Written by Francis Jesse Augustine Stephen Monek

The Ottonians were a dynasty of Saxon descent, understood to have been nobles who became a royal—and eventually imperial—family. The lifespan of the noble, royal, and imperial dynasty of the Ottonians, which was documented, lasted from the mid-9th century to the exact year of 1024 AD. The prominent rulers, who are considered to be the most significant, are King Henry I, Emperor Otto I, Emperor Otto II, Emperor Otto III, and Emperor Henry II; they are those considered to have been the peak and height of Ottonian power.

The aforementioned Ottonian leaders have uniquely contributed to the way that the Ottonian dynasty has been remembered through their words and actions during their respective reigns. Though there lacked stability in the entirety of the united realms (of the Kingdom of Germany, the Kingdom of Burgundy, and the Kingdom of Italy) with rebellions, revolts, and conspiracies which contributed to the amount of time the Emperors would spend peacekeeping within the empire. Additionally, the Ottonians would come to be known for their involvement with Papal politics, Christianization efforts, and the Imperial Church System. Although the dynasty of the Ottonians would reach great heights, it would all come to a simple ending. Henry II would die without issue (without a child), which would mark an end to the dynasty’s main branch, paving the way for a new dynasty to come in. Though, despite the death of the main branch, a minor cadet branch remained; however, the complete extinction of the Ottonians would come when even that branch died out nearly a century after the death of the mainline of Ottonians.

The origins of the Ottonians are cloudy; however, it has been said by various individuals that the Ottonians rose to prominence from a lower rank of officials, such as messengers. The Ottonians began with a humble start, typically purported as starting at the rank of a ministerial and eventually marrying up—that is to say, marrying their family up the ranks of nobility—to the extent of Count. The earliest documented family member of the Ottonians was Count Liudolf, who was responsible for the defense of eastern Saxony, which has caused the Ottonian dynasty also to be referred to, lesser so, as the Liudolfings (Freed). Although the dynasty was known as the Liudolfings, the dynasty was primarily remembered in history as the Ottonians due to Otto the Great being coronated as Emperor Otto I. As aforementioned, the household married up, continuing this practice in the name of attaining even higher social status and eventually becoming the dukes.  

The Ottonian dynasty is known to have become a noble family who was, at their highest rank of nobility, the Dukes of Saxony, which gave them much power in the Eastern Frankish Kingdom. The Duchies of the Kingdom held much power. Moreover, they had the authority to vote for the King, which displays a dynamic where the nobles held more power than the monarch. The Ottonian dynasty, once established, was able to make use of its newfound power by engaging in such elections. The time came once Louis the Child died, the duchies to select a new King via a vote, and the Ottonians had their chance at Kingship through the military and familial ties to the Carolingians (Freed). The contemporary duchies of the Kingdom consisted of the Duchy of Bavaria, the Duchy of Franconia, the Duchy of Lorraine, the Duchy of Saxony, & the Duchy of Swabia. The dukes thus elected an Ottonian to be the new King, Henry I.

The late King Conrad I, who was not a part of the Ottonian Dynasty, was reported to have said on his death bed that “the future of the realm lies with the Saxons,” which declared Henry I the new king (Poole, 179). Additionally, the Frankish and Saxon dukes of the time selected the king, an Ottonian, the first Ottonian to be a king, Henry I (Streissgut, 258-259). King Henry I established a new system for succession law: only one male successor (this means there is no more division of the realm after deaths). This effectively created an agnatic male succession law, which could be described similarly to Salic law, that prevented the division of the kingdom and thereby securing his dynastys’, and others’, future. The ending of these divisions would mean the consolidation of the state and the general increase of stability since the nobility had to worry much less about the civil wars and succession crisis’ which used to occur every time a sovereign would die.  

King Henry I did view himself as the de facto Primus inter Pares, which means “of a matter (of fact/reality), first among equals,” displaying his views that the king was not simply for show but was equal in authority and power to the stem duchies. Ultimately being first among equals would be rising him from an elected figure who was more figurehead than a governor of lands, such as the dukes, to an equal to those other nobles who governed lands. This was a shift from the previous status of higher nobles, primarily dukes, holding most of the day-to-day governing authority and power within the empire; this would continue to change throughout the rest of the Ottonian dynasty (Poole, 179). King HenryI also had heavy involvement in various wars with neighboring regions’ peoples, such as Danes, the Slavs, the Magyars, and the Muslims. Henry Fought against the Grand Principality of Hungary, called “the land of the Hungarians,” and the Magyars raids. (Encyclopedia of World Biography Online). Henry I additionally made various bids to subjugate neighboring Slavic tribes through the commitment of military campaigns. These are just some of the examples of how the ascension of Henry I to the throne would pave the way for Otto the Great, his successor, to, thereafter, be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Henry I to the throne would pave the way for Otto the Great, his successor, to, thereafter, be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. 

