Otto III (983-1002)

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Otto III The Wonder of the World (983-1002) -  History of the Germans
Otto III The Wonder of the World (983-1002) – History of the Germans
Otto III comes to the throne aged 4 when his father unexpectedly died of Malaria. His mother and grandmother have to wrestle the guardianship out of the hands of his perfidious cousin, henry the Quarrelsome. Once matured he becomes a fascinating figure oscillating between excessive brutality and excessive piety. His attempt at a "Restauration of the Roman Empire" fails catastrophically and his friends barely manage to repatriate his body back to Germany."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 11 – Woe the Land that is Governed by a Child
by Dirk Hoffmann-Becking

When 4-year-old king Otto III is crowned king riders bang on the door of Aachen Cathedral with news that his father, Otto II had died 16 days earlier. Immediately the archenemy of the family, Henry the Quarrelsome is released from prison where he was held for treason and is made guardian of the child. Otto III’s chance of survival is bleak and his only hope is his mother, the Byzantine princes Theophanu who musters an odd assembly of ladies and geeks to rescue her son…

Episode 11 – Woe the Land that is Governed by a Child
Episode 12 – The Regency of Theophanu and Adelheid
Episode 13 – Otto III The Wonder of the World
Episode 14 – Otto III The End of a Dream

30 second summary

Otto III comes to the throne aged 4 when his father unexpectedly died of Malaria. His mother and grandmother have to wrestle the guardianship out of the hands of his perfidious cousin, Henry the Quarrelsome. Once matured he becomes a fascinating figure oscillating between excessive brutality and excessive piety. His attempt at a “Restauration of the Roman Empire” fails catastrophically and his friends barely manage to repatriate his body back to Germany.

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Episode 11 – Woe the Land that is Ruled by a Child

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 11 – Woe to the land that is governed by a child….

Last week we watched the unlucky Otto II stumble through his 10 years of imperial rule, suffering defeat and loss of the eastern parts of Saxony to the Slavs.  Otto II died on December 7th, 983 in Rome of Malaria. And whilst Otto II lay on his deathbed, his three-year old son Otto was travelling a thousand miles north to Aachen for his coronation as king.

Otto had been elected king a couple of months earlier in Verona, by both the German and the Italian nobles. When Otto reaches Aachen either on Christmas eve or Christmas day 983 he is crowned king  by both the archbishop of Mainz and the archbishop of Ravenna, the respective leading churchmen of Germany and Italy.it all looks as if we finally have a ruler over a joint German and Italian Reich.  But not so. All this happened 16 days after his father had died, though nobody knew that during the ceremony.

Literally on the same day the messengers arrive with news that Otto II had died in Rome. You can almost imagine the riders banging on the church doors whilst inside the crown is put on the toddler’s head. As we will see that was extremely lucky for young Otto, now king Otto III. Having been anointed and consecrated properly has moved him from the realm of mere mortals into a higher level of human being, a ruler that has been chosen by god.  

How much that matters we will see. Otto II had been just 28 years old when he died. His death was certainly unexpected. But, when we look back at previous expeditions to Rome, the Kaisers were always concerned about the risk of unexpected death in battle or more likely from disease. I mentioned before that Rome was a malaria infested swamp where northern warriors tended to fade away like gelato in the summer heat. That concern about an unexpected death drove Otto II’s coronation at the age of six and probably was also a driver behind the decision to have little Otto III crowned when he was only a child.

The one good thing about the timing of Otto II’s death was that most of the magnates of Germany were in Aachen for the coronation when the news arrived. That meant they could make a decision on what to do next. Little Otto III could obviously not rule in his own capacity and needed a guardian or guardians until he comes of age.

Who should be this guardian or these guardians? According to Germanic law, the closest male relative would automatically be guardian. Let us just think who is Otto III’s closest male relative? His father, Otto II had only one half-brother, Liudolf, who had already died in episode 5. Liudolf himself had a son, called Otto, who was later made duke of Swabia and Bavaria. That Otto had died in the last Episode, without a male heir.

That means we need to go up one level, to the brothers of Otto the Great. Only one of them had a male descendent, and you guessed it, that closest male relative of Otto III is none other than Henry the Quarrelsome. And therefore, in line with law and customs the German barons decided the Quarrelsome should become the guardian of little Otto III and sent for him. That was on December 26th.

When the German nobles took this decision, Henry had spent most of the last 10 years incarcerated for treason against Kaiser Otto II. The length of his incarceration was extreme by the standards of the time. Henry’s punishment looks even harsher when you compare it to his co-conspirators who have got back into the royal favour and one of them was even given Henry’s old duchy of Bavaria. Moreover, his branch of the royal family still held the view that they were cheated out of kingship by Otto the Great, who was born the son of a duke, whilst their ancestor was born “in aula regis” i.e., as the son of a king.

Despite all that backstory the German nobles voted for Henry as guardian and therefore de facto ruler of the country. Nobody in their right mind could have expected Henry to have any warm feelings for his cousin twice removed. They did not even care that of all people in the world Henry the Quarellsome was the last one Otto II would have wanted as guardian for his son. So, why did they do that? Two reasons spring to mind.

The first one was that the Slavs had rebelled and expelled the German occupiers from their lands, had flattened Brandenburg and Havelberg, reverted to paganism and only at the last minute been stopped from crossing the Elbe and threatening the core of Saxony. Decisive leadership was urgently required. Henry was a recognised leader and warrior who could be trusted to hold the eastern frontier.

The second reason was that the only theoretical alternative was the child’s mother, Theophanu. Theophanu was not only a long way away, in Rome, but also not very popular. Apart from a solid dose of xenophobia, the German barons accused her of being behind the suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg which -as we all know- caused the lord to forsake the kingdom and create the Slav uprising. Bottom line, Henry was the better solution.

At the time of Otto’s coronation on Christmas day, Henry was locked up in Utrecht, just 200km from Aachen and 250km from Cologne. Henry is freed two days later on December 27th or 28th and rides hell for leather to Cologne, where Otto III had gone to stay with the archbishop. Henry reaches Cologne in the last days of 983 and physically grabs hold of the child. Possession being 9/10th of the law, henry is now the de facto leader of the Reich.

It is fair to assume that Henry had spent the last 10 years in jail pondering about ways he could take over the kingdom and bury Otto II and his family in a shallow grave. So, when he came free, he is likely to have had a fully developed master plan how to take over as king, not just as guardian. This masterplan needed to address three main items:

Item one, he needed a decisive victory over the Slavs to justify him setting aside the anointed king. That meant he needed to have soldiers and money enough to mount a massive campaign east of the Elbe river.

Secondly it is fair to assume that the coup would not go smoothly and that traditional allies of Otto the Great’s family such as the dukes of Swabia would resist militarily. That meant he also needed some soldiers and some money to fight them.

And thirdly, a civil war in Germany would bring king Lothar of France back into the fray. You remember from last episode that king Lothar of France hankered after the duchy of Lothringia since forever. His mother was the widow of the last indigenous duke of Lothringia and his father had named him Lothar as a reminder that it was his job to regain the duchy. There was no question that if Henry the Quarrelsome would be busy fighting two wars, Lothar would invade Lothringia and turn the eagle on the imperial palace of Aachen round again. To prevent that, Henry would have needed even more soldiers and money, and that was more soldiers and more money than he could ever hope to raise.

That means there was only one thing that could be done – Henry the Quarrelsome had to make peace with Lothar right now, before the King of France invades. The price for peace with Lothar is pretty straightforward: Henry has to hand over the duchy of Lothringia on a silver plate.

Given the subsequent timing of events Henry must have sketched out his offer to Lothar literally whilst sitting on his horse riding down to Cologne to pick up his little cousin. The details of the offer are unknown, but he did swear an oath to Lothar that he would come to a meeting in Breisach scheduled for February 1 where a formal treaty was to be negotiated and signed.

At this point the chances for little Otto III to become ruler, or to be frank, making it to adulthood at all look pretty bleak. If Henry can keep the western front calm and throw the majority of his forces against the Slavs, he would get the level of support needed to shut down the Ottonian party and push little Otto III aside.

Otto IIIs only hope now is his mother, the byzantine princess Theophanu. She was last seen at Otto IIs deathbed in Rome. After Otto’s death on December 7th the situation in Rome had become extremely volatile extremely quickly.

The once so obedient bishops and counts rapidly disappeared back to their homelands to hunker down and see what will happens next. The Roman population grew restless. One of Otto II’s last acts had been to appoint his archchancellor for Italy as pope John XIV. John XIV had not really been elected by anyone other than Otto II and hence had no friends or supporters in the holy city. He barricaded himself into the Lateran palace waiting for the end.

In other words, Rome was not safe for Theophanu, but where should she go, and who could she rely upon? Northern Italy was convulsed by raids on the members of the pro-Ottonian party and nobody knew what was going on in Germany.

