In 962, in Rome, the pope crowned a Saxon king, Otto I the Great (912–973), as Holy Roman Emperor. A formidable ruler, Otto I had been crowned King of the Germans in Aachen in 936, mounting Charlemagne’s throne at Aachen, and had immediately begun building a powerful kingdom in central Europe. Otto demonstrated his prow-ess on the battlefi eld by defeating the dreaded Magyar horsemen at Lechfeld in 955 and through his conquest of the Slavic peoples across the Elbe River. He also proved to be a shrewd ruler, shoring up his polit-ical might within Germany by gradually bringing its haughty nobility to heel and using powerful bishops as trusted royal administrators.

The imperial throne that Otto ascended in 962 had been vacant for decades, and Otto’s coronation enhanced the prestige and sanctity of the German kings by evoking memories of Charlemagne and rebuilding the old Frankish alliance with the papacy. Otto I began a thousand-year tradition of German rulers holding the imperial title, a conjunction that would help to forge German identity in the centuries to come. The Holy Roman Empire encompassed the area known today as Germany, uniting the rulers of the various Germanic tribes, including the Eastern Franks, Alemanni, Bajuwari, Saxons, and Thuringians, under the overlordship of the emperor and providing the foundation of modern Germany.

Ottonian Germany

With the fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire, its successor states were hard-pressed to defend their borders. The Treaty of Verdun cre-ated a new German-speaking kingdom in central Europe known as East Francia, comprising several stem duchies, including Saxony, Franconia, Bavaria, and Swabia, derived from the tribal lands of ancient Germanic war-bands. East Francia was overrun by outside invaders attacking the kingdom from all directions: Viking sea raiders from the north and Magyar horsemen from the east.

In 911, amid the growing instability, the eastern branch of the Carolingians died out, and the East Frankish dukes elected a series of ineffectual replacements from among the lead-ing families of the realm. Ironically, the magnates turned to the Saxons, who a century before had been the pagan enemies of the Carolingian emperor.

Forcibly converted to Christianity by Charlemagne, the House of Saxony had grown in strength within the Frankish empire, and the dukes elected Henry I (1068–1135), “the Fowler,” as King of the Germans in 919. This inaugurated the rise of the Ottonian dynasty, which would dominate the history of medieval Germany. Beset by outside invaders, Henry bound the powerful Bavarian, Franconian, Lotharingian, Saxon, and Swabian nobles to him through feudal alle-giance but allowed them to retain their tribal authority over their respective peoples.

Having consolidated his power, Henry took the opportunity to prove his mettle and test these feudal loyalties on the battlefi eld. In 933, he massed an army drawn from among the various Germanic tribes of East Francia and marched against the Magyars, nomadic raiders from the east. Henry won a great victory over the Magyars, checking their incur-sions into the German lands, and also campaigned against the Danes in Frisia. These victories earned considerable support for his rule among the German nobles.

Throughout his reign, Henry allowed the power-ful dukes who ruled the fi ve tribal stem duchies, Bavaria, Franconia, Lotharingia, Saxony, and Swabia, to function as semiautonomous rul-ers, setting the stage for the decentralized political structure that would mark the Holy Roman Empire in the centuries to come. Henry died suddenly in 936. While his reign was short, his willingness to delegate power to the dukes and his military successes gained support for the election of his son, Otto, as King of the Germans.

In 936, Henry’s son, Otto I the Great was crowned at Aachen, ascend-ing the throne of Charlemagne. Otto was an ambitious king and imme-diately set about building on the successes of his father, forging a mighty Germanic kingdom in central Europe and shoring up royal authority. In documents of the period, he was referred to as Otto I Theutonicorum rex, or “Otto the First, King of the Germans,” signaling the identifi -ably German character of the Ottonian dynasty. The new German ruler soon demonstrated his prowess on the battlefi eld. His forces crushed the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, securing the borders of his kingdom and initiating the conquest of the Slavic peoples between the Elbe and the Oder.

On the heels of subsequent military victories in the east, Otto forcibly converted defeated pagan rulers and appointed bishops to facilitate the conversion of their peoples, gradually bringing Slavs, Bohemians, and Danes into the Roman Catholic fold. Within his realm, he also strengthened the foundations of Ottonian power by asserting more effective royal control over the German magnates, investing powerful bishops whom he incorporated into his govern-ment, and by bringing new crown lands under his direct control.

In 962, at the height of his power, Otto I revived the imperial title when he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Otto had come to the papacy’s aid during a dispute in Lombardy, and in return Pope John XII (ca. 937–964) offered him the imperial dignity, which had been vacant for nearly 40 years. Otto’s ascension augmented the status of the German kings by evoking memories of Charlemagne and rebuilding the old Frankish alliance with the papacy. Under Otto I, the Ottonian emperors began a thousand-year tradition of German rulers holding the imperial title, a relationship that would help to forge German identity in the centuries to come.

However, it is important to remember that despite Otto’s new imperial pretensions and his attempts to assert more direct control over the stem duchies, East Francia was not a unifi ed “Germany” during this period. Rather, Otto’s realm was a confederation of Germanic peoples, including the Eastern Franks, Alemanni, Bajuwari, Saxons, and Thuringians, peoples whose rulers each owed an individual feudal allegiance to their Ottonian overlord.

By the time Otto died in 973, he had managed to bring these fractious elements under a tenable royal control through shrewd calcu-lation and the force of his will. After Otto the Great’s demise, however, the centrifugal forces at work within Germany again came to the fore, and his Ottonian descendants weathered a series of rebellions involving their own nobles and attacks from external enemies.