Otto of Greece

Otto of Greece (Όθων, Βασιλεύς της Ελλάδος, Othon, Vasileus tis Ellados) (1 June 1815 – 26 July 1867) was made the first modern king of Greece in 1832 under the Convention of London, whereby Greece became a new independent kingdom under the protection of the Great Powers (the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire).

The second son of the philhellene King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto ascended the newly-created throne of Greece while still a minor. His government was run by a three-man regency council made up of Bavarian court officials. Upon reaching his majority, Otto removed the regents when they proved unpopular with the people and he ruled as an absolute monarch. Eventually his subjects’ demands for a constitution proved overwhelming and in the face of an armed insurrection, Otto granted a constitution in 1843.

Throughout his reign, Otto faced political challenges concerning Greece's financial weakness and the role of the government in the affairs of the church. The politics of Greece of this era was based on affiliations with the three Great Powers, and Otto’s ability to maintain the support of the powers was key to his remaining in power. To remain strong, Otto had to play the interests of each of the Great Powers’ Greek adherents against the others, while not aggravating the Great Powers. When Greece was blockaded by the Royal Navy in 1850 and again in 1853, to stop Greece from attacking the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean War, Otto’s standing amongst Greeks suffered. As a result, there was an assassination attempt on the Queen and finally, in 1862, Otto was deposed while in the countryside. He died in exile in Bavaria in 1867.

Early life and reign

He was born Prince Otto Friedrich Ludwig of Bavaria at Schloss Mirabell in Salzburg (when it belonged for a short time to Bavaria), as second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Through his ancestor, the Bavarian Duke John II, Otto was a descendant of the Greek imperial dynasties of Comnenus and Lascaris.

When he was elected king, the Great Powers extracted a pledge from Otto’s father to restrain him from hostile actions against the Ottoman Empire, and insisted on his title being that of “King of Greece” instead of “King of the Greeks”, which would imply a claim over the millions of Greeks then still under Turkish rule. Not quite 18, the young prince arrived in Greece with 3,500 Bavarian troops and three Bavarian advisors aboard the British frigate HMS Madagascar. The Bavarian advisors were arrayed in a council of regency headed by Count Josef Ludwig von Armansperg, who as minister of finance, had recently succeeded in restoring Bavarian credit at the cost of his popularity. The United Kingdom and the Rothschild bank, who were underwriting the Greek loans, insisted on financial stringency from Armansperg. The Greeks were soon more heavily taxed than under Turkish rule; they had exchanged a hated Ottoman tyranny, which they understood, for government by a foreign bureaucracy, the "Bavarocracy" (Βαυαροκρατία), which they despised. In addition, Otto showed little respect for local customs. A staunch Roman Catholic, he refused to adopt Orthodoxy, making him a heretic in the eyes of pious Greeks. His heirs however would have to be Orthodox according to the terms of the 1843 Constitution.

King Otto’s early reign was notable for the establishment of schools and hospitals including the Athens Polytechnic University.

In 1837, Otto visited Germany and married the beautiful and talented Duchess Amelie of Oldenburg (21 December 1818 - 20 May 1875). The wedding took place not in Greece, but in Oldenburg, on 22 November 1836; the marriage did not produce an heir and the new queen made herself unpopular by interfering in the government. Not entirely faithful to his wife, Otto had a liaison with Jane Digby, a notorious woman his father had previously taken as a lover.

Meanwhile, due to his overtly undermining the king, Armansperg was dismissed as Prime Minister by King Otto immediately on his return. However, despite high hopes by the Greeks, the Bavarian Rundhart was appointed chief minister and the granting of a constitution was again postponed. The attempts of Otto to conciliate Greek sentiment by efforts to enlarge the frontiers of his kingdom, for example, by the suggested acquisition of Crete in 1841, failed in their objective and only succeeded in embroiling him with the Great Powers.

Parties, finances and the church

Throughout his reign, King Otto found himself confronted by a recurring series of issues: partisanship of the Greeks, financial uncertainty, and ecclesiastical issues.

Greek parties in the Othonian era were based on two factors: the political activities of the diplomatic representatives of the Great Powers: Russia, United Kingdom and France and the affiliation of Greek political figures with these diplomats.

Financial uncertainty of the Othonian monarchy was the result of 1) Greece's poverty, 2) the concentration of land in the hands of a small number of wealthy “primates” like the Mavromichalises of Mani, and 3) the promise of 60,000,000 francs in loans from the Great Powers, which kept these nations involved in Greek internal affairs and the Crown constantly seeking to please one or the other power to ensure the flow of funds.

The political machinations of the Great Powers was personified in their three legates in Athens: the French Theobald Piscatory, the Russian Gabriel Catacazy, and the English Edmund Lyons. They informed their home governments on the activities of the Greeks, while serving as advisers to their respective allied parties within Greece.

Otto pursued policies, such as balancing power among all the parties and sharing offices among the parties, ostensibly to reduce the power of the parties while trying to bring a pro-Otto party into being. The parties, however, became the entree into government power and financial stability. The effect of his (and his advisors') policies was to make the Great Powers’ parties more powerful, not less. The Great Powers did not support curtailing Otto’s increasing absolutism, however, which resulted in a near permanent conflict between Otto’s absolute monarchy and the power bases of his Greek subjects.

