Stories from German History - Florence Aston

The Rise of the Three Great Kingdoms


After his father's death, Lothair, as lord of the Holy Roman Empire, endeavoured to exert some control over the actions of his two brothers, with the result that Charles and Louis formed an alliance and for three years waged war against him. Eventually a terrible battle was fought near Fontenoy in Burgundy, in which 100,000 men are said to have fallen, and in the year 848 the three brothers came to an agreement and signed the famous Treaty of Verdun. By this treaty the huge Empire of Charlemagne was finally divided into three portions.

Lothair received the title of Emperor, together with Italy, Switzerland and a strip of land along the Rhine which was called after him, 'Lotharii regnum,' and is still known as Lorraine or Lothringan. Charles the Bald became King of France, with all the territory west of Lorraine, and Louis, henceforth known as Louis the German, received the vast kingdom of Germany, and also the cities of Mayence, Spires and Worms, which were valuable for their rich vineyards.

Thus was the mighty Empire of Charlemagne rent asunder and dismembered, and at first thought his life-long work seems to have been wasted. But this was not so, for from its ashes rose three great nations famous in history, strong and vigorous and capable of development, and their vigour and capacity were entirely due to the commerce and manufactures, education and Christian worship, introduced and fostered by the never-tiring energy of the great Karl himself.

When Louis the German at last entered into possession of his East-Frankish or German realm, the kingdom was in a perilous position, for although many of the tribes, such as the Swabians, Bavarians and Saxons, had lost their own dukes and learnt to obey one king, although they spoke dialects of the same language and had many customs in common, the empire was exposed to constant danger through the lack of strong natural boundaries, such as sea-coast and mountain-chain.

Scarcely had Louis ascended his throne at Ratisbon, on the Danube, which may therefore be called the first capital of Germany, than bands of fierce Norsemen, in swift galleys, swept down on the coasts and sailed up the rivers, plundering and harrying on every hand. They attacked the strongest cities, carried off captive the fairest women and children, robbed the burgher, pillaged the villager, then, springing into their ships, grasped the oars and sped away with a swiftness that eluded all pursuit.

These Norsemen came from the Scandinavian lands. They were bold and hardy; the sea was their element and war their delight. Not only did they make five expeditions into the German realm, but, with Rollo as their leader, they harried the north of France and conquered for themselves the district which we call Normandy. Other tribes conquered the north and east of England, and a couple of centuries later Rollo's illustrious descendant, William the Conqueror, took possession of England once more in the name of the Norsemen and united it to his realm of Normandy across the sea.

So great was the terror of the Germans at the inroads of these wild Vikings that mothers frightened refractory children into silence with the threat that the Norseman would carry them off in his ship; and a special prayer was added to the litany of the German church, A furore Norimannorum, libera nos, Domine  (From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us).

So Louis the German led a troublous life, ever at war with Norsemen or Slavonic tribes in a realm whose borders were uncertain and undefined. To defend these borders he was obliged to appoint powerful lords of the marches, and so brought into prominence once more the mighty dukes whom Charlemagne had laboured to overthrow. They were a menace to him and his power and yet he could not dispense with their aid.

Louis tried also to improve the condition of Germany by instituting good law and order, but as he had rebelled against his father in his early days, so did his sons rebel against him, and it taxed his powers to their utmost to keep them within bounds.

Lothair, the son of the Emperor Lothair, died in the year 869, and his heirs were his uncles, Louis the German and Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks.

Louis claimed the title of Emperor, and each desired the lion's share of the realm, but before any definite arrangement could be made, the German King died, leaving his land to the care of his three sons.

These three waged a bloody war against their uncle of France respecting the succession of Lothair, and Charles was beaten in a battle fought at Andernach on the Rhine. But Louis's two elder sons died almost immediately, with the result that the youngest, who was named Charles the Fat, found himself in possession of the imperial title, together with the whole of Germany, Lorraine and Italy.

Charles was the weakest and least capable of Louis's sons. This weakness was shown especially in his dealings with the Norsemen, for instead of summoning his forces and fighting bravely against them, he bribed them with rich gifts of gold to leave the land. This proceeding caused great discontent in Germany, for the army was ashamed of bargaining in this manner with a foe which it was quite ready to face in the field. The money too was sorely needed to develop the country, which could not afford to let its riches depart overseas.

Yet in spite of his weakness, Charles was destined to rise to a position of even greater power before his death, for in the year 884, being thoroughly dissatisfied with their own king, the young Charles the Simple, and desiring a leader who would protect them against the Norsemen, the West Franks offered him the crown of France. Thus for a short time the three realms were united once more under the Emperor Charles the Fat.

