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Teutonic Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor

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Otto the Great

The Magdeburger Reiter: a tinted sandstone equestrian monument, c. 1240, traditionally intended as a portrait of Otto I, Magdeburg
Holy Roman Emperor
Reign February 2, 962 – May 7, 973 (&1000000000000001100000011 years, &1000000000000009400000094 days)
Coronation February 2, 962
St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
Predecessor Berengar of Friuli
Successor Otto II
King of Italy
Reign December 25, 961 – May 7, 973 (&1000000000000001100000011 years, &10000000000000133000000133 days)
Coronation October 10, 951
Predecessor Berengar II
Successor Otto II
King of Germany
Reign July 2, 936 – May 7, 973 (&1000000000000003600000036 years, &10000000000000309000000309 days)
Coronation August 7, 936
Aachen Cathedral
Predecessor Henry the Fowler
Successor Otto II
Duke of Saxony
Reign July 2, 936 – May 7, 973 (&1000000000000003600000036 years, &10000000000000309000000309 days)
Predecessor Henry the Fowler
Successor Bernard I
Consort Eadgyth of England (929-946)
Adelaide of Italy (951-973)
William, Archbishop of Mainz
with Eadgyth
Liutgarde of Saxony
Liudolf, Duke of Swabia
with Adelaide
Matilda, Abbess of Quedlinburg
Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
House Ottonian
Father Henry the Fowler
Mother Matilda of Ringelheim
Born November 23, 912
Wallhausen, East Francia
Died May 7, 973(973-05-07) (aged 60)
Memleben, Holy Roman Empire
Burial Magdeburg Cathedral
Religion Roman Catholicism


Otto I (November 23, 912 – May 7, 973), also known as Otto the Great, was the founder of the Holy Roman Empire and the first Holy Roman Emperor, reigning from 962 until his death in 973. The son of Henry I the Fowler and Matilda of Ringelheim, Otto was "the first of the Germans to be called the emperor of Italy".[1]

Otto inherited the Duchy of Saxony and the kingship of the Germans upon the death of his father in 936. He continued his father's work of unifying all of the German tribes into a single kingdom, greatly expanding the powers of the king at the expense of the aristocracy. Through strategic marriages and personal appointments, Otto installed members of his own family to the Kingdom's most important duchies. This reduced the various Dukes, who had previously been co-equals with the king, into royal subjects under the king's authority. Otto also transformed the Roman Catholic Church in Germany into a major royal power base and subjected the Church to his personal control.

After putting down a brief civil war, Otto defeated the Magyars in 955, ending the Hungarian invasions of Europe and as well as securing his hold over his kingdom. The victory against the pagan Magyars earned Otto the reputation as the savior of Christendom. By 961, Otto had conquered the Kingdom of Italy and extended the his Kingdom's borders to the north, east, and south. In control of much of central and southern Europe, the patronage of Otto and his immediate successors caused a limited cultural renaissance of the arts and architecture. Following the example of Charlemagne, the Frankish king who had been crowned Emperor in 800, Otto was crowned Emperor in 962 by Pope John XII in Rome. His coronation marks the founding of the Holy Roman Empire.

Otto died of natural causes in 973, with his son Otto II succeeding him as Emperor.

Heir Apparent

Otto was born on November 23, 912, the oldest son of the Duke of Saxony Henry the Fowler and his second wife Matilda of Ringelheim, the daughter of the Saxon Count of Westphalia. Henry had previously married Hatheburg, daughter of a Saxon count, in 906 but divorced her in 909 after she had given birth the Henry's first son and Otto's half-brother Thankmar. Otto had four full siblings: Hedwig (b. 910), Gerberga (b. 913), Henry (b. 919), and Bruno (b. 925). Little else is known of Otto's youth and education, though he certainly received training in the army. His first experience as a military commander came when the German Kingdom fought against Slavic tribes on the kingdom's eastern border. While campaigning against the Slavs, in 929 Otto's illegitimate son William, the future Archbishop of Mainz, was born to a Slavic mother.

On December 23, 918, Conrad I of Germany, the King of East Francia and Duke of Franconia, died. According to the Res gestae saxonicae by chronicler Widukind of Corvey, Conrad on his deathbed persuaded his younger brother Duke Eberhard of Franconia, Conrad's presumptive heir, to offer the crown to Otto's father Henry[2]. Although Conrad and Henry had been at odds with one another since 912, Conrad considered Henry to be the only German duke capable of holding the German kingdom together in the face of internal rivalries among the dukes and the continuous Hungarian raids. It was not until May 919, however, when Eberhard and the other Frankish and Saxon nobles accepted Conrad's advice and elected Henry as king at the Reichstag of Fritzlar. Henry's election marked the first time a Saxon instead of a Frank reigned over the kingdom. In accordance with tradition, the Archbishop of Mainz offered to anoint Henry but he refused, the only king not to undergo this rite.

Burchard II, Duke of Swabia soon swore fealty to the new King, but Arnulf, Duke of Bavaria did not recognize Henry's position. According to the Annales Iuvavenses, Arnulf was elected king by the Bavarians in opposition to Henry. Arnulf's "reign" was short-lived. Henry defeated him in two campaigns in 921, finally besieged his residence at Ratisbon (Regensburg) and forced Arnulf into submission. Henry spared Arnulf's life on two conditions: Henry's sovereignty over Bavaria was confirmed and Arnulf renounced his claims to the throne.

With Henry's dominion over the entire Kingdom secured by 929, Henry's family was given the right of sole succession over the Kingdom. Henry arranged for his succession and had the arrangement ratified by an Reichstag at Erfurt. After his death, his lands and wealth were to be divided between his four sons: Thankmar, Otto, Henry, and Bruno.[3] Otto, however, was designated by his father to receive the crown, confirming Otto as Henry's heir apparent. This represented a significant development as the German kingship was traditionally elected by the various Dukes and because Henry gave up the principle of division, in which each member of the royal family was granted a piece of the kingdom to rule as his own. Henry's actions founded individual succession within Germany, thus ensuring the indivisibility of the monarchy.

While Henry consolidated power within Germany, he also prepared for an alliance with Saxon England by finding a bride for Otto. By aligning himself with Saxon England, Henry would gain addition legitimacy through associate with another royal house while also strengthening the bonds between the two Saxon kingdoms. To seal the alliance, King Æthelstan of England sent to Henry his two half sisters Eadgyth and Edgiva with instructions to select the one which best pleased him. Henry selected Edgitha as Otto's bride. The two were married in 929.

Reign as King


The throne of Charlemange at Aachen Cathedral. Otto was crowned King of Germany on Charlemange's throne in 936.

Henry died of a cerebral stroke on July 2, 936, at his palace in Memleben. At his death, all of the German tribes were united in a single German kingdom. He was buried at Quedlinburg Abbey, established by his wife Matilda in his honor. At the age of 23, Otto assumed his father's positions as Duke of Saxony and King of Germany. His coronation was held weeks later in Charlemagne's former capital of Aachen, where he was anointed and crowned by Hildebert, the Archbishop of Mainz. Though he was a Saxon by birth, Otto appeared at the coronation in Frankish dress in an attempt to demonstrate his sovereignty over the Duchy of Lotharingia as well as to link his reign to the legitimacy of Charlemagne. From the outset of his reign, Otto signaled that he was the true successor to Charlemagne, whose last heirs in East Francia had died out in 911, and that he had the German church, with its powerful bishops and abbots, behind him. However, West Francia was still under the rule of the Carolingian dynasty.

According to the Saxon historian Widukind of Corvey, at his coronation banquet, Otto had the four other dukes of the empire, those of Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria and Lorraine, act as his personal attendants: Arnulf I of Bavaria as marshal (or stablemaster), Herman I, Duke of Swabia as cupbearer, Eberhard III of Franconia as steward (or seneschal), and Gilbert of Lorraine as Chamberlain.[4][5] By performing this traditional service, the Dukes signaled cooperation with the new king, and also clearly showed their submission to his reign.

Despite his peaceful transition, Otto's family was not harmonious during his early reign. Otto's younger brother Henry also claimed the throne despite his father's action in 929. According to "The Lives of Queen Matilda" (ita Mathildis reginae antiquior), Otto's mother Matilda of Ringelheim had favored Henry as king over Otto. Henry had been "born in the purple" whereas Otto had not, and shared their father's name, granting Henry greater dignity than his older brother.

Otto also faced internal opposition from various local aristocrats. According to the Saxon historian Widukind of Corvey, in 936, Otto, as Duke of Saxony, appointed Hermann Billung as Margrave and granting him a authority over a march north of the Elbe River between the Limes Saxoniae and Peene River. As military governor of the area, Hermann extracted tribute from the Polabian Slavs inhabiting area and often fought against the West Slavic tribes of Lutici, Obotrites, and Wagri. Hermann's appointment angered Count Wichmann the Elder, Hermann's older brother. As the elder and wealthier of the two, Wichman believed his claim to office were greater. Additionally, Wichmann was related by marriage to the dowager queen Matilda. In 937, Otto further offended the sensibilities of the nobility through the appointed of Gero to succeed his older brother, Siegfried, as Count and Margrave of a border region abutting the Wends on the lower Saale. His appointment frustrated Thankmar, the Otto's half-brother and Siegfried's cousin, who felt he held a greater right to the appointment.

