The Holy Roman emperor Otto I (912-973), called Otto the Great, was the most powerful western European ruler after Charlemagne. He organized a strong German state and expanded his authority over Burgundy and Italy.
Otto I was the son of King Henry I (the Fowler) of Germany. In 929 he married Edith, daughter of Edward the Elder of England; she died in 946. Otto was Duke of Saxony when his father died in 936, and he was at once elected king (which rule he held until 962) at Aix-la-Chapelle by the great magnates. The rulers of the other great duchies caused Otto initial problems. By 947 he had solved them by absorbing the duchy of Franconia into his direct rule and by handing over the others, Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria, to members of his family.
By 951 Otto had been drawn into Italy by the fear that its widowed Queen Adelaide, who was having trouble, would be rescued, and her lands absorbed, by the nearby king of Burgundy or his own dukes of Swabia or Bavaria. To forestall these moves, Otto crossed into Italy and married her himself—thus establishing his claims to her lands. Before he could consolidate his position there, however, he was drawn back to Germany by a revolt of his leading dukes, led by his son and heir, and by a serious incursion of the nearby Hungarians. He put down the revolt and crushed the Hungarians at the decisive battle of Lechfeld in 955.
Once these tasks were accomplished, Otto gave the duchy of Lorraine, whose duke had perished at Lechfeld, to his clerical brother Archbishop Bruno of Cologne. At about this time he also began relying increasingly upon churchmen to help him to govern his realm and to furnish him with armed forces. He did so by endowing churchmen, whom he appointed to office, with wide lands and immunities in return for governmental and military services. Since Church offices were not hereditary, this made them a most useful and dependable counterweight to the secular nobles, who often were unreliable and had heirs as well.
While Otto was busy in Germany, however, he did not ignore his neighbors. He intervened in the struggle between the French Capetians and Carolingians and thus assured himself of their acceptance of his absorption of Lorraine into the empire. He kept control over Hedeby in Denmark and over the archbishoprics of that kingdom. He encouraged churchmen and his Saxon subordinates Gero and Herman Billung to begin the conquest of the Slavs beyond the Elbe River, and he forced the Duke of Bohemia to do him homage.
It was as master of much of northern Europe that Otto invaded Italy in 961. A year later, after conquering Rome, Otto was crowned Western emperor by Pope John XII. He and the Pope later quarreled, and Otto with some difficulty replaced him with another candidate, whom he forced upon the clergy and nobles of Rome. Otto's last years were largely spent in Italy, where he tried unsuccessfully to absorb Venice and southern Italy, which were controlled by Byzantium. Before his death, however, Otto was able to secure Byzantine recognition of his imperial title and a Byzantine princess as a bride for his son Otto II.
Finally, Otto deserves credit for supporting learning and culture. His support of learning resulted in the so-called Ottonian Renaissance, which helped to keep learning alive for the future. The churchmen he appointed often proved interested in building and in supporting culture in their church establishments, both monastic and episcopal. Thanks to them, culture continued to flourish there and at the court, making the Age of the Ottos an important intellectual and architectural one for medieval Europe.
Fine accounts of Otto I are in R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe, from Constantine to Saint Louis (1957); Christopher Brooke, Europe in the Central Middle Ages, 962-1154 (1964); and Eleanor Duckett, Death and Life in the Tenth Century (1967). For Otto's northern European and Eastern policies see Archibald R. Lewis, The Northern Seas (1958), and Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, A.D. 610-1071 (1966).