The Decline Of The Saxon Dynasty


Otto II., "The Red." --Conquest of Bavaria. --Invasion of Lothar of

France. --Otto's March to Paris. --His Journey to Italy. --His

Defeat by the Saracens, and Escape. --Diet at Verona. --Otto's

Death. --Theophania as Regent. --Alienation of France. --Otto III.

--His Dealings with the Popes. --Negotiations with the Poles. --His

Fantastic Actions. --His Death in Rome. --Yout
ful Popes. --Henry

of Bavaria chosen by the Germans. --His character. --War with

Poland. --March to Italy, and Coronation. --Other Wars. --Henry

repels the Byzantines. --His Death. --The Character of his Reign.

--His Piety.

[Sidenote: 973.]

Otto II., already crowned as king and Emperor, began his reign as one

authorized "by the grace of God." Although only eighteen years old, and

both physically and intellectually immature, his succession was

immediately acknowledged by the rulers of the smaller German States. He

was short and slender, and of such a ruddy complexion that the people

gave him the name of "Otto the Red." He had been carefully educated, and

possessed excellent qualities of heart and mind, but he had not been

tried by adversity, like his father and grandfather, and failed to

inherit either the patience or the energy of either. At first his

mother, the widowed Empress Adelheid, conducted the government of the

Empire, and with such prudence that all were satisfied. Soon, however,

the Empress Theophania became jealous of her mother-in-law's influence,

and the latter was compelled to retire to her former home in Burgundy.

The first internal trouble came from Henry II., Duke of Bavaria, the son

of Otto the Great's rebellious brother, and cousin of Otto II. He was

ambitious to convert Bavaria into an independent kingdom: in fact he had

himself crowned king at Ratisbon, but in 976 he was defeated, taken

prisoner and banished to Holland by the Emperor. Bavaria was united to

Suabia, and the Eastern provinces on the Danube were erected into a

separate principality, which was the beginning of Austria as a new

German power.


At the same time Otto II. was forced to carry on new wars with Bohemia

and Denmark, in both of which he maintained the frontiers established by

his father. But Lothar, king of France, used the opportunity to get

possession of Lorraine and even to take Aix-la-Chapelle, Charlemagne's

capital, in the summer of 978. The German people were so enraged at this

treacherous invasion that Otto II. had no difficulty in raising an army

of 60,000 men, with which he marched to Paris in the autumn of the same

year. The city was so well fortified and defended that he found it

prudent to raise the siege as winter approached; but first, on the

heights of Montmartre, his army chanted a Te Deum as a warning to the

enemy within the walls. The strife was prolonged until 980, when it was

settled by a personal interview of the Emperor and the king of France,

at which Lorraine was restored to Germany.

In 981 Otto II. went to Italy. His mother, Adelheid, came to Pavia to

meet him, and a complete reconciliation took place between them. Then he

advanced to Rome, quieted the dissensions in the government of the city,

and received as his guests Konrad, king of Burgundy, and Hugh Capet,

destined to be the ancestor of a long line of French kings. At this time

both the Byzantine Greeks and the Saracens were ravaging Southern Italy,

and it was Otto II.'s duty, as Roman Emperor, to drive them from the

land. The two bitterly hostile races became allies, in order to resist

him, and the war was carried on fiercely until the summer of 982 without

any result; then, on the 13th of July, on the coast of Calabria, the

Imperial army was literally cut to pieces by the Saracens. The Emperor

escaped capture by riding into the Mediterranean and swimming to a ship

which lay near. When he was taken on board he found it to be a Greek

vessel; but whether he was recognized or not (for the accounts vary), he

prevailed upon the captain to set him ashore at Rossano, where the

Empress Theophania was awaiting his return from battle.

This was a severe blow, but it aroused the national spirit of Germany.

Otto II., having returned to Northern Italy, summoned a general Diet of

the Empire to meet at Verona in the summer of 983. All the subject Dukes

and Princes attended, even the kings of Burgundy and Bohemia. Here, for

the first time, the Lombard Italians appeared on equal footing with the

Saxons, Franks and Bavarians, acknowledged the authority of the Empire,

and elected Otto II.'s son, another Otto, only three years old, as his

successor. Preparations were made for a grand war against the Saracens

and the Eastern Empire, but before they were completed Otto II. died, at

the age of twenty-eight, in Rome. He was buried in St. Peter's.

[Sidenote: 991.]

The news of his death reached Aix-la-Chapelle at the very time when his

infant son was crowned king as Otto III., in accordance with the decree

of the Diet of Verona. A dispute now arose as to the guardianship of the

child, between the widowed Empress Theophania and Henry II. of Bavaria,

who at once returned from his exile in Holland. The latter aimed at

usurping the Imperial throne, but he was incautious enough to betray his

design too soon, and met with such opposition that he was lucky in being

allowed to retain his former place as Duke of Bavaria. The Empress

Theophania reigned in Germany in her son's name, while Adelheid, widow

of Otto the Great, reigned in Italy. The former, however, had the

assistance of Willigis, Archbishop of Mayence, a man of great wisdom and

integrity. He was the son of a poor Saxon wheelwright, and chose for his

coat-of-arms as an Archbishop, a wheel, with the words: "Willigis,

forget not thine origin." When Theophania died, in 991, her place was

taken by Otto III.'s grandmother, Adelheid, who chose the Dukes of

Saxony, Suabia, Bavaria and Tuscany as her councillors.

