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Ottonian dynasty

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House of Otto
CountryDuchy of Saxony, Kingdom of Germany, Holy Roman Empire
Founded9th century: Liudolf, Duke of Saxony
Final rulerHenry II, Holy Roman Emperor
Dissolution1024 (after the death of Emperor Henry II)
Cadet branches
Depiction of the Ottonian family tree in a 13th-century manuscript of the Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis. The founder of the dynasty Liudolf, Duke of Saxony is at the top center.

The Ottonian dynasty (German: Ottonen) was a Saxon dynasty of German monarchs (919–1024), named after three of its kings and Holy Roman Emperors named Otto, especially its first Emperor Otto I. It is also known as the Saxon dynasty after the family's origin in the German stem duchy of Saxony. The family itself is also sometimes known as the Liudolfings (Liudolfinger), after its earliest known member Count Liudolf (d. 866) and one of its most common given names. The Ottonian rulers were successors of the Germanic king Conrad I, who was the only Germanic king to rule in East Francia after the Carolingian dynasty and before this dynasty.[1]

The Ottonians are associated with the notable military success that transformed the political situation in contemporary Western Europe: "It was the success of the Ottonians in molding the raw materials bequeathed to them into a formidable military machine that made possible the establishment of Germany as the preeminent kingdom in Europe from the tenth through the mid-thirteenth century." They are also associated with a notable cultural movement (especially new literary traditions) known as the Ottonian Renaissance.[2][3]

After the end of Ottonian rule in 1024, the Salian dynasty went on to occupy the Imperial throne for just over a century, until 1125.


Gandersheim Abbey Church

In the 9th century, the Saxon count Liudolf held large estates on the Leine river west of the Harz mountain range and in the adjacent Eichsfeld territory of Thuringia. His ancestors probably acted as ministeriales in the Saxon stem duchy, which had been incorporated into the Carolingian Empire after the Saxon Wars of Charlemagne. The family's substantial holdings in Thuringia suggest that they originated from that region, and their Saxon lands may have been granted as a reward for their service to the Carolingians.[4] Liudolf married Oda, a member of the Frankish House of Billung. About 852 the couple together with Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim founded Brunshausen Abbey, which, once relocated to Gandersheim, rose to a family monastery and burial ground.

Liudolf already held the high social position of a Saxon dux, documented by the marriage of his daughter Liutgard with Louis the Younger, son of the Carolingian king Louis the German in 869. Liudolf's sons Bruno and Otto the Illustrious ruled over large parts of Saxon Eastphalia, moreover, Otto acted as lay abbot of the Imperial abbey of Hersfeld with large estates in Thuringia. He married Hedwiga, a daughter of the Babenberg duke Henry of Franconia. Otto possibly accompanied King Arnulf on his 894 campaign to Italy; the marriage of his daughter Oda with Zwentibold, Arnulf's illegitimate son, documents the efforts of the Carolingian ruler to win the mighty Saxon dynasty over as an ally. According to the Saxon chronicler Widukind of Corvey, Otto upon the death of the last Carolingian king Louis the Child in 911 was already a candidate for the East Frankish crown, which however passed to the Franconian duke Conrad I.

Upon Otto's death in 912, his son Henry the Fowler succeeded him as Duke of Saxony. Henry had married Matilda of Ringelheim, a descendant of the legendary Saxon ruler Widukind and heiress to extended estates in Westphalia.

Ottonian kings and emperors[edit]

German royal dynasties
Ottonian dynasty
Henry I
919 – 936
Otto I
936 – 973
Otto II
973 – 983
Otto III
983 – 1002
Henry II
1002 – 1024
Ottonian dynasty family tree
Family tree of the German monarchs
Category:Ottonian dynasty
Preceded by Conradine dynasty
Followed by Salian dynasty

The Ottonian rulers of East Francia, the German kingdom, and the Holy Roman Empire were:[1]