Rebellion of the Dukes

  The Kingdom of Germany during Otto's reign with the its main duchies: Saxony (yellow), Franconia (blue), Bavaria (green), Swabia (orange) and Lorraine (pink). The various dukes of the kingdom rebelled against Otto's rule in 937 and again in 939.

First Rebellion

The year 937 also brought the death of Arnulf, Duke of Bavaria. He was succeeded by his son Eberhard as Duke. Eberhard quickly came into conflict with Otto, who opposed the sovereignty over Bavaria Otto exercised as part of the peace treaty between the former King Henry and Arnulf. Refusing to recognize Otto's supremacy, Eberhard rebelled against the king. In two campaigns in the spring and fall of 938, Otto defeated and exiled Eberhard from the kingdom and stripped him of his titles. In his place, Otto appointed Eberhard's uncle Berthold, the then Duke of Carinthia, as the new Duke of Bavaria on the condition that Berhold recognize Otto as the sole authority to appoint bishops and to administer royal property within the Duchy. [5]

At the same time, Duke Eberhard of Franconia, the brother of former King Conrad I of Germany, soon came into conflict with Otto. Eberhard besieged Helmern castle near Peckelsheim, located within the Duchy of Franconia near the border of the Ducky of Saxony, but under control by a Saxon commander who refused to swear fielty to any non-Saxon. Otto called the feuding parties to a his court at Magdeburg where Eberhard was ordered to pay a fine and his lieutenants were sentenced to carry dead dogs in public, a particularly dishonoring punishment.

Infuriated with Otto's actions, Eberhard joined Otto's half-brother Thankmar, Count Wichmann, and Archbishop Frederick of Mainz and rebelled against the king in 938.[6] The three besieged Warstein in the Arnsberg Forest and freed Otto's brother Henry from imprisonment there. However, the rebels had limited further success. Herman I, Duke of Swabia, one of Otto's closest advisors, warned the king of the rebellion. Otto moved to quickly put down the revolt. Wichmann was soon reconciled with Otto and joined the king's forces against his former compatriots.[7] Otto besieged Thankmar at Eresburg and had him murdered at the altar of the church of Saint Peter. Following Otto's victories, Eberhard and Frederick sought reconciliation with Otto. After a brief exile in Hildesheim, Otto pardoned both men and restituted them to their former positions.[8]

Second Rebellion

Following his brief reconciliation, Eberhard prepared a new rebellion against Otto as he promised to assist Otto's younger brother Henry in claiming the throne. Eberheard recruited Gilbert, Duke of Lorraine to join his rebellion. At the time, Gilbert was married to Otto's sister Gerberga of Saxony. In opposition to Otto, Gilbert swore fealty to King Louis IV of France. Otto exiled Henry from Germany, who fled to King Louis' court. King Louis, in hopes of regaining West Frankish dominion over Lorraine once again, joined forces with Henry and Gilbert. In response, Otto allied with Louis' chief antagonist: the Count of Paris Hugh the Great, the husband of Otto's sister Hedwige of Saxony.[9] Henry march on and captured Merseburg and then marched to join Gilbert in Lorraine, but Otto besieged them at Chevremont near Liege. Before he was defeat them, however, he was forced to set out against Louis, who had marched on and captured Verdun. Otto subsequently drove Louis back to his capital at Laon.

While Otto won initial victories, he was unable to capture the other conspirators and end the rebellion. Archbishop Frederick sought to mediate a peace between Otto and the rebels but Otto refused. Under Otto's direction, Duke Herman of Swabia lead an army against the conspirators into Franconia and Lorraine. Otto recruited allies from Duchy of Alsace, who crossed the Rhine River and surprised Eberhard and Gilbert at the battle of Andernach on October 2, 939. Otto's forces gained complete victory: Eberhard was killed in battle and Giselbert drowned in the Rhine while attempting to escape. Left alone to face his brother, Henry submitted to Otto and the rebellion ended. With Eberhard dead, the Duchy of Franconia became Otto's direct possession. The same year, Otto made peace with Louis VI whereby Louis recognized Otto's suzerainty over Lorraine. In return, Otto withdrew his army from France and arranged for his sister Gerberga of Saxony (the widow of Gilbert) to marry Louis IV. As a reward for Duke Herman's loyalty during the rebellion, Otto arranged for his son Liudolf to marry Herman's only daughter Ida.

In 940, Otto and Henry were reconciled through the efforts of their mother.[5] Henry returned to Germany and Otto appointed Henry as the new Duke of Lorraine to succeed Gilbert. However, Henry again conspired against his older brother in an attempt to claim the throne. With the assistance of Archbishop Frederick of Mainz, Henry planned to have Otto assassinated on Easter in 941 at Quedlinburg Abbey. Otto, however, discovered the plot and had both men arrested and imprisoned at Ingelheim. Otto later released and pardoned both men only after they publicly performed penance on Christmas that same year.

Consolidation of Power

The decade between 941 and 951 is marked by Otto's exercise of undisputed domestic power. Through the subordination of the dukes to his authority, Otto asserted the power to make decisions without first obtain the consensus of the dukes. He deliberately ignored the claims and ranks of the nobility, who wanted dynastic succession in the assignment of office, by freely appointing individuals of his choice to the kingdom's offices. Loyalty to Otto, not lineage, was the pathway towards advancement under his rule. His mother Matilda disapproved of this policy and was accused by Otto's royal advisors of undermining his authority. After Otto briefly exiled her to her Westphalian manors at Enger in 947, Matilda was brought back to court at the urging of his wife Eadgyth.

The nobility found it difficult to adopt to Otto as the kingdom had never before followed individual succession to the throne. Whereas tradition dictated that all the sons of the former king were to receive a portion of the kingdom, Henry's succession plan placed Otto at the head of a united kingdom at the expense of his brothers. Otto's authoritarian style was also in stark contrast to that of his father. Henry had purposely waived Church anointment at coronation as a symbol of his election by his people and governing his kingdom on the basis of "friendship pacts" (amitica). Henry regarded the kingdom as a confederation of duchies and saw himself as first among equal. Instead of seeking to administer the kingdom through royal representatives, as Charlemagne had done, Henry allowed the dukes to maintain complete internal control of their holdings as long as his superior status was recognized. Otto, on the other hand, had accepted Church anointment and regarded his kingdom as a feudal monarchy with himself holding divine right to rule it, allowing him to reign without concern for the internal hierarchy of kingdom's noble families

This new structural system ensured Otto's position as undisputed master of the kingdom. Members of his family and other aristocrats who rebelled against Otto were forced to publicly confesses their guilt and unconditionally surrender to him, hoping for a pardon from their king. For the elite, Otto's punishments was typically mild and the elites were usually restored to a position of authority afterwards. Consider Otto's policy towards his brother Henry, who twice rebelled against him, and who Otto twice pardoned and appointed as Duke of Lorraine and then later as Duke of Bavaria. Commoners who rebelled against the king, however, were not so lucky: Otto usually had them executed.

Otto continued to reward loyal vassal for the service but his appointments began to noticeable change. Appointments were still made at his discretion and those nobles held office at his pleasure but they were increasingly intertwined with dynastic politics. Where Henry relied upon the "friendship pacts", Otto relied upon family ties. Otto refused to accept uncrowned rulers as his equal. Under Otto, the integration of important vassals took place through marriage connections: the King Louis IV of France had married Otto's sister Gerberga of Saxony in 939 and Otto's son Liudolf had married Ida, the daughter of Hermann I, Duke of Swabia in 947. The former diplomatically tied the royal house of West Francia to that of East Francia and the latter secured his son's succession to the Duchy of Swabia as Hermann had no sons. Otto's plans came the fruition when, in 950, Liudolf became Duke of Swabia and when, in 954, Otto's nephew Lothair of France became King of France.

Otto further managed dynastic politics through the case of Conrad the Red. A Salian Frank by birth, Conrad was a nephew of former king Conrad I of Germany. In 944 Otto appointed Conrad as Duke of Lorraine and brought him into his extended family through his marriage to Otto's daughter Liutgarde in 947. Following the death of Otto's uncle Berthold, Duke of Bavaria in 947, Otto also satisfied his brother Henry's claim to power through his marriage to Judith of Bavaria, daughter of Arnulf, and appointing Henry as the new Duke of Bavaria in 948. Henry appointment as Duke finally brought about peace between the brothers as Henry thereafter abandoned his claims to the throne. Through his familial ties to the Dukes, Otto had strengthen both the sovereignty of the crown and the overall cohesiveness of the kingdom.