Otto the Great, Emperor Otto I—then King Otto I—, son of King Henry I, was elected the legal successor of Henry I as the king and had himself coronated while wearing Frankish noble apparel (see Appendix B for crown). “He had already been elected at an assembly of Saxon and Franconian preicn3s held at Erfurt in his father’s life time; but not content with this he laid great stress on the importance of a soleme ceremony which took place early in August at Ax-la-Chapelle, the old Carolingian seat of residence” according to Austin Lane Poole. The reign of Otto I was the original start of the development of the Great Offices of the Holy Roman Empire, which included initial positions of Chamberlain, Marshal, Cupbearer, and Steward. The four dukes were acting as Otto’s servants at the coronation banquet to display their submission to his authority as king, a part of the aforementioned shift of the person(s) who hold authority and power (the nobility or the monarch). This symbolic gesture signaled the natural lowering of the degree of power of the dukes of the realm into royal subjects below the king’s authority and the public recognition of the union of the German tribes (Poole, 187). Later, Otto I was coronated Emperor at Rome in 962, expanding his authority across the European continent, mainly southward into Italy and westward into Burgundy, respectively. The rise of Otto I to power also saw the establishment of the Imperial Church System, a system designed to help expand the Church administration’s duties as utility of the empire’s own administration for increased stately organization. This system would be continually developed and reach its peak during the remainder of the Ottonian dynasty as a result of the system’s successes in significantly increasing the imperial administrative capacity (Commire).

Though Otto I consolidated power and made many significant gains, he had to crush various revolts in his realms, including multiple into Italy though they were mainly in Germany, such as against Bavaria twice (Poole, 188). Such necessity for peacekeeping would bring Otto to Italy, as previously stated, in military expeditions into Italian lands to assert dominance. Otto, I would also be heavily involved in political and diplomatic endeavors with the Papal States; the Pope being the head of Western Christianity (which would become Catholic Christianity), played a critical role in the world by merely being the figurehead of the Church. Despite his important role in the Chruch, “Otto the Great never lost interest, never disregarded the affairs of his original kingdom. At Rome one of his first considerations was the organization of the Church on the eastern frontier of Saxony, the carrying out of his cherished plan,” wrote Austin Lane Poole.  The reign of Emperor Otto I would come to an end when he died on May 7th, 973, subsequently to getting the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and having died with his empire being far more robust than it was in the first years of his Lordship.  

Emperor Otto I had a son, named Otto, who would be declared the legal successor to Otto I, making him in King Otto II—Otto II too would be coronated as the Holy Roman Emperor. Emperor Otto II had to handle the Great Slav Revolt, suffering a significant loss that directly resulted in a retreat to the West banks of the Elbe River. If this was not enough, Emperor Otto II also had to contend with Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, with whom he was in a long-standing power struggle until death (Poole, 205). Otto II desired to expand the Church’s significance in the whole of the empire in accordance with Otto I’s establishment of the Imperial Church System. Furthermore, Otto II, similar to his father, had heavy involvement with the Papal States and made use of the Church’s administrative resources in the name of the advancement of secular society. Otto II had Italian ambitions in that it was his wish to expand the empire southward, further in the Italian peninsula since the empire controlled only the northern half. Otto II was deemed by historians “Otto the Red” due to his massacring of Roman nobles deemed to create problems at the beginning of a banquet dinner. Otto II’s reign would suddenly end with his death on December 7th, 983, in Rome, resulting from malaria outbreak in central Italy (Poole, 209). This occurred while in the power struggle with Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, which instantaneously lowered the stability of the whole of the realm.

Otto III was coronated as king at three years old by Otto II because of concern with regard to, until the death of Otto II, Otto II’s power struggle with Henry II. In a string of events, Otto III was eventually kidnapped by Henry II and was eventually forced to back down when several dukes and high-ranking Church officials warned him. Additionally, Otto III’s mother Theophanu acted as regent in her son’s stead in his youth.  These early events would prove to be an uneasy start to the reign of Otto III, these such events having left Otto with the task of trying to improve stability. During the reign of Otto III, the Western Slavs entered a state of revolt once again, but this time Otto III, unlike his father, would eventually triumph over the Slavs after several years of military campaigning. Nevertheless, like his father, Otto III engaged in several military expeditions into the Kingdom of Italy in order to establish his dominance and authority within the region (Warner, 714-715).   