There was one other member of the Ottonian family still in Rome, Mathilda, sister of Otto II and Abbess of Quedlinburg. Whilst Theophanu had little standing amongst the German barons, Mathilda was a as close to the top of the pyramid as you could get. She was the granddaughter of Saint Mathilda, her predecessor as abbess of Quedlinburg. The convent of Quedlinburg was not only one of the richest abbey’s in the empire and a major landowner, but also home to king Henry the Fowler’s grave making it the spiritual centre for the whole dynasty. Mathilda herself was highly regarded in her own right and had been a member of the regency council during her father’s and her brother’s wars in Italy.

Mathilda and Theophanu could not have heard about the release of the Quarrelsome yet, but it would not require a genius to figure out that little Otto III and with him the whole branch of the family was in serious danger.

The two ladies, with the few friends and followers they still had left, fled Rome together and raced  to Pavia where they arrived just before Christmas. In Pavia they joined forces with a third and the most powerful female member of the family, Adelheid, the widow of Otto the Great and Grandmother of Otto III.

Allegedly Theophanu and Adelheid have never seen eye to eye in the past and some historians suggest that Theophanu may have been instrumental in the estrangement between Adelheid and her son Otto II. But now, as the dynasty itself was under threat both sides let bygones be bygones.  

The last piece of the jigsaw came in the person of Gerbert of Aurillac. Gerbert was the towering intellectual and polymath of 10th century Europe. Gerbert was a French monk who had spent years in Northern Spain and at least a short period in Cordoba, the centre of Muslim culture and learning in Europe. There he developed an interest in mathematics and astronomy that led to the reintroduction of the Abacus and the Astrolabe into Europe. His most important contribution was the introduction of Arabic numerals replacing the clumsy Roman numerals for most calculations.

He had access to the writing of antiquity including Cicero, Virgil and Boethius, he was familiar with Aristotle and main elements of Greek philosophy. He wrote treatises on logic and reorganised the logical and dialectic studies. Moreover, he was an accomplished musician who constructed several organs.

His connection to the Ottonian family came when he was recommended as a tutor for Otto II in 970. He had stayed in contact with the emperor who made him abbot of the rich abbey of Bobbio, north of Rome. When Otto II died, Gerbert was in a bit of a pickle. His stint as abbot was not going too well. He had irritated his tenants and forced his monks to behave in a saintlier fashion. Gerbert quite rightly feared that if Otto III would be replaced by Henry the Quarrelsome, he would lose his abbey and probably some crucial bits of his anatomy. So, he joined the three ladies in Pavia to hatch a plan.

And that plan had to be audacious. The Quarrelsome had the law on his side as far as his guardianship was concerned. He also had possession of the child and the support of most of the magnates.

The three ladies and the monk realised that the key to breaking Henry’s hold lay in Lothringia. If they can put a wedge between Henry and Lothar of France, then Henry will be forced into a war on three fronts he would not be able to win.

They dispatch Gerbert of Aurillac to Reims, just across the border from Lothringia. Reims is also the seat of the preeminent archbishop of France who also happens to be a close friend of Gerbert. Gerbert gets busy organising resistance to Henry’s plans in Lothringia. He wrote letters to all and sundry pointing out that Henry was not just becoming little Otto III’s guardian but wanted to make himself king in his place.

Henry thought that with the royal child under his control he could take hold of Lothringia quite easily. That worked in so far as the two archbishops of Cologne and Trier were concerned but failed to convince a number of the important counts. It crucially misread the position of the duke of Lower Lothringia, Charles who was Lothar’s arch-enemy, going back to some slander he had directed at Lothar’s wife. And Gerberts letters made the locals suspicious.

Bottom line was, Henry did not have the political authority or the military might to control Lothringia. And then he makes his first big mistake. Instead of going to Breisach and discuss options with king Lothar, he went to Saxony to gather his followers, presumably planning to come back to Lothringia afterwards.

Whether Henry tried to let Lothar know that he was not coming, is not reported, but even if he did, Lothar did not get the message. Lothar travelled to Breisach. There he found not his new best mate Henry who he expected to hand him Lothringia on a silver plate, but duke Konrad of Swabia, recently appointed by Otto II and a fully paid-up member of the Konradiner family who offered him a piece of his mind on the sharp end of a sword. How Konrad knew about Lothar’s arrival is unclear, but it may well be that Gerbert, who saw Lothar coming through Reims had tipped him off.

The French army suffered a defeat by the Swabians and king Lothar rushed back to Laon. King Lothar is now really p.o. with his no longer best mate Henry the Quarrelsome.

Gerbert of Aurillac now goes to hyperspace. Within just a few weeks he brings together a coalition of the Lothringian magnates and the French king who was now so angry with Henry he joined his enemies just for a laugh, recognising Otto III as king and declaring Henry an usurper.

Whilst all this is going down in Lothringia, Henry is in Saxony trying to rally his supporters.

But even there he started off on the wrong foot. Whilst en route, two important counts begged forgiveness from him for a not further explained ancient misdemeanour. Henry refused. His refusal indicated to the other Saxon nobles that he now lacked a crucial royal quality, clemency. For the nobles, who had not seen Henry for a decade that was a massive red flag.

Combine that with Henry’s odds now much shorter than before, it is understandable that the Saxon nobles became a bit hesitant to declare him king or co-regent or whatever he was hoping for. In a meeting in March the Saxon nobles offered to make Henry king alongside Otto III only on condition that they get the permission of the now 4-year-old child.  Not the kind of unanimous support Henry was hoping for.

The rumblings got worse for him after the royal assembly in Quedlinburg in April. Though he is received into the city with all the honours of a king, a few days later a number of Saxon barons left and gathered a few miles down the road in Asselburg. They declare themselves unwilling to break their oath to the anointed and consecrated little boy Otto III.

There might have been some genuine fear of breaking an oath to the anointed king, but we may also witness a nascent national sentiment. Giving away Lothringia to the French may have struck many barons as too high a price to pay just to get a more pro-active monarch. Henry tries to break the rebellion but lacks the resources to attack his opponents at Asselburg. Even worse, the guys in Asselburg are striking back, capture his war chest and and free Otto III’s little sister.

Henry needs more supporters and goes looking for them in his old duchy of Bavaria. That is also not going as swimmingly as hoped because there is already a duke of Bavaria who is not best pleased that Henry starts gathering support in his duchy. Henry manages to get some important nobles and bishops to join his banner, but by no means the whole duchy.

This is not going too well for Henry. In his masterplan he should by now be mustering a large army to fight the Slavs, the Western front should be calm and gradually the remaining neutrals in Bavaria, Franconia and the important archbishop of Mainz should come to his banner. Instead, he does not even have enough troops to bring down the renegades in Asselburg.

What further tilts the game is that Willigis, archbishop of Mainz declares for Otto III and the three ladies. The Archbishop of Mainz is not only the most important churchman in Germany he is also by law and tradition the one who anoints the true king. Willigis had anointed Otto III and when Henry declared his intention to cast Otto III aside, it challenged the archbishop’s spiritual powers. Plus, Willigis was a crafty operator and realised that Henry’s chips were down. Willigis makes himself the ladies’ champion and sends notice to Pavia that it is safe for them to come to Germany and claim the guardianship over Otto III.

Henry still thinks his control of the child and support in Saxony and Bavaria gives him the upper hand and calls the opposing barons led by Konrad of Swabia and Willigis of Mainz to negotiate in Burstadt in May. Negotiate they did and despite all his charm and rhetoric, Henry cannot convince the barons of his claim to kingship. In the end he realises the only way to avoid a war that he would invariably lose, was to promise to hand over the boy king to his mother when she comes to Germany in June.  

At a meeting in Rohr on the 29th of June 984 all the protagonists are finally in the same place. The three ladies, Empress Theophanu, Empress Adelheid and the Mathilda of Quedlinburg, Archbishop Willigis, Gerbert of Aurillac and duke Konrad of Swabia all for the Ottonian party and on the other side, just Henry the Quarrelsome with his ward Otto III.

Henry had used the intervening weeks in an attempt to rally the duke of Bohemia and his Saxon supporters but finally realised that this would not happen. All he achieved was letting Meissen fall into the hands of the Bohemians. On June 20th he sends his followers home and arrives at the royal assembly alone with his ward, now 4-year-old Otto III.

He may have given up hope to be made king alongside Otto III but his hope was still to at least keep the guardianship. Under Germanic law he might still have a right to the guardianship despite all that had gone on before.

That is where our friend Gerbert brings it home for good or ill. Gerbert argued that under Roman law guardianship goes to the mother as long as she has not been remarried. And, Gerbert argues, Roman law applies here because Theophanu is a Byzantine princess and therefore subject to byzantine aka Roman law, and so is her son. That argument wins the day, albeit at a cost. The cost being that Otto III is now officially classed as a non-German, a notion that ultimately sticks as he becomes more and more Romanoi…

For now, the ladies have won, Henry has lost, and he hands over little Otto to his mother and grandmother.