On January 29, 946, Otto's wife Edgithas died suddenly at the age of 35. The union had lasted seventeen years and produced two children. Otto buried her in the Cathedral of Magdeburg. With Edgithas' death, Otto began to make arrangement for his own succession. Like his father before him, Otto intended to transfer sole rule of the kingdom to his son Liudolf upon his death. Unlike his succession, however, Liudolf's sole right to the throne would not have be militarily enforced. Otto called together all the Dukes of the kingdom and had them sworn and oath of allegiance to Liudolf, thereby promising to recognize his sole claim to throne following the Otto's death and confirming his position as Otto's heir apparent.

Foreign Relations

From the very beginning of his reign, Otto viewed himself as the true heir to Charlemagne, much to the disdain of the Carolingian Kings of the Western Franks. Otto's decision to hold his coronation at the Aachen Cathedral further exacerbated the problem of relations with the Western Franks. Aachen was located within the Duchy of Lorraine, territory the West Frankish Kings still claimed authority over. However, the Carolingian house in West Francia had been severally weakened, losing considerable royal power to the aristocracy. By holding his coronation at Aachen, Otto was directly challenging the Western Frank's legitimacy to rule Lorraine. During Henry's rebellion in 938 and again in 940, King Louis IV of France tried to assume control over Lorraine. In 938 Louis attempt a military invasion but was defeated by Otto's army and because Louis IV's chief domestic rival, Hugh the Great, supported Otto. Hugh had previously married Otto's sister Hedwig of Saxony in 936. Louis IV's second attempt to reign over Lorraine in 940 was more peaceful: he asserted a claim to be the rightful Duke of Lorraine due to his marriage to Gerberga of Saxony, Otto's daughter and the widow of the fallen Gilbert, Duke of Lorraine. Otto did not recognize Louis IV's claim and instead appoint his brother Henry as Duke, keeping Lorraine within his kingdom and securing his link to Charlemange.

Louis IV and Hugh, as Count of Paris, were constant domestic political rivals. With both men now tied to his family through marriage bonds, Otto intervened to bring about peace in West Francia. In 942, Otto announced a formal reconciliation between the two: Hugo was to perform an act of submission to Louis IV, and in return Louis IV was to waive any claims to Lorraine. The peace between the two rival did not last long, however. In 946, the West Frankish kingdom fell into a crisis caused by treachery when Louis VI was captured by the Normans, who presented him to Hugh. Hugh released Louis VI only on the condition that the king would surrender the fortress of Laon to him. At the urging of his sister Gerberga, Otto invaded France on behalf of Louis VI. However, Otto's military strength was not strong enough to take the key cities of Laon, Reims, and Paris. After a three month siege, Otto finally lifted the siege without defeating Hugh. However, Otto was successful in removing Hugh of Vermandois from his position as Archbishop of Reims, restoring Artald of Reims as the Archbishop.[10]

The long-running dispute between Louis IV and Hugh was over control of the Archdiocese of Reims. To settle the issue, Otto called for a synod at Ingelheim in 948. The synod was attended by 34 bishops, including all of the archbishops of Germany. In September 948, the synod confirmed Otto's appointment of Artald as Archbishop of Reims and Hugh was excommunicated until he made peace with Louis IV. It was not until Easter 951, however, that the powerful vassal restored Laon to Louis IV and not 953 did Hugh fully reconcile with his king. By calling for the synod to meet in Germany, Otto demonstrated both his supremacy over the affairs of East Francia and his dominion over the German Church, further strength his claim as Charlemange's true successor.

Otto continued the peaceful relationship between Germany and the Kingdom of Burgundy began by his father Henry: King Rudolf II of Burgundy had married Bertha of Swabia, the daughter of one of Henry's chief advisors, in 922. Burgundy was originally a part of Middle Francia, the central portion of Charlmange's empire prior to the empire's division under the Treaty of Verdun in 843. On July 11, 937, Rudolf II died. Hugh of Provence, the King of Italy and Rudolf II's chief domestic opponent, claimed the Burgundian throne for himself. Otto intervened in the succession, supporting Rudolf II's son Conrad of Burgundy. With Otto's backing, Conrad secured the throne and brought Burgundy firmly within Otto's sphere of influence. Burgundy remained at peace with Germany for all of Otto's reign, with Otto respecting Burgundy's independence subject to his influence.

Boleslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, assumed the Bohemian throne in 935. The next year, following Otto's father King Henry the Fowler's death, Boleslaus stopped paying tribute to Germany, in violation of the peace treaty Henry had established with Boleslaus' brother Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. Otto responded by invaded Bohemia. The prolonged war, presumably consisting of border raids, reached its conclusion in 950 when Boleslav signed a peace treaty with Otto. Despite being undefeated, he promised to resume the payment of the tribute to Otto and to recognize him as his overlord. The Duchy of Bohemia was then incorporated into the German Kingdom.

Byzantine Empire
Otto developed close relations with the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who reigned over the Byzantine Empire from 905 until his death in 959. East and West sent multiple ambassadors to one another during this time. In particular, German Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg records that in 945 and again in 949, "twice the Greek [Byzantine] envoys brought gifts to our king [Otto] from their emperor". It was during this time that Otto sought to link himself to the Eastern Empire through marriage negotiations.

Slavic Wars

Eastern Slavic Wars

As Otto was finalizing his actions to suppress his brother’s rebellion, the Slavs on the Elba River revolted against German rule. Having been subdued by Otto’s father Henry in 928, the Slavs saw Henry’s rebellion as an opportunity to regain their independence. Otto’s lieutenant in east Saxony, Count Gero, was performing exceptionally well. The Count of Thuringia since 937, Gero had successfully repulsed many Slavic incursions. As reward for his military successes, in 939 Otto promoted Gero to the rank of Margrave and granted him command over the entire eastern border theater, named the March of Gero in his honor, making Gero the most powerful Margrave in Otto’s kingdom.

With his new high command, Otto charged Gero with subduing the pagan Polabian Slavs to both Otto’s rule and to convert them to Catholicism. Under the guise of honoring his promotion, Gero invited many Slavic chieftains to a banquet. When the chieftains arrived at the banquet, Gero unleashed his soldiers upon his unsuspecting guests, massacring them. One chieftain, however, managed the escape and informed the other Slavs of Gero’s treachery.[11] The Slavs demanded revenge and marched against Gero with an enormous army. Gero’s military resources proved insufficient to stop the increased Slavic assault. When Otto heard news of the invasion, he made peace with his rebellious brother Henry and hurried from Lorraine in the west to the eastern front. Otto arrived in Saxony and had some success, giving Gero an opportunity to regroup his forces. Otto could not remain in the east long, however. After an initial peace with his brother, Henry recruited a new alliance in rebellion against Otto’s rule, calling Otto back to the west, leaving Gero to face the Slavs alone.

In 941, to bring the Slavs to heel, Gero again turned to treachery. He soon turned to a Slav named Tugumir, a Hevelli chieftain who had been a Saxon captive since the time of King Henry I. Gero promised to support him in claiming the Hevellian throne if, in return, Tugumir would recognize Otto as his overlord. Tugumir agreed and made his way towards the Slavs. Due to Gero’s massacre the previous year, few Slavic chieftains remained, causing the Slavs to quickly proclaim Tugumir as prince. Upon assuming the throne, Tugumir murdered his chief rival and proclaimed his loyalty to Otto, incorporating his territory into the German Kingdom. Otto granted Tugumir the title of “duke” and allowed Tugumir to rule his people, subject to Otto’s suzerainty, in the same manner as the German dukes[12]. With Gero and Tugumir’s treachery, the Slavic federation broke apart. In control of the key Hevelli stronghold of Brandenburg, Gero was able to successfully attack the divided Slavic tribes. The submission of the West Slavs allowed the Germans to extend their control into Eastern Europe, both through militarily colonization and through the establishment of churches.

Northern Slavic Wars

The Danish Kingdom (in red) and its vassals and allies (in pink), during the Danish-Slavic War

As the Slavs in east Saxony rebelled against German rule, so too did the Slavs in north Saxony. Otto’s lieutenant there, Margrave Hermann Billung of the Billung March, had initial success in driving the Slavs back across the Elba but the poor decisions of a subordinate had severely weakened his position. The northern Wend Slavs were soon joined by the Danes from Jutland under King Gorm the Old. The Danes, like the Slavs, had been subdued by Otto’s father Henry years before. The new Slavic-Danish alliance, under the command of Gorm’s son Harold Bluetooth, pushed deep into Hermann’s territory, ultimately capturing the margrave as a prisoner of war in 947.

Harold’s joint Slavic-Danish army was left unchallenged in northern Saxony for three years until 950 when Otto led an army north to counter their advance. Otto’s powerful army defeated Harold and forced him back into Jutland. Otto pursued Harold, devastated Denmark with a policy of scorched earth. His people starving, Harold sued for peace with Otto. Otto demanded that Harold renounce his German conquests, release Hermann, recognize Otto as his overlord, and convert to Christianity. Without the Danes to aid them, the Wend Slavs’ confederation in north Saxony quickly feel apart. Tribe after tribe submitted to Otto’s rule. Otto required the conquered Slavs to pay heavy tribute, support the building of churches, and submit to military conscription[13].

