Otto the Great (936-973)


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Otto the Great (936-973 AD) – History of the Germans
Otto the Great (936-973 AD) – History of the Germans

Otto the Great – Germany’s luckiest emperor. Almost destroying all his father had built through his own recklessness he emerges from a civil war as the most powerful ruler the Carolingian empire had seen in a long time. In 955 he comprehensively beats the bane of the age, the Magyars at the Lechfeld. He acquires Italy with arms and charms, gets crowned emperor in Rome and even gets recognised by the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople.
His path is also littered with the most fascinating, powerful and glamorous women German history has on offer – Mathilda of Ringelheim, Eadgith of Wessex, Adelheid of Italy and Theophanu, the not quite real princess from the east.
Never a dull moment!A German history starting in the Middle Ages when the emperors fought an epic struggle with the papacy to the Reformation, the great 18th century of Kant, Goethe, Gauss, the rise of Prussia and the horrors of the Nazi regime. We will end with the post-war period of moral and physical rebuilding. As Gregory of Tours (539-594) said: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” .

Episode 2 – A Dog’s Breakfast
byDirk Hoffmann-Becking

Henry the Fowler ended the tradition of splitting the kingdom amongst the male heirs.  

So far, so wise. But, and there is always a but, what he did not work out was what to do with the spares. And there were quite a few spares about, three in total. How will Henry’s designated heir, Otto I manage?

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Episode 2 – A Dog’s Breakfast
Episode 3 – A Series of Fortunate Events
Episode 4 – A Foe Wherever You Go
Episode 5 – The Father, the Son and the Uncle
Episode 6 – A Conversation with Swords

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

30 second summary

Otto the Great – Germany’s luckiest emperor. Almost destroying all his father had built through his own recklessness he emerges from a civil war as the most powerful ruler the Carolingian empire had seen in a long time. In 955 he comprehensively beats the bane of the age, the Magyars at the Lechfeld. He acquires Italy with arms and charms, gets crowned emperor in Rome and even gets recognised by the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople. His path is also littered with the most fascinating, powerful and glamorous women German history has on offer – Mathilda of Ringelheim, Eadgith of Wessex, Adelheid of Italy and Theophanu, the not quite real princess from the east. Never a dull moment!



Episode 2 – A Dog’s Breakfast

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 2 – A Dog’s Breakfast

Thank you all for coming bac and for all the feedback. I really appreciate that.

Anyway back to the show

Last week we watched King Henry the Fowler’s meteoric rise from inauspicious beginnings to the dominant position within the ancient Carolingian empire. Henry the Fowler’s last and probably most significant act came at the end of his life when he broke the Merovingian tradition of dividing the kingdom amongst the sons of the ruler. Instead, Henry determined that his son Otto and only his son Otto should be king.

So far, so wise. But and there is always a but, what he did not work out was what to do with the spares. And there were quite a few spares about, three brothers to be precise.

The oldest brother was Thankmar. Thankmar was 26 years old, i.e., four years older than Otto. Thankmar was the son of Henry the Fowler from his first marriage.

His mother was Hatheburg of Merseburg. Hatheburg was a, a rich heiress from Saxony. When Henry first met her, he was – at least according to the chronicler Widukind, so “enticed by her beauty and the usefulness of her inherited wealth” that he married her on the spot. That was rash, very rash. Thing is, he did not meet Hatheburg at a debutante ball or at a dinner party in her parent’s house. No, he found her in a convent where she was about to become a nun. As a prospective nun, she could only marry under dispensation from at least a bishop. Blinded by passion, Henry somehow forgot to put the application in the post and, very much to Thankmar’s chagrin, no dispensation has ever been forthcoming.

The lack of dispensation was a bit of a scandal, but nobody really challenged the son of the duke of Saxony. The illegality of the marriage only became an issue after Henry the Fowler’s two older brothers had died and Henry suddenly became the future duke of Saxony.

Hatheburg may have may have been a rich heiress, but was she a rich enough heiress for the future duke of Saxony? Hatheburg had brought a sizeable dowry, the city and county of Merseburg, but there were other, more politically valuable prizes around.

And so, Henry started to burn for another, even better endowed beauty, Mathilda of Ringelheim. Mathilda was top of the tree Saxon nobility being a descendant of Widukind, the enemy of Charlemagne and Saxon folk hero (and despicable coward, but let’s just leave that aside). Her family, the Immedingers were a clan of important Saxon counts and also related to another large clan, the Billunger. Hence much more suitable for Henry, future duke of Saxony.

Hatheburg marriage was swiftly declared null and void, she returned to her convent and her dowry, Merseburg, was casually added to the ducal estate. Poor Thankmar suddenly dropped down from oldest son and future, future duke of Saxony to landless bastard. Best guess is that Thankmar may have held a bit of grudge against his younger brother Otto.

The second brother was named Henry after his father. He was Otto’s younger full brother. Otto was born when Henry the Fowler had only been duke of Saxony whilst his younger brother was born “in aula regis”, which means at a time when his father was already king. Since Henry the Fowler had only just invented the concept of the undivided inheritance of the kingdom, there were no rules yet. We Europeans have been brought up to believe that in a monarchy it is always the oldest son or daughter who succeeds to the throne. But that was not always so.  The Carolingians sometimes recognised horizontal inheritance from brother to brother as is the case in Saudi Arabia today. The Byzantines made a distinction on whether the successor was “born in the purple”, i.e., born during the reign of his father. There was even the concept that the wife would inherit the throne and if she remarried her new husband would become king. To make a long story short, Henry was not without an argument that he should become king instead. Henry was also considered of age, being somewhere between 14 and 16 years old.

To add to Henry’s claims and Otto’s woes, their mother Mathilda may have supported Henry over Otto. That has to be taken with a grain of salt because that information comes mainly from a life of Mathilda written 70 years later when Henry’s descendants had assumed the throne.  But it is not improbable that she preferred her second son Henry over Otto.

You see Mathilda and Henry seemed to have had an almost modern marriage. She had significant influence on events not just for being the wife of the king but on her own account as a leading figure amongst the Saxon nobility. If she had become used to having that kind of influence, she might have preferred the much younger and hence more malleable Henry over Otto. Furthermore, Otto had been married to Eadgyth the granddaughter of King Alfred the Great, a lady of even more formidable lineage than Mathilda. Judging by what has been a consistent trait of this dynasty, Eadgyth may have had a similar relationship with Otto as his mother had with her husband. And in that case, if Otto becomes king, Eadgyth would outrank Mathilda.

Finally, Ottos had another brother, Brun. Brun was only 5 years old when their father died and was destined to join the church – and would forever be Ottos most reliable and most competent ally and confidant.

Things should and may have come to a head during the election of Otto as king, though we have no record of any election. That suggests that the election happened either in Erfurt in 935 when Henry the Fowler was still alive and presumably urged the nobles to recognise Otto. Alternatively, the election took place during the 6 weeks between Henry the Fowler’s death and the coronation in Aachen. In the latter case the election may well have been a lot more contentious than Otto’s chroniclers imply. Young Henry’s legal claim and his formidable mother’s connections should have made for a close result. But and that is not really in doubt, Otto was ultimately elected to become king.

It would have been a rather uncomfortable family gathering in Aachen in August 936 for Otto’s coronation. Well, very much “would have”, since young Henry was made to stay behind with his tutor in Saxony to “catch up on some homework”. And Mathilda decided she would rather tend to the convent she built upon her dead husband’s grave in Quedlinburg than to attend her eldest son’s inauguration. So, a grumpy Thankmar and little Brun were the only family members present.

Otto’s coronation was the diametrical opposite of his father’s low-key event in Fritzlar 17 years earlier.

Firstly, the coronation took place in Aachen the capital of Charlemagne and spiritual centre of the mighty though largely defunct Carolingian empire. The palace in Aachen was the largest structures north of the Alps. Its Palatine chapel, which I strongly suggest you visit is an octagonal two-story building modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Inside Charlemagne had erected ancient Roman columns brought up from Rome and Ravenna. That is a vastly different backdrop to a coronation compared to the more workaday royal castle in Fritzlar.

Outside the church in the palace courtyard, Otto is being hailed king by all the assembled magnates of his realm, all the five dukes, the leading bishops and a throng of counts, abbots and other potentates.

Then Otto enters the cathedral led by the archbishop of Mainz the common people get a chance to acclaim him as well.

During the mass, the archbishop of Cologne then invests him with the insignia of his office, the sword, the mantle and the orb. More bishops come and anoint and consecrate the new king. The crown is laid on his head under recitation of prayers and singing. And, in the climax of the ceremony, Otto wearing all the insignia of his rank, climbs the steps of the throne of Charlemagne and sits down.  

That does not look like the inauguration of a first amongst equals. This is the coronation of an absolute monarch who intends to rule like Charlemagne with an iron fist. It shouts out loud – no more friendship agreements, no more negotiations – I am the ruler.

Since Otto wants to rule like Charlemagne, he needs three things, overwhelming military might, political experience and luck in battle. There were two things we know Otto sadly lacked, which were overwhelming military might and political experience. We will see about the luck in battle.

Otto’s military power was based mainly on the resources of his duchy of Saxony. His father could also draw on the resources of Franconia thanks to the pact the two dukes had made at Henry’s coronation in 918. Let us assume for arguments sake that this pact also extends to Henry’s successor. That is two duchies out of five, a large power base, but not an overwhelming one.

And then our friend Otto was probably between 22 and 24 years old when he ascended the throne. His father had not entrusted him with any major roles or endeavours whilst he was still king. Otto was essentially entirely green, or to say it with Lord Percy in Blackadder, he was a nugget of purest green.

Otto had inherited a kingdom that was built on a subtle balancing of power and aspirations between mighty dukes, haughty counts and wily bishops held together by agreements of friendship and mutual support. This is not a modern state or even the Roman empire where state institutions and bureaucracy stop the structure from complete collapse should the ruler seriously misstep. And that is exactly what Otto will do over the next five years – one massive misstep after another.

The first of those was to eliminate his mother Mathilda from the imperial power system. On the one hand it is likely that Mathilda had been a supporter of his brother Henry’s claim to kingship, on the other she is a powerful player in her own right. Otto needs to tread carefully. By law and by tradition, she should have been at least made the warden of his father’s memory and as such should have become the abbess of Quedlinburg, the convent that was created over Henry the Fowler’s grave. That does not sound too bad, right. She gets a rich abbey that keeps her busy, so she will be mostly absent from court. Solid compromise I would say.  So, Otto went for it, and he went for it full tilt – no abbey, no presence at court, not even a royal pension. Mathilda disappears from the records which means she is likely to have been exiled to one of her family’s possessions.

As he was already doing some cleaning up, he went on to the next agenda item. Still in the year 936 Otto decided to resume fighting with the Slavic tribes on Saxony’s eastern border. Command of the expedition should by tradition have gone to Wichman Billung a powerful Saxon noble who was highly regarded for his military skill. Wichman Billung was also married to Mathilda’s sister Bia. Never holding a grudge, Otto decided to give the command to Wichman’s younger brother, Herman Billung instead.

With this Otto had quite blatantly disregarded the unwritten aristocratic code and rights and privileges that the previous generation had earned from his father. The Saxon nobles who had already raised an eyebrow over the treatment of queen Mathilda are now getting properly restless.

A first indication of things to come was when a Saxon noble and distant relative of Otto named Ekkehard felt so desperate about his prospects under the new regime that he charged the Slav army alone with just 18 companions to “either find glory or die in the pursuit”. Needless to say, his search for glory ended in the mud east of the Elbe river.

In the meantime, Bohemia, which is roughly the area of today’s Czech Republic took advantage of the rising instability of the German kingdom and shook Otto off as their overlord. Otto sent an army to bring the duke of Bohemia back to heel, but that endeavour failed.

To top it up the Hungarians came back. Otto’s father had beaten them at the battle of Ried with a unified German army recruited from all the duchies. Otto was only able to muster his own Saxon troops. The other dukes and major nobles must have got the message from the coronation ceremony and refused to help this pretentious young upstart. They did not want a new Charlemagne, even if that meant letting the Hungarians burn the land.

The third mistake came, when he tried to reverse the first mistake. In 937 Otto saw that his antagonism to his mother and brother had created more hassle than it was worth. He finally made his mother Abbess of Quedlinburg and called Henry back from his schoolwork to come to court.

And instantly Henry got to work. Just wait.

It starts with an otherwise quite insignificant court case involving duke Eberhard of Franconia. Do you remember Eberhard? He was the brother of King Konrad the First who gave up his claim to the crown allowing Otto’s father to become king. In the following decades Eberhard was one of the stoutest supporters of the regime. As a reward his extended family called the Konradiner after king Konrad became the most powerful clan after the royal family. King Henry the Fowler made one of Eberhard’s cousins duke of Swabia, so that the family controlled two out of the five duchies. In summary Eberhard is a big deal, like a really big deal. Like a 2/5th of the kingdom big deal.

The calamity started when one of Eberhard’s vassals a certain Bruning refused to pay him homage and declared he would prefer to serve the king, and only the king. Eberhard went to Bruning’s castle and burned it down. Bruning complained to Otto, and Otto decided in favour of Bruning.

Why? Eberhard’s vassal had rebelled, and he had put him back in his box. What was wrong with that?

What was wrong, was young, and recently readmitted to the royal grace, brother Henry.

Henry had possessions nearby and seems to have encouraged Bruning to rebel. Why did Henry do that? What is he trying to achieve? Hard to say, but by what we will learn about him in the next few episodes, it was either part of an immensely complex and sophisticated plan, or he just did it for a laugh. He is a teenager, he is 16!

Otto could not see the funny side. Otto had to make the choice between his brother Henry who he just reconciled with and his father’s old friend and #2 in the kingdom, duke Eberhard.

If Otto prioritised the stability within the family over the justified demands of his most powerful duke there would have been a way to get that done. Some sort of judgement on procedure, an under the table compensation and a word man to man about you know, the kiddo.

But no, Otto went in deep.

He decided in favour of Bruning and ordered Eberhard’s men to carry dogs all the way to Magdeburg. Yes, carrying dogs, you know the four-legged animals known as men’s best friend.

That was a horrific punishment. In the medieval world where books were rare and newspapers unknown, images replace facts. If something looks like a unanimous election of a king, it is a unanimous election of the king. Important events are staged to create the right impression, like the elaborate reconciliation rituals of rebellious nobles who are raised up after prostrating themselves before the king.

So, not that different to today where we exchange views more and more through heavily curated pictures, videos, memes and podcasts whilst reading less and less text. What events or people or places look like on Instagram and Facebook is more important than what they really are. Rulers stage these events for effect like Vladimir Putin wrestling bare-chested or Donald Trump holding up a bible in front of a church. When powerful people do that today, they are getting memed mercilessly until either the picture or the meme wins out. In the middle ages there were no memes – what the powerful show you is the only picture you will ever see.

Therefore, the image of a fierce armoured knight carrying a pink poodle in his arms is a staged powerful message. It says, Eberhard, duke of Franconia cannot protect his men from being laughed at. For Eberhard this is worse than death, as this picture cannot ever be erased, and people will talk about it – thousands of years later – as we do.

Otto and Eberhard might have publicly reconciled in another staged event, but the relationship was broken. In 938 Eberhard did not show up for the royal assembly at Steele, a deliberate snub at Otto.

At that same royal diet Otto managed to make his fourth mistake. The Southern March of Saxony, an important border county had become vacant. Otto’s half-brother Thankmar believed himself entitled to this post. Not only was he the son of the previous king but also Otto had awarded Merseburg, which was Thankmar’s mother’s inheritance after all, to his brother Henry. So as compensation it would only be fair to award Thankmar the March. However, Otto decided against Thankmar and installed Gero, the brother of the previous incumbent as Markgraf.

Putting Gero in charge of the Saxon March is when Thankmar loses it. Being the oldest son and having to forsake the crown and now not even getting any position in line with his rank was just too much. Too much not just for him but also for a lot of other Saxon nobles disgruntled by the treatment of Mathilda, the elevation of Herman Billung and the judgement against Eberhard.