The hopes of the French, however, were bitterly disappointed, for Charles neglected to gather an army together against the Norsemen, preferring, as he had done before, to bribe them again and again with treasure, and he even began to buy them off with presents of land, since he made the Danish prince Godfrey a Duke of Friesland When he actually proceeded so far as to open the city of Paris and the navigation of the Seine to the barbarians, his subjects would bear it no longer. A diet or council was convened at Tribur on the Rhine, near Oppenheim, and according to the manner of the nations of old, each realm elected a ruler of its own from among its most capable men. The Germans chose Arnulph, son of Karloman, one of Louis the German's sons, and thus the three realms began their separate existences once more.

Charles the Fat survived his disgrace but two months, dying in poverty and neglect in the year 888.

A difficult task awaited Arnulph, but he did not flinch, and set to work at once, driving the Norsemen from the land. So well did he succeed that, before three years were over, the strangers were thoroughly beaten, and after a last decisive battle, they judged it prudent to avoid the Rhine altogether and confine themselves to their conquests in the northwest of France.

Yet another terrible danger threatened the realm of Germany, still struggling to maintain its existence. This was the wild hordes of savages calling themselves Magyars, whom the Germans called Hungarians or Huns, and believed to be the descendants of the terrible race of Attila who had devastated the lands of their forefathers.

The Magyars had the same stunted forms which old historians had described, and the same hideous faces. They too ate raw meat rendered tender by the day's ride between the horse and the person of the rider, and they also practised the same horrible cruelties.

This terrible race had been summoned into Europe by Leo, Emperor of the East, to assist him in his wars against the Bulgarians, and Arnulph made the same mistake by calling upon them for aid, little dreaming that they would prove the same scourge to Germany as the Danes were to the English.

Zwentibold, the King of Moravia, had thrown off his allegiance to Arnulph, although he had just been given the land of Bohemia in addition to his own kingdom. Wishing to attack him on two sides at once, Arnulph had called in the dreaded Magyars for the purpose. Zwentibold was certainly reduced to submission, but the heathen hordes had come to stay.

Nevertheless Arnulph was able to undertake two expeditions into Italy, where he acquitted himself well, and, although the gates of Rome were closed against him, he forced his way in, received the imperial crown at the hands of the Pope, and compelled the Italians to renew their oath of fealty. In the month of November or December, in the year 899, Arnulph died (of poison some suspected, administered by the vindictive Italians), leaving behind him, as heir, his son Louis the Child, a boy of six years. But the terrible inroads of the Magyars on the one hand, and the increasing power of the great feudal lords on the other, made the poor lad's task too difficult for him to accomplish.

The condition of the realm was deplorable; the royal dignity had sunk in the estimation of the nation, the nobles fought and harried at will, and families revived blood-feuds that had been long forgotten, whilst the invincible Magyars devastated the land, burnt villages and monasteries, and carried off men, women and children into slavery.

'Woe to the land where the King is a child,' found an echo in every heart, and in none more sadly than that of the young ruler, who by the time he was eighteen sank, broken-hearted and despairing, into his grave.

So passed away the last of the Carlovingian Kings in Germany.


The unity of the nation was then threatened with destruction, for Germany consisted mainly of five great peoples, the Franks, Saxons, Lothringians, Swabian and Bavarians; and since there was little cohesion among them, it seemed highly probable that each duke would declare himself independent Fortunately the Frankish and Saxon lords were united on one object, which was that a capable king must be elected at once to hold together the German realm. The crown was offered to Otto, Duke of Saxony, but on account of advanced age, he refused the honour and proposed Count Conrad of Franconia instead, a man highly esteemed for courage and fine common-sense, who would raise the kingly dignity in the eyes of the world.

For six years Conrad reigned, and a turbulent six years they were for him, since the power of the nobles had grown to such an extent that he found it almost impossible to curb their insolence.

Germanic Wars


The old Duke Otto had ruled both Saxony and Thuringia, but Conrad desired to deprive his son Henry of some of his lands. The young duke was much beloved of his subjects, and had not the slightest intention of submitting to his king's wishes. "Where are my thirty regiments to lodge?" he demanded haughtily, when Conrad commanded him to yield and lead out his men from the fortress of Grona. And Conrad retreated at the report of so large an army, leaving Henry in undisturbed possession of his lands. He did not learn until too late that instead of thirty regiments, Henry had only had five men-at-arms with him in the castle! Conrad's life was drawing to a close; despite his utmost endeavour, he had failed to bring peace to Germany. But he was a true patriot, and showed his magnanimity nowhere so nobly as on his death-bed.

