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Kingdom of Hungary (13th – 15th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Dynastic turmoils in Hungary greatly weakened the royal power and resulted in the rise of powerful nobles at the beginning of the 13th century. Andrew II (1205-1235) was forced to issue the Golden Bull in 1222 giving nobility the right to disobey the king when acting against the law. The Golden Bull of 1222 also obliged the king to regularly convoke the diet and increased the power of nobility in the counties. Andrew’s successor Bela IV (1235-1270) tried limit the power of the magnates and to recover the lost crown-lands. However, his reign was marked by the Mongol invasion in 1241 and severe Hungarian defeat in the Battle of Mohi or Battle of the Sajo River in 1241. Bela IV fled to Dalmatia and appealed to Pope Gregory IX and to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for assistance against the Mongols. However, none of them responded to his appeal, while Hungary was meanwhile plundered by the Mongols.

The Mongols withdrew because of dynastic crisis in the Mongolian Empire in 1241. Bela IV returned to Hungary which was totally devastated, while western portions of the kingdom were seized by Frederick of Austria. The Hungarians were defeated by Frederick but the latter was killed in the battle at the Leitha River in 1246. The male line of the House of Babenberg became extinct on Frederick’s death but Bela was defeated by Ottokar II of Bohemia in their struggle for Frederick’s inheritance – the Duchies of Austria and Styria in 1260. Bela IV managed to repulse the second Mongolian invasion one year later but the last years of his rule were marked by struggles with his son Stephen V (1246-1272). The latter was crowned junior King and entrusted the government of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia in 1246, and Transylvania in 1258. Stephen V ascended to the Hungarian throne on his father’s death but the deceased senior king entrusted his daughter Anna and his followers to Ottokar II of Bohemia. Ottokar II started a war against Stephen V but the Hungarian King decisively defeated his rival in 1271. He died suddenly in 1272 and was succeeded by his ten year old son Ladislaus IV (1272-1290). Ladislaus’ reign was marked by loss of royal power to the Hungarian magnates and lower nobility. He became very unpopular for favoring the Cumans but he was assassinated by his own Cuman favorites in 1290. Ladislaus IV without an heir to the throne and was succeeded by Andrew III (1290-1301) who the last Hungarian king from the Arpad Dynasty.

Medieval illustration of Charles Robert

Charles Robert

The Hungarian nobility elected Wenceslaus III Premyslid as King of Hungary after the extinction of the Arpad Dynasty. Wenceslaus renounced the Hungarian crown to Otto, Duke of Lower Bavaria in 1305 but the latter was imprisoned in 1307 and abdicated as King of Hungary one year later. The Hungarian throne was assumed by Charles Robert of the Angevin Dynasty as Charles I of Hungary (1308-1342). He managed to restore the royal power as well as to increase the Hungarian foreign prestige. In 1335, he concluded a mutual defense union with Poland which resulted in the victory over Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV and his ally the Habsburg Duke Albert II of Austria in 1337. Charles’ plans to unite the kingdoms of Hungary and Naples under his son Louis I disturbed Venice and the Pope that felt threatened from the eventual Hungarian supremacy on the Adriatic. One of his greatest achievements was the agreement with his ally and brother-in-law, Casimir III of Poland which foresaw the succession of Charles’ son to the Polish throne in case if Casimir III died childless. Thus Charles’ successor Louis I (1342-1382) assumed the Polish throne after Casimir’s death in 1370 but the Hungarian-Polish union fall apart after Louis’ death. His younger daughter gained Poland, while the elder daughter Mary became heiress to the Hungarian throne.

The Hungarian throne was assumed by Sigismund (1387-1439), Margrave of Brandenburg through marriage with Mary in 1387. Hungary was at that time seriously endangered by the Ottomans who invaded Hungary in 1395. Thus Sigismund concentrated on defending his kingdom against the Ottomans but he was severely defeated by Sultan Bayezid I in the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. Sigismund’s authority in Hungary reached its lowest point after the defeat at Nicopolis and he put all his efforts in securing the inheritance of Germany and Bohemia.

A portrait of Ladislaus the Posthumous

Ladislaus the Posthumous

Both Sigismund’s successors Albert II of Habsburg (1437-1439) and Wladyslaw III of Poland (1439-44) died during campaign against the Ottomans. Ladislaus the Posthumous (1440-1457) was elected King of Hungary after Wladyslaw’s death but he was under guardianship of Frederick IV who virtually held him as prisoner. Janos Hunyadi acted as his regent in Hungary until Ladislaus was freed by Ulrich of Celje, Princely Count of Celje in 1452. Ulrich of Celje acted as his guardian until 1456 when he was murdered by his rival Laszlo Hunyadi.

