Ottonian dynasty

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House of Otto
Country Duchy of Saxony, Kingdom of Germany, Holy Roman Empire
Titles Holy Roman Emperor
King of the Romans
King of Germany
Final ruler Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor
Founding year 9th century: Liudolf, Duke of Saxony
Dissolution 1024 (after the death of Emperor Henry II)
Cadet branches Brunonids

The Ottonian dynasty or Ottos (German: Ottonen) was a Saxon dynasty of German monarchs (919–1024), named after three of its kings and Holy Roman Emperors named Otto, especially its first Emperor Otto I. It is also known as the Saxon dynasty after the family's origin in the German stem duchy of Saxony. The family itself is also sometimes known as the Liudolfings (German: Liudolfinger), after its earliest known member Liudolf, Duke of Saxony (d. March 864 or 866) and one of its primary leading-names, "Otto" after the imperial coronation. The Ottonian rulers are also regarded as the first dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire, as successors of the Carolingian dynasty and Charlemagne, who is commonly viewed as the original founder of a new (Frankish) Roman Empire.[1]


Depiction of the Ottonian family tree in a 13th-century manuscript of the Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis. The founder of the dynasty Liudolf, Duke of Saxony is at the top center.
Viking, Moorish and Magyar invasions into Europe after the death of Charlemagne
Otto II was the youngest and sole surviving son of Otto the Great and his second wife Adelheid von Burgund, daughter of King Rudolf II of Burgundy. He was made joint-ruler of Germany in 961, co-Emperor in 967 and was Roman-German Emperor from 973 until his death in 983. Early in his reign, Otto II defeated a major revolt against his rule from other members of the Ottonian dynasty who claimed the throne for themselves. His victory allowed him to exclude the Bavarian line of the Ottonians from the line of Imperial succession. This strengthened his authority as Emperor and secured the succession of his own son to the Imperial throne.

Through the decision of the powerful tribal duke and king Konrad I to appoint Heinrich von Sachsen as his successor, the family, which was previously only important in the Duchy of Saxony, received royal dignity. The rise of the dynasty coincided with the rise of the East Frankish Empire and the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Ottonian empire encompassed the lands that now are Germany, Switzerland, northern and central Italy, but not the vast Frankish territories that Charlemagne had held. In 936, Otto I, known as Otto the Great, was crowned king at Aachen; in 962, the pope invested him with the imperial title. Under the reigns of Otto I (r. 936–73), and of his son and grandson, Otto II (r. 973–83) and Otto III (r. 983–1002), the Holy Roman Empire was revived, albeit with a different geography and a different character.

The Ottonian emperors styled themselves the equals of the greatest rulers. They constructed a palace in Rome and spent long periods there near the pope, whose spiritual authority bolstered their claim to rule by God-given right. They also sought close ties with Byzantium, a power of much superior might and sophistication, and sealed a strategic alliance when the Byzantine princess Theophano married Otto II in 972. In addition to political advantage, the Ottonians gained exposure to works of art that glorified other empires, and they in turn trumpeted their own aspirations by promoting the visual arts.

In 955, Otto personally went to battle against the Hungarians, carrying the Holy Lance that pierced the side of our Lord after his crucifixion. Otto and his forces were victorious, ending over 100 years of invasion into the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. The same year, he achieved a victory over the Slavs in the northeast. Celebrations were held in churches across the kingdom for Otto's victory over the pagan Hungarians and Slavs, the bishops attributing the victory to divine intervention and proof of Otto's "divine right" to rule. This marked a turning point in Otto's reign, sealing his power, with the dukes and their duchies in Germany firmly under royal authority. From 955 on, there would not be another rebellion against his rule, and as a result was able to further consolidate his position throughout Central Europe. By 957, the three most prominent members of the royal family (other than Otto) had died, including his heir apparent, as well as two other sons who were in early childhood. Two-year-old Otto, who would become Otto II, became the kingdom's new heir apparent. In 958, Berengar II of Italy, who had been deposed in 952 by Otto's forces, attacked Verona and the Papal States, including the city of Rome under Pope John XII. In at the fall of 960, Italy was in political turmoil. Pope John and several other Italian leaders including the Archbishop of Milan, the bishops of Como and Novara, and the Margrave Otbert of Milan, arrived at Otto's court, seeking aid against Berengar II. After the Pope agreed to crown him as Emperor, Otto assembled his army to march on Italy. Prior to the Italian campaign and imperial coronation, Otto planned his kingdom's future. At the Imperial Diet at Worms in May 961, six-year-old Otto II was officially named as heir apparent and co-ruler, and crowned at Aachen Cathedral, anointed by

Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier, with Otto's brother Bruno and his illegitimate son William, co-regents in Germany. Otto's army then marched on northern Italy in August 961 through the Brenner Pass at Trento, where several centuries later, the Council of Trent would be held. They moved on to Pavia, the former Lombard capital of Italy, and camped there for the celebration of Christmas. Berengar II's armies retreated to their strongholds in order to avoid battle with Otto, allowing him to advance southward through the Papal States unopposed, reaching Rome on 31 January 31, 962. Three days later, he was crowned Emperor by Pope John XII at Old St. Peter's Basilica.[2]

For over 100 years, the Ottonian system worked beautifully, and the empire dominated most of Europe. But it relied on control of church appointments and control of the popes. Local churchmen, by and large, were happy - the pope was not. Otto endowed the bishoprics and abbeys of his kingdom with gifts of land, and gave them the power to levy taxes and to maintain an army. The bishops and abbots were also given the secular rank of imperial count (Reichsgraf), as well as the legal rights held by secular counts within the territory of their dioceses. There was also the Kirchenfürst (Prince of the Church), a hierarch who held an ecclesiastic fief and Imperial princely rank, such as prince-bishops, prince-abbots, or Grand Masters of a Christian military order. All cardinals are deemed to be "Princes of the Church" and considered to be equal to royal princes by the church. Archbishops were also known as Fürst(erz)bischof. The ecclesiastical imperial princes were later represented as secular regents (Reichsfürsten) in the Imperial Council of Princes (Reichsfürstenrat) of the Reichstag.

