History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Otto III

On Christmas Day 983 the little four-year-old son of Otto II was crowned at Aachen. It was a splendid and gorgeous ceremony, although the child, who was the centre of it, hardly understood what it was all about, or why the white-haired priests should anoint him with oil, and place a crown upon his head.

After the ceremony, days of feasting followed. But the rejoicing and feasting were hardly over when dire news reached the city, news of the death of the Emperor. Then all the laughter and joy were turned into weeping, and the city of mirth became a city of sorrow.

There was cause truly for sorrow. The Danes and other northern tribes were in rebellion, Italy was torn asunder with war and discord, the Empire was exhausted and the Emperor a child. But now added to all this there was another trouble. For a child of four could not reign, and at once quarrels arose as to who should be Regent. According to old German customs the young King's nearest male relative had that right. But according to the custom of the Grecian Empire the young King's mother had the right.

Now Queen Theophano was a Grecian princess, the daughter of the Emperor of the East, and she claimed the right to rule for her son. Henry the Quarrelsome too claimed the right, for he was the King's nearest male relative.

So the choice lay between the Queen, who was woman and a stranger, and the Duke of Bavaria, who was indeed a man and a German, but who was hated by many. For many feared that if he became Regent he would try to win the throne for himself. The Queen was still in Italy, Henry still an exile and a prisonor. But now the Bishop who held Henry captive set him free.

Soon many of his old friends joined him, and marching quickly to Cologne he seized the young King and declared himself Regent.

But soon it became plain that Henry was not content with the title of Regent. Soon it became plain that wanted to be King. He held the Easter festival with all the state of a sovereign, and received the homage his followers as their King.

After this Henry thought that the throne was won. But he was greatly mistaken. Many of the nobles were still true to the King, some because they hated Henry and others because they loved the house of Otto. Immediately after Easter these nobles met together. Solemnly they denied all allegiance to Henry, swore fealty to Otto III, and armed themselves to defend his rights. And they were so strong that Henry was forced to flee from Saxony. But he found himself no better received in the other states of Germany. Not even in his own Duchy of Bavaria did the people receive him as King.

Henry had not expected so much opposition, and his courage began to give way. He found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides, and at last he was forced to promise to give the little King back to his friends on a certain day at a town called Rara. Meanwhile the Queen was hurrying from Italy with all the speed she might. Upon the appointed day she too reached Rara ready to receive her son.

True to his word, Henry came, surrounded by his train of knights and nobles. But he would not willingly yield up his prize, and long and loud were the arguments on this side and that. At length one day, we are told, in clear noontide a great star appeared in the sky. And when they saw it the people cried out that it was the young King's lucky star, that it was a sign sent from heaven. They greeted it with hymns of joy, and such was the enthusiasm that even Henry himself could hold out no longer.

Humbly he gave back Otto to his mother, he renounced the name of King, and solemnly freed from their oath of allegiance all those who had sworn to be his men.

With great joy Theophano received her son. Henry and all who had joined in his rebellion were forgiven. Humbly acknowledging his fault he knelt before his overlord, and placing his hands within those of the little King swore to be his man. Then peace was made. Henry was again given his dukedom of Bavaria, and ever after remained a true and faithful vassal to his King. Soon the people forgot his old name of the Quarrelsome and called him the Peacemaker. No state was so true to the Emperor as Bavaria, and when ten years later Henry lay dying, he called his son to him."Never rebel against your King and lord," he said. "Deeply do I rue me that ever I did it."

And now for seven years the wise and beautiful Grecian lady Theophano ruled in Germany. Then on June day in 991 she suddenly died.

Otto was still only eleven years old and could not yet rule. So his grandmother, Queen Adelheid, became Regent. But she did not really rule as Theophano had done, and the power was almost entirely in the hands of the great princes of the realm, with the good Archbishop Willigis at their head.

And now the power of these dukes and princes which Otto the Great had done so much to lessen began to grow great again. The states began again to choose their own dukes, and in many ways to show their independence of the Crown.

Meanwhile Otto was growing up learned in all the arts of Greece and Rome. He spoke Greek and Latin as well as German. He was so learned and so clever that although still a child he knew far more than any grey-haired man. So they called him the Wonder of the World. His mind was full of splendid ideas and beautiful dreams. He loved all that was lovely and poetical in life, and he rather despised the rough Germans who were his chief subjects. He had splendid dreams of a perfect Empire and a perfect Church. But Rome, not Aachen, should be the centre of his Empire Italy, not Germany, was the subject of his dreams. There Emperor and Pope should live in perfect friendship, together wielding a great and undivided power together working God's will on earth.

But while the Emperor was dreaming glorious dreams and building splendid castles in the air, Germany was almost constantly at war. The Poles and Dane had never been at rest since the defeat of Otto II in Italy. The sea-kings of the North again sought the shores of the Baltic, and Sven Forkbeard sailed in his dragon-headed ships far up the German rivers.