Ladislaus the Posthumous died in 1457 and the diet elected Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490), brother of Laszlo Hunyadi as King of Hungary. He reasserted Hungarian suzerainty over Bosnia in 1458, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1462 and launched a campaign against the Ottomans who remained a constant threat. Matthias got involved in the struggle for the Bohemian throne after the death of George of Podebrady in 1471. With the Peace of Olomouc in 1478 he gained shared title of King of Bohemia and forced his rival Vladislaus II of Poland to cede Silesia, Moravia, and Upper and Lower Lusatia to Hungary. Matthias Corvinus made Hungary the dominant power in south-central Europe by the end of his reign but his successor Vladislaus II (1490-1516) was not able to pursue Matthias’ policy and lost his power to the nobles.

Bohemia (13th – 15th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Bohemia was elevated into an independent kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire under Ottokar I or Otakar I (1198-1230) and the royal title became hereditary. Ottokar I was succeeded by Wenceslaus I Premyslid (1230-1253) who successfully repulsed the Mongolian attack in 1241 and suppressed the rebellion led by his son Ottokar II who was imprisoned. He arranged marriage between his first born son and heir Vladislaus with the Duke’s niece Gertrud to gain the Duchy of Austria but Vladislaus died shortly afterwards, while his widow swiftly remarried. Wenceslaus I invaded Austria, released his son Ottokar II, named him margrave of Moravia and installed him as governor of Austria.

Burial crown of Ottokar II of Bohemia on display at Prague castle

Burial crown of Ottokar II

Ottokar II married the late Duke’s sister Margaret to legitimize his position in Austria and succeeded his father Wenceslaus I as Ottokar II of Bohemia (1253-1278). He seized Styria from Hungary in 1260 and inherited Carinthia and Carniola in 1269. Bohemia reached its greatest territorial extent stretching from Silesia to the Adriatic and became the most powerful state of the Holy Roman Empire. Ottokar II joined the contest for the Imperial throne and refused to recognize his victorious rival Rudolph of Habsburg. However, he was deprived of Styria, Austria and Carinthia at the convention of the Reichstag at Frankfurt in 1274 and forced to give up all claims to Austria and the neighboring duchies two years later. Ottokar II retained only Bohemia and Moravia. He tried to recapture the lost lands but he was defeated and killed by Rudolph of Habsburg in the Battle of Durnkrut and Jedenspeigen in 1278.

Ottokar II was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus II (1278-1305). He gained the Duchy of Krakow from Premislas II but the latter retained other duchies in Poland and the royal insignia from Krakow, and was crowned King of Poland in 1295. However, Wenceslaus became the overlord of Poland after Premislas’ death in 1296 and was crowned King of Poland in 1300. Wenceslaus also assumed the Hungarian throne on behalf of his son after death of Andrew III of Hungary, the last of the Arpad dynasty in male line in 1301 but he failed to gain full support of the Hungarians. He was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus III (1305-1306) who renounced his claim to the Hungarian throne and met difficulties in Poland. He was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Olomouc, Moravia in 1306.

The Premyslid dynasty became extinct after the death of Wenceslaus III and the Bohemian throne was assumed by Henry VI of Carinthia (1306-1310). In 1310, he was deposed by John of Luxembourg (1310-1346) who assumed the Bohemian throne through marriage with Elisabeth, heiress of Wenceslaus III of Bohemia. John of Luxembourg extended Bohemian territory to upper Lusatia and Silesia and ruled part of Lombardy and Tyrol for a short period. He got involved in the Hundred Years’ War siding with France against England but he was killed in the Battle of Crecy in 1346.

A photo of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle taken by Frantisek Fridrich in 1870

Charles Bridge

John of Luxembourg was succeeded by Charles IV (1346-1378) who was elected King of Germany in 1346 and crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355. Bohemia reached its political and cultural height during his reign. Charles IV greatly increased the power of his dynasty through skillful diplomacy, purchases, marriages and inheritance, and made Prague the political and cultural center of the Holy Roman Empire. He founded the first university in Prague and in Central Europe in 1348, expanded and rebuilt the Prague Castle, built much of the cathedral of Saint Vitus and ordered the construction of the famous Charles Bridge.