Thankmar and his companions join Eberhard who is now also going into open rebellion. They besiege the castle of Belecke where Otto’s brother Henry was holed up at the time. The castle falls and Henry is captured. Thankmar sends Henry down to Eberhard who puts him in a presumably comfortable jail cell in one of his castles.

Meanwhile Thankmar and his forces move on to the Eresburg, one of the largest and best defended Saxon castles. Otto’s army follows him there and besieges the castle. Thankmar’s troops lose confidence in their leader and open the gates. Otto’s troops storm in and even though Thankmar throws down his weapons as a sign of unconditional surrender and flees into a church, a soldier runs him through with a lance allegedly through the back. This display of fraternal hatred was for once, not staged.

Eberhard sees that the case is lost and surrenders to Henry, who is still his prisoner. That should have been the end, right. Otto receives his father’s old friend Eberhard back into the royal favour, all is forgotten, and they all live happily ever after.

Not so. You see there is one obstacle here and that is Young Henry. Young, impulsive, impetuous, rash, irresponsible and madcap Henry.

Just as Eberhard stands in Henry’s cell, cap in hand and asking sheepishly for terms, Henry flips the whole chessboard. With a broad smile Henry suggests to bury the hatchet, be friends and go after Otto together.

The cheek of it all! Remember, the only reason Otto and Eberhard have a fall-out, the only reason Thankmar did not get his inheritance were all because of Henry. Otto went through all this to reconcile with his brother. And now brother Henry rewards this kindness by teaming up with the enemy. If Thankmar and Eberhard as the opposing team were a problem for Otto, Eberhard and Henry are an even more serious problem. Eberhard has the guns and Henry has the claim to kingship.

But for now, nothing happens. Eberhard’s troops are exhausted and Henry probably first needs to talk to some people before they can strike. They decide to play for time and Eberhard surrenders, asks Otto for forgiveness and with Henry’s help is welcomed back in the fold.

937 was hence a year to forget for Otto. His half-brother in rebellion and now dead, his brother captured and – though Otto does not know yet – plotting against him.

However, two people die which means two good things happened.

First a certain Dedi dies, who was close to Wichman Billung. That brings Wichman and his Saxon supporters back into the fold with Otto. What, how, why no chronicler explains, but whatever that is helpful for now.

The other, infinitely more important one was the death of a certain Gebhard. Gebhard was a relative of the duke of Swabia which means he was also a relative of Eberhard. Gebhard somehow finds his end in the siege of Belecke, the castle where Henry was captured. We do not know what exactly happened, but something about the way Gebhard was killed so appalled his Swabian relatives, that they broke with Eberhard and their Franconian cousins and sided with Otto and joined Otto for good.

Next week we will see how Henry’s rebellion fares and why it will matter so much that the Swabian dukes and their extended clan stick with Otto in his darkest hour.

I really hope you are going to join us.

And if you enjoyed the show, please subscribe to the podcast on apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts from and any future episodes will miraculously appear in your feed every week, I promise.  And if you are so compelled, you can go even further and leave a positive review which would be really, really appreciated.

Episode 3 – A Series of Fortunate Events

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 3 – A Series of Fortunate Events.

Last week we left Otto at the end of the year 937 thinking he had successfully put down a rebellion by his half-brother Thankmar and would now be able to consolidate his rule, bring peace, build roads and castles and make babies.

Little does he know that his most important vassal Eberhard of Franconia and his younger brother Henry are conspiring against him. But even before that avalanche of manure drops down on him, the year 938 has a couple of other challenges at the ready.

First up we have the traditional annual Hungarian invasion, which was repelled successfully, again without support from the other dukes. Widukind makes this out to be a great success that stopped the Hungarians from coming back to Saxony for 30 years.  That at least would be a nice success in an otherwise bleak year.

In the meantime, the old Bavarian duke Arnulf had died. You remember Arnulf, he was the big competitor in the early years of Henry the Fowler but had joined him in a friendship agreement in the end. That friendship agreement left Arnulf with the right to rule pretty much like a king in Bavaria and do whatever he wants as long as he does not challenge Henry. But his son, another Eberhard, in his arrogance, refused the order of the king to attend the royal court. Otto goes to war in Bavaria and, at the second attempt, replaces Eberhard with his brother Berthold. Berthold is now told that “pretty much whatever you want” no longer includes investing bishops and abbots.

After this campaign Otto is exhausted and his resources are depleted. For the last 2 years he had to pursue civil wars against his brother and his major vassals whilst at the same time having to fight the Hungarians, the Bohemians and the Slavs. He has lost the support of Franconia, which in his father’s time was part of the core power base of his family. His control of the realm is now quite fragile.

And that brings us back to brother Henry. Still burning with a desire to oust his brother and rule himself, Henry holds a great party at his castle in Saalfeld. He invites important nobles of Franconia and Saxony and showers them with gifts. Most likely Eberhard is there as is Friedrich, the Archbishop of Mainz and many of the Saxons who had sided with Thankmar the year before. After the drinking and feasting, Henry gets the nobles to pledge support against Otto. Pledge they did, but then they shied away from making their support public. The failure of Thankmar’s rebellion must have dented the conspirator’s confidence at least a touch. More support was needed. With Bavaria out of the picture and Swabia firmly in Otto’s camp, Lothringia was the one that needs to be brought on board.  Following the advice of his fellow conspirators, Henry departed Saxony, leaving garrisons in all of his strongholds, and came to the Lotharingians in person along with his friends.

Thing is, the brother of the king going to Lothringia without leave was as close to a declaration of war as it can be. When Otto first heard reports of what was happening, he could not believe it. But when he had it confirmed that war was afoot, he led his army without delay in pursuit of his brother.

Otto’s army reached the Rhine river at a place called Birten near Cologne. His army had begun to cross the river, unaware that Henry and a large contingent of Lotharingians were nearby. A few men maybe a couple of hundred had landed from the boats and were just able to mount their horses and put on their armour, when they saw the enemy attacking at speed. There was scant hope for success and with the river behind there was no hope of retreat.  

Otto stood helplessly on the opposite shore without boats to send more troops across or any other means of support. There was only one thing to do. According to Liudprand of Cremona, Otto leapt down from his horse and with all of his army burst into tearful prayer, kneeling before the Holy Lance, you remember the spear that was believed to have the Nails of the Crucifixion embedded in it.

I am not entirely convinced the prayer was the most decisive part of the military strategy. Remember that Otto had to chase after Henry as soon as he had heard about the treason, therefore, his troops were most likely his household knights. These are highly trained, well equipped professional soldiers, not the general levy. These guys knew what they were doing I.e, they knew there was no chance to run and that they were seriously outnumbered. They could have surrendered but dropping weapons without at least an attempt at battle would lead to eternal embarrassment.  Therefore, some effort had to be made.  Here is Widukind of Corvey: “Since there was a fishpond between our men and the enemy, the Saxons divided into two forces. One part attacked the enemy from the front. The other part attacked the enemy from the rear. They crushed the enemy between the two forces so that the few were able to hem in the many. For it is reported that on our side there were not more than one hundred armoured men, and the army of the enemy was quite large. But when they were attacked from the front and back at the same time, the enemy did not decide quickly which side ought to be defended with greater strength. In addition, some of our men knew how to speak the Gallic language. They raised up a great shout in Gallic urging their enemies to flee. Since the enemy thought that it was their comrades who had shouted, they fled as they had been called upon to do.” Note that a bit of schoolboy French can come in handy at times.  

Duke Gilbert and Henry had to flee. Henry was stuck heavily on the arm. The triple mail of his cuirass prevented the sword from piercing his flesh, but the cruel force of the blow turned the skin completely black. In spite of all his doctor’s care that bruise never healed and caused him excruciating pain for the rest of his life.  

The success at Birten was indeed a miracle. For Liudprand of Cremona Birten was proof “clearer than the light of day” that Otto was the rightful king and that the Holy Lance was the item that bestowed the reign and invincibility to its legitimate owner.

In the real world, Henry was now seriously down on his luck. Not only did the Lothringian forces break up, but his garrisons in Saxony and Thuringia opened their gates to Otto’s troops having been told that Henry had fallen in the battle. Therefore, when he raced back to his own lands, he found all but 2 castles barred to him until he reached Merseburg, 450km to the east. By that time, his once mighty force was down to just 9 companions. Somehow, he was able to hold out against Otto’s siege for 2 months, but in the end Henry surrendered. But Henry was not completely defeated.  Otto had to allow him to leave with his troops and the promise of a 30-day truce.

The reason Otto could not close down the rebellion there and then was an uprising by Slavs that required all available troops. What happened was that his commander of the eastern frontier, Gero, had given a splendid feast for 30 of the leaders of the Slavic tribes, at the end of which he had them all killed in their drunken stupor. Only afterwards dawned it on Gero that he did not have enough troops to quell the inevitable uprising that followed. So, Otto had to let Henry go and come to Gero’s aid. Defence of the realm takes precedence over family matters.

Letting Henry go is something Otto will learn to regret.

Whilst Otto was tied up in Merseburg and then with the Slavs, Henry’s position improved suddenly when Louis IV, King of West Francia, aka France got involved. This King of France – like all kings of France before him and all kings of France after him- believed that the duchy of Lothringia should by rights be part of France, as it had been before Henry the Fowler took it off his predecessor. When after the battle of Birten duke Gilbert of Lothringia needed insurance against Otto, Louis happily took him on as a vassal and incorporated the duchy back into France. Duke Eberhard of Franconia saw that the King of France had come in on the side of the rebels and realised it was now or never. He openly joined the rebellion. I mean he had been a silent partner for some time, but now he did show his true colours.

Otto was in really deep, deep doodoo. Of the five duchies, Lothringia and Franconia were in open revolt, parts of Saxony were still silently supporting Henry and the Bavarian duke was anything but a firm ally. Plus, the King of France was backing up the rebels.

Only the Swabian dukes, despite being close relatives of Eberhard of Franconia stood with him – because of that Gebhard thing. What have they done to that guy that was so awful?

There is now a small problem with the chronology. I have been following the story as reported by Widukind of Corvey who tends to be more factual with a lot less involvement of heavenly forces compared to Liudprand of Cremona. According to Widukind Otto is in Merseburg and the border in May 939. According to Luiddrand of Cremona, he is at the other end of the country, besieging Chevremont where duke Gilbert had fled after the battle of Birten. In that chronology duke Gilbert appealed to King Louis IV of France from Chevremont. When Louis the IV mobilised his army, Otto had to raise the siege to confront the king of France, letting duke Gilbert go.

The way to match the stories is to believe that after the battle of Birten one part of Otto’s army pursued duke Gilbert to Chevremont whilst another detachment chased after Henry. That would also explain why Widukind tells a totally weird story about Otto having bribed one of Gilbert’s closest associates to defect. That guy would then attack the fleeing Gilbert first by stealing the duke’s pigs and then by attacking him with beehives.

Be that as it may, by June 939 Otto is racing down to the German/French border in the south believing that a French army led by king Louis himself was heading there to attack his allies in Swabia. That turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since the French king had already turned back. The immensely powerful magnates of France, namely Hugh Capet, William Longsword of Normandy and Heribert of Vermandois had taken against a strengthening of royal power through the acquisition of Lothringia. Hence Louis IV had to abandon his great plan, leaving Otto in principle free to go back to Saxony and sort out the mess.

Nevertheless, Otto decided to stay south, on the border to Alsace and besiege the castle of Breisach that was held by some of Eberhard’s soldiers. Breisach is a massive rock that at the time was in the middle of the Rhine river with fortifications from Roman times on top of it. Breisach was not only near impregnable, it was also a long, long way from the centre of events. What he was doing there is somewhat unclear. Liudprand of Cremona says that Eberhards soldiers harassed the king’s loyal subjects and so the good king considering his people’s interests before his own lay siege to the castle.

This bout of altruism -if that is what it was- did not go down well with his army. As soon as they realised what the plan was, Otto’s allies, namely the bishops started “under the cover of night deserting their king, secretly retiring to their cities”. Otto’s advisors made it clear that should Henry realise how precarious the situation was, he could come down with fresh troops and pin Otto and his forces against the walls of the castle of Breisach with no chance of escape. Otto is unmoved and responds:   If our time has come, let us die like brave man and not cast a slur about our good name” and then gives a rousing speech about honour, righteousness etc., etc., pp.

What is going on? Best guess, Otto has a nervous breakdown. He is utterly trapped between his belief that he is an absolute ruler in the mould of Charlemagne and the reality of being almost alone in a marshy field outside a not very relevant but still totally impregnable fortress. This kind of cognitive dissonance we have become so painfully familiar with in the last four years has been around for a long time.

Though he is clearly a deer in the headlights he has enough grasp on reality that he makes one last attempt at resolving the situation. He started negotiations with Eberhard. He sent Friedrich, Archbishop of Mainz, the highest-ranking bishop in Germany and a relative of duke Gilbert to negotiate a truce. Friedrich of Mainz did just that and swore an oath to Eberhard that he would guarantee Otto’s approval of the terms.

Well, that gave Otto the chance for his last and final blunder. First up, he should have known that archbishop Friedrich of Mainz had been a co-conspirator and confidant of Eberhard. Sending him to negotiate with Eberhard was at best an unusual choice. But that is not all. When the archbishop came back with the agreement, Otto told him publicly that this was not what he had in mind and that he should go back to Eberhard and renegotiate.

The proud archbishop had given his word to Eberhard that all will go smoothly, so having been rebuffed publicly the only way to avoid humiliation was to join the rebellion, assuming he had not done so before. I mean poor Otto – how many allies has he left to lose before you are completely alone? He will soon find out.

That was the starting gun for everybody else to leave the king. He bishop of Strasburg was the last of the bishops still in the camp and he now left. One very wealthy count thought Otto so weak that he sent him a message threatening to leave unless he was given the Abbey of Lorsch, one of the richest in the land, as his personal property. Otto’s reaction: “You shall never receive this, or anything else from me. If it pleases you to join the traitors, the sooner you go the better”.

That could and should have been the end, was it not for Konrad Short’n’Bold (in German Konrad Kurzbold).

Thank god for these nicknames. When half the protagonists are called Henry, Konrad, Otto or Eberhard nicknames the only way to figure out who is who. And they are also brilliant, with Short’n’bold being one of best.

Konrad Short’n’Bold was unsurprisingly a man of short stature, fierce temper, extraordinary bravery and a strong dislike of both women and apples. Even more importantly he was one of Otto’s last remaining allies. Short’n’bold was a member of the branch of the Konradiner family of Swabia that supported Otto because of that unexplained Gebhard thing

Whilst Otto was pointlessly tied up outside Breisach with his ever-dwindling band of supporters, Short’n’bold and his cousin Udo had their lands around Limburg raided by Eberhard and Gilbert the rebellious dukes of Franconia and Lothringia.

Having taken all and everything that was not bolted to the floor, the two dukes were heading home. They had to cross the Rhine near Andernach if they wanted to stow away the booty in the safety of Lothringia.

On the shores of the Rhine, they faced the good old wolf, goat and cabbage problem. Sending the soldiers first means the dukes will have to carry the plunder themselves. Going across first means the soldiers going to run away with the plunder. Well, they went for the worst possible option. They sent the soldiers and the plunder across first and sat down for a meal. Forgotten

Hearing the dukes were barely defended on their shore of the river, Short’n’Bold and his cousin Udo came down – as Liudprand of Cremona said ”as if they were flying rather than running”. Eberhard, who was a cousin of Short’n’bold rose to fight but was hacked to pieces. Gilbert the old schemer jumped on to a boat to make it across the Rhine. The river is running fast across a narrow gap at Andernach, it turned over the boat, and blub, blub, blub down goes the heavily armoured duke of Lothringia.