The heir to the throne was his brother Eberhard, but Conrad loved his land better than the aggrandizement of his own house. He knew that his brother would succeed no better than himself, and summoned him to his bedside to receive his dying wishes.

Dear brother," he said, "I feel that I am now dying. We are mighty men in worldly possessions, we can lead armies into the field and have all the wealth that glorifies the position of a king. But we lack the noble virtues of our forefathers, and the one who possesses them in full measure is Henry the Duke of Saxony. The Saxons alone can save the land. Take therefore my jewels, the sacred lance, the golden bracelets, the purple mantle of royalty and the sword and crown of ancient kings, and carry them to Henry, Duke of Saxony, choosing him as Emperor of the Germans, since he alone is capable of ruling them as they deserve."

Eberhard did as his brother commanded, swearing homage to Henry and offering friendship and help. So the German crown passed from the Frankish people into the hands of the Saxons.

Henry was hunting birds in the Harz Mountains when he received Eberhard's message, and from this circumstance he gained the name of Henry the Fowler, by which he is known in history.

In the year 919, an assembly was convened of the Franconian and Saxon nobles, who elected him King of Germany, and the Archbishop approached in order to anoint and crown him according to ancient custom. This Henry refused, declaring that it was enough for him to be elected by the people, and chosen by the grace of God, and that he was unworthy to be anointed or crowned like mighty kings.

Henry next proceeded in a business-like manner to deal one by one with the enemies of the land. He approached the Dukes of the five great provinces, and by persuasion, threats or armed force, brought them all into submission as loyal servants to their king and country. They were the more closely bound to his interests by judiciously arranged marriages with the royal family, and to prevent any further treason, Henry sent a count palatine into each dukedom, who acted as imperial judge, and, incidentally, as a check upon any proceedings contrary to imperial interests. Afterward he turned his attention to the Hungarian invaders, and having had the good fortune to capture their king in war, he released him on condition that a nine years' truce should be observed.

This nine years Henry spent in organizing his army and the defences of the land, as the Hungarians did not understand the conquest of fortified towns, and by the end of the prescribed period he felt himself so secure that tradition says he sent to the barbarian king a miserable mangy dog instead of the yearly tribute, with the message that it was the only offering he would receive from him henceforward.

The Hungarians then assembled their hordes together at Keuschberg, on the Saalbe, but the whole army was either slain or driven away in flight and Henry fell on his knees in thanksgiving, for the danger of foreign invasion was averted for many years.

In 986 Henry died in his sixtieth year. As he felt the end approaching he called his wife Matilda to his bed and addressed her with great affection. "I thank Jesus Christ that I do not survive thee," he said. "No man ever possessed a more faithful and pious wife. Thou didst ever moderate my wrath, lead me on the path of justice and admonish me to show mercy to the oppressed. I commend thee and our children, together with my parting spirit, to our Almighty God."

So passed Henry the Fowler. He had been a good king to Germany, consolidating the Empire and ridding it of foes. Perhaps his most important work within the realm was the foundation of fortified towns, where he induced the people to serve in rotation, and so accustomed them to live the burgher life. The towns increased in wealth and power and became a very important factor in the future history of Germany, as we shall presently see.


Henry's eldest son, Otto, was twenty-four years of age when his father died, and he was crowned with more than usual pomp with the golden crown of Charlemagne in the Cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle.

His reign was troubled, for not only did the nobles revolt against him, but his brother Henry turned traitor, and also his son Ludolph. Otto was a brave and wise man, however, and surmounted all these difficulties successfully, for he knew when to reason, when to threaten and when to punish swiftly and sternly. Having settled the internal affairs of his kingdom, Otto subdued both Slays and Danes, and even found leisure to interfere in Italian politics. Since the family of Charlemagne had become extinct, many claimants to the crown of Italy had come forward, and the miserable kingdom was rent with strife.

Berengar, Duke of Ivrea, was desirous of obtaining a throne for his son, so he seized upon the person of Adelaide, widow of the last king, and shut her up in a castle on the Lake of Garda until she should consent to marry him.

The unhappy lady persisted in her refusal, however, and was rescued by a bold monk named Brother Martin, who undermined the castle wall. For days she wandered disguised in male attire, hiding in thickets and corn-fields, until she managed to communicate with friends, who took her to the castle of Canossa for safety. Here the Duke besieged her, and, terrified at her position, she sent to ask help of Otto.

Otto's first wife, Edith, daughter of Edmund, King of England, was dead, so he advanced into Italy, raised the siege and carried off Adelaide to Pavia, where he married her, and proclaimed himself King of the Lombards. On his return home, he hoped for a time of tranquillity after his fifteen years of constant warfare, but this was not to be, for in 955 the Hungarians once more entered Germany in such enormous numbers that they themselves declared that unless the skies fell upon them, or the earth opened, no power could withstand them.