Expansion into Italy

Disputed Italian Throne

Statues of Otto I, right, and Adelaide in Meissen Cathedral. Otto and Adelaide were married after Otto's annexation of Italy to his domain.

In 888, with the death of Emperor Charles the Fat, the empire of Charlemagne was permanently divided into four kingdoms, never to be fully reunited: East Francia, West Francia, Kingdom of Burgundy, and the Kingdom of Italy with each of the four kingdoms being ruled by their own kings. Though the Pope in Rome continued to appoint the kings of Italy as "Emperor" of rule Charlemange's empire, these "Italian Emperors" never exercised any effective authority north of the Alps. Without the unity of an "Emperor", each of the rulers of the former Carolingian realms was left to claim the imperial title for themselves. With the assassination of Emperor Berengar I of Italy in 924, the last nominal heir to Charlemagne was dead and the title "Emperor" was left unclaimed. From his coronation in 936, Otto's demonstrated his desired in claiming the title and the dignity of Charlemagne with it. However, for as long as his wife Eadgyth was alive, Otto appears to have focused his attentions on Germany.

Berengar's death created a power vacuum in Italy. King Rudolf II of Upper Burgundy, and Hugh, Count of Provence and effective ruler of Lower Burgundy, both held competing claims to the throne of Italy. By 926, Hugh forced Rudolf to flee Italy, establishing de facto control over the Italian peninsula. Hugh later induced the Italian nobility to recognise his son Lothair II of Italy as their next king and crowned him in April 931. Hugh and Rudolf II eventually concluded a peace treaty in 933, with Rudolf II renouncing his claims to the Italian throne and Hugh granting control over Lower Burgundy to Rudolf II, which he combined with Upper Burgundy into a new Kingdom of Burgundy. To seal the peace, Rudolf II betrothed his infant daughter Adelaide to Hugh's son Lothair.

In 940, Margrave of Ivrea Berengar II, the grandson of former King Berengar I, led a revolt of Italian nobles against his uncle Hugh. Forewarned by Lothair, Hugh exile Berengar from Italy and Beregnar fled to the protection Otto's court in 941. In 945, Berengar II returned from exile in Germany, gladly welcomed by the Italian nobility. With the aid of hired mercenaries, Berengar II defeated Hugh in battle and forced him into permanent retirement in Provence. As part of a peace deal, Hugh was allowed to remain nominal king of Italy but with Berengar II becoming the power behind the throne. When Hugh died in April 10, 948, his son Lothair succeeded him as nominal king but with Berengar II continued to hold all real power. Months earlier, on December 16, 947, Lothair was finally married to the sixteen-year-old Adelaide.[14]

Lothair's brief "reign" come to end with his death on November 22, 950, presumably poisoned by Berengar, leaving Adelaide widowed before her twenty-birthday. Berengar II then crowned himself king with his son Adalbert of Italy as his co-ruler and heir apparent. Failing to receive wide-spread support for his right to the crown, Berengar II attempted to legitimize his reign by forcing Adelaide, the respective daughter, daughter-in-law, and widow of the last three Italian kings, into marriage with Adalbert. However, Adelaide fiercely refused and was imprisoned by Berengar II at Garda Lake. With the help of Count Adalbert Atto of Canossa, she managed to escape. Besieged by Bereger II in Canossa, Adelaide sent an emissary across the Alps seeking Otto’s protection and marriage. Otto, widowed since 946, knew a marriage to Adelaide would allow him to fulfill his ambition of ruling Italy and, ultimately, claiming the imperial crown as Charlemange’s true heir. Knowing of Adelaide’s great beauty and immense wealth, the thirty-eight year old Otto accepted nineteen year old queen's marriage proposal and prepared for an expedition into Italy.

First Italian Expedition

Manuscript depiction (c. 1200) of Otto accepting the surrender of Berengar II of Italy. Header reads Otto I Theutonicorum rex ("Otto the First, King of the Germans")

In the early summer of 951, before his father marched across the Alps, Otto's son Liudolf, Duke of Swabia, invaded Lombardy in northern Italy. From his stronghold in Swabia located just north of the Alps, Liudolf was in closer proximity to the Italian border than his father in Saxony. While the exact reason for Liudolf's actions are unclear, dynastic concerns and family ties to Adelaide may have been a factor. Adelaide's mother, Bertha of Swabia, was a daughter of Regelinda, the mother of Liudolf's wife Ida, from her first marriage to Burchard II, Duke of Swabia. Liudolf, therefor, may have intervened in the Italian campaign at the request of Adelaide's relatives. Additionally, Liudolf, 19 years old himself, did not view the idea of a young step-mother as in his best interests. Though Otto had named him as his successor, Liudolf feared any potential step-brother may usurp his claim to the German throne.

The purpose of Liudolf's Italian campaign was to overthrow Berengar II and therefor rend Otto's own expedition into Italy, and thus his marriage to Adelaide, unnecessary. However, Bavarian Duke Henry, Otto's brother and Liudolf's uncle, conspired against Liudolf. Swabia and Bavaria shared a long common border and the two dukes were involved in a border dispute. Henry, with malice towards his nephew, influenced the Italian aristocrats not to join Liudolf's campaign. When Liudolf arrived in Lombardy, he found no support and was unable to sustain his army. His army was near destruction until Otto's own army crossed the Alps. Otto reluctantly received Liudolf's forces into his command, angry at his son for his inconsiderate and independent actions.


The Iron Crown of the Lombards passed to Otto in 951 following Italy campaign.

Otto and Liudolf arrived in northern Italy in September 951 without opposition from Berengar II. As they descended into the Po River valley, the Italian nobles and clergy withdrew their support and provided aid to Otto and his advancing army. Recognizing his weakened position, Berengar II fled from his capital in Pavia. When Otto arrived at Pavia on September 23, 951, the city willing opened its gate to the German king. In accordance with Lombard tradition, Otto was crowned with the Iron Crown of the Lombards on October 10. Like Charlemange before him, Otto was now both king of Germany and king of Italy. Otto then sent word to his brother Henry in Bavaria to escort his bride from Canossa to Pavia. The two were promptly married and Otto became the most powerful monarch in Europe.

Soon after his father's marriage, Liudolf left Italy and return to Swabia. Archbishop Frederick of Mainz, the primate of Germany and Otto's longtime domestic rival, returned to Germany alongside Liudolf.

Despite Otto's plans to claim the imperial title, trouble arose in northern Germany, forcing Otto to return with the majority of his army back across the Alps. Otto did, however, leave a portion of his army behind in Italy and appointed his son-in-law Conrad, Duke of Lorraine, as his regent and tasked him with subduing Berengar II.


The Italian expedition greatly worsened the relation between Otto and his son Liudolf, Duke of Swabia. Liudolf viewed Otto’s marriage to Adelaide as potentially threatening to his role as Otto’s designated successor and any male child born from the union could potential usurp his position as heir apparent. Liudolf also distrusted the growing influence of his uncle, the former rebel Henry I, Duke of Bavaria. The two men quarreled over who should hold the second highest position within the kingdom: the king’s brother or the king’s son.

When Otto returned to Germany in 952, he left Conrad, Duke of Lorraine, in Italy as his regent to settlement affairs and to bring King Berengar II of Italy to heel. Though Otto took most of the Germany army with him, he did leave Conrad a small contingent of troops. Understand his weak position, Conrad employed diplomacy over warfare and opened peace negotiations with Berengar II. Conrad recognized that a military occupation of Italy would impose great costs upon Germany, both in manpower in treasure. At a time when the kingdom was facing military invasion from the north by the Danes and from the east by the Slavs and Hungarians, all available resource were required north of the Alps. Conrad believed a client state relationship with Italy, therefor, would be in Germany’s best interests. Conrad concluded a peace treaty in which Berengar II would remain king of Italy on the condition that he recognized Otto as his overlord.[15] Berengar II agreed and the pair traveled north to seal meet Otto and seal the agreement.