That changed everything. The manner of their death was seen as an act of god reconfirming Otto’s right to kingship. The nobles who just moments before supported Henry, turned their horses around and rallied to Otto’s banner. The common people took Otto’s side and threw the archbishop and arch-conspirator Friedrich of Mainz out of his city. Henry fled to his new best mate Louis IV in Paris. Louis quickly understood that the tide has turned and sent Henry back post haste.

That was a very narrow escape. Not just narrow, that was an incredibly lucky escape. By rights he should have lost the battle of Birten, but prevailed thanks to well either the Holy Lance or some incredibly competent officer with a plan. When he lay before Breisach, he was on his last leg with nobles leaving him left right and centre. Without that unplanned skirmish at Andernach, Otto’s reign would have ended there and then, and he would be known today as Otto the short-lived rather than as Otto the Great.

But Otto did prevail. Having put down the rebellion of almost all of his dukes and half his archbishops with what clearly must have been god’s help he now held almost total control of the kingdom, or what goes for total control in the middle ages.

And what about his rebellious brother Henry? Making a claim for the throne with sword in hand is not enough to lose a brother’s love and friendship, provided you ask for forgiveness in the proper way. And that he did. Otto received him back into the fold and gave him land and castles in Lothringia. 

But Henry is a schemer and corruptor and hothead and he just can’t stop himself. When in 941 the soldiers on the eastern frontier had been unlucky in battle against the Slavs and hence were short of pay and booty he got another shot at kingship. Their anger with their commander extended to the king who refused to move him on. Henry teamed up with the disgruntled officers and planned to kill Otto during the Easter celebrations in Quedlinburg.  Otto hears about it and waits for the conspirators to appear at court. He has them arrested and beheaded. Henry is locked up in Ingelheim.

By Christmas 942 Henry escapes from Ingelheim and shows up in Frankfurt wearing a hare shirt and asking for forgiveness kneeling in the snow. And what did Otto do? I mean his brother tried not just to fight him honourably in battle, no, he did try to have him murdered in his own home when he was celebrating with friends and family. I do not claim to understand the perceptions of the times, but if this is not a capital offence, I really do not know what is.

And therefore, Otto did what had to be done. He raised his little brother up and embraced him for the second time and 6 years later he makes him duke of Bavaria.

As duke of Bavaria Henry found his vocation. Bavaria was for all intents and purposes a kingdom in and of itself. It bordered Hungary and Bohemia, offering great opportunities for glory and plunder, which Henry became quite adept at.

Maybe the inherent problem of these first years was that nobody knew what to do with the younger sons who did not inherit their own kingdoms. Once Otto found something for Henry to do that gave him status and purpose, he stopped rebelling.

All seems settled now and Otto having beaten all his enemies and risen to the leading position in Charlemagne’s realm should now consolidate his rule, bring peace, build roads and castles and make babies.  Well, that is what he should have done.

Next week we will see what he does instead, which is falling first for another woman and then another country starting the long and terribly destructive entanglement of German kings in Italy. And in between such valiant efforts he finds out that his sweet brother Henry can be an even bigger pain when he is on your side than when he is fighting you.

I really hope you are going to join us.

And if you enjoyed the show, please subscribe to the podcast on apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts from and any future episodes will miraculously appear in your feed every week, I promise.  And if you are so compelled, you can go even further and leave a positive review which would be really, really appreciated.

Episode 4 – A Foe Wherever you go

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 4 – A Foe Wherever You Go.

Thanks a lot for coming back or, if you accidentally started here, welcome to the show.

And I would also like to thank you all for your very useful feedback, please keep it coming. This is my first podcast and there is still a lot I can do better.

Now back to the show.

Last week we watched Otto’s astounding recovery from disaster at the battle of Andernach in October 939. Otto has now successfully broken the rebellion of his brother Henry who was supported by a powerful alliance of the dukes of Franconia and Lothringia, Saxon nobles and a number of senior bishops including that primate of Germany, Archbishop Friedrich of Mainz.  

Otto beat them all, not by superior tactics, exceptional bravery, or military might, no by sheer unbelievable luck. In both key battles, Birten and Andernach, Otto’s troops were seriously outnumbered. By September 939 Otto’s fortune had sunk so low he talked about seeking an honourable death.  That makes the final success at the battle of Andernach nothing short of a miracle.

In the perception of the times this added up to exactly that, an act of god confirming, beyond any doubt, that Otto is the rightful king. And even beyond the immediate impact on Otto’s reign, it sanctioned the constitutional reform of Henry the Fowler that the kingdom should no longer be divided between the sons of the previous king. These two, by all accounts, minor skirmishes put the keystone into the edifice that would later be called the Holy Roman Empire.

Otto used his triumph to move away from his father’s style of kingship to the kind of rule he had envisaged for himself at his coronation in Aachen 5 years before. He did not see himself as a “First Amongst Equals” like his father, he saw himself as a new Charlemagne who ruled as the anointed representative of Christ on earth, controlling both the lords temporal as well as the church itself.

He immediately went to work and reorganised the kingdom. He confiscated Eberhard’s duchy of Franconia, one of the mightiest polities in the realm and added it to the crown estate. The duchy of Lothringia was initially awarded to the previous duke’s son under the guardianship of one of Otto’s closest associates. When that system proved to be too complex for this rather difficult to manage duchy, he gave it to his son in law, Konrad the Red.

As we heard last Episode Otto made his rebellious and murderous brother, and now best mate, Henry into the Duke of Bavaria. Henry had married the daughter of the previous incumbent to make it look a bit less illegal.

And then Otto played the same trick on duke Hermann of Swabia, his most loyal ally during the civil war by marrying his son Liudolf to the duke’s daughter paving the way to a takeover of that duchy as well, which happened in 949.

That means 10 years after the rebellion had been suppressed Otto and his closest family held all five duchies.

The bishops who had joined the rebellion were also subdued. Archbishop Friedrich of Mainz who was one of the main conspirators was put in jail at the abbey of Fulda. Conditions became harsh after letters were found indicating the scheming archbishop was still trying to keep the fight against Otto going. But after a year of penance, he was back in the royal favour. He returned to his bishopric where he remained a pain in the proverbial until his very last breath.

With his house in order, Otto could now turn his interest and resources to foreign policy.

I have posted a map of the Ottonian kingdom on my Facebook page “History of the Germans Podcast”  to make this a bit easier.

Let’s go round clockwise from the north.  The Danes are more or less calm as they prefer raiding the richer and more distant English and French shores. Moving on to the north-east, we have the Redarier, a pagan Slavic tribe. They were beaten in a campaign conducted by Hermann Billung in 936 which stabilised the situation. The same cannot be said for the Slavs living between the Elbe and the Oder rivers which are being instructed in the benevolence of Christianity by Margrave Gero. These pagans really struggle on that learning curve despite the generous application of fire and sword. In the south-east you have the Bohemians, who shook off the Ottonian yoke in 938. Even further south you have the Hungarians who still raid regularly into Italy and southern Germany.  And finally, In the south you have the Italians and then in the south-west the Burgundians, which will take up most of our story today.  Last but not least, you have the Louis King of France, who, like every French king before him and every French king after him, wants Lothringia back.

Let’s start our detailed review with the French.

There is still one of the conspirators in Henry’s rebellion we need to talk about – Louis IV, King of France. Admittedly Louis involvement ended up being more symbolic than practical. However, Otto needed to neutralise him if not for questions of honour than to protect Lothringia.

Lothringia had moved back and forth between France and Germany for more than a hundred years. The Lothringian magnates liked this a lot because it meant they could play the French and the German king off against each other as they pleased. They did that during the rebellion of brother Henry when they asked Louis of France to become their overlord again. Their game failed in 939 when Otto managed to regain control of the duchy shortly after the battle of Andernach. However, the problem did not go away with death of duke Gilbert and the collapse of the rebellion.

You may remember that Otto got hold of the young sons of Gilbert, but he did not get hold of his widow, Gerberga. Louis IV managed to capture her and presumably out of sudden love and passion married her. And to make absolutely clear what this is all about, he christened his oldest son Lothar giving him his mission in life. If that that was not unusual enough, note that Gerberga was Otto’s sister and despite the abduction and all that, she was and remained the main support to Louis through all that happens next.

In 939 Otto had called upon the major nobles of France, namely William Longsword of Normandy, Heribert of Vermandois and Hugh Capet to help against Gilbert and Louis. In 940 it was payback time and he met up with them again bringing along a large German army to fight king Louis. The allies had already occupied Reims and installed a new archbishop in this, the most important bishopric in France and place of royal coronation. From there they moved to Laon, the most impressive looking stronghold and seat of the Carolingian kings of France. He may or may not have captured Laon, in any case king Louis is next seen in and forgive me because this is now very confusing, in the duchy of Burgundy whose duke succumbs to Otto and his allies. That duchy is the third of the Burgundies, existing in the 10th century, which include the duchy of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Upper Burgundy and the Kingdom of Lower Burgundy. Do not worry about that, we will look at Burgundies again later on.

Back to simpler things. This campaign very much put Louis back into his box. And that was exactly where Otto wanted him to be. Well, he seems to have squashed him a bit too far down into that box and now had to work hard convincing the French magnates to keep Louis on as king. Otto did not want Louis to be completely defeated, because in that case one of Louis’s powerful magnates would have taken the throne and become a serious adversary. It was much better to keep Louis on as a king, as long as he and his magnates were preoccupied with their perennial quarrels.

Over the next couple of decades Otto would support the magnates whenever Louis was about to get hold of a real power base as he nearly did in Normandy, and he would side with Louis when he was down on his luck, as he quite often was. That way France remained weak, Lothringia German, and Otto the de facto decision maker.

These regular incursions into France offered great opportunities for the fine sports of pointless sieges, burning of crops, and massacring of peasants but also for the displays of childish boasts. Hugh Capet, the most powerful of the French nobles stated that the “Saxons were useless in war “and that he could “swallow seven of the Saxon lances in one go”. Otto’s measured response was to order his entire army to wear women’s straw hats which was supposed to make the French wild. Needless to say that nobody ever really won in that war but it kept the French down – result.

Just as an aside, a hundred years earlier when Arnulf of Carinthia had a similar position to Otto, the magnates had offered Arnulf the crown of France. That they never offered to Otto. Over a period of just 60-70 years the identities of the two separate kingdoms of East and West Francia had firmed up so much, that a return to the empire of Charlemagne had now become very unlikely. That does not mean the inhabitants saw themselves as either French or German in any modern sense of national identity. It is more that power structures had developed that worked best within an either West Francian or East Francian context. A Hugh Capet was happy to fight his fellow French magnates over control of the kingdom with help from a German king, whilst a duke of Franconia or Bavaria was mostly focused on the affairs of East Francia occasionally using the king of France to support his objectives. But neither would Hugh Capet submit to a German king nor would the duke of Franconia ever swear allegiance to a King of France.  

And in that way affairs in France continued throughout Otto’s reign without much preoccupying anyone after the larger campaigns of 946.

Going round the dial clockwise we need to talk about the Slavs.

In the 940s the kingdom of Otto ended pretty much on the Elbe river. The people living on the opposite shore were mostly Slavs who had moved in after the Great Migration had led to a shift westwards of the Germanic tribes. The Slavs were not a coherent nation but split into several, often warring, tribes. The two largest coherent groups were the Poles and the Bohemians. At that time there was a buffer zone between the Germans and the Poles defined by the Elbe and Oder rivers. This area was inhabited by a variety of different smaller Slavic tribes including the Redariers, the Abodrites, the Veleti, the Hevelli and the Sorbs. The fighting on the eastern border had started in 929 when King Henry the Fowler tried out his shiny new army in battles with the Slavs. From that time onwards fighting never actually stopped.

The two main actors on the North Eastern frontier were Otto’s friends Hermann Billung and Markgraf Gero. As you may remember from episode 2, their appointment resulted in much grumbling amongst the Saxon nobles and in the case of Gero led straight away to Thankmar’s rebellion.

These two leaders seemed to have employed quite different strategies.

Hermann Billung led a successful campaign against the Redarier in 936 but afterwards records of his activities become scarce. He might have had some run-ins with the Danes, though that is only recorded in one unreliable source. Apart from the Redariers, the other main tribe in his area of responsibility were the Abodrites with whom he conducted friendly relationships. He seems to have been more focused on domestic affairs, namely in subjugating his elder brother Wichman and his family.

His colleague Markgraf Gero was taking a tougher line. His approach was by all accounts as bloody, as endless and as relentless as the conquest of Saxony itself by Charlemagne 150 years earlier. We already met him in the last episode when he had murdered 30 helpless drunken Slavic leaders at a feast. Not exactly the way to make friends. He specialised in wanton destruction of sacred pagan shrines and enforced baptisms which resulted in the exactly the kind of eternal rebellions and resentment you would expect. Over the decades Gero managed to push the boundaries of the kingdom east and north almost up to the Polish border.

On the back of this successful demonstration of Christian charity King Otto founded a total of 5 new bishoprics in the Slavic lands. One of these was Brandenburg, which was the nucleus of what would later become the state of Prussia. We will see how much the Slavs appreciated this generosity when we talk about the reign of Otto’s unlucky son, Otto II.

The Bohemians

Another pressing issue was further south, Bohemia. Bohemia is an area roughly where the modern Czech Republic is found today. Bohemia had been ruled by “good king” Wenceslaus – yes that good king Wenceslaus- until the year 935. Wenceslaus who wasn’t really a king but just a duke had to submit to Henry the Fowler in 929. As part of the submission, he had to accept German missionaries to come over and introduce the Latin cult. That sat awkwardly with his subjects and so his brother Boleslav had good king Wenceslaus killed.

When in 938 Otto became pre-occupied with his brothers’ rebellions, Boleslav decided to shed the Frankish oppressors once and for all and refused to give homage to Otto. Otto’s response was to invade. However, his elite household troops were otherwise occupied so he had to send a division of what Widukind of Corvey describes as “The legion of Thieves”. These troops consisted of offenders from across the realm who were offered the choice between punishment -usually involving a reduction in the number of available limbs- or joining the army. These valiant knights set off from Merseburg for Prague. As it happened, they had not fully changed their spots and when they had won a smaller skirmish, they focused more on plundering the corpses of the Bohemians than keeping watch. Boleslav fell on them with the might of his remaining forces and the thieves lost their limbs after all.

This quarrel lasted until 950 when Otto joined up with his brother Henry to invade Bohemia with a more sizeable and presumably more professional army. Boleslav, smart general that he was, almost immediately succumbed and swore fealty to Otto.

From then on Bohemia was an integral part of the kingdom until 1806. If you ever needed proof that the middle ages had little notion of national identity, the role of Bohemia is proof. The Bohemians were Slavs and spoke ancient Czech. Their nobles were, at least until the 14th century Czechs, not Franks or Germans.

Despite these differences Bohemia was an integral part of the Holy Roman Empire. Though the rulers of Bohemia were traditionally called kings, their political role was similar to the dukes and other prices of the realm. The king of Bohemia was one of the nobles that were considered essential for a royal election to be valid and would later become one if the 7 Electors. 

And Let us not forget Good King Wenceslaus who for his pains became a saint much revered in England for reasons that I still do not quite understand.


And finally, there is Hungary. The battle of Ried and a subsequent battle in 938 diverted their efforts to Italy and minor incursions into Bavaria. In 944 Duke Berthold allegedly put a stop to that. Despite these successes the fear of the Hungarians did not go away. Throughout the whole period castle building kept going at a rapid pace in expectation of a major invasion.

Italy and Burgundy

Now we have come almost full circle and reach the south and south west, Italy and the kingdoms of Burgundy. And that is where it becomes complicated.

Last time we mentioned Italy on this podcast was when Charlemagne went down to Pavia to pick up the crown of the Lombards. Since then, things had gone a bit out of control.

Italy has fragmented into multiple states and cities. The biggest states were the Kingdom of the Lombards or often called Kingdom of Italy which comprised northern Italy. Then you had the Papal States around Rome, further south the three Lombard duchies of Spoleto, Benevento and Capua that were loosely related to the Kingdom of Italy. South of them were the Byzantines who still ruled the heel and toe of Italy. The Muslims had taken over Sicily and had a beachhead at Fraxinetum, today the gorgeous village of la Garde-Freinet above St. Tropez the Côte d’Azur. Finally, you had the independent cities of Naples, Amalfi, Genoa and most important of these, Venice. Venice was impossible to conquer for traditional land forces and had already become that crucial link between East and West that nobody could afford to lose. 