During this time the Wends in Prussia again arose, and after a long and

wasting war, in which the German settlements beyond the Elbe received

little help from the Imperial government, the latter were either

conquered or driven back. The relations between Germany and France were

also actually those of war, although there were no open hostilities. The

struggle for the throne of France, between Duke Charles, the last of the

Carolingian line, and Hugh Capet, which ended in the triumph of the

latter, broke the last link of blood and tradition connecting the two

countries. They had been jealous relatives hitherto; now they became

strangers, and it is not long until History records them as enemies.


When Otto III. was sixteen years old, in 996, he took the Imperial

government in his own hands. His education had been more Greek than

German; he was ashamed of his Saxon blood, and named himself, in his

edicts, "a Greek by birth and a Roman by right of rule." He was a

strange, unsteady, fantastic character, whose only leading idea was to

surround himself with the absurd ceremonies of the Byzantine Court, and

to make Rome the capital of his Empire. His reign was a farce, compared

with that of his grandfather, the great Otto, and yet it was the natural

consequence of the latter's perverted ambition.

Otto III.'s first act was to march to Rome, in order to be crowned as

Emperor by the Pope, John XV., in exchange for assisting him against

Crescentius, a Roman noble who had usurped the civil government. But the

Pope died before his arrival, and Otto thereupon appointed his own

cousin, Bruno, a young man of twenty-four, who took the Papal chair as

Gregory V. The new-made Pope, of course, crowned him as Roman Emperor, a

few days afterward. The people, in those days, were accustomed to submit

to any authority, spiritual or political, which was strong enough to

support its own claims, but this bargain was a little too plain and

barefaced; and Otto had hardly returned to Germany, before the Roman,

Crescentius, drove away Gregory V. and set up a new Pope, of his own


The Wends, in Prussia, were giving trouble, and the Scandinavians and

Danes ravaged all the northern coast of Germany; but the boy emperor,

without giving a thought to his immediate duty, hastened back to Italy

in 997, took Crescentius prisoner and beheaded him, barbarously

mutilated the rival Pope, and reinstated Gregory V. When the latter

died, in 999, Otto made his own teacher, Gerbert of Rheims, Pope, under

the name of Sylvester II. In spite of the reverence of the common people

for the Papal office, they always believed Pope Sylvester to be a

magician, and in league with the Devil. He was the most learned man of

his day, and in his knowledge of natural science was far in advance of

his time; but such accomplishments were then very rare in Italy, and

unheard of in a Pope. Otto III. remained three years longer in Italy,

dividing his time between pompous festivals and visits to religious


In the year 1000 he was recalled to Germany. His father's sister,

Mathilde, who had governed the country as well as she was able, during

his absence, was dead, and there were difficulties, not of a political

nature (for to such he paid no attention), but in the organization of

the Church, which he was anxious to settle. The Poles were converted to

Christianity by this time, and their spiritual head was the Archbishop

of Magdeburg; but now they demanded a separate and national diocese.

This Otto granted to their Duke, or king, Boleslaw, with such other

independent rights, that the authority of the German Empire soon ceased

to be acknowledged by the Poles. He made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St.

Adalbert of Prague, who was slain by the Prussian pagans, then visited

Aix-la-Chapelle, where, following a half-delirious fancy, he descended

into the vault where lay the body of Charlemagne, in the hope of hearing

a voice, or receiving a sign, which might direct him how to restore the

Roman Empire.

[Sidenote: 1001.]

The new Pope, Sylvester II., after Otto III.'s departure from Rome,

found himself in as difficult a position as his predecessor, Gregory V.

He was also obliged to call the Emperor to his aid, and the latter

returned to Italy in 1001. He established his Court in a palace on Mount

Aventine, in Rome, and maintained his authority for a little while, in

spite of a fierce popular revolt. Then, becoming restless, yet not

knowing what to do, he wandered up and down Italy, paid a mysterious

visit to Venice by night, and finally returned to Rome, to find the

gates barred against him. He began a siege, but before anything was

accomplished, he died in 1002, as was generally believed, of poison. The

nobles and the imperial guards who accompanied him took charge of his

body, cut their way through a population in rebellion against his rule,

and carried him over the Alps to Germany, where he was buried in


The next year Pope Sylvester II. died, and Rome fell into the hands of

the Counts of Tusculum, who tried to make the Papacy a hereditary

dignity in their family. One of them, a boy of seventeen, became Pope as

John XVI., and during the following thirty years four other boys held

the office of Head of the Christian Church, crowned Emperors, and

blessed or excommunicated at their will. This was the end of the grand

political and spiritual Empire which Charlemagne had planned, two

centuries before--a fantastic, visionary youth as Emperor, and a weak,

ignorant boy as Pope! The effect was the rapid demoralization of princes

and people, and nothing but the genuine Christianity still existing

among the latter, from whom the ranks of the priests were recruited,

saved the greater part of Europe from a relapse into barbarism.