The purely secular authorities were not given the power to tax nor were they given legal jurisdiction. This effectively placed the Church above the dukes. To fund the Church, Otto made tithing mandatory throughout Germany. He personally appointed all bishops and abbots, strengthening his central authority, until the upper ranks of the German Church effectively functioned as part of the royal bureaucracy. His personal chaplains after a number of years of loyal service in the royal court were rewarded with promotions to their own dioceses as bishops. This gave Otto the ability to closely observe and assess the men he planned to make bishops, prior to installing them in that office.

German royal chancery

Under the Ottonian dynasty, which came to power in the eastern division of the original Carolingian empire early in the 10th century, the German royal chancery developed the organization that was to characterize it throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages. The heads of the chancery were the archchancellors, but the office was entirely honorary and soon came to be automatically held, as far as Germany was concerned, by whoever was archbishop of Mainz. When the German kings or emperors established administrations in Italy, Italian bishops were at first made archchancellors for Italy, but in 1031 the office was attached to the archbishopric of Cologne. From the 11th century, Burgundian bishops were archchancellors for Burgundy, but, in the second half of the 13th century, the archbishop of Trier took over the office. The actual heads of the chancery were the chancellors. At first there was a chancellor, as well as an archchancellor, for each separate part of the empire—Germany, Italy, and Burgundy—but from 1118 there was only one chancellor for all three kingdoms. But even the chancellors, all of whom were clerics, were rarely involved in the actual composition and engrossing of documents, being usually engaged, as important advisers to the king or emperor, in much weightier matters. They do seem to have been especially concerned, however, with decisions about the granting of charters, and they supervised the work of the scribes or notaries. From among the ranks of these notaries, a group of protonotaries gradually developed after the mid-12th century, as a result of influence from the chancery of the Norman rulers of Sicily. Often called upon to deputize for the chancellor, the protonotaries, from the late 13th century onward, frequently titled themselves vice chancellors. From the 12th century onward, the documents issued by the German royal chancery were divided into various classifications. The diploma, by then usually called a privilege, existed in two categories, the solemn and the simple privilege. A solemn privilege included the invocatio, the signum and recognition line, and a detailed dating or at least one of these three elements, which were entirely lacking in simple privileges. Gradually, simple privileges merged into documents called mandates; it is not always easy to distinguish between them, but, in general, privileges were concerned with rights in perpetuity, while the mandates dealt mainly with matters of only temporary importance. From the early 14th century, mandates were superseded by the use of letters patent and letters close (open or closed letters). Privileges continued to be sealed with a hanging seal; the seal on letters patent was impressed on the document and was used to seal up letters close. As the power of the German kings declined during the later Middle Ages, so that of the archchancellors increased, and in the 14th century they attempted to win control of the chancery. But, despite fluctuations in the power struggle, the king retained control of the chancellor, who, by the end of the 15th century, held the title of imperial vice chancellor.[3]

Ottonian Renaissance

The Ottonian Renaissance (951-1024) was a period of cultural and artistic achievement inspired by the revival of the Holy Roman Empire.

Ottonian rule was accompanied by renewed faith in the idea of imperium (Latin, roughly translated as "power to command" and referring to the sovereignty of state over individual) and also coincided with a period of significant church reform. Both combined to create the Ottonian Renaissance (circa 951-1024), a period of heightened cultural and artistic fervor and achievement. The Ottonian Dynasty desired to confirm a sacred Roman imperial lineage that connected them to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity such as Theodoric and Justinian, as well as to their Carolingian predecessors, particularly Charlemagne. Ottonian art reflected this desire, fusing traditions and influences from late Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian art. The style is generally grand and heavy, sometimes to excess, and initially less sophisticated than the Carolingian equivalents. Additionally, the Ottonian style exhibits no direct influence from Byzantine art and less understanding of its classical models. Surviving paintings from this period exist predominantly in the form of illustrations from illuminated manuscripts and a small number of mural and fresco fragments. In fact, illuminated manuscripts are the best source of painted imperial portraiture from the Ottonian Renaissance.[4]

Monarchs of the Saxon dynasty (919-1024)

The Ottonian rulers of East Francia, the German Kingdom, and the Holy Roman Empire were:

  • Henry the Fowler (Henry I), Duke of Saxony from 912, King of East Francia from 919 until 936, founder of the Saxon dynasty
  • Otto I, the Great, Duke of Saxony and King of East Francia from 936, King of Italy from 951, Holy Roman Emperor from 962 until 973
  • Otto II, co-ruler from 961, Holy Roman Emperor from 967, sole ruler from 973 until 983
  • Otto III, King of the Romans from 983, Holy Roman Emperor from 996 until 1002
  • Henry II, the Saint, Duke of Bavaria from 995 (as Henry IV), King of the Romans from 1002, King of Italy from 1004, Holy Roman Emperor from 1002 until 1024