King Otto, the Bavarian prince who ruled as King of Greece from May 27, 1832 until he was deposed on October 23, 1862, was a polarizing figure who tried to bring Greece out of the chaos of revolution into the modern world.
In the attempt, he made enemies of nearly all the powers at play in the dizzyingly complex world of Greek politics, leading to an ignominious departure from the country on the same boat by which he had come to its shores. But in the intervening years, he left an indelible mark on the country by transforming Athens into the great capital city that it is today.
The second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto ascended the newly created throne of Greece at age seventeen, as a minor who had to have a Regency, with three Bavarian nobles ruling in his name.
The Great Powers also insisted that his title be “King of Greece,” rather than “King of the Hellenes,” because the latter would imply a claim over the millions of Greeks living outside the borders of the country who were still under Turkish rule.
Otto landed on Greek shores along with his three Bavarian advisers, Count von Armansperg, Karl von Abel, and Georg Ludwig von Maurer, after sailing on the British frigate HMS Madagascar.
Thousands lined the docks of Nafplio, the Greek capital at the time, to witness his arrival, including many heroes of the revolution, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis and Alexandros Mavrokordatos.
Arrival of King Otto seen as return to normalcy after political chaos
His arrival was initially enthusiastically welcomed by the Greek people as an end to the chaos of the prior years and the beginning of the rejuvenation of the Greek nation.
The seventeen-year-old monarch immediately endeared himself to his adopted country by adopting the Greek national costume and Hellenizing his name to Othon (Όθων).
Prince Otto Friedrich Ludwig was born as the second son of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria at Schloss Mirabell in Salzburg when it was part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. However, he did have blood ties to Greece, however far back they may have been; through his ancestor, Bavarian Duke John II, Otto was a descendant of the Byzantine imperial dynasties of Komnenos and Laskaris.
London Conference of Great Powers established Otto as Greek monarch
In addition, his father was a prominent Philhellene who provided significant financial assistance to the Greek cause during its War of Independence.
At the end of the War, the three Great Powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia) formulated the London Protocol of 1829, which established an autonomous Greek state under the rule of a “Hereditary Christian Prince.” The political situation remained unstable for several years, with no suitable figure found to rule as regent of Greece.
In 1832, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston convened the London Conference, which offered the crown to the teenage Prince Otto. He happily accepted it. The Bavarian House of Wittelsbach had no connections to the ruling dynasties of any of the Great Powers, so Otto was a neutral choice with which they were all satisfied.
No Greek political figures were consulted, but the country had been in such complete chaos ever since the conclusion of the Revolution that no single group or individual could claim to represent it at that time.
Otto’s three-man regency council, made up of Bavarian court officials, ultimately proved to be deeply unpopular with the Greek people, and he did away with them when he reached his majority, thereafter ruling as an absolute monarch.
Throughout his reign, however, despite all his efforts, Otto was unable to resolve the problems leading to Greece’s endemic poverty or prevent economic meddling from outside interests.
Greek politics during that time were Byzantine in their complexity, based on affiliations with the three Great Powers that had guaranteed Greece’s independence. Otto’s ability to maintain the support of the powers was key to his remaining as monarch; however, to remain effective, Otto had to play the interests of each of the Great Powers’ Greek adherents against the others while not irritating France, Russia, or Great Britain themselves.
Otto enmeshed in incredibly complex world of Greek, Great Powers politics
Perhaps no one on Earth could have ruled effectively in the maelstrom of Greek politics at the time; eventually, the Greek people’s demands for a constitution proved impossible to ignore, and, in the face of an armed (but bloodless) insurrection, Otto granted a constitution in 1843, renaming Palace Square in Athens as Syntagma (meaning “Constitution”) Square.
Count von Armansperg was Otto’s President of the Privy Council and the first representative (Prime Minister) in the new Greek government. After the king reached his majority in 1835, von Armansperg was made Arch-Secretary but was called Arch-Chancellor by the Greek press.
Otto’s reign then proceeded to bumble along, making itself hated after the Greek people became more heavily taxed than they had been under Ottoman rule; the people believed they had exchanged the hated Ottoman rule for government by a foreign bureaucracy, which they called the “Bavarocracy” (Βαυαροκρατία).
Religion was always another sore point for Otto, as he was Catholic, seen by many pious as a member of a heretic sect; one of the stipulations of the 1843 Constitution was that his heirs would have to be Orthodox.
Unrest continued over the popular heroes and leaders of the Greek Revolution, including generals Theodoros Kolokotronis and Yiannis Makriyiannis, who opposed the Bavarian-dominated regency. These giants of the Revolution were subsequently charged with treason, thrown in jail, and even sentenced to death although they were later pardoned due to the public outcry over their treatment.
