Theophanu and Adelheid (983-994)

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Theophanu and Adelheid -  History of the Germans
Theophanu and Adelheid – History of the Germans
After Otto III's coronation at the age of four, his mother and grandmother have to gain the guardianship from Henry the Quarrelsome, a distant cousin with ambitions to capture the throne himself. They succeed with the help of Gerbert of Aurillac, the towering intellectual of the 10th century. As regents the two ladies stabilise the kingdom that had been badly shaken by the Slav rebellion, defend it against French encroachment and help creating the kingdom of Poland,"A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad" (Gregory of Tours 539-594). From the Coronation of Henry the Fowler in 919 CE to German Reunification in 1990 in weekly chronological 20-30 min episodes.
Episode 11 – Woe the Land that is Governed by a Child
by Dirk Hoffmann-Becking

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

Episode 11 – Woe the Land that is Governed by a Child
Episode 12 – The Regency of Theophanu and Adelheid

30 second summary

After Otto III’s coronation at the age of four, his mother and grandmother have to gain the guardianship from Henry the Quarrelsome, a distant cousin with ambitions to capture the throne himself. They succeed with the help of Gerbert of Aurillac, the towering intellectual of the 10th century. As regents the two ladies stabilise the kingdom that had been badly shaken by the Slav rebellion, defend it against French encroachment and help creating the kingdom of Poland.

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Episode 11- Woe the Land that is Governed by a Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Episode 12 – The Regency of Theophanu and Adelheid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective 2 is – Managing the eastern border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which gets us to part 4 – controlling the papacy.

Policy towards the papacy breaks down into two separate components.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] RI II, 3 n 956y2

[2] RI II,3 n. 962g

[3] RI II,3 n. 1028d

[4] RI II,3 n. 972a

[5] RI II,3 n. 972c

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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