from her first marriage had married king Lothar of France. And let us not dismiss the fact that she had been involved in top level European politics since she was 15 and now, in her 45th year was a treasure trove of experience and knowledge crucial to the success of Otto IIs reign. In his first years as emperor, Adelheid was constantly by his side, providing advice and support. And he knew that falling out with his mother was something he could not afford. But he managed.

Events in Lothringia brought their relationship to the brink. Lothringia had forever been a difficult to run territory as the French kings remained of the view that it should be part of their kingdom. That gave the Lothringian nobles a permanent option to reject orders from the Ottonian rulers by threatening to shift allegiance to the French king. As long as Otto’s uncle Brun had been archbishop of Cologne and duke of Lothringia at the same time, the duchy was fairly stable. Brun passed away in 962 and subsequently the duchy was divided into two, Upper and Lower Lothringia, held by local senior aristocratic families. These families stayed loyal to Otto the Great, but when the old emperor died, the ancient quarrels re-emerged.

By 977 one of these, the duchy of Lower Lothringia had become vacant. That duchy was huge sway of land, comprising today’s Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and the bits of Germany on the western shore of the Rhine including the important cities of Cologne and Aachen. As we highlighted before, the Ottonians no longer confiscated vacant duchies for themselves or their families but gave them to members of the powerful families as a way to avoid large scale rebellions.

In the case of Lower Lothringia, Otto IIs choice of new duke was unusual. He chose his cousin Charles to be the new duke. Charles was not just Otto’s cousin, but much more importantly, he was the brother of Lothar, king of France. That was a very odd choice for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, Charles was blatantly not a powerful German noble with a large family Otto had to placate, his links were in France.
  • Secondly, Charles had fallen out with his brother Lothar over the honour of Queen Emma, Lothar’s wife. Charles had accused Emma of adultery with bishop Adalbero of Laon. Lothar sided with his wife and threw Charles out.
  • Thirdly Charles only 2 years earlier had fought Otto II together with some Lothringian nobles who had forever been opposed to the Ottonians.

If we net all this out, I find very little usefulness in appointing Charles as duke of such an important duchy. He brings no support from any German clan. He brings no French support either, au contraire, his appointment invites war with France.

But the most crucial thing is that Adelheid is Emma’s mother, and she did not take kindly to Charles besmirching the honour of her daughter. Sorry, besmirching of honour sounds is a bit too benign. What it really meant is that had Emma been found guilty of adultery, she would have been lucky to get away with permanent incarceration in a monastery.

Adelheid was now snubbed twice. First her protégé Henry the Quarrelsome had been mistreated. But now her daughter and her son-in-law’s arch enemy gets promoted for what seemed no reason, other than to demean her. And off she went to stay with her brother in Burgundy.

Otto II had now lost one of his most important councillors. As it happened, he did not have a lot of them. What alienated people even more was that his few councillors were mostly people of modest backgrounds who had made their careers in the church. As we said before, personal interaction with the emperor is crucially important to the nobles. It gives them access to justice and opportunities for advancement and reward. And let us not forget, these guys have vassals of their own, so they need to appear to them as if they had access to the 31st floor. Otto’s strategy of relying on people with limited or no connections takes away their entry badge.

Apart from these advisors, the other person Otto listened to was his wife, Theophanu. Theophanu was now 17 and has probably learned the language and began finding her feet. But to understand the intricate network of personal, military, and economic interconnections between the magnates in her husband’s kingdom is not easy. Her personal entourage is probably equally lost at sea. She cannot even rely on support from Constantinople anymore where her clan, the Skleros are in open rebellion against the new emperor Basil II.

Compare that to Otto’s grandfather Henry the Fowler who was friend with everyone, married to a Saxon noblewoman deeply connected to all the major clans in Saxony, readily accessible to his dukes and nobles and happy to take their advice.

Otto’s unpopularity was not lost on king Lothar of France. When the duke of Upper Lothringia also dies, he sees the chance and makes a surprise attack on Lothringia. He pushed all the way to Charlemagne’s ancient capital in Aachen. As it happened, the imperial family had literally sat down to dinner when Lothar and his troops arrived. Otto and Theophanu had to run as fast as they could to escape and Lothar took over the palace, grabbed the insignia of imperial power and turned the eagle on the roof from west to east as a sign of the change of times.

