Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The House of Saxony

It is said that when a party of German nobles rode to the Duke of Saxony to tell him that Conrad was dead, and to offer him the crown, they found him hawking in the forest. For this reason he gained the name of Henry the Fowler. Henry proved as strong a king as he had been a duke. The first thing he did was to gain the aid of the great dukes of the country, and then he turned to deal with the powerful enemies who threatened Germany. The worst of these were the Normans, who sailed along the northern coasts and plundered the German shores, and the Magyars, who assailed the land from the east, from their home in Hungary.

The Magyars were Tartars from Asia, a fierce barbarian race who had seized upon Hungary and thence made savage raids into Germany. They were looked upon with the greatest dread by the Germans, for they were ferociously brave, and moved with wonderful speed on their swift horses. Thus it was difficult to meet them in battle, for they swooped on a countryside, plundered and burned and slew, and then were gone and in search of a new object of attack. They were very cruel, stripping the conquered people of all they possessed, binding captive women with their own long hair, and driving flocks of captives into Hungary.

Henry saw that his people were not ready to meet these terrible foes, so he made a truce with the Magyars for nine years and agreed to pay them tribute. He spent the nine years in training his subjects to arms, and in building strong places where the people could find refuge in case of need. Now he was ready to meet the Magyars, and refused to pay tribute. The Magyars rushed into Germany in two great armies, but both were overthrown. Henry himself led his men in the second battle, and the Hungarians were routed with such terrible slaughter that but few of them escaped from the field. This was in 933, and in 936 Henry I died, and was followed by his son, Otto I.

Roman black gate


Otto proved so able a king that he won the title of Otto the Great. He beat his enemies wherever they appeared. He mastered the Northmen, he beat back the Hungarians, he went to Italy and won great victories there and became King of Italy. His empire stretched from the North Sea to the Adriatic, and it seemed as if a second Charlemagne had appeared. While he was fighting in Italy he heard that a revolt had broken out in Germany, and he came back to put it down. He found that the rebels had called in the Hungarians to their aid and that the fierce Magyars had marched through the country, plundering everywhere. Now the Hungarians, laden with booty, had retired into the province of Suabia, and here Otto, with only a small army, came up with them. There was a terrible battle, but Otto gained the day and crushed the Magyar power. Never again did the Hungarians venture into Germany: for the future they settled down quietly in their own country.

In the year 962 Otto received the Imperial crown from the hands of the Pope at Rome. This was in token that he was head of the empire formed by Germany and Italy, which was now called "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." The dignity was a lofty one, but it was an honour for which Germany paid a great and bitter price. The German Emperor could only maintain his power south of the Alps by keeping a powerful army in Italy, for the Italians disliked German rule. For years at a time the German Sovereign spent his days and his strength in keeping order among his Italian subjects. But his presence was badly needed in Germany itself. There were many great German princes who were always trying to free their lands and themselves from the rule of their king: instead of being vassals, they wished to become independent lords. The absence of their ruler and his army in Italy left them to do very much as they pleased, and the results were bad; for Germany, in place of becoming a strong, united country, was split up into a number of small states, and thus the land was greatly weakened in presence of a powerful foe.

Otto I died in 973 and was followed by his son, Otto II. This ruler strove to weld Germany and Italy into one kingdom, but he failed, and died after a short reign in 983. Otto III was a child three years old when he came to the throne, and he grew up to be so clever and learned a young man that he was called the Wonder of the World. But he died in root, before he was twenty-two, and his cousin, Henry, Duke of Bavaria, was chosen to follow him as Henry II. Henry ruled from 1002 to 1024, and almost the whole of his reign was filled with war. He had first to fight hard to make his position safer in Germany. Then he had a sharp struggle to secure his dominion in Italy. At last he received the Imperial crown at Rome in 1014, but still he had to battle with his foes in the south of Italy. He died in 1024, and with him came to an end the line of Saxon rulers.