History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Otto I the Great

When Henry I died the lords and nobles gathered together to choose a new King. Before he died Henry had prayed the nobles to choose his son Otto for their King. But Otto had been born while Henry was only Duke of Saxony, and so Henry's younger son, who had been born after his father became King, thought that he had a better right to the throne. "Nobler blood runs in my veins," he said, "than in the veins of my brother; for I am the son of a King, he but the son of a Duke." The nobles, however, were true to their word, and Otto was chosen as King.

So in Aachen, where Charles the Great lay buried, there was a great and solemn ceremony. Clad in splendid robes, surrounded and followed by lords and nobles, Otto went to the great Cathedral. There at the door he was met by the Archbishop of Mainz with all his bishops and priests around him.

Holding his crosier in his right hand, the Archbishop led the young King by the left into the middle of the Cathedral, which was crowded by an eager throng in glittering holiday array. Turning to the swaying crowd of people the Archbishop cried aloud:

"See, I bring Otto to you, whom God has chosen for your King, whom Henry pointed out, and whom the princes of the realm have acclaimed. If the choice pleases you, raise your right hand to heaven."

All raised their hands, and a thundering shout rang out, "All hail to our new King and ruler."

Then with slow and solemn steps the Archbishop led the King to the altar, where lay all the splendour of royalty, the sword and the mantle, the golden bracelets, the crown and sceptre.

First the Archbishop raised the sword, and, turning to the King, he cried, "Take this sword, and with it drive forth all the enemies of Christ, all heathen, all bad Christians. For God has given the realm into your keeping so that you may make it a sure refuge for all the Christian world." Then he placed the golden bracelets upon the King's arms, and the splendid robe upon his shoulders: "Let the wide flowing folds of this robe," he said, "remind you to be zealous for the Faith, and to continue in peace until death." Next in his hands he placed the sceptre and the staff. "Let these be a sign to you," he said, "that you shall be a father to all those who are under you. But above all, stretch out a merciful hand over God's servants, over the widow and the orphan." Then anointing him he cried, "May the oil of compassion never dry from your head, and may you at the last be crowned with an everlasting crown," and with these words the Archbishop placed the crown upon the head of the kneeling King.

Then clad in all the kingly splendour Otto arose, and mounting the steps sat upon the golden throne prepared for him. When the long service was ended, the King, with all his lords, passed back again to the palace, where a splendid feast awaited them. And so in feasting and rejoicing the great ceremony came to an end.

Never before at the crowning of a German King had such splendour been seen as at the crowning of Otto I. The greatest lords in the land acted as his servants, and served him at table as his cupbearer and butler, as groom in the bed-chamber, in the stable as master of horse. And it was with no empty form that these great nobles put their hands within those of the King and swore to be his men, for well they knew that this young and warlike prince was indeed their master.

Yet hardly was Otto upon the throne than there were rebellions against him, and his whole reign was filled with wars. He had to fight outside enemies, he had to fight rebellious nobles, he had to fight his own sons and kinsmen. But he fought well and bravely, and in the end he was victorious.

Quarrels soon broke out among the great nobles of the land. And for this, perhaps, the Saxons were mostly to blame. For, says an old writer, "the Saxons had become so proud that the royal honours had faller to them, that a Saxon could no longer bear to serve any other man. If a Saxon had an overlord belonging to any other State, he would not do homage to his overlord but acted as if he had no overlord save the King only." And because of this Saxon pride many quarrels arose between Saxon vassals and Frankish overlords.

Such a quarrel arose between the great Frankish Duke Eberhard and a great Saxon vassal Bruning, who refused him obedience. In fierce wrath Duke Eberhard gathered his army and attacked Bruning in his castle. He took it and burned it to the ground slaying all within the gates.

But when King Otto heard of these lawless acts he ordered Eberhard and all the nobles who had helped him to appear before him, to answer for their misdeeds. Eberhard and his friends came. They came without fear, for they declared they had done nothing against the King. They had but used the right which was theirs of punishing a rebellious vassal.

The King, however, did not see it thus. Eberhard, he said, had broken the King's Peace, and he was ordered to pay one hundred pounds in silver. For his friends was reserved the light but shameful punishment of having to lead dogs in broad daylight to the King's palace. It was considered a great disgrace for a noble to have to do this. The Frankish nobles bowed their proud heads to the King's will and performed their punishment, and when they reached the palace Otto received them kindly and graciously, and sent them home laden with many and rich presents.

In this way Otto hoped to win peace within the realm, and to bind these princes to him. But Bruning the Saxon, whose pride had been the cause of all the strife, remained unpunished, and the Frankish nobles returned homeward with bitterness in their hearts. The King's graciousness, far from reconciling them, filled their hearts with deeper wrath against him.

So it came about that while the King was in Bavaria fighting another rebel lord, Duke Eberhard, despite the King's commands, once more attacked Bruning. Soon the whole country-side was ablaze with war. Crops were destroyed, towns and villages were burned to the ground. Murder and bloodshed were everywhere rife. The King's brothers, too, joined in the struggle, Thankman, the King's step-brother, taking sides secretly with Duke Eberhard; Henry, his younger brother, fighting openly against Eberhard.

