Holy Roman Emperor Otto I

History and Impact on Germany in the Middle Ages

Portrait of Otto the Great

Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

Otto the Great (Nov. 23, 912—May 7, 973), also known as Duke Otto II of Saxony, was known for consolidating the German Reich and making significant advances for secular influence in papal politics. His reign is generally considered to be the true beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. He was elected king Aug. 7, 936 and crowned emperor Feb. 2, 962.

Early Life

Otto was the son of Henry the Fowler and his second wife, Matilda. Scholars know little of his childhood, but it is believed he engaged in some of Henry's campaigns by the time he reached his late teens. In 930 Otto wed Edith, the daughter of Edward the Elder of England. Edith bore him a son and a daughter.

Henry named Otto his successor, and a month after Henry's death, in August of 936, the German dukes elected Otto king. Otto was crowned by the archbishops of Mainz and Cologne at Aachen, the city that had been Charlemagne's favorite residence. He was twenty-three years old.

Otto the King

The young king was bent on asserting the kind of firm control over the dukes that his father had never managed, but this policy led to immediate conflict. Eberhard of Franconia, Eberhard of Bavaria, and a faction of disgruntled Saxons under the leadership of Thankmar, Otto's half-brother, began an offensive in 937 that Otto swiftly crushed. Thankmar was killed, Eberhard of Bavaria was deposed, and Eberhard of Franconia submitted to the king. 

The latter Eberhard's submission appeared to be only a facade, for in 939 he joined with Giselbert of Lotharingia and Otto's younger brother, Henry, in a revolt against Otto that was supported by Louis IV of France. This time Eberhard was killed in battle and Giselbert drowned while fleeing. Henry submitted to the king, and Otto forgave him. Yet Henry, who felt he should be king himself in spite of his father's wishes, conspired to murder Otto in 941. The plot was discovered and all the conspirators were punished except Henry, who was again forgiven. Otto's policy of mercy worked; from then on, Henry was loyal to his brother, and in 947 he received the dukedom of Bavaria. The rest of the German dukedoms also went to Otto's relatives.

While all this internal strife was going on, Otto still managed to strengthen his defenses and expand the boundaries of his kingdom. The Slavs were defeated in the east, and part of Denmark came under Otto's control; the German suzerainty over these areas was solidified by the founding of bishoprics. Otto had some trouble with Bohemia, but Prince Boleslav I was forced to submit in 950 and paid tribute. With a strong home base, Otto not only fended off France's claims to Lotharingia but ended up mediating in some French internal difficulties. 

Otto's concerns in Burgundy led to a change in his domestic status. Edith had died in 946, and when the Burgundian princess Adelaide, the widowed queen of Italy, was taken prisoner by Berengar of Ivrea in 951, she turned to Otto for aid. He marched into Italy, took up the title King of the Lombards, and married Adelaide himself. 

Meanwhile, back in Germany, Otto's son by Edith, Liudolf, joined together with several German magnates to revolt against the king. The younger man saw some success, and Otto had to withdraw to Saxony; but in 954 the invasion of the Magyars set off problems for the rebels, who could now be accused of conspiring with enemies of Germany. Still, fighting continued until Liudolf at last submitted to his father in 955. Now Otto was able to deal the Magyars a crushing blow at the Battle of the Lechfeld, and they never invaded Germany again. Otto continued to see success in military matters, particularly against the Slavs.

Otto the Emperor

In May of 961, Otto was able to arrange for his six-year-old son, Otto (the first son born to Adelaide), to be elected and crowned King of Germany. He then returned to Italy to help Pope John XII stand against Berengar of Ivrea. On February 2, 962, John crowned Otto emperor, and 11 days later the treaty known as Privilegium Ottonianum was concluded. The treaty regulated relations between pope and emperor, although whether or not the rule allowing emperors to ratify papal elections was part of the original version remains a matter for debate. It may have been added in December, 963, when Otto deposed John for instigating an armed conspiracy with Berengar, as well as for what amounted to conduct unbecoming a pope. 

Otto installed Leo VIII as the next pope, and when Leo died in 965, he replaced him with John XIII. John was not well-received by the populace, who had another candidate in mind, and a revolt ensued; so Otto returned to Italy once more. This time he stayed several years, dealing with the unrest in Rome and heading south into Byzantine-controlled portions of the peninsula. In 967, on Christmas Day, he had his son crowned co-emperor with him. His negotiations with the Byzantines led to a marriage between young Otto and Theophano, a Byzantine princess, in April of 972.

Not long afterwards Otto returned to Germany, where he held a great assembly at the court in Quedlinburg. He died in May of 973 and was buried next to Edith in Magdeburg.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Arnold, Benjamin. Medieval Germany, 500-1300: a Political Interpretation. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • “Otto I, the Great.” CATHOLIC LIBRARY: Sublimus Dei (1537), www.newadvent.org/cathen/11354a.htm.
  • REUTER, TIMOTHY. Germany in the Early Middle Ages c. 800-1056. TAYLOR & FRANCIS, 2016.
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Snell, Melissa. "Holy Roman Emperor Otto I." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/otto-i-profile-1789230. Snell, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/otto-i-profile-1789230 Snell, Melissa. "Holy Roman Emperor Otto I." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/otto-i-profile-1789230 (accessed June 2, 2023).