The Holy Roman Empire had been revived in 800 A.D. by Pope Leo III when he gave the title to the Frankish King, Charlemagne, on December 25. Unlike most monarchs, the emperor controlled a vast amount of land (Pretty much all central Europe) that consisted of hundreds of duchies, kingdoms, and free cities. Emperors would be elected by the most prominent Princes of the land (most were German) who would be known as Electors, and they would hold a significant amount of power, including in Imperial Diets which were a way for conflicts in the region to be negotiated. One of the most infamous is the trial of Martin Luther which we will talk about more in the 16th century. The Electors would name him “King of the Romans” and then the Pope would anoint him with the title (though this tradition would cease after Charles V). The best way to break his Kingdom up is into four: Germany, Italy, Bohemia, and Burgundy. We already discussed Italy on its own as it is a prominent part of the renaissance on its own, but it does not mean the others did not play their own roles in propelling Europe forward. Bohemia and Burgundy would have separate rulers (whose dominions the empire oversaw) though the titles ‘King of Germans’ and ‘King of Italy’ are pretty much synonymous with the title.
The empire is led by Albert I of Germany, who had been elected in 1298 as the first Habsburg emperor, as he was anointed with the Imperial crown in 1303. When we enter the century he had six sons and five daughters, and in 1306 he secured the throne of Bohemia for his eldest son, Rudolf, but in 1307 his son was dead, and he would follow in 1308 when his nephew murdered him. Once he had passed there was a power grab. Albert had been the third weak emperor in a row and the Empire was desperate for a strong monarch. Philip IV threw his brother Charles in the running, thinking he had the backing of Pope Clement V, but Clement was the last person who wanted France to have more control. While Philip spread his wealth in hopes of buying Electors, the church worked to prop Rudolf, Count of Palatine instead. In the end neither would be victorious as Henry VII was crowned in 1309 and anointed in 1312 by the Pope, but that was not an easy feat. Every part of Henry’s journey was wearisome and when he arrived in Rome he found Robert of Naples denying him access. The Emperor arrived with huge ambitions for Italy and returned all the Empire to its former glory, but Robert would destroy that dream as Dante so accurately stated in Paradiso “He who came to reform Italy before she was ready for it.” He died of malaria in 1313, his son soon lost the kingdom of Bavaria his father had secured for him and slowly the legacy of Henry VII spoiled.
A replacement was needed and many looked to Louis, Duke of Upper Bavaria (co-ruler with brother) and Count of Palatine, but he had a rival from his childhood: Frederick the Fair, son of Albert I. In 1314 two separate groups of electors voted to crown each king, and the rival Kings were: Louis IV was crowned in the traditional coronation place of Aachen by Archbishop Peter of Mainz, while Frederick was crowned by one who is traditionally authorized to perform the coronation, Archbishop of Cologne.
Their battle would be nasty as Frederick would involve his brother Leopold and Louis would give away Habsburg territories including Switzerland and threaten the same to the Duchy of Austria. Just as Frederick was narrowing in on the chance for victory he and 1300 men were captured by Louis, who was excommunicated by Pope John XXII for his actions in 1324. Frederick was released in 1325 after the Treaty of Trausnitz on the condition he reigned in his brother, Leopold. He failed in this task and returned himself to Munich as a prisoner despite the Pope having released him from his oath, but this act compelled Louis turn his view on Frederick, and they rekindled their friendship with promises of a joint rule. The electors did not appreciate this idea and Frederick would end up ruling as King of the Germans while Louis held the title Holy Roman Emperor. When Leopold died in 1326 though Frederick decided to retire to ruling only Austria where he died in 1330. Louis erected Ettal Abbey to commemorate his death.
Now that Frederick was out of the way, Louis could focus his energy on garnishing power. He began by having his coronation in Milan, which he had helped defend from Naples in 1323 and then being recrowned in 1328 before declaring Pope John XXII to be a heretic and elected his own Pope (known as an anti-pope), Nicholas V. He left Italy bringing enemies of the Pope to the first imperial residence, Alter Hof, and worked on how to diminish the growing French authority in Italy. In 1337, as protector of the Teutonic Knights, he granted them permission to conquer Lithuania and Russia as well as ordered them not to appear in any foreign courts over their actions. That same year he allied with England but sought to make peace with the Pope Benedict XII, but Philip VI interfered. This led to the Declaration at Rhense in 1338 where electors decided a majority vote from them was enough to elect their Holy Roman Emperor with or without the Pope’s approval.