Charles IV was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus IV (1378-1419) who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1376. However, he was deposed as Holy Roman Emperor and replaced by Rupert of Wittelsbach in 1400. As King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus IV supported the religious reformer Jan Hus and his followers against the Roman Catholic Church. Hus’ execution in 1415 provoked serious unrest which resulted in the outbreak of the Hussite Wars (1420-1434) after Wenceslaus’ death in 1419.

A portrait of Prokop the Great

Prokop the Great

The Bohemian crown was claimed by Wenceslaus’ brother Sigismund, King of Hungary from 1387 and King of Germany from 1411. However, the Bohemians refused to recognize Sigismund as King of Bohemia because of his role at the Council of Constance which burned Jan Hus at the stake for heresy. Sigismund declared a war against the heretics but all his military campaigns against the Hussites led by Jan Ziska and Prokop the Great failed. He was able to assert his rights to the Bohemian throne only after the outbreak of a war between the two fractions of Hussites, the Utraquists and the Taborites in 1434. The Hussite Wars ended with the peace agreement signed at Jihlava by King Sigismund, the Hussite delegates and the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in 1436. Sigismund was finally crowned King of Bohemia but his power was little more than nominal.

Albert II of Habsburg (1437-1439) who was married with Sigismund’s daughter and heiress Elizabeth succeeded Sigismund as King of Hungary, Germany and Bohemia. He was killed in a campaign against the Ottomans at Neszmely in 1439 and was succeeded by his posthumously born son Ladislaus the Posthumous (1453-1457). The latter was crowned king of Bohemia at age of thirteen in 1453 but he died suddenly in 1457. He was succeeded by his regent George of Podebrady (1458-1471) who was the last domestic ruler of Bohemia.

George of Podebrady was succeeded by Vladislaus II who was unable to defeat his rival Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary who claimed the Bohemian throne. The conflict between the rival kings was settled with the Peace of Olomouc in 1478 allowing both Vladislaus and Matthias Corvinus to use the title King of Bohemia. Vladislaus reigned Bohemia, while Matthias gained Moravia, Silesia and the two Lusatias. Vladislaus II succeeded Matthias’ as King of Hungary on his death in 1490 and incorporated the Bohemian lands into the Kingdom of Hungary.

Grand Duchy of Moscow

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The lands of the Kievan Rus (except for Novgorod and the territories captured by Poland and Lithuania) came under the Mongol domination lasting from 1240 until the fall of the western part of Mongol Empire or the Golden Horde two centuries later. Decline of the Golden Horde after the middle of the 14th century was taken advantage by the Grand Princes of Moscow or “the gatherers of Russian lands” who greatly expanded their territories by the middle of the 15th century. Rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow was partly a result of its geographical position but it was also greatly influenced by the transfer of residence from Kiev to Moscow by the Orthodox Metropolitan Peter in 1327 which greatly enhanced its prestige. The Grand Duchy of Moscow was made the Russian religious center and became regarded as the heir of the Kievan Rus.

Grand Prince Dmitri of the Don (1359-1389) achieved the first major victory over the Golden Horde in the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. However, the victory in the Battle at Kulikovo did not bring permanent triumph over the Mongols and Khan Tokhtamysh devastated Moscow only two years later. Like Dmitri’s, Tokhtamysh’s success was short-lasting. The forces of Golden Horde were severely defeated by the army of Timur at the end of 1380’s.

Timur did not had interest in permanent conquest of Moscow nor in replacement of the ruined Mongol Empire with its own empire which greatly influenced the relations between the Mongols and Russians. They became equal adversaries and Vasily I (1389-1425) stopped paying tribute to the Khan. He expanded the territory of Moscow eastwards and northwards but he was forced to pursue a more conciliatory policy after the Mongol invasion in 1408. His successor Vasily II (1425-1462) further strengthened his authority and played an important role in the liberation of Russia from the Mongol yoke despite being defeated and captured by the Mongols. Many cities of the Grand Duchy of Moscow were devastated but Vasily II returned to power and recaptured all the lost lands by the end of his rule.

