In 962 Otto, who had also gained control of the Middle Kingdom, was formally crowned king of the Romans. The possessor of this title would, in time, be known as the Holy Roman Emperor. The coronation came to be seen as the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, an institution that lasted until 1806 and profoundly influenced the course of German history. The coronation of Otto was a moment of glory for the German monarchy, but its long-term consequences were not beneficial because as German kings sought to exercise the offices of the empire they became involved in Italian affairs, often to such an extent that they neglected the governing of Germany. Because German kings were so often in Italy, the German nobility became stronger. In addition, the presence of German kings in Italy as emperors soon caused them to come into conflict with the papacy, which did not hesitate to seek allies in Italy or Germany to limit imperial power. A last problem was that the succession to the German throne was often uncertain or was hotly contested because it was not inheritable, but could only be attained through election by the German dukes. This circumstance made the formation of an orderly or stable central government nearly impossible. In the opinion of some historians, Otto’s triumph in Rome in 962 ultimately was disastrous for Germany because it delayed German unification by centuries.
The beginning of the tenth century was a time of general demoralization for Europe. There was a seething process going on out of which good was eventually to come, but for the present it seemed. as though all social order were going straightway to destruction. The Magyars, Saracens, and Normans plundered at will, the central power became more and more sub-divided, the name of emperor was fast falling into forgetfulness, and popes were put up and cast down at will. Around the chair of Peter, indeed, corruption was even more rife than elsewhere. Over the corpse of Formosus, who had crowned Arnulf, the next pope had held a ghastly trial. Clothed in the papal adornments, the loathsome body had been placed on a throne, and, the mockery of a defence having been gone through with, judgment had been spoken against it. A year later the successor of Formosus had been strangled.
Literature and art had withered away for want of nourishment in the East Frankish or German kingdom. The strongest proof of this is that historical sources for the reign of Conrad (911-918) and Henry I. (919-936) were almost unknown to their own or to later ages. The court annals that had been continued during almost all of the Carolingian period come to an end, and we are dependent for information on the incidental evidence of monastic chroniclers of acts of synods and of charters.
Almost all that we know of Conrad’s reign is that he made a last attempt in Carolingian style to maintain the supremacy of the crown over the individual powers that were cropping up around it. He would not acknowledge the independence of the stem-duchies, although all his efforts to check that independence were in vain. Against each of the duchies in turn, against Lorraine, Saxony, Swabia, and Bavaria he waged wars which were almost universally unsuccessful. Lorraine, indeed, during his whole reign professed allegiance not to the East Frankish but to the West Frankish kingdom.
Conrad allied himself firmly with the Church. It was through the influence of a metropolitan bishop that he had been raised on the throne. Bishop Salamo of Constance was his chancellor and chief adviser, and to the Church he granted far-reaching concessions.
That institution in turn unreservedly entered the lists for Conrad. The synod of Hohenaltheim, which was held in 916, and at which a papal legate was present, spoke a threefold curse against all who should break their oath of fealty to the king, and declared treasonable undertakings to be punishable with life-long imprisonment in a monastery. Erchanger and Berthold, of almost ducal rank, and leaders of the separatist movement in Swabia, were condemned to this penalty, but Conrad, not satisfied with its severity, later had them put to death. This act, be it here remarked, availed him little, for a more dangerous leader of the Swabians arose in the person of their new duke, Burkhard.
Conrad’s efforts to create a strong monarchy that should stem, the growth of the local powers had been a failure, and no one recognized this fact more clearly than himself. His last act, although a practical confession of the uselessness of his whole policy, was the grandest of his life. He empowered his brother Eberhard to deliver the insignia of royalty to Henry of Saxony, the most powerful of the stem dukes, the man who had most bitterly opposed all efforts at founding a government on autocratic principles. Instead of trying to keep the royal dignity in the hands of his own family, Conrad, himself a Frank, induced his next of kin to bring about the reversion of the throne to a Saxon dynasty.
The annals of Poehlde, a generation or more later, sum up Conrad’s character in words that form a fitting epitaph for him: “This king was so bent on the good of his fatherland that he sacrificed to it his personal enmity — truly a rare virtue.”
The chief problem of Henry I.’s reign, like that of Conrad, was how to keep in check the power of the stem-duchies. But Henry’s method was a different one from that of his predecessor. He ceased to lean on Conrad’s chief ally, the Church, and at the very beginning repulsed Archbishop Heriger of Mayence, who was about to perform upon him the ceremony of unction at his coronation. Conrad had exercised violence and repression towards the individual dukes; Henry tried negotiation and conciliation.
With Eberhard of Franconia, who had brought him the insignia, and who, in an assembly of Franks and Saxons held at Fritzlar, had secured him the election, he stood, during the whole of his reign, on the best of terms. With Burkhard of Swabia, and the almost sovereign Arnulf of Bavaria, he came in time to a peaceful agreement, and induced them to do him homage.
