This Week in History

The German King Becomes Roman Emperor: February 2, 962

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The “Magdeburg Rider,” thought to depict Otto I

Germany did not suffer from Saracen invasions, for the Alps proved too difficult an obstacle for the Muslim armies to cross. And while the Vikings did sail up German rivers to plunder and destroy, Germany did not suffer greatly at their hands, nor did Norse settlements become established in Germany. Too, since Germany was not as ancient a civilization or as wealthy as Gaul, Spain, and Italy, it did not tempt the Vikings as much as those lands did. Moreover, unlike the farmers of Gaul, who had long since ceased to be warriors and were helpless when the government failed to defend them, German society was still largely tribal. Every man and boy was trained in the use of spears, swords, and battle-axes. The Vikings faced a more formidable reception when they disembarked in Germany than when they raided Gaul or Italy.

But the Germans did suffer from the Magyars, who swept up the Danube Valley and into Germany at the end of the ninth century. For over 50 years, Germans underwent surprise attacks of these wild and swift horsemen.

The German warriors fought these barbarians with little success. The Magyars appeared from nowhere, struck swiftly from horseback, and used their arrows to deadly effect. First, the German kings constructed a line of frontier forts to protect against attack. Then they used heavy, armored cavalry against the lighter horses and less well-armed invaders.

A late 15th century depiction of the Battle of Lechfeld

The decisive victory against the Magyars occurred near the city of Augsburg in Bavaria in 955. There—on a field near the river Lech—Otto, the duke of Saxony, was joined by the forces of the dukes of Bavaria, Franconia, Lotharingia, and Swabia and the king of Bohemia. Though outnumbered by the Magyars, the Germans under Otto routed their enemy. The Magyars would never invade Germany again. On the field of battle, called Lechfeld, the German lords raised Otto on their shields according to the ancient German custom and proclaimed him emperor.

The lords of Germany had elected Otto king of Germany in 936, nineteen years before the Battle of Lechfeld. Otto had succeeded his father, Henry the “Fowler,” who had been elected king of Germany before him.

Since becoming king, Otto—taking Charlemagne as his ideal—had worked to unite all of Germany under his rule. To provide justice to the vast German territories, Otto needed local administrators. The German dukes and counts, however, resisted his attempts to bring them firmly under his control. Otto attempted to overcome their opposition by installing members of his family, especially his sons and sons-in-law, as dukes. But even they quickly became more concerned about their local concerns than about the unity of the German kingdom.

The kingdom of Germany, from the 10th to the 12th centuries

Otto’s solution was to prune back the power of the great feudal lords, the dukes and counts, by making the bishops independent of the temporal lords. To do this, Otto gave the bishops royal lands that were not in use. The Church thus came to own one-third of the farmland of Germany and so could control the wealth of the kingdom. The bishops and abbots saw to it that the lay lords continued to serve a united kingdom. This reduced the power of the lay lords, leaving them less capable of rebellion.

The bishops proved more loyal to the king than the dukes and counts had been. When a duke or count died, his son inherited his office. Since the son owed his position to his birth, not to the king, he was not necessarily loyal to the king. A bishop, however, was unmarried by Church law and so had no legitimate heir to whom he could give his lands. It was the king who appointed the new bishops and abbots—and he made sure to appoint only men who were loyal to him.

Unlike other kings and lords, however, Otto was concerned for the spiritual good of the Church. He wanted not only loyal bishops, but holy bishops who were committed to Church reform and to rooting out simony and the other evils that had corrupted the Church. Yet, Otto treated the Church as if it were subject to the king. He looked upon himself as the supreme head of everything in Germany, including the Church. The king, he thought, was supreme lord of all things temporal and spiritual.

Early in his reign, Otto I was forced to deal with an international scandal involving the pope. This scandal was much more serious than the sins of some local bishop in Germany, since it had to do with the spiritual head of Christendom. Otto had to clean it up, or else forfeit the reform he was promoting in the Church in his homeland.

The pope, who was the feudal lord of central Italy, held a position of great political power. For this reason the great families, who were powerful vassals of the pope, coveted the papal office for their sons. As a result, intrigue, treachery, and murder came to surround the see of Peter. From 896 to 904 there was, on the average, one pope a year. The 10th century saw worse, and it has been called “the iron age of the papacy.” For several decades Rome was controlled by two women, Theodora and her daughter Marozia, who succeeded in placing Marozia’s corrupt and worldly son in the papal office as Pope John XI (reigned 931–936).

A map of Ottonian imperial Germany and Italy

Otto I brought all this scandal and corruption to a halt. In 962, the unworthy Pope John XII (reigned 955–964) invited Otto to come to Italy to bring peace and unity to that troubled land. Otto fulfilled the pope’s wish, and John crowned him Emperor of the Romans on February 2, 962. As emperor, Otto declared himself a successor of Charlemagne and combined his German territories with the lands and cities of northern Italy. Thus was born the Roman Empire of the Germans.

The result was only partially what Pope John expected. Otto ruled Italy by the same means he used in Germany—he appointed loyal, virtuous, and learned men as bishops in his new lands. This included popes. When John eventually turned against Otto, joining forces with the emperor’s enemies, Otto deposed him and made Leo VIII pope in his place. When Leo died, Otto chose John XIII as his successor. Otto came to control the papacy just as he did the Church in Germany.

A medieval depiction of Otto’s coronation as Roman emperor

Otto’s many accomplishments were remarkable. He rivaled his predecessor, Charlemagne, in making his empire Christian, civilized, and prosperous. He showed that political power is based on a leader’s ability and willingness to provide protection and justice for his people.He established a fair and just system of law courts and appointed royal judges to preside over them. Otto had to deal with troublesome neighbors to the east—the Wends, Poles, and Magyars—and sent missionaries to convert them. He kept the new churches in Poland and Hungary (the land of the Magyars) under the supervision of German archbishops to ensure that the new churches helped to control their countrymen.

Otto did much to reform and strengthen the Church, but at a great price. Making the bishops and the popes basically servants of the emperor would have dangerous results in the not too distant future.

 

A Song for the Return of the King

A ninth century German song about the last judgment, performed by the group Sequentia. Click “Show More” below the video for the translation.