Certainly, Otto was in the midst of a situation that he could not control, and enormous mistakes were made in his dealings with the political figures who still played a role in Greek public life.
When Greece was blockaded by the British Royal Navy in 1850 and again in 1854, to stop the country from attacking the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean War, Otto’s standing amongst the Greeks suffered. As a result, there was an assassination attempt on Queen Amalia, and finally, in 1862, Otto was deposed while in the countryside.
But when in power, he left an indelible mark on Greece by his decision to move the Greek capital from Nafplion to the great classical-era city of Athens in a nod to its former greatness.
Tragically neglected during the centuries of Ottoman rule with its glorious ancient past relegated to dusty history, by the 1830s, its population had dwindled to an estimated four to five thousand people, who mainly lived in what is now the Plaka district of the city under the Acropolis.
City of Athens recreated with masterpieces of Classical-era architecture
His first task as king was to make a detailed archaeological and topographic survey of Athens, assigning Gustav Eduard Schaubert and Stamatios Kleanthis to complete this task.
A modern city plan was laid out and public buildings erected. One of the first buildings to be constructed, beginning in 1836, was Otto’s own palace, located in an area of Athens called Perivolakia.
After the palace was completed in 1843, the square in front of it was named Palace Square, but it wasn’t named thus for long, with the Greek people demanding that it be renamed Syntagma, or Constitution, Square, after they forced Otto to accept a written constitution for the Greek nation.
The palace was designed by Bavarian architect Friedrich von Gärtner with funds donated by Otto’s father, King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
That specific location was chosen because the site was the highest point in central Athens, offering not only the view of Acropolis and the Parthenon but also a view of the sea, the Saronic Gulf.
Apart from the Palace (which later became the Parliament building), Otto’s finest architectural legacy of this period includes the stunning Classical buildings of the University of Athens, which were constructed in 1837, when the institution was called the Othonian University), and Athens Polytechnic University, which was founded in 1837 as the Royal School of Arts.
The National Gardens of Athens, which opened in 1840, the National Library of Greece from 1842, and the Old Parliament Building from 1858 are just some of the other architectural masterpieces which still grace Athens today and owe their existence to King Otto.
As unpopular as the “Bavarocracy” may have been, the contributions made by Otto to the city that he loved have become an indelible part of Athens, recreating some of the greatness that was once ancient Greece. At the same time, numerous schools and hospitals were established all over the country during his reign, helping to bring the nation into the modern European world.
In another contribution to Greek culture, it was none other than King Otto who introduced beer to Greece. He had been sure to bring his personal brewmaster, Herr Fuchs, with him when he came to the country, knowing that in those days there was no beer to be had in the hot Mediterranean country.
That was an untenable situation for any German; accordingly, the Bavarian brewmaster not only produced beer during the years of Otto’s reign but also made his home permanently in Greece, staying there even after the King’s departure, introducing his own beer to the Greek nation under the label “Fix.”
Otto visited Germany in 1836, marrying the beautiful and talented seventeen-year-old Duchess Amalia (Amelie) of Oldenburg. The wedding took place on November 22, 1836, but the event did not augur well for the Greek nation.
Insurmountable political problems, lack of an heir complicate Otto’s position
Not only did the marriage not produce an heir, but the new queen made herself unpopular by interfering in governmental affairs and adhering to her Lutheran faith. Otto was later unfaithful to his wife, having an affair with Jane Digby, a notorious woman his father had previously taken as a lover. She went on to have other affairs with Greek General Christodoulos Chatzipetros and the Greek aristocrat Count Spyridon Theotokis.
Upon returning to Greece after his wedding, Otto found that his Prime Minister, Armansperg, had overstepped his bounds politically; he was then dismissed from his duties. However, his replacement left many Greeks wondering if their hopes for a constitution would ever be fulfilled after the Bavarian Rudhart took his place and put off the granting of such a document once again.
Meanwhile, Otto was faced with almost insurmountable problems in trying to reconcile the differing interests of the parties who were the real power behind the throne, including the diplomatic representatives of Russia, Great Britain, and France as well as their allies in the Greek political world.
According to historian Richard Clogg, the unending difficulties faced by the Othonian monarchy were the result of Greece’s endemic poverty at the time, coupled with the machinations of the French legate in Athens Theobald Piscatory, along with his opposite numbers, Russia’s Gabriel Catacazy, and Great Britain’s Edmund Lyons.