Arnulf, indeed, was allowed to retain important prerogatives, chief among them the right to appoint bishops to the vacant sees in Bavaria. It will readily be seen what an important concession this was, a concession which no other duchy ever enjoyed. Arnulf could thus appoint to office his own particular and faithful partisans in every part of the land. They worked in his interests in their different dioceses, and were sure to take his part in any contention with the king. And their influence was not small: the bishops, as we shall often see in the future, were among the most powerful and richest political powers in the land.
Both Burkhard and Arnulf continued to call themselves “duke by the grace of God.” They issued coins stamped with their own likenesses, and dated their charters according to the years of their own reign.
The result of Henry’s policy was that Germany at this time could hardly be called a monarchy. The only duties of the dukes were to appear at the general diets and to take part in foreign wars. All of Henry’s own actual power came to him from his position as Duke of Saxony. Here and here only could he unfold his powers of organization and administration.
From Charles the Simple of France, who at first had tried to widen his bounds at the expense of Germany, Henry secured recognition of his own title as king of the Eastern Franks. The two sovereigns met on a boat that was moored in the middle of the Rhine, and closed a treaty of alliance with each other. A Carolingian king acknowledged the legitimacy of the elect of the people.
That same king’s own position was precarious, to say the least, and rival kings were several times set up by a part of the French nobles. Henry was more than once called upon to interfere, and the indirect result of his intervention was the reacquisition of Lorraine for Germany. First, as the ally of its duke, Gislebert, Reginar’s son, then, apparently, as his enemy, he brought the whole land into subjection, and Gislebert acknowledged his suzerainty. In 928 the ties that bound Lorraine to Germany were still further strengthened by the marriage of Gislebert with Henry’s daughter Gerberga.
Henry’s peaceful relations with the German dukes left him time for the important undertakings for which he is more generally known in history. He placed a limit at least to the greed and rapacity of the Hungarians, and gained large provinces and tracts of land from the Slavonians. But, what was still more, in order to attain these ends he trained and moulded his own people.
Since the beginning of the century the Hungarians or Magyars had been harassing Germany. What stirring accounts of these outrages come down to us in the annals of St. Gall and other monasteries! These religious houses, being repositories of riches as well as sanctuaries of the God of the Christians, were especially open to their attacks. In our own day these invasions have formed the theme for one of the best and most popular of modern literary productions.
In 924 Henry had the good fortune to secure the person of a Hungarian chieftain. The Magyars negotiated for his release, and a treaty was brought about that insured a nine years’ peace to Saxony, in return for which boon Henry was to pay a yearly tribute.
Henry now set about placing his people in a condition to defend themselves. He caused numerous fortresses to be built, within which the Saxons might take refuge at the shortest notice. Such fortresses are called “urbes” in the chronicle of our informant Widukind, and hence Henry’s fame as the “founder of cities.” But cities they were not in our sense of the word, although on the sites of, or possibly around, individual fortresses towns were later to arise. This was undoubtedly the. case with Quedlinburg, where, at his death, Henry’s bones were laid to rest.
In the matter of military tactics Henry introduced one great reform. The peculiar nature of the Hungarian inroads made cavalry an absolute necessity, and the Saxon vassals were now trained to fight on horseback, an art which the Franks had long since learned in their wars with the Arabs.
Conflicts with the Wends and other Slavonians gave the necessary baptism of blood to the newly created troops.
The present Mecklenburg, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the Ukermark and the region along the Havel were occupied at this time by different tribes, such as the Abodrites, the Redarii, Wilzi, and Liutizi. All through Thuringia, too, were Slavic settlements, and many towns and rivers such as Jena, Plane, the Lemnitz, and the Pollnitz still preserve their original designations. The Slavic villages were built in a circular form and were incapable of extension, which accounts for the great number of distinct settlements. In the small duchy of Saxe Altenburg alone Slavic names have been traced for three hundred villages.
We hear dimly of various expeditions undertaken by Henry I. against these century-long rivals of the Germans. It was in the territory of the Dalemincians that he founded Meissen. On one occasion he advanced as far as Prague and compelled Wenceslaus of Bohemia to do him homage. Among his conquests, too, was Brennaburg, the present town of Brandenburg. These victories brought north Germany into subjection at least as far as the river Elbe.
The truce with the Magyars came to an end, and on Henry’s refusing to continue his tribute they renewed their attacks in 933. We hear of a successful battle fought against them in that year, and we know that Saxony was henceforth free from their invasions although Bavaria and Swabia were still to suffer for another generation.
Henry’s last undertaking was a war against the Danes. We only know that it was in a measure successful, and that a tract of land between the Eider and the Schlei was won for Germany.
That Henry’s renown had spread far beyond the confines of his own land is proved by the almost unseemly alacrity with which King Athelstan of England entered into his proposal of an alliance by marriage. Henry sought a bride for his son Otto, and asked for the sister of the English king. Athelstan sent not one but two of his sisters, and Edith, the elder of the princesses who had come for inspection, was chosen by Otto.
