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27 Jul

Holy Roman Empire (13th – 15th c.)

Frederick II became the undisputed ruler of Germany after the defeat of his rival Otto IV of Brunswick in the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Honorius III in 1220. In the same year, Frederick II decreed Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis giving up a number of regalia to the bishops in return for their support in the election of his son Henry as King of Germany. However, he was also forced to issue Statutum in favorem principum granting privileges to the German princes few years later. Frederick II left Germany and returned only twice after the election of his son Henry as the German King: in 1235 and in 1237 to depose his unpopular son Henry VII and replace him with his youngest son Conrad IV. Frederick II was primarily interested in the Kingdom of Sicily transforming it into a strong centralized monarchy after promulgation of the Constitutions of Melfi in 1231.

Like his father Henry IV and his grandfather Frederick I Barbarossa, Frederick II came into conflict with the papacy and the Lombard League. The delay of his departure on the Crusade resulted in an open conflict with the papacy and his excommunication. Despite being excommunicated Frederick II launched the Sixth Crusade in 1228 and returned the holy cities to Christendom for ten years, while his son Conrad was crowned King of Jerusalem. However, Frederick’s aspirations in Italy disturbed the papacy and Pope Innocent IV deposed him as emperor in 1245. Frederick managed to retain his authority in the Kingdom of Sicily until his death in 1250 but William II, Count of Holland who was elected anti-king in 1247 captured the Kingdom of Germany without any resistance because Frederick’s son and heir Conrad was primarily interested in the Kingdom of Sicily.

Conrad managed to suppress the anti-Staufen rebellion and capture Naples in 1253 but he died one year later. William II was killed by the Frisians in 1256 and Holy Roman Empire fell into political crisis known as the Interregnum which lasted until the accession of Rudolf I of Habsburg (1273-1291) in 1273. The period of Interregnum was characterized by the decline of imperial authority and power which was taken advantage by the princes who consolidated their holdings and increased their independence. The Holy Roman Empire became de facto a confederation of virtually independent princedoms.

Tomb effigy of Rudolph I of Germany

Rudolph I

Rudolf I of Habsburg established peace and order in Germany, and reconciled with Pope Gregory X who promised him imperial coronation but he died before fulfilling his promise. Rudolf was also in good relations with Gregory’s successor Pope Nicholas III but the latter did not crowned him emperor. Rudolf defeated his rival and powerful King of Bohemia, Ottokar II in the Battle of Durnkrut and Jedenspeigen in 1278 and granted the gained lands in Austria and Styria to his sons. Rudolf tried to secure the German throne to his son Albert but the Prince-Electors chosen Adolf of Nassau (1291-1298). However, the latter was deposed and replaced by Rudolph’s son Albert I, Duke of Austria (1298-1308) in 1298.

Albert I continued the territorial expansion of the Holy Roman Empire started by his father. He secured the Bohemian crown to his son Rudolph on the death of Wenceslaus III of Bohemia in 1306. However, Rudolph died suddenly in 1307 and was succeeded by son-in-law of Wenceslaus II, Henry of Carinthia. Albert I was killed by his nephew Johann Parricida in 1308 and the German throne was assumed by Henry VII (1308-1313) of the House of Luxembourg. Henry VII traveled to Rome to be crowned emperor in 1312 but he failed to restore the imperial authority in Italy. His greatest achievement was the arrangement of marriage of his son John of Luxembourg with Elisabeth, heiress of Wenceslaus III of Bohemia by which the Luxembourg Dynasty gained Bohemia.

Two kings were elected after Henry’s death in 1313: Louis IV of Bavaria and Frederick I of Austria (Habsburg). Louis IV of Bavaria (1314-1347) defeated his rival, became sole king and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1328. However, his unpopularity resulted in the election of Charles IV of Luxembourg Dynasty as anti-king in 1346. Louis IV died one year later, while Charles IV defeated the Wittelsbach candidate to the German throne. Charles IV (1346-1378) also inherited the Kingdom of Bohemia as the eldest son and heir to John the Blind in 1347.

Wall painting depicting of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor

Charles IV

Bohemia reached its political and cultural height during the reign of Charles IV. Prague gained archbishopric and first university (1348) in Central Europe. Charles IV made Prague the imperial capital and proved to be a great builder: he expanded and rebuilt the Prague Castle, built much of the cathedral of Saint Vitus and ordered the construction of one of Prague’s most famous sightseeing, the Charles Bridge. He extended his territory to the upper Palatinate of the Rhine, Lower Lusatia, part of Silesia and Margrave of Brandenburg through marriages, purchase and inheritance. Charles IV was also crowned King of Italy but he did not involve in the Italian affairs and only traveled through Italy to Rome to receive imperial coronation in 1355.

Charles IV yielded to France at the end of his rule with an aim to assure the French support in the election of his son Wenceslaus as King of Germany. In 1356, Charles IV promulgated the Golden Bull which regulated the election of the kings and stayed in force until 1806. The last years of his rule were also marked by the struggles between the princes and the cities as well as by the Western Schism. His son and heir Wenceslaus (1376-1400) was unable to reestablish order and he was deposed in 1400.

A portrait of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor


Sigismund (1410-1437) was elected King of Germany after Wenceslaus’ death in 1410. Sigismund was also King of Hungary through marriage to Mary, Queen of Hungary from 1387 and was in first place concentrated on resolving the Western Schism. Hungary was seriously endangered by the Ottomans after the defeat of the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 but Sigismund could not expect any help in a form of a Crusade against the Ottoman Empire because of the Western Schism. For that reason Sigismund put a lot of efforts to convoke the Council of Constance (1414-1418) which ended the Western Schism but also resulted in the condemnation and execution of the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus. However, Sigismund did not manage to organize a Crusade against the Ottomans as he expected and had to face with the Hussite Wars (1419-1436) that broke out after the death of Wenceslaus IV. The Bohemians refused to acknowledge him as King of Bohemia because they held him responsible for the death of Jan Hus. All Sigismund’s military campaigns to suppress the Hussites failed and he had to wait for 17 years to win the Bohemian crown.

Sigismund was succeeded by Albert II of Habsburg (1438-1439) who died one year later during the campaign against the Ottomans at Neszmely, Hungary. Albert II died without a male descendant and the electors chosen his cousin, Frederick of Styria as his successor. The latter ascended to the throne as Frederic III (1440-1493) in 1440 and was crowned emperor in 1452. He tried to gain control over Hungary and Bohemia. However, he lost Austria, Carinthia, Carniola and Styria to Matthias Corvinus of Hungary in 1458 and regained them only after Matthias’ death in 1490. Frederic’s greatest achievement was arrangement of the marriage between his son Maximilian, later Maximilian I (1493-1517) and Mary, heiress of Burgundy. The marriage gained an enormous inheritance to the Habsburg Dynasty which ruled the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution in 1806.

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