Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Monarch Profile: Emperor Otto the Great
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.
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.
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.