Otto I (23 November 912 – 7 May 973), also known as Otto the Great, was German king from 936 and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 962 until his death in 973.
The oldest son of Henry I the Fowler and Matilda, Otto was “the first of the Germans to be called the emperor of Italy”.
Otto inherited the Duchy of Saxony and the kingship of the Germans upon his father’s death in 936. He continued his father’s work of unifying all German tribes into a single kingdom and greatly expanded the king’s powers at the expense of the aristocracy.
Through strategic marriages and personal appointments, Otto installed members of his family in the kingdom’s most important duchies.
This reduced the various dukes, who had previously been co-equals with the king, to royal subjects under his authority.
Otto transformed the Roman Catholic Church in Germany to strengthen the royal office and subjected its clergy to his personal control.
After putting down a brief civil war among the rebellious duchies, Otto defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, thus ending the Hungarian invasions of Western Europe.
The victory against the pagan Magyars earned Otto a reputation as a savior of Christendom and secured his hold over the kingdom. By 961, Otto had conquered the Kingdom of Italy and extended his realm’s borders to the north, east, and south.
The patronage of Otto and his immediate successors facilitated a limited cultural renaissance of the arts and architecture. Following the example of Charlemagne’s coronation as “Emperor of the Romans” in 800, Otto was crowned Emperor in 962 by Pope John XII in Rome.
Otto’s later years were marked by conflicts with the Papacy and struggles to stabilize his rule over Italy. Reigning from Rome, Otto sought to improve relations with the Byzantine Empire, which opposed his claim to emperorship and his realm’s further expansion to the south. To resolve this conflict, the Byzantine princess Theophanu married his son, Otto II, in April 972.
Otto finally returned to Germany in August 972 and died at Memleben in 973. Otto II succeeded him as Emperor.
Otto was born on 23 November 912, the oldest son of the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler and his second wife Matilda, the daughter of the Saxon Dietrich, a count in Westphalia.
Henry had previously married Hatheburg, also a daughter of a Saxon count, in 906, but this marriage was annulled, probably in 909 after she had given birth to Henry’s first son and Otto’s half-brother Thankmar. Otto had four full siblings: Hedwig, Gerberga, Henry and Bruno.
On 23 December 918 Conrad I, King of East Francia and Duke of Franconia, died. According to the Res gestae saxonicae by the Saxon chronicler Widukind of Corvey, Conrad persuaded his younger brother Duke Eberhard of Franconia, the presumptive heir, to offer the crown to Otto’s father Henry.
Although Conrad and Henry had been at odds with one another since 912, Henry had not openly opposed the king since 915. Furthermore, Conrad’s repeated battles with German dukes, most recently with Arnulf, Duke of Bavaria and Burchard II, Duke of Swabia, had weakened the Conradines’ position and ressources.
After several months of hesitation, Eberhard and the other Frankish and Saxon nobles elected Henry as king at the Imperial Diet of Fritzlar in May 919. For the first time a Saxon instead of a Frank reigned over the Kingdom.
Burchard II of Swabia soon swore fealty to the new king, but Arnulf of Bavaria did not recognize Henry’s position. According to the Annales Iuvavenses, Arnulf was elected king by the Bavarians in opposition to Henry, but his “reign” was short-lived; Henry defeated him in two campaigns.
In 921, Henry besieged Arnulf’s residence at Ratisbon (Regensburg) and forced him into submission. Arnulf had to accept Henry’s sovereignty; Bavaria retained some autonomy and the right to invest bishops in the Bavarian church.
Otto first gained experience as a military commander when the German kingdom fought against Slavic tribes on its eastern border. While campaigning against the Slavs in 929, Otto’s illegitimate son William, the future Archbishop of Mainz, was born to a captive Slavic noblewoman.
With Henry’s dominion over the entire kingdom secured by 929, the king probably began to prepare his succession over the kingdom. No written evidence for his arrangements is extant, but during this time Otto is first called king (Latin: rex) in a document of the Abbey of Reichenau.
While Henry consolidated power within Germany, he also prepared for an alliance with Anglo-Saxon England by finding a bride for Otto. Association with another royal house would give Henry additional legitimacy and strengthen the bonds between the two Saxon kingdoms. To seal the alliance, King Æthelstan of England sent Henry two of his half-sisters, so he could choose the one which best pleased him. Henry selected Eadgyth as Otto’s bride and the two were married in 930.
Several years later, shortly before Henry’s death, an Imperial Diet at Erfurt formally ratified the king’s succession arrangements. Some of his estates and treasures were to be distributed among Thankmar, Henry, and Bruno. But departing from customary Carolingian inheritance, the king designated Otto as the sole heir apparent without a prior formal election by the various dukes.
