Saxon dynasty in Medieval Germany

During the period of dissolution of the Carolingian Empire and after agreement in Verdun 843, Carolingian Empire was divided between Charles the Bald, Louis (Ludwig) the German and Lothair. This division was the basis of the emergence and development of later states France, Italy and Germany. Based on the Treaty of Verdun, grandson of the Charles the Great, Louis (Ludwig) the German got the territory east of the Rhine river including Bavaria. This territory was inhabited by Germanic tribe Teutons (latin. Teutones, in German Teutschen or Deutschen). French people used term for this land Allemand because their first neighbors were Allemani or Suebi an confederation of different ethnic groups of the Germanic tribes. So, Medieval Germany at that time did not represent unity in either ethnic or political terms. Medieval Germany were divided in four independent tribal duchies: Swabia, Bavaria, Franconia and Saxony within Thuringia. In the first half of the X century Lotharingia were also merged. Until 911, the Carolingian dynasty still ruled over the territories of Germany land. After the death of the last Carolingian king Charles the Child 866 and period of disorder, during the reign of king Conrad I of Germany (911-918), in May 24th 919 Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler elected for king of the East Francia. So the reign of the Saxon dynasty in Medieval Germany began in 919 and it lasted until 1024. The Saxon dynasty were also known as Ottonian or Liudolfing Dynasty.

Saxon dynasty during the reign Henry the Fowler (919-936) and Otto I (936-973)

The Saxon kings Henry the Fowler (or German Heinrich der Finkler) and Otto I (936-973) they managed to gain new territory in wars against the West Slavs and Hungarians. The valley of the Elbe river as well as territories east of the Elbe river including territory of Oder (Odra) river inhabited by Polabian Slavs. Charlemagne the Great imposed to Polabian Slavs a tribute but they avoided paying taxes especially after his death. In cooperation with Danes and Hungarians Slavs were often fought at the borders against German tribes especially against Saxons. So the goal of Henry the Fowler and king Otto at the first period of the rule was to defeat Slavs. King Henry the Fowler achieved victory over the Slavs tribe Glomacze (also Dolomici) conquering their capital Gana (also  known as Hana and Jahna). After conquering the city, Henry the Fowler ordered his army to kill all adults of the city and capture all children within aim to turn them into slaves. Moreover, he also conquer the Lusatian group of Slavs and tribes of Geruli imposing them taxes. Henry the Fowler in 934 expanded his influence on the territory of the Jutland and Schleswig in order to separate territory of Danish and Slavs. After the victory over the Slavs, Henry the Fowler stationed garrisons of the Germans on all major fortresses like the Meissen fortress on the banks of the Elbe river. However, even defeated Slavs were often started uprisings against the Germans. The first kings of the Saxon dynasty started also wars against the Hungarians who at that time reached the territory of the Middle Danube. 

In cooperation within the Polabian Slavs, Hungarians were entered in Saxony from the northeast crossing the river Elbe. From the east they entered into Bavaria, Swabia, Lotharingia and Franconia. At the time of conquests, Hungarians acted very cruelly to the German population, burning their villages and towns, killing all men, regardless of age, and taking women as slaves. The German infantry were not able to fight against numerous and easy-moving Hungarian cavalry.  

The Successor of Henry the Fowler, king Otton I has tried with other methods in order to finally defeat the Slavs. He fervently forced Christianity among the Slavs, and he encouraged the German colonists to settle homes on the Slavs territory with the aim of expanding the influence of Germans. In the fighting against the Slavs, Otto I often ordered his soldiers to kill hundreds of prisoners. 

Map of the Medieval Germany and Holy Roman Empire in 962 AD.
Map of the Medieval Germany and Holy Roman Empire in 962 AD. Source: Labberton, Robert Henlopen, Historical Atlas 3800 BC -1900 AD, New York, Boston, Chicago 1901, plate XXX.

Having conquered the Great Moravian Empire the Hungarians were crossed the Middle Danube and they got closer to the borders of Germany. From the northeast they passed Elba river entering in Saxony, where they together in alliance within Polabian Slavs, managed to enter deeper into territory of Bavaria, Swabia, Lotharingia and West Franconia. Hungarians very cruelly treated German inhabitants, burning they villages and towns, killing all men, regardless of age, and capturing German womans as slaves. German infantry had not been able to fought with numerous and easily movable Hungarian cavalry. That is why Henry the Fowler started military reform, establishing a new heavily armed cavalry that could oppose the Hungarians. At the same time, he built a fortresses (mostly in Saxony), which the Hungarians did not have effective method to occupy and conquer those fortresses. The result of those reforms were visible at the Battle of Riade or Battle of Merseburg in 933 when Henry the Fowler achieved victory over  the Hungarians. Otto I was more successful against Hungarian forces at the Battle of Lechfeld in Bavaria near Augsburg in 955. The Germans conquered a Hungarian camp and they took many prisoners; among prisoners there was three Hungarian leaders. After this decisive defeat, the Hungarians ceased to cross the German borders. The power of kings of the Saxon dynasty were connected with Church land. In fact, the kings of the Saxon dynasty were also owners of the portion land from the Church. On this land the king took a direct taxes, as well as on his personal land. In addition, if the position of the bishop remained vacant all income from this land belonged to king. However, the king Otto later granted some privileges to the Church. 

In 951, King Otto started military campaign to Italy where he conquer Pavia and he became the king of Lombards. His main goal was to conquer Rome in order to establish control over the Church. However, internal conflicts in Rome allowed him to enter in city without a fight. In 962 he became a Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, this Holy Roman Empire was territorially less than the former empire of Charles the Great; it actually included only German territories and one part of Italy. The last king of the Saxon dynasty was Henry II (1002-1024) who led unsuccessful wars against the Polish. After the king Henry II, Saxon dynasty loose its power in Germany and Franconian (also Salian) Dynasty (1024-1125) within its founder Conrad II became dominant. 

References:

  • Karl Leyser, “Ottonian government”, The English Historical Review, Volume XCVI, Issue CCCLXXXI, 1 October 1981, 721–753.
  • Karl Leyser, Medieval Germany and its neighbors 900-1250, London 1982, 65-103.