The so-called Kingdom of Italy had been part of the Kingdom of Lothar – you remember that short lived political entity created in 843 slot between France and Germany that has already and will continue to cause endless headaches.

After Lothar’s immediate successors had died out, the southern part of his kingdom had split into Upper Burgundy around Besancon and Basel, Lower Burgundy or now often called Provence or the Kingdom of Arles that stretched all the way from Lyon to Marseille and east towards Nice, and last but not least  the old Kingdom of Italy. The rulers of these three entities were constantly attempting to consolidate into one kingdom under their control.

I better spare you the ins and outs of this. Luidprand of Cremona has written a totally biased but supremely amusing chronicle of the goings on including all the smutty gossip. Over the next week I will publish his juiciest bits on my Facebook Page – History of the Germans Podcast. Sign up so you won’t miss out.

What follows here is a very stripped down version of the political and dynastic movements in Italy and Burgundy up until 950:

The key protagonist we are interested in is Adelheid. Adelheid was the daughter of King Rudolf of Upper Burgundy. We have met Rudolf before, he is the one who sold the Holy Lance to Henry the Fowler. Rudolf had made an attempt to get hold of the Kingdom of Italy in the 930s but was sent back home packing. Anyway, when her father died in 937 and her six-year-old brother Konrad became King of Upper Burgundy, his neighbour to the south, Hugh who was already King of Lower Burgundy and King of Italy tried to annex Upper Burgundy. He invaded and forced Adelheid’s mother Bertha to marry him and Adelheid herself was married to his son Lothar.

Allowing Hugh to control Italy, Lower and Upper Burgundy would leave Otto with one excessively powerful ruler all along his southern and south-western border. That was a bit too close for comfort to Otto and he decided to intervene. Otto declared himself protector of Adelheid’s brother, the young king of Upper Burgundy, who had fled to his court. Otto banged a few swords to shields and that seemed to have done the trick since Hugh left Upper Burgundy with only Bertha and Adelheid as his spoils of war.

The next decade Otto and Hugh rubbed along fine. Hugh was busy bashing local Italian lords and getting involved with a very interesting Roman lady you will meet next week. Hugh had to give up these distractions when one of his vassals, Margrave Berengar of Ivrea kept trying to dislodge him as king of Italy. Berengar with some moral support from Otto was finally successful in 945 forcing Hugh to abdicate in favour of his son Lothar.

With Lothar becoming King of Italy, our Adelheid, now 15 years old, became Queen of Italy. That was a quite neat arrangement as it combined the three contenders for the crown of Italy.  Adelheid representing Upper Burgundy, Lothar representing Lower Burgundy and Berengar representing Italy. It might look neat but in reality, Lothar was just a puppet king. Berengar held total control of the reins of power.

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

That was not his only problem. He also had to figure out what to do with the young queen Adelheid. You see, Adelheid was not only blood-related to almost everyone who was anyone in 10th century Europe, she was also enormously rich in her own right. To top it up, it was customary for usurpers to derive their right to rule from marriage to the wife or daughter of a recently deceased ruler, just ask  king Louis of France, duke Henry of Bavaria and duke Liudolf of Swabia have shown.

You see why Adelheid was now the hottest potato in all of Italy, if not all of Europe if they had had potatoes then. Maybe a hot parsnip?

According to some chroniclers, Berengar proposed for her to marry his son Adalbert, but Adelheid refused. But even if that was not true, allowing such a powerful person run around free in Italy to be picked up by some random chancer was not an option. So Berengar had her thrown in a prison in a fortress on lake Garda.

Whilst Adelheid, the richest heiress in Europe and a 19year old beauty lay in her cell contemplating what to do, world politics were set in motion. Ok, let’s go back to the last sentence, Adelheid, Europe’s richest heiress and an acclaimed beauty is held in a jail by some jumped-up Margrave – any takers, anyone?

And just when it gets interesting, the music starts playing. Time is up. Next week we will see how all this blows up, first in Berengar’s face and then in Otto’s as well. Lots of shenanigans to come. I really hope you will join us next week.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and since you are there, why don’t you leave a positive rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. I do not know what that does, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. And that is nice when one is locked up in COVID jail.

Episode 5 – The Father, the Son and the Uncle

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 5 – The Father, the Son and the Uncle

Again, thanks a lot for joining me today, when I finally make good on my promise of more shenanigans and why Otto’s brother Henry is an even bigger pain when he is with you then when he is against you.

Last time we left the ultimate fairy-tale princess, Adelheid, widowed queen of Italy, languishing in a damp prison on the Rocca de la Garda. The man who put her there, Berengar of Ivrea had meanwhile crowned himself king of Italy and got ready for the things to come.

Adelheid’s incarceration created political uproar across Europe. She was related to practically anyone who was anyone in early medieval Europe. Not only that she was extraordinarily rich due to inheritances from her husband, her father, and her mother. Finally, and politically most importantly as the former queen, she could confer some legitimacy to whoever wanted to become king of Italy. Though she was not able to name the future king, in 10th century tradition a conquering duke or king would typically marry the wife or daughter of the previous incumbent as a form of compensation. That was a tried and tested model that drove the marriages of Henry of Bavaria, Liudolf of Swabia, and Louis IV of France.

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

The first suitor might have been our friend Duke Henry of Bavaria, brother of Otto and Grade A pain in the backside. Henry controlled two of the five routes into Italy, the Brenner pass and the Tauern pass. He might have brought his armies across into North Eastern Italy and according to one not entirely clear reference in Widukind of Corvey’s chronicles, managed to take the town and fortress of Aquileia. Assuming that happened, it was to no avail since his advance stopped, 260km off target on lake Garda.

Next contender for the role of saviour of the lady’s life and honour is Otto’s son Liudolf. Liudolf has appeared in our narrative a few times already, but I have never introduced him properly. It is high time to do that.

Liudolf was born probably in late 930, the only son from Otto’s marriage with Eadgyth, the Anglo-Saxon princess he had married in 930. Eadgyth or Edith enjoys a positive reputation amongst the chroniclers of the time, who praise her piety, good works, and her noble descent from Alfred the Great. But what I find most interesting amongst the comments on her life is Widukind’s statement that she “shared in the rule of the kingdom for 10 years”. This formulation appears again and again in the description of royal women during the Ottonian period. There is no detail, but we hear that Eadgyth saved Otto from many open and secret dangers during the dark days of Henry’s rebellion. She is explicitly credited with the reconciliation between Otto and his mother that made the final reconciliation between Henry and Otto possible. She clearly had an important role, less important maybe than Mathilda of Ringelheim, Adelheid, Theophanu and Kunigunde. Her description as co-ruler suggests that the elevated political role of these more famous Queens and Empresses was not an exception. We find other active powerful women in Germany during the period, usually either as abbesses or as wives of important dukes and counts. That is quite bit more agency than I had assumed before I started writing up these episodes. In Italy that was even more the case than in Germany as we will see in the next few episodes.

Eadgyth died in 946, just 36 years old. Reading the contemporary chronicles, it seems that Otto really mourned his wife and transferred a lot of his love and affection to his son, Liudolf. Liudolf was named his successor and might even have been formally elected king in the year of her death. Furthermore, Otto arranged for Liudolf to marry Ida, the daughter of the duke of Swabia which in 949 led to Liudolf becoming duke of Swabia.

By the year 950, when Adelheid was thrown in prison, Liudolf was 20 years old, the designated future king and the second most powerful magnate after the king. There were a number of reasons for Liudolf to get involved in the case of Adelheid. The dukes of Swabia, whose southern border touched on Lombardy and Piemonte had been meddling in Italian affairs forever. Plus, Adelheid was a close relative of his wife Ida. Whether that were the sole or even the main reasons for his intervention we do not know. Maybe he was aiming for the crown of Italy or just simply wanted to impress his father and earn glory. Anyway, down he came the alpine passes with a smallish army. And then he turned back almost as quickly as he had come down.

To his chagrin, none of the Italian nobles opened the gates of their castles to him, even those who were openly opposed to Berengar. Liudolf had expected to ride down to Pavia on a wave of support for Adelheid and his family. But nobody came to his banner.

This what Adalbert of Magdeburg said happened: “..his uncle duke Henry, envious of all his offices and successes, sent his legates from Bavaria via Trent to Italy and turned against him the minds of all the Italians that he could, to the extent that not a town or fortress which subsequently opened to the king’s cooks and bakers was opened to the king’s son, and he was subject to every inconvenience and copious annoyances”.  

In other words, whilst Liudolf was taking his troops down the Gotthard pass, Henry’s envoys raced across the Brenner to sabotage his nephew’s project. Why did Henry do that? Best guess, Adalbert is right and it was simple, straightforward jalousie.

Before Liudolf elevation to heir apparent., Henry might have still held up some hope to become king upon Otto’s death.   Under ancient Germanic law, similar to the system in Saudi Arabia today, kingdoms could pass to the brother of the former king, not necessarily the son. When Liudolf was elevated to be the future king, this hope was dashed. Assuming, as I do, that Henry was still craving the crown, he now has two options. One is to rebel again, which I guess based on precedent does not look like a great idea. The other alternative is to drive a wedge between Otto and Liudolf, making Otto change his mind.

Liudolf’s invasion was a perfect opportunity to achieve this. You see, Liudolf made a major tactical mistake by not asking his dad for permission to invade Italy. He wanted to be the knight in shining armour who rescues the damsel in distress. That narrative would not fly if he first had to ask dad whether it is ok to stay out late. So, he didn’t.

To say it mildly, that was not a good idea. Do you remember three episodes ago when we talked about Otto’s coronation? After an elaborate anointment and consecration, he sat down of Charlemagne’s throne. What did Otto say with that other than “I am the new Charlemagne!” And what was the first thing Charlemagne did once he had control of the Frankish kingdom? Yes, he invaded Italy and made himself king of the Lombards.

What do you think Otto was planning to do in the year 951? Yes, 10 points to Gryffindor, it was indeed invading Italy and making himself king of the Lombards. What was not in the plan was for his little boy to snatch his victory and putting him in the shadow.

With Liudolf back home, in the spring of 951 Otto took a massive army down to Italy. As a special treat he took not only Henry of Bavaria, Konrad the Red and two archbishops but also poor Liudolf along for the journey. We can only imagine what Liudolf thought when the Italian lords willingly opened their gates to his father’s host after they stayed grimly behind closed doors when he had passed through just months earlier.

Well, apart from the family tensions the campaign went exceptionally smoothly. As soon as Berengar saw the first armoured riders coming down the Alpine passes he packed his bags and ran as fast as he could to his fortified castles in Ivrea. Otto rode down to the capital of Italy in Pavia, sat himself on the royal throne and put the iron crown of the Lombards on his head.

What about Adelheid? Shouldn’t Otto first go to Garda and release the girl that all the fuss was about? Well, as it happened Adelheid wasn’t the helpless Disney princess you may have imagined. She was incarcerated from April 20th 951 to August 20th, 951. We do not know whether she was tortured as some later chroniclers stated, but she always referred to it as painful period of her life. What we do know is that she escaped, some said by digging a tunnel out of the stronghold on top of lake Garda, whilst others believe it was simple bribery combined with fear of the consequences once the Germans had come. In any event she got away and was next seen in fateful castle of Canossa then one of the strongholds of the bishop of Reggio.

The next step was obvious, Otto did what he came to do in Italy – courtship. Otto was a very eligible widower – with his white hair, red face, bushy beard, moderate sized belly and a chest covered in hair like the mane of a lion. But his good looks alone did not seem to have done the trick. He had to strengthen the queen’s love for him with gold. Having received enough gifts as well as probably concessions about her future role, Adelheid accepted Otto’s advances. The wily Henry pulled off another coup. Henry managed to get himself tasked with bringing Adelheid down to meet Otto in Pavia and used the time alone with her to make her into a close friend and ally.

For Liudolf this was clearly bad news. His father’s 19year old new wife could and will give him more children. Liudolf should have been ok with that since he was the official successor and hence in an infinitely stronger position than say Thankmar who had been written out of the succession as an illegitimate son. But the rules of succession in the 10th century were by no means fixed and new potential heirs could become major problems down the line. On top of that his father’s new wife was best friends with his enemy uncle. Jointly they started to pull Otto into their orbit and turned him against his son.

Soon Liudolf had enough and travelled back to Germany. Whilst his father celebrated sumptuous nuptials with his new wife and had her crowned queen of Italy (for the second time), Liudolf celebrated a great feast of his own in Saalfeld with our old friend the arch-conspirator Friedrich of Mainz and the great and the good of the kingdom.

Saalfeld you may remember is where Henry celebrated his own great party that kicked off his rebellion. What Liudolf is saying here is this: Dad, do you remember that your brother who you love so much now tried to have you killed a mere 10 years ago, and, by the way, I could do that too!

But so far nothing came of it. To get to a proper rebellion going you need one of Otto’s gaffes he is so brilliant at. As ever with Otto, such mistakes never take too long to materialise.

This time he managed to alienate one of his closest allies, his son in law Konrad the Red. Otto had made him Duke of Lothringia after the death of his predecessor, the scheming duke Gilbert. Otto and Konrad have been through thick and thin for the last 10 years and trusted each other instinctively.

When Otto realised, he had to get back to Germany to put a stop to Liudolf’s murmurings, he trusted Konrad to clean up the situation in Italy.  With Otto and most of the army back home cleaning up meant negotiating a settlement with Berengar that asserted Otto’s superior position rather than completely crushing him.

And negotiating is pretty much what Konrad did. Given distances, Konrad could not keep in close contact with Otto to agree the exact terms, but as he knew Otto well, he believed he had come to an acceptable arrangement. He brought Berengar down to Magdeburg where the German nobles -who believed the same- came out of the city to greet him as if he was still king of Italy. But Otto was not happy about it at all. He left Berengar waiting for 3 days before he allowed him an audience. There he made him swear fealty and asked him to come back again next year to a royal assembly in Augsburg to make proper peace. That was a major snub not just to Berengar but also to Otto’s old ally, Konrad the Red.

What has happened? Maybe Otto had changed under the influence of Adelheid who, let us not forget, had been imprisoned and possibly tortured by Berengar. Konrad the Red and Liudolf put the blame squarely on Henry believing he had acted out of jealousy and greed. Henry responded by insulting Liudolf in open court. Liudolf left seething that his father had not intervened.

This is the second time Otto makes the same mistake. Do you remember when he dismissed the terms Friedrich of Mainz had negotiated with Eberhard of Franconia?  Then, as now, there is only one way to react for a major aristocrat so humiliated, he had to rebel.  So, Konrad left the court and joined Liudolf’s camp.

Things stayed calm for another 6 months. Liudolf and Konrad joined the court in Augsburg for a great synod of German and Italian bishops. There Otto signed the final agreement with Berengar. Berengar and his son had to submit themselves to Otto as his vassals. Most significantly he had to cede the marches of Verona and Aquileia to duke Henry of Bavaria. That was almost half of the kingdom of Italy.

That must have further enraged Liudolf who received the square root of nothing. When he complained, Henry used the opportunity again to tease and torment his nephew in front of the entire court. Otto again did not intervene.

That was it. Liudolf and Konrad had enough. They gathered a group of young nobles and made plans to capture Otto when he got to his palace at Ingelheim to celebrate Easter.

What was the objective here? It could be that Liudolf and Konrad wanted to depose Otto and make Liudolf king. However, I find that unlikely. After Birten and Andernach Otto’s right to rule was confirmed by act of god and hence unassailable. As things escalate the demands brought forward are directed mainly against the behaviour of Henry, not against Otto. And that sort of makes sense. Henry had picked up literally all the gains from the Italian campaign, leaving not only Liudolf and Konrad empty handed, but also their younger retainers who may have hoped for a juicy county or town in Italy. The restructuring of the duchies had also taught the junior members of the great families like the Konradiner, Arnulfinger and Billunger not to expect their own duchies any time soon, since these are reserved to the royal family. What these guys look for is not to get rid of the king, but to capture him and force him to acknowledge their rights and expectations.