Conrad’s treaty, however, was met with disdain from both Adelaide and Henry. Though Adelaide was Burundian by birth, she was raised as an Italian. Her father Rudolf II of Burgundy was briefly king of Italy prior to being deposed and she herself had briefly been queen of Italy until his husband Lothair II of Italy’s death. Adelaide also bore hatred for Berengar II for imprisoning her when she refused to marry his son Adalbert of Italy and she desired revenge against him. Likewise, Henry too disapproved of the peace treaty. As Duke of Bavaria, Henry controlled territory on the northern side of the German-Italian border. Henry had hope that with Berengar II being deposed, Henry’s territory would be greatly expanded by incorporating territory south of the Alps. Henry and Conrad were already not on good terms, and Conrad’s proposed treaty further drove the two dukes apart. As such, both Adelaide and Henry conspired together to persuade Otto to reject Conrad’s treaty, insulting both Berengar II and Conrad in the process.[16]

Conrad and Berengar II meet Otto at Magdeburg but Adelaide demanded that the pair wait three days before receiving an audience with Otto. This was a humiliating offense for the man Otto had named his regent. Though Adelaide and Henry desired for Otto to reject the treaty, Otto recognized the danger in doing so and so referred the issue to the Reichstag. Appearing before the Reichstag in August 952 in Augsburg, Berengar II and his son Adalbert were forced to swear fealty to Otto as his vassal. In return, Otto granted Berengar II Italy as his fief and restored the title “King of Italy” to him Berengar II. The Italian king, however, was forced to pay an enormous annual tribute and was required to cede the Duchy of Friuli south of the Alps to Otto. As reward for Henry’s loyalty, Otto assigned the duchy as then reorganized March of Verona to the control of the Bavarian Duke, making the Duchy of Bavaria the most powerful duchy in Germany.[17]

Liudolf’s Civil War

Rebellion Against Otto

With the humiliating failure of his own Italian campaign fresh on his mind, Liudolf began contemplating a rebellion against his father. On Christmas Day 951, Liudolf held a grand feast at Saalfeld which was attended by many important figures from across the king, most notably the primate of Germany and Otto’s chief domestic rival Archbishop Frederick of Mainz. Contemporaries recalled how Otto’s brother Henry hold held a similar such fest ten years prior in 941 before he himself launched an armed rebellion against Otto.

Liudolf was able to successfully recruit his brother-in-law Conrad, Duke of Lorraine, to his rebellion. Otto’s forcing of Berengar II to cede control of Italian territory humiliated Conrad. As Otto’s regent in Italy, Conrad fully believed Otto would confirm the entire agreement he had conducted. Instead of the voluntary alliance Conrad had promised, Berengar II was made Otto’s subject and his kingdom reduced. Conrad felt betrayed and insulted over Otto’s handling of the peace treaty, especially over the empowerment of Henry. These actions allowed Liudolf to successfully recruit his brother-in-law Conrad to join his rebellion. Conrad, as did Liudolf, viewed Otto as being controlled by his foreign born wife and his power-hungry brother and together resolved to rescue the kingdom from their domination.

In winter 952, Adelaide gave birth to a son, whom she named Henry after her brother-in-law and the child’s grandfather, Henry the Fowler. Rumors spread that Otto had been persuaded by his wife and brother to propose this child as his heir instead of Liudolf. For many German nobles, this rumor represented Otto’s final transforming from a policy focused on Germany to an Italian-centered one. The idea that Otto would ask them to revoke the succession rights of Liudolf prompted many nobles into open rebellion. Instead of Otto as their target, however, Liudolf and Conrad led the nobles against Henry in Bavaria, in spring 953. Liudolf and Conrad first targeted Henry’s domain of Bavaria. Henry, who was appointed by Otto as Duke in 947, was unpopular with the Bavarians due to his Saxon heritage and so quickly rebelled against him.[18]

Word of the rebellion reached Otto at Ingelheim. To secure his position, Otto traveled to his stronghold at Mainz. Mainz was also the seat of Archbishop Frederick of Mainz, who acted as the spokesman for the rebels. Frederick offered himself as a mediator between Otto and the rebels, who quickly joined Otto in Mainz. History does not record the details of the meeting or of the specifics of the negotiated treaty, but Otto soon left Mainz with a peace treaty favorable to the demands of the conspirators, mostly like confirming Liudolf as heir apparent and approving Conrad’s original agreement with Berengar II, making the treaty counter to the desires of both Adelaide and Henry.

When Otto returned to Saxony, Adelaide and Henry persuade the king to declare the treaty void. Summoning the Reichstag at Fritzlar, Otto declared Liudolf and Conrad as outlaws in absentia.[19] Otto also reasserted his desires for dominion over Italy and to claim the imperial title. Otto sent emissaries to the Duchy of Lorraine and stirred the local nobles against Conrad’s rule there. Conrad was a Salian Frank by birth and the unpopular with the people of Lorraine, who pledging their support to Otto.

Otto’s actions before the Reichstag prompted the people of the Duchy of Swabia and the Duchy of Franconia into civil war against their king. After initial defeats by Otto, Liudolf and Conrad fell back to the rebellion headquarters in Mainz. In July 953, Otto and his army laid siege to the city, supported by Henry’s army from Bavaria. After two months, however, the city had not fallen and rebellions against Otto’s rule grew stronger in southern Germany. Faced with these challenges, Otto opened peace negotiations with Liudolf and Conrad. Bruno the Great, Otto’s youngest brother and royal chancellor since 940, had accompanied his older brothers and saw to the arrangements for the negotiations to take place. As the newly appointed Archbishop of Cologne, Bruno was eager to end the civil war in Lorraine which was in his ecclesiastical territory. The rebels demanded ratification of the treaty they had previously agreed to with Otto, but Henry’s actions during the meeting caused the negotiations to break down.[20] Conrad and Liudolf left the meeting with Otto to continue the civil war. Angered by their actions, Otto stripped Liudolf and Conrad of their duchies of Swabia and Lorraine, respectively. Otto then appointed his brother Bruno, the royal chancellor and archbishop of Cologne, as the new Duke of Lorraine. Never before had an ecclesiastical figure occupied a dukedom.

While he was on campaign with Otto, Henry had appointed the Bavarian Count Palatine Arnulf II, son of Arnulf the Bad whom Henry displaced as Duke, to governing the duchy in his absence. The choice proved to be a poor one. Seeking revenge against Henry for deposing his father, Arnulf II deserted Henry and joined the rebellion against Otto. Lifting the siege of Mainz, Otto and Henry marched south to regain control over Bavaria. However, the local nobles refused to aid the pair, forcing their retreat back to Saxony.[21]

Otto’s situation seemed to grow worse each day. The duchies of Bavaria, Swabia, and Franconia were in open civil war against him and even in his native Saxony revolts began to spread.By the end of 953, the civil war was threatening to depose Otto and permanently end his claims to be Charlemagne’s successor.

End of the Rebellion

In early 954, Margrave Hermann Billung, Otto’s longtime ally in Saxony, was faced with increased Slavic invasion into Germany territory. Using the civil war a cover, the Slavs raided deeper and deeper across the border. Likewise, the Hungarians raided German territory from the south into southern Germany.

Though Liudolf and Conrad prepared defenses against the invasions, the Hungarians devastated Bavaria, Swabia, and Franconia. Otto’s brother Henry quickly spread rumors that Conrad and Liudolf had invited the Hungarians into Germany. Public opinion quickly turned against the rebels in these duchies. With this change in opinion and the death of his wife Liutgarde, Otto’s only daughter, Conrad began peace negotiations with Otto, which were eventually joined by Liudolf and Archbishop Frederick.[22] A truce was declare, and Otto convened a meeting of the Reichstag on June 15, 954, at Langenzenn. Before the Reichstag convened, both Conrad and Frederick were reconciled with Otto. At the Reichstag, however, Henry accused his nephew Liudolf of conspiring with the Hungarians. Henry’s accusations enraged Liudolf, who refused to end the rebellion. Though both Conrad and Frederick implored Liudolf to seek peace, Liudolf left the Reichstag determined to continue the civil war.

Liudolf, with his lieutenant Arnulf II (the effective ruler of Bavaria), took his army south towards Regensburg in Bavaria, followed quickly by Otto. The armies met at Nurnberg and engaged in a deadly, though not decisive, battle. Liudolf retreated to Regensburg, and there besieged by Otto. Though Otto’s army was unable to break through the city’s walls, after two months of siege, starvation set in within the city. Liudolf then sent a message to Otto seeking to open peace negotiations and the siege ended. Otto demanded unconditional surrender, which Liudolf refused. Fighting continued, eventually claiming the life of Arnulf II. With his lieutenant dead, Liudolf fled from Bavaria for his domain of Swabia, quickly followed by Otto. Previously stripped of his ducal title, Luidolf’s allies within Swabia had been persecuted by Otto’s followers. The two armies met near Illertissen near the Swabian-Bavarian border. After a costly battle, Liudolf agreed to end hostilities against Otto. A truce was declared between father and son until a Reichstag would be assembled to ratify the peace. Bruno arranged for Otto and Liudolf to meet to conclude peace terms. Otto forgave his son of all transgressions and Liudolf agreed to accept any punishment his father felt appropriate.[23]

Soon after the peace agreement between Otto and Liudolf, the aging and sick Archbishop Frederick died in October 954. With the surrenders of Liudolf, the rebellion had been put down throughout Germany except in Bavaria. Otto convened the Reichstag in December 954 at Arnstadt. Before the assembled nobles of the kingdom, both Liudolf and Conrad declared their fealty to Otto and restored control over all territories their armies still occupied. Through Otto did not restore their former ducal title to them, he did allow them to retain their private estates. The Reichstag ratified Otto’s actions:

Otto’s actions in December 954 finally brought an end to the two-year long civil war. Liudolf’s rebellion, though temporarily weakening, ultimately strengthened Otto’s position as absolute ruler of Germany. The rebellion and its aftermath, however, came at a heavy price for Otto. His son-in-law, Conrad, the former Duke of Lorraine, was killed in the battle of Lechfeld and his brother Henry I, Duke of Bavaria was mortally wounded, dying a few months later on November 1. With Henry’s death, Otto appoint his four-year old nephew Henry II, to succeed his father as Duke, with his mother Judith of Bavaria as his regent. Otto appointed Liudolf in 956 as the commander of an expedition against King Berengar II of Italy, but soon died of fever on September 6, 957. Otto buried him at St. Alban’s Abbey in Mainz. The deaths of Henry, Liudolf, and Conrad took from Otto the three most prominent of his royal family, including his heir apparent. Additionally, his first two second from his marriage to Adelaide of Italy, Henry (b. 952), and Bruno (b. 953) had also died by 957. This left Otto’s third son by Adelaide, the two-year old Otto II, as the kingdom’s crown prince.