Otto found himself confronted by a number of intractable ecclesiastical issues: monasticism, autocephaly, the king as head of the church and toleration of other churches. His regents, Armansperg and Rundhart, established a controversial policy of suppressing the monasteries. This was very upsetting to the church hierarchy and the Russian Party, which was a stalwart defender of Orthodoxy. Once he rid himself of his Bavarian advisers, Otto allowed the statutory dissolution of the monasteries to lapse. On the issue of autocephaly and his role as king within the church, Otto was overwhelmed by the arcana of church doctrine and popular discontent with his Roman Catholicism. In 1833, the regents had unilaterally declared the autocephaly of the Church of Greece. This recognized the de facto political situation, as the Patriarch of Constantinople was under the political control of the Ottoman Empire. Conservatives (mostly in the Russian Party), concerned that having a Catholic as the head of the Church of Greece would weaken the Orthodox Church, criticised the unilateral declaration of autocephaly as non-canonical. They likewise resisted the foreign, mostly Protestant, missionaries who established schools throughout Greece for the same reason. Tolerance of other religions was supported by some in the English Party and others educated in the West as a symbol of Greece’s progress as a liberal European state. In the end, power over the church and education was ceded to the Russian Party, while the king maintained a veto over the decision of the Synod of Bishops. This was to avoid discrediting Greece in the eyes of Western Europe as a backward, religiously intolerant society.

September Third Revolution and later reign

Although King Otto tried to function as an absolute monarch, as Thomas Gallant writes, he “was neither ruthless enough to be feared, nor compassionate enough to be loved, nor competent enough to be respected.” By 1843, public dissatisfaction with him had reached crisis proportions and there were demands for a constitution. Initially Otto refused to grant a constitution, but as soon as German troops were withdrawn from the kingdom, a military coup was launched. On 3 September 1843, the infantry led by Colonel Kallergis and the respected Revolutionary captain Ioannis Makriyannis assembled in the Square in front of the Palace in Athens.

Eventually joined by much of the population of the small capital, the rebellion refused to disperse until the King agreed to grant a constitution, which would require that there be Greeks in the Council, that he convene a permanent national assembly and that Otto personally thank the leaders of the uprising. Left with little recourse, now that his German troops were gone, King Otto gave in to the pressure and agreed to the demands of the crowd over the objections of his opinionated Queen. This square was renamed Constitution Square (Πλατεία Συντάγματος) to commemorate the events of September 1843. Now for the first time the king had Greeks in his council and the French party, the English Party or the Russian Party (according to which of the Great Powers’ culture they most esteemed) vied for rank and power.

The King’s prestige, which was based in large part on his support by the combined Great Powers, but mostly the support of the British, suffered in the Pacifico incident of 1850, when British Foreign Secretary Palmerston sent the British fleet to blockade the port of Piraeus with warships, to exact reparation for injustice done to a British subject.

The Great Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα), Greece’s dream of restoring the Byzantine Empire under Christian rule, led to his contemplating to enter the Crimean War against Turkey in 1853; the enterprise was unsuccessful, and resulted in renewed intervention by the Great Powers and a second blockade of Piraeus. In 1861, a student named Aristeidis Dosios (son of politician Konstantinos Dosios) attempted to murder Queen Amalia, and was openly hailed as a hero. His attempt, however, also prompted spontaneous feelings of monarchism and sympathy towards the royal couple among the Greek population.

Exile and death

While on a visit to the Peloponnese in 1862, a new coup was launched and this time a provisional government was set up and summoned a national convention. Ambassadors of the Great Powers urged King Otto not to resist, and the king and queen took refuge on a British warship and returned to Bavaria the same way they had come to Greece (aboard a foreign warship), taking with them the Greek royal regalia which he had brought from Bavaria in 1832. It has been suggested that had Otto and Amalia borne an heir, then the King would not have been overthrown, as succession was a major unresolved question at the time. It is also true, however, that the Constitution of 1843 made provision for his succession by his two younger brothers and their descendants.

He died in the palace of the former bishops of Bamberg, Germany, and was buried in the Theatiner Church in Munich. During his retirement, he would still wear the traditional uniform nowadays worn only by the evzones; during the rebellion in Crete against the Ottoman Empire in 1866, Otto donated most of his fortune to support the revolt by supplying it with arms. He also made provisions for his donation to be kept secret until his death, to avoid causing political problems to the new King, George I.





  • Bower, Leonard, and Gordon Bolitho. Otho I, King of Greece: A Biography. London: Selwyn & Blount, 1939.
  • Dümler, Christian, and Kathrin Jung. Von Athen nach Bamberg: König Otto von Griechenland, Begleitheft zur Ausstellung in der Neuen Residenz Bamberg, 21. Juni bis 3. November 2002. München: Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung, 2002. ISBN 3932982452.
  • Murken, Jan, and Saskia Durian-Ress. König-Otto-von-Griechenland-Museum der Gemeinde Ottobrunn. Bayerische Museen, Band 22. München : Weltkunst, 1995. ISBN 3921669162.
  • Amalie, 1818-1875: Herzogin von Oldenburg, Königin von Griechenland. Oldenburg: Isensee, 2004. ISBN 3899951220.

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