15th Century Holy Roman Empire

When we left the Holy Roman Empire, it was being ruled by Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, and what started as a peaceful reign is slowly moving towards calamity, as Wenceslaus shows his cruelty, alcoholism, and tolerance for what they perceived as heresy (his support of reformer Jan Hus). The torture and murder of Vicar-General, John of Nepomuk, set citizens of Bohemia into rage. Wenceslaus was arrested at Králův Dvůr in 1394. In 1396, he was released thanks to his brother, Sigismund, King of Hungary, who Wenceslaus made his heir (at least to his inheritable titles like King of Bohemia). His long absence from Germany, mixed with his support of Hus, and his selling the Dukedom of Milan to Gian Galeazzo Visconti, left his citizens dissatisfied, if not hostile. This escalated when he abandoned his support of Pope Boniface IX in favor of peace during the Papal Schism. He and Charles VI of France agreed to remove both Popes and elect a new one altogether. Electors, Count of Palatine, Rupert II, and Archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier, held a no confidence vote in 1400 and replaced him with Rupert, now King of the Romans. Wenceslaus did not make any moves against Rupert’s ten-year reign, but he also did not acknowledge the decision. Sigismund could not let this stand though, and in 1402 stole his brother in an attempt to take him to Italy to be officially crowned, but Rupert headed off them. Sigismund instead held his brother prisoner with the help of William, Duke of Austria. He would sign all his titles to Sigismund to get more privileges just a few years later. Rupert tried to stop Sigismund from gaining the Imperial crown, but he used all his resources as King of Bohemia in a devastating matter that included heavy taxes, looting, and emptying the royal treasure on military expenses. He also prosecuted many of Wenceslaus’s supporters there. It seemed to be in vain though; in 1403 Pope Boniface IX recognized Rupert as Holy Roman Emperor, making a coronation for Wenceslaus impossible. His guard in Vienna slacked and he escaped. 

His supporter escorted him, John II of Liechtenstein, after his escape, and entered Prague on Christmas, followed by supporters. Sigismund was drawn into a war with the Republic of Venice after Ladislaus of Naples (son of Charles III of Hungary) attempted to claim Hungary. When he failed, he sold the Dalmatian cities to the Republic. Sigismund spent the next few years diplomatically keeping Ladislaus from conquering central Italy. In 1406, he married Barbara of Celje, who gave him a daughter named Elizabeth. The poor child was born blue and barely survived–she would be Barbara’s only child. He felt threatened by the Ottoman Empire and was fierce in defending against them. He was ruthless as King to the Croatians, and founded the Order of the Dragons to help defend against the Ottomans in 1408. In 1410, he joined the Teutonic Knights against Wladysaw II of Poland. He supported his friend Stibor of Stiboricz to head the attack, and the man slowly became one of the most influential in Europe, holding the title of Duke of Transylvania and owning 25% of modern day Slovakia. He became prosperous due to Stibor’s diplomacy in Poland, without becoming involved before being pulled back into the politics of the Emperor.  

Rupert ruled during this time as Emperor, as he had been since 1400. In 1402, he married his son and heir Louis to Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry IV. Rupert proved to be an effective ruler in the lands he did not have to dispute over, including the Palatine, but the title was not easy for him to keep. Rupert managed to keep ahold of the crown, but Wenceslaus wanted it back. The Papal Schism and Wenceslaus’ reaction to it is part of what gained him the throne, and there was pressure to find a stronger support base. Rupert decided the best idea would be to elect an anti-pope, and add another to the mix. He elected Pope Alexander V in 1409, who would not be recognized by his rivals, but there were now three popes fighting for the same divine right. Rupert would die only a year later in 1410; in his will, he split his land between his four sons, leaving Louis the Electorate. Louis would strive to succeed as Emperor, but lose the election in September to Jobst of Moravia. Three Electors elected Holy Roman Emperor, but Sigismund. This made his claim weak, but in 1411 it became a moot point when Jobst died of unknown causes. Sigismund now simply had to fight for his position with his brother, who had made quite an impression among the supports of Jan Hus, also referred to as Hussites, who had grown substantially since Wenceslaus had come to power. When Sigismund executed Hus in 1415, he instigated the Hussite Wars. The war would be inflamed after the death of Wenceslaus, as Bohemians did not trust Sigismund. He fought relentlessly to gain control over Bohemia, but the Ottomans attacked Hungary again, and the princes of Germany refused to support him. Instead, they actively worked against him and blocked him from rule in Germany. This was most of the 1420s, and in the 1430s he spent much of his time in Italy after being crown King of Italy. He died in 1437 with his crown in Bohemia and Hungary going to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Albert of Austria (Hungary only accepted Albert as monarch though with Elizabeth as consort). Albert also was elected King of Romans, despite not seeking the title. He died in 1439, though with only a reputation for his poor treatment of the Jews, and a posthumous son. Austria accepted Albert’s will immediately, but the fact that his son Ladislaus was born after his death created issues in the successions in Bohemia and Hungary. 