  • Henry the Fowler (Henry I), Duke of Saxony from 912, King of East Francia from 919 until 936
  • Otto I, the Great, Duke of Saxony and King of East Francia from 936, King of Italy from 951, Holy Roman Emperor from 962 until 973
  • Otto II, co-ruler from 961, Holy Roman Emperor from 967, sole ruler from 973 until 983
  • Otto III, King of the Romans from 983, Holy Roman Emperor from 996 until 1002
  • Henry II, the Saint, Duke of Bavaria from 995 (as Henry IV), King of the Romans from 1002, King of Italy from 1004, Holy Roman Emperor from 1002 until 1024

Henry I[edit]

Although never Emperor, Henry the Fowler was arguably the founder of the imperial dynasty. While East Francia under the rule of the last Carolingian kings was ravaged by Hungarian invasions, he was chosen to be primus inter pares among the German dukes. Elected Rex Francorum in May 919, Henry abandoned the claim to dominate the whole disintegrating Carolingian Empire and, unlike his predecessor Conrad I, succeeded in gaining the support of the Franconian, Bavarian, Swabian and Lotharingian dukes. In 933 he led a German army to victory over the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Riade and campaigned both the land of the Polabian Slavs and the Duchy of Bohemia. Because he had assimilated so much power through his conquest, he was able to transfer power to his second son Otto I.[1]

Otto I[edit]

Former collegiate church of St. Servatius in Quedlinburg, founded in 936 by King Otto I, at the request of his mother Queen Matilda, in honor of her late husband, Otto's father, King Henry the Fowler, and as his memorial

Otto I, Duke of Saxony upon the death of his father in 936, was elected king within a few weeks. He continued the work of unifying all of the German tribes into a single kingdom, greatly expanding the powers of the king at the expense of the aristocracy.[1] Through strategic marriages and personal appointments, he installed members of his own family in the kingdom's most important duchies. This, however, did not prevent his relatives from entering into civil war: both Otto's brother Duke Henry of Bavaria and his son Duke Liudolf of Swabia revolted against his rule. Otto was able to suppress their uprisings, in consequence, the various dukes, who had previously been co-equals with the king, were reduced to royal subjects under the king's authority. Otto's decisive victory over the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 ended the threat of Hungarian invasions and secured his hold over his kingdom.[1][5]

The defeat of the pagan Magyars earned King Otto the reputation as the savior of Christendom and the epithet "the Great". He transformed the Church in Germany into a kind of proprietary church and major royal power base to which he donated charity and for the creation of which his family was responsible. By 961, Otto had conquered the Kingdom of Italy, which was a troublesome inheritance that none wanted, and extended his kingdom's borders to the north, east, and south. In control of much of central and southern Europe, the patronage of Otto and his immediate successors caused a limited cultural renaissance of the arts and architecture. He confirmed the 754 Donation of Pepin and, with recourse to the concept of translatio imperii in the succession of Charlemagne, proceeded to Rome to have himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII in 962. He even reached a settlement with the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimiskes by marrying his son and heir Otto II to John's niece Theophanu. In 968 he established the Archbishopric of Magdeburg at his long-time residence.[1]

Otto II[edit]

Co-ruler with his father since 961 and crowned emperor in 967, Otto II ascended the throne at the age of 18. By excluding the Bavarian line of Ottonians from the line of succession, he strengthened Imperial authority and secured his own son's succession to the Imperial throne. During his reign, Otto II attempted to annex the whole of Italy into the Empire, bringing him into conflict with the Byzantine emperor and with the Saracens of the Fatimid Caliphate. His campaign against the Saracens ended in 982 with a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Stilo. Moreover, in 983 Otto II experienced a Great Slav Rising against his rule.[1]

Otto II died in 983 at the age of 28 after a ten-year reign. Succeeded by his three-year-old son Otto III as king, his sudden death plunged the Ottonian dynasty into crisis. During her regency for Otto III, the Byzantine princess Theophanu abandoned her late husband's imperialistic policy and devoted herself entirely to furthering her own agenda in Italy.[1]

Otto III[edit]

When Otto III came of age, he concentrated on securing the rule in the Italian domains, installing his confidants Bruno of Carinthia and Gerbert of Aurillac as Popes. In 1000 he made a pilgrimage to the Congress of Gniezno in Poland, establishing the Archdiocese of Gniezno and confirming the royal status of the Piast ruler Bolesław I the Brave. Expelled from Rome in 1001, Otto III died at age 21 the next year, without an opportunity to reconquer the city.[1]