When Otto heard of this renewed war and bloodshed he was deeply grieved, and he called his unruly vassals before him. But Eberhard and his friends had no mind a second time to lead hounds to the King's palace. They refused to obey, and openly declared themselves to be rebels.

Then Otto offered them free forgiveness if they would lay down their arms. He hoped by gentleness to put an end to this deadly strife which seemed to endanger the whole kingdom. But this gentleness only made the rebels more angry still. Many saw in it not policy but merely weakness. Instead of laying down their arms they fought with increasing bitterness, and day by day the horrors of war spread farther and farther throughout the land.

It seemed as if the evil days of King Conrad had come again. The throne seemed shaken to its foundations, and King Otto knew not which way to turn for help.

Thankman now openly joined with Duke Eberhard and marched against his brother Henry. He besieged the young Prince in his castle, took it and destroyed it, and took Henry prisoner. Bound with cords' like any common fellow he led him captive to Duke Eberhard.

Things looked ill for the King. But now fortune favoured him, for Eberhard quarrelled with some of his followers, and they, from wrath towards the Duke rather than from any love towards the King, went over to the King's side.

And now Otto, thus strengthened, would no longer shut his eyes to the part his step-brother Thankman played. And gathering his army he marched to besiege the town of Eresburg, where Thankman was. But when the people of the town learned that the King had come against them with a great army they opened their gates to him freely, hoping thus to appease his wrath. Thankman, however, dared not face his brother's anger, and he fled for refuge to the Church of St. Peter. There, with his hand upon the altar, he felt himself safe. But even there he was pursued. The door of the church was thick and strong; it was bolted from within with huge heavy bars of wood and iron. But nothing stopped the infuriated soldiers. With mighty blows they smashed the door to splinters and stormed into the church, axe in hand.

Thankman stood near the altar, upon which he had laid his weapons and the golden chain, which was the sign of his nobility. Now as the savage horde rushed in upon him Thankman seized his sword, and made ready to defend his life to the last.

Hurling insults at him a bold Saxon rushed upon his foe. But with calm courage Thankman met the blow, and a moment later, uttering a terrible death-cry, the Saxon fell dead upon the steps of the altar. One foe was dead, but others followed thick and fast. Hotter and hotter grew the fight; man after man went down, and still Thankman, though sorely wounded, stood fighting for his life upon the altar steps. But at length a javelin was hurled through the window behind the altar. It struck Thankman in the back, and without a groan he sank dead upon the ground.

But of all this struggle the King knew nothing. Although he had come against his brother with sword and spear he had never meant that he should be slain. When at length the news of his brother's death was brought to Otto his grief and wrath were great. He bitterly blamed the passion of his unruly followers, but in this time of civil war he dared not punish them severely, lest they should forsake him and join his enemies.

If the King was sad at the death of his rebellious brother, Duke Eberhard was also sad, for in him he lost his great supporter. His courage sank within him. He looked this way and that and saw no hope or help anywhere. It seemed as if there was nothing left for him but to make his peace with Otto. Then he bethought him that the King's brother Henry was still his prisoner. He remembered that Henry had laid claim to the throne, and he resolved now to try to persuade the Prince to join him in rebellion against the King.

So Eberhard went to the imprisoned Prince, and throwing himself on his knees before him, begged forgiveness for all the evil which had been done to him. The Duke reminded Henry that once he had laid claim to the throne, that he had himself said that he was of more noble blood than Otto. And Henry, who was very young and very fiery of temper, and who longed for greatness and power, listened to the flattering words of the Duke. He forgave all the wrongs and insults of his imprisonment, and swore an oath of friendship with his jailor, promising also to help him against the King.

Then the Prince, who had been dragged thither on foot half-naked, and with a rope about his neck, returned homewards clad in splendid robes, and laden with rich gifts. With treachery in his heart he returned to Otto; who, little guessing at that treachery, received him with joy.

Soon afterwards Duke Eberhard followed Henry. He came to the King, and upon his knees humbly begged for pardon, vowing once more to be his man, and to serve him truly with all that he had.

And Otto forgave his rebellious vassal. Yet he dared not leave his rebellion altogether unpunished. Nor did he dare to punish it heavily. So Eberhard was only banished from his dukedom for a little time. Very soon, however, he was received back into favour, and was given once more all the honours that had been his before. But still he hid hatred and treachery in his heart.

Meanwhile, in silence and in secret, Henry plotted. In one way or another, through promises or bribes, by awakening the jealousy of one noble, by flattering the pride of another, he won many to him, until far and wide throughout the kingdom men were eager to follow him.

At length all was ready, and on a sudden the fires of rebellion burst forth. And so secretly had the preparations been made that no one was more astonished than Otto.