They not only informed their home governments on the political activities of the Greeks, but they also served as advisers to their respective allied parties within Greece, making for a convoluted political sphere in the country.
Otto attempted to balance the power among all these parties, ostensibly to reduce their overall power, while trying to create a pro-Othon party. However, The parties themselves became the entrée into government power and wealth.
The religious question unfortunately came into play again after both his regents, Armansperg and Rundhart, suppressed the monasteries. This was understandably intolerable to the Greek Orthodox hierarchy.
Once he rid himself of both of his Bavarian advisers, however, Otto allowed the statutory dissolution of the monasteries to lapse, buying him some time ad political goodwill.
Naturally, during Byzantine times, rulers had always been an integral part of the Orthodox Church. With Otto being Catholic, this created yet another issue with which he had to contend; 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 strategy was successful for a time in maintaining a balance of power in Greek society.
Popular dislike, distrust led to public demands for Constitution
Although King Otto tried to function as an absolute monarch after the dismissal of his regents, historian Thomas Gallant states that 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 Otto had reached crisis proportions, and demands for a Constitution were growing. As soon as Otto’s Bavarian troops were withdrawn from the kingdom, a popular revolt was underway in Greece.
This movement culminated on September 3, 1843, when the infantry, led by Colonel Dimitris Kallergis and the respected Revolutionary captain and former President of the Athens City Council General Yiannis Makriyiannis, assembled in Palace Square.
Eventually joined by much of the population of the small city, the crowd refused to disperse until the king agreed to grant them a constitution. This required that there be Greeks in the Council, that he convene a permanent National Assembly, and that, incredibly, Otto personally thank the leaders of the uprising.
Now, basically without any military backing him up, King Otto had little recourse but to agree to the demands of the crowd over the objections of his obstinate queen, Amalia.
Syntagma Square named by the people of Greece
Just as the people had demanded, the square in front of the Palace was duly renamed Constitution Square (Πλατεία Συντάγματος). For the first time, the king had Greeks in his Council, adding even more complexity to his political dealings with the French Party, the English Party, and the Russian Party.
These new Greek politicians joined the parties according to which of the Great Powers’ culture they most esteemed, adding their political ambitions to the mix.
The king’s prestige and power, based in large part on support from the combined Great Powers, mostly the British, suffered a blow as a result of the “Pacifico” incident of 1850, when British Foreign Secretary Palmerston sent the British fleet to blockade the port of Piraeus with warships to exact reparations for the treatment of a British subject there.
Another misstep occurred when Otto contemplated entering the Crimean War with Russia and against Turkey, Britain, and France in 1853. Perhaps trying to appease the Greek people who were proponents of the Great Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα), the irredentist concept which had as a goal the revival of the Byzantine Empire resulted in yet another unfortunate comeuppance for the young King.
Not only was the effort unsuccessful,but it resulted in renewed intervention by the two Great Powers and a second blockade of the great port of Piraeus port, forcing Greece to assume neutrality in the conflict.
Adding to this potent mix, the continued inability of the royal couple to have children also raised the thorny issue of succession and whether or not Otto should stay in power.
Coup against Otto succeeds as Great Powers recognize Greece’s self-determination
In 1861, a student named Aristeidis Dosios, the son of politician Konstantinos Dosios, attempted to murder Queen Amalia; by then, she was so unpopular that he was openly hailed as a hero. His attempt, however, also prompted spontaneous feelings of sympathy toward the royal couple among the Greek population at least for a time.
The next year, when Otto was visiting the Peloponnese in 1862, a new coup was launched; this time a Provisional Government was set up which summoned a National Convention.
The ambassadors of all the Great Powers urged King Otto not to resist this uprising of the Greek people; he and the Queen then wisely took refuge on a British warship and returned once again to Bavaria, taking with them the Greek regalia which they had brought from from there thirty years earlier.
“Greece, my Greece, my beloved Greece”
In 1863, the Greek National Assembly elected Prince William of Denmark, aged only seventeen, King of the Hellenes under the regnal name of George I. The second son of King Christian IX of Denmark, he and his descendants reigned in Greece from 1863 to 1924 and again from 1935 to 1973.
The exiled King Otto died in the palace of the former bishops of Bamberg, Germany and was buried in the Theatiner Church in Munich. During his retirement, he was known to wear the iconic traditional clothing of Greece, which is nowadays worn only by the evzones (Presidential Guards).
Αccording to Thomas W. Gallant, who wrote about King Otto’s reign in his work Modern Greece, witnesses said that Otto’s last words were “Greece, my Greece, my beloved Greece.”
King Otto died in Bavaria in 1867 just five years after he had been forced into exile.