Henry II[edit]

Detail from the monument to Emperor Henry II, built over his tomb in Bamberg Cathedral more than 350 years after his death

The childless Otto III was succeeded by Henry II, a son of Duke Henry II of Bavaria and his wife Gisela of Burgundy, thereby a member of the Bavarian line of the Ottonians. Duke of Bavaria since 995, he was crowned king on 7 June 1002. Henry II spent the first years of his rule consolidating his political power on the borders of the German kingdom. He waged several campaigns against Bolesław I of Poland and then moved successfully to Italy where he was crowned emperor by Pope Benedict VIII on 14 February 1014. He reinforced his rule by endowing and founding numerous dioceses, such as the Bishopric of Bamberg in 1007, intertwining the secular and ecclesiastical authority over the Empire. Henry II was canonized by Pope Eugene III in 1146.[1]

As his marriage with Cunigunde of Luxembourg remained childless, the Ottonian dynasty became extinct with the death of Henry II in 1024. The crown passed to Conrad II of the Salian dynasty, great-grandson of Liutgarde, a daughter of Otto I, and the Salian duke Conrad the Red of Lorraine. When King Rudolph III of Burgundy died without heirs on 2 February 1032, Conrad II successfully claimed also this kingship on the basis of an inheritance Emperor Henry II had extorted from the former in 1006, having invaded Burgundy to enforce his claim after Rudolph attempted to renounce it in 1016.[1]

Ottonian rulership[edit]

Historians have written extensively about how the Ottonian kings and emperors ruled their lands.[6] For some historians, following in the wake of Karl Leyser, Ottonian government was primarily conducted through oral and ritual means, in which the written word took a back seat.[7] Other historians, such as David Bachrach, have argued strongly for the continuing use of writing in administering the Ottonians' far-flung lands.[8] Attention has recently focused on how the rulers took advantage of their royal estates, known as the fisc.[9]

Family tree[edit]

Other notable members[edit]

Ottonian family tree

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Middleton 2015, p. [page needed].
  2. ^ Bachrach 2014, pp. 3, 5.
  3. ^ Ranft 2003, p. 36.
  4. ^ Jeep, John M. (2017). Routledge Revivals: Medieval Germany (2001) An Encyclopedia. Taylor and Francis. p. 463. ISBN 9781351665407.
  5. ^ Bachrach 2011.
  6. ^ Wangerin 2017.
  7. ^ Leyser 1981.
  8. ^ Bachrach 2010.
  9. ^ West 2019.


  • Bachrach, D. S. (December 2010). "The Written Word in Carolingian-Style Fiscal Administration under King Henry I, 919-936". German History. 28 (4): 399–423. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghq108.
  • Bachrach, David S. (2014). Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84383-927-9.
  • Bachrach, David S (April 2011). "Early Ottonian Warfare: The Perspective from Corvey". Journal of Military History. 75 (2): 393–409.
  • Leyser, Karl (1981). "Ottonian government". The English Historical Review. 96 (381): 721–753. doi:10.1093/ehr/XCVI.CCCLXXXI.721. JSTOR 569838.
  • Middleton, John (2015). World Monarchies and Dynasties. doi:10.4324/9781315698014. ISBN 978-1-317-45158-7.
  • Leyser, Karl (1979). Rule and conflict in an early medieval society: Ottonian Saxony. Edward Arnold. hdl:2027/heb01063.0001.001. ISBN 978-0-7131-6218-9.
  • Ranft, P. (2003). Women in Western Intellectual Culture, 600–1500. Springer. ISBN 978-0-230-10825-7.
  • Wangerin, Laura (January 2017). "The governance of Ottonian Germany in historiographical perspective: Governance of Ottonian Germany". History Compass. 15 (1): e12367. doi:10.1111/hic3.12367.
  • West, Charles (2019). "Royal estates, confiscation and the politics of land in the kingdom of Otto I". Biens publics, biens du roi. Seminari del Centro interuniversitario per la storia e l'archeologia dell'alto medioevo. Vol. 9. pp. 157–177. doi:10.1484/M.SCISAM-EB.5.118742. ISBN 978-2-503-58645-8. S2CID 214096327.