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Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor

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Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor

Otto IV
19th Century impression of Otto IV
Holy Roman Emperor
Reign 1209–1215
Coronation 21 October 1209, Rome
Predecessor Henry VI
Successor Frederick II
King of the Romans
Reign 1198–1209
Coronation 12 July 1198, Aachen
Predecessor Henry VI
Successor Frederick II
King of Italy
Reign 1208–1212
Predecessor Henry VI
Successor Henry VII[1]
King of Burgundy
Reign 1208–1215
Predecessor Philip of Swabia
Successor Frederick II
Spouse Beatrice of Hohenstaufen
Marie of Brabant
House House of Welf
Father Henry the Lion
Mother Matilda of England
Born 1175
Died 19 May 1218
Burial Brunswick Cathedral
Religion Roman Catholicism

Otto IV (1175 – May 19, 1218) was one of two rival kings of Germany from 1198 on, sole king from 1208 on, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1209 until he was forced to abdicate in 1215. The only German king of the Welf dynasty, he incurred the wrath of Pope Innocent III and was excommunicated in 1210.


Early life

Otto was the third son of Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, and Matilda Plantagenet.[2] His exact birthplace is not given by any original source.[3][4] He grew up in England[5] in the care of his grandfather King Henry II. Otto became the foster son of his maternal uncle Richard I of England, who attempted to make him Earl of York in 1190, and, through marriage with Margaret, king of Scotland.[6] Both attempts failed, so in 1196 he was made Count of Poitou. He participated in the war against France on the side of Richard.

Conflict with Philip of Swabia

After the death of Emperor Henry VI, the majority of the princes of the Empire, situated in the south, elected Henry’s brother, Philip, Duke of Swabia, king in March 1198, after receiving money and promises from Philip in exchange for their support.[7] Those princes opposed to the Staufen dynasty also decided, on the initiative of Richard of England, to elect instead a member of the House of Welf. Otto's elder brother, Henry, was on a crusade at the time, and so the choice fell to Otto. Otto, soon recognized throughout the northwest and the lower Rhine region,[5] was elected king by his partisans in Cologne on June 9, 1198.[5] Otto took control of Aachen, the place of coronation, and was crowned by Adolf, Archbishop of Cologne, on July 12, 1198.[5] This was of great symbolic importance, since the Archbishop of Cologne alone could crown the King of the Romans.[7] Nevertheless, the coronation was done with fake regalia, because the actual materials were in the hands of the Staufen.

Otto's election pulled the empire into the conflict between England and France. Philip had allied himself with the French king, Philip II, while Otto was supported at first by Richard I, and after his death in 1199 by his brother John.[8]

The papacy meanwhile, under Innocent III, determined to prevent the continued unification of Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire under one monarch[9] seized the opportunity to extend its influence. Therefore, Innocent III favoured Otto, whose family had always been opposed to the house of Hohenstaufen.[2] Otto himself also seemed willing to grant any demands that Innocent would make. The confusion in the empire allowed Innocent to drive out the imperial feudal lords from Ancona, Spoleto, and Perugia, who had been installed by Emperor Henry VI.[10] At the same time, Innocent encouraged the cities in Tuscany to form a league, called the League of San Genesio, against imperial interests in Italy, and they placed themselves under Innocent’s protection.[10] In 1201, Innocent announced that he recognized Otto as the only legitimate king. In return, Otto promised to support the pope's interests in Italy. Otto also had the support of Ottokar I, the king of Bohemia, who although at first siding with Philip of Swabia, eventually threw in his lot with Otto.[11] Otto’s cause was further strengthened by the support of the Danish king, Valdemar II. But Philip achieved a great deal of success in the civil war that followed, allowing him in 1204 to be again crowned king, this time by the archbishop of Cologne.[11]

Coat of arms of Otto IV

In the following years, Otto's situation worsened because after England's defeat by France he lost England's financial support. Many of his allies changed sides to Philip, including his brother Henry. Otto was defeated and wounded in battle by Philip on July 27, 1206, near Wassenberg, and as a consequence he also lost the support of the pope, who began to favour the apparent winner in the conflict.[12] Otto was forced to retire to his possessions near Braunschweig, leaving Philip virtually uncontested as German king.

Innocent III forced the two warring parties into negotiations at Cologne, and in exchange for renouncing his claim to the throne, Philip promised Otto the hand of his daughter Beatrix in marriage, together with the Duchy of Swabia and an enormous dowry.[8] Otto refused, and as the civil war was again about to recommence, Philip was murdered on June 8, 1208.