This was a psychological shock to the system. The emperor running away is another one of those images that are extremely difficult to eradicate, a bit like the dog carrying in Magdeburg. Militarily the whole thing was a nonsense. The king of France had barely the resources to hold on to the little bits of his kingdom not controlled by his overbearing vassals, let alone enough to seriously threaten the emperor.

Otto II had to and did retaliate. He took an army to France burning and pillaging the countryside around Reims, Laon and Paris. Otto’s army camped on the hill of Montmartre outside Paris and shouted Hallelujah at the top of their voices, which for some reason was not frightening enough for the Parisians to open the gates.  In the end, he did not manage to capture any of these towns. Moreover, none of the major French vassals joined Otto II as they had done under Otto I reign. Whether that was down to Otto II’s personality and reputation or down to the beginnings of a French national consciousness is subject to an endless debate. Safe to assume it was probably a bit of both. After a couple of months mistreating peasants, Otto II headed back home. Almost home, the French attacked his rear guard and captured the wagons full of plunder. The French celebrated this as a major victory. Lothar kept trying to take advantage of the situation and besieged Cambrai, but a few months later has to sign a peace agreement with Otto II and give up his claim on Lothringia. That peace agreement was signed in the border town of Margut-sur-Chiers, in other words, Lothar does not come to the emperor at his palace, as he did in 965. We are back to the early times of Henry the Fowler when the king of France saw himself as equal to the German ruler. That is a step down from Otto the Great’s reign and confidence in Otto’s rule diminishes further.

Back home in Magdeburg a true Game of Thrones type event takes place. During the royal assembly, a certain Waldo accuses count Gero of Morazenigau of betrayal. The court of leading princes’ rules that the case should be resolved by single combat. In the fight Waldo receives two severe blows but soldiers on. Once up again, he manages to land a massive blow on Gero’s head. Gero goes down and has to concede. Waldo lays down his weapons and gets a drink of water. The water is not half- way down his throat when he keels over dead. Now we have a problem. Gero lost the fight and is hence proven guilty. However, Waldo died almost instantly after the fight from Gero’s blow which must mean something. Otto II is in the unfortunate position of having to decide and states that since Gero had conceded whilst Waldo was still alive, Waldo’s claim stands and hence Gero is to be beheaded. Several nobles intervened, including duke Otto of Swabia, but to no avail. Gero was beheaded in the morning. This judgement was one of those which “pleased nobody” and made Otto’s life even harder.

After the humiliation in France Otto’s luck brightened up a little. In the spring of 980 his wife Theophanu had delivered him a son, named Otto after three daughters.

Otto IIs next move was to go down to Italy. After his father’s death things in Italy in general and in Rome in particular had gone out of hand.

Pope John XIII who had been appointed by Otto the First and compliant in all end everything had passed in 972. The imperial party in Rome then pushed through the election of Benedict VI. Benedict VI lasted just 18 months. Once news came that Otto the Great had died and his son was tied up with his nobles, the Romans rose up. The Romans appointed a new pope, Boniface VII, whose first pious act was to relieve his predecessor from the pains of earthly existence.

Boniface VII’s rule was over even more quickly. After 1 month and 12 days he fled from imperial troops into the Castel Sant Angelo. There he grabbed the papal treasure and fled to Byzantine controlled areas of Southern Italy.

The Roman people upon gentle prodding of the imperial spears elected a new Pope, a comparatively virtuous man who took the name Benedict the VII. As this going to get complicated, here is the basic rule – Boniface is bad, Benedict is good.

Good Benedict ruled from 974 to 983, but in 980 he got under severe pressure from the Roman population. It might have been that Boniface, the bad pope, returned and managed to take control of Rome. In March 981, Otto II came down to Rome to bring back pope Benedict (the good one).  Bad Boniface briskly bolted to Byzantium.

Not only did Otto get the Pope he wanted, after long and complex negotiations Otto and his mother Adelheid reconciled. Adelheid was crucial since she had all the connections in Italy. With her support he was able to bring the Italian nobles onto his side for his real grand project.

In 981 Otto II called a royal assembly in Rome where lords, bishops from all over the empire and even the king of Burgundy in person came to pay him respect. He was even called upon to resolve some dispute between king Lothar and one of his major vassals, the last time an emperor would have a say over the affairs of France. It felt a bit like the good old days of Otto the Great. At the assembly plans were hatched for what to do in the autumn campaign season.

