History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Otto I the Great

Things now went better for the King. Many of the rebels yielded to him, but his brother Henry still held out. He fled now to a strong castle called Chevremont, which was in the hands of his sister. But his sister would not open her gates to him. "Do you want to have me besieged in my castle?" she asked. "For when it is known that you are here the King's wrath will spread like a flood over the land. I will not suffer it, I will not bear it. I am not such a fool as to pay for your misdeeds."

Thus denied a refuge in his own land Henry fled to the King of France. Otto, however, followed him there, and the war was carried into the very heart of France. And now Henry, weary of the struggle, sought to make peace with Otto. And Otto pardoned his brother, and gave him again the dukedom and all the titles and honours which had been his before.

Yet the anger and rebellion had not died out of Henry's heart. Soon he grew discontented, soon he plotted once more against his brother. And at length, tempted by evil men, he even made up his mind to murder the King. All was ready when Otto discovered the plot. But it was now Easter time, and he was unwilling to disturb the peace of the holy feast. So he resolved to wait until after Easter and then lead the traitors to justice. Meanwhile he was content to surround himself day and night with true and trusty followers.

Seeing these precautions the conspirators became uneasy, yet they could not believe that the plot was discovered. So they waited patiently, plotting and planning afresh. Then suddenly one day after Easter the ringleaders were seized upon and hanged or imprisoned, Henry alone escaping.

For a long time no man knew whence Henry had fled, or how he lived. But at length true grief for his misdeeds grew in his heart, and he made up his mind to cast himself once more upon his brother's mercy.

It was Christmas Day. King Otto in his splendid robes sat in the great Cathedral listening to the songs of joy and praise. He was surrounded by a glittering throng of knights and nobles, the great church was filled from end to end, a thousand lights glimmered, the organ rolled and the voices of the choir rose and fell in the well-known words, "Peace on earth, good will toward men."

As Otto listened he looked down the long aisle of the church, and there he saw a man come slowly towards him. His head and feet were bare, and he was dressed in the robe of a penitent. With bent head and clasped hands he came right up to the throne, where he threw himself at the King's feet.

It was Prince Henry, who came to beg forgiveness. With pitying eyes Otto looked upon his penitent brother. "Thy rebellious folly deserved small pity," he said. "Yet now that I see thee humbled at my feet I will not add to thy misery."

Then stooping the King raised his brother, and taking him in his arms freely forgave him all the evil that he had done.

And from that day Henry rebelled no more, and there was peace and loving-kindness between the brothers as long as they lived.

Still Otto had little rest. One after another all the great nobles in the land rebelled against him. But one after another the King conquered them. He took the dukedoms from these rebels, and gave them to men of his own family, until at length all the power lay in the hands of the King and of his near relatives. Thus the power of the crown became stronger than it had ever been.

But Otto had not only to fight rebellious nobles at home. He had also to fight many enemies abroad. Northmen once more attacked the shores of Germany. But Otto fought and conquered them and forced Harald Blue Tooth, their King, to do him homage and swear to be his man. He overcame the Duke of Bohemia, and made his land into a German dukedom. The Duke of Poland too yielded to him and paid him tribute. Everywhere Otto was victorious. But greatest of all was his victory over the Hungarians. They, taking advantage of the troubled state of the kingdom, burst once more over the land in far greater numbers than ever before. They came a hundred thousand strong, threatening to drink every river in Germany dry; swearing that unless the earth swallowed them, or the sky fell, they would conquer the land from boundary to boundary.

Burning and wasting in their old terrible fashion, they swept through the land until they closed round Augsburg.

Augsburg was a large and wealthy town, but it was surrounded only by a low wall, and in no fit state to resist the terrible enemy. But by good fortune it was governed by the brave Bishop Ulrich.

He bade the people strengthen the walls as speedily as might be. And while the men worked, white-robed nuns marched through the streets in solemn procession, singing hymns and praying for God's help against the heathen host.

The good Bishop himself spent the long night on his knees praying before the altar. As soon as the first streaks of dawn reddened the sky he gathered his soldiers to hear Mass. He bade them be of good courage and fight for their faith and country, and think that day upon the words of Scripture, "Yea, though I go through the valley of death yet will I fear no evil, for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me."

So when in the early morning light the fierce Hungarians appeared before the walls they found them manned by brave stern men ready to die rather than yield.

And as the Germans looked down upon the surging heathen host they saw that the men were unwilling to attack. They saw that they were driven onward by whips, and their courage and hope rose high.

Suddenly a trumpet sounded loud above the noise of battle. The onward march of the Hungarians ceased. Then the whole army faced about and marched away from the walls of Augsburg.

News had come to the Hungarian leader that Otto was marching to fight him. So he turned about to meet the King. He would, he thought, first defeat Otto and then take Augsburg.

Beneath the burning August sun a fierce battle was fought. From all parts of Germany men had gathered to the King's standard. Yet the army was far out-numbered by the Hungarians. It seemed as if the Germans must be swallowed up by the foe.

But Otto did not despair. Proudly he rode at the head of his army, the splendid banner of St. Michael fluttering before him. "See," he cried, "we have need of strength and courage, for the enemy lies before us. But have no fear. Everywhere in foreign lands we have fought and conquered. And here on our own native land shall we fail? Shall we turn our backs to the foe? Yes, I know it well, the enemy surpasses us in numbers, but not in courage or in skill. Many of them are ill-armed, and none of them have our best weapon, God's help. Truly, it would be shameful if we, after having conquered Europe, should give our kingdom into slavery to a heathen people. No, it is better to die in battle than to live shamefully in slavery."