The young Emperor now began to march with his armies against these enemies. But although he could use a sword and spear right well he was no born soldier and leader of men. These endless battles with heathen folk soon wearied him. He found no pleasure in long tramps through woods and marshes, in the taking of miserable villages and towns, in the slaughter and destruction of war. He thought that the high title of Emperor called him to something better than this.

So when at length the good Archbishop Willigis told the Emperor that the time had come when he must go to Italy to be crowned, and also to help the Pope to put down the rebellions which had arisen there, Otto went right gladly.

A splendid train of knights and nobles and bishops went with him. But before he reached Rome Otto heard of the death of the Pope. He at once appointed his own cousin, a young man of twenty-four and both learned and fiery-tempered, as the new Pope. This Pope took the title of Gregory V, and he was the first German to sit upon the papal throne.

Gregory V crowned the young Emperor, who was now sixteen, and having put down the rebellions he went back to Germany.

But a year later Otto returned to Rome, for once again that restless city had risen in rebellion. Gregory V was driven from the papal throne, and another Pope crowned in his stead.

Otto reinstated his Pope and punished the rebels with terrible cruelty. The ringleader and many of his followers were beheaded. The false Pope, cruelly mutilated, was led through the streets riding upon a mangy donkey, and was then thrown into a dungeon there to die a slow and painful death.

Gregory V once more sat upon his throne, but not for long. He died suddenly in 999, poisoned, it is thought by the angry Romans. Otto then made a Frenchman named Gerbert, who had been his teacher, Pope.

From now on Otto seemed to forget Germany more and more, seemed more and more to make Italy the centre of all his thoughts. He built a palace for himself there, which even Charles the Great had never thought of doing. He gave his nobles Italian titles and Italian names. All of this little pleased the Germans, who, with their rough tongues, stammered over these high-sounding foreign names. They murmured loudly that the seat of Government should be beyond the Alps. But the Romans were pleased, and they dreamt once more of seeing their beloved city mistress of the world.

Otto loved high state and kingly splendour, and clad himself in magnificent gold and purple robes like Caesar. He ate at a table alone, his dishes were of gold and he was served by great nobles.

But although Otto loved splendour he was a strange mixture. His restless fanciful spirit drove him from change to change. So at times throwing off all state he would humble himself in penance, he would shut himself into a narrow cell, and give himself over to silent thought; or again with bare feet and head would visit the shrine of some saint and martyr.

He was filled with thoughts of the glory of Charles the Great. And, driven by some uncanny curiosity, caused the vault in which he was buried to be opened There, strange to say, the great Emperor still sat in stately death as he had been buried so long before, only the nose had fallen from his face. And when Otto saw the calm old figure sitting so strangely still he threw himself upon his knees in prayer.

Otto caused a golden nose to be put on the old Emperor's face, took a tooth from his mouth as a relic, and shut up the vault once more.

In such strange doings did Otto spend his time during his last short visit to his fatherland. Then he turned again to his beloved Rome.

But again the Romans rose in rebellion. For three days Otto was besieged in his palace, then he fled from the city, never to return.

Otto now sent Henry of Bavaria to Germany to gather an army, while for nearly a year he himself wandered from place to place in Italy. At times he fought, trying to subdue his rebel people. At times he shut himself into some lonely cell, spending his days in fasting and prayer.

But when Henry reached Germany he found the nobles little inclined to march into a foreign land to fight for an Emperor who neglected and despised his own country. So only a very small company gathered at length to their Emperor where he lay sick unto death in the town of Paterno.

This town was all that was left to him of the splendid Empire of his imagination. For his German subjects, through long neglect, had grown weary of him and were ready to choose another Emperor; his Italian subjects were in open revolt.

And here at Paterno, shut out from, but almost within sight of, his beloved Rome, he died, a disappointed broken man, on January 23, 1002. And so ended the great house of Otto.

When he died Otto was scarcely twenty-two. For eighteen years he had borne the title of King. For twelve of these years, others had ruled for him wisely and well. During six he had undone much that they had done; he died leaving his Empire on the verge of ruin.

Otto III had loved Rome and Italy. But as he lay dying he begged that his body might be buried not in Rome but in Aachen, beside the great Emperor Charlemagne. And so the faithful German princes who surrounded him resolved that his wish should be fulfilled. But the whole country was swarming with rebels in arms. Through them the Germans were obliged to cut a path for the dead Emperor with their swords. Day by day they fought around the bier they carried. At length they reached the Alps and passed into German land. In sad procession they marched onward, and at length laid the body of their Emperor to rest in the Cathedral at Aachen, beside that of Charlemagne, as he had desired.