Otto the Great Refounds the Holy Roman Empire

Feature, Middle Ages

Europe Unified at a Crucial Stage of Her History

When Augustulus Romulus, Emperor of the Roman Empire of the West, was deposed by Odovacar, in A.D. 475, and that Empire ceased to exist, the event did not affect the Roman Empire in the East, with its own Emperor and capital in Constantinople. From this date, the Emperors of the East assumed the titular headship of the West, but his authority was a mere figment of the imagination, for the people of the western provinces were effectively governed by their barbarian conquerors.

Besides claiming the secular headship of the Empire, the Emperors in the East also laid claim to being the spiritual heads of Christendom. But as the years passed, this too became a figment of the imagination, as the Bishops of Rome not only counter-claimed this privilege, but became the effective leaders of Christendom.

In the background to this struggle, the group of tribes called the Franks had been successfully making themselves masters of more and more territories in northern Europe and France and establishing what was in effect an empire for themselves. This process was spread over several centuries, but when, on the death of his brother in A.D. 771, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of this Empire, and in the course of the next few years had extended his authority over an even larger area, which included Italy to just south of Rome, and was thus the dominant ruler in Europe, the Pope, acting upon his personal initiative, placed the Imperial crown on the Frankish Emperor’s head.

In doing this, the Pope declared Charlemagne to be Emperor of the Roman Empire, which, in the West, had been non-existent for just over three hundred years, declaring him to be heir to the Caesars. After initial misgivings as to the legality of the Pope’s action, Charlemagne accepted this interpretation of his new role.

This new Roman Empire was, in extent, neither more nor less than Charlemagne’s own Frankish Empire. The British Isles were not included in it, nor was Scandinavia, nor was the greater part of Spain. But it was a vast area, comprised of many independent-minded tribes, welded into a whole by the personality and administrative genius of its Emperor; and it required a man of genius to hold it together. Indeed, it was only Charlemagne’s genius which could supply any cohesion of its many parts, for it could not by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as a State, in the modern conception of that word. It was but a clumsy collection of many diffuse components, held together by its overlord.

Charlemagne was a member of what has become known as the Carolingian dynasty, which had been founded by his grandfather, Charles Martel, who had consolidated the rule first established over the Franks by his grandfather, Pepin, about A.D. 700. Now, the Carolingians had instituted a method of inheritance which the French were to continue until the disappearance of the feudal system in the thirteenth century. Under this system all the sons had equal rights to their father’s possessions at his death.

On the death of his father, King Pepin, Charlemagne had shared his father’s kingdom with his brother Carloman, succeeding only to the whole on Carloman’s death.

Charlemagne had three sons, so when he died his Empire would have to be divided into three parts, one of which was to be given to each son. Charlemagne decided the division: the Latinized west, which retained the Frankish name, and was ultimately shaped into the kingdom of France; the eastern, or definitely Germanic, section and some of the Slav peoples; and the central portion lying about the rivers Rhine and Rhone, and including the greater part of Italy, the southern part of which, however, still continued to be attached to the Roman Empire of the East.

Fraternal concord was rare in the barbaric kingdoms, but the Carolingians surpassed all save the Merovingian’s, who ruled over France for two hundred years from 500, in their lack of natural affection and elementary good faith. It was not that they lacked energy or ability, but they could not subdue their innate jealousy which led them constantly to conspire and war and murder to remove a brotherly rival and to further their personal aggrandizement. This weakness put them at the mercy of their vassals, for it was upon them that they had to rely for their actual power, and this was only forthcoming on the payment of bribes, to make which the royal estates had to be plundered.

Before their father died, Pepin, who had assumed the kingship of Italy in 781, died, and in the following year Charles, King of the central territories. This left only Louis the Pious, who had assumed the kingship of Aquitaine in 781. In 813, the year before he died, Charlemagne appointed Louis co-Emperor with himself, hoping thereby to profit his successor by experience.

But the decline of the Carolingian Empire was inevitable unless the genius of the extraordinary Emperor was repeated in his successor, and Louis the Pious had not his outstanding qualities. Certainly he had several virtues. He was genuinely religious, he was virtuous and he was merciful. As a result of the first two, he was greatly under the influence of his clergy and his successive wives, Ermengarde and Judith, by whom he had four unruly sons.

He had neither the resolution nor the shrewd good sense to keep either his sons or his great nobles in order. However, in the early years of his reign he did not do too badly, though it has to be said that this was mainly due to the fact that the Empire had not yet lost the momentum imparted to it by his great predecessor.

He did much to remove many of the abuses which had inevitably grown up under Charlemagne, who in his later years had been a man of many interests, chiefly in education and in the promotion of a culture, which had diverted his attention from many of the aspects of government. In his relations with other powers he could also rely on the prestige of his father at least for some years, and as a result he was not threatened by disaster from without.

Perhaps the chief threat to his Imperial power came from the Popes, who were beginning to grow restive in the pursuit of autonomy, but for the time being they were kept in check.

The trouble for Louis may be said to have begun when in 817 he decided to allot his possessions to his successors on the Carolingian principles of inheritance. He made his eldest son Lothar co-Emperor with himself; he gave Aquitaine to Pepin and Bavaria to Louis, later called the German; while his nephew Bernard was to have the kingdom of Italy.

While the boys were too young to rule, all was well. But in 818 Bernard set the pattern of rebellion against the Emperor, who at once quelled it and punished Bernard by blinding him so cruelly that he died within a short time. For a decade the short-shrift which Bernard had received kept the others in check, but by 829, Louis, by his own unstable actions, had lost much of his personal authority. This encouraged his sons Pepin and Louis the German to ally themselves against him and in the next year Lothar joined the rebellion, intent upon securing his father’s abdication.

