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Holy Roman Empire (13th – 15th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

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.

Kingdom of Poland (10th – 12th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Polish lands were unified at the beginning of the 10th century but the history of the Polish unification is mostly unknown because of the lack of historical sources. The first written sources of Medieval Poland date from the middle of the 10th century when Poland started expansion westwards and came into conflict with the Medieval German state. Mieszko I (962-992) payed a tribute to Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor for the territory between the Oder and Warta Rivers. He was succeeded by his son Boleslaw I the Brave (992-1025) who completed the process of unification of Poland that was started by his father and became the first crowned King of Poland in 1025.

Casimir I the Restorer

Casimir I the Restorer

Boleslaw I died in the same year of his coronation and was succeeded by his son Mieszko II (1025-1034) who had to face a strong opposition of numerous landlords. He lost Pomerania, Lusatia and the territory between the Vistula and Bug River, while the Bohemians captured Silesia in 1038. His successor Casimir I the Restorer (1037-1058) managed to reduce the opposition of the landlords and to unify Poland. Casimir’s successor Boleslaw II (1058-1079) took advantage of the conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII and proclaimed himself King of Poland in 1076 but the rebellious landlords forced him to abdicate in 1079. Boleslaw II was succeeded by his brother Wladyslaw I Herman who was forced to abdicate as well.

The Polish throne was assumed by Boleslaw III Wrymouth (1102-1138) after Wladyslaw’s abdication in 1102. On his death he divided Poland into five principalities: Silesia, Greater Poland, Mazovia, Sandomir and Krakow. The first four principalities were divided among his four sons who became independent rulers, while Krakow was given to his eldest son Wladyslaw who was as Grand Duke of Krakow the representative of whole Poland. Wladyslaw tried to unify Poland by depriving his brothers of their shares provoking a civil war which ended with Wladyslaw’s defeat and disintegration of the Kingdom of Poland. The Grand Duke of Krakow retained the title Duke of Poland but he greatly depended on the nobles and clergy exerting a constant pressure to gain more rights and privileges. In 1102, the Polish kingdom was divided on numerous smaller political units which were de factoindependent.

Bohemia (9th – 13th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Bohemia retained its independence after the destruction of Great Moravia by the Hungarians at the end of the 9th century and emerged as independent principality under the rule of the Premyslid dynasty. St. Wenceslaus (920-929) successfully defended his lands from German invasion but Bohemia was forced to recognize the overlordship of the Holy Roman Empire after his death in 929. Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor backed Jaromir against his brother Boleslaus III of Bohemia in 1004 but Jaromir had to promise to hold Bohemia as vassal state of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus Bohemia became an integral part of the Holy Roman Empire.

Vratislav II

Vratislav II

Bohemia retained wide autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire and captured Moravia from Hungary in 1020. The growing power of Bohemian Dukes of the Premyslid dynasty became obvious in 1086 when Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor crowned the Premyslid duke Vratislav II (1086-1092) King of Bohemia. However, the title was not hereditary and despite the rise of its political influence Bohemia was even more integrated into the Holy Roman Empire. The Bohemian kings and dukes participated the Reichstag (the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire) and the Councils of Electors responsible for the election of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The establishment of seniorate in the first half of the 12th century resulted in bitter rivalry for the throne. The Premyslid dynasty managed to retain itself and Vladislav II, Duke of Bohemia (1140-1172) was crowned King of Bohemia by Frederick I Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor in 1158. The royal title did not became hereditary until 1198 when the Holy Roman Emperor elevated Bohemia into an independent kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire.

Holy Roman Empire (10th – 13th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The imperial coronation of the German King Otto I by Pope John XII in Rome in 962 is traditionally viewed as the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire but the term came in use several centuries after Otto’s coronation. The Kingdom of Germany was afterwards still ruled by the German kings who were at the same time Holy Roman Emperors. However, not all German kings were crowned emperors. Some scholars date the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire in year 800 when Charlemagne was crowned emperor although the continuous line of emperors began with imperial coronation of Otto I in 962, while the basis of the Holy Roman Empire formed the German lands, Lotharingia and Italy. West Francia emerged as an independent kingdom which came to be known as France about the same time.

Otto I was succeeded by his son Otto II (973-983) who was crowned German King as well as Holy Roman Emperor and continued his father’s policy. He defeated Henry II, Duke of Bavaria called the Wrangler or the Quarrelsome and captured the Duchy of Carinthia in 978. Otto II also achieved a settlement with King Lothair of France in 980 and afterwards launched a campaign against the Saracens in Southern Italy. He conquered Taranto and led several successful military campaigns in Calabria but he was severely defeated near Stilo in 982. Otto’s campaigns in Italy enabled the Slavic peoples on the eastern frontier of Germany to recapture the territories between the Rivers Oder and Elbe. Otto II had his son Otto III confirmed as King of Germany in 983 and prepared a new campaign against the Saracens but he died suddenly in the same year leaving the throne to his three year old son.

