The Achievements of Otto the Great

HERE I intend to examine the main achievements of Otto the Great by dividing his reign into three main categories: political, military and ecclesiastic. Firstly, therefore, I will begin by studying his reassertion of monarchical power, the reorganisation of the duchies, and the emergence of the Ottonian system of governing. Secondly, I will explore Otto I’s Italian campaign before looking at Liudolf’s rebellion and the Hungarian invasion. Thirdly, I will examine how the King granted ‘immunity’ to the German Church, laid the foundations for an Ottonian Renaissance, assisted the Church in its conversion of the Slavs and, finally, managed to successfully manipulate the papacy.

When Otto I became King of Germany in 936, his coronation at Aachen was heavily imbued with the symbolic trappings of monarchical power. According to Timothy Reuter, “Otto’s succession has also been seen as representing the triumph of a new principle, that of the indivisibility of the new kingdom.”[1] Indeed, although Germany in the early Tenth Century was sub-divided into four distinct duchies – Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria and Lotharingia – Otto undoubtedly intended to use his coronation as a means of extracting adequate respect and obedience from those dukes who controlled the frontiers of the Saxon kingdom on his behalf. Indeed, during the ensuing banquet each duke was forced to accept an extremely submissive role; Duke Arnulf of Bavaria was put in charge of the stables, Duke Herman of Swabia became the cup-bearer, Duke Gilbert of Lotharingia became acting chamberlain, and the role of Duke Everard of Franconia was humiliatingly reduced to that of a mere steward. In short, the aspiring King Otto was fully aware of the vast importance of his position in medieval German society and, as R. H. C. Davis rightly contends: “The whole ceremony suggests a conscious revival of the memory of Charlemagne.”[2] As his subjects raised their right hands amid cries of ‘Sieg und Heil!’ (‘victory and salvation’), it was plain that Otto deliberately intended to equate his role with that of his noble Frankish predecessor.

One of the most important achievements of Otto’s reign, was the reorganisation of the duchies themselves. Otto’s new role as King of Germany was put to the test twice within the first three years of his reign, and the Bavarian (938) and Franconian (939) rebellions – led by Arnulf and Everard respectively – forced Otto to react swiftly. The King knew that in order to prevent further acts of disloyalty he would have to reassess the structure of German politics. Whilst his quartet of scheming ducal subordinates were eager to hold on to their administrative possessions by way of hereditary succession, Otto I intended to transform the semiindependent duchies and turn them into royal administrative branches. But rather than do anything to upset the balance of power, Otto came up with an intelligent plan. The duchy of Franconia had already been virtually abolished and permanently united to the Crown in the wake of Everard’s nefarious activities mentioned above, but Otto needed to control the remaining three duchies. By 949 he had disposed of all the existing dukes and replaced them with his own family members. Thus, Bavaria was given to his younger brother (the delightfully named Henry the Quarrelsome), Swabia to his eldest son (Liudolf) and Lotharingia to a Franconian known as Conrad the Red (whom he later gave in marriage to his sister). Consequently,

“it followed that all the duchies were under the control of men who were bound to him not only by the bonds of loyalty but also by the bonds of kindred.” [3]

It remains a fact, however, that medieval families were certainly not immune from territorial disputes, so Otto I further solidified the new balance of power by creating an atmosphere in which rebellion seemed virtually impossible.

The next phase of accomplishment surrounds the emergence of a distinctly Ottonian system of governing. After the Hungarian invasion [see below], it became necessary for Otto to reorganise the duchies once again. Personal loyalty was no longer enough, and the King sought to forge a common ideal amongst those who were becoming increasingly anxious with his inability to effectively safeguard the kingdom against the perpetual threat of invasion. So instead of appointing a new duke in Lotharingia (as he had already done in Swabia), Otto I placed the duchy under the direct control of his younger brother, Bruno, who had been made Archbishop of Cologne in 953. Few would doubt that Otto’s brave decision to combine both an archbishopric and a duchy was a radical achievement in itself, but the plan was designed to serve a more covert purpose. By elevating the Archbishop of Cologne to the intoxicating heights of medieval statesmanship, Otto secretly knew that his celibate cleric of a brother could never threaten him in the way that Liedolf had previously [see below] by raising a brood of offspring which, potentially at least, could have eventually founded a powerful new dynasty.

