The military strongmen of early Medieval Europe are easy enough to name: Charlemagne, Offa, Alfred the Great, Eric Bloodaxe, Canute, William the Conqueror – the names trip off the tongue. Otto I, known as ‘the Great’, is less familiar to English-speaking audiences, on the other hand; yet he was an inspirational leader on the battlefield and, as the founder of the First German Reich – comprising Germany, Italy, and Lorraine – he fully merits a place in such august company.
From the moment he succeeded his father, Henry Fowler, as king in AD 936, Olio seemed intent on defining the image of what a Medieval monarch should be. After his succession was acknowledged by the German dukes, he was crowned and anointed by the Bishop of Mainz, receiving royal unction to emphasise the sacral element of his rule.
The ceremony took place at Aachen, in the court chapel of Charlemagne, reinforcing the link with Frankish Christian traditions. Otto not only placed bishops at the heart of government, but had them play a leading role in his expansive Drang nach Osten policy (‘Drive to the East’), hammering home the impression of him as a missionary ruler.
His ultimate reward would come in AD 962, when Pope John XII crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in St Peter’s, Rome, reviving an imperial title which had fallen into disuse but would henceforward be held by German monarchs for centuries.
Yet it was the Battle of the River Lech in AD 955, in which he annihilated the flying horsemen from the east, the Magyars, that truly cemented his reputation as a formidable military operator.
The menace of the fast-moving, plundering barbarian was a recurring nightmare for the peoples of Western Europe between the last days of Rome on into the 10th century.
From the north came the Vikings, from the south the Moors, and from the east nomadic horsemen in the shape of the Huns and the Avars. The Magyars were the latest manifestation of this “eastern terror’, first appearing across the borders of Germany in the AD 860s after settling on the Hungarian plain. From the AD 890s, their raids were increasingly noted for their relentless intensity.
The Magyar hordes
Like the Vikings, the Magyars’ essential object was acquiring booty, not land, and they pounced on poorly defended borders in lightning manoeuvres, catching their prey unawares, and carrying off only what could be borne by the pack-horses of their small raiding parties. They went not in one mass, but in small bands’, wrote the chronicler Ekkehard in AD 926, ‘…spoiling the farms and villages and setting fire to them… they always caught the inhabitants unawares by the swiftness of their appearance. Often a hundred of them or less would come galloping out of the wood on to their prey.’
The Magyars’ refusal to stand and light in pitched battle made them an elusive enemy, and for years they profited from the relatively unsophisticated nature of the military defences of Saxony, Thuringia, and Bavaria, along with the paucity of these duchies’ supply of trained cavalrymen. The foot-soldiers who comprised t he bulk of the armies of the principalities were easy fodder for skilled Magyar bowmen on small, swift, agile horses.
But they ranged far beyond these eastern territories. One of their most devastating attacks occurred in AD 924, when they swarmed through Bavaria and Swabia, crossed the Rhine, and attacked Alsace and Lorraine, before penetrating France as far inland as Champagne. After this they turned east again at the Ardennes, returning across Franconia to their homelands around the Danube.
During the course of this campaign, Henry Fowler had captured a Magyar princeling, enabling him to negotiate a truce whereby, in return for the payment of a tribute, the Magyars would desist from raiding for nine years.
Henry used this period of peace to bolster his defences, winning co-operation at last from a German nobility weary of decades of looting. The creation of a string of new fortifications defended by local levies, and the creation of a crack force of well-armed and -armoured cavalrymen, encouraged an increasingly conf ident Henry to refuse to pay the tribute in AD 932.
When this provoked a Magyar invasion the following year, a landmark victory was achieved at the unknown location of Riade in northern Thuringia, when the spectacle of charging mail-clad heavy cavalry had caused the lightly armoured Magyars to flee without putting up a serious fight.
If the Magyar raids became less potent from that point, Otto, Henry’s successor, still found himself having to drive back attacks on Franconia and Swabia in AD 938, as he continued his father’s policy of withholding tribute. The Magyars, moreover, viewed an increasingly bullish Germany as a potential menace to their own territories in the Carpathian Basin. The campaigns they mounted in AD 954-955 may be seen as the last Magyar bid to despoil the land of their enemy, and administer a check on its rising power, before it was too late.
The initial opportunity arose out of a revolt by Liudolf of Swabia, Otto’s son, and Conrad the Red of Lotharingia, his son-in-law. Sweeping through much of Germany in AD 954, the Magyars crossed into France and raided as far as Aquitaine. Otto, distracted by his battles with his nobles, had been powerless to locate them.
The AD 954 campaign, in view of the vast amount of ground covered, might appear to be yet another example of the far-ranging danger represented by the Magyars. But, in fact, it showed the growing ineffectiveness of warfare waged by mounted archers alone. While they enjoyed traditional booty-accumulating success when they came across undefended villages, the moment the Magyars met stiffer resistance at fortified settlements they were forced to move swiftly on.
Lesson learnt, when the campaign was renewed the following year, an army in the region of 50,000 was augmented by a large contingent of peasant infantry. Invading Bavaria, and equipped with war engines and ladders, they deployed new tactics as they laid siege to the city of Augsburg.
Calculating that Otto’s army would be debilitated after months of warring against internal dissidents, the Magyars hoped to ambush him en route to relieve the city, or, failing that, to lure him into giving battle on the open plains around the Lech River. Here, the old Magyar tactic of launching their arrow attacks from a distance before moving in to exploit their opponent’s disarray could be used to best effect.