A portrait of Ivan III the Great, Grand Prince of Moscow

Ivan III the Great

Vasily II was succeeded by his son Ivan III the Great (1462-1505) who finally liberated Russia from the Mongol yoke and quadrupled the territory of the Grand Duchy of Moscow by the end of his rule. In 1480, he refused to pay tribute to the Mongols and defeated the Mongols who marched to Moscow without the use of force. The Russian and Mongol forces confronted each other on opposite sides of the Ugra River for months but the Mongols withdrew because their allies Lithuanians did not sent military assistance. Thus the Mongol rule collapsed although there were still several clashes afterwards. Alliance with the Crimean Khanate secured the southern frontier and enabled Ivan the territorial expansion westwards. However, his attacks on Sweden (in 1496 and 1497) and Livonia (1502) ended with defeat and Ivan III failed to gain access to the Baltic Sea. He had more success against the Polish-Lithuanian Union and gained the support of the Lithuanian Orthodox nobles who voluntary subordinated themselves to the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

Ivan’s foreign politics and territorial expansion also greatly influenced inner politics. Ivan III wedded Sophia Paleologue, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, transformed the Duchy of Moscow into a centralized state and titled himself Tsar. He also reduced the power of the nobility by creation of a class of loyal officials. Moscow claimed to be a Third Rome after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, adopted the customs of the Byzantine court and added two-headed eagle of Byzantium to the Muscovy arms.

Swiss Confederacy or the Swiss League

27 Jul
July 27, 2012
The Federal Charter of 1291

The Federal Charter of 1291

Decline of the central power under Frederick II of Germany and chaos during the period of Interregnum forced the local communities to connect themselves against robbers, petty nobles as well as against powerful landlords who tried to extend their possessions. Thus the crisis in the Holy Roman Empire during the period of Interregnum resulted in the creation of the Old Swiss Confederacy, an alliance of the rural communes (cantons) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden and the precursor of modern-day Switzerland in 1291. The Luxembourg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, Henry VII and his successor Charles IV appointed administrative representatives in each of the three communes and de facto recognized the Old Swiss Confederation.

The Habsburg Dynasty tried to take advantage of the political crisis and win back lost lands in southern Germany. For that reason the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden supported Louis IV of Bavaria instead of Frederick I of Austria (Habsburg) in their struggle for the German throne. Frederick’s brother Leopold I, Duke of Austria led a military campaign against the Swiss in 1315 but he was severely defeated in the Battle of Morgarten. A month later, the three cantons renewed their alliance and reached an agreement over their unification which formed the legal basis of the confederacy for the next five centuries. The most important clause of the agreement was the provision that alliances with other states will not be concluded without consent of all cantons, while each canton took an oath to defend its independence. The three cantons had been joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city states of Lucerne, Zurich and Bern by 1353 forming the Bund of Acht Orte or the alliance of the eight places.

Bern and Zurich retained a right to maintain special relations with the Habsburg House which tied to prevent the eventual rise of the Swiss Confederacy. Leopold III of Austria assembled an army against the Swiss when Lucerne invaded Habsburg lands in 1385 and captured the city of Sempach. However, the Habsburg House was defeated for the second time, while Glarus declared independence and defeated Leopold’s brother Albert III in the Battle of Nafels in 1388. The Habsburg pretensions in the Swiss Confederacy afterwards ceased. The Swiss took advantage of the tense relations between Frederick IV of Austria and Emperor Sigismund and invaded and conquered Aargau in 1415. Aargau was of great strategic importance and played an important role in the history of constitutional development of the Swiss Confederacy, while joint administration of the canton resulted in the rise of consciousness of common identity. The Pfaffenbrief signed by the members of the Swiss Confederacy in 1370 restricted the privileges of clergy, while the Sempacherbriefsigned in 1393 determined that a war can be declared only after consulting with all cantons of the Confederacy.

The relations between the cantons were not ideal. The claim of Zurich to Toggenburg resulted in a ruinous war with the other confederates between 1436 and 1446. The war was intervened by the Habsburg House which supported Zurich against Bern by sending troops that were loaned to Emperor Frederick III by Charles VII of France. However, the French commander withdrew after the clash with the confederates and the French heir to the throne Louis XI signed a peace agreement with the confederates in the name of France. Zurich reconciled with the Confederation but had to dissolve its alliance with the Habsburgs.

The Swiss Confederacy developed into an influential military power and helped Louis XI of France defeat Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in the Battle of Nancy in 1477. The Swiss soldiers gained a reputation of near invincibility during the Burgundian Wars and their mercenary services were afterwards increasingly sought by all European great powers. The Swiss Confederacy repulsed the attack of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor at the end of the 15th century and Maximilian granted Switzerland virtual independence in 1499.