Consequently, however, the King was unable to avoid upsetting those dukes who would have reacted angrily to any attempt to abolish their hereditary rights. Otto may have had an ulterior motive, but it was a wonderful achievement all the same. The far-reaching practical consequences of the Ottonian system will be discussed in due course, when I examine Otto I’s relationship with the German Church in far greater depth. But what of his military achievements? By 949, Duke Henry of Bavaria had realised that a woman, Adelaide, was poised to inherit the kingdom of Italy. Henry, therefore, seized the province of Aquilia in order to facilitate his power-hungry objectives. In 950, a prominent Italian – Berengar, Marquess of Ivrea – usurped the kingdom by making himself King of the Lombards. Berengar also captured Adelaide and attempted to force her to marry his son. In 951, however, the highly opportunistic Duke Liudolf of Swabia (Otto I’s son) led an expedition through the Alpine pass in order to try and rescue the incarcerated Adelaide. Otto, meanwhile, was becoming extremely anxious that things were getting out of hand, especially as the Swabian and Bavarian duchies on his southern frontiers were threatening to upset the overall balance of power. Indeed, Henry and Liudolf knew full well that the government of Lombardy was comparatively weak and each had an eye on the kingdom’s wealthiest cities. As far as Otto was concerned, just one course lay open to him. He had to lead an Italian campaign in order to lead the widowed Queen of Lombardy himself.

Despite the rather speculative nature of his military expedition, Otto I eventually defeated Berengar II and basked in the glory of an episode which, had he not intervened, may have effectively reduced him to sidelines of medieval European history. It has since been said of Otto I that his decision to dominate what may have become a major disaster “was his first expedition to Italy and was in many ways the turning point of his reign, for it could not but reinforce the memories and traditions of Charlemagne which had already been so much to the fore at his coronation.”[4] But, once before, the King had an ulterior motive in that his memorable defeat of Berengar II was also designed to facilitate his own control of northern Italy. This he achieved by marrying Queen Adelaide and, thus, simultaneously extending the frontiers of his growing kingdom ever-closer to Rome. That an overall plan lay at the root of Otto’s military expansion is undeniable. By 951, Otto had already sent an embassy to the Pope in order to request that – like Charlemagne before him – he be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The request was denied, but although Otto had been rather presumptuous in his determined albeit premature efforts to mount the imperial throne, the privileged holder of the Holy Spear of Longinus – which, centuries later would play a vital role in the expansionist aims of both Napoleon and Hitler (and which, today, is housed within the relatively safer confines of the Treasure House at Austria’s Hofsburg Museum) – knew that it would only be a matter of time before he achieved his ultimate Germanic destiny.

Initially, however, Otto faced a setback. His son, Duke Liudolf of Swabia, knew that his father’s marriage to Queen Adelaide would exclude both he and his bloodline from inheriting the Saxon kingdom after Otto’s death. Once again, rebellion was in the air and an embittered Henry of Bavaria also joined the fray in protest that his contribution to the Italian campaign had lain rewarded. Indeed, whilst Henry had captured the regions of Verona, Friuli and Istria, he was denied even a single inch of Italian soil. Liedolf was also joined by Conrad the Red (the disgraced Duke of Lotharingia), Arnulf (the Count Palatine of the previously deposed duchal family of Bavaria) and Archbishop Frederick of Mainz, the head of the German Church. Otto had little difficulty in driving the rebels out of Lotharingia, but his opponents were successful in Bavaria and managed to establish themselves at Swabia and on the middle Rhine. But the question of whether Otto the Great was truly successful in his attempts to suppress the tumultuous uprising of 953-4, must remain a bone of contention.

Perhaps the Saxon King managed to conveniently avoid serious internal problems due to the unifying effects of a pending Hungarian invasion? Indeed, it does seem rather paradoxical that his inability to deal effectively with his enemies was substantially obscured by a new threat from the barbarian hordes. One must never forget, however, that Liudolf and Conrad actually joined forces with the heathen and an unsettled atmosphere of treachery and betrayal “led to a swift closing of ranks”[5]. But the fact still remains that Otto I managed to ride the storm and served as a focal point from which Germany could begin to counteract the Hungarian invasion itself.