Hungary faced invasion by the Ottomans and needed a strong leader now, so they ignored Albert’s will and placed Wladyslaw III of Poland on their throne. They encouraged his widow, Elizabeth of Luxemburg, to marry the Polish king, despite him only being 16. She agreed and started plans for the coronation when it was predicted she was having a boy. Ladislaus was born four months after his father’s death in February 1440. His cousin Frederick, Duke of Inner Austria, was elected his regent as Duke of Austria, as well as his father’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor. This made Frederick III head of the Hapsburg family. In 1442, he joined the Old Zürich War (a civil war started after Frederick VII, Count of Toggenburg and ruler of now Switzerland died with heir or will) on the side of Rudolf Stüssi, who was attempting to usurp Zürich from the rest of the cantons in the Swiss Confederacy. The Confederacy would not go down without a fight. The Swiss did not gain much ground, but slaughtered their opponents as they are known to do, even in the battles they lost. In the end, it was like a stalemate, and a peace treaty was struck that brought Zürich back into the Confederacy in 1446. 

During this, Frederick gets side tracked by politics in Hungary. Dowager Empress Elizabeth had done her best to protect Ladislaus, having stolen the Holy Crown of Hungary, and had her son coronated in haste. It was later declared invalid, and Wladyslaw was coronated with a crown they stole from the tomb of King Saint Stephen, Hungary’s first king. She fled to plead for Frederick’s aide, who graciously accepted (after being bargained with some land and the holy crown she held). In December 1442, she negotiated peace with Wladyslaw, but she died four days after it was signed. She left Ladislaus, an orphan at three years old, and Frederick, his guardian, where there were many conflicts needing closure. Elizabeth had been the rightful heir to the Dukedom of Luxemburg, but her father had given it to her cousin, Elizabeth of Goerlitz, who married Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Luxemburg refused to recognize Philip as their ruler during Ladislaus’ lifetime, even after Frederick allowed the rule of Philip (with the stipulation Ladislaus would be allowed to buy the duchy back following Elizabeth of Goerlitz’s death). In 1444, Wladyslaw died, and Ladislaus could take the throne in Hungary. However, the Hungarian government wanted Frederick to release the young boy and crown to them. He refused and instead invaded, but of Hungary. They held a diet and elected John Hunyadi as regent, but he chose to style himself as governor. He could not push Frederick out of the country though, and in 1446 was forced to concede the guardianship of Ladislaus to the Emperor, which would last until the boy was 18. 

Two years later, Frederick signed the Concordat of Vienna. This treaty regulated the relationship between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Holy See, though it was ignored more than once by both parties. It officially stood until the dissolution of the Empire in 1806. 

In 1452, he finally made his way to Italy to be officially crowned and meet his betrothed, Eleanor of Portugal. Frederick was known as the peaceful, but when it came to personal relationships, he was cold and distant. Their relationship would not be happy despite their children, but Frederick would mourn her greatly when she eventually passed. Right now though, she is by his side as he enters Rome. He had failed to be crowned King of Italy properly due to conflicts with the Lord of Milan, but he convinced the Pope to do so with the German crown, thus making both titles official. The Pope would also marry the couple before anointing them both with the Imperial Crown. Once he returned, Austria began demanding their Archduke be returned to them, and Frederick still refused to release Ladislaus. 

Eventually, the rebellions grew strong enough that he was forced to surrender the young King. He would be recognized by Austria and Hungary quickly after, and Bohemia would follow in 1453. Ladislaus would work to define his independence and power as a king by eliminating the policies of his predecessor and punishing those who had opposed his mother. He would only reign until 1457 when he died of illness, though at the time it was imagined to be poison. Most of his reign was dominated by conflicts with the Ottomans, and he did not have the chance to marry, leaving no heirs. George of Poděbrady, a Hussite, took claim of Bohemia while a diet took place to elect 14-year-old Matthias Corvinus with his uncle John Hunyadi Jr. (Mattias father was Sr and governor of Hungary) as King of Hungary. Frederick tried to seize the thrones and originally failed; in the long run, he would succeed simply by outliving Matthais. 

Matthias was known as the first king outside Italy to truly promote the Renaissance. He first had to secure his reign from both Frederick and the Ottomans. Afterwards, he spent the first few years ensuring his power in Austria. He reformed taxes, which causes rebellions in places like Transylvania. At first, he was fine to let George of Poděbrady rule Bohemia, and they had an alliance through the marriage of George’s daughter, Catherine, and Matthais. She died during childbirth in 1464, only a year after their marriage. In 1468, his former brother-in-law, Victor, Duke of Münsterberg, invaded Austria, wreaking the timid peace they already had. Matthais struggled to gather the funds for the war, and Frederick refused to assist him, causing the war to drag on for 11 years. After that, much of Bohemia still refused to recognize him, instead choosing the son of Casimir IV of Poland, Vladislaus II. Conflicts would not end there for him. Frederick became fed up with his failures to defend against the Ottomans. The Hungarian King and the Emperor would remain at war until the late 1480s. Matthias died in 1490, feared by his people after years of fighting for his titles. Vladislaus would succeed him in Hungary, while Austria returned to Hapsburg, rule in Emperor Frederick.  Frederick died in 1493 after having his leg amputated, but he had taken the precaution of having his heir chosen before his death. Therefore, he was succeeded by his son, Maximillian I. Maximilian, was married to Mary of Burgundy, and had just spent the last decade securing the reign of his wife and son, Philip the Handsome, in Burgundy and the Netherlands following the death of her father, Charles the Bold.

Maximilian and his son Philip would define Hapsburg rule and set the stage for their heir Charles V. We will learn more about all of them when we return here in the next century! If you enjoy my articles, follow my social media accounts to get updates on future posts. 

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