Otto I - The Founder of the Holy Roman Empire

Otto I
Just like Charlemagne, Otto I established a strong empire and strong royal authority. He extended his kingdom through military campaigns, broke the independence of the duchies and laid the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto's Empire cannot compare to that created by Charlemagne but it lasted nearly a thousand years, while Charlemagne's Empire disintegrated within less than half a century after his death.

Table of Contents

Quick Facts

Otto I succeeded his father Henry I as King of Germany in 936.

He limited the independence of the duchies

While fighting against the rebellious dukes, Otto launched a successful military campaign against the Slavs in the east, incorporated Lorraine into the German kingdom, extended his influence over Burgundy and forced Bohemia to submit.

In 951, he invaded Italy on the appeal of the widowed queen Adelaide, defeated Berengar of Ivrea and married Adelaide by which he laid a claim to Italy.

In the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, Otto I decisively defeated the Magyars whose campaigns in the west ceased completely thereafter.

In 961, Otto I invaded Italy on the appeal of Pope John XII for military assistance against Berengar of Ivrea.

On February 2, 962, Otto I was crowned Emperor by Pope John XII in Rome.

Otto's Imperial coronation is traditionally regarded as the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire.

Between 963 and 965, Otto deposed two popes and achieved election of two of his candidates as popes.

Between 967 and 972, he launched unsuccessful campaigns against Venice and Southern Italy but he achieved recognition of his Imperial title by the Byzantine Emperor and arranged marriage between his son Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophanu.

He supported art and learning, and initiated the so-called Ottonian Renaissance.

Otto I died on May 7, 973, in Memleben at the age of 60 years. He was buried next to his first wife Edith in the Cathedral of Magdeburg.

Otto's Accession to the German Throne

Otto I, also known as Otto the Great was born on November 23, 912, to Henry I, Duke of Saxony and King of Germany and his wife Matilda of Ringelheim. He was elected King of Germany after his father’s death in 936 and had himself crowned in Aix-la-Chapelle in Aachen, the former Charlemagne’s capital. After the coronation ceremony, he held a Carolingian-style banquet having the dukes serving him as his vassals. Otto’s early reign, however, was troubled by rebellion of the dukes.

Rebellion of the Dukes

Eberhard, the new Duke of Bavaria refused to pay homage to the new king. Otto I responded by deposing him as Duke of Bavaria in 938 and replaced him with his uncle Berthold who promised not to appoint bishops and counts. Otto’s action against the Duke of Bavaria, however, provoked rebellion of Eberhard of Franconia who was joined by the king’s half-brother Thankmar and dissatisfied Saxon nobles. The royal forces defeated the rebellious Duke and killed Thankmar but Otto soon faced a rebellion of Gilbert, Duke of Lorraine who was joined by the king’s younger brother Henry and Eberhard of Franconia who was meanwhile released from prison. Otto was once against successful and decisively defeated the rebells in the battle of Andernach in 939. Dukes of Lorraine and Franconia were killed in the battle, while Henry reconciled with his brother but only for a brief period. In 941, Henry joined a plot against Otto I. The conspiracy was discovered, however, Otto once again forgave his brother who thereafter remained loyal to him and was made Duke of Bavaria.

Early Campaigns in the East and Incorporation of Lorraine into the German Kingdom

By 947, Otto finally asserted his control over the duchies. Franconia came under direct royal rule, while the remaining three duchies were held by the members of his family. But while Otto was fighting against the rebellious dukes, he also worked on expansion of his kingdom on the expense of the neighboring states. He launched a successful campaign against the Slavs in the east, forced the Bohemian prince to submit, extended his influence over Burgundy and intervened in the struggle between Louis IV, King of Western Francia and Hugh the Great (the father of the future French king Hugh Capet) through which he incorporated Lorraine into the German kingdom.