Otto III

Otto III

The regency was assumed by mother of Otto III, the Byzantine princess Theophanu who turned out to be a successful ruler. Otto III was still a minor at the time of her death in 991 and the regency passed to his grandmother Adelaide. She was less active than Theophanu and left over the regency to Archbishop of Mainz until Otto III reached majority in 994. In 996, he went to Rome, suppressed the rebellion of the Roman nobleman Crescentius II and had his cousin Bruno of Carinthia elected as Pope Gregory V who crowned him emperor. Otto III spent most of his time in Italy and retuned to Germany only occasionally to suppress several revolts. He permanently moved to Rome in 999 and planned to revive the glory and power of ancient Rome. Gerbert of Aurillac, Archbishop of Reims supported Otto’s plans and the latter had him elected as Pope Sylvester II. The election of Gerbert of Aurillac as Pope provoked a revolt of the German dukes and population of Rome. They rebelled and expelled both emperor and pope. Otto III died in the middle of his preparations against the rebells without a male heir in 1002 resulting in bitter rivalry over the throne.

The German throne was won by Henry II with support of the clergy, in first place of the Archbishop of Mainz. Henry II was son of Henry II, Duke of Bavaria and the last Holy Emperor of the Saxon (or Ottonian) dynasty. He (1002-1024) strengthened his position in Germany and asserted his authority in Northern Italy after launching two military campaigns. Henry II also launched several military campaigns against Boleslaus I of Poland but one of his greatest achievements was gaining the inheritance of the Kingdom of Burgundy which was an important gain for his successor Conrad II (1024-1039) from the Salian Dynasty.

Henry IV

Henry IV

Conrad II had his son Henry III elected as King of Germany during his lifetime and left him a strong position on his death. Henry III launched several military campaigns and extended the borders of the Holy Roman Empire but his primal concern were religious matters and support to the monastic reform movements. His involvement in papal affairs and restoration of papal power caused severe difficulties to his successor Henry IV (1056-1102). The latter came into conflict with the Papacy over the question of lay investiture of clerics. Pope Gregory VII threatened him with excommunication because of his interference in Italian and German episcopal life in 1075 but Henry IV convoked a synod of bishops and princes in Worms which deposed Gregory VII in 1076. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV and all the bishops named by him. Mutual excommunication provoked a bitter conflict between the secular and religious powers which came to be known as the Investiture Controversy. In addition, Henry also had to face an opposition of the bishops and German princes who turned against him and elected Rudolf of Rheinfeld, Duke of Swabia as anti-king. Henry IV went to Canossa and submitted to the Pope who lifted the excommunication and afterwards dealt with the supporters of the rival king.

Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV for the second time in 1080 but Henry captured Rome, deposed Gregory and installed antipope Clement III who crowned him emperor in 1084. Henry achieved recognition of his son Conrad as king and as his legal heir in n 1087 but Conrad turned against his father shortly afterwards. Henry IV defeated his rebellious son in 1097 and designated his younger son Henry (future Henry V) as his successor. He had sworn that he would never follow his brother’s example but he deposed his father in 1106.

Henry V (1106-1125) settled the Investiture Controversy with the Concordat of Worms in 1122. However, the Investiture Controversy greatly strengthened position of the German princes which became obvious on the death of Henry V in 1125. The electors refused Henry’s candidate, Frederick II of Swabia as his heir and elected Lothair III of Supplinburg, Duke of Saxony. The German princes also refused the candidate of of Lothair III, Henry the Proud and elected Conrad III of the Hohenstaufen dynasty on Lothair’s death in 1137. Henry the Proud denounced his claims to the throne but he refused to swear loyalty to the new German King because the latter demanded from him to give up one of his duchies. Conrad III conquered Saxony and Bavaria but he provoked a serious rivalry between the Welfs and Hohenstaufen families in southern Germany, Bavaria and Swabia which escalated into armed conflicts, similar to a civil war.

Serious situation in the Kingdom of Germany and the Second Crusade prevented Conrad III to go to Rome and thus he became the first German King not to be crowned emperor after Henry I. Conrad III designated his nephew Frederick, Duke of Swabia as his heir. Frederick was a descendant of Germany’s leading families – the Welf and Hohenstaufen and the German princes accepted Conrad’s choice with an aim to end the conflict between the Welfs and Hohenstaufens. Frederic I Barbarossa (for his red beard he was given nick-name Barbarossa) was elected as German King in 1152 and ended the conflict between the Welfs and Hohenstaufens by 1056. Afterwards he intervened in Italy, suppressed the Commune of Rome (established in 1143-44) and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1155. However, his military campaigns against the Italian cities failed. The Peace of Constance signed in 1183 resulted in a triumph of the Pope and the Lombard League (since 1167 the center of the opposition against the emperor). The Italian cities retained their independence under formal imperial overlordship, while Pope Alexander III achieved Frederic’s recognition. Following the Italian campaigns Frederic I concentrated on internal affairs and revenged to Henry the Lion who refused providing him military assistance in Italy. German court stripped Henry of his lands (Duchy of Saxony and Bavaria) and declared him an outlaw. The event completed the process of disintegration of stem duchies as well as the process of development of a new college, the Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire who became the imperial vassals.

Frederick I

Frederick I

Frederic I Barbarossa was succeeded by his second born son Henry VI who was elected King of the Romans or “Emperor to-be” already in 1169. Henry VI took over the rule in 1189 when his father went on the Third Crusade. Henry VI (1190-1197) gained the Kingdom of Sicily through marriage with Constance of Sicily, the sole legitimate heir of William II of Sicily who died in 1189. With aim to grant his descendants the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Sicily he wanted to make the imperial crown hereditary. However, his attempts caused a bitter opposition of the German Princes as well as of the Pope who fell threatened by an eventual union of the Kingdom of Germany and the Kingdom of Sicily.

The question of the succession remained unsolved until Henry’s death in 1197 and lead to serious conflicