Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Monarch Profile: Emperor Otto the Great

After the fall of the (western) Roman Empire, Europe descended into what is known as “the Dark Ages” when civilization, as everyone then knew it, broke down. Yet, for all of the Germanic tribal wars and Viking raids, progress was constantly being made to rebuild civilization and so the Dark Ages could also be called “the Recovery”. Latin civilization had been crushed by German invaders but those Germans who had once been dismissed as barbarians were increasingly looked to as a source of strength and thus of order. A great deal of order was restored to the chaos by the conquering armies of Charlemagne who established an empire stretching across modern day west-central Europe. He was a key figure in the recovery but after his death the empire he had forged began to fall apart, the largest parts dividing into what has since become France and Germany. After Charlemagne, the next great German monarch who would take up the cause of recovery was Kaiser Otto I, later known as Otto the Great, a towering figure in German history. That is significant for, if the French and Germans still argue today about which of them Charlemagne belonged to, there was no doubt about Emperor Otto. He was German and could be seen as something of a “founding father” for the German nation.

Otto was born on November 23, 912 to Duke Henry the Fowler of Saxony by his second wife Matilda of Westphalia. He grew up in the rough and tumble world of the small states ruled by the German nobility, fighting for power in the collapsing former empire of Charlemagne while also still fighting foreign powers on their frontiers. Whereas the Romans had once fought German barbarians, the Germans were now fighting new invaders they deemed barbarians such as the Slavs and Magyars to the east. In due course, Saxony became the most powerful of the German states and Prince Otto gained experience fighting the Slavs as well as an illegitimate son born of a Slavic noblewoman his knights had captured (this son would one day become the Archbishop of Mainz). As his father was making good progress in uniting the Germans under his rule, he sought an alliance with the distant cousins of his people in Saxon England and so married Otto to Princess Eadgyth, half-sister of King Aethelstan of England, in 930. Henry put all his hopes for the future on Otto, breaking with German tradition by naming him sole heir to his throne and, as it turned out, those hopes were not misplaced. He would prove a formidable monarch.

In 936, Henry the Fowler died and the Saxon nobles elected Otto, then 24, King of Germany. He was, of course, also Duke of Saxony by inheritance and, thanks to the efforts of his father, ruled in fact or at least in name over all the German people. Otto was also a great admirer of Charlemagne and demonstrated this from the very beginning. With the last heirs of the Frankish emperor having died out some years before, the new King of Germany sought to present himself as the successor of Charlemagne, the most successful and powerful figure in western history since the fall of Rome. Otto had many admirable qualities and all would be needed as he faced hostile Slavs to the northeast, Magyars to the east and rebellious nobles within his own domain. He immediately set to work with policies to centralize power in Germany. He forced the nobles to swear a personal oath of loyalty to him as king, placed churchmen in important positions to lessen the influence of the nobility and took other actions to ensure that he would be master and not only the first among equals as had previously been the case. He was mostly successful and his reign would set the pattern for subsequent German history in domestic as well as foreign policy for while he was reducing the power of the barons in the Kingdom of Germany, a call for help came from a damsel in distress in Italy.

The lovely, young Queen Adelaide of Burgundy or St Adelaide of Italy as she is known today, had been left a widow at only 19 and was being pressured to marry Berengar of Ivrea (King Berengar II of Italy), an ambitious man who wanted her lands for himself. She was taken captive for a time but escaped, managed to find refuge and sent a plea to King Otto of Germany for help in 951. It must have reminded the German monarch of the call for help from Pope Leo to Charlemagne but, in any event, it was an opportunity Otto would not pass up. He readied his army and was soon marching at the head of a column of German knights into northern Italy. Faced with such a fearsome sight, Berengar decided young Adelaide was not worth it after all and fled the scene without fighting a single battle. Like the storybook white knight riding to the rescue, Otto saved the lovely Adelaide and married her himself (his Anglo-Saxon bride had died about five years earlier). It could not have worked out any better as Otto had enhanced his reputation, extended his power and obtained a very pious and devoted wife with whom he would have a very happy marriage.

Domestic bliss could not deter Otto from his duty though and there were still plenty of challenges for him to deal with, one of the most pressing being the Magyars. These are the people of what is now Hungary but in those days they had yet to find religion and were pagan plunderers of lands as far west as Spain. It was on August 8, 955 that the Magyars attacked Augsberg. Bishop Ulrich organized the local populace to defend the city walls and they fought desperately, holding off the fierce Magyars until nightfall but exhausting themselves in the process. No one expected the city to hold out another day. Bishop Ulrich prayed that the Blessed Virgin would deliver them and his prayers were answered. When word reached the Magyar camp that King Otto and his German knights were marching to relieve Augsberg they hastily packed up and rode away. However, the Magyars were no cowards and a fight was still to be had. It came two days later at the Battle of Lechfeld when, after morning mass, King Otto led his troops into battle beneath a banner bearing the image of St Michael the Archangel. However, the fight did not go well. His troops began to break as the hard-hitting Magyar warriors attacked and counter-attacked. When another group of Magyars managed to outflank the Germans and circle around, coming in from behind, all seemed lost. To the surprise of his men, Otto ordered his son Conrad to lead the charge against these forces. It was surprising because Conrad, Otto’s son by his first wife, had previously led a rebellion against his father but, nonetheless, Otto trusted him. It proved to be the right move as Conrad led his men in a desperate charge that smashed the Magyars back, turned the tide and won the battle for the Germans.