Invasion of Italy, Rebellion of 953 and the Battle of Lechfeld

In 951, Otto I was asked for military assistance against Berengar of Ivrea by Adelaide, the daughter of Rudolf II of Burgundy and wife of the deceased King of Italy, Lothair II. Otto invaded Italy, defeated Berengar of Ivrea, assumed the title King of the Lombards and married Adelaide. But he was forced to return to Germany before he could secure his position in Italy due to a revolt of Liudolf, Duke of Swabia and Otto’s son by his deceased wife Edit (Eadgyth) and the daughter of the English king Edward the Elder. Liudolf who felt threatened for his position after Otto’s marriage with Adelaide was joined by discontent magnates including Conrad the Red, Otto’s son-in-law and Duke of Lorraine. The Magyar threat, however, forced the rebells to submit to Otto. This enabled him to focus on the Magyars who were decisively defeated in the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. When the Magyar threat was finally eliminated, Otto focused on expansion of his kingdom in the east where he conquered the Slav lands between the Elbe and Oder Rivers and forced Mieszko I of Poland to pay him tribute.

Second Invasion of Italy and Imperial Coronation

Otto’s absence from Italy was taken advantage by Berengar of Ivrea who invaded the Papal States. Unable to repulse the threat, Pope John XII appealed to Otto for help. He invaded Italy in 961 and entered Rome on February 2, 962, when Pope John XII crowned him Emperor. A few days later, Otto I and the Pope signed the so-called Ottonian privilege (also known as Diploma Ottonianum) which confirmed the earlier concessions to the Papacy by the Carolingians, granted independence to the Papal States and established the German king as the protector of the Western Christendom. The document, however, also featured a provision according to which new popes must not be elected without the Emperor’s consent. But it remains unknown whether this provision was a part of the original document or if it was added later.

Later Reign

Shortly after Otto’s Imperial coronation which is traditionally considered as the foundation date of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope John XII started to feel threatened by Otto’s power and entered negotiations with his enemy. Otto invaded Rome in 963, deposed Pope John XII and installed Leo VII. The Romans, however, rebelled as soon as he had left the city and restored John XII as pope. Otto invaded Rome for the second time and reinstalled Leo VII. After the latter’s death in 965, he achieved election of John XIII but the Romans again refused the Emperor’s choice and forced him to intervene in the capital of Christendom for the third time. Between 967 and 972, Otto launched unsuccessful campaigns against Venice and the Byzantine-controlled Southern Italy. But before he returned to Germany, he managed to win the Byzantine recognition of his Imperial title and arranged a marriage between his son Otto II and the Byzantine Princess Theophanu.


By the time of his death on May 7, 973, Otto I established a strong German state. He extended the borders of his kingdom through successful military campaigns as well as protected it from external threats, most notably the Magyars. His greatest achievement, however, was consolidation of the Kingdom of Germany by limiting the power of the duchies. Otto I curbed the power of the dukes by preferring the Church officials over secular nobles and installing the members of his family to prominent positions. Neither of both measures, however, provided a long term solution as the use of family members to control the duchies led to dynastic rivalries already during his reign, while the Church officials would eventually take advantage of the royal reliance on the Church to demand freedom from the royal control. In addition, most bishops and abbots originated from wealthy noble families and it was not unusual for them to work in interest of their families. Otto I did, however, restore the royal control over the duchies, prevented disintegration of the Kingdom of Germany and created a framework of the Holy Roman Empire which survived nearly one millennium. Lastly, Otto I stimulated learning and culture which led to the so-called Ottonian Renaissance.

Comparison to Charlemagne

Otto I is often compared to Charlemagne. There are indeed many similarities between Otto I and Charlemagne: both extended their kingdoms through successful military campaigns, both invaded Italy on pope’s appeal, both were crowned Emperors by the pope in Rome and both supported art and learning. However, there were several important differences between the two Emperors. By the time of Otto’s Imperial coronation, the Imperial title became associated with Italy rather than the former Roman Empire or even equivalent to the Byzantine Empire. Unlike Charlemagne who was viewed as the successor of the Roman emperors of antiquity, Otto I and his contemporaries probably viewed the Imperial title as confirmation of his conquest of Italy. Otto also did not control the Papacy like Charlemagne did despite the fact that he deposed two popes, achieved election of two of his candidates and assured the royal control over papal elections through the Ottonian privilege. Rather than establishing his control over the Church like Charlemagne did, Otto I worked with the Church with an aim to create a counterweight to the secular nobles. Lastly, another powerful kingdom emerged on the territory of the former Carolingian Empire by the end of the 10th which would later view itself as successor of the Charlemagne’s Empire as well - France. Nevertheless, Otto I assured the Imperial title for the eastern part of the former Carolingian Empire and made the Holy Roman Empire the nominal leader of the Western Christendom.