Having avoided the summer heat and malaria of Rome by staying in a specially built imperial Pfalz in the Abruzzo Mountains, Otto came back to Rome in the autumn of 981 and mustered his troops for what was his true objective in Italy, the conquest of the south.

Bringing both the south and the north of Italy under one rule would end the constant struggles over the papacy as the king/emperor had the Roman warring factions bottled up inside the holy city and thereby make imperial rule much more robust.

For most of the previous century Southern Italy was kept in balance between three main powers, The Lombard dukes who held the territory immediately south and east of Rome, the Byzantines, who held the rest of Southern Italy and the Muslim emirs of Sicily who controlled the island of Sicily.

Otto the Great had managed Southern Italy through a loyal and competent Lombard duke called Pandulf Ironhead. Pandulf had the audacity to die in 781 and, being a Germanic leader had split his inheritance amongst a number of more or less competent sons and nephews. In good old Germanic tradition, these guys wasted no time allying themselves with other local powers and going at each other’s throats.

Within all that fighting, the Byzantines held on by the skin of their teeth occasionally losing Bari and Taranto, their main strongholds to the Muslims. Looks like Southern Italy is quite fragmented and should be an easy pick, right?

Otto II thought so and declared that Southern Italy had come to him as dowry for his wife Theophanu. Most western scholars dismiss this claim, probably correctly. However, there might be a connection to Theophanu. As you may remember from episode 8, Theophanu was a member of the Skleros clan and a niece by marriage of emperor John Tzimiskes. When John Tzimiskes died in 976, her uncle, Bardas Skleros staged an attempt to become emperor alongside or instead the new emperor Basil II. That rebellion ended in a battle in 979, but Bardas Skleros and presumably her father Constantine Skleros were still alive in exile in Baghdad, plotting their return. There is no evidence of any coordination between the German imperial government and the Skleros family, but it is not far fetched to believe that Otto expected that a domestic civil war in Byzantium would make his conquest of Southern Italy easier. In the end it did not matter much because the Skleros only returned to Byzantium five years later in 987. One thing that may indicate this to be a possibility is that from this moment on Otto calls himself Imperator Romanorum Augustus, that is Augustus, Emperor of the Romans. His father had simply called himself Caesar or Kaiser, without the reference to the Romans. Otto II’s is the same title as the title of a Byzantine emperor, which may be justified if his father or uncle in law had recognised him as co-emperor of the Byzantine empire.

Back to more tangible things. The game plan was to leave Pandulf’s offspring to their own fighting, take over the Byzantine lands and then secure that conquest against the Muslims.

Part one of the campaign went exactly to plan. Otto II assembled the largest army the Ottonian period had ever seen and marched south. He conquered the Byzantine duchy of Salerno and stayed in its capital Taranto until June.

As Otto expected, in the spring of 982 the Emir of Sicily brought his army across the straights of Messina to fight the German emperor. When the emir approached the Ottonian encampment near the small town of 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 troops around and marched as fast as he could towards the straights of Messina with the plan to take ships back home. But 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, though that is disputed, the Emir realise that he would not make it back in time. He 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 began systematically massacring Otto’s army. 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 of the ship that he had enough and that he wanted to just pick up his wife and the imperial treasury before retiring to Constantinople. The greedy captain pushed his rowing slaves go double time only to find that when his ship arrived back at the town of Rossano, the emperor simply jumped into the sea and swam ashore.

In most reports the defeat is described as catastrophic. Reports of the fallen purple flower of the fatherland, the pride of blond Germans reached as far as the kingdom of Wessex. But when I examined the movements of Otto II after the battle, it did not look like a flight for his life at all. He stayed in Rossana, a few miles from the battlefield for a few weeks before moving leisurely back to Salerno and Capua, taking care of administrative burdens. He only gets to Rome by December or even March 983, 9 months after the “catastrophe” of Capo Colonna. That suggests the Muslims had returned to Sicily with the body of their fallen leader and the Byzantines had remained unable or unwilling to reconquer Salerno.