But before they got to the imperial palace in Ingelheim, Otto got wind of the plan at the very last minute and fled behind the walls of the nearby city of Mainz. That was better than being captured by Liudolf and Konrad, but not by much. Mainz was ruled by, guess who, yes, Friedrich, Archbishop of Mainz the one who Otto had humiliated 10 years ago and who was involved in this conspiracy as well.

Whilst sort of in custody of the archbishop, Otto signed an agreement with Liudolf and Konrad. We do not know what was in the agreement, but most likely a reconfirmation of Liudolf’s right to become king, Konrad as duke and maybe a re-allocation of the spoils from Italy. After he had signed the agreement, Otto was allowed to leave Mainz.

If we had understood something about Otto’s character from the last episodes, it is that he would rather not live than not rule. So, Otto left Mainz for Cologne and immediately declared the agreement null and void. Then he called all the nobles of the realm to an assembly in Fritzlar. There he provided a stage for his brother Henry to go full blast after Archbishop Friedrich. We do not know what Friedrich was specifically accused of, but it does not matter, he was obviously guilty. Friedrich was stripped of his role as archchancellor of the kingdom, though he remained as archbishop of Mainz and was otherwise left unharmed. Friedrich ran off to the near impregnable fortress in Breisach and kept a low profile for his remaining few years.

At the same diet, Otto removed the Duchy of Lothringia from Konrad the Red, though he left Liudolf as duke of Swabia. Finally, he banished some senior Saxon nobles who he held responsible for the indignity of the agreement of Mainz and gave them to Henry as his prisoners. Some of these men were old allies of Otto who had fought with or more precisely for him at the battle of Birten.

Then Otto mustered his troops and travelled down to Mainz, where Liudolf and Konrad had set up their base of operations.

The siege of Mainz did not go well for Otto. The ancient roman walls of the city were strong and breaking city walls in the 10th century without cannon was hard and time-consuming work. The fighting seemed to have been fiercer and bloodier than was usual even for the time. Widukind describes it as worse than a civil war, or any other calamity. Otto brought siege engines against the walls, but the defenders again and again managed to burn them outside the gates after vicious fighting.

To make matters worse, more and more of the nobles saw Liudolf’s and particularly Konrad’s grievances as justified. Some nobles joined the rebellion, but even more just left Otto’s camp and returned home.  After 2 months of fruitless warfare Otto had to start negotiations again.

Liudolf and Konrad came into Otto’s camp and kneeled before him. They swore to lay down arms and subject themselves to Otto’s judgement provided he would leave their allies unharmed. In other words, they asked for what they came for – recognition of the rights and aspirations of the aristocrats. It is very unlikely that Otto would have severely punished his son and son in law. Having them executed was not really an option and long prison sentences were still quite rare.

Otto refused. He needed at least a few accomplices to hang to make his point that all senior roles and lands are in his gift. Liudolf and Konrad could not hand them over because they were bound to them by mutual oath, so that was a no go.

The situation is hopeless, but not serious. The 10th century politicians were masters of the impossible fudge and I am sure there would have devised a cunning scenario with temporary imprisonment, some great pageantry and kneeling in the snow that could have been conjured up to solve the issue. But it did not happen. Why? Trust brother Henry to mess it up.

Henry lashed out at Liudolf, calling him a usurper and invader of the kingdom. He called him up on the claim that Liudolf was not rebelling against his father but against him, essentially challenging him to single combat. As the shouting match between Liudolf and Henry escalated. Otto did not intervene and that meant for Liudolf that he had to go back to war.

Failure to accept the submission turned public opinion strongly into Liudolf’s favour. More nobles joined him, including a count Arnulf who was the son of the last Arnulf duke of Bavaria but was set aside in order to bring Henry to the ducal throne. That Arnulf had been in charge of managing Bavaria in Henry’s absence. Liudolf and Konrad left Mainz and marched on Regensburg, the capital of Bavaria where they got hold of Henry’s war chest.

Hermann Billung sent a relief army from Saxony to support Otto. But that army ended up being pinned down by Liudolf and Konrad’s forces and its commanders joined the rebels.

Otto with his small army attempted to lay siege to Regensburg but had to give in after 3 months and returned to Saxony. The only silver lining for Otto was the installation of his little brother Brun, first as Archbishop of Cologne and then as duke of Lothringia. Brun was unwaveringly loyal to Otto, the intellectual powerhouse in the family and now one of the most influential men in the kingdom. Brun quickly mobilised badly needed troops for Otto and Henry to go after the rebels.

Miraculously Otto’s regime did not have to concede. This time it wasn’t some obscure nobleman like Short’n’bold who rescued his reign, it was an enemy. The Hungarians who had been defeated by his father had come back every time Otto had a disagreement with a relative. And this time again, they marched in. The Hungarian invasion gave the son the opportunity to out-mistake his dad. Liudolf entered into an agreement with the Hungarians against the king. He provided the Hungarians with scouts helping them to raid, plunder, ransack and maraud freely across the kingdom.

That gave Otto finally the upper hand in the public relations battle. Otto turned his troops against the Hungarians and pursued them. He may have not been particularly successful, since the Hungarians went home laden with booty, but it made him out as the defender of the fatherland. It completely undermined Liudolf’s case of “being the good one”. Liudolf later claimed that he only associated with the Hungarians because they had been paid by his father to attack him. Quite possible. Based on all we know about Otto he could have been that reckless. But the muck did not stick to Otto, it stuck to Liudolf.

With the Hungarians gone, reinforcement coming and nobles joining his banner again, Otto took his army to Bavaria to confront Liudolf. At Illertissen, both armies faced each other. Nevertheless, a battle was avoided as the bishops of Chur and Augsburg negotiated a truce. The main protagonists then met for peace negotiations.

Otto and Henry milked the Hungarian story to the absolute max. All the evil was laid at the conspirators’ feet. Lots of declamation about desolation of the kingdom, people killed, fortresses destroyed, churches burned down, and priests murdered. Liudolf tried to defend himself but to no avail. Given the tide had turned Konrad the Red bent the knee and was received back into the king’s favour. Friedrich of Mainz as per his playbook said he had always been loyal to the king. But Liudolf did not give in. He left the conference and barricaded himself into Regensburg.

Another city, another siege. Regensburg was the biggest and richest city in the East Francian kingdom. Its defences had just been strengthened and increased by duke Arnulf.  The ferocity of the fighting seemed to have increased even further and the surroundings the city were being ransacked mercilessly. This time Otto and Henry were more successful. Famine broke out in Regensburg and Liudolf had to agree to come to another set of peace negotiations. That agreement did not end the siege, but it allowed Otto to leave for some rest at a hunting lodge and Henry was put in charge of cleaning up.

Liudolf must have realised that the game was well and truly up. He snuck out of Regensburg and rode as fast as he could to his dad’s hunting lodge. There he prostrated himself and asked for forgiveness, which was granted. We will never know what exactly made Otto accept Liudolf’s plea on this, the third occasion he was kneeling in front of him. My guess is a combination of military fatigue and evil uncle Henry not being present did the trick.

Meanwhile Henry entered his own capital of Regensburg and burned it to the ground.

I am still unsure what Henry’s plan was in all that. Did he just hope Liudolf would die in a battle leaving a tiny baby as Otto’s only successor? Or was he just one of these characters like Tullius Destructivus who thrive in conspiracies and civil war? If it is the latter, it has become a family trait. The only reason this Henry is not called Henry “the Quarrelsome” is because that was the name given to his son – so more fun and games to come.

Despite Otto and Henry’s ultimate success, things had to change. Lothringia stayed in the hands of Brun, Otto’s youngest brother. However, Brun split the duchy into two, upper and lower Lothringia, creating two new positions for members of the powerful families to fill.

Liudolf had to give up Swabia, which was handed back to Burkhart III a scion of the old ducal family and uncle of Queen Adelheid. In Saxony Hermann Billung was put into a position officially as duke, though probably with less authority than other dukes. Henry regained control of Bavaria despite strong resistance from several counts and the archbishop of Salzburg. Henry beat them all in battle and had the archbishop blinded, an act even in these brutal times considered unfathomable. But hey, Henry was definitely not out for the most popular duke award.

And finally, the unreliable Friedrich of Mainz had conveniently died, allowing Otto to put his illegitimate son William in charge of the largest archbishopric in the country. That leaves Otto in a net, net unchanged position. Yes, he had to give up some of the direct control of the duchies but in return got a closer control over the church. As for Liudolf, he was not formally stripped of his role as heir apparent, but it was also not reconfirmed, leaving his position essentially vacant.

In 954 Otto may have reasserted his control over the kingdom, but that did not make the Hungarians go away. In 955 they return with their biggest force ever, this time not just intent on plunder, but intent to conquer and stay for good. Next week we will see how Otto deals with this, probably the biggest challenge of his reign. Will he screw up again and be rescued by some fluke of fortune or will he for once win fair and square? We will find out.

I hope to see you then.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and since you are there, why don’t you leave a positive rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. I do not know what that does, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. And that is nice when one is still in lockdown.

Episode 6 – A Conversation with Swords

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 6 – A Conversation with Swords

You may have noticed a slight change in music?  Yes, you have a one-time opportunity to hear my insanely talented sister, Isadora Silveira Camargos whose new single, Smile and Fly has just come out. As a special treat you can listen to the whole song at the end of the podcast – enjoy.

But now back to our show. Last week we left Otto, for the n-th time, snatching victory from the jaws of near certain defeat. But success in this final civil war had come at a steep price. The main battlefield of Bavaria and its capital Regensburg lay in ruins. Equally the area around Augsburg had been devastated and the Hungarian raids had taken their toll on Lothringia. As it happened the fighting did not end with Liudolf’s surrender. In particular, the Bavarians did not want their duke Henry back. Led by the descendants of the previous ducal family, they kept on fighting all the way into May 955. Duke Henry brutally suppressed these uprisings including by blinding the archbishop of Salzburg, an act of unprecedented brutality on an anointed bishop.

But even their surrender in May 955 did not end the plight of the Bavarians. Come July, “more Hungarians than anyone living had ever seen anywhere before broke into the country. They occupied and devastated Bavaria between the Danube and the Alps. The crossed the river Lech south of Augsburg and moved into Swabia, burning and plundering the land all the way to the Iller river.” And on August 8th, 955 they began the siege of Augsburg.

The Hungarians or Magyars have been a feature on this podcast in each of the last 5 episodes. Their annual raids have come like clockwork almost every year, usually timed around periods of political weakness or civil war.

But so far, we have heard little about the Hungarians themselves. Time to remedy that. Before I start on this, sincere apologies for all the bodged pronunciations. Hungarian, like so many other languages are not my forte.

The Magyars are assumed to have originated from the Ural Mountains and appeared in what we today call Hungary in the late 9th century. In the absence of written records and only sparse archaeology, the main way to trace them is by their distinctive language, which is part of the Finno-Ugric language family. This family comprises about 20 languages, including Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian as the best known, but also include languages spoken by small groups in western Siberia. Historians have concluded from this and chronicles written in the 13th century that the proto-Hungarians may have spent a significant amount of time in the steppes of Siberia. The foundation myth even assumes that their first leader was a brother of Attila the Hun. During their wanderings, the Magyars also picked up a lot of their culture, political organisation and language from the Turks, though the exact process of this assimilation is lost in the dawn of time.

They appear in written history in the year 895 when the Byzantine emperor Leo the Wise asked for their help in fighting the Bulgars. At that point they lived somewhere between the Don and Volga rivers. Their support to the Byzantines became quite costly as they got caught in one of those domino effects that occurred from time to time in the depths of the Asian steppes. The Magyar’s neighbours to the east, the Pechenegs had come under pressure form another group further east and mounted a lightening attack. The Magyars in their panic fled across the Carpathian Mountains. And there they were in luck. The two powers that had controlled the area we now know as Hungary, the Carolingian empire and the kingdom of Moravia were in steep decline. Under their leaders Arpad and Kursan they took over the Carpathian Basin, which included Hungary as well as Transylvania, Croatia and parts of Slovakia. Kursan died in 904 and from then onwards the descendants of Arpad ruled Hungary until 1300. However, their rule was more of a primus inter pares with the leaders of the seven Magyar stems having significant autonomy.

Almost from the moment they arrived, the Hungarian started raiding in the west. They undertook about 70 raids in 50 years, usually targeting East Francia and Italy, but also the Bulgar kingdom to their south and Byzantium itself.

Their success was mainly down to their composite bows. Composite bows are made from laminating would and animal bone to create small and powerful bows. Having a powerful small bow means the archers can operate on horseback. That gives them the speed and agility to position themselves wherever their long-distance weapons have the largest effect. The most efficient way to fight was to shoot great volleys of arrows into the sky that would fall on their enemies like hail. The reliance of the Hungarians on horse-based archers was, at least initially almost complete. Their raiding bands would consist entirely of horse mounted fighters without a baggage train or other support. Their troops could therefore appear and disappear much more quickly than the infantry troops. They did not take provisions as they usually lived off the land they were plundering.

But, like all miracle weapons, the composite bow had its drawbacks. The biggest one was the weather. The lamination would weaken in humid conditions, reducing the power of the bows. Without their fearsome bows, their lack of armour made them easy prey for armoured knights and even well-trained infantry.  Therefore, Hungarians only ever raid in the summer months when it is dry, and they prefer the south. This humidity effect has been cited as one of the main reasons the Mongols did not take over Western Europe in the 13th century despite their crashing victories against the Poles and the Teutonic knights.

The annual raids were a significant part of the Hungarian economy, bringing in gold and coin, but most importantly slaves. The actual Magyars themselves were a quite small nation of maybe 60,000 people who ruled a much larger population in Hungary that served them as agricultural workers. Some of these were workers who had lived in the area before the Hungarians took over, others had been dragged there as slaves.

These raids were strictly business. The riders were not motivated by any ideology or ambition to conquer. All they wanted was to get hold of valuables and slaves and get home quickly. That is why they typically focused on the richest and least defended places, i.e., monasteries. They would occasionally attack cities, but only when they were rich and poorly defended, a combination usually quite rare.

The business-like approach made them attractive as allies to be called in to support one or other party in a political dispute. Since they had no intention to stay, you could pay them to terrify your opponents and afterwards they would go home, albeit laden with gold. That might have been the calculation of Otto and Liudolf during the civil war of 954, when either, or both, called them in to help.

I am wondering whether the Hungarians did not see the raid of 954 as a bit of a failure. On paper it looks very impressive. They plundered Bavaria, Swabia, Lothringia, then entered France where they turned south and, -still stealing everything and anything – ran through Burgundy and Provence, where they turned left and sacked Northern Italy, before getting home. Running the route on Google maps suggested that they did a 4,000km round trip. This had sure yielded quite a bit of gold and coin, but what about the slaves? Dragging hundreds or even thousands of slaves across Europe on foot must have slowed down the Hungarian army. On top of that you have the logistical challenge of feeding and guarding them. Given these challenges, it makes sense for the Hungarians to think about establishing permanent posts along the way where they could deposit plunder for future sale.

And finally, by the 950s the geopolitical landscape had fundamentally changed. In the early years of their raids, both superpowers in their orbit were weak. But between 920 and 950 the East Francian empire unified and recovered under Henry the Fowler and Otto. At the same time the Byzantine empire experienced huge successes against the Muslims in the south and the Bulgars to their north. That meant outside periods of internal struggles, raising had become harder and required much more manpower. There was even a question whether the risk return ratio of this kind of business was still attractive.

In the massive raid of the year 955 all of these strains come together:

The Hungarians muster the largest unified force to enter Germany they have ever fielded. It was led by three of the most important chieftains, including Bulcsu, who had grown up at the imperial court in Constantinople and held the title of Harka or chief judge and chief warlord.