Louis worked hard to create peace and consolidate his power within his own kingdom, but he did this by stripping as much power as possible from the Luxemburgs. He united Bavaria under his son, even annulling the first marriage of his son’s wife to achieve this. He would not be successful as desperate people went to desperate measures and Charles of Luxembourg appealed to the Pope Clement VI about their situation; the pope gave support in the form of declaring him Charles IV, King of the Romans (kinda fair after Louis attempted creating the anti-pope). The fighting was fierce but Charles won the crown in 1347 when Louis suffered from a stroke while hunting. He had 16 children total and 11 survived him, but the crown would go to Charles.
Charles had been born Wenceslaus but chose Charles as his sovereign name to honor his uncle, Charles IV of France, after having been raised in french court. His father was John the Blind, King of Bohemia and titular King of Poland, titles Charles inherited upon his fathers death during the civil war making Charles the first Emperor to be King of Bohemia by birthright. He had promised to be substantially subservient to the Pope, and so Louis supporters found a rival, but he was quickly defeated, leaving Charles free to rebuild the empire in his image.
Bohemia was one of the few places to not be destroyed by the plague, so he moved his power base to Prague where he built the first university in Central Europe, Charles University in Prague, and it quickly became the epicenter of learning in Europe. Unlike his predecessors he succeeded in building alliances that built peace and prosperity after the war and Black Plague. He maintained his promises to the Pope; when Cola di Rienzo came to Prague to try to convince him to come to Italy at the request of Petrarch and the Floretine’s, Charles had him imprisoned until he could transfer him to Avignon. In 1354, he finally went to Rome to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor and despite the wishes of the people, he left a few hours after being crowned. In 1356, he revealed the Golden Bull of 1356 and for the first time, electors would be regulated and officially granted special privileges. The Bull settled on seven electors, three ecclesiastic and four secular: Archbishop of Mainz, Archbishop of Cologne, Archbishop of Trier, King of Bohemia, Count of Palatine of Rhine, Duke of Saxony-Wittenburg, and Margrave of Brandenburg. Notable left out were the Luxemburgs in Bavaria (specifically to limit their power as Luxemburg, still held by a junior branch in Brandenburg, but when lost to them in 1373 they were without a seat until 1363) as well as the Hapsburgs. The Habsburgs decided they would not take this sitting down, and Duke Rudolph IV created the Privilegium that made Austria an Archduchy and granted them the same rights as the Electors which were:
- Bloodline is bonded to the title, it cannot be separated
- The firstborn will inherit the title without election
- They do not need to obtain permission to make decisions/rule their territory
- The right to have their own symbolism of their rule
Charles refused to recognize this document as his advisor Petrarch recognized it as a forgery, but it would eventually be ratified when the next Hapsburg Emperor was elected in the 1450s and the title would not be used until the early 15th century.
Charles secured the title of King of Burgundy in 1365. His later years were quiet. There were conflicts with Hungary and Poland, but he stayed out of German conflicts, advised his young nephew, Charles V of France, supported the free cities, and focused on his patronages. He died of gout in 1378, but not before securing the election of his son as both King of Bohemia and King of Germany.
Wenceslaus enjoyed many privileges, but his father had split the inheritance between his sons and brothers, so he did not possess as much power as his father. The beginning of his reign is relatively calm besides a minor rebellion by the Duke of Bavaria as well as balancing the power he did have with his brothers, especially as Sigismund inherited Brandenburg and was later elected King of Hungary. He also made enemies by showing cruelty in the way he tortured and punished an archbishops’ vicar-general, John of Nepomuk and then in the Papal Schism he supported Pope Urban VI and protected church reformer, Jan Hus despite that he was claimed as a heretic. Due to this many Germans left the university in Prague and formed the University of Leipzig. The beginning of the end for his reign though was mostly likely when his alcoholism became public. The King of France invited him to Reims in 1398, and he could not respond due to how intoxicated he was. When we return to the next century we will learn about his downfall and how the Hapsburg regain the throne to the point they hold it for centuries.
There is only one more entry left for the 14th century. We are going to spend some time exploring some concepts we discovered in this century before moving onto the 15th century when we see the Renaissance truly take off.
Did you enjoy this series? Is there a specific person, place, concept, or piece of art you would like me to cover?
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- Wolfgang Johannsen, Wolfgang Johannsen, Management von Information, Bedeutung und Wissen, Information und ihre Bedeutung in der Natur, 10.1007/978-3-662-50255-6, (65-124), (2016).
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- Goltz, Piotr. “THE IDEAL OF STATE SOVEREIGNTY IN CHRONICLES WRITTEN DURING THE REIGN OF CHARLES IV, HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR (1316–1378).” The West East Institute, 2016.