Quickly, however, the King gathered his army, and marched to meet the foe. The first town he attacked was Dortmund. This was defended by Hagen, one of Henry's vassals. But the garrison no sooner heard that the King had come against them than they opened their gates. So without any hindrance Otto rode into the town and took possession of it. Then calling Hagen to him he bade him ride swiftly to his master, and try if by any means he might turn him from his evil purpose. "But, if you cannot so turn him, swear to me that you will come back hither, and yield you my prisoner," said the King.

So Hagen swore a great and solemn oath that he would do the King's bidding, and if he could not turn the Prince from his purpose he would come himself again, and yield him to the King as a prisoner.

In haste Hagen set forth. He found Henry, however, in no mood for peace, but already marching against his brother, and so, true to his oath, Hagen returned to the King.

Meanwhile Otto had marched towards the Rhine, meaning to cross over it. But only a small portion of his army had crossed when Hagen arrived.

At first Hagen hardly dare confess the ill success that he had had. Humbly he knelt before the King in greeting. Then rising, "Your brother, my overlord, greets you, O King," he said. "He wishes you long life and health to rule over your great kingdom. He bids me tell you that he will shortly be with you."

"Comes he in peace, or comes he in war?" asked Otto.

But even as he spoke a great army appeared in the distance. In a long and glittering line they came with banners fluttering in the breeze, advancing, as the King well saw, towards that part of the army which had already crossed the river.

The King sprang from his seat. "What crowd is that?" he cried. "What people are these?"

And quietly Hagen answered, "It is my lord your brother. Had he listened to my advice he would have come in different guise. But at least I have returned, as I swore to you that I should."

When the King heard that he was sorely distressed. Quickly he mounted, and back and forth upon the river banks he rode in vain seeking help. Bridge there was none, ships there were none; the stream was too wide and swift to swim. What then was to become of the little company on the farther side? Only certain death awaited them.

At length in his agony and distress the King sprang from his horse, sank upon his knees, and raised his hands to heaven. "O God," he cried, "Thou art the creator and ruler over all. Look down upon Thy people at whose head Thou hast set me, and save them from the hand of the enemy, so that all the earth may know that no mortal man may withstand Thy will. For Thou art almighty and livest and reignest to all eternity."

But while Otto on the one side of the river lifted despairing hands to heaven his soldiers on the other side were making ready to fight, and to sell their lives as dearly as might be. With the courage of despair the little company, scarce one hundred strong, divided its ranks, and one half attacked the enemy in the rear, while the other met them in front.

This Henry had not expected. He did not know the strength or the weakness of the foe; he did not know from which side to expect the fiercest fighting; and his ranks were thrown into confusion. Quickly the Royal army saw their advantage. A few of them could speak the Frankish language, the language of many of Henry's soldiers. So seeing the confusion and trouble of the rebel army they called out in the Frankish tongue, "Flee, flee! all is lost. Save yourselves who can."

Then the enemy, believing that it was their comrades who cried out, were seized with fear and fled. They fled in utter rout, pursued by a mere handful of victorious Saxons. Many were the slain, many the prisoners, Henry himself barely escaping with his life.

The victory was complete. But it seemed to the King that it was by no earthly power that it had been gained, and that God Himself had fought for him in answer to his prayer.

Still the war went on. From battle-field to battle-field, from siege to siege, from one side of the kingdom to another the King sped. He fought bravely and well, but enemies rose thick and fast around him. Yet the greater the danger the greater seemed Otto's courage. He fought on when all seemed hopeless. When it seemed as if every noble in the land was against him he still did not despair.

At length in a great battle Duke Eberhard was killed. The King was not at this battle and knew nothing of the death of his stubborn enemy. But one morning he mounted his horse at daybreak in order to go to church to say his prayers, as his custom was. As he rode along he saw a man in the distance who was hastening towards him at great speed. The King soon saw that this was a messenger, and a messenger too of good tidings. For as soon as the man saw the King he made signs to him and shouted aloud in joy.

The King and the nobles around him rode speedily forward eager to hear the news. In their impatience it seemed years ere the short distance which lay between them and the messenger was passed. But even when they reached him the messenger would not at once address the King. It was not fitting, he thought, that he should appear before his ruler in dusty and disordered garments. So he turned aside to shake the dust of his journey from his clothes.

The King and nobles waited impatiently. At length he was ready, at length he knelt before the King and began a long and respectful greeting. But the King looking round at his impatient courtiers bade him cease.

"Enough," he cried. "Say wherefore thou art sent. Tell us shortly the good news. Relieve my people here of their anxiety and fill their hearts with gladness. Afterward we will listen gladly to thy fine speeches."

Thus admonished the messenger told his news. "Duke Eberhard is dead;" he said, "and his army scattered."

Then, as the messenger would have continued to tell how it happened, the King signed to him to be still. Quickly dismounting from his horse and kneeling on the ground he gave thanks to God for this victory. Then mounting again he rode onward to the church. Again it seemed to the King that God Himself had fought for the right.