It has been intimated that the contemporary history writing for the time of Henry, as well as for that of Conrad, was scanty and insufficient. Most of the details of his reign have been preserved by Widukind, who lived under Otto the Great. Widukind’s chief source of information seems to have been oral tradition, and much that he relates has to be received with caution. Some statements are sorely in need of further explanation. One assertion that has given rise to endless surmises is to the effect that, at the close of his life, Henry had determined to go to Rome but was prevented by illness. Did he intend to go as a pilgrim or as a conqueror? Was the pope’s blessing or the imperial crown the goal of his ambition?
The reign of Otto the Great (936-973) may be roughly divided into three periods. During the first he tries to solve the old problem of how to reckon with the stem duchies. During the second he renews Conrad’s policy of relying on the Church, not, however, as its servant, but as its head. In the third we find him as emperor and as ruler, not only over the German Church but also over the Church of Rome. Like a second Charlemagne he unites Italy and Germany under his sway; his court, too, although less by his own efforts than by those of the distinguished women of his family, becomes a centre for the revival of letters, learning, and art.
Otto owed his throne partly to the designation of his father, partly also to the election by the nobles, which took place at Erfurt, and to the acclamation of the people.
The brilliant ceremony of enthronization which took place at Aix, shows to what a degree of unity and organization Henry I. had brought the kingdom. The nobles and vassals of the crown had been summoned from all German lands, and at Aix la Chapelle they did homage to Otto as Charles the Great’s successor and as king of the Franks. Otto had laid aside his Saxon garb, for it was a recognized principle that the king, from whatever stem he might be chosen, must live according to Frankish law and custom.
The coronation was performed by the three archbishops of Mayence of Treves and of Cologne in Charles the Great’s chapel, and the throne or marble chair which Otto ascended was the same on which his great predecessor had sat. It was used in turn for centuries by successive German sovereigns, and is still preserved.
In the feast which followed the ceremony at Aix the heads of the different stem duchies performed for the first time those menial services that for eight hundred years were to symbolize the submission due to royal authority. The offices of chamberlain and steward, cup-bearer and marshal, were performed by the Dukes of Lorraine, Franconia, Swabia, and Bavaria. This act was of great significance. By it, on the one hand, the dukes showed their respect for the king’s position; Otto, on the other, recognized the dukes as heads of their stems, and as second only in power to himself.
Scarcely was Otto seated on the throne than he was called upon to suppress a revolt of the Slavic peoples to the east of Saxony, and especially of the Bohemians, who had by this time formed themselves into a state. The border tribes in general were the redskins of Germany. They too had been dispossessed of their lands, they, too, were glad of any occasion for havoc and plunder.
The conduct of the war against the Slavonians was entrusted to Hermann Billung, who was made margrave or count of the Saxon March, but in whose hands so much power was placed that he was looked upon with envy and jealousy by the border nobles. The latter were in the habit of drawing tribute from the Slavonians and saw their interests threatened by Hermann’s measures, as also, later, by the Church Missions.
During Otto’s first years he was to be continually tried as by fire. The Hungarians renewed their attacks but were met by the young monarch in Franconia and driven back. But worse than all outward enemies were those in the king’s environment and in his own household.
Eberhard, duke of Franconia and brother of Conrad I., formerly so loyal to the royal house, had been guilty of a lawless act, inasmuch as he had taken upon himself to punish one of his Saxon vassals, a certain Bruning. He had gathered a band of followers and had attacked Bruning’s castle in Hessengan, killing its defenders and finally reducing the pile to ashes. Otto, who did not allow himself to be swayed by regard for any privileged person whatever in matters pertaining to justice, condemned Eberhard to a penalty which was to consist in furnishing horses to the worth of a hundred pounds of silver. His aiders and abettors were to undergo the humiliating punishment of walking a certain distance each with a dog upon his shoulders. The punishments of this time were as a rule significant. The hand that forged or that stole was cut off, the eye that lusted was put out, and the penalty of dog carrying seems to have been intended to betoken the brutal character of the undertaking that called down its infliction.
A fearful blow had been struck to Eberhard’s self-esteem, it was a duel to the death now between himself and Otto. He soon allied himself with Thankmar, the bastard brother of the king, who was chafing under Otto’s arbitrary disposal of certain Saxon estates to which he felt that he had a claim. A very distant one it would seem to us — they had belonged to the cousin of his mother Hatheburg, whose marriage with Henry I. the Church had declared illegal.
Conspiracy is a weed that grows apace if the ground be in any way favourable. Saxon nobles and others joined the malcontents, and Thankmar was soon able to attack a castle of Otto’s brother, Henry, near Lippstadt, and to carry off that prince as a prisoner. Thankmar then possessed himself of the Eresburg, on the Diemel, and entrenched himself there, but Otto marched up the hill leading to the fortress at the head of such an army that the garrison did not dare to resist him. The gates were opened and Thankmar fled to the church, where he was slain near the altar by a lance hurled through the window.