Hungarian Invasions

Europe shortly after Otto's reign. The Hungarians (orange), located to the east of Otto's realm (blue), invaded Germany in 954 and 955.

The Hungarians invaded Otto’s domain, part of the larger Hungarian invasions of Europe, and ravaged southern Germany during Liudolf’s civil war. Though Otto had installed the Margraves Hermann Billung and Gero on his kingdom’s northern and northeastern borders, the Principality of Hungary to the southeast were a permanent threat to German security. The Hungarians knew of the kingdom’s civil war and its internal weaknesses, which gave them an opportunity to invade the Duchy of Bavaria in spring 954. Though Liudolf, Duke of Swabia, and Conrad, Duke of Lorraine, had successfully prevented the Hungarians from invade their own territories in the west, the invaders managed to make it to the Rhine River, sacking much of Bavaria and Franconia in the process.

On Palm Sunday, 954, Liudolf held a great feast at Worms and invited the Hungarian chieftains to join him. There, he presented the invaders with gifts of gold and silver. These actions proved to be the undoing of Liudolf’s rebellion. Rumor quickly spread that the rebels had invited the Hungarians into Germany in hopes of using them against Otto, causing popular support for the rebellion to quickly dry up. Support lost, the rebels called a truce with Otto. Conrad and Archbishop Frederick of Mainz, two of Liudolf’s primary conspirators, made peace with Otto. Liudolf continued the civil war, but within two months he to submitted to his father’s rule. By December 954, the civil war had ended and domestic peace returned to Germany.

The Hungarians, encouraged by their previously successful raids, made another invasion into Germany in spring 955. Otto’s army, now unhindered by civil war, was able to defeat the invasion and the Hungarians sent an ambassador seeking peace with Otto. The ambassador proved to be a decoy, however, Otto's brother Henry I, Duke of Bavaria, sent word to Otto that the Hungarians had crossed into his territory from the southeast. The main Hungarian army had camped along the Lech River and besieged Augsburg. While the city was defended by the Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg, Otto assembled his army and marched south to face the Hungarians.

A 1457 illustration of the battle of Lechfeld in Sigmund Meisterlin's codex about the history of Nuremberg.

Otto and his army faced the Hungarian force on August 10, 955, at the battle of Lechfeld. Under Otto’s command was his vassal Boleslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, and Burchard III, Duke of Swabia, who had married the daughter of Otto’s brother Henry. The pair was soon joined by Otto’s son-in-law Conrad. Though outnumber nearly two to one, Otto was determined to push the Hungarians back. According to the chronicler Widukind of Corvey, Otto "pitched his camp in the territory of the city of Augsburg and joined there the forces of Henry I, Duke of Bavaria, who was himself lying mortally ill nearby, and by Duke Conrad with a large following of Franconian knights. Conrad's unexpected arrival encouraged the warriors so much that they wished to attack the enemy immediately."[24] Otto carried the Holy Lance, which he inherited from his father, into battle with him.[25]

The Hungarians crossed the river and immediately attacked the Bohemians under Boleslaus, then the Schwabian under Burchard, but retreated after a short fight. As Otto received word of the attack, he ordered Conrad to recover the baggage train, and Conrad succeeded in doing so. Conrad then returned to the main forces. For Otto it became evident that this was the time to attack the Hungarians, and he did not hesitate. Despite a volley of arrows from the Hungarians, Otto's army smashed into the Hungarian line, and began to sweep over it. The Germans were able to fight hand-to-hand with the Hungarians, giving the traditionally nomadic warriors no room to use their favorite shoot-and-run tactics. The Hungarians feigned a retreat in an attempt to lure Otto's men into breaking their line in pursuit, but to no avail. The German line maintained formation and routed the Hungarians from the field, killing approximately a third of the Hungarian army in the process. On the field of battle, the German lords raised Otto on their shields in the Germanic manner and proclaimed him Emperor.

Though Otto’s son-in-law Conrad was killed during the battle and Otto’s brother Henry was mortally wounded, Otto’s action at Lechfeld marked a turning point in German-Hungarian relations. While the battle was not a crushing defeat for the Hungarian, as Otto was not able to chase the fleeing army into Hungarian lands, the defeat effectively ended almost 100 years of Hungarian invasions into Western Europe.[26]

Otto had little time to celebrate his victory, however. With his main army in southern Germany, the Obortrie Slavs in the north were in a state of insurrection. Count Wichmann the Younger, still Otto's opponent over the king's refusal to grant Wichmann the title of Margrave in 936, marauded through the lands of the Obortries in the Billung March, causing the followers of Slavic Prince Nako to revolt. The Obotrites invaded Saxony in fall 955, killing the men of arms-bearing age and carrying off the women and children into slavery. According to Widukind of Corvey, in the aftermath of Lechfeld, Otto rushed to the north and pressed hard into Slav territory. Otto razed the Slav population centres and soon had encircled them: he offered to spare his enemies if they would surrender. A Slav embassy traveled to Otto held and offered to pay annual tribute in return for being allowed self-government under German overlordship instead of direct German rule.[27] Otto refused, and the two side meet on October 16 at the battle of Recknitz. Otto's forces massacred the Slavic invaders. Of the 9000 Slavic soldiers, 4,500 lay dead and 2,000 wounded by battle's end. After the battle, the Slavic commander's head was raised on a pole and hundreds of captured Slavs were executed before sundown.[28]

Celebrations for Otto’s victory over the pagan Hungarians and Slavs were held in churches across the kingdom, with bishops attributing the victory to divine intervention and as proof of Otto’s divine right to rule. The battles of Lechfeld and Recknitz mark a turning point in Otto’s reign. Otto’s victory over the Hungarians and Slavs sealed his hold on power over Germany. From 955 on, Otto would not experience another rebellion against his rule.

Reign as Emperor

Second Italian Expedition and Imperial Coronation

The Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto was crowned as Emperor on February 2, 962, by Pope John XII.

Liudolf’s death in fall 957 deprived Otto of both the kingdom’s crown prince as well as the commander of Otto’s expedition against King Berengar II of Italy. Beginning with the unfavorable peace treaty of 952 in which he became Otto’s vassal, Berengar II was always a rebellious subordinate. With the death of Liudolf and Henry I, Duke of Bavaria, and with Otto campaigning in northern Germany, in 958 Berengar II attacked the March of Verona, which Otto had stripped from his control under the 952 treaty, and laid siege to Count Adalbert Atto of Canossa there. Berengar II’s forces also attacked the Papal States and the city of Rome, bring Berengar II into conflict with Pope John XII. By Christmas 960, with Italy in political turmoil, the Pope sent word to Otto seeking his aid against Berengar II. Several refugees across to the Alps into Germany, including Walpert, the Archbishop of Milan, and Ubald, the Bishop of Como, also requested Otto’s protection. With the call for aid from the Pope, Otto demanded the Pope crown him Emperor in return for his intervention. The Pope agreed and Otto prepared his army.

In preparations for his second Italian campaign and his imperial coronation, Otto planned for the kingdom’s future. At an assembly of the Reichstag at Worms in May 961, Otto named his seven-year old son Otto II as his heir apparent and co-ruler and had him crowned at Aachen Cathedral on May 26, 961.[29] Otto was anointed by Archbishops Bruno I of Cologne, William of Mainz, and Henry I of Trier. Otto then appointed his brother Bruno and illegitimate son Henry as Otto II’s co-regents in Germany as Otto crossed the Alps into Italy, accompanied by Archbishop Henry.

Otto’s army descended into Italy in August 961 through the Brenner Pass at Trento in northern Italy. Otto then marched on Pavia, the old Lombard capital of Italy, where he celebrated Christmas. At Pavia, Otto officially deposed Berengar II as king and assumed the title for himself. Berengar II’s army retreated to their strongholds to avoid battle with Otto, allowing Otto to advance unopposed to the Pope in Rome.