By 955, Conrad the Red – Otto I’s one-time enemy – had scored a decisive victory over the savage Magyar forces. The Battle of Lechfeld (near Augsburg) – “which Widukind, Ruotger, Adalbert of St. Maxim, not to mention the poet of the Modus Ottinc, acclaimed more or less panagyrically as a unique triumph”[6] – has gone down in history as one of the most crucial in the whole development of medieval Christendom. Hungarian power in Western Europe was totally annihilated and there raids in Germany, Italy, Burgundy and France were permanently brought to an end. Consequently, Otto I became known as ‘the Great’ and even his Saxon biographer, Widukind, portrays him in his Rex gestæ Saxonicæ as Emperor from that moment on for whilst “he may have used the word metaphorically it had its symbolical meaning, for the victory of the Lechfeld showed that Otto was worthy to be a great ruler. In subsequent years, when Otto was formerly styled Emperor, the basis of his fame was such that he had saved Christendom from the Hungarians.”[7] So just as Charles Martel has repelled the Islamic menace at Poitiers (732) before him, Otto the Great had played a remarkable part in what was seen as the divinely-orchestrated formulation of the Catholic world. In 959, Otto achieved another decisive military victory when he was asked to lead a second expedition to Italy on behalf on Pope John XII. Berengar of Friuli, had attempted to undermine the power of the Germany monarchy, although by 961, Otto had suppressed his relatively confined rebellion and proved his worth to a highly grateful papacy. This brings us neatly on to Otto the Great’s ecclesiastical triumphs.

We have already seen how Otto I put his own brother in charge of the Lotharingian dynasty, but this process was further accelerated when the King sought to control the duchies through his clerics by appointing them himself and initiating the process of religious ‘immunity’. Those churches which had arisen by way of royal foundation (Reichskirchen) were given huge tracts of land in order to prevent the interference of royal officers like dukes and counts. In addition, royal judges were excluded from having any judicial influence in areas controlled by the Church, and no royal officers were permitted to extract taxes from such areas. This process radically altered the framework of German society, and temporal powers were totally eroded and replaced by those of an increasingly ecclesiastical nature. Monasteries were governed by their respective abbots and responsibility for the collection of taxes now lay with the abbeys themselves. But whilst on the face of it Otto the Great may have appeared to be reducing his own power, he was actually increasing it. Indeed,

“the royal rights which Otto bestowed so liberally on these abbeys were not rights which he would otherwise have exercised in person. They were the rights which would have been exercised in his name by the counts. It was their power, and not his own, which he was reducing.” [8]

Since administrative power now lay firmly in the hands of the clergy, the time was ripe for a cultural and intellectual revival. Men like Charlemagne and Alcuin had already demonstrated how the creation of a strong administrative bedrock could provide an emerging European empire with an overriding sense of longevity, and the Ottonians sought to emulate their predecessors. As a leading scholar of the period, Archbishop Bruno was prone to collect classical manuscripts and had even been taught to speak fluent Greek by the monks at Reichenau. Bruno’s intellectual capabilities were to pave the way for a sweeping monastic reform which, in addition to the usual scholastic disciplines of monastic life, saw the Archbishop teach his ecclesiastical subordinates how to bear arms and excel in the art of fortifying cities and controlling economic markets. Bruno, therefore, enabled his future bishops to combine their spiritual knowledge with an understanding of the administrative workings of the secular world. Otto the Great “did not consider that a learned career was incompatible with governmental responsibility”[9], and it is possible to compare the constitutional tenets of his reign with those of the Shi’ite mullahs in modern-day Iran. Indeed, the Ottonian system consisted of a primitive theocratic bourgeoisie which was happy to operate beneath the ever-watchful gaze of its monarchical overlord. Another major Ottonian achievement was the conversion of the Slavs (or Wends). The Slavs lived to the north and east of the River Elbe and as Otto subjected them to the rigours of his overbearing rule, he made certain that each freshly-conquered strip of territory was duly occupied by a new bishopric. Thus, Church and state went forward hand in hand and

“the bishops governed the occupied territory with an easy conscience, for they were serving God as well as their King; they were both missionaries and government officials.” [10]

Between 948 and 948, the conversion of the Slavs had run concurrent with the foundation of the Oldenburg, Aahus, Achleswig, Riba, Brandenburg and Havelburg bishoprics. Victory and expansion for Otto, therefore, meant victory and expansion for the Catholic Church.

By far the most vital achievement of Otto’s colourful reign, was his manipulation of the papacy. The support of the papacy itself was essential to the whole Ottonian system of governing, but Otto soon discovered that he himself was also vital to the long-term interests of the papacy. I have already described how Pope John XII became embroiled in a conflict with Berengar of Friuli in 959, but Otto’s resultant victory was not achieved without its price. On 2nd February 962, Otto the Great was crowned Holy Roman Emperor at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, yet again, followed on the imperial heels of Charlemagne. Ten days later Pope and Emperor sealed a pact contained in two documents. The first was a Papal Bull authorising the erection of an archbishopric at Magdeburg, and the second a document known as the Ottonianum in which Otto imitated the Frankish Donations of Pepin and Charlemagne. In practical terms, the Papal State was to be granted independence and adopt Otto as its overall protector (defensor). But Otto did not want the Papal State to win the adoration of its inhabitants when they could be subordinate to his own increasing authority.