But Pepin and Louis preferred their father to their brother, and there followed a period of intrigue and civil war too complicated to be set out briefly. But the upshot of it all was that a disorder was established where order was imperative if the Empire was not to be irremediably damaged.

Louis the Pious remained Emperor, after many vicissitudes, until his death in 840, but this event snapped the link which held the Empire together. Lothar, who had become reconciled to him shortly before his death, succeeded to the Imperial crown. But within three years Lothar’s youngest brother, by his father’s second wife, joined with Louis the German against him. Louis and Charles the Bald met Lothar in battle at Fontenoy on 25 June, 841, and inflicted on the Emperor an almost decisive defeat. The slaughter was immense, and the defeated side, the Carolingian homeland, lost forever the leadership of Western Europe which it had held since Charles Martel. Lothar hung on until 843, and as both sides were by now worn out they decided to make peace. By the treaty which they drew up at Verdun the Empire of Charlemagne was broken up, for though Lothar retained the title of Emperor, he had no authority over his brothers. They were all equally kings of the Franks.

By the beginning of the tenth century the dynasty had also worn itself out, with the result that France became independent, while the supremacy of the Empire passed to an elected German king, who himself only bore the title after he had been crowned and anointed in Rome, for by this time the Popes had secured a great measure of temporal authority which was disguised as spiritual authority.

The first German king was Henry the Fowler, elected in 919 as King of the Saxons and Franconians. He brought to his kingdom his vast personal estates in Saxony, of which he was Duke, and perhaps even more important, the loyalty of the Saxons. These were firm foundations upon which to build the new kingdom.

Henry was a strong, practical and constructive statesman, and among his first acts was to gain the recognition of his fellow-dukes. By 925 he had established himself as the unquestioned chief and overlord of the ducal confederation; and by the time he died in 936, Saxony’s pre-eminence was assured, so that there was no disputing the succession of his son Otto I.

Though not possessing the genius of Charlemagne, Otto was nevertheless a strong character endowed with a practical wisdom. He was determined to be the real ruler of Germany, and not just chief among the dukes. This meant that he must somehow unite Germany under his crown.

This he set out to do with a firmness born of a conviction of Germany’s right to greatness, but it was a long and arduous task which he had set himself. The dukes objected to the new order which he tried to introduce, and were led by his own two brothers, Thankmar and Henry. In the intermittent and confused rebellions which followed, one by one his chief antagonists were killed or died, and by a system of alliances Otto began to gain control over the duchies, to whom in time he appointed his own nominees. This arrangement, however, was not entirely successful, for a rivalry sprang up between the dukes, who in turn were hated by their vassal counts and nobles. Soon the simmering discontent was brought into the open. Otto made skilful use of the rivalries, increased his power by shrewdly distributing his protection to weak, lesser rulers, and soon was in a position to take the first significant step towards achieving his ambition to restore the prestige and power of the old Roman Empire.

For nearly half a century Italy had been embroiled in petty squabbles and rivalries between weak kings and powerful vassal counts, and towards the middle of the tenth century the muddle had become so acute that two joint-kings had been elected to the Italian throne, which despite its two occupants, or perhaps because of it, was still extremely unstable. In Milan a large party of disaffected bishops and nobles gathered round a beautiful, wealthy woman of strong character, Adelaide, widow of the former king, Lothar II, whose dowry one of the co-kings, Berengar, had seized. Adelaide had fled to the castle of a friendly noble, Adalbert-Atto of Canossa, and let it be known that her rescuer could be certain of her hand as his reward.

Liudolf of Swabia and Henry of Bavaria both intervened, but without much success, and in 951 Otto himself undertook his first invasion of Italy in force. With the support of the disaffected nobles, he declared himself King of Italy, rescued Adelaide and married her. But the Prince and Senator of the Romans, Alberic, and his Pope refused to grant Otto an Imperial coronation in Rome. Before he could take steps to rectify this situation, Otto had to hurry back to Germany to put down the plots of his son Liudolf.

He returned in 961, when a war broke out between the Pope, John XII, and Berengar, king of the mutilated kingdom of Italy, for in return for assistance John offered to Otto the Imperial crown. With considerable ease, Otto overcame Berengar’s kingdom, though the king had barricaded himself in his strong castle of St Leo and defied the invader.

Without waiting until he had brought Berengar to submission, on 2 February, 962, Otto was crowned Emperor in St Peter’s, Rome. Then one of those strange events took place, the reasons for which appear buried in the tortuous minds of those who bring them about. Almost immediately after crowning Otto, the Pope went over to the man from whom he had asked Otto to protect him. Otto decided to depose him, and in spite of the popular belief that no man could judge the Pope, John’s excessively scandalous private life prevented him from having allies. Otto drove him from Rome, and drew from the Romans a novel promise not to elect a new Pope without his consent.

A council of obedient bishops deposed John, and appointed a layman, Leo VIII, in his place. Almost at once Berengar surrendered and was made a prisoner. The Romans, however, did not take to German rule, and when John suddenly died, discarding their promise they appointed a successor, having deposed Leo. Otto’s reply was to starve the city into submission, capture the new Pope, Benedict V, and made the people reinstate Leo, who soon died, and was succeeded by John XIII. The Papal State was reduced by Otto to more or less nominal limits, while the young King of Lombardy was banished from his realm.

It was by these means and in this way that Otto re-created the Empire in the West, which he now called the Holy Roman Empire. For almost a thousand years, until 1806, a Holy Roman Emperor wore the Imperial crown, though for the last few centuries he did not wield Imperial power. It was when the then holder decided that a crown without power was ridiculous that a title which had become farcical was allowed to lapse. But in its heyday it brought to much of Europe a unity which it would otherwise not have had.