Then, having thus spoken, Otto seized his shield and spear, set spurs to his horse, and dashed upon the enemy. After him stormed his whole army. The hurled themselves upon the foe with such force that soon the Hungarian ranks were broken, and the enemy fled in mad disorder.

Many were killed in the flight and pursuit, many were drowned in the river Lech, many were taken prisoner, and the whole army was utterly shattered.

Many, too, of the noblest of the Germans lay among the slain. But, in spite of all, the victory was complete and never again did the Hungarians attack Germany. Indeed, after this they ceased their wild wandering, and settled down in the land which they had already won. So in this battle of Lechfield we may see the beginnings of Austria as a settled country. And for many centuries the kings of Hungary were, in name at least, subject to the German King.

When the splendid victory became known, the army and the people of Germany greeted Otto with great rejoicing. They called him the Father of his country and Emperor, and as he passed through the land they crowded to bless and cheer him. And not only Germany rejoiced, but the whole of Europe, which was now freed from the raids of these terrible heathen.

In their joy over the defeat of the Hungarians the German people called Otto Emperor. But he was not really Emperor, no King of Germany since Arnulf having borne the title.

But now Otto turned his thoughts towards Italy, and his desires towards the Imperial title. Otto had already fought in Italy, and forced the King Berengar to own him as overlord. But Berengar soon threw off his yoke, and he also quarrelled with the Pope and fought against him. Then at length the Pope, finding himself well-nigh a prisoner in his own city, sent to Otto begging for help. In return for his help the Pope promised to make Otto Emperor of the West.

Very glad was Otto when he received the Pope's message, and gathering an army he marched into Italy. But he had not gone far before he found the way barred by a huge army under King Berengar.

Berengar, however, was a tyrant, and his people hated him. At the last minute they refused to fight unless he would abdicate in favour of his son. This Berengar refused to do, and his army scattered, and Otto marched unhindered on his way.

His march was a triumphal progress. Towns opened their gates to him, governors and people welcomed him with every sign of gladness. And so through a rejoicing land he passed until he reached the gates of Rome. Here, with crosses and with banners, and all solemnity and high state, the senate and people came forth to greet him. Kneeling before him they kissed his feet. Then, mounted on a splendid horse sent to him by the Pope, he rode in triumph to the great Church of St. Peter.

Here, clad in magnificent robes, seated in a golden chair, the Pope awaited the chosen Emperor. As Otto slowly mounted the marble steps the Pope rose. And having kissed him the Pope took him by the hand, and led him through the silver gates, into the church beyond, while the choir sang, "Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord."

A few days later, with great and solemn ceremony, Otto was crowned and anointed Emperor. But the Pope soon found that in seeking for a friend he had found a master. Otto indeed fulfilled all his promises to the Pope, but he showed that he did not mean the title of Emperor to be merely an empty title, but that he meant to rule his new kingdom with a firm hand.

The Pope was very young. He was greedy of power, and soon he was right sorry that he had helped to set this powerful German so high. But so long as the Emperor remained in Rome the Pope dared do nothing against him. As soon, however, as the Emperor had gone he turned traitor, sent messages of renewed friendship to Berengar, and began to plot to place him on the throne once more.

Otto soon heard of these plots, but he found it hard to believe them. He also heard that the Pope was leading a wicked life, but to that too he paid little heed. "He is but a boy," he said, "the example of good men may make him better." He turned back, however, to Rome, and when he reached it he found the gates shut against him. But the Pope had no courage to fight, so he fled, and a second time Otto entered the city, this time as a conqueror.

Otto at once called the clergy together. They came in numbers, all loudly accusing the Pope of many evil deeds.

When Otto had heard all these accusations he sent a message to the Pope asking him to come to defend himself against them. But the Pope would not come. His answer to the clergy was short and sharp. "I have heard that you wish to choose another Pope," he said. "If you do, I will excommunicate you all in the name of Almighty God, so that you will no longer be able to say Mass or ordain any one."

But Otto cared little for these proud words, and as the Pope would not come to defend himself he deposed him and appointed a new Pope.

It would seem now that the Emperor was at the very height of his power. He had forced the Roman people to bend to his will; he made and unmade Popes at pleasure. But he was soon to find that he could put no trust in the faith of the fickle Italians, and again and again they rebelled against him. While he was among them they were obedient. As soon as his back was turned they rose in rebellion.

The crowning of Otto as Emperor is perhaps the greatest event in his reign. For it was an event which had important results for Germany in aftertimes. For after this the German kings claimed the title of Emperor, and the crown of Lombardy as their right And by being emperors, the German kings became mixed up in quarrels with which their own land had nothing to do. The Germans poured out their blood and wasted their gold in quarrels not their own, and although by being Emperor the German kings won some glory abroad, they lost much real power at home. For while the Emperor was away fighting in far-off lands the great nobles ruled each in his own state almost as a king. And when the Emperor returned from these far-off wars he often found it impossible to overthrow the power of these petty kings. So while France, which had been at one time merely the western portion of the great Frankish Empire, grew into a united whole under a despotic king, Germany, the eastern portion, continued to be only a collection of states, more or les independent of one another, although governed in name by one ruler.

Otto spent much of his last years in Italy trying to rule his new and disordered kingdom. He died in 973, having reigned thirty-six years. Already during his lifetime he was called Otto der Grosse, or the Great, and he had well earned the title. For he had quelled the civil war; he had conquered all outside enemies, and forced them to pay tribute to him; he had conquered a great part of Italy and been crowned a Emperor; he had, in short, placed his country at the head of all the countries in Europe.