He tries for another year or so to gather supporters in Lothringia and Bavaria but ultimately has little success. He even tries to bring king Lothar of France back into his camp but in the end he had to plead for forgiveness and succumb again to the three ladies and the boy king in Frankfurt at the end of the same year. Then, and only then was he received back in the bosom of the family and had the duchy of Bavaria, minus Carinthia, returned to him.

At easter the coming year little Otto III held a coronation meal where the major dukes including Henry of Bavaria had to serve him at table. Like his father, Henry was from then on no longer Quarrelsome but a loyal supporter of the boy king until his own death in 995.

Control of the empire was put in the hands of a council of guardians comprising Otto IIIs mother, the empress Theophanu, his grandmother Adelheid, Bishop Willigis of Mainz and bishop Hildibald of Worms.

The issue of succession resolved does not mean however that all problems are resolved. King Lothar had taken advantage of the mess and captured Verdun, the key border defence on the Meuse river. The Lothringian nobles remained unreliable since they may not want to be French subjects but have also little interest in being dominated by a German empire. The Slavs are riding high on their success in 983 and threaten the border cities of Merseburg and Hamburg. The duke of Bohemia has a nice time in his newly acquired county of Meissen. And then there is Italy with hostile popes and Otto II’s policy in tatters. You may remember hapless pope John XIV last seen cowering in the Lateran palace when Theophanu fled to Pavia. Well, his end came quickly when bad pope Boniface VII returned with Byzantine and local Crescenti support[1]. Boniface VII put John XIV into the now well set up prison in the Castel Sant’ Angelo where he died 4 months later of starvation or poison. That makes Boniface VII a member of a very exclusive club, the club of popes who have killed more than one other pope. 

All these problems were laid on the feet of Theophanu, our Byzantine princess who chairs a regency council of the wiliest of prelates, her powerful mother-in-law and a crooked bishop of Worms.

If you want to know how she manages that, tune in again next week. I hope to see you then. And if you enjoyed this episode, please tell others about this podcast. Maybe they will enjoy it too.


[1] Norwich, p. 84, Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Death and Life in the 10th century, p.110

Episode 12 – The Regency of Tehophanu and Adelheid

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

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

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

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

  • Holding on to the Duchy of Lothringia,
  • Secure the eastern border and expand where possible,
  • Establish a sustainable rule in Northern Italy,
  • Keep control over the Papacy, and
  • Hold down the powerful dukes, counts, barons and their extended clans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question which bits of the old kingdom of Lothar belongs to France and which bits belong to Germany is a perennial source of conflict that is only really put to bed in 1945. During the regency of Theophanu and Adelheid the Lothringian question was a particularly hot topic for the following reasons:

  • King Lothair of France had been brought up by his father and his mother with the explicit objective of getting Lothringia back. His mother was the wife of Gilbert, the former duke of Lothringia who had drowned at Andernach. And his father named him Lothair after the Lothair who created Lothringia.
  • King Lothair’s archenemy was his brother Charles. Charles had accused Lothair’s wife Emma of adultery with the bishop of Laon. When she was acquitted by a synod of bishops, Charles had been sent into exile. Otto II then threw oil in the fire by making Charles the duke of lower Lothringia – at which point the red mist came down in front of Lothair’s eyes. He took his forces to Aachen, almost caught the imperial couple and occupied the capital of Charlemagne for a few days.
  • And finally © Lothair had managed to occupy Verdun in 984 when everybody was busy chasing  Henry the Quarrelsome around the place. Verdun was and remained for another almost thousand years a key psychological border town between France and Germany. Those of you who have read ahead may remember that the longest battle of World War 1 was fought around Verdun and that it is the original place where a bearded guy shouted “They Shall not Pass” though that was said in French at the time and not by a guy whose future acts left him in good stead in French history. Verdun also became the place where one of the most famous images of Franco-German reconciliation was taken in 1984 – Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl spontaneous holding hands in front of the memorial to the fallen. I digress – massively. In 984 Verdun had not yet become a symbol but was simply an important border city and fortress with a slightly dodgy side hustle in producing eunuchs for the courts of Constantinople and Cordoba. But nevertheless, Theophanu and the regency council needed to get it back. In September 984 the regency mobilises the loyal magnates of Lothringia to make an attempt at reconquering the town, which they seem to have managed by October[1]. Lothar came back in January 985, this time with a large army, allegedly comprising 10,000 men[2]. They surprised the occupiers and managed to capture them. Amongst the captured were the leaders of the Ottonian party in Lothringia, namely the duke of upper Lothringia, the count and the bishop of Verdun as well as others. These guys are then distributed across different fortresses held by the supporters of king Lothar. We are not off to a good start here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective 2 is – Managing the eastern border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The duke of Poland is unlikely to have done this without agreement with the empress and the archbishop of Magdeburg. Miesco had met with Theophanu just months earlier in Quedlinburg, suggesting that the move had been discussed[3]. We also see no mention of any adverse reaction from the German side. Au contraire, the joint operations against the Slavs continue.

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

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

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

To manage Italy Theophanu started by doing the smartest thing she could do. She asked her mother-in-law, Adelheid, who had been queen of Italy since she was 15, who knew everybody and who owned vast tracts of land in Italy to run the country for her grandson. There is not much documentary evidence of her rule of Italy, but if we look at the end result, Adelheid must have done a great job. When Otto II died, Italy was convulsed by uprisings of the anti-Ottonian party. Supporters of the Ottonians like Pope John XIV and Gerbert of Aurillac were in fear of their life or even lost it. Adelheid arrived in July 985[4] and can relatively quickly put Ottonian supporters back into their former positions[5]. One of the pillars of Ottonian rule was Hugh of Tuscany who ruled not just Tuscany but also the Southern duchy of Spoleto. Hugh was exactly what the Ottonian wanted, an Italian magnate who was integrated into the imperial policy. He was regularly seen at court in Germany, he was even there when Theophanu died. He built himself a palace near the imperial Pfalz in Ingelheim and in most aspects acted like a duke of Bavaria or Swabia.

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

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

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

Which gets us to part 4 – controlling the papacy.

Policy towards the papacy breaks down into two separate components.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What further accelerates the trend is the growing importance of the reform monasteries. Reform monasteries came about because discipline in monasteries had become lax, as it did ever so often. The most important reform monastery in the period was Cluny. Cluny was founded in 910 in Burgundy. By the 990s it has become a spiritual superpower.  Thanks to their ascetic life, care for the poor, regular prayers and celibacy they monks of Cluny became the members of the church lay people both aristocrats and peasants looked up to. Cluny had the privilege to found daughter monasteries that reported back to Cluny. By the end of the 12th century there were nearly 1000 monasteries that reported back to the abbot of Cluny. These reform monasteries sit at the heart of the more and more intense piety that will dominate the high middle ages and drive the crusades as well as the recovery of papal authority. Adelheid specifically was a huge supporter of Cluny. She founded several daughter abbeys of Cluny, including the abbey of Seltz in Alsace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her significance to the abbey of Cluny and its reform program was such that abbot Odilo of Cluny, who we will meet again soon, wrote her autobiography shortly after her death. He paints her as a saintly figure who triumphs over adversity because of her faith and good deeds. In 1047 she was canonised by Pope Urban II and her grave in Seltz became a place of pilgrimage.

That makes it even more depressing to look at where she is supposedly buried. Her monastery at Seltz has disappeared in the Reformation and her remains were transferred to the parish church of Seltz. That church was heavily damaged in the Second World War and the rebuild in the 1950s may not be to everyone’s taste. Her grave is now lost and even the Office de Tourisme of Seltz hardly mentions her.

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

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


[1] RI II, 3 n 956y2

[2] RI II,3 n. 962g

[3] RI II,3 n. 1028d

[4] RI II,3 n. 972a

[5] RI II,3 n. 972c

Episode 13 – Otto III the Wonder of the World

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 13 – Otto III the Wonder of the World

I hope you all had a nice easter break and are now ready and eager for more German history.

This is going to be a bit of a weird one. Otto III is one of the most contentious subjects in German medieval history. The problem is not so much the facts, though some of it is in dispute. What people disagree most about is the why he did the things he did. Otto III took so many guises as he experimented with the concepts of imperial power that following generations were able to project almost whatever they wanted onto him. So we are now left with an emperor who is more made up than any love island contestant.

I have read several books about him in preparation of this episode, some very recent, some fairly old and I found myself at times very much befuddled. Whereas for Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great and even Otto II the underlying perception and objectives are fairly clear, there is no general consensus not even on the broad outlines of Otto III’s political  views and objectives. Hence what you will hear now is very much my best effort at interpreting his actions, not an unassailable set of facts. Almost everything has been argued over ferociously leaving a field of historical debris to sort through. For a narrative podcast like this one, that means I have to put the pieces together in some form, a form that likely ends up disagreeing with everybody. If you disagree with my conclusions, or find me having got my facts muddled up, let me know. I do not mind at all. The purpose of this podcast is not to give you the be all to end all in German history but to get you interested and engaged. And if that comes at the cost of me being embarrassed, that is a small price to pay and one I am used to paying.

