What was the impact of Emperor Otto I on Medieval Europe

A manuscript showing Otto I

Otto, I, also known as the Great (912-970 AD), was one of the most influential monarchs of the Middle Ages. He was an ambitious and energetic ruler, and he changed the direction of Europe, and he had a profound impact on European society. He was a great soldier, administrator, and monarch and is often considered the greatest of all the Holy Roman Emperors. He ruled to various degrees much of Central Europe.

This article will examine and evaluate his contribution to the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire, the expansion of the German realm, Church-State relations, and his ideas on the role of the Empire. It will demonstrate that he was the main architect of the Holy Roman Empire and he greatly extended its borders.


Charlemagne had established a vast Empire that contained most of Western Europe. After his death, the Empire was divided among his heirs, which was the Frankish custom. The western part (West Francia) and the Eastern part (Eastern Francia) came to be ruled by separate members of the Carolingian dynasty. Another member of that family led in Italy. These monarchies became increasingly weak and could not defend their territories from attacks from invaders such as the Arabs or the Vikings. The Carolingians died out one by one, and local nobles became more powerful, and there was no central power in much of western Europe.

In West Francia, the Capetians, in response to Viking attacks, were developing a state that would become the kingdom of France. Eastern Francis, which corresponds today to Western Germany, was very unstable and beset by conflict. It was also attacked by external enemies such as the Danes, Slavs, and the Magyars [1]. The German lands were in a crisis, and the nobles decided to elect a leader or king to defend the German lands in a rare moment of concern for the greater good. The decision to elect Henry the Duke of Saxony as their king. He is better known as Henry the Fowler, and he proved an inspired choice. He was an excellent general, and he defeated the Slavs, Danes, and the Magyars.

Henry was widely revered, and he began restoring the old Reich or kingdom of Charlemagne. Nostalgia for the vanished Roman Empire in the West lasted for centuries, and many believed that it should be resurrected [2]. Henry sought to re-create the Roman Empire, just as Charlemagne had. This ambition was also to preoccupy his successors for centuries. When Henry died, his son, Otto, inherited the throne and his father’s dream.

Otto’s reign

Manuscript drawing of the Battle of Lechfield

Otto, I, who succeeded his father in 936. He had himself crowned king in Aachen, which once had been Charlemagne’s capital. From an early date, he harbored imperial ambitions, and, according to contemporary chronicles, the other German dukes served him at his coronation banquet and swore to be his vassals. Otto sought to make himself an absolute monarch, and he was intent on curbing the autonomy of the great German dukes. His brother was involved in a conspiracy against him, but they later reconciled, and Otto made his brother Duke of Bavaria. Otto used his powers to install other members of his family into other Dukedoms[3].

Despite his father’s military successes, the German lands were threatened by many enemies. To solidify his Imperial, claim he at first subdued the local German church, and once he had done this, he used the clerics as a bureaucracy to control the far-flung Germanic lands. Otto was constantly challenged by rebellious Dukes and even by members of his own family, but he managed to suppress them all and extend his authority.

Otto proved himself to be an able general. He fought two wars against the Slavs, who formed a powerful coalition against the Germans. Otto defeated them on both occasions, and he incorporated many Slavic lands east of the River Oder into his lands [4]. The Danes entered an alliance with some rebellious Slavs, and Otto defeated their invasion. The biggest challenge that faced German lands was the pillaging and raids of the Magyars (Hungarians). They were a nomadic tribe from the Russian Steppes, and their attacks had devastated German lands for decades.

In 955 AD, a considerable force of Hungarians invaded southern Germany and devastated a vast area. Otto advanced to meet the Magyars, and despite being outnumbered almost two to one, the German king decisively defeated the invaders. Otto was not only intent on defending the borders of Germany. He was very committed to expanding the territories under his rule. Otto integrated Burgundy into his realms and turned Bohemia into a vassal state. In 951, he invaded Italy and secured the submission of many Lords and cities. He defeated a claimant to the Italian throne and crowned himself King of Italy. Later, Otto interfered in the Byzantine territories in southern Italy. Otto launched three expeditions to Italy and eventually absorbed Northern and central Italy into his domains.

The Ottonian Empire also consisted of all modern Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and parts of modern Poland and France. To secure his hold on Italy, he had to manage the Papacy. Otto deposed the corrupt and immoral Pope John XII and replaced him with a Pope of his choice, Leo VIII. He has crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire and was the first to do so since Charlemagne. However, despite his successes in Italy, Otto could never control the Italian territories fully, and there were constant rebellions against the German presence[5]. Otto died in 973 and was succeeded by his only son, who became Otto II. The Emperor was warmly remembered by future generations for ushering a period of peace and a cultural flourishing known as the Ottonian Renaissance.

Concept of Kingship

Crown of Otto I

Otto had a most definite view on kingship. He saw himself as a successor to Charlemagne and the Caesars. Before Otto, his father has regarded himself as a German king, who was only first among equals. His son had a very different concept of his role and he did not see himself as a king but as an Emperor. He had a most definite view of feudalism and the Emperor saw the nobility as his vassals who owed him absolute obedience. Otto had close contact with the court of Byzantium and he was influenced by the political theory of this Empire. Like the Byzantine Emperor, he saw himself as an absolute monarch and only answerable to God. This also had important repercussions for his relationship with the Papacy.