They took up their position on a plain near Augsburg, and Otto summoned together his whole army, received with them the Holy Sacrament, and made a vow to Saint Lawrence, whose day it was, that if he would grant victory, a bishopric should be founded at Merseburg. He then received the blessing of the Bishop of Augsburg and, surrounded by his bodyguard, who bore the sacred spear, supposed to be the one that had pierced our Lord's side, and holding the banner with the representation of the Archangel Michael, Otto waited, while the Hungarians crossed the River Lech and attacked the Bohemians in the rear. The discomforted Bohemians retreated, allowing their baggage to be captured, but Duke Conrad of Franconia, a former traitor who had joined the prince Ludolph against his father, sprang forward, crying: "To-day I atone for ancient treason," and was so successful as to press back the invaders and retake both baggage and prisoners.

The Hungarians were slain by hundreds and thousands, and the plain was heaped thick with dead and dying. For two days the Germans pursued them, and so great were their losses that one historian tells us only seven were left alive from two divisions which had consisted of 60,000 men.

The Germans were elated, and Otto's feats on the field made him the hero of the nation. Many of their leaders were killed, among them the bold Duke Conrad. The victory had cost them dear, but the Hungarians never again troubled Germany. Soon afterward they embraced Christianity, and with the faith of Christ came gentler customs and a system of law and order.

Germany had grown tranquil, and Otto was enabled to further civilization and advance the cause of education and religion, found many bishoprics and colonize the districts of the heathen Wendish tribes with Christians. In this good work he was supported by his youngest brother, Bruno, Bishop of Cologne, a wise and learned prelate, who restored the schools of Charlemagne, himself teaching in them, and so provided a constant stream of trained teachers, who spread civilization through the country.

In Otto's reign were discovered the famous silver mines in the Harz Mountains by a certain knight whose horse pawed the ground and loosened a stone of silver ore, and this opened up a new source of industry for the Germans. Otto had dispatched his son Ludolph, after his rebellion, to Lombardy, where he had died of fever, owing to the unhealthiness of the climate. Duke Berengar then seized the opportunity of again resisting Otto's authority, and the oppressed Lombards sent to plead for help. So Otto entered Italy once more, and, deposing Berengar, was again crowned at Pavia. From Pavia he marched to Rome, where he took prisoner the Pope John XII, by desire of the Romans, who were shocked at his profligate life. Leo VIII was elected in his stead, and crowned Otto in the great Church of Saint Peter, declaring him and his successors kings of Italy and nominators of the Pope.

Since the south of Italy belonged to Nicephorus, the Eastern Emperor, Otto sent Luitprand, Bishop of Cremona, to negotiate a marriage between Otto's young son and the Princess Theophania. But the good bishop was much displeased with his reception, and described the potentate of the East as a "little roundabout, fat man, so black withal that if you met him by chance in a wood he would sere you."

Nicephorus objected strongly to Otto's encroachments in Italy, found fault with German modes of warfare, with German weapons, with German soldiers, who, he declared, were only brave when they were drunk. Insulted and disgusted with all he saw and heard, Luitprand turned his back on Constantinople, declaring that he would never again set foot in "that perjured, lying, cheating, rapacious, greedy, avaricious town."

Nicephorus, however, was deposed a few years afterward, and not only did his successor grant a daughter in marriage to Otto's son, but ceded the whole of his possessions in Lower Italy to the German Empire.

So in the evening of his days Otto enjoyed the prospect of a realm raised to such a position of honour as it had never enjoyed since the days of Charlemagne. His father, Henry the Fowler, and his predecessor, Conrad, had only been kings of Germany. They had never received their crowns at the hands of the popes, and were consequently never considered emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Thenceforth the prince elected as their ruler by the German diet became also King of Italy and Rome, though he did not assume the title of Emperor until he had received his crown from the Pope's hands.

Otto's services to Europe were acknowledged by foreign potentates, who sent ambassadors with greetings and rich gifts, and surnamed him 'the Great.' In the full enjoyment of his well-earned honours, he died in the year 978, and was buried in the cathedral at Magdeburg by the side of his first wife, Edith of England.

By this time France was a thriving kingdom in itself and Germany was the pillar of the newly restored Holy Roman Empire. It embraced modern Germany, together with Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, but Italy remained a troublesome possession, ever dissatisfied and ever ready for revolt from the jurisdiction of a northern lord.