So, end of procrastination,, here is my life of Otto III.

The first thing you need to know about Otto III is that he is very young. He begins his reign aged 14 and though his grandmother remains at hand for another 2 years, he is very much in charge from then on. There is a notion that people in the middle ages had to grow up quickly which is certainly true. But that does however not mean the physiological process of adolescence had been any different. The human brain goes through a fundamental reorganisation process between the ages of 13 to 22. You can see on brain images that the adolescent brain does not engage the pre-frontal cortex the same way an adult does. The Prefrontal Cortex is the bit that constrains emotional reaction by emphasising rational decision making. That does not mean that adolescents lack the ability to take rational decisions, but it means that in emotionally laden situations, e.g., under peer pressure or on the promise of a reward the balance will swing towards taking risky or extreme decisions[1]. This is the case in many other mammals as well, suggesting it has an evolutionary purpose, allowing the young to experiment with extreme positions. If you want to hear more listen to Dina Temple-Raston podcast “What were you thinking”. That really opened my eyes to how different the adolescent brain operates and why adults stand aghast before some of the decisions or opinions teenagers come up with.

The second thing that is important is that he had a very unusual upbringing not just by medieval standards. He spend a lot of time with his mother, who after the experience with Henry the Quarrelsome did not let him get out of her sight except for when she travelled down to Rome in 990. Not only that but his mother herself was extremely unusual as you know. She will have told her son about the splendour of Constantinople and its powerful emperors to her son. Constantinople at the time had half a million inhabitants 20 times the size of the largest German city, it had functioning aqueducts, fountains, vast squares, a hippodrome holding 100,000 people and an imperial palace covering 200,000 square feet. The emperor is all powerful, largely in control of his nobles thanks to his tax income and the leader of the church, the Patriarch,  is appointed by the emperor and usually acts in synch with the ruler. Otto learns Latin and Greek from her and from her sophisticated entourage. Her court included many Byzantine nobles and priests like Johannes Philogathos who could give him even more detail about the sophistication and learning of the ancient Roman civilisation. In the process Otto III became one of the best educated political leaders of the middle ages, and if he had lived long enough might be seen on par with Alfonse the Wise of Castile of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.

After his mother’s death his education is taken over by his grandmother Adelheid who adds a deep understanding of his grandfather Otto the Great’s reign. He spends a lot of time in Charlemagne’s Pfalz in Aachen. Check out the 3D reconstructions of the complex and you realise that this was not a medieval castle at all. It was built more like a Roman villa of antiquity with internal courtyards and colonnades.. It’s beautiful chapel was built with Roman columns brought over from Ravenna, it is covered in golden mosaics appearing in most aspects like an imperial Byzantine church, not like the Romanesque churches built during his own period.

All this is a long way from the upbringing of most of his nobles  who were steeped in Germanic tribal traditions focused on individual bravery in warfare and elected leadership.

Otto gradually takes over effective rule in 994 having been declared of age at a royal assembly. This is not an abrupt break but more of a transition where the regency council remained closely involved for at least the first 2 years.

Otto III has the advantage that he can skip the traditional conflict over who rules the kingdom that all his three predecessors had to go through. That process had already been concluded when he was a small child and thanks to careful management by the regency, everything stayed calm during the transition. Henry the Quarrelsome died in 995 and he urged his son, also called Henry to remain loyal to his king. We will get to know this Henry a lot better in the future but for now it is enough to know that he is loyal to Otto III and for that is rewarded with the duchy of Bavaria.

 In these first two years he continues his mother’s and grandmother’s policies, which means  regularly raiding the Slavic lands east of the Elbe –as before  in close coordination with the Poles.

Just a word on France, which was an important part of his mother’s reign. As we mentioned last episode, the new French dynasty of Hugh Capet is -at leat for now- more interested in consolidating their position in France than in reconquering Lothringia. Part of that consolidation process was an attempt to take control of the important archdiocese of Rheims. King Hugh and his successor Robert II wanted to replace the current archbishop with Gerbert of Aurillac – you remember that genius polymath of the 10th century. That plan runs into all sorts of issues with canon law. The imperial government is trying to resolve the issue by organising a synod of German and French bishops under the leadership of a papal legate. That synod was ultimately boycotted by the French side, allegedly because Otto III had planned to capture and murder the French king(s) on their journey to the synod. Teenager, ay or maybe not true at all. What is important is that the dispute over Rheims did not escalate militarily.

That means the home front is stable and Otto III can look down to Italy. You may remember Pope John XV. That is the one who reigned a record breaking 11 years by operating a precarious balancing act between the local rulers of Rome, the Crescenti, and the imperial forces North and South of the holy city. Well, in 995 he seems to have fallen off his tightrope, had to flee Rome and asked Otto III for help.

As per standard process, Otto III  musters an army in Regensburg in 996. Hurrah, Adventure awaits!

From Regensburg Otto takes his troops down to Italy where he arrives in April. In the meantime, Pope John XV had died. The Crescenti make a short-lived attempt to elect one of their own as pope John XVI.  It seems the population of Rome was not that keen on a siege by imperial troops and make this pope disappear so quickly, we do not even know who this John XVI actually was, no name, nothing.

The Senate of Rome then sends a delegation to Otto III and asks for advice about who should be elected pope. Otto III does not bother much with the advice bit and appoints his cousin Brun, the son of the duke of Carinthia to become pope. Brun was a chaplain in the royal chancellery, i.e., a close political advisor to the king. He was also just 24 years of age, making him one of the 4 youngest popes in history.

He took the name Gregory V, presumably because pope Bruno would not really work. He travels ahead to Rome, gets consecrated, moves into the Lateran palace all on the strength of the imperial spears. A few days later Otto III comes to St. Peter where Gregory crowns him emperor. 

Christendom is now in the hands of two young cousins, one 16 years of age and the other 24. It is the dawn of a new age. Pope and Emperor joined at the hip – just as they do it in Constantinople.

To demonstrate that new unity of temporal and spiritual rule, Otto and Gregory hold a great synod of bishops from across Europe to discuss all open ecclesiastical matters of the old Carolingian realm. To demonstrate how joined up this new system is, Otto and Gregory jointly chair the synod and Otto even signs papal Charters as the Advocate of the Church of St. Peter.

At the synod Otto meets two men for the first time who will play an important role in his life from here on. The first we already know, Gerbert of Aurillac and the other is Saint Adalbert of Prague.

Gerbert had come to Rome to gain approval for taking over the archbishopric of Rheims as per the French king’s demand. Whilst his efforts ended up being fruitless, he did make a speech that impressed the synod and Otto III enormously. Otto III must also have known about the role Gerbert played in rescuing his reign and life in 984 and so may have felt an obligation towards him. He invites Gerbert to become his teacher and political advisor to, in his words, help him overcome his Saxon rusticity and acquire Greek sophistication.. There are no reports about whether these words were said in public, but I can only imagine how that must have gone down with Otto’s army who were sitting in a sweltering city full of disease whilst their newly crowned emperor kid just dissed them as country bumpkins..

The other person Otto is excited about is Adalbert, bishop of Prague. He is the diametrical opposite of Gerbert. Gerbert is a sophisticated political operator and a proto scientist with wide ranging interest in the natural world. Adalbert is a deeply religious man who leads an ascetic life of prayer. He had to leave his seat as bishop of Prague because the locals did not take kindly to his excessive piety, or more precisely his idea that the wealth of the church should serve the poor. It also did not help that Adalbert’s powerful family was opposing duke Boleslav of Bohemia. Things had come to a head when Adalbert tried to stop the mob from lynching a woman accused of adultery by sheltering her in his church. Adalbert fled to Rome and did what he really wanted to do, which is commit himself to prayer and extreme forms of ascetic exercises as a monk. But that was not to be. He was dragged in front of the Synod because as a bishop he was not allowed to abandon his flock for the delights of regular prayer, fasting and self flagellation . Under canon law the link between a bishop and his diocese was an eternal bond like marriage that could not be broken. And that went both ways, i.e., as long as Adalbert was alive no new bishop of Prague could be appointed. That is why Adalbert’s superior, Archbishop Giselher of Magdeburg insisted on Adalbert going back to Prague.Giselher did not care much that Adalbert would almost certainly be killed upon arrival in Prague, like all the other members of his family who had been massacred by the duke.  Quite frankly that was all for the better, because Giselher could then appoint a new, more reliable bishop. Gregory V sided with Giselher and Adalbert was ordered to go back.

Otto was mightily impressed with the bishop’s piety and from then on spent a lot of time with Adalbert discussing religion and praying – I mean a lot of praying.

