Theophano – Holy Roman Empress

Kristin Weber - CC BY-SA 2.5,

This article was written by Carol.

Theophano was Holy Roman Empress as the wife of Otto II from 973 until his death in 983. She was regent for her son Otto III from 984 until her death in 991.

When Otto I, King of Germany, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII in 962, he wanted to legitimize his rule by cementing an alliance with the Byzantine empire. To that end, he sent an emissary to the Byzantine court looking for a princess “born in the purple” (i.e. born to a ruling emperor) as a bride for his son, the future Otto II. But the Byzantine emperor was having none of it. He objected to Otto’s intrusions into Italy and called him a king, not an emperor.

A year later, the emperor was dead, at the hands of his wife and his military commander John Tzimiskes, and Tzimiskes had seized power. Otto sent the Bishop of Cologne to try again. This time he was successful and returned to Rome with Theophano as a bride for Otto II. Theophano arrived laden with Byzantine treasures, but there was some consternation. She was not the “Princess of the purple” that they were expecting but the niece of John Tzimiskes. Some of Otto’s circle advised sending her back, but Otto had been working on this for too long and felt he had gained enough and the marriage went ahead.

From this inauspicious beginning, Otto II and Theophano built a strong marriage and worked in conjunction to rule the empire. She was often listed as co-emperor and was the instigator behind many grants and donations. Theophano and Otto had three daughters and a son.

As a foreigner, there was much talk of Theophano’s strange ways. In addition to being too “talkative”, she bathed every day and used a two-pronged implement (a fork) to bring food to her mouth instead of using her hands. Her relationship with her mother-in-law Adelheid was notoriously poor. In addition to the cultural differences, no doubt they each looked to be the first lady in the land. Eventually, Otto II removed Adelheid from court to resolve the matter. She had a better relationship with her sister-in-law, who was the Abbess at Quedlinburg where they always spent Easter.

All this ended, however, when Otto died from malaria in 983 while they were in Italy. Their son Otto III was a three-year-old who had been sent back to Saxony to be crowned. A rival claimant to the throne, Otto’s cousin Henry, took possession of the boy as he tried to press his own claim. Theophano and Adelheid quickly returned to Saxony, and with the help of supporters were able to regain custody of the boy and negotiate a truce with Henry.

Theophano became regent of the Holy Roman Empire while her son was in his minority. Eventually, she began to sign documents as Empress Augusta and dated her reign from her marriage to Otto II. Her regency was generally stable and successful. We have evidence that she held a “ladies conference” several times with other high-ranking women to discuss and attempt to resolve issues of the day. She resorted to mediation and negotiation as much as the use of force. (Perhaps being talkative was helpful). She attempted to assist her sister-in-law Emma who was being held prisoner in France as well as mediated in the quarrel between Hugh Capet and Charles of Lorraine over Lotharingia.

Near the end of her life, her relationship with Adelheid again became tense, and she is reported to have said: “If I live another year, Adelheid will not be able to rule in the whole world more than what one hand can grasp.” She did not, in fact, live another year, dying at Nijmegen in 991. Adelheid became regent and took the opportunity to deny Theophano annual memorial services at her grave.

As a result, Otto III would again expel Adelheid from the court when he gained his majority. Otto was heavily influenced by Theophano and dreamed of a Byzantine empire in the west. He too went in search of a Byzantine bride and found one, but died before they could be married.
Two of Theophano’s daughters became Abbesses, one of Quedlinburg and the other of Gandesheim, and were instrumental in the election of their cousin Henry II upon Otto III’s death.

After Theophano’s death, her reputation suffered; probably based on her being a woman and a foreigner in a powerful role. Odilio of Cluny, who called her “that Greek woman” was instrumental in Adelheid being made a saint and was also instrumental in spreading rumours about Theophano.

She is still remembered in Quedlinburg today, where you can eat at the Cafe Theophano or stay at the Hotel Theophano.

About Moniek Bloks 2764 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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