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Otto IV (1175 – 19 May 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.

Otto was the third son of Heinrich XII the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Duke of Saxony, (as Heinrich III) by his wife and Matilda of England, the eldest daughter of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. His exact birthplace is not given by any original source. He grew up in England. in the care of his grandfather King Henry II. Otto was fluent in French as well as German. He became the foster son of his maternal uncle, King Richard I of England. In 1190, after he left England to join the Third Crusade, Richard appointed Otto as Earl of York.

Coat of Arms of Otto IV as Duke of Bavaria

The authenticity (or authority) of this grant was doubted by the vassals of Yorkshire, who prevented Otto taking possession of his earldom. Still, he probably visited Yorkshire in 1191, and he continued to claim the revenues of the earldom after becoming king of Germany, although he never secured them. Neither did he succeed in getting the 25,000 silver marks willed to him by his uncle in 1199.

In 1195, King Richard I of England began negotiations to marry Otto to Margaret of Scotland, daughter and heir presumptive of King William the Lion of Scotland Lothian, as Margaret’s dowry, would be handed over to Richard for safekeeping and the counties of Northumberland and Cumberland (Carlisle) would be granted to Otto and turned over to the king of Scotland. The negotiations dragged on until August 1198, when the birth of a son and heir to William rendered them unnecessary. Having failed in his efforts to secure Otto an English earldom or else a Scottish kingdom, in September 1196 Richard, as duke of Aquitaine, enfeoffed Otto with the county of Poitou. There is some disagreement over whether Otto received Poitou in exchange for or in addition to the earldom of York.

Coat of Arms of Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor.

Otto was in Poitou from September 1196 until mid-1197, when he joined Richard in Normandy to confer over the appointment of bishops to the vacant sees of Poitiers, Limoges and Périgueux. He then participated in the war against Philippe II of France on the side of Richard. In October he returned to Poitou. The German historian Jens Ahlers, taking into account Otto’s life prior to 1198, considers that he might have been the first foreign king of Germany.

After the death of Emperor Heinrich VI, the majority of the princes of the Empire, situated in the south, elected Heinrich VI’s brother, Philip, Duke of Swabia, as German King in March 1198, after receiving money and promises from Philip in exchange for their support. 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, Heinrich, 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, was elected German by his partisans in Cologne on June 9, 1198.

Otto took control of Aachen, the place of coronation, and was crowned by Adolf, Archbishop of Cologne, on July 12, 1198. This was of great symbolic importance, since the Archbishop of Cologne alone could crown the King of the Romans. The coronation was done with fake regalia, because the actual materials were in the hands of the Staufen.

After Philip’s death, Otto made amends with the Staufen party and became engaged to Philip’s daughter Beatrix. 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.

Now fully reconciled with Pope Innocent III, 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.

Travelling down via Verona, Modena, and Bologna, he eventually arrived at Milanwhere 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, before rioting broke out in Rome, forcing Otto to abandon the city.