Otto leaves Rome at the end of May and goes to Ravenna as he said for health reasons.

Gregor V had to stay behind. Most historians believe that at this point the unity between the emperor and the pope already cracked. The two men began falling out over the Ottonianum and the Constantine donation, the documents that conferred the temporal rule over central Italy to the popes and specifically the rule over the Emilia Romagna and Ravenna. You may remember that way back in part 2 of the Prologue I mentioned that Pippin the Short, king of the Franks and father of Charlemagne had donated the Emilia Romagna to the pope, even though he did not own it. Otto the Great had reconfirmed the rights of the pope in a document called the Ottonianum That I  mentioned in Episode 7. Beyond the land grant the Ottonianum also declared the pope being somehow subordinated to the emperor.  Basically the Ottonianum had made things even more convoluted than they already were,, making it easy for pope and emperor to fall out. Even though Gregory was entirely dependent upon Otto’s support, It may have made sense for him to establish a more independent profile by taking a stance on the possessions of the church. That is not the same as a breakdown of the unity. My take is that Gregory and Otto are still largely in synch despite the occasional tiff..

Otto III had returned to Germany in the autumn with Adalbert and Gerbert in tow. In Germany Otto resumes the peripatetic lifestyle of a Ottonian ruler, moving from one royal palace to the next. At Christmas 996 we find them in Cologne celebrating a momentous event. King Waik of Hungary is getting baptised as Stephen, or later known as Saint Stephen of Hungary. The baptism is performed by Adalbert of Prague and Otto III stands as godparent over the Hungarian king who is five years older. To tighten the link Stephen marries Gisela, daughter of Henry the Quarrelsome and sister of Henry Duke of Bavaria. Furthermore he is offered a contingent of Bavarian knights that help him to crush his domestic pagan rivals, making the shift to Christianity permanent. With that the Magyars who were feared raiders just 40 years earlier enter the political systems of Western Europe.

The peace with Hungary has the knock-on effect that the hitherto largely uninhabited buffer zone between Hungary and the empire can be repopulated. We now know this former desert as Austria. Technically an Eastern March  was founded in 976 but it is from around the 990s on that an initially small and impoverished county begins its’ inexorable rise to become a world power where the sun never sets. In 996 Otto III issues the first ever document that mentions Ostarrichi or Austria.[2]

Adalbert is still under orders from the pope to go to Prague when Otto finds a compromise. The pope will allow him to give up his post as bishop of Prague if he would go as a missionary to Poland. Adalbert sets off for Poland, where a new duke, Boleslav the Brave has succeeded his father. Boleslav welcomes Adalbert with open arms and suggests a mission to the Pruzzi, a pagan tribe living on the Baltic, north east of Poland. There Adalbert goes, does a bit of self-flagellation and preaching of the gospel, and is promptly taken for a Polish spy and killed. And that is how the Pruzzi or Prussians make their first appearance in the history books – around the same time and in connection with the same saint as the Austrians.

Boleslav the Brave of Poland is terribly embarrassed and promptly ransoms the body of Adalbert as well as his surviving brother from the Pruzzi. He brings the body of Adalbert to Gniezno (Gnesen in German) where he is buried in the main church. When Otto hears about the death of his friend and spiritual guide, he is clearly shaken, having encouraged his friend to go to Poland in the first place. Otto instantly began creating shrines and altars for the memory of Adalbert.

Meanwhile in Rome, the pope Gregory despite standing up for the rights of the church does not find any support inside the holy city. Once Otto’s mighty army had turned towards the Brenner pass, the actual ruler of Rome, Crescentius II returned and threw Gregory out. Gregory tried to regain the city with the help of the key Ottonian allies, Hugh of Tuscany and Konrad of Spoleto, but it fails. Gregory spends the next few months wondering about the place with no fixed abode.   

Meanwhile in Rome, Crescentius II declares the “election” of Gregory V null and void and the Romans elect Johannes Philagathos to become pope. We have met him before. He was one of Theophanu’s closest advisors and Otto III’s teacher. What made him change sides is a bit unclear, but he had been side lined by Adelheid and even after Otto had taken over seem to have struggled to get back into the imperial favour.

We now have two popes at the same time. This begins another tradition in the relationship between pope and emperor during the middle ages, the regular Schisms. We may look at these things as just power battles, which to a degree they were. However, for the people of the middle ages, they were terrifying. If your priest had been ordained by a bishop whose own ordination was invalid because it had been undertaken by the wrong pope, was your confession valid. If you had not confessed properly, could you still go to heaven? And we are approaching the year 1000, the time when the apocalypse is supposed to begin. Just on the year 1000, the perception to the degree it existed was not that on the 24th of December 1000 on the dot the world would end. That makes little sense since that is the day of Jesus birth. It was more likely the apocalypse begins a 1000 years after Jesus crucifixion which may mean April 1033, but again that could also be out by a couple of years. So “the year !000” was actually a moving feast sometime broadly between 1000 and 1050. That means for the contemporaries by 997 we are entering the danger zone whilst the church is divided by the schism.

For now, Otto cannot do much about this apart from sending angry letters to Rome. He does have an army, but that army has been convened to fight the Slavs in the east not the Romans. The campaign in 997 did not really go very well as rival commanders including nasty Archbishop Gislher squabbled and got beaten by the Slavs. That meant the whole thing dragged on much longer than expected. Only towards the end did Otto himself take command of the final raid that which at least looked like a success. 

The Slavs sorted Otto can finally gather troops to return to Italy. He crosses the alps in the middle of winter 997, which means he must be in a real hurry. He rapidly descends via Verona, Pavia, Cremona and Ravenna down to Rome, where he arrives in February.

The inhabitants of Rome panic and open the gates. Johannes Philagathos or pope John XVII as he calls himself decides it is time to split from the Crescenti and looks for ways to get clemency from the emperor.[3] No luck on that front. Once the imperial soldiers find the unlucky Greek, they blind him and then cut off his nose, tongue and ears. The terribly mutilated man is then brought before a synod that deposes him. He is ceremoniously stripped of his vestments, his pallium is broken and he is driven through the streets of Rome sitting backwards on a donkey holding the tail of the beast as its reins[4]. Contemporary sources are shocked by this treatment of a man who was godparent to both the emperor and the pope and if not legally the pope, he was still the consecrated archbishop of Piacenza. Otto III is getting publicly rebuked for this by a hermit called Nilus, who curses  him by saying that unless he forgives those he holds in his power, neither will the holy father forgive him for his sins. Not great PR.

But the slaughter does not end there. The real instigator of the rebellion was still around, Crescentius II. He had fled to the Castel Sant Angelo, the former mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian that over the previous 800 years has been turned into an impregnable fortress. It had witnessed the famous defence against the Goths in the 6th century and since then had been impossible to capture. Otto had the Castel surrounded but did not really attack it for the next two months whilst he is waiting for special siege engines. As is customary in the period the parties began negotiations during the siege, however they fail to agree. What then happens is unclear. According to Thietmar of Merseburg some super-smart siege engine is deployed that allowed the imperial troops to enter and overpower the defenders. At the other end of the spectrum is the story  by Italian chroniclers that Crescentius had come in for negotiations and on his return the Germans broke the truce, attacked and forced themselves through the gate.

Despite my general Germanness, there is something odd about the Vorsprung durch Technik thesis. The Castel Sant Angelo had remained impregnable for the rest of the medieval period and even Renaissance armies 500 years later failed to take it. It is not clear to me what unusual design could have overcome the defences and why the knowledge had not been preserved for when the next emperor comes down to Rome[5].

The way he captured the fortress is not the only thing that would hamper Otto III’s reputation amongst the Romans. Once he has got hold of Crescentius II he has him beheaded and thrown from the battlement of the Castel Sant Angelo for all of Rome to see. His corpse is then dragged to the Monte Mario and strung up from the gallows by its feet. The same treatment is then administered to 12 of Crescentius’ supporters. From then on, the Italians called him Otto the Red and that was not for his red hair.

This gruesome punishment was widely reported across Europe and even unrelated charters in Wessex reference the date of Crescentius beheading. The Castel Sant’ Angelo will for the next 200 years be known as the castle of Crescentius

Why such cruelty? One reason is certainly that Crescentius had already been given clemency by Otto III the last time he had come down to Rome. Awarding it another time would look too much like weakness of the emperor, though it was not unheard of that people were forgiven multiple times.

Another way to look at it was the enormity of the crime. Crescentius had created a schism, not just at any special time, but in the year 997, not long before the year 1000. If a schism is terrifying in and of itself, a schism just when the apocalypse could  start any moment is unfathomable [6].

Having taken back control of Rome, it must have been clear to Otto that his previous approach had not worked. In 996 when he first came down to Rome he handled the situation very much in the tradition of his father and grandfather – go to Rome, get a pope, get crowned, get out. Even in the times of Otto the Great that might not have been sufficient to ensure stability of  the empire. The rapid collapse of Gregory V’s regime in Rome told him in no uncertain terms, that the old model did not work anymore.

