The House of Ascania (German: Askanier) was a dynasty of German rulers. It was also known as the House of Anhalt, after Anhalt, its longest possession.
The Ascanians are named after Ascania (or Ascaria) Castle, which is located near and named after Aschersleben. The castle was seat of the County of Ascania, a title that was later subsumed into the titles of the princes of Anhalt.
The earliest known member of the House is Esiko, Count of Ballenstedt. He was first mentioned in 1036, and is assumed to have been a grandson (through his mother) of Odo I, Margrave of the Saxon Ostmark. From Odo, the Ascanians inherited large properties in the Saxon Eastern March.
Esiko's grandson was Otto, Count of Ballenstedt, who died in 1123. By Otto's marriage to Eilika, daughter of Magnus, Duke of Saxony, the Ascanians became heirs to half of the property of the House of Billung, former dukes of Saxony.
Otto's son, Albert the Bear, became, with the help of his mother's inheritance, the first Ascanian duke of Saxony in 1139. But he lost control of Saxony soon to the rival House of Guelph.
However, Albert inherited the Margraviate of Brandenburg from its last Wendish ruler, Pribislav, in 1150, and became the first Ascanian margrave. Albert, and his descendants of the House of Ascania, then made considerable progress in Christianizing and Germanizing the lands. As a borderland between German and Slavic cultures, the country was known as a march.
In 1237 and 1244 two towns, Cölln and Berlin were founded during the rule of Otto and Johann, grandsons of Margrave Albert the Bear, (later they were united into one city, Berlin). The emblem of the House of Ascania, red eagle and bear, became the heraldric emblems of Berlin.
In 1320 the Brandenburg Ascanian line came to an end.
After the Emperor had deposed the Guelph rulers of Saxony in 1180, Ascanians returned to rule the Duchy of Saxony, which had been reduced to its eastern half by the Emperor. However, even in eastern Saxony, the Ascanians could establish control only in limited areas, mostly near the River Elbe.
In the 13th century, the Principality of Anhalt was split off from the Duchy, and later, the remaining state was split into Saxe-Lauenburg and Saxe-Wittenberg. The Ascanian dynasties in the two Saxon states became extinct in 1689 and in 1422, respectively, but Ascanians continued to rule in the smaller state of Anhalt and its various subdivisions until monarchy was abolished in 1918.
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762-1796, was a member of the House of Ascania, herself the daughter of Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst.
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