In the meantime, Otto II had sent his nephew Otto of Swabia and Bavaria back home to raise fresh troops. He only made it to Lucca where he and his companions died, probably of Malaria. As we said before, Otto II does not have a lot of close relatives, making the loss of Otto of Swabia and Bavaria one of his most important vassals and closest confidants a severe blow.

In order to stabilise the situation Otto called a royal diet in Verona where the senior nobles of Italy and Germany elected his 3-year-old son Otto III as king. This election was the only election of a future Roman emperor to have taken place on Italian soil. But what is even more striking is that the child king was elected by both German and Italian nobles. Not only that, but when he sets off to be crowned king in Aachen, he is accompanied by both the archbishop Willigis of Mainz as the highest-ranking churchman in Germany and the Archbishop of Ravenna as the primate of the Italian church.

Up until then the Kings of East Francia were elected exclusively by German magnates and crowned exclusively by German archbishops, whilst the Kings of Italy were elected by Italian nobles and crowned by Italian archbishops. Otto III’s election and later coronation is an attempt to merge the German and the Italian part of the Ottonian realm into one Reich. It is another step in the direction of a rebirth of a pan-European political entity that is a key feature of the later Ottonians.

Apart from the election of little Otto III, the assembly of Verona was extremely productive. The inheritance of Otto of Swabia and Bavaria was redistributed, again back to old aristocratic clans, the Konradiner in Swabia and the Luitpoldinger in Bavaria. The latter is particularly noteworthy, as the lucky winner of the duchy of Bavaria is none other than Henry of Carinthia, one of the rebellious three Henries. I actually made a mistake in the last episode when I said this henry would be the one to die in the service of the emperor, whilst the one who actually died was Henry Bishop of Augsburg. You see, you are not the only one struggling with an excess of Henries in this narrative.

The other thing of note is that Otto invests Adalbert with the bishopric of Prague. Adalbert will appear again in our story a few episodes down the line, but for now let me just say that he would die as a missionary to the Pruzzi, the Prussians making their debut on the global stage in time honoured bloody fashion. He would also become one of the national saints of Poland.

And then there is the dispute with the Venetians who have been subjected to what I think is the first case of trade sanctions since the ancient Roman empire. Since it was impossible to conquer Venice without a fleet and the empire had no fleet, they had begun to act independently from the imperial government in Pavia. A trade embargo was the only way to enforce control, however, even though some agreements were signed in Verona, these did not stick, and Venice kept pushing for independence. One last thing about Verona, they also debated another campaign against Muslim Sicily, which again suggests the war had not been lost.

But while Otto dreamt of retribution and little Otto III travelled north to Aachen for his coronation an actual catastrophe befell the dynasties homeland, Saxony.

Since I have been harping on about it so many times, you may remember that Otto the Great’s two famous generals, Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero had pushed the boundaries of the duchy decisively east by subjugating and converting the Slavs who lived east of the Elbe river. Most of that Christianisation involved more cold steel than the lord’s prayer.

In 983 the Slavs had enough of forced baptisms and wanton destruction of their pagan shrines and rebelled. The rebellion ran like wildfire. The Abodrites in the north had not forgotten the slaughter of the 700 in 955 and burned the city of Hamburg (again). The Liutzen and Heveller flattened the hated cathedrals and towns of Brandenburg and Havelberg.

The leaders of the border counties and the bishops finally gather troops to stop the flood of raging pagans. Battle is joined near Stendal and the Slavs are allegedly beaten comprehensively. I say allegedly because after the battle the Saxon troops return behind the Elbe river and effectively abandon the Slavic lands to their people who continued in their pagan beliefs. In my book that means the Slavs have won.

Instead of blaming the rebellion on the brutal suppression of Slavic religion and culture, the contemporaries laid the blame straight at Otto II’s feet. It was seen as a punishment for his sins.

And that sin was having suppressed the bishopric of Merseburg in eastern Saxony in 982. Merseburg was one of the bishoprics founded by his father Otto the Great. His bishop was Giselher, a member of the royal chapel and one of Otto’s closest advisers. Merseburg was one of the smaller and less prestigious bishoprics, which is why Giselher got very excited when the much larger and more prosperous archbishopric of Magdeburg became vacant during Otto IIs reign. He convinced Otto II to make him archbishop of Magdeburg. There was one small problem though. According to canon law in the 10th century, a bishop was forever attached to his bishopric and could not move up the food chain. Therefore, the decision was taken to suppress the bishopric of Merseburg on a technicality which would make Giselher free to become archbishop of Magdeburg.  Suppressing a bishopric is not only a complicated thing to do under church law, in the eyes of the 10th century it is also close to sacrilege. Therefore, when the Saxons try to find a reason for the Slav rebellion, they conclude that it could not possibly have been the indiscriminate slaughter of pagans and enslavement of wives and children, but quite obviously the suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg, which in turn was Otto’s fault.