Furthermore, he did not feel that he could adequately defend the papacy if he was unable to directly control its territories. As a result of Otto’s reluctance to grant him independence, Pope John XII eventually took sides with Berengar, welcomed his son – Adalbert – to Rome, and approached both the Hungarians and the Byzantine Empire for assistance. This behaviour was viewed with absolute contempt by the new Emperor, because “the Pope had not only broken the oath which he had sworn to him on the body of St. Peter, but had also invoked the aid of the enemies of Christendom.”[11] Consequently, Otto summoned a delegation of bishops to Rome and, as John XII fled to Tivoli, charged him in his absence with

“ordaining a deacon in a stable at an improper season, of turning his palace into a brothel and resort of harlots, of castrating a criminal, of wearing armour in public, of hunting, and of invoking the aid of Jupiter and Venus while playing at dice.” [12]

Unsurprisingly, therefore, on 4th December 963 John XII was deposed and Pope Leo VIII elected in his stead. Otto then agreed to sign the original pact on the condition that a Pope could not be consecrated until he had given his oath of loyalty to the Emperor himself. Otto had finally managed to exert his complete  authority over the very nucleus of the universal Church and, as a result, had become the head of Christendom. Shortly afterwards, however, John XII had been reinstated and Leo VIII forced to flee for his life. However, by the time Pope John XII had died in May 964 and an equally stubborn Benedict V elected in his place, Otto had initiated yet another display of his authority by once again installing Leo VIII on the Papal Throne. The outgoing Benedict V, meanwhile, was reduced to the rank of deacon and banished to Germany.

Otto had proved just how powerful he really was. Indeed, despite the embarrassing implications of the Emperor’s actions for the Church, this, perhaps, was Otto I’s greatest achievement of all. In 972, even the Byzantine Emperor – Nicephorus II Phocus – agree to recognise the authoritative worth of his Saxon counterpart, although negotiations surrounding a prospective alliance between the former eastern and western halves of the original Holy Roman Empire were unsuccessful. On the other hand, in April of the same year his imperial princess, Theophano, was given to Otto II (his son) in marriage. In 973, just one year later, Otto I passed away. A sign, perhaps, that the work of this remarkable man had finally reached its penultimate conclusion. It is time for me to do likewise and briefly recount the vast achievements of his incredible reign.

I have shown how Otto the Great shaped the future of Western Europe by uniting its discordant facets and reorganising the fundamental structure of medieval society. His subtle erosion of ducal power and its transference to the relatively safer hands of the Catholic Church – through which he himself was able to both direct and consolidate his rule – was a development which continued to secure the maintenance of the Holy Roman Empire. The Italian campaign of 951 and Otto I’s suppression of his schematic rivals effectively kept the lid on the internal affairs of the Empire whilst he was fortunate enough to capitalise upon the sudden unification of Germany due to the Hungarian threat from without. Whilst he had consistently strived to emulate the achievements of the Emperor Charlemagne, in terms of his great durability Otto the Great probably surpassed his Frankish mentor. In the words of Hroswitha of Gandersheim:

“Otto, mighty sovereign of the Empire of the Cæsars, who, renowned because thou wieldest a sceptre of imperial majesty by the indulgent kindliness of the Eternal King, surpassest in integrity all foregoing emperors” [13].


1. Timothy Reuter, Germany in the High Middle Ages: 800-1056 (Longman, 1991), p. 149.

2. R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (Longman, 1991), p. 210.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 211.

5. Timothy Reuter, op. cit., p. 156.

6. K. L. Leyser, Rule and Conflict in An Early Medieval Society (Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 26.

7. R. H. C. Davis, op. cit., p. 212.

8. Ibid., p. 214.

9. Ibid., p. 214.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 218.

12. Ibid., p. 219.

13. Hroswitha of Gandersheim, quoted in Sister Mary Benardine Bergman (trans.), Hrosvithæ Liber Tertius, PhD dissertation (St. Louis University, 1942), p. 39.


Geoffrey Barraclough (trans.), Medieval Germany 911-1250: Volume Two – Essays by German Historians (Basil Blackwell, 1967).

Herbert Fisher, The Medieval Empire: Volume II (Macmillan & Co., 1898).

Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1968).

Boyd D. Hill, Medieval Monarchy in Action: The German Empire From Henry I to Henry IV (George Allen & Unwin, 1972).

K. J. Leyjer, Medieval Germany and its Neighbours: 900-1250 (The Hambledon Press, 1982).

James Westfall Thompson, Feudal Germany: Volume II (Frederick Ungar, 1962).

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