Medieval Life and Society

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor by Odoacer in 476 resulted in the collapse of the Late Antique political system and of its social structure. However, the social changes occurred already before the official Fall of Rome, while formation of the new social order known as feudal system evolved gradually as a combination of Roman social-economic system and tribal-military organization of the barbarian peoples who triumphed over Western Roman Empire.

The barbarian kings in Italy, Iberian Peninsula, France and elsewhere in Europe adopted the Roman titles and methods of government. Although they were practically independent they considered the Byzantine Emperor their suzerain. Feudalism developed in Western Europe in the 8th and 9th century and became the predominant political and social system by the 11th century. For that reason medieval society and related subjects are often referred as the Feudal society. The feudal system was not equal in all countries but there were certain common characteristics such as strict division into social classes: nobility, clergy and peasantry or “those who fight”, “those who pray” and “those who labour”.

Cleric, knight and serf

Cleric, knight and serf

The king was on the top of the hierarchy of an ideal medieval society. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles consisting from the nobles who held land directly from the king to those who held only a single manor. Landholding system which based on fiefs or landholding in exchange for providing military service and paying a homage to the overlord eventually evolved into a system of subinfeudation by which the recipient of the fief – the vassal granted part of his fief to one who then became his vassal. Thus evolved very complex relations within the class of nobility, while every noble was someone’s vassal and was bound by mutual ties of loyalty and service. Besides that it was not unusual for one being a vassal to several overlords, while even a king could have been a vassal to another king.

The peasants or serfs who represented the majority of the medieval population and worked for the landlords in exchange for use of his land and his protection were on the bottom of the medieval society. Instability and turmoils in the 9th and 10th centuries forced the remained free peasants to seek protection by the nearest powerful landlord in exchange for their labour and personal freedom. They accepted to became serfs and also granted serfdom of their descendants. Thus serfdom became inheritable, while the principal duty of the serfs according to the medieval perception was to work on the land on which they were bound and which placed them on the very bottom of medieval social hierarchy.

Clergy was placed very high in the medieval social order. The Christianity and the Church had an absolute monopoly over mentality of all social classes, while religious believes had great influence on all medieval institutions as well as on all aspects of life of a Christian. Vassal took his oath on the Bible or holy relics, while serfdom was considered to be determined by God with purpose of survival of humanity. Thus clergy played very important role in the establishment of feudalism, while its hierarchy was very similar to the hierarchy of feudal society. Besides that the Church held much land, while high church officials acted as feudal landlords and lived a leisurely life comparable to the life of high nobility.

The theory of the three classes of feudal society does not describe the whole medieval population. Besides fiefs some men held their land in allod and were without any obligations, while even the three classes of feudal society sometimes referred as “the estates of the realm” were not a homogenous group. Besides city population (bourgeoisie) which was not a part of the “feudal pyramid” medieval society also consisted of population which was in certain way excluded from the feudal order: Jews and other subordinate groups – lepers, homosexuals, disabled persons, foreigners, witches, heretics, beggars, unemployed and outlaws.


27 Jul
July 27, 2012
A 14th century illustration of Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II

The Crusades were a series of military campaigns of a religious character fought from 1096 to 1291 by most of the Christian Europe against the Muslims in the Middle East. However, the Crusades were also launched against the pagan Slavs, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Albigenses, Hussites as well as against political enemies in Europe (such as the Crusade against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II). The appeal of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Comnenus to the Pope for military assistance against the Seljuk Turks resulted in the convocation of the Council of Clermont by Pope Urban II in November 1095. At the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for the Crusade against the Muslims who had occupied the Holy Land and were attacking the Byzantine Empire and gave a cloth crosses to the knights to be sewn into their armor which gave the Crusades their name.

After the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II travelled throughout France preaching and organizing the Crusade. Although he expected his call for the Crusade will be responded only by knights and warriors the majority of those who took up his call were the poor peasants without any fighting skills.

The appeal of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Comnenus to the Pope Urban II is widely regarded as the immediate cause for the Crusades but the real cause for the Crusades laid in Papacy’s and Western Europe’s own interests. The Papacy saw an opportunity to establish its dominance over the Holy Land, while the Crusaders were primarily led by economic, political and social motives. The best evidence for that is the fact that the Crusaders were primarily concentrated on capturing of Palestine instead of helping the Byzantine Empire against the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia.

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