Otto received news of the Magyars’ return at his court in Magdeburg in July AD 955 via a message from his loyal brother, Henry, Duke of Bavaria: ‘Beware, Magyar war-bands, fanning out, have attacked across your frontier, and they have resolved to do battle with you.’
But the tidings had not taken him entirely by surprise. Only days before, a Magyar delegation had visited him, ostensibly to ‘renew their prior loyalty and goodwill’, according to the chronicler Widukind of Corvey in his Deeds of the Saxons, but in reality, as his advisers had been quick to point out, to size up the German state of preparedness to fight.
So Otto, with characteristic decisiveness, ‘as it he had done nothing all the preceding year, set out against the enemy immediately,’ said Widukind, ‘taking with him only a few Saxons…’. He was eventually joined by contingents under the command of Duke Burchard III from Swabia, further units from Bavaria and Franconia, and an army of Bohemians under Prince Boleslav.
All the while the citizens of Augsburg were putting up a stout defence of the city under the brave and able leadership of Bishop Ulrich, who directed the resistance unarmoured. An unsuccessful attempt to storm the east gate was beaten down, and this and news of Otto’s advance led the Magyars to draw back onto the banks of the Lech.
Otto now received a psychological boost with the arrival at his side of Conrad the Red. Having taken part in the rebellion of the previous year, which had seen him forfeit his ducal title, Conrad had a reputation to restore, and he was an able soldier. ‘Conrad was by nature a brave spirit,’ reported Widukind, ‘and, what is rarer still in bold men, he was of good counsel, invincible in battle whether he went into the fray on horseback or on foot, and at home or on campaign he really cared for his men.’
Conrad also brought with him a unit of skilled equestrians from Franconia, strengthening the retinues of heavy cavalrymen in Otto’s ranks. At the head of an army of about 10,000 men, Otto was now ready to press onwards towards the Lech, confident that he could not merely contain the enemy, but now had the power to deliver a possible knockout blow.
The attack on the baggage-train
Having established camp upriver from the Magyars on the evening of 9 August, the German army advanced through the woodlands of the Rauherforst the following morning, the density of tree cover offering protection against Magyar arrows. This was still a gamble on Otto’s part, however, as it left his column vulnerable to attack from the rear, since his force would have found it hard to manoeuvre in the woods.
This was precisely what the Magyars did, sending in a detachment to charge the German baggage-train, which was protected by the Bohemian legion, just as it entered the forest. Their alarming war-cries from the rear spread panic up the German column.
At first, the stratagem worked. Large numbers of Bohemians, and the Swabian units beyond, simply fled. But now the Magyars’ traditional thirst for plunder overtook them. Instead of pressing home their advantage and cutting deeper into Otto’s ranks, they paused to loot the baggage-train and take prisoners.
Spotting the blunder, Otto ordered Conrad to lead his Franconian horsemen into a counter-attack. Adrift from the main body of the Magyar army, which was deployed in a valley opposite the exit Otto would use as he left the woods, the pillagers were quickly driven off and Conrad recaptured the booty before triumphantly re-emerging at Ottos side.
Emerging from the Rauherforst, Otto is said to have drawn his troops into line and delivered a rallying speech: ‘They surpass, I know, in numbers, but neither in weapons nor coverage. We know also that they are quite without the help of God, which is of great comfort to us.’ With that, he is alleged to have seized the Holy Lance, which carried a nail from Christ’s cross and was the symbol of the chief warrior of the German realm, and to have led his cavalry in a headlong charge against the Magyar line.
In fact, Otto was a more sophisticated commander than such legendary accounts imply. The Magyars were arrayed in crescent formation, infantry in the centre, in front of the archers, with further arrays of elite bowmen posted on the wings. To have launched a full frontal assault would have been to ride into a deathtrap, the formations of heavy horse losing their cohesion as they encountered the Magyar footmen, enabling the archers to close in around them.
Instead, Otto adopted a flanking manoeuvre. His own foot-soldiers advanced steadily towards the Magyar centre, shields raised above their heads to deflect the storm of arrows. Conrad’s cavalry were sent out to the left, pulling away the Magyar right wing and thus flattening the crescent. A similar move by Otto’s own select forces on the opposite flank opened out the Magyar left.
Once at close range, German arms and armour proved too much for the scantily armoured Magyars with their light sabres and composite bows.
The bravest of the enemy resisted at the beginning,’ recounted Widukind, ‘but then, when they saw their comrades turning their backs, they, struck dumb with the terror, were trapped between our men, who cut them down.’
Many of the Magyar archers attempted to feign retreat. It might have worked. Otto’s men were visibly-tiring in the wearying pursuit that followed, and the brave Conrad, suffering from battle fatigue on an unusually hot summer day, loosened his hauberk to cool off and received an arrow in the throat, dying instantly. But that evening the Magyar camp was taken, and for two days the bedraggled remnants of the beaten army were chased, rounded up, and slaughtered.
The triumph of Otto at Lechfeld was total. He was proclaimed ‘Imperator by his men on the battlefield, going on to establish himself as protector of the papacy and, in effect, the most powerful man in Europe of his time. He even gained the reluctant recognition of the Emperor of Byzantium.
And the Magyars never returned to pillage German territories, abandoning their horse-warrior culture, and settling down to establish their own Kingdom of Hungary and eventually converting to Christianity. By Jack Watkins