Henry died from the effects of a cerebral stroke on 2 July 936 at his palace, the Kaiserpfalz in Memleben, and was buried at Quedlinburg Abbey. A
t the time of his death, all the various German tribes were united in a single realm. At the age of 23, Otto assumed his father’s position as Duke of Saxony and King of Germany. His coronation was held on 7 August 936 in Charlemagne’s former capital of Aachen, where Otto 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 and his role as true successor to Charlemagne, whose last heirs in East Francia had died out in 911.
According to Widukind of Corvey, at his coronation banquet, Otto had the four other dukes of the kingdom (from the duchies 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 of Franconia as steward (or seneschal) and Gilbert of Lorraine as Chamberlain.
By performing this traditional service, the dukes signaled cooperation with the new king, and clearly showed their submission to his reign.
Despite his peaceful transition, the royal family was not harmonious during his early reign. Otto’s younger brother, Henry, also claimed the throne, contrary to his father’s wishes. According to her biography, Vita Mathildis reginae posterior, their mother had favored Henry as king: in contrast to Otto, Henry had been “born in the purple” during his father’s reign and shared his name.
Otto also faced internal opposition from various local aristocrats. In 936, Otto appointed Hermann Billung as Margrave, granting him authority over a march north of the Elbe River between the Limes Saxoniae and Peene Rivers.
As military governor, Hermann extracted tribute from the Polabian Slavs inhabiting the area and often fought against the Western Slavic tribes of the Lutici, Obotrites, and Wagri. Hermann’s appointment angered his brother, Count Wichmann the Elder.
As the elder and wealthier of the two, Wichmann believed his claim to the office was superior to his brother’s. Additionally, Wichmann was related by marriage to the dowager queen Matilda.
In 937, Otto further offended the nobility through his appointment of Gero to succeed his older brother, Siegfried, as Count and Margrave of a vast border region around Merseburg, abutting the Wends on the lower Saale. His decision frustrated Thankmar, Otto’s half-brother and Siegfried’s cousin, who felt that he held a greater right to the appointment.
Liudolf’s death in the fall of 957 deprived Otto of both an heir and a commander of his expedition against King Berengar II of Italy. Beginning with the unfavorable peace treaty signed in 952 in which he became Otto’s vassal, Berengar II had always been a rebellious subordinate.
With the death of Liudolf and Henry I, Duke of Bavaria, and with Otto campaigning in northern Germany, Berengar II attacked the March of Verona in 958, which Otto had stripped from his control under the 952 treaty, and besieged Count Adalbert Atto of Canossa there. Berengar II’s forces also attacked the Papal States and the city of Rome under Pope John XII.
In autumn 960, with Italy in political turmoil, the Pope sent word to Otto seeking his aid against Berengar II. Several other influential Italian leaders arrived at Otto’s court with similar appeals, including the Archbishop of Milan, the bishops of Como and Novara, and Margrave Otbert of Milan.
After the Pope agreed to crown him as Emperor, Otto assembled his army to march upon Italy. In preparation for his second Italian campaign and the imperial coronation, Otto planned his kingdom’s future. At the Imperial Diet at Worms in May 961, Otto named his six-year-old son Otto II as heir apparent and co-ruler, and had him crowned at Aachen Cathedral on 26 May 961.
Otto II was anointed by the Archbishops Bruno I of Cologne, William of Mainz, and Henry I of Trier. The King instituted a separate chancery to issue diplomas in his heir’s name, and appointed his brother Bruno and illegitimate son William as Otto II’s co-regents in Germany.
Otto’s army descended into northern Italy in August 961 through the Brenner Pass at Trento. The German king moved towards Pavia, the former Lombard capital of Italy, where he celebrated Christmas and assumed the title King of Italy for himself. Berengar II’s armies retreated to their strongholds in order to avoid battle with Otto, allowing him to advance southward unopposed. Otto reached Rome on 31 January 962; three days later, he was crowned Emperor by Pope John XII at Old St. Peter’s Basilica.
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 Germany and the Kingdom of Italy were unified into a common realm, later called the Holy Roman Empire.
With his son’s wedding completed and peace with the Byzantine Empire concluded, Otto led the imperial family back to Germany in August 972.
In the spring of 973, the Emperor visited Saxony and celebrated Palm Sunday in Magdeburg. At the same ceremony the previous year, Margrave Hermann Billung, Otto’s trusted lieutenant and personal administrator over Saxony during his years in Italy, had been received like a king by Archbishop Adalbert of Magdeburg – a gesture of protest against the Emperor’s prolonged absence from Germany.
Celebrating Easter with a great assembly in Quedlinburg, Emperor Otto was the most powerful man in Europe. According to Thietmar of Merseburg, Otto received “the dukes Miesco [of Poland] and Boleslav [of Bohemia], and legates from the Greeks [Byzantium], the Beneventans [Rome], Magyars, Bulgars, Danes and Slavs”.
Ambassadors from England and Muslim Spain arrived later the same year. 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 7 May 973 at the age of 60.
The transition of power to his seventeen-year-old son Otto II was seamless. On 8 May 973, the lords 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.