It is quite likely that they have been called in by the last survivors of the former ducal house of Bavaria, who had been so brutally suppressed by duke Henry. That would explain why they travelled through Bavarian territory at quite a pace and targeted Augsburg, the city of one of Henry and Otto’s strongest supporters, bishop Ulrich of Augsburg.

Finally, they set down for a proper siege having brought along siege machinery and people to operate them. That suggest they were intending to stay for good, establishing a permanent staging post for future raids. Augsburg seemed a nearly ideal place for that. It was founded by the Romans and sat at the intersection of what was left of the old Roman road network. Its fortifications were comparatively weak as it had just been besieged the year before, its walls were low, and they had no towers.

The siege of Augsburg begins on August 8th, 955. The city’s defence consists of a troop of armoured knights, led by the bishop’s brother and the local populace, presumably equipped with knives and pitchforks. Given the weakness of the walls, best guess is, they can hold out a while but not very long.

Let’s leave the citizens of Augsburg staring at the enormous Hungarian host outside their walls and look at what happened further north.  

King Otto had returned to Saxony after the siege of Regensburg. There he had received some Hungarian ambassadors who he rightly assumed to be spies trying to get an understanding of the state of the royal armies. A few days after he had sent them home, he received note from his brother Henry that the Hungarian army had broken into Bavaria. That was probably around end of June, early July. Now time is of the essence. Otto needed to muster an army, any army fast. What he got was a bit of a motley crew.

He immediately jumped on his horse and with his household troops rode hell for leather south. But he did not manage to bring along more than his elite fighters since the Slavs had again risen up, so that most of the Saxon armies needed to stay on the eastern border.

Equally his brother Brun did not send any troops from Lothringia, either because there simply wasn’t enough time or because he feared the Hungarians would go around Otto’s troops and raid Lothringia as they had done the year before.

That means apart from his personal bodyguard of Saxons, Otto’s army consisted of 3 contingents of Bavarians under Otto’s brother Henry, 2 contingents of Swabians, led by their new duke Burchard, 1 contingent of Franconians led by, surprise, surprise, Konrad the Red and, even more surprising a large contingent of Bohemians, led by our old fratricidal friend Boleslav. Given Otto’s army was made up of in total 8 contingents, one of which consisted of allegedly “1,000” Bohemians, it gives us a high estimate of 8’000 men, though it is likely that the number was considerably lower. If we work of the assumption that total Magyar population in Hungary was 60,000 of which 20,000 were fighters, and they would not have sent all of them suggests a high estimate of 10,000 Hungarians. They may have had camp followers and slaves along to operate the siege engines, which suggests the overall army may have been larger. In any event, the Hungarians outnumbered Ottos troops by a margin.

Practically everything that I will say about how the battle unfolded is heavily debated, given that we have only 2 sources close to events and another three written many years later and all five give different accounts. There are also Hungarian chronicles written hundreds of years later.

What is not disputed is that, on August 8th, the Hungarians begin the siege of Augsburg. The city nearly fell on their first attempt when they pressed on the eastern gate in large numbers. However, the armoured knights scored a success when they killed one of the Hungarian leaders. Shaken by this loss, the Hungarians retreated.

With the Hungarians back in their camp, the citizens of Augsburg worked through the night strengthening their weak defences, building palisades and digging trenches.

On the morning of the 9th the Hungarians come back, now fully equipped with ladders and siege engines. I guess moral in the city was severely dampened when they saw the great host arriving.

But no major attack takes place. What had happened? One of these last surviving members of the former ducal family had come to the Hungarian camp and told them that Otto’s army had arrived. The Hungarians sat down for a war council and decided that if they beat the field army first, the city would fall immediately.

In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved off onto the Lechfeld, a large floodplain of flat gravel near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there already in 910. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain. Otto had no choice but to accept the battlefield. If he had tried to lure them into a more suitable terrain for his army, the Hungarians would have simply ridden away and evaded battle.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments as follows. The first three battlegroups of Bavarians were in the front. Then came Konrad the Red’s Franconians, followed by Otto himself with his bodyguard. Then the 2 divisions of Swabians and finally the Bohemians with the baggage train. During the march down he kept his troops within the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by Hungarian arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, they did not see that the Hungarians had gone behind his army and attacked the rear guard.  That was very successful. The Hungarians captured the baggage train, dispersed the Bohemians and caused heavy damage to the two Swabian columns that had marched just ahead of the train. But once they had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Konrad the Red to bring down his Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. When Konrad and the Swabians re-joined the army, it became clear that the Hungarians had inflicted major damage with three out of his 8 columns seriously weakened.

Otto then addressed his troops. He said: “As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord. Their only shield is their bravery, whilst we can hope for the protection of the lord. We, as masters of all Europe, would have to be ashamed were we to surrender now. We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals” Basically he says – we have the better armour, we have the help of the lord and guys, if you do not get yourself in gear, we will all be strung up like rabid dogs.

That seems to have worked. Though the first item on the list was probably the most important. As you may remember, the fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres. Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured knights could break a Hungarian force. The way to do that is to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the Hungarian lines without getting killed and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt. Once amongst them, the knights with their strong armour and huge swords could easily slaughter the lightly armoured Hungarians.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines. There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured knights who were defending Augsburg. These knights had left the city the night before to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw Otto’s troops attacking the Hungarians dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories, one of which is that after the raid on the train, the remaining Bohemians crossed the river Lech and attacked the Hungarian camp. The Hungarians than raced to the ford at Augsburg to protect their plunder. When they got stuck on the river crossing, Otto and the Bohemians fell on them from both sides.

In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat s blamed in a sudden rainfall. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day.

What makes the difference between the battle on the Lechfeld and the battle of Ried in 933 is that this time the Hungarians did not escape. At Ried, the Hungarians could just turn their horses around and run back to Hungary. This time their route had been blocked. Bridges were either taken down or well defended and fords guarded. After the battle, the Hungarians split up into smaller groups which were picked off one by one, probably mostly by the Bohemian troops of Boleslav, though the Saxon chroniclers prefer to credit the Bavarians.

The honourable mention of Bavarian bravery may have something to do with the fact that their duke and Otto’s brother, Henry, died during the battle from long term effects of a wound he had received not on the Lechfeld but at his battle against Otto in Birten in 938. He missed the one opportunity to use his undeniable prowess with the sword to do something for the kingdom, rather than just for himself.

Henry had not been king for 19 years and an albatross around king Otto’s neck both when he rebelled and when he was a friend. He left a four-year old son, also called Henry who inherited both the duchy of Bavaria and his father’s temperament. Whilst Henry was denied his great ambition, his grandson also called Henry will ultimately realise the dream of his branch of the family.

Another sad loss was Konrad the Red, who in the heat of the battle loosened the straps of his helmet inviting Hungarian arrows to his throat. For those of you who have read ahead, you already know that Konrad’s great grandson also called Konrad would end up on the throne.

The impact on the Hungarian was earthshattering. Otto had captured the three leaders of the Hungarian army, and, contrary to precedent, did not exchange them for gold or concessions, but had them hung from the gallows. We do not know much about domestic politics in Hungary, but from the battle on the Lechfeld onwards the descendants of Arpad tightened their grip on the country. Arpad’s grandson Taksony took control after the battle on the Lechfeld and agreed a lasting peace with king Otto that allowed German missionaries into Hungary. His son and successor Geza further consolidated the power of the Arpadians whilst promoting Latin Christianity and an alliance with Otto the I and his successors. Finally, his son and successor King/Saint Stephen formally converted to Christianity in the year 1000 and married Gisela, granddaughter of none other than our old friend Henry, duke of Bavaria. Their descendants would rule Hungary until 1300 and attach it firmly to the Western European cultural, religious and political system. Their neighbours to the south, the Serbs and Bulgarians would link up with the Byzantine cultural and political world, embracing orthodox liturgy and Greek culture.

From this point forward Hungarian raids ended for good, making it Otto’s greatest military and political success that made his reputation not just in the 10th century but until today. He may have already been the leading figure in the former Carolingian empire, but after the Lechfeld he was clearly an imperial figure. The chronicler Widukind of Corvey reports that the assembled troops declared Otto “Imperator” on the field of battle, just like the ancient roman legions had done in antiquity. Sadly, Widukind is not always the most reliable source and this scene may have been just imperial propaganda.

Despite this resounding success, the campaigning year of 955 was not yet over. Otto had to return to Saxony, where the Abodrites, a Slavic people living in what is today Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the very north-east of the country by the Baltic sea had stirred up trouble. Well, they did not do it by themselves. They were instigated by the descendants of Wichman Billung, the guy Otto offended in his first year in office by promoting Hermann Billung to be the marcher count. Old grudges last long, not just in the 10th century.

The Abodrites had raided Saxony whilst duke Hermann Billung could not hold them off given troops had been dispatched to fight Liudolf. After the battle on the Lechfeld in August 955, Otto and Margrave Gero joined Hermann with some of the forces that had fought the Hungarians. They progressed down into Abodrite land and when the leaders of the tribe offered peace, felt strong enough to reject it. And that could have easily turned out to be a fatal mistake. When they reached the Recknitz river, they suddenly found themselves trapped. They could not cross the river as the ford was guarded by Abodrites troops. They also could not turn back, as the enemy had closed the path behind them with barricades of fallen trees. After sickness broke out in the camp and food supplies ran low, Gero was dispatched to negotiate but was told to go where his master had told the Abodrites to go just days earlier.

We know Gero as the butcher of the 30 Slavic leaders at a feast, so trust him not to hold back. He was so enraged by the Abodrites’ refusal that he told them that they would attack the next morning so we can all see where what goes when.

In the night Otto brought up all the heavy weapons and bowmen to the river shore, to make it look as if they would force their way across in the morning. At the same time, Gero and his cavalry travelled downriver and crossed a few miles from the camp. When the Abodrites set up formation to defend their side of the river, Gero fell on them from the side and routed their forces. Their leader was decapitated and 700 Abodrites were executed, others were blinded or had their tongue cut out. After that display of Christian charity, the remainder were offered baptism.

That was a pretty close shave. If Otto had died in that battle, the kingdom would have easily fallen into chaos. His son Liudolf was with the king and even if he had survived with the wounds of the civil war still raw, his accession to the throne would not have been smooth. Otto’s other son, also named Otto was just 1 year old. Nothing makes it so obvious that in the 10th century you can swing from towering success to total disaster in a heartbeat.

But total disaster is avoided and Otto is now truly an imperial figure, all that is left to do is to go to Rome and get his crown, the crown of Charlemagne, he always believed was owed to him. But before he does that, we need to take a look at the situation in Northern Italy. And for that, I am afraid you will have to wait until next week.

I really hope you are going to join us again.

And now we get to what you all been waiting for, Isadore Silbveira Camargos new single, Smile and Fly, available on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music and all other purveyors of fine audio entertainment!

Episode 7 – A New Caesar

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 7 – A New Caesar

The battle of the Lechfeld in 955 CE was Otto’s greatest achievement and the reason why history calls him Otto the Great, the only Holy Roman Emperor apart from Charlemagne to receive this accolade. He did beat the pagan Hungarians so comprehensively that they would never again threaten Western Europe again. Historical comparisons are always hard, but this success is on par with Scipio Africanus’ defeat of the Carthaginians, Aetius victory over the Huns in 451, Charles Martel’s repulsion of the Muslims at Poitiers and King John Sobieski’s relief of Vienna from the Ottoman siege in the 17th century. Had the Hungarians destroyed Otto’s army and created a permanent base in Augsburg, German and overall Western European history would likely have taken a very different turn.

The significance of events is often not clear to contemporaries, but in case of the Lechfeld it clearly was. Even if his soldiers have not hailed him Caesar on the battlefield as Widukind claimed, there was no doubt that from then on, he was the reference point for all of the old empire of Charlemagne. On his return to Saxony Otto held a great assembly where emissaries from all over Europe, from the Pope, the Byzantine emperor and the Caliph of Cordoba came to offer gifts of glass and ivory vessels, rugs, balsam, every kind of dye. They brought animals including lions, camels, apes and ostriches, rarely ever seen before so far north.

As always with Otto, success in battle was further augmented by a heavy dose of luck. We talked about the close shave he had with the Abodrites last week, the consequence of which was a period of at least superficial calm on the north eastern frontier. On the eastern frontier the murder and subjugation of Slavic people continued unabated, and was made a lot easier when Otto and Gero made Miesco, leader of the Poles a friend and ally. That squeezed the smaller Slavic tribes between two, or if we count in the Bohemians, three enemies on all sides.

In the north, the kingdom of Denmark was embarking on its inexorable rise when king Harald Bluetooth unified the tribes. Harald should be known to our British audience as father of Sweyn Forkbeard and grandfather of King Canute who ruled Denmark, Norway and England. In the 950s/960s Harald is understood to have converted to Christianity either as the result of a lost war or because of a miracle performed by a certain Poppo who carried a red-hot iron bar over a distance without suffering any harm. I leave the choice to you, but to me probability of battle success seems higher than safe manhandling of scalding metal. In any event, Harald held the peace for the next 5 years or so and the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen received ecclesiastical authority over the church in Scandinavia.

What Margrave Gero was to Otto in the east was his brother Brun in the west. You may vaguely remember that Otto managed to have his little brother Brun elevated to be archbishop of Cologne at the beginning of the war against Liudolf. And just before the end when Konrad the Red had bent the knee and lost his duchy of Lothringia, Brun also became duke of Lothringia, making him the first archduke in history. Brun was in all and every aspect the opposite of his brother Henry. Brun used his enormous resources and extraordinary intellectual capabilities to grow and strengthen the kingdom rather than just himself. During Liudolf’s rebellion Brun had tried multiple times to reconcile father and son. And now that the civil war was over, he spent most of his time and effort on keeping the western front calm. Lothringia was a notoriously hard to manage duchy. Its counts and bishops were acutely aware that they could count on French support in case of a rebellion. Konrad the red never managed to bring the Lothringian nobles in line. His biggest opponents were the Reginars, the family of the old duke Gilbert. The Reginars rose up against Brun when he took over but made the fatal mistake of irritating the king of France at the same time.  They had no chance against the combined force of both Brun and the King of France, so scuttled back onto the caste they had come from. After that nobody challenged Brun and he created two new sub-duchies, Upper and Lower Lothringia and gave them to senior members of Lothringian families loyal to the Ottonians. And then luck struck double when both king Louis IV and his most important magnate Hugh Capet called Magnus died. Their respective sons were both 15 and their mothers were both sisters of Brun and Otto. That made Brun the de facto controller of the Kingdom of France.

What made Brun really significant for German history was his administrative reform. He created a ducal chapel attached to himself where young and promising clerics prepared important documents and deeds. It was the first Chancery. These young clerics once trained up and of proven loyalty to Brun would be positioned into the bishoprics of the archdiocese as a pillar of both the temporal and the spiritual control of the duchy. That system would later be taken on by Otto for the whole of the realm and we will talk about it in a lot more detail in a separate episode. For now, just remember – Brun – smart guy who invented the chancellor.

With all and everything now consolidated in the east, north and west, Otto can now realise his true ambition – go to Rome to be crowned emperor.

Let’s get everybody up to speed with what happened in Italy after Otto and Adelheid had to leave the beautiful south in 952 to deal with the renegade Liudolf.

You may remember that Berengar the previous king of Italy and tormentor of Adelheid had submitted to Otto at the end of 952. Otto accepted his oath of fealty and allowed him to remain as a client king. Who knows whether Otto thought that oath was worth anything, but given the humiliating circumstances under which it was given, there was a good chance Berengar did not feel bound by it at all. To no-one’s surprise, when between 952 and 955 Otto was busy with family issues, Hungarians and Slavs, Berengar went back to the capital of Italy in Pavia, took control of the kingdom, including the provinces of Verona and Aquileia that had gone to Henry of Bavaria, and began filling key positions like the bishopric of Milan with his appointees.