Otto reached Rome on January 31, 962. Three days later, Otto was crowned at St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope John XII as Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope also anointed Otto’s wife Adelaide of Italy, who had accompanied Otto on his Italian campaign, as Empress. With Otto’s coronation as Emperor, the kingdom of German and the kingdom of Italy were unified into the Holy Roman Empire. Following his coronation, the new Emperor returned to Pavia and conducted a campaign against Berengar II, sieging him at San Leo. By 963, Berengar II surrendered to Otto.

Papal Politics

On February 12, 962, Emperor Otto and Pope John XII called a synod in Rome to cement their relationship. At the synod, Pope John XII approved Otto’s long desired Archdiocese of Magdeburg. The Emperor had planned for the establishment of the archdiocese to commemorate his victory at the battle of Lechfeld over the Hungarians and to further convert the Slavs to Christianity. To ensure the success of the archdiocese, the Pope named St. Maurice as the archdiocese’s patron saint and called upon the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne to support the new archdiocese.

The next day Otto and John XII ratified the Diploma Ottonianum, confirming John XII as the spiritual head of the Church and Otto as the secular protector of the Church. In the Diploma, Otto confirmed the earlier Donation of Pepin of 754 between King of the Franks Pepin the Short and Pope Stephen II. Otto recognized the Pope’s secular control over the Papal States, and expanded his domain to include Rome, the Exarchate of Ravenna, the Duchy of Spoleto and the Duchy of Benevento. Though the Pope had control over these territories, Otto was recognized as the overlord of all Italy. The Diploma also regulated papal election, which granted the right to elect the pontiff exclusively with the clergy and people of Rome. However, before the Pope-elect could be confirmed in his position he must issue an oath of allegiance to the Emperor, effectively granting the Emperor a veto over any papal candidate.

With the Diploma signed, Otto marched against Berengar II to reconquer Italy. Upon the successful completion of Otto’s campaign, John XII had a change of heart. The power shift in Italy caused John XII to suddenly fear the Emperor’s power. The Pope began negotiations with Berengar II’s son Adalbert of Italy to depose Otto. The Pope also sent envoys to the Hungarians and the Byzantine Empire to join him and Adalbert in an alliance against Otto. Otto discovered the Pope’s plot, however, and after defeating and imprisoning Berengar II marched on Rome. John XII fled from Rome, and Otto, upon his arrival in Rome, subsequently summoned a council and summarily deposed John XII as Pope and appointed Leo VIII as his successor. [30]

Otto returned to Germany by the end of 963, confident his rule in Italy and at Rome was secure. Leo VIII, a layman with no former ecclesiastical training, was soon found to be unacceptable to the Roman populace, however. In February 964, at the provoking of John XII, the Roman people forced Leo VIII to flee the city. In his absence, Leo VIII was deposed and John XII was restored to the chair of St. Peter. On the sudden death of John XII in May 964, the Romans elected Pope Benedict V as his successor. Upon hearing of the Romans’ actions, Otto mobilized his army and returned to Italy. After marching on Rome and laying siege to the city in June 964, Otto compelled the Romans to accept his appointee Leo VIII as Pope and exiled Benedict V.[31] With his action in Rome, Otto effectively subjugated the entire Catholic Church to his will.

Third Italian Expedition

Italy around 1000, shortly after Otto's reign. Otto's expansion campaigns brought northern and central Italy into the Holy Roman Empire.

Believing affairs settled in Italy, Otto returned to Saxony in fall 965. Months before the Emperor’s return, Otto’s long serving lieutenant on the eastern front, Margrave Gero, had died on May 20. At the time of his death, Gero commanded a “super-march” (the Marca Geronis) stretching from the Billung March in the north to the Duchy of Bohemia in the south. Though not popular with the nobles of the Empire, Gero had long been one of Otto’s most trusted lieutenants since the very beginning of his reign in 936. Otto was even the godfather of Gero’s children. After his death, the huge territory Gero had conquered from the Slavs was divided by the Emperor into five different marches, each ruled by their margrave: the Northern March under Dietrich of Haldensleben, the Eastern March under Odo I, the March of Meissen under Wigbert, the March of Merseburg under Günther, and the March of Zeitz under Wigger I.

The peace in Italy would not last long. Adalbert of Italy, son of the deposed King Berengar II of Italy, rebelled against Otto’s rule over Italy, seeking revenge for the ousting of his father. Otto dispatched his nephew-in-law Burchard III, Duke of Swabia and one of Otto’s closest advisors, to Italy in 966 to crush the rebellion. Burchard III met Adalbert at the battle of the Po on June 25 that year, defeating the rebel and restoring Italy to Ottonian control. Italy would not remain pacified, however. Pope Leo VIII had died on March 1, 965, leaving the chair of St. Peter vacant. The Church elected on October 1, with Otto’s approval, John XIII to succeed Leo VIII as Pope. [32] John XIII’s behavior and foreign backing, however, made him disliked among the Roman people. Ten weeks into his reign as Pope, John XIII was taken prisoner by the Romans and imprisoned in Campania. The Pope sent word to Otto begging for his health. Otto received John XIII’s message and prepared his army for a third expedition into Italy. Otto would not return to Germany for six years until 972.

In August, 966, at Worms, Otto announced his arrangements for the government of Germany in his absence. Otto’s illegitimate son Archbishop William of Mainz would serve as Otto’s regent over all of Germany while Otto’s trust lieutenant, the Margrave Hermann Billung, would be his personal administrator over the Duchy of Saxony. Otto then marched with his army to Chur in the Apls, his wife Empress Adelaide and eleven-year old son Crown Prince Otto II accompanying him.

Reign from Rome

Upon arriving in Italy, the Emperor restored John XIII to his papal throne on November 16, 966, without opposition. Otto then captured the twelve leaders of the militia which had deposed and imprisoned the Pope: the Emperor had them tortured and then crucified. Taking up permanent residence at Rome, the Emperor and Pope travelled to Ravenna to celebrate Easter in 967. The first few months of the year 968 brought the deaths of Otto’s illegitimate son William, the Archbishop of Mainz and regent of Germany, as well as Otto’s mother, the Dowager Queen Matilda of Ringelheim.

With Otto’s new permanent capital in Rome, the Emperor began looking to expand his Empire to the south. Since February 967, the Duke of Benevento, the Lombard Pandolf Ironhead, had accepted Otto as his overlord. This brought Otto the ire of the Byzantine Empire, which had claimed sovereignty over Benevento. The eastern Empire also objected to Otto’s use of the title “Emperor”, believing only the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas was the true successor of the ancient Roman Empire. Otto granted Duke Pandolf control of the vacant Duchy of Spoleto with instruction to wage war against the Byzantine Empire’s possession in the heel and toe of Italy.

Despite Otto’s warlike ways, the Byzantines opened peace talks with Otto. Otto gladly accepted as he desired both an eastern imperial princes as a bridge for his son and successor Otto II as well as the legitimacy and prestige the connection of his Imperial House in the West with that of the Macedonian dynasty in the East. In order to further his dynastic plans, and in preparation for the union between East and West, Otto returned to Rome in winter 967 where the Emperor had his son Otto II crowned Co-Emperor by Pope John XIII on December 25, 967.[33] Although Otto II was now the nominal co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, he exercised no real authority until the death of his father several years later.

It would be several years before Otto received a bride for his son from the east. In 969, Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus was assassinated by John I Tzimiskes in a military revolt, who succeeded him as Byzantine Emperor. Finally recognizing Otto's imperial title, the new eastern emperor sent his niece Theophanu to Rome in 972. Otto II and Theophano were married on April 14, 972[34] With the marriage between East and West, the conflict over southern Italy between the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was resolved, though the exact terms of the peace are unknown. Both Otto and John I would jointly rule southern Italy as part of an alliance.

Final Years and Death

Grave of Otto I in Magdeburg

With his son’s wedding completed and peace with the Byzantine Empire concluded, Otto led the imperial family over the Alps and back to Germany in August 972. In spring 973, the Emperor visited Saxony and celebrated Palm Sunday in Magdeburg. At the ceremony, Margrave Hermann Billing, Otto’s trusted lieutenant and personal administrator over Saxony during his years in Italy, was received like a king by Archbishop Adalbert of Magdeburg. The actions annoyed the emperor, which Adalbert intended to be a protests against the Emperor’s prolonged absence from Germany.

Celebrating Easter in 973 in Quedlinburg, Emperor Otto was the most powerful man in Europe. At Quedlinburg, he received envoys not only from Denmark, Poland and Hungary but also from the Byzantine Empire, Rome, and even from Muslim Spain. To mark the Rogation Days, Otto travelled to his palace at Memleben, the place where his father had died 37 years earlier. While there, Otto became seriously ill with fever and, after receiving his last sacraments, died on May 7, 973, at the age of 60.

The transition of power to his seventeen-year old son Otto II was seamless. On May 8, the lord of the Empire confirmed Otto II as their new ruler. Otto II arranged for a magnificent thirty day funeral, finally laying his father to rest beside his first wife Eadgyth in Magdeburg Cathedral.


Otto and the German Church

A medieval king investing a bishop with the symbols of office. Otto centralized his control over Germany through the investiture of bishops and abbots, making the clergy-class his personal vassal.