[Sidenote: 1002. HENRY II. ELECTED.]

At Otto III.'s death there were three claimants to the throne, belonging

to the Saxon dynasty; but his nearest relative, Henry, third Duke of

Bavaria, and great-grandson of king Henry I. the Fowler, was finally

elected. Suabia, Saxony and Lorraine did not immediately acquiesce in

the choice, but they soon found it expedient to submit. Henry's

authority was thus established within Germany, but on its frontiers and

in Italy, which was now considered a genuine part of "the Roman Empire,"

the usual troubles awaited him. He was a man of weak constitution, and

only average intellect, but well-meaning, conscientious, and probably as

just as it was possible for him to be under the circumstances. His life,

as Emperor, was "a battle and a march," but its heaviest burdens were

inherited from his predecessors. He was obliged to correct twenty years

of misrule, or rather no rule, and he courageously gave the remainder

of his life to the task.

The Polish Duke, Boleslaw, sought to unite Bohemia and all the Slavonic

territory eastward of the Elbe, under his own sway. This brought him

into direct collision with the claims of Germany, and the question was

not settled until after three long and bloody wars. Finally, in 1018, a

treaty was made between Henry II. and Boleslaw, by which Bohemia

remained tributary to the German Empire, and the province of Meissen (in

the present kingdom of Saxony) became an appanage of Poland. By this

time the Wends had secured possession of Northern Prussia, between the

Elbe and the Oder, thrown off the German rule, and returned to their

ancient pagan faith.

In Italy, Arduin of Ivrea succeeded in inciting the Lombards to revolt,

and proclaimed himself king of an independent Italian nation. Henry II.

crossed the Alps in 1006, and took Pavia, the inhabitants of which city

rose against him. In the struggle which followed, it was burned to the

ground. After his return to Germany Arduin recovered his influence and

power, became practically king, and pressed the Pope, Benedict VIII., so

hard, that the latter went personally to Henry II. (as Leo III. had gone

to Charlemagne) and implored his assistance. In the autumn of 1013,

Henry went with the Pope to Italy, entered Pavia without resistance,

restored the Papal authority in Rome, and was crowned Emperor in

February, 1014. He returned immediately afterwards to Germany; and

Italy, after Arduin's death, the following year, remained comparatively


[Sidenote: 1018.]

Even before the wars with Poland came to an end, in 1018, other troubles

broke out in the west. There were disturbances along the frontier in

Flanders, rebellions in Luxemburg and Lorraine, and finally a quarrel

with Burgundy, the king of which, Rudolf III., was Henry II.'s uncle,

and had chosen him as his heir. This inheritance gave Germany the

eastern part of France, nearly to the Mediterranean, and the greater

portion of Switzerland. But the Burgundian nobles refused to be thus

transferred, and did not give their consent until after Henry's armies

had twice invaded their country.

Finally, in 1020, when there was temporary peace throughout the Empire,

the Cathedral at Bamberg, which the Emperor had taken great pride in

building, was consecrated with splendid ceremonies. The pope came across

the Alps to be present, and he employed the opportunity to persuade

Henry to return to Italy, and free the southern part of the peninsula

from the Byzantine Greeks, who had advanced as far as Capua and

threatened Rome. The Emperor consented: in 1021 he marched into Southern

Italy with a large army, expelled the Greeks from the greater portion of

their conquered territory, and then, having lost his best troops by

pestilence, returned home. He there continued to travel to and fro,

settling difficulties and observing the condition of the people. After

long struggles, the power of the Empire seemed to be again secured; but

when he began to strengthen it by the arts of peace, his own strength

was exhausted. He died near Goettingen, in the summer of 1024, and was

buried in the Cathedral of Bamberg. With him expired the dynasty of the

Saxon Emperors, less pitifully, however, than either the Merovingian or

Carolingian line.

When Otto the Great, towards the close of his reign, neglected Germany

and occupied himself with establishing his dominion in Italy, he

prepared the way for the rapid decline of the Imperial power at home, in

the hands of his successors. The reigning Dukes, Counts, and even the

petty feudal lords, no longer watched and held subordinate, soon became

practically independent: except in Friesland, Saxony and the Alps, the

people had no voice in political matters; and thus the growth of a

general national sentiment, such as had been fostered by Charlemagne and

Henry I., was again destroyed. In proportion as the smaller States were

governed as if they were separate lands, their populations became

separated in feeling and interest. Henry II. tried to be an Emperor of

Germany: he visited Italy rather on account of what he believed to be

the duties of his office than from natural inclination to reign there;

but he was not able to restore the same authority at home, as Otto the

Great had exercised.

[Sidenote: 1024. END OF HENRY II.'S REIGN.]

Henry II. was a pious man, and favored the Roman Church in all

practicable ways. He made numerous and rich grants of land to churches

and monasteries, but always with the reservation of his own rights, as

sovereign. After his death he was made a Saint, by order of the Pope,

but he failed to live, either as Saint or Emperor, in the traditions of

the people.