He needed to replace it with something new. He is 18 years old and has been brought up with stories about the power of the Byzantine emperors and their capital Constantinople. Is it a surprise that he wants to replicate the empire of the Romans here in its birthplace?

Otto III styles himself on his seals as Otto Imperator Augustus with the motto Renovatio Imperri Romanorum. He is represented on this seal as a mighty emperor, seated on a throne holding the orb and the sword, whilst everyone around him is represented as @a supplicant. That is miles away from the Germanic model of an elected leader linked to his nobles through ties of blood, friendship and prayer. Otto organises his court along Byzantine lines giving Byzantine titles to his chancellors and military commanders. He eats alone at an elevated semi-circular table overlooking his courtiers – like the Byzantine emperor. And most significantly he makes Rome his capital by ordering the construction of an imperial palace on the Palatine hill. The Palatine is where the Roman emperors of antiquity created their enormous residence, a residence so enormous and famous that all imperial residences were called the Palatine, which is where we get our word Palace and the medieval Germans the word Pfalz.

An imperial capital is a concept entirely alien to the East Francian kingdom of Henry the Fowler and even Otto the Great. The kings and emperors were expected to constantly travel around their kingdom, dispensing judgements, making donations and award military or political posts to the local nobles. Having access to the king and emperor was a key element of the power of his major vassals, which makes these journeys so important. How would the empire function with an emperor permanently residing in Rome?

The answer is simple, it would not. The reason the Byzantine empire could have an emperor who was permanently based in Constantinople was tax. The tax income meant that the emperor could award all major military and political positions fairly freely. He even paid the major nobles to live in Constantinople, in the same way as king Louis XIV paid his aristocrats to live in Versailles. Otto III simply did not have the money to pay a standing army or bribe the nobles of the country to live in Rome.

Not being able to raise taxes he needs is another pillar of his reign.

What could that other pillar be? We will find out next week. We will follow him on a trip to the grave of his old friend Adalbert, where he elevates Boleslav the Brave of Poland to, well to what is subject to debate. We will see our old friend Gerbert to be raised even higher as Pope Sylvester II and good old Charlemagne gets literally dug up.

I hope to see you again, and if you enjoyed this episode please let others know about the podcast be that through podcast reviews,  on social media or in the good old face to face technique. 


[1] Brain Development During Adolescence Neuroscientific Insights Into This Developmental Period
Kerstin Konrad
, Prof. Dr. rer. nat.,*,1 Christine Firk, Dr. PhD,2 and Peter J Uhlhaas, Dr. PhD3 Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013 Jun; 110(25): 425–431.

[2]  RI II,3 n. 1212

[3] RI II,3 n. 1259c

[4] To the personal responsibility of Otto III see Althoff, Otto III p.73-75

[5] Althoff, p. 79

[6] Weinfurther: Otto III in Herrrscher des Mittelalters p. 91

Episode 14 – Otto III the Collapse of a Dream

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 14 – Otto III The Collapse of a Dream

Thanks again for sticking around. We are now on episode 14 and if you have listened to all the episodes until now and the three prologues, you have endured a touch over 8 hours of me droning on about long forgotten German rulers – you definitely ooze stamina.

I also need to make a correction. Last episode I said that during Otto III’s first expedition to Rome, Crescentius had appointed a priest as Pope John XVI who we know literally nothing about, no name, no background, nothing. Well, on further review I realised that the reason he is so obscure is because he did not exist. Note 1166c of the Regesta Imperii, where I got this nugget from is -to use a technical term – bollocks. The author struggled with counting pope Johns beyond number XV, so he invented one to make his failed maths add up, and I fell for it…GRRRR. And that also means Johannes Philagathos, the anti-pope Otto III had mutilated and deposed was John XVI, not John XVII – not that he much cared about that additional indignity. Apologies and I will now be super-vigilant to avoid such mistakes in the future, but no promises.

Let’s pick up our teenage hero where we left him last week. He had come down to Rome for a second time to bring his cousin, pope Gregory V back into the holy city from where he had been expelled by the prefect of Rome Crescentius II. Otto III had besieged and captured Crescentius had him beheaded, thrown from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo and finally strung up by his feet at the gallows of Monte Mario.

He then embarked on his most ambitious policy, the Restoration of the Empire of the Romans, which was actually more an attempt at copying the Byzantine Empire. He organised his court and administration along Byzantine lines awarding fancy Greek titles like Logothete and Strategus to his German senior aristocrats and prelates. He even had a Prefectus Navalis, a Lord Admiral, who sadly had no fleet. He also began to style himself as a Byzantine emperor. He dined alone at an elevated semi-circular table. If you take a look at the most famous image of Otto III, the one that I use for the artwork for this series, you see him clean shaven with a Byzantine style crown on his head, much larger than the figures surrounding him, sitting on a throne looking into the middle distance. Now compare that to the picture we have of Otto the Great, his mighty grandfather. Otto the great is shown as an imposing man but similar in height to the people surrounding him, including the figure kneeling in front of him. He has flowing locks, a beard and if you look closely, you can see his chest hair “like the mane of a lion” that he was so proud of. Clearly times have changed, and the emperor had distanced himself a long way from his Germanic roots. There was not a shred of the Primus inter Pares in this ruler.

At the same time as he presents himself as the all-powerful emperor, ruler of the whole world, his life as an extremely devout Christian begins. He makes pilgrimages to shrines where he humiliates himself by walking barefoot in rags up mountains or into cities.

The first of these pilgrimages leads him to the Monte Gargano in Puglia, Southern Italy. The Monte Gargano is the spur of the Boot of Italy, a mountainous peninsula that sticks out into the Adriatic. In a cave near the top of the mountain the archangel Michael is supposed to have appeared to the local bishop. The archangel Michael is the one who on the day of reckoning will divide humanity into those who go to hell and those who will rise up to heaven. Clearly a good guy to be on the right side of. Otto III climbs the mountain on his bare feet wearing a hare shirt regularly declaring himself unworthy and a sinner.

Only a few weeks after his return from Gargano he takes his friend, the bishop of Worms, and locks himself up in a holy cave near Rome to fast and pray. That is followed shortly afterwards by another pilgrimage to a nearby shrine.

This religious fervour will become a constant feature of his live from now on. He maintains a punishing fasting regime where he sometimes would not eat except for Thursdays and is likely to have worn a hair shirt all throughout the rest of his life.  Just for those of you who do not know what a hairshirt is. It is a garment woven from tough animal hair, usually goat, that is really, really uncomfortable. Some extreme penitents would weave in pieces of metal or glass to make the process even more painful.

His next great expedition is to pray at the grave of his old friend Adalbert in Gniezno in Poland. You may remember that Otto’s friend and spiritual mentor Adalbert had been killed by the Pruzzi, the ancestors of the Prussians. After his death Adalbert had almost immediately become revered as a martyr by people in Poland, Hungary, Bohemia and Germany. Maybe with some nudging on by Otto III, a synod in Rome formally canonised him in 999.

Otto III arrives in Poland in the spring of the year 1000 and is welcomed by Boleslav the Brave, duke of Poland. Boleslav pushes the boat out big time for his important visitor. He has his soldiers and nobles arranged in long columns in a field like an enormous choir. His subjects were told to put on all the bling they could find, cloth embroidered with precious metal, fur and shiny armour. This event is basically the Polish equivalent of the field of cloth of gold.

But it is much more than that. According to Polish chronicles Otto III found what he saw far exceeds the rumours he had heard of Boleslav’s wealth and power. And then, upon consultation with his great men, Otto III declared that such an eminent man should not be called merely a count or duke but should be elevated to the royal throne. Then, taking the imperial diadem from his head, Otto placed it on Boleslav’s head in a bond of friendship. And then he gives Boleslav a replica of the Holy Lance with a small shard of the nail of the cross in it.

The German chronicles are not completely in line with this. They do record a splendid reception by Boleslav, a bond of friendship and an elevation of Boleslav to become a “friend and ally of the Roman people”. But crucially they do not record an elevation to kingship.

I am not going to unpick all this here because if I did, the narrative would simply collapse. But do not worry, we will get to it.

After the great gathering Otto and Boleslav proceed to Gniezno, the place where Saint Adalbert is buried.  When he sees the city from afar, Otto gets off his horse, takes off his shoes and his imperial clothes and humbly walks into the town barefoot. At the church he is received by the bishop of Poznan who guides him in, the emperor kneels down in front of the sarcophagus of his friend and mentor, weeps profusely and prays for god’s grace through the intercession of the martyr.

