Otto I (The Great), Emperor
OTTO I (THE GREAT), EMPEROR
Reigned as German king 936–973; emperor 962–973; b. 912; d. Memleben (buried in the cathedral at Magdeburg). Son of King Henry I and Queen Mathilda. Henry I appears to have designated his eldest son, Otto, as heir to the throne in 929 as part of his so-called Hausordnung. Around the same time (929–930), Otto married Edith, sister of King Athelstan of Wessex (England) and a descendent of St. Oswald. Otto's status as heir apparent was confirmed during an assembly at Erfurt, in 935. Following King Henry's death, the nobility elected, enthroned, and did homage to Otto at Aachen, where he was consecrated by Archbishop Hildebert of Mainz. Whether or not Henry was conscious of the implications, his designation of Otto as sole heir to the throne represented a significant departure from the Carolingian practice of dividing the realm among a king's sons. From this point on, the German realm would be considered indivisible. Otto's ecclesiastical consecration at Aachen, in contrast, represented a return to Carolingian practice and a departure from the model of his father's succession. Henry I had rejected the offer of an ecclesiastical sacring, according to the common view, to indicate that he would not set himself above or try to dominate the German dukes, as his predecessor King Conrad I had done. In accepting an ecclesiastical consecration, Otto sent the opposite message. Subsequently, Otto would reject his father's practice of entering into mutually obligatory
agreements with magnates and make little effort to present himself as first among equals.
It is commonly asserted, though not unequivocally, that tension generated by the more limited options available to members of the royal house and by a new more autocratic style of kingship lay behind the revolts that marked the early years of Otto's reign. In any case, there is no question that these revolts arose when disaffected members of the aristocracy coalesced around equally disaffected members of the ruling house. Between 937 and 941, Otto's half-brother Thankmar and brother Henry, each aggrieved for somewhat different reasons, appeared at the center of uprisings. Thankmar's revolt ended with his own death, but Henry was reconciled and, in 947, was installed as duke of Bavaria with powers similar to those of a king. There was some thought that Henry had a valid claim to the throne, having been born while his father was actually king, and the unusual settlement may have constituted implicit recognition that his revolt was justified. In 953–954, another revolt crystalized around Duke Liudolf of Swabia, Otto's son by Edith and, at least initially, the monarch's designated successor. In this case, the chief source of disaffection appears to have been Otto's second marriage (to Adelheid), which appeared to threaten both Liudolf's position at court and his inheritance. Liudolf was soon joined by other magnates, most notably Duke Conrad of Lotharingia and Archbishop Frederick of Mainz. The revolt was initially successful, but effectively came to an end with the invasion of the Magyars (954), which caused all parties to close ranks around the king. Otto's victory over the Magyars at the Lechfeld (955), even if the threat from which it freed Christendom and the Reich was not as severe as some Ottonian sources suggest, clearly increased Otto's prestige and strengthened his hand against enemies and rivals. It may also have caused at least some of Otto's contemporaries to attribute to him a position comparable to that of an emperor.
The acquisition of the emperorship in 962, part of the titulature of German rulers until 1806, represents one of the most long lasting of Otto I's accomplishments. Otto made an initial effort to acquire the imperial crown during his first expedition to Italy in 951. This expedition was instigated by an appeal for help from the widowed queen of the lombards, Adelheid, who had fallen into the clutches of Berengar II of Ivrea. Marriage to Adelheid would convey a claim to the throne of the Lombards and this, presumably, figured among the German monarch's incentives. Otto succeeded in rescuing the queen and, after marrying her, celebrated his coronation at Pavia in October of 951. Tentative approaches to Pope agapetus ii regarding an imperial coronation met with refusal, however, probably because neither the popes nor the Roman aristocracy had any interest in acquiring an overlord. By 959, the situation had changed. As part of his settlement of the political situation in northern Italy, Otto had allowed Berengar II to rule as a sub-king under Ottonian hegemony. Nevertheless, after Otto's return to Germany, he was able to behave as if his rulership was independent and unchallenged. Faced with the threat of Berengar's power, Pope john xii appealed to Otto to rescue the papacy. Before setting out for Italy, Otto secured the succession to the throne by having his son, otto ii, elected and crowned at Aachen. On Feb. 2, 962, Otto was crowned by the pope in the basilica of St Peter. In return, Otto issued the privilege known as the Ottonianum which confirmed Carolingian donations to the papacy. Otto also secured for himself the right to a promise of fidelity from the pope prior to the latter's consecration. Later he extracted from the Romans an oath that they would never elect and consecrate a pope without Otto's permission. Acquisition of the imperial title also affected Otto's relations with Byzantium, since he now acquired an interest in southern Italy, a Byzantine sphere of influence. Tension between the two empires rose perceptibly during Otto's third Italian campaign (966–972), as Otto assumed a more active stance in that region. The result, after a period of warfare, was a compromise whereby Otto retained control of Benevento and Capua and had his imperial title recognized by the Constantinople. He also secured a Byzantine princess, Theophanu, as a bride for his son, Otto II.
Otto's ecclesiastical polices centered on his efforts to exploit the material and personal resources of the church in the interest of government. The result, sometimes referred to as the Imperial Church System, reflected a remarkable degree of cooperation between church and monarchy. In return for protection, immunity, and access to royal patronage, royal churches and monasteries were expected to contribute to military campaigns and offer hospitality to the king during his travels through the realm. Personnel recruited from these churches also staffed the royal chapel, the community of churchmen who tended to the liturgical needs of the royal court and performed a variety of administrative and diplomatic tasks.
Perhaps the most spectacular evidence of Otto's alliance with the church can be seen in his efforts to reorganize the ecclesiastical structure of the eastern frontier and further the Christianization of tributary populations among the Slavs. This process may have already begun with the foundation of the monastery of St. Maurice at Magdeburg (937), but certainly lay behind his efforts, from 955 on, to elevate that church to the status of an archbishopric. The foundation of bishoprics at Brandenburg, Havelburg, Merseburg, Meissen, and Zeitz as suffragans of Magdeburg, and of Oldenburg as suffragan of Hamburg-Bremen, figured in this plan as each incorporated a significant Slavic population.
Bibliography: k. j. leyser, Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society: Ottonian Saxony (London 1979) passim. h. beumann, Die Ottonen (2d ed. Stuttgart 1991) 42–44, 53–112. t. reueter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages, 800–1056 (London 1991) 148–180. e. mueller-mertens, "The Ottonians as Kings and Emperors," in The New Cambridge Medieval History, v.3., ed. t. reuter (Cambridge 1999) 233–266.