He saw himself like the Byzantine Emperor as head of the Church, who had the power to direct and guide the Church and even to appoint bishops, establish Synods and even depose Popes. The Imperial concept of monarchy that was espoused by Otto influenced later Emperors' conception of their role[6]. Because of Otto they did not see themselves as German monarchs but as Emperors who had a special role. This was not a view shared by many nobles and it led to endemic tensions between the Emperors and the aristocracy for centuries. Otto was crucial in the development of the institution and ideology of the Holy Roman Emperor. As a result, he is the first Holy Roman Emperor.

Consolidation of the Reich

If Otto had not been a great leader it seems likely that the Reich would have collapsed. This was the case in France where after a period of stability the kingdom had fallen into near-anarchy. However, Otto was a state-builder. The Emperor deliberately made use of the bishops and churchmen and integrated them into his administration. This was the “Ottonian church system of the Reich”[7].

The system ensured that the church was instrumental in the governing of the far-flung German lands. Otto knew that the Church was arguably the only truly national institution and clerics were the only educated people in his realm. The Church was to play a crucial role in maintaining stability in German territories and was an important counterweight to the influence of the aristocracy. The Ottonian system was to provide a stable and long-lasting framework for Germany and provided a large measure of stability that was absent from other lands.

Slavic Conquests

Otto continued his father’s policy towards the Slavs and he subdued many tribes and ended a brief period of Pan-Slavic unity. His victories were crucially important, and they opened many new lands for German colonization[8]. Those Slavic lands that were directly controlled by the German monarch were given over to loyal followers who were instructed to settles Germans on their lands. In the wake of Otto’s victories, there was a concerted effort to colonize the Slavic lands.

In the aftermath of the German victories, they established German towns and settlements all over once Slavic lands. Within generations, these lands become soundly Germanic. Otto’s policy of encouraging German colonization turned areas that were once part of the Slav culture area into one’s that became thoroughly German regions[9]. The king was to lay the foundation of the future eastern expansion of the Germans into Eastern Slavic lands, which was to greatly expand the borders of the Reich.

Intervention in Italy

Otto did greatly extend German influence and managed to secure the allegiance of many Italian towns and lords. However, Otto could not directly control the Italian lands and he was forced to rule through a regent. Despite repeated attempts, Otto was never able to dominate Italy and it was only when he was personally in the Peninsula could he impose his will on his vassals[10].

Otto dreamt of recreating the realm of Charlemagne. This was to have important implications for the future of both Germany and Italy. Successive German Emperors sought to make their claims to the Kingdom of Italy a reality. None ever succeeded and the preoccupation of successive Holy Roman Emperor with Italy only weakened Germany. Many believe that if successive Holy Roman Emperors had not been distracted by Italy that they could have created a truly unified state in their German lands.

Church-State Relations

Central to the Ottonian strategy was to subordinate the Church to the secular ruler. This led to tensions between the monarch and the Papacy. Many churchmen resented the influence of the secular world on the Church and they resented the prerogative that was claimed by the Emperor to appoint bishops, which led to the so-called ‘Investiture Controversy’ [11]. This practice of having the monarch appoint bishops was to lead to many cases of abuse such as simony and many reformers believed that this was the root of all the problems in the Church. This and the claims of Otto to appoint and depose Popes, which was adopted by his successors was resented by many in the Church.

Otto’s policies were to lead to years of conflict between the Empire and the Papacy. This led to instability and outright wars in Italy. The Investiture Controversy was to bedevil the Empire for many centuries and ultimately was to lead to the weakening of the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor in the aftermath of the death of Emperor Frederick II (O Brien, p. 201).


Otto I’s achievement rests mainly on his consolidation of the German Reich and the development of the Holy Roman Empire. By his victorious campaigns, he gave Germany peace and security and made German-speaking lands the most powerful in Europe. His Italian policy and the acquisition of the imperial crown constituted a link with the old Carolingian tradition and were to prove a mixed blessing for the Empire. Otto also laid the foundations for the great German advance into Slavic lands. He also extended the Empire and he created a hegemony of a sort over much of Europe.

Otto did much to develop a state in his Empire and this provided a framework for the governance of Central Europe for many centuries. However, the monarch’s reliance on the Church was to involve future Emperors such as Henry IV in bitter and destructive conflicts with the Papacy. Despite his failing Otto was the architect of the Holy Roman Empire, an entity that was to last until 1806 and was a decisive influence on Medieval Europe.


  1. Arnold, Benjamin, Medieval Germany, 500–1300 A Political Interpretation. (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), p. 116
  2. Reuter, Timothy. Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800–1056 (Manchester, Addison Wesley Longman, 1991), p. 113
  3. Hill, Boyd H., Jr. Medieval Monarchy in Action: The German Empire from Henry I to Henry IV (New York, Barnes & Noble, 1983), p. 118
  4. Reuter, p. 213
  5. Boyd, p. 119
  6. Boyd, p. 117
  7. Arnold, 2016
  8. Arnold, p. 119
  9. Arnold, p. 216
  10. Reuter, p. 213
  11. McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI (London, Harper Collins, 2000, p 117