Otto did not appreciate that and sent an army down to Italy as soon as he had some breathing space. Guess who was leading this army? Yes, it is obvious. The best person to hand an army to, only two years after his rebellion, is his beloved son Liudolf. The 10th century never fails to surprise!

Liudolf managed to enter Pavia and put Berengar back in his box.that box was one of Berengar’s impenetrable castles around the northern Italian lakes.  But on his way back, Liudolf died, probably of Malaria. He was buried in the monastery of St. Albans in Mainz, not in the imperial mausoleum his father was building in Magdeburg and where his mother was buried. His gravestone said, “For me, Luidolf, the world was not enough, but now my dust has to content with this small pit” It seems dad had not completely forgiven him. After Liudolf’s death Otto’s two-year old son, also called Otto, becomes the new heir apparent.

Liudolf’s invasion of Italy had not solved the situation in the South. Berengar had re-entered Pavia as soon as the last of Liudolf’s soldiers had turned the corner towards the alpine passes. After that failed expedition Otto let things slip in Italy. That might have had something to do with a severe illness he suffered around that time and/or he may have tried to completely take control of the Slavic areas in conjunction with the Poles. Berengar on his part believed that Otto would not come back and felt even strong enough to attack the Pope and occupy Ravenna in 961.

In 961 Papal power was in a sad state. The papacy had become hostage to two Roman aristocratic clans, the Crescenti and the Theophylacts. These guys were in the habit of putting popes on thrones and toppling them right afterwards at vast rate of knots. In the early 900s they managed to go through no less than 6 popes in seven years, very few of whom died in their beds.

By 911 Mariucca, the daughter of the count of Tusculum had become the head of the Theophylacts clan. As common with powerful women of the time, she was described as “a shameless strumpet who was the sole monarch of Rome and ruled it like a man.” There might however be some truth in that slur as she managed to be the mistress of Pope Sergius III, murderess of Pope John X, mother of Pope John the XI, grandmother of Pope John the XII and ancestor to a further 4 popes. In between she got married three times, the last time to Hugh of Provence and Italy who you may remember from one of the last episodes. Their marriage was the only marriage ceremony in history conducted by a pope, who also happened to be her son. However, her reign did not last forever.

Her son Albaric, half-brother of that self same pope John XI instigated a rebellion that pushed Hugh of Provence out and his mother Mariucca disappeared into a jail never to be heard of again.

Pope John the XI became Albaric’s personal footstool. Albaric reigned Rome for the next 20 years appointing and dismissing popes at will. When he died in 954, he made the leading Romans swear on the bones of the apostles that they would make his son named Octavian pope upon the death of the current incumbent. Surprisingly, that is what they did. The fact that young Octavian was just 18 years old and utterly unsuited to be vicar of Christ seems to have been neither here nor there. To quote from Gibbon: “we read with some surprise that the worthy grandson of Mariucca lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St. Peter” As some sort of mini Heliogabalus he gambled away the fortune of the curia and enjoyed, even promoted chaos wherever he could.

 This worthy follower of Saint Peter who took the name John XII for ecclesiastical purposes lost control of the holy city after a failed expedition against the Lombard dukes south of Rome. Berengar saw his weakness and pounced. In fear of his life Pope John sent envoys to Otto asking for help against Berengar’s incursions into his lands. In exchange he offered the only thing he had to offer, the imperial crown.

Everything was now in place. Otto not only had his back covered in Germany, he was in all but name emperor in the same way as Charlemagne had been emperor. This gap between image and reality had to be closed. Berengar’s constant returns to power have become an embarrassment and the pope was inviting him. And then there was his wife Adelheid, formerly queen of Italy and formerly prisoner of Berengar asking for revenge. Time to get going.

Conquering Italy and particularly Rome was a hazardous undertaking. Apart from the risks of battle, the much bigger danger was disease. Malaria had been present in Italy since at least the 3rd century and remained endemic until 1949. In 1882 when they did the first health survey for Italy, they estimated that about 2 million out of 30 million Italians had malaria and 15-20,000 died of it every year. At a mortality rate of 710 per million it was higher than the UK COVID mortality today. In the 10th century it must have been a lot worse given nobody knew about Quinine, hygiene or had any other medical expertise.

The worst affected area was the coast of the Tyrrhenian sea between Florence and Naples with Rome the by far most dangerous city amongst the large Italian centres. In the 1880s the province of Rome accounted for 1/6th of malaria deaths in the country. The cause of malaria was that water that came down from the Apennines could not drain into the Mediterranean. It created stagnant pools all over the Maremma in Tuscany and the Pontine Marches south of Rome where Mosquitos could breed. Malaria had a devastating effect on these areas where nearly 2 million hectares of land remained uncultivated until they were drained in the 1930s. Malaria tends to be a predominantly rural but Rome in the 10th century had large, flooded areas which were an ideal breeding ground for the carriers.

What all this means is that going down to Rome in the 10th century meant you took a big gamble with malaria, in particular when you got stuck there over the summer. It is not a coincidence that Charlemagne got crowned at Christmas. The combination of malaria risk and alpine snowfall meant that the traditional progress of the Holy Roman emperors to Rome had a set seasonality. They crossed the alps in the summer and then waited in the north of the country until it was safe to go down to Rome, which was typically no earlier than October/November. Once in Rome, the coronation was done quite quickly, and the emperor made sure they were either home or at least in one of the more mountainous areas by March.  Otto’s trip, which established the tradition was following that self-same pattern.

In May 961 he held a royal assembly in Worms and organised the reign for his absence. His now 6-year-old son was not only elected, but a week later also crowned king as Otto II in Aachen by all three main archbishops with all the pomp and circumstance that befits his new rank. Crowning a king whilst there was still a king alive was common in Byzantium, but it was a real novelty in the Carolingian realm. This again has to be seen in light of the risks of a trip to Rome. in case Otto would have died, little Otto II would have a better chance of survival if he was anointed with the holy chrism. Being anointed had elevated the kid into the realm of a ruler by the grace of god. Taking him down was a sin against god. On the other hand, had he just been elected but not crowned, deposing him was just disregard of the wishes of an old and by then dead man.

Anointed little Ott II might have been, but that does not mean he could run a kingdom. He was left behind under the tutelage of his uncle, archbishop William of Mainz, who became regent.

In August 961 Otto mustered his troops and marched across the Brenner and down to Pavia. As before Berengar disappeared down to Ivrea as soon as he saw the first German soldier come over the passes. The Italian magnates, some of whom may indeed have hated Berengar’s increasingly autocratic government opened the doors to their strongholds, as they had done 10 years earlier.

Italy was now wide open but by Christmas Otto is still in Pavia. Negotiations with the Pope seem to have been dragging on. Only after the Pope has been reassured of Otto’s and his successor’s support against Berengar can Otto enter the holy city on January 31st 962. Then or two days later the 23-year-old pope crowned Otto and Adelheid in St. Peter.

After 26 years of incessant fighting against obstinate relatives, boasting French, duplicitous Italians, resourceful Slavs and nimble Hungarian horsemen, king Otto I becomes emperor Otto I, successor to Charlemagne. 

This being first and foremost a business deal, the pope and emperor then issued a document called the Ottonianum. In this document the emperor acknowledges all the territorial claims of the church based on the forgery that was the Constantine donation, the donation of Pippin and some claims based on who knows what over large chunks of Southern Italy and Sicily. In exchange the pope confirmed the “Constitutio Romana” of 824 which stipulates that the selection of the pope is subject to imperial approval. That is clear as mud, since on the one hand it says the pope owns pretty much most of central and Southern Italy, whilst at the same time he had to be loyal to the emperor as his sort of overlord. It also does not help that the document claims to confirm existing arrangements, some of which were fakes.

Otto stayed just 2 weeks in Rome and then got on with the tiresome business of bringing down Berengar. First, he subjected Hubert of Tuscany, a powerful count based in Lucca and supporter of Berengar. Then he started to smoke out Berengar’s family. They had split up, each defending a different stronghold. Berengar himself defends the castle of Montefeltro in Emilia Romagna. Berengar’s son Adalbert held out in a castle on the shore of Lago Maggiore and his brother Wido on an island in lake Como. His wife Willa chose the most picturesque place to fight for her life, on the island St. Giulio in the middle of the Lago di Orta.

Willa’s stronghold falls after 2 months of siege, though she was allowed to leave and join her husband in Montefeltro. In May Otto begins the siege of Montefeltro. To say Montefeltro is a tough one is the understatement of the 10th century. You can take a look at it on the History of the Germans podcast page on Facebook and you can see how difficult it must have been.

Whilst Otto and his army are sitting outside Montefeltro he gets wind of some quite unusual goings on in Rome. We will probably never find out what really happened, but let’s start with the report by Liudprand of Cremona:

According to him John XII had returned to his favourite pastime – wooing the opposite sex, may it be “fine ladies who are thin as reeds from dieting or everyday buxom wrenches”. Otto felt he had to share some of his views on loose morals in the hope of bringing the young pope back to the straight and narrow. The pope responded by sending a delegation to Otto saying that thanks to his stern words he had now changed his habits and was a reformed man. And by the way did he know anything about the whereabouts of two disloyal clerics, a bishop Leo and a cardinal deacon John who have gone missing. To which Otto said that, yes, he was glad of his change and no, he had not seen neither Leo nor John. However, he had been told they were arrested at Capua carrying letters asking the emperor in Constantinople, the Tsar of the Bulgars and the Hungarians for help against himself, his fatherly friend and emperor. That allegation, he said, would have been absolutely preposterous, had it not been for the pope’s seal and signature on all the letters.

A few more delegations went back and forth exchanging suggestions of mutual treachery until John came out in the open and admitted Adalbert, son of Berengar to Rome.

Now Liudprand is an extremely amusing but utterly biased witness. He hated Berengar, who he had served before as his advisor and ambassador. Berengar had sent him to Constantinople on a mission to get recognition for the usurpation of the kingdom. However, Berengar had forgotten to give him a present for the Vasilev. Berengar then had to buy a nice set of eunuchs at his own expense to give to the ruler of the Eastern empire. Liudprand never forgave him for that, and he joined Otto’s court. Otto made him bishop of Cremona and his advisors on Italian matters. He was close to events and must have known what really happened, but that does not mean he would tell us.

If we strip Liudprand down to the bones of the story, what happened is that John did turn against Otto and allied himself with Berengar and his family. The political logic for such a move is quite obvious. As long as Otto was just the useful idiot who stopped Berengar from invading the papal lands, all was good. John probably thought that Otto would have to return after a year be it for fear of the disease or because of unrest in Germany. That was what happened in 952. But when Otto settled down to besiege Montefeltro and Adelheid began building a pro-Ottonian party amongst the counts and bishops of Italy, John realised that Otto intended to stay for good. Now that is not what he had bargained for. An emperor of a combined Italo-German Reich meant no more fun and games for little John and his ladies. Whether he did look for additional help from pagan raiders outside Italy is ultimately not relevant, though I guess Berengar himself might have been doing that already.

All this took place in the heat of summer so Otto could not go down to Rome and set John strait, plus he still hoped he could wear Berengar down. By October Montefeltro still held out and Otto had to ease the siege, take a part of his army, and go to Rome.

The Romans may not have been as loyal to John as he had hoped because they opened the gates as soon as the army arrived. Pope John XII and Adalbert fled to Tivoli in the hills above Rome. Otto called a synod of bishops led by Liudprand of Cremona to judge the bishop of Rome. They subpoena the Pope to come to the synod and defend himself against the accusation of murder, false testimony, sacrilegious incest, drinking of devilish love potions and worshipping of pagan gods. For some reason John is disinclined to come down from his hilltop fortress, so the synod deposed him in absentia.

Otto then chose some papal bureaucrat who was not even a priest to be the new pope, Leo VIII. The tame synod elevated him to the papal throne in early December – after some high-speed ordination. Leo VIII confirmed under oath that he recognised the emperor’s right to choose the pope.

Nothing shows the utter weakness of the papacy at this point more clearly than Otto simply deposing one pope and randomly choosing another. That is something he would have never dared to do with say archbishop Friedrich of Mainz who was more than a pain in the backside for 20 years but was never deposed.

After that good news came hard and fast. Montefeltro fell a few days after Christmas. Berengar and Willa were captured, sent to Germany and put into a monastery where Berengar died 3 years later. Willa became a nun. Berengar’s son Adalbert fled to Corsica and the Pope John XII who had escaped from Tivoli was hiding out somewhere.

By the end of the year 963 Otto felt that all what needed to be done had been done and sent most of his army home.

Bad mistake. As soon as the last German soldier had turned the corner onto the alpine passes, Pope John XII crept out from under the stone he had been hiding and instigated an uprising in Rome. Pope Leo VIII managed to get away by a hair’s breadth. Other members of the Ottonian party were not so lucky. One of them lost his tongue, nose and two fingers, another lost his right hand. John then set up his own synod that deposed pope Leo VIII and excommunicated all the bishops who had participated in the previous synod.

Otto was obliged to strike back immediately, but for that he needed an army, I mean the army he had just sent home.

He waited 3 months for his vassals in Germany to send new troops. Once they had arrived, he marched on Rome. Halfway there he was told that the 26year old pope had died of a stroke, possibly whilst engaged in unseemly activity with a young lady. That is one way of solving the problem.

Though the Romans still opposed Otto’s choice of pope, Leo VIII, they ultimately conceded, and Otto entered the city.  He stayed a few weeks and once he was confident everything would stay calm from now on, returned home in triumph.

He held a great imperial diet in Cologne where the entire family got together. There were Otto’s siblings, Brun archbishop of Cologne and duke of Lothringia, his sister Gerberga, together with her son, king Lothar of France, King Konrad of Upper Burgundy, brother of Queen Adelheid and Otto’s godson, young Henry of Bavaria, son of Otto’s brother as well as Otto’s own children, King Otto II and last but not least, Otto’s 70 year old mother Mathilda, abbess of Quedlinburg who had lived a life of prayer and philanthropy those last 30 years and was now fully reconciled with her son.

Otto was not just king of East Francia/Germany, but also the patriarch of the whole Frankish empire, the true successor of Charlemagne.  That is what he set out to do when he had taken Charlemagne’s throne in Aachen at his coronation in 936, and 28 years later he had achieved it.

The other thing he achieved is giving the country he ruled its own name. You may remember that Julius Caesar had invented the Germans, but that is not the name by which Germans refer to themselves. We call ourselves Deutsche. And that name was again not one we gave ourselves, but one given to us by the Italians.

Before Otto’s expedition to Rome the Italians referred to the German soldiers who came down from time to time to burn their huts in the name of this or that pretender to the Italian throne by their stem names, i.e., Swabians or Bavarians mainly. When Otto came down with an army consisting of armed men from all different stems, that nomenclature had become too complicated.

That is when they remembered the Teutones, a possibly Germanic people though some historians believe they were celts. The Teutones had entered Northern Italy in 105 BC and inflicted severe defeats on the Roman legions. Only after Gaius Marius was put in charge did the Romans over a period of four years gain the upper hand. To achieve victory Marius changed the legions from a force of free citizens into a paid army loyal only to their commanders. He forced through his re-election as consul five times, creating precedents for Sulla, Caesar and Augustus. The Romans sacrificed their Mos Maiorum, their ancient and holy safeguards of the Republic because they were so terrified of the Furor Teutonicus, the Teutonic Fury that was their mad, merciless, berserk rage in battle.

After Otto’s army had brought 3 years of devastation across Italy, learned men dug up their ancient foes and attached the name of the Teutones to these German soldiers. The soldiers liked it and Teutones became Teutsch and then Deutsch and Deutschland. (note I meanwhile heard another theory that the word derives from Diutisk/Theodiscus ‘popular’ or ‘of the people’).

That is an appropriately cheerful note to end this episode. Next week we keep going on with Otto, who comes back to Italy with even more Teutones. That is what happens if one does not clean up properly. Adalbert, son of Berengar was still roaming free, the Romans were still unruly and his son, Otto the II needed an imperial crown and an imperial bride.  