Otto II hears about the Slav rebellion in Rome where he is waiting for new troops. These troops never came as all resources had now to be moved to the defence of the eastern border.

With his kingdom shrunk and under threat, his Italian policy stalled and his standing as a holy roman emperor trashed, Otto had come to the end of the road. On December 7th, 983 Otto II died of malaria in Rome. He is buried in St. Peter in Rome, the only medieval emperor to be buried in the holly city.

Otto II has been judged very harshly by his contemporaries and history, if they take any notice of him at all. In preparation of this episode, I could not find any biography of Otto II at all. There are biographies of Otto the Great, Theophanu and Otto III galore, but Otto II none. That is quite odd.

Otto II mustered one of the greatest armies the Ottonian dynasty ever put into the field in an attempt to conquer Southern Italy which, if successful, would have fundamentally changed the history of the empire.  An empire that included both Northern and Southern Italy would have been able to control the papacy much more effectively. A papacy under control of the emperor would have been forced to accept the imperial Church system in perpetuity making it easier for the future emperors to form a coherent state.

And it wasn’t some obvious military error that led to his defeat, just bad luck. If Otto II had only had a 10th of the luck his father had, he would have succeeded in this endeavour.

It is also not fair to blame the Slav rebellion on Otto II. The rebellion was very much the result of his father’s policy of Christian conversion by fire and sword. Again, it was bad luck the rebellion broke out during his reign and not before or afterwards.

We may talk about bad luck, but people in the 10th century did not believe in luck, they believed in all things being ordained by god. That included even the smallest things like a stubbed toe or a late flowering of vines. When all and everything is controlled by god, then losing a battle is a decision by the lord against the ruler. The string of misfortunes Otto II endured were not bad luck but a judgement by the lord against him. If the lord was not on his side, then he cannot be the ruler by the grace of god. And why did god remove his grace from the properly anointed king? In the eyes of the 10th century that was obvious, it was the unforgiveable sin of suppressing the bishopric of Merseburg,

Though later historians did not think along those lines, they seem to have absorbed the general notion that Otto II was somehow not quite right as a ruler. His failings really come down to his inability to relate to his subjects on a personal level. He always appeared to be separate from his magnates, be it on account of his better education, his glamorous wife or his choice of advisors. But that matters more than anything else in a political structure that is entirely built upon personal relationships. Therefore, Otto II would still have had a hard time had he beaten the Emir of Sicily and if the Slavs had not rebelled.

Next week Otto III will arrive in Aachen and be crowned, just a day before the news arrive that his father is dead. That drops the German kingdom into chaos as the boy king’s closest male relative Henry the Quarrelsome is instantly released and his mother fight over the guardianship and by extension the control over the kingdom.  The mathematically inclined amongst you may now expect the reign of Otto III will start with an epic fight between 9 Ottos and 9 Henries. Nope, history is neither linear nor exponential. This time is just one Henry against three ladies, a geek and a 3-year-old – I am taking bets.

I hope you will join as again for an action-packed episode.

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About Me

I am a history geek with no academic qualification in the field but a love for books and stories. I do this for fun and my personal self-aggrandisement.

I have been born, raised and educated in Germany but live in the UK for now over 20 years with my wife and two children. My professional background is in law, management consulting and banking. History has always been a hobby as are sailing, travelling, art, skiing and exercise (go BMF!).

My view of history is best summarised by Gregory of Tours (539-594): “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad”. History has no beginning and no end and more importantly, it has no logic, no pattern and no purpose . But that does not mean there isn’t progress and sometimes we humans realise that doing the same thing again and again hoping for a different outcome is indeed madness. The great moments in history are those where we realise that we cannot go on as we were and things need to change. German history – as you will hopefully see – is full of these turning points, some good, some bad!

Hope you enjoy the Podcast