When later Carolingians had not been able to exert royal power or defend Eastern Francia against Magyars and Vikings, political units began to collapse on to pre-Charlemagne lines--Saxony, Franconia, Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria. Their leaders took the title of count and then duke, following the western custom. From the 870s, they usurped the royal demesne, patronized churches, made the king's officials dependent on them, and tried to appoint bishops. When the weak Louis the Child (899-911) died, they tried to leave the throne vacant, as he was the last Carolingian ruler in the East. The Church, however, wanted a strong monarchy that would guarantee order and their privileges, as opposed to five warring dukes. Also, Magyar incursions required some coordinated response. Desiring a weak sovereign, the Dukes elected Conrad of Franconia (911-918). He was too weak though, not stopping the Magyars, and allowing Lorraine to fall to the French King, Charles the Simple.

Henry I of Saxony, also known as Henry the Fowler (r. 919-936) was next. He was the first non-Frankish king of Germany. Henry the Fowler founded the Saxon dynasty and allowed dukes leeway in their own regions, as long as they recognized his status as king. He did insist, however, on three monarchical prerogatives: 1) as the king's generals, dukes were to recruit forces and bring an army to wherever the king was campaigning; 2) Henry gradually brought the nomination of counts, and especially bishops--the bases of local government--back into the king's hands; 3) he slowed or even turned back the alienation of the royal demesne from the king to the nobles. Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria proved recalcitrant. He annexed the latter and appointed an allied Franconian as duke in Swabia, yet Bavaria remained elusive. By 924, Magyar invasions had recommenced. Initially defending mostly Saxony, by 933 Henry felt ready to refuse further Magyar tribute demands. In the ensuing 933 Battle of Unstrut, Henry's forces utterly defeated a large Hungarian expedition, increasing the crown's prestige. Building up a cavalry, Henry also inflicted damage on the Danes before his 936 death.

Henry the Fowler's son, Otto I (r. 936-973), insisted on maintaining a strong monarchy, wanting to effect his will in all regions. A revolt immediately broke out on the parts of dukes wary of growing central power. When the duke of Franconia died in the hostilities, Otto annexed it directly to his own Saxony. In the latter area, he granted much land to his ally Magnus Billung, but kept the ducal title, thus maintaining control of two of the fundamental German duchies. He was able to bring other dukes to heel by 938. Throughout, he relied on the Church to increase his power. He chose all the bishops and abbots, increasing their powers and lands, thereby gaining allies whose allegiance he required. They were also given count's rights over neighboring lands. Monarchy-oriented in any event, the clerics became a basis of Ottonian power, supporting him with troops when necessary. In other areas, Otto relied on family members. In 947, he gave Bavaria's duchy to his brother, while Lorraine went to Conrad the Red, a brother in law. Continuing a German monarchical tradition, in the late 940s, Otto led conquest-conversion efforts among the Wends (Slavs) beyond the Elbe, establishing new bishoprics in all areas.

The German king was often unable to trust even his dukes. Thus, Otto, as Charlemagne before him, was drawn into Italy. When Rudolph II of Burgundy died in 937, the Italian king Hugh of Arles had tried to occupy it, and was fought off by Otto. In 949, the Duke of Bavaria seized Aquileia, and began to rival Otto's power. The next year, unexpected deaths resulted in the North-Central Italian Kingdom falling to Adelaide, a woman other dukes thought it possible to conquer. Thus in 950, Italian notable Berengar was elected King of the Lombards and captured Adelaide and her lands. At this point, Liudolf, Duke of Swabia, and Otto's own son crossed into Italy as her savior, challenging Otto's rule. To prevent further conflict and claims of dukes to prominence, in 951 Otto established direct authority over Lombardy, placing bishops in control of secular affairs in their dioceses, expanding the German model. He was not able to assume the crown himself, as a German revolt led by Swabian and Bavarian dukes required his attention. His son in particular felt snubbed. As well, Otto faced renewed Magyar troubles and resoundingly defeated them in 955 at Lechfeld. The pope did not look unkindly at the Magyar incursions into Germany; he wanted to avoid too close a German embrace.

Yet in 962, as part of a power-play against a rival Roman noble ecclesiastical faction (the same Baerengar of Friuli who had made off with Adelaide), Pope John XII crowned Otto Holy Roman Emperor. Though the German king had sent forces to aid the Pope in 961, he rebelled against Otto when the new Emperor indicated he meant to rule as well as reign. Upon hearing news of the revolt--including John's appeal to Berengar and the Magyars, Otto held a synod which deposed the Pope and appointed a new one, Leo VIII. While Otto swore to uphold Papal authority in the Papal Sates, Leo in turn undertook that no Pope would be consecrated in the future before the Emperor's approval. As for the people and nobles of Rome, they refused Leo, requiring a further Ottonian intervention in 964-965. Around the same time, the German Emperor was able to come to terms with Constantinople regarding the imperial title, ending years of desultory combat in central-southern Italy. Having married the Byzantine Princess Theophano, Otto's son Otto II succeeded to the throne in 973.

Otto II was not exceedingly successful, though he did maintain his predecessors' internal policies. While attempting to supercede Byzantine power in southern Italy, he met Muslim opposition from Sicily and was defeated resoundingly by them in 982. Inspired, the Slavs beyond the Elbe were able to re-conquer all lands to the Oder, reinstituting paganism in the area and destroying the ecclesiastical administration by 983. When Otto II died that year, his son Otto III was elected, with two female regents. Not feeling threatened, and bound to the monarchy by familial or personal ties, the duchies did not revolt. Otto III died in 1002 at the age of twenty-two, thus ruling for only a short while as an adult. He was intensely spiritual, stewarding over monastic reform, and engaging the brightest clerics of the West as tutors. One, Gerbert of Aurillac, he nominated to be Pope Sylvester II (999-1003). Finally, when granted the title servus apostolorum, servant of the apostles, the German monarchy gained influence over the Christianizing populations of Poland and Hungary, who had accepted Papal authority. Having no son, Otto was succeeded by Henry II (r. 1002-1024), the head of a younger branch of the Saxon dynasty. With his lands and authority centered in Bavaria, Henry II was never able to assert total control over the Saxons, and continually dealt with mini-revolts during his time as king, in addition to Italian campaigns.

Popular pages: High Middle Ages (1000-1200)