I hope to see you then.

I also want to mention that I have a Facebook page called History of the Germans Podcast where I post occasional pictures, maps and short stories that did not fit in the podcast itself. You can also leave comments and questions for me to ponder. If you like that sort of stuff, check it out.

Episode 8 – An Imperial Bride

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans Episode 8 – An Imperial bride

This week we finally say goodbye to emperor Otto the Great after seven episodes. I hope you agree he was worth it.

When we last saw him, he was celebrating the end of his successful campaign with a great assembly at Cologne. This great gathering in 965 was even more of a confirmation of his role as successor to the great Charlemagne than the coronation itself. The assembled rulers of western Europe did not just show up for the party, they recognised him as emperor, as a ruler above mere kings. And that included Lothar the young king of France.

After three years in Italy, what he now needs to do is stick around with his German subjects and give them a bit of TLC. Early medieval monarchs were not supposed to be away for so long. Because there is no real bureaucracy of any kind, all decisions, deliberations, and orders are best done face to face. It was management by walking around. Since Carolingian times the court had followed a largely consistent itinerary going from one royal palace, called a Pfalz, to the next. For instance, Ottonian emperors would regularly celebrate Easter in Quedlinburg and Christmas in Frankfurt. They would call regularly at Fritzlar, Memleben, Magdeburg, Ingelheim, Worms and Aachen to name a few. That constant travel was in part necessary because no single location could feed the hundreds, if not thousands of people that made up the entourage of the king.

But more importantly, the presence of the king or emperor projected power. Wherever the royal party stopped he would issue judgements, consult with his barons, plan military campaigns, award positions and solve administrative problems. If he does not show up for a long time, fewer decisions are being taken. Quarrels between the highest-ranking nobles and between the church and nobles remain unresolved, often ending up in feuds. Key positions may be left vacant until an answer can be obtained leaving borders unmanaged. Even worse it weakens the bonds that hold the kingdom together. Medieval vassalage is in the end a personal, not an institutional relationship. The noble has his rights and obligation first and foremost towards the king as an individual, not to the king as an institution. Therefore, the major nobles expect the king to call on their support in person, not always, but at least from time to time. Equally the major nobles are entitled to advise the king and the king was obliged to take their advice into account – and that could only happen when the king was around.  Failure to do so leads to frustration and ultimately revolt.

Therefore, it is paramount that Otto remains in Germany for the next few years and re-establishes his relationship with the magnates of his kingdom. As with most things paramount, Otto decides not to do this either.

Events in Rome demanded another journey across the alps.

Pope Leo VIII had died and the Romans, now a bit more circumspect than before, asked Otto’s permission before electing a new pope. They raised John XIII to the seat of St. Peter. John was a more worthy vicar of Christ by 10th century standards, having received a proper ecclesiastical education and been ordained as a bishop. Though that was not the reason he was elected.  He was first and foremost a senior member of the Crescenti family. The Crescenti were the other Roman clan that vied for prominence against the Theophylacts. You may remember the Theophylacts. They are the clan of Mariussa and randy Pope John the XII.

That could not go down well and by Christmas 965 the Romans under Theophylact leadership rose up. Pope John XIII disappeared into a cell in the Castel Sant’ Angelo.  

In the meantime, Berengar’s son Adalbert had returned from Corsica as soon as he saw the last of Otto’s soldiers turn the corner of the Brenner pass. As you can see, Italy is no different to Germany. Once the ruler is physically absent, the power balance shifts and magnates begin to rise up. That explains why Adalbert managed to gain instant support amongst the Italian magnates. Otto’s political position in Italy was wiped out. Members of the pro-Ottonian party that empress Adelheid had built so carefully were either joining Adalbert or hid in their strongholds. Even the bishops Otto had appointed as his representatives in Italy switched sides.

Otto had no option than to go down to Italy. He called a diet in Worms to set the kingdom up for another extended stay down south.

First item on the agenda was the regency, which again went to his son, archbishop William of Mainz. King Otto II now 11 years old and was again left behind with his uncle.

The other big items on the agenda were two inheritances. The first one was Margrave Gero, the bloodthirsty conqueror of what is today’s states of Saxony and Brandenburg. Gero had died without a direct male heir, giving Otto the opportunity to allocate his enormous possessions fairly freely. Before Liudolf’s uprising, he might have taken the inheritance and given it to a member of his family or a close confidant. By 965 that had changed. Otto realised that he needed to reward the powerful families if he wanted to be safe from rebellions.

Consequently, he split Gero’s inheritance into six separate counties and marches that he handed to either senior members of Gero’s extended clan or scions of mighty Saxon families, some of whom may have even been loyal supporters. That had some long-term consequences. By handing these rare and unexpected windfalls back to the aristocratic clans, he allowed new and powerful entities to grow up. These entities over time challenged the emperors.  One of those entities, the March of Brandenburg was the county that would later turn into the kingdom of Prussia. Otto’s approach is very different to the French kings who consolidated any vacant duchy, county, baronetcy, village aldermanship into the direct ownership of the king whenever they could. That way the French kings managed to build a unified kingdom, whilst Germany… well you will see.

The other sad loss was Archbishop Brun of Cologne, Otto’s brother and most loyal counsellor. He was replaced as archbishop of Cologne by Folkmar but again, Folkmar did not receive the duchy of Lothringia. The two sub-duchies of upper and lower Lothringia that Brun had created for administrative purposes were elevated to full duchies and given to local powerful lords.

 In August 966 Otto crossed the alps via the Gotthard passes with a much smaller army than last time. This time most of the German dukes, counts and bishops stayed back home.

The Italian nobles immediately succumbed. Adalbert had already left the country – courtesy of an advance party led by duke Burkhard of Swabia a couple of months earlier. Otto moved into the capital, Pavia and took control of Northern Italy. He replaced his previous unreliable administrators with others, no less flighty ones.

After the, his third attempt at the Italian crown Adalbert gave up his ambitions. He retired to his wife’s possessions in Burgundy and gave his only son the name Otto as a sign of submission. That is not the end of Berengar’s family quest for the crown of Italy but we get a reprieve for 30 years.

Once it was cold enough Otto went down to Rome, took the city, freed the pope and instigated a Christmas bloodbath amongst the supporters of the Theophylacts. The leader of the rebellion was hanged from the neck of the statue of Marcus Aurelius the one that still stands on the Capitol today, the rest had their necks snapped in the more traditional manner or were whipped naked through the streets, walk of shame style. After that Otto I had no more trouble from the Romans for the rest of his reign.

That being done, Otto expanded his control south of Rome forcing the Lombard dukes of Capua, Spoleto and Benevento to acknowledge him as their overlord. In an effort to simplify things he had the three duchies put under control of one of them, Pandulf Ironhead, who became Otto’s man for the South.

Otto now had a border with the eastern Roman empire in Byzantium, which still held most of southern Italy.

Byzantium had been very much on the up over the last 50 years. Under a succession of warlike leaders, namely Romanos Lekapinos and Nikephoros Phokas, the empire had pushed the Muslim Kalifate back towards Baghdad and reconquered Crete, Antioch and other centres of the ancient Roman empire. For the first time in a long time, they were in a position where they could project power in Italy had Otto become too much of a nuisance. And him taking over the Lombard duchies made him a bit of a nuisance. The Byzantines begun mustering an army to send over to Italy.

Otto had absolutely no interest in a confrontation with the emperor in Constantinople, in fact the exact opposite was the case. Despite all his success and power, Otto had a serious inferiority complex. He knew the inhabitants of the eastern empire looked down on the uncivilised Germanic boors that had grabbed hold of the ancient western empire. Just think about the fact that Otto I had only just learned to read and write whilst the nobles of the eastern empire were majoring in intricate theological differences.

What Otto really, really wanted was to be acknowledged as an equal by the Byzantines. To that aim he proposed a marriage between his son, Otto II and Anna, daughter of emperor Romanos II and stepdaughter of the current emperor Nikephoros Phokas. Anna was the highest category of Byzantine princess, as she was born in the purple, i.e., she was born in a special room in the imperial palace that was covered in purple porphyry stone where only reigning empresses were giving birth. Otto was confident this would be a straightforward deal and called his son down from Germany to get ready for marriage and coronation.

When Byzantium heard of the proposal, the laughter of derision must have been heard up and down the Mediterranean Sea. Marrying a purple-born princess destined for the church to this barbarian usurper – you must be joking. 

Otto was hurt and when a 10th century monarch is feeling pain, a lot of poor peasants will feel a lot more pain. He readied his army and invaded the byzantine duchy of Puglia in the very south east of Italy. As per their military manual the Byzantine troops disappeared behind the walls of the big cities and Otto raided the countryside. To force a decision, he laid siege to the city of Bari. Bari was the major harbour liking Italy to Greece since Roman times. As a harbour it was quite easy to resupply since the Byzantines controlled the sea. Otto had overlooked that crucial piece of military intelligence and had to raise the siege. He returned to his new palace in Ravenna empty handed.

 As he was already there, Otto had his son crowned Emperor Otto II in Rome in December 967.

 Negotiations started up again. This time our old friend Liudprand of Cremona was dispatched to Constantinople to deal with Nikephoros Phocas. Nikephoros offered the hand of Anna in exchange for Ravenna, Rome and all Otto held in Southern Italy. That was a bit too much for Otto. Otto took his army down to Bari again, to find out the city was still by the sea. Meanwhile on the shore of the Bosporus, Nikephoros had our hapless envoy put in jail, which earned him a scolding description as a short, ugly, boorish man in Liudprand’s memoires.

And it would have gone on forever like that had not Nikephoros been murdered during a palace coup. The new emperor was his nephew and murderer John Tzimiskes. John had to shore up his reign and had no time for skirmishes with some barbaric western pseudo emperor. John agreed to send a princess for Otto II. And with that, enter stage left, the most glamorous female figure of medieval German history, Theophanu Skleraina.

Theophanu was the daughter of Constantinos Skleros and Sophia Phokaina. Both the Skleros clan and the Phokas clan were prominent military families. However, Theophanu’s blood relationship with actual emperors was at best tangential. Through her mother she was a great niece of the emperor Nikephoros Phokas. She was also related to the usurper John Tzimiskes who had previously been married to her aunt.  Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes were career emperors who acquired the throne through military success, they were not hereditary emperors. The true blue blooded imperial family of the Macedonians ranked well above them and towered over Theophanu. Her rank in the line of succession to the imperial throne was roughly equivalent to Savannah Philips claim to the British throne stands today. You do not know who Savannah Philips is? Well, nor do I.

When John Tzimiskes chose this very minor royal to be married to the young emperor Otto II, he knew that this was a slap in the face. It is not that Otto’s court was ignorant of the affairs and intrigues in Constantinople. There were regular embassies between the two courts and Greek churchmen took up important roles in Rome and elsewhere. Otto and his advisors knew full well that what had arrived was not a purple-born Macedonian princess. They knew she was not even a blood relative of the current emperor. They also knew that in 927 an actual daughter of the emperor Christopher Lekapenos had been married to the Bulgarian ruler. And to add even more irony, in 988 the much desired, purple-born princess Anna was married to Vladimir, the Grand Duke of the Kiev Rus. I doubt there was any ambiguity about what has just happened. The Byzantines did not mind marrying their princesses to barbarians, they just minded marrying them to this barbarian.

The other person who knew full well that she had been sent on suicide mission was 12-year-old Theophanu Skleraina. She was given all the trappings of a byzantine princess, robes of gold and purple, diadems and earrings and a train of exotic looking attendants. But underneath all that bling she must have been scared shitless. The most positive outcome of this journey was that she would be sent back which meant she would be damaged goods for any future marriage in Constantinople and she would end up in a monastery, but at least she would be back home. The worse option was that she would be rejected and then held in a monastery somewhere in this barbaric north, places with terrifying names like Essen or Gandersheim. And Alternative 3, she may have to spend the rest of her life with an uncouth ginger bloke whose father was famously hirsute.

But When the two Ottos unpacked the parcel from the Vasilev, they realised they had been played. Yes, they could send her back or put her into a monastery, but what then? Start another attempt at conquering Bari? The city still had a harbour and the Germans still did not have a fleet. And if it really came to war, John Tzimiskes was a famous general, hero of the campaigns against the Saracens. If he arrived in Italy, the still fragile Italian situation would very quickly turn against them. Last, but by no means least, by 972 Otto had already been in Italy for 6 years, far too long to leave his vassals north of the alps unsupervised.

Best solution for Otto was to grin and bear it. Theophanu was presented to the German people in all her exotic, Byzantine finery and hailed as the finest of blue-blooded princesses. And it worked. When I learned about Theophanu in the 1980s, it was still in all the schoolbooks that she was a Byzantine princess, not just some distant relative.

On the 14th of April 972 she was married to the now 17-year-old emperor Otto II with all pomp and circumstance in St. Peters in Rome. Thephanu was also crowned empress for good measure and received her personal apanage in a sumptuously decorated title deed which you can see on The History of the Germans Facebook page.

Otto really had to go home now. He had been in Italy for 6 years and if you add the previous journey, he had been away for almost 10 years. Because Otto had failed to show for such a long time, grumblings had begun about a possible rebellion. Not from Bavaria or Lothringia, where rebellions had been endemic for decades, no, this time from Otto’s heartland, Saxony.

Otto had left his old friend Hermann Billung, in charge of Saxony. In the last 30 years Hermann, Margrave Gero and the Saxon armies had pushed the borders of the realm further and further east until they had reached Poland. Not content with that success, they waged war against the Polish duke Miesco. Miesco finally succumbed, accepted Christianity, married a Christian Saxon Noblewoman and accepted a sort of overlordship by the German kings.

For all that Hermann was elevated to be Duke, Gero’s associates had become counts of the border marches but still he and his fellow nobles did not feel they got the recognition they deserved from their absent king.

Rumours were going round that Otto had died in Italy. For instance his instructions to continue to fight the Redariers in the North were ignored and generally the whole place had become restless.

As a deliberate act of insubordination, on Palm Sunday Hermann entered Magdeburg, Ottos favourite palace and received reverence from the archbishop as if he was the king, he took Otto’s seat at the table and even slept in Otto’s own bed. That message was clear, come home or there will not be a home to come back to.

When Otto came home in 973 all was fine again. Hermann came to see him, bent the knee and gave huge presents, as did the archbishop of Magdeburg. The Saxon leaders regained their access to the king and whatever sedition there might have been, it stopped.

Otto celebrated his rule one last time in Quedlinburg, where the Kings of Poland and Denmark and the duke of Bohemia came in person to pay their respects whilst every European power including the Kalif in Cordoba and the Emperor in Constantinople sent envoys.

A few weeks later, on the 7th of May 973 at the age of 61 at his palace in Memleben, Otto grew feverish and tired. I let Widukind of Corvey take over from here:

His men understood what was happening and lay him on a bench. His head was dropping as if he were already dead, but they revived him. He was just able to receive the sacraments before he gave his last breath, without a groan and at peace.

The people said a great deal in praise of him and remembered that he had governed his subjects with paternal mercy and had freed them from their enemies. He had conquered with arms his arrogant enemies, namely the Magyars, Saracens and Danes. He had subjugated Italy. He had destroyed the shrines of the gods among the neighbouring peoples. He had established churches and orders of priests. They recalled many other good things as they participated in the royal funeral.

When the morning came, although he had already been anointed as king, and designated emperor by the pope, the people eagerly gave their hands to the son of the emperor, the unique hope of the entire church, as they had done before, promised their loyalty and support against all the adversaries, and confirmed this with military oaths. Thus he was elected anew by the entire people as their ruler. He transferred his father’s body to the city, which his father, himself, had built, called Magdeburg. So died the emperor of the Romans, the king of peoples, on the seventh of May. The Wednesday before Pentecost.”

Otto had been king of East Francia for 37 years and had been formally Roman Emperor for 11. He lies under a simple marble slab in the Dom in Magdeburg, next to his beloved first wife, Eadgyth.

See you next week.

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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