A notable series of diplomatic actions that Otto III did was developing positive relations with the first dynasty of Poland by giving the head of the dynasty the title of “amicus imperatoris,” which means “friend of the emperor.” If this is not enough, Otto III additionally gave him the title of “dux Poloniae,” or “Duke of Poland,” which was official recognition from the Emperor. Otto III is also said to have given the first king of Hungary a crown from the Pope and requested that Grand Prince Stephen I of Hungary be coronated as the first Christian king of Hungary. At this point, he became King Stephen I. These diplomatic turning points are huge historical events which display the growth of Christendom into pagan lands and the subsequent usage of Christianize in the name of having international legitimacy and more vital allies, such as with the Duchy of Poland and the Kingdom of Hungary, respectively. Despite the tumultuous early reign of Otto III, he would see the aforementioned political, religious, and military successes which brought the empire back into a greater state of stability. Otto III would come down with a fever on a trip to the city of Rome, and this fever would eventually kill him on the 24th of January 1002 without an issue (Warner, 714-715).

The next king to be elected as an individual related to Otto III, Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, the very son of the Duke of Bavaria who kidnapped Otto III (see Appendix A for the family tree), was selected to be the king. Much in the same vein as his three predecessors, Henry II tried to consolidate the political power he wielded above the higher nobles. Henry II was very firm in his actions which involved the continuation of upholding the very systems that Otto I, Otto II, and Otto III created and developed—namely the Imperial Church System. Moreover, Henry II dealt with matters of diplomacy and politics with the Papacy in order to continue to affirm support from the Church. Emperor Henry II also engaged in a military expedition into Northern Italy in order to assert himself and his authority, much the same as his predecessors, who also engaged in peacekeeping operations within the Kingdom of Italy.  

One of the major differences, if not the primary distinction, of Emperor Henry II from Emperor Otto III was the policy of restoring the Roman Empire (Renovatio Imperii Romanorum) to restoring the Frankish Kingdom (Renovatio Regni Francorum). This is an important shift to note because the Renewal of the Roman Empire had been a policy typical of, and made blatant by, the previous sovereigns of the empire, particularly with the various expansionist goals (such as Otto II with southern Italian ambitions) and diplomatic expansionism (such as Otto III’s relations with the Hungarians and Poles). This significant shift is made clear when Henry II not only went as far as to halt general Christianization efforts but also in his policies with regard to Poland. Henry II completely moved away from Otto III’s diplomatic moves with Poland, going as far as to initiate various military campaigns in separate wars to cripple and crush Poland. With acknowledgment to these extreme changes in diplomatic and domestic political attitudes, Henry II did actually continue to expand upon the Imperial Church System, this system reaching the pinnacle of its development under his reign. Emperor Henry II’s reign ended when, on July 13th, 1024, he died at his imperial palace; this would prove to be a disaster for the Ottonians as a dynasty as it would mark its end of dominance in the Holy Roman Empire as a result of the fact that, Henry II died without an issue (Holthouse, 215-252). 

The fall of the Ottonian dynasty would come to be, ultimately, with the death of a childless Emperor, Henry II. This demise stems from the fact that with King Henry I’s male succession law and there being no male heir from Henry II of the same dynasty, it fell from power. King Henry I’s policy would remain in place until 1713 with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, an edict throughout the Holy Roman Empire which allowed for a daughter to inherit. That having been stated, the dukes arranged a new election for another king who was not of the Ottonian dynasty; Conrad II was elected after Henry II. The Ottonian dynasty was, thus, dissolved after the death of Henry II, there were no more Ottonians to take up the mantel of leadership. However, a cadet branch of the Ottonian dynasty remained, known as the Brunoids, this cadet branch was weaker and far less significant than the main line of the Ottonians. The Brunoids, too, over the course of time, fell a century after the main Ottonian line of the dynasty fell, which would be the final and ultimate death of all the Ottonians (Ryley, 306).

Works Cited

  1. Enamel Plaque of King Solomon as the Symbol of Wisdom. Crown Made for Coronation of Otto I, The… Arts and Humanities through the Eras, edited by Edward I. Bleiberg et al., vol. 3, Gale, 2005. Gale in Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/PC3427487669/WHIC?u=gullacad&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=528252d8. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This source is a photo of the crown used in King Otto the I coronation ceremonies. 

This photo can be used in the paper to give an understanding of the ceremony in coronations of a Holy Roman Emperor during the time.