Upon rising Otto declared the elevation of the church of Gniezno to an archbishopric. You may remember that in episode 11 Boleslav’s father, duke Miesco had essentially given the whole of Poland to the Pope as a donation. That had already weakened the link between the archbishopric of Magdeburg which was technically still in charge of Polish bishops. By creating the archbishopric of Gniezno, Otto III removed Poland from the control of the archbishopric of Magdeburg for good. The brother of Adalbert who had been ransomed by Boleslav is made the first archbishop of Gniezno and thereby the first primate of the Polish church. It also means that Poland is now separate from the Empire in terms of ecclesiastical organisation, which makes it easier to become independent in its secular relationships. You see the difference when you look at Bohemia or Czechia, where the bishop of Prague remains subordinated to Magdeburg for longer allowing the empire to integrate the Czechs.

Upon leaving Poland, Boleslav showers Otto III with gifts, including all the gold and silver vessels, goblets, drinking horns, bowls, platters and dishes, the carpets, bedding, towels, napkins, and anything else that had been used in the last three days. But Otto declines them as too valuable. What he does accept though were the 300 armed knights Boleslav threw in as well as an arm of St. Adalbert.

The two men now travel to Germany together, first to Quedlinburg where Otto holds a royal diet and then on to Aachen. In Aachen, the venerable capital of Charlemagne, things are getting ghoulish. Otto III ordered the grave of Charlemagne to be found and opened. When workmen lifted the floor of the imperial chapel in Aachen, they find great emperors last resting place. Let me now quote you the eyewitness report of count Lommo who was there with the emperor:

“He (Charlemagne.that is) did not lie, as the dead otherwise do, but sat as if he was living. He was crowned with a golden crown and held in his gloved hand a sceptre. The fingernails had protruded through the gloves and stuck out. Above him was a canopy of limestone and marble. As we entered, we broke through this. At our entrance, a strong smell struck us. We immediately gave Emperor Charles our kneeling homage, and Emperor Otto robed him on the spot with white garments, cut his nails, and put in order the damage that had been done. Emperor Charles had not lost one of his members to decay, except only for the tip of his nose. Emperor Otto replaced this with gold, took a tooth from Charles’s mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber, and withdrew again.”[1]

 Ok, I told you he would be a bit of a weird one. Again, I will not unpick this right now. Let’s follow the story to the end, take a breath – preferably of fresh air, and look at it then.

After these two rather unusual events, the rest of the trip through Germany is rather uneventful. The only significant matter that preoccupies Otto III in Germany is the re-establishment of the bishopric of Merseburg. You remember that the Slavic uprising in 983, when the Empire lost all its possessions east of the Elbe, was blamed on the blasphemous suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg. The background of that suppression had been that Otto II wanted to make his close friend and advisor, Giselher archbishopric of Magdeburg. But Giselher was already a bishop, the bishop of Merseburg and therefore wedded to his church in an unbreakable bond. Otto II suppressed Merseburg, making his friend free to become archbishop. That apparently upset god quite a bit so that he helped the pagan Slavs to throw off the German yoke.  Anyway, Otto III is now trying to reverse his father’s error. That however requires the bishop Giselher, who is still alive, to admit to the severe allegation of episcopal polygamy, i.e., being bishop of two diocese. Giselher the old weasel had been avoiding a public review of his status with endless excuses but had to accept a general council review in Rome. I will not bore you too much with this, but it matters in so far as Giselher was in no position to object to the creation of the archbishopric of Gniezno and subsequently the sovereignty of Poland.

And it matters because that was pretty much the only thing Otto III did in Germany. Despite almost 2 years of absence there seem to have been little for him to decide or do up north. This may be due to the fact that actually nothing much is happening, and everybody is happy …or the opposite.

And so, Otto returns to Italy is where we find him again in the summer of the year 1000.  

The situation in Italy has not improved during his absence. Do you remember king Berengar of Italy, the tormentor of Adelheid and general pain in the neck of Otto the Great? Well, he had a grand nephew, Arduin who for some reason was allowed to inherit their family fief, the March of Ivrea, after Berengar and his son had been locked up or exiled. That Arduin had now become the focal point of the anti-Ottonian party. These anti-Ottonians were not so much against the Ottonian rulers per se, they were more interested in church land. The Ottonians had, in a similar way to their policy in Germany, based their rule in Italy on the church, specifically the bishops and archbishops. By transferring land and privileges to the bishops the Ottonians could create the powerbase they otherwise lacked. However, the nobles of Italy and, interestingly, the growing urban population of Italy were pushing back. So, every time the Ottonian rulers left Italy to look after their possessions north of the Alps, the Italians start to take back the land from the abbots and bishops. Every time the emperor returns, he forces the nobles give the land back. Under Otto III these judgements to return land had become extremely harsh. At some point he was having a count hanged for stealing church land – quite an unusual and deeply humiliating punishment.

In the year 997 Arduin had upped the ante. Not content with taking the bishop of Vercelli’s land, he took his head as well. In return, by 1000 Arduin had all his own lands confiscated and passed on to the respective bishoprics. But he himself was still at large. When Otto III travelled through in 1000, Arduin’s son had been imprisoned in Pavia. But on Otto’s arrival the boy was allowed to escape suggesting the support for Arduin ran quite deep even in the Ottonian capital of Italy. Otto makes efforts to stabilise the situation and appoints a new margrave of Ivrea, but ultimately the situation remains fragile.

In an attempt to tip the balance in Otto’s favour he is creating close links to Venice. He had already stood as godparent to the doge’s son and had on multiple occasions granted positive judgements to Venice in its disputes with its neighbours. Venice constitutional position was a bit unclear. In principle it was part of the kingdom of Italy, but since Charlemagne had tried and failed to take the city, the Venetians pretty much did as they pleased. Venice is also beginning to build its Adriatic empire capturing cities along the Dalmatian cost. What makes the Venetians an incredibly valuable ally to Otto is their fleet. The empire has no ships at all, which is why it cannot capture the Byzantine cities in Southern Italy and there would be no way they could conquer the Muslim emirate of Sicily.

To strengthen the relationship with Venice he embarks on a cloak and dagger mission. One evening he claims to be ill and retires to his bedchamber in Ravenna. He slips out in the night and boards a Venetian ship that takes him down to the doge’s palace. There he and the doge meet in secrecy and discuss ways of closer cooperation. After three days, Otto III returns by the same way back to his bedroom in Ravenna. The next morning, he tells his friends and followers of the successful mission. What they have though about that is not recorded and if it was, it would probably not be suitable for a family show. To put that in context, it would be not dissimilar to Donald Trump leaving the White House in the middle of the night, getting on a Russian plane and sitting down for a tete a tete with Vladimir Putin and then, against all the odds, being returned safe and sound after three days. So, not the weirdest thing he had done, but close.

Leaving the situation in Northern Italy as it is, Otto III travels to Rome. His cousin, pope Gregory V had died very suddenly in 999, just 27 years old. The rumour in Rome was that the curse the hermit Nilus had thrown at him for mutilating Johannes Philagathos had killed him. Not sure about that, my money is on malaria or some other disease that was rife in Rome.

Subsequently Otto III had appointed none other than his old friend and mentor Gerbert of Aurillac to be the new pope. Gerbert took the title of Sylvester II. That name is quite programmatic. The first pope of this name ruled during the times of emperor Constantine. He was the pope who laid the foundation of the relationship between the pope and emperor. Gerbert’s choice of name suggests he wants to create a new model for the relationship between pope and emperor.

Some key planks of the new relationship are becoming clearer. Otto declares the Constantine Donation the fake, that it undoubtably is. He then hands over the same lands to the pope but on his own free will. This makes the pope his vassal as far as the secular rule is concerned.

Otto further changes his title to “Servant of the Apostles and by the grace of god, the saviour, august emperor of the Romans”. The first part of the title is almost a copy of the papal title, who is the “servant of the servants of the lord”, whilst the second part is the title of the Roman emperors of old and the Byzantine emperors. In other words, Otto III sees himself as the secular ruler as well as the spiritual ruler at least equal or even above the Pope.

Sylvester II then embarked on church reform. He specifically tries to eradicate Simony, the buying and selling of church positions, and enforce celibacy. Like many other churchmen in Otto III’s circle he is influenced by the growing reform movement that is driven amongst others by the monastery of Cluny.

Otto III whilst eating his meals alone on his high table surveying his subjects must feel that things are very much in track. He has brought the imperial capital back to Rome, the church is being reformed in a joint effort of a pope and an emperor joined at the hip. He is creating a Byzantine Imperial bureaucracy with specific responsibilities for different offices. And at the same time, he looks after his soul and the souls of his people by praying and meditating. A Byzantine bride is on her way to Rome so that he can get working on prolonging the dynasty.  

But that was not last.

In January 1001 the citizens of Tivoli a town just 30 km east of Rome rebelled and killed the officer Otto had put in charge there. Otto takes his soldiers to Tivoli and the citizens quickly yield, handing over the murderers to the mother of the victim who forgives them. Otto III is merciful this time.