Otto the Second, who was called the Red, was only nineteen years of age when he succeeded his father on the throne. Scarcely had he reigned a year before Duke Henry of Bavaria rebelled, but was conquered in the field and taken prisoner.

The following year Lothair, King of France, sent an army to recover Lorraine, boasting proudly that his horses were so numerous that they would drink dry the rivers of Germany. To this Otto replied that he would pave the whole country of France with straw hats, referring to the hats which the Saxon soldiers wore over their helmets.

The French reached the palace at Aix-la-Chapelle first, and turned the golden eagle on the roof so that its head faced the kingdom of France, but Otto's forces soon routed them and drove them in full flight to Paris.

He was unable to take the city, however, so made a treaty allowing Charles, brother of King Lothair, to hold Lorraine from him as a fief. Otto could not rest content even though his enemies were subdued, for his mother, the Italian princess, Adelaide, had inspired him with a fervent love for Italy, and circumstances soon arose which summoned him thither. By no means displeased, for the Romans had deposed one pope and elected another, he entered Rome and settled all differences to his own satisfaction by means of inviting the citizens to a banquet and there seizing upon and putting to death all those whom he deemed dangerous.

In the following year, 988, Otto died, and his little son, Otto III, who was only three years old, reigned in his stead, under the care of his mother, grandmother and Gerbert, Abbot of Magdeburg, one of the greatest scholars of his day.

Duke Henry of Bavaria took the opportunity to make an attempt to seize the crown for himself, and was so far successful as to obtain possession of the young king's person. But the Germans had by no means forgotten what Otto the Great had done for their country, and had no intention of deserting his little grandson, so they remained firm in their allegiance.

At their head was Willigis, the Archbishop of Mayence, a man of sense and fidelity, who had risen in life. His father was a poor wheelwright, and that he might never forget the fact, Willigis took for his coat-of-arms a cart-wheel with the motto: Willigis, Willigis, forget not thine origin." Henry's claims to the throne met with such determined resistance that he very wisely restored the little King to his mother and took the oath of fealty, receiving back in exchange his duchy of Bavaria.

Young Otto was a promising child, and made such good progress under his tutor Gerbert that at the age of fifteen he was reputed to be of unusual intelligence and attainments, and was able to assume the reins of government. He was a dreamy and imaginative youth, and, like his father, imbued with a deep love for Italy. He hoped to restore the glory of the great Roman Empire and make Rome his residence and the capital of his realm.

He was scarcely sixteen years old when he undertook his first journey to the great city, to receive the imperial crown from the Pope and to view his Italian possessions. He was crowned with due solemnity, but the Romans had ever hated the idea of being ruled by German lords, and as usual, incited thereto by their pope, they broke into open rebellion as soon as Otto's back was turned. He immediately retraced his steps, deposed the Pope, and elevated his own tutor, the wise Gerbert, to that position, under the name of Sylvester II.

The year 1000, which was then approaching, was anticipated with awe by many thousands of people, since they thought that the world would come to an end at that date. Quarrels ceased, warriors laid down their arms and betook themselves to prayer and penance. Otto himself made a pilgrimage into Poland, and founded a church in honour of Saint Adalbert. When he returned to Germany he made another pilgrimage to Aix-la-Chapelle, to pray at the tomb of Charlemagne, which he caused to be opened, and he saw sitting in his chair the body of the Great Karl, just as it had been placed there nearly two hundred years before.

The year 1000 passed, and as the world continued on its way, in 1001 Otto made yet another journey to Italy, intending to take up his residence in Rome as the capital of the Empire.

A violent insurrection at once broke out and Otto was for some time in extreme danger. But he fearlessly faced the excited mob, and, coming out among them, addressed them with such fervour and enthusiasm that the excitable Italians threw themselves at his feet, and with tears kissed his robe, imploring pardon for their disloyalty. The next year Otto died suddenly of fever or, as some suspected, of poison administered by the Italians, and was buried at Aix-la-Chapelle by the side of the great King Karl.

The only representative of the Saxon royal house then left was Henry of Bavaria, son of that Henry who had tried to seize the crown from the last Otto in his babyhood. He succeeded in gaining the German crown, but was never welcomed in Rome, even though he undertook three expeditions thither. He had none of Otto's love for Italy, and spent his short reign in war with the Italians, Poles and Bohemians, and in disputes at home with the various dukes, counts and barons, whose power had grown enormously during the last few reigns.

As Henry relied on the Church for aid against the nobles, and granted large fiefs to the clergy, he was in high favour with them, and they honoured him with the title of Henry the Saint He died in the year 1024, and with him died out the dynasty of Saxon Kings in Germany.