  1. Freed, John B. “Saxon Dynasty.” Dictionary of the Middle Ages, edited by Joseph R. Strayer, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. Gale in Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/BT2353101561/WHIC?u=gullacad&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=58ecf1b9. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This is source is a short introduction to the Saxon Dynasty. This document is important as many readers may have little idea what the Ottonian or Saxon Dynasty even was therefore needing some level of background before reading the paper. 

It was used in the paper as an example of what a brief overview looks like which can be further expanded upon by the composer of the paper.

  1. “Henry, I.” Encyclopedia of World Biography Online, Gale, 1998. Gale in Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1631002959/WHIC?u=gullacad&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=5d6d00cc. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This source is an excerpt from a Biography. This source discusses the life of Henry the 1st. This is important as it gives an overview of the reign of Henery the 1st and his death. 

It will be used in the paper to help explain the ruling era of Henry I and the general reigns of the Ottonian Dynasty.

  1. Holthouse, Edwin H. “The Emperor Henry II.” The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by H. M. Gwatkin et al., New York City, Macimillian Company, 1922, pp. 215-26. Vol. 3 of The Cambridge Medieval History. 8 vols. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/CambridgeMedievalHistoryV3/page/n27/mode/2up. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This source is a more in-depth overview of the reign of Henry II. In it discusses the geo-political issues of Henry II’s reign. This source is important as it provides plentiful information which is necessary for the writing of the paper. 

It shall be used in the paper as the major backbone of the discussion over Henry II’s reign.

  1. “Otto, I, the Great.” Historic World Leaders, edited by Anne Commire, Gale, 1994. Gale in Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1616000036/WHIC?u=gullacad&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=8a5df4fa. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This source is a more in-depth overview of the reign of Otto, I, the great. In it discusses the reign of Otto I as well as apparent quotes from people of the era. This source also discusses the background before the rise of Otto, I, the great. It is important as it provides plentiful information which is necessary for the writing of the paper. 

This source shall be used in the paper as the major backbone of the discussion over Otto, I reign as well as establishing the reasons for the Ottonian Dynasty to have come to existence in the first place.

  1.  “Germany: Henry I and Otto the Great.” The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by H. M. Gwatkin et al., New York City, Macimillian Company, 1922, pp. 179-203. Vol. 3 of The Cambridge Medieval History. 8 vols. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/CambridgeMedievalHistoryV3/page/n27/mode/2up. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This book chapter gives a more in-depth overview of the reign of Henry II. In it discusses the geo-political issues of Henry II’s reign. It is important as it provides plentiful information regarding the reign of Henry the II and the geopolitical situation of time. 

This source shall be used in the paper to further extrapolate the reign of Henrry II. 

  1.  “Germany: Otto II and Otto III.” The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by H. M. Gwatkin et al., New York City, Macimillian Company, 1922, pp. 204-14. Vol. 3 of The Cambridge Medieval History. 8 vols. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/CambridgeMedievalHistoryV3/page/n27/mode/2up. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021. 

This document is about the reign of Otto I and Otto II. It discusses the struggles and the achievements of both King’s reigns. 

It will be used in the paper as the basis for the primary accounting of each of the king’s reign.

  1. Ryley, Caroline M. “The Emperor Henry III.” The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by H. M. Gwatkin et al., New York City, Macimillian Company, 1922, pp. 272-306. Vol. 3 of The Cambridge Medieval History. 8 vols. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/CambridgeMedievalHistoryV3/page/n27/mode/2up. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This is a chapter taken from the Cambridge Medieval History Book which discusses the rule of Henry III. It is important as it gives a detailed look into one of the last Kings during the Ottonian Dynasty. 

It will be used in the paper by using various quotes to further prove the point of the paper. 

  1. Streissguth, Thomas. “Saxon Dynasty.” The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, edited by Bruno Leone, Greenhaven Press, 2003, pp. 258-59. Gale in Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2277800454/WHIC?u=gullacad&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=ff3e4d19. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.

This is an abstract of a larger historical paper which gives a concise summary of the Saxon Dynasty. This abstract is important as it provides a launching off point for the paper as well as the preliminary research. 

This was used in the paper as some of the basis of information for the first paragraph. 

  1. WARNER, D. A. “Otto III, Emperor.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 10, Gale, 2003, pp. 714-715. Gale In Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3407708342/WHIC?u=gullacad&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=62086157. Accessed 29 Nov. 2021.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia condenses and explains the rule of Otto III, and events which occurred during his reign.

There is highly useful information available within the article with regards to the diplomatic actions and eventual death of Emperor Otto III.

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