Not that it helped. A week later the people of Rome rebel. The rebellion includes even members of Otto’s court like the Prefectus Navalis, his chief admiral of the non-existing fleet. The papal administration may equally be involved given the papal reforms.

Things are getting not just tense but threatening. Otto III is surrounded by an armed mob in his newly built imperial palace, whilst his personal bodyguard is spread out across the city in different defensive structures. The larger armies of Henry of Bavaria and Hugh of Tuscany are even further away, camping outside the city walls.

After three days Otto and his men make a desperate attempt to break out. The bishop of Hildesheim took their confession and says a final mass. By nightfall Otto and his small band of friends take up their weapons. The desperate band of maybe 20 men crashes into the mob, following the Holy Lance glinting terribly in the hands of bishop Bernward. And they make it. Whether it was the sight of the holy relic, the sharp swords of the armoured men or the insanity of the whole action, the mob disperses and lets the emperor pass.

The next morning the situation improved a bit. The Emperor’s successful breakout encourages his supporters to come out of hiding. The people of Rome congregate at the tower where Otto is now holding out. From the top of the tower, he makes his most famous address:

“Are you not my Romans? For your sake I left my homeland and my kinsmen, for the love of you I have rejected my Saxons and all Germans, my own blood. I have led you to the most remote part of our empire, where your fathers, when they subjected the World, never set foot. Thus, I wanted to spread your name and fame to the end of the earth. I have adopted you as sons. I have preferred you to all others. For your sake I have made myself loathed and hated by all, because I have preferred you to all others. And in return you have cast off your father and have cruelly murdered my friends. You have closed me out, although in truth you cannot exclude me, for I will never permit that you, whom I love with a fatherly love, should be exiled from my heart. I know the ringleaders of this uprising and can see them with my eyes. However, they are not afraid although everyone sees and knows them.”  On that the mob grabs the ringleaders, beat them half to death and throw them at the emperor’s feet.

Otto returns to his palace on the Palatine, but it would never be the same. His military leaders, Henry of Bavaria and Hugh of Tuscany urge him to leave Rome and after two weeks he relents. The Imperator Augustus sneaks out of the holy city in the middle of the night. They initially camp outside the city hoping to subdue the inhabitants, but the army is too small and the summer heat pregnant with disease is on his way. Otto and Pope Sylvester retreat to Ravenna.

Otto requests more troops from his vassals in Germany which arrive slowly over time. He makes an initial attempt in May/June to take Rome again, but it takes too long, and he has to go back into the mountains to avoid the disease.

Over the autumn things in Germany are getting unstable. The bishops of Hildesheim and Magdeburg have entered into an epic fight over the extremely wealthy abbey of Gandersheim. The quarrel is involving more and more of the German nobles and bishops and at times escalates into military confrontation. As a consequence, sending soldiers down to support Otto’s manic fight over Rome is not high on the priority list of his vassals. There is even talk of insurrection, though the plotters fail to get support from Henry of Bavaria and whatever it was, peters out.

In December 1001 Hugh of Tuscany the main pillar of the Ottonian regime in Italy dies without an heir. His lands are quickly split up between his relatives, none of whom is as powerful and as loyal as Hugh had been.

In the meantime, some of Otto’s closest friends like Bernward of Hildesheim and his brother Thankmar have already returned to Germany.

Despite being somewhat underpowered Otto III marches on Rome. He gets ambushed by Roman troops and retreats into the fortress of Paterno, 60 km north of Rome. Otto begins to feel ill on January 11th, 1002. It is likely Malaria, an illness he may have caught as early as the summer of 999.[2] Despite his weakening state he insists on maintaining his fasting regime.

On January 24th Otto III dies surrounded by valuable but clearly not very effective relics and by some of his companions, including the pope, Sylvester II, his chancellor, Heribert of Cologne and his cousin Henry, duke of Bavaria.

The friends of the dead emperor try to keep his death secret. Heribert of Cologne sends some of the imperial regalia, in particular the Holy Lance ahead, whilst Henry of Bavaria takes command of the transport. He draws in troops from outlying fortresses as they move ahead. However, the news is spreading fast. Arduin of Ivrea breaks cover and his soldiers begin to attack the funeral cortege. Otto’s friends led by Henry of Bavaria fight their way north for 14 days until they finally reach the safety of Verona on February 7th. Behind them Otto III’s political system collapses. Arduin of Ivrea is elected as King of Italy and is crowned in the church of St. Michael in Pavia. Pope Sylvester is allowed to return to Rome, but his reforms are stopped, and he dies shortly afterwards.

And thus ends the dream of the Restoration of the Empire of the Romans.

But what was this Restoration of the Empire of the Romans? Was it real or just a hare-brained scheme of a very, very underfed adolescent?

If you ask two historians, you get three answers to this question. I could try to give you a run-down of the main theories, but that would take me at least an hour. Therefore, I will give you my take:

Otto III saw himself from his earliest days more as a Roman than a German. Roman in this context means Roman in the same way the Byzantines considered themselves Romans – i.e., the heirs of ancient Rome. This goes very deep, all the way back to the time of his abduction by Henry the Quarrelsome where his mother could only secure the guardianship by claiming that she and her offspring were under Roman, not German law.

Therefore, he wanted to create a Byzantine system of government with an all-powerful Emperor, a fixed capital and a functioning bureaucracy. Such a system was so far advanced from what they had in the Ottonian realm that it makes all the sense in the world to try to emulate that.

I said last time that it did not work because he had no tax income. Whilst this is not the only reason, others such as geography, German culture and customs, the role of the Pope and the emergence of Italian city states are others, to my mind it is the reason why even if the other ones had not existed, a simple replication of Byzantium would have failed.

What I do not know is whether Otto III realised that as well. It is quite unlikely he did. I find very little mention of tax in contemporary sources. Saint’s miracles outweigh economics 100 to 1 in the 10th century writing.

Whether consciously or not, Otto III tried to make up for the lack of tax income with another source of effective political power – religious devotion. We are at the beginning of what is known as the time of medieval piety, where people go on crusades to get absolution for their sins, when in the true sense of the word, sky-scraping cathedrals are built, and the church gets reformed. I will put a special episode on medieval piety out in the next few weeks.

Otto III’s extreme devotion, association with saints and hermits as well as his title as “Servant of the Apostles” taps into these developments. Positioning the Emperor as the moral and spiritual leader of the empire is not just a metaphysical position. As history tells, the moral authority of the pope has translated into secular power, land and armies. If Otto could have brought the power of the Germanic kings and the ecclesiastical authority of the pope together, he could have achieved something like a Restoration of the Empire of the Romans, even without taxes. A very different Empire of the Romans, but an Empire, nevertheless, ruled by a priest-emperor.

That is not to say that he did his acts of extreme devotion out of cold-hearted political calculation. I am pretty sure he was fasting and walking up mountains barefoot out of a deep desire to be forgiven for his sins not for material gain.

That notion of a priest-emperor is also what drives his policy towards Poland and Hungary. I cannot say whether or not Otto III really crowned Boleslav the Brave as King of Poland. It ultimately does not matter, because by 1025 Boleslav is definitely King of Poland and Poland itself a sovereign state. What matters more is the relationship between Poland and Germany. Even if Otto had crowned Boleslav to be King, he did see him as subordinate. Otto comes to Poland like an Ancient Roman Emperor making a neighbouring country a friend and ally of the Romans. That makes them a client nation, subordinated to the Empire, but not part of it and ruled by its own king, The Ancient Romans did that using their Legions. Otto III does not have those. He has found a different way. He comes as a pilgrim. His devotion and his rank make him out as a religious authority. And then he hands over a copy of the Holy Lance, not the original, as a sign of both friendship and subordination. That was enough for Boleslav to follow Otto to his, Otto’s, royal diet at Quedlinburg and Aachen. Boleslav presence is as good as paying homage to Otto III. That is what Otto III meant when he said to the Romans that he “led them to the most remote part of our empire, where your fathers, when they subjected the World, never set foot.”

A similar policy is employed towards Hungary – which we did not discuss.  

Did it work? Well, if we look at the situation in February 1002, the answer should be – not really. Or more precisely – total catastrophe.

Next week we will see what and also who will rescue what was left after the collapse. And we will see another priest-king, this time one that lasts longer and ends up an actual saint even if he fights the Christian poles in a coalition with the pagan Slavs. But that concept of the emperor being more and more a religious ruler will remain the great legacy of Otto III.

I know this was a really complex story. You may have noticed that I try to simplify things and frequently link the narrative back to previous episodes. Please let me know whether this is either annoying or whether it would help to have more link-backs. I am trying to find the balance between moving the story forward and not leaving anyone behind.

I am also working hard on a new and better website where I can post more background stuff like maps, photos and additional information which may help. Please have patience, it will come.

Until then, I hope you are still enjoying the podcast and I hope to see you next week.


[1] Altoff p. 105

[2] RI II,3n. 1450IVa

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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