After the battle of Lechfeld, Otto worked to further consolidate power over his kingdom. The undisputed master of Germany, Otto worked to further reduce the duchies under the authority of the king. However, in the 950s, Otto used the Catholic Church as a tool of his dominance. Otto increasingly associated himself with the Church and to his divine right to rule the kingdom, viewing himself as the protector of the Church. As a key element of his new domestic policy, Otto sought to strengthen ecclesiastical authorities, chiefly bishops and abbots, at the expense of the secular nobility who threatened his own power. To control the forces that the Church represented, Otto made consistent use of three institutions. Otto controlled the various bishops and abbots by investing with them the symbols of their offices, both spiritual and temporal, in which Otto secured his bishops and abbots as his vassals through a commendation ceremony. "Under these conditions clerical election became a mere formality in the Ottonian empire, and the king filled up the ranks of the episcopate with his own relatives and with his loyal chancery clerks, who were also appointed to head the great monasteries".[35]

Otto’s prototype for this blended royal-ecclesiastical service was his own brother Bruno the Great. Otto had appointed Bruno as his Chancellor in 940, as Archbishop of Cologne in 953, and as Duke of Lorraine in 953. In control of the western most German lands, Bruno was also Otto’s ambassador to West Francia. Holding these positions simultaneously made Bruno the second most powerful man in Germany behind Otto. Other important religious officials within Otto’s government include Archbishop William of Mainz (Otto’s illegitimate son), Archbishop Adalag of Bremen, and Hadamar, the Abbot of Fulda.

Otto endowed the bishoprics and abbeys of his kingdom numerous gifts, including not only land but also royal prerogatives such as the power to levy taxes and to maintain an army. Over these Church lands secular authorities had neither the power of taxation nor legal jurisdiction. This raised the Church above the various dukes, instead being answerable directly to Otto himself as king. These donations also committed the entire German Church to serve the king as his personal vassal. By the reign of Otto’s successor, Otto II, the Church provided two-thirds of the kingdom’s military forces. In return, Otto made tithing mandatory for all inhabitants of Germany in order to support the Church.

Otto granted the various bishops and abbots of the kingdom the rank of count as well as the legal rights of counts within their territory. Because Otto personally appointed all bishops and abbots, these reforms strengthened his central authority, and the upper ranks of the German Church functioned in some respect as an arm of the royal bureaucracy. Otto also established a policy of appointing his personal court chaplains to the various bishop positions throughout the kingdom. While attached to the royal court, the chaplains would perform the work of the government through services to the royal chancellery. After years at court, Otto would reward their service by promotion to a diocese.

Thus, the Church under Otto distinguished itself from the earlier Church in German by two primary characteristics: first by a much stronger connect to the royal court, and second, by a closer integration of spiritual and secular duties of the clergy. This intimacy with the court and a total dependence upon the king for advancement further linked the church and state under Otto. Conflict over these powerful bishoprics between Otto's successors, and the growing power of the Papacy during the Gregorian Reforms would eventually lead to the Investiture Conflict and the undoing of central authority in Germany in the 11th century.

The Ottonian Renaissance

A limited renaissance of the arts and architecture depended on court patronage of Otto and his immediate successors. The "Ottonian Renaissance" was manifest in some revived cathedral schools, such as that of Bruno I, Archbishop of Cologne, and in the production of illuminated manuscripts, the major art form of the age, from a handful of elite scriptoria, such as that at Quedlinburg Abbey, founded by Otto in 936. The Imperial abbeys and the Imperial court became the centers of religious and spiritual life, led by the example of women of the royal family. Scandalized by the state of the liturgy in Rome, Otto commissioned the first ever Pontifical Book, a liturgical book containing both prayers and ritual instruction. The compilation of the Romano-Germanic Pontifical, as it is now called, was overseen by Archbishop William of Mainz.

Modern World

Emperor Otto I was selected as the main motif for a high value commemorative coin, the €100 Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire commemorative coin, minted in 2008 by Austria. The obverse shows the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire. The reverse shows Emperor Otto I with old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in the background, where his coronation took place.



  1. ^ Arnulf,Liber gestorum recentium, I.7.
  2. ^ Reuter, Timothy, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800 - 1056. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1991.p 136
  3. ^ Bernhardt, 3.
  4. ^ Widukind of Corvey, Res gestae saxonicum Book 2, chapter 2: duces vero ministrabant. Lothariorum dux Isilberhtus, ad cuius potestatem locus ille pertinebat, omnia procurabat; Evurhardus mensae preerat, Herimannus Franco pincernis, Arnulfus equestri ordini et eligendis locandisque castris preerat; Sigifridus vero, Saxonum optimus et a rege secundus, gener quondam regis, tunc vero affinitate coniunctus, eo tempore procurabat Saxoniam, ne qua hostium interim irruptio accidisset, nutriensque iuniorem Heinricum secum tenuit. Bibliotheca Augustana.
  5. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  6. ^ Reuter, 152.
  7. ^ Thompson, 599–600, records that Widukind of Corvey was condoning of Wichmann's behaviour.
  8. ^ Holland T. (2009) Millennium. London. Abacus. Page 59.
  9. ^ Gwatkin ,The Cambridge Medieval History: Volume III. p 189
  10. ^ Rosamund McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians (1983) p. 317.
  11. ^ Howorth, 218.
  12. ^ Zimmermann, pg 713-4
  13. ^ Zimmermann, 715-6
  14. ^ Odilo of Cluny gives her age at her marriage as "in her sixteenth year."
  15. ^ Zimmermann, Wilhelm (1877). A Popular History of Germany: From the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume II. Henry J. Johnson. p. 732-3.
  16. ^ Zimmermann, 733-4
  17. ^ Zimmermann, 735
  18. ^ Zimmermann, 736
  19. ^ Zimmermann, 738
  20. ^ Zimmermann, 741
  21. ^ Zimmermann, 742-3
  22. ^ Zimmermann, 747
  23. ^ Zimmermann, 750
  24. ^ http://college.hmco.com/history/west/mosaic/chapter5/source259.html (paid account required)
  25. ^ Zimmermann, 757
  26. ^ Bóna István (March 2000). "A kalandozó magyarság veresége. A Lech-mezei csata valós szerepe". http://www.historia.hu/archivum/2000/0003bona.htm. Retrieved 2011-08-09.(Hungarian)
  27. ^ Reuter, 161–162.
  28. ^ Thompson, James Westfall. Feudal Germany. 2 vol. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1928, pg 489.
  29. ^ Reuter, pg. 251
  30. ^ Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, (Harvard University Press, 2009), 150.
  31. ^ Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, (HarperCollins, 2000), 159.
  32. ^ Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, (HarperCollins, 2000), 160.
  33. ^ Duckett, pg. 90
  34. ^ Reuter, Timothy, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. III: c. 900-c. 1024, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pg. 254
  35. ^ Cantor, 1994 p. 213

Further reading

In German

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor
House of Otto
Born: November 23, 912 Died: May 7, 973
Regnal titles
Title last held by
Holy Roman Emperor
962 – 973
with Otto II (967-973)
Succeeded by
Otto II
Preceded by
Henry I
King of Germany
936 – 973
with Otto II (961-973)
Duke of Saxony
936 – 973
Succeeded by
Bernard I
Preceded by
Berengar II
King of Italy
961 – 973
Title next held by
Otto II


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slave (n.) Look up slave at Dictionary.com
late 13c., "person who is the property of another," from O.Fr. esclave (13c.), from M.L. Sclavus "slave" (cf. It. schiavo, Fr. esclave, Sp. esclavo), originally "Slav" (see Slav), so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.
This sense development arose in the consequence of the wars waged by Otto the Great and his successors against the Slavs, a great number of whom they took captive and sold into slavery. [Klein]
O.E. Wealh "Briton" also began to be used in the sense of "serf, slave" c.850; and Skt. dasa-, which can mean "slave," is apparently connected to dasyu- "pre-Aryan inhabitant of India." More common O.E. words for slave were þeow (related to þeowian "to serve") and þræl (see thrall). The Slavic words for "slave" (Rus. rab, Serbo-Croatian rob, O.C.S. rabu) are from O.Slav. *orbu, from the PIE root *orbh- (also source of orphan) the ground sense of which seems to be "thing that changes allegiance" (in the case of the slave, from himself to his master). The Slavic word is also the source of robot. Applied to devices from 1904, especially those which are controlled by others (cf. slave jib in sailing, similarly of locomotives, flash bulbs, amplifiers). slave-driver is attested from 1807. In U.S. history, slavocracy "the political dominance of slave-owners" is attested from 1840.
slave (v.) Look up slave at Dictionary.com
c.1600, "to enslave," from slave (n.). The meaning "work like a slave" is first recorded 1719. Related: Slaved; slaving.
Slave Look up Slave at Dictionary.com
Indian tribe of northwestern Canada, 1789, from slave, translating Cree (Algonquian) awahkan "captive, slave."

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