After Philip's death, Otto made amends with the Staufen party and became engaged to Philip's daughter Beatrix.[13] In an election in Frankfurt on November 11, 1208, he gained the support of all the electoral princes, as he promised he would not make hereditary claims to the imperial crown on behalf of any children he might father.[11] Now fully reconciled with Innocent, Otto made preparations to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. To secure Innocent’s support, he promised to restore to the Papal States all territory that it had possessed under Louis the Pious, including the March of Ancona, the Duchy of Spoleto, the former Exarchate of Ravenna, and the Pentapolis.[13] Travelling down via Verona, Modena, and Bologna, he eventually arrived at Milan where he received the Iron Crown of Lombardy and the title of King of Italy in 1208. He was met at Viterbo by Pope Innocent and was taken to St. Peter's Basilica, where he was crowned emperor by Pope Innocent on October 21, 1209,[14] before rioting broke out in Rome, forcing Otto to abandon the city.[15]

Conflict with Innocent III

Not content with his successes so far, Innocent also obtained from Otto further written concessions to the Papal See,[12] including to allow all elections of German bishops to be conducted according to Church ordinances, and not to prevent any appeals to Rome.[13] He also promised to hand over to the Church all income from any vacant sees which had been flowing into the imperial treasury.[13]

Otto IV and Pope Innocent III shake hands

After abandoning Rome, Otto marched north, reaching Pisa by November 20. Here, probably advised by Peter of Celano and Dipold, Count of Acerra,[16] he was convinced to abandon his earlier promises, and Otto immediately worked to restore imperial power in Italy.[17] After his consecration by the pope, he promised to restore the lands bequeathed to the church by the countess Matilda of Tuscany nearly a century before, and to not move against Frederick Roger, the King of Sicily.[18] But all his promises he quickly broke. He threw out the papal troops from Ancona and Spoleto, reclaiming the territory as imperial fiefs. He then demanded that Frederick of Sicily do homage for the duchies of Calabria and Apulia, and when Frederick refused to appear, Otto declared those fiefs forfeited.[18] Otto then marched on Rome, and commanded Innocent to annul the Concordat of Worms, and to recognise the imperial crown’s right of nominating to all vacant benefices.[18]

Such actions infuriated Innocent and he was promptly excommunicated by the pope for this on November 18, 1210.[19][20] Subsequently, he tried to conquer Sicily,[14] which was held by the Staufen king Frederick, under the guardianship of Innocent III. Parallel to this, the German nobility by this time were growing ever more frustrated with Otto. They felt that instead of wasting his time in Italy, and playing power politics with the pope, it was his first duty to defend the northern provinces of the empire against Valdemar II of Denmark, who had taken advantage of Otto’s distractions by invading the northern provinces of the empire and possessing the whole Baltic coast from Holstein to Livonia.[18] So while Otto was in southern Italy, several princes of the empire, including the archbishops of Mainz and Magdeburg,[21] at the instigation of King Philip II of France and with the consent of the pope, elected Frederick King of the Romans at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1211.[22]

Otto’s ambassadors from Milan appeared before the Fourth Lateran Council, pleading his case for his excommunication to be lifted.[20] Although he claimed he had repented of his offences, and declared his willingness to be obedient to the Pope in all things, Innocent III had already recognised Frederick as emperor-elect.[20]

Otto returned to Germany to deal with the situation, hopeful to salvage something from the looming disaster.[21] He found most of the German princes and bishops had turned against him, and that Frederick, who had made his way up the Italian peninsula, had avoided Otto’s men who were guarding the passes through the Alps and had arrived at Constance.[21] Otto soon discovered that after Beatrix died in the summer of 1212, and Frederick arrived in Germany with his army in September 1212, most of the former Staufen supporters deserted Otto for Frederick, forcing Otto to withdraw to Cologne.[21] On December 5, 1212, Frederick was elected king for a second time by a majority of the princes.[23]

The support that Philip II of France was giving to Frederick forced King John of England to throw his weight behind his nephew Otto. The destruction of the French fleet in 1213 by the English saw John begin preparations for an invasion of France, and Otto saw a way of both destroying Frederick’s French support as well as bolstering his own prestige.[23] He agreed to join John in the invasion, and in February 1214, as John advanced from the Loire, Otto was supposed to make a simultaneous attack from Flanders, together with the Count of Flanders. Unfortunately, the three armies could not coordinate their efforts effectively. It was not until John, who had been disappointed in his hope for an easy victory after being driven from Roche-au-Moine and had retreated to his transports that the Imperial Army, with Otto at its head, assembled in the Low Countries.[24]