In the wake of this victory, being King of Germany seemed insufficient to Otto’s bloodied but triumphant knights and they began hailing him as “Kaiser”. There was certainly no other single monarch in western Christendom to match him and later in 962 the Pope crowned Otto emperor of a restored Holy Roman Empire, which is to say what became known as the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” or First German Reich. Otto’s dream of emulating Charlemagne had come to full fruition with that coronation; he finally held the highest (secular) throne in Christendom. The Franks had had their hour of glory, now it was the turn of the Germans. Otto I was the sole master of the German people, had a firm hold on all his lands as well as the added prestige of the imperial title; he seemed to have reached his zenith. In those troubled times though, the work of any monarch was never done and soon Kaiser Otto had to lead his men to war again when his domains came under attack by the Slavs. He gathered his forces and marched off to meet them, the two sides coming together in Mecklenburg. Having fought so many enemies over the years, Otto was not eager for blood and sent the Slavic leader a proposal for peace and friendship but this was rejected. There would have to be a fight.

Emperor Otto decided on a bold move. The Slavs were confident that they would surely win the next day’s battle but Otto would not give them the chance. During the night, he took his knights across the Recknitz River that separated the two armies and as the morning dawned, launched a surprise attack that totally crushed the Slavic forces. Germany was saved, another pagan enemy had been defeated and another victory was added to the laurels of Emperor Otto. When not making war, Otto also continued his work consolidating his power over the German lands, encouraging art and learning as well as sending out missionaries to the surrounding pagan nations. After a reign of much success in domestic affairs and many victories on the battlefield Emperor Otto died on May 7, 973. Power passed without opposition into the hands of his 17-year old son Otto II. His dynasty would continue to hold power as kings of Germany and Holy Roman Emperors until 1024. Throughout the long history of the First Reich, a similar pattern would be followed. There would be decentralization of power, a growth in the power of local rulers and then a particularly strong-willed emperor would appear on the stage, unite the states under his leadership, centralize power, make war against the French in the west, Saracens in the south or the Slavs in the east, fight to subdue Italy and then, with his passing, the pattern would repeat.

Emperor Otto the Great fully deserves his lofty position in the history of the German-speaking people. He was one of the “great” emperors of the Saxon line, no others matching him until his descendent St Henry II before the next great emperor emerged in the person of Frederick Barbarossa of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Yet, western civilization as a whole owes him a debt as well for he had an impact beyond the boundaries of Germany. The law and order he established provided the peace and stability necessary for the building of strong, central core for the forces of Christendom and those whom he met as enemies would later become allies. After their defeat at his hands, the Magyars retreated east and settled in what is now Hungary, establishing that kingdom and becoming Christian with the rise of their great patron saint King Stephen (who married a German princess). The Slavs, likewise, over a longer period of time, would also embrace Christianity in their turn. As the darkness of the Dark Ages receded and was replaced by the growing light and civilization of the Middle Ages, a key figure in making it all possible was Kaiser Otto. Everyone remembers Charlemagne, and rightly so, as the man who brought order out of chaos, the monarch who presided over the return to the ideal of “empire” in the west and, as such, one of the key figures in the establishment of Christendom. All of that is true but it is just as true that it did not long survive him. It was Kaiser Otto the Great who ensured that, under new leadership and largely focused on a new people, the legacy of Charlemagne would carry on into the future.


  1. Another terrifically researched article! Otto was an impressive leader who is often overshadowed and overlooked, when really his record is one of the most stellar during this time period.

    On an unrelated note: I know it maybe be a little out of your usual scope of discussion, but I think a good topic to research and discuss are the 'Black Hundreds'. I just read recently that this old organization has been resurrected out of the nationalistic fervor gripping Russia and Eastern Ukraine. I'm sure you know about them already, as they were prolific and indispensable allies of the last Tsar, and had a loyalty to the Orthodox Church similar to that of Codreanu's Legionaries.

    Now that they are back, and apparently playing a combat role in Eastern Ukraine, what better time to take a look at these guys.

    1. I have mentioned them before, thought about doing more but it's one of those topics for some reason I think I've done before only to recall later that I actually haven't. After doing this for several years it gets hard to remember what you've done and what you haven't.


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