On 27 July 1214, the opposing armies suddenly discovered they were in close proximity to each other, on the banks of the little river Marque (a tributary of the river Deûle), near the Bridge of Bouvines. Philip's army numbered some 15,000, while the allied forces possessed around 25,000 troops, and the armies clashed at the Battle of Bouvines. It was a tight battle, but it was lost when Otto was carried off the field by his wounded and terrified horse, causing his forces to abandon the field.[25] It is said that Philip II had sent to Frederick the imperial eagle which Otto had left lying on the battlefield.[23]

This defeat allowed Frederick to take Aachen and Cologne,[23] as Otto was forced again to withdraw to his private possessions around Brunswick,[26] and he was forced to abdicate the imperial throne in 1215.[12] He died of disease, at Harzburg castle on May 19, 1218, requesting that he be mortally expiated in atonement of his sins. Historian Kantorowicz described the death as gruesome: "deposed, dethroned, he was flung full length on the ground by the Abbot, confessing his sins, while the reluctant priests beat him bloodily to death. Such was the end of the first and last Welf Emperor." [27]

He is entombed in the Brunswick Cathedral.


Otto was related to every other King of Germany. He married twice:

  1. 1209 or 1212 to Beatrice, daughter of the German King Philip and Irene Angelina.
  2. May 19, 1214, in Aachen to Marie, daughter of Henry I, Duke of Brabant, and Maud of Boulogne.

He had no children from either Beatrice or Marie.



  1. ^ Although Frederick II was crowned King of the Romans, King of Sicily, King of Jerusalem and Holy Roman Emperor, he never crowned King of Italy at Pavia, Monza or Milan during his lifetime - see Sismondi's History of the Italian Republics in the Middle Ages, (1906), pg. 143; 147 and Kington-Oliphant's, History of Frederick the Second, Emperor of the Romans, Vol I, (1862), pg. 195 which specifically state that the Milanese refused to crown Frederick with the Iron Crown. Neither is his coronation as King of Italy mentioned in any modern source, such as Abulafia's, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. V: c. 1198-c. 1300, (1999)
  2. ^ a b Bryce, pg. 206
  3. ^ Heering, aart (October 2009). "Al trono per caso". Medioevo: 58. 
  4. ^ The Catholic Encyclopedia Otto IV gives his birthplace as Argentan in Normandy, which was one of the royal courts of Matilda's father, Henry II Plantagenet. This is based upon Otto's birthdate being circa 1182, and placing it during his father's exile from Germany at the court of his father-in-law.
  5. ^ a b c d Abulafia, pg. 378
  6. ^ W. W. Scott: Margaret, countess of Kent, in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 36 (2004), p. 633
  7. ^ a b Comyn, pg. 275
  8. ^ a b Comyn, pg. 278
  9. ^ Schulman, Jana, The rise of the medieval world, 500-1300, Greenwood, 2002, pg. 329
  10. ^ a b Comyn, pg. 277
  11. ^ a b c Dunham, pg. 195
  12. ^ a b c Canduci, pg. 294
  13. ^ a b c d Comyn, pg. 279
  14. ^ a b Abulafia, pg. 131
  15. ^ Comyn, pg. 280
  16. ^ Matthew, Donald, The Norman kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-521-26911-7, pg. 308
  17. ^ Bryce, pg. 207
  18. ^ a b c d Dunham, pg. 196
  19. ^  
  20. ^ a b c Abulafia, pg. 127
  21. ^ a b c d Abulafia, pg. 381
  22. ^ Comyn, pg. 281
  23. ^ a b c d Abulafia, pg. 382
  24. ^ Smedley, Edward. The History of France, from the final partition of the Empire of Charlemagne to the Peace of Cambray. 1836, pg. 71
  25. ^ Smedley, Edward. The History of France, from the final partition of the Empire of Charlemagne to the Peace of Cambray. 1836, pg. 72
  26. ^ Comyn, pg. 283
  27. ^ Kantorowicz, Ernst, Frederick II, p.66


Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Died: May 19 1218
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Henry VI
King of Germany
(formally King of the Romans)

(contested by Philip of Swabia until 1208
and Frederick II since 1212)
Succeeded by
Frederick II
King of Italy
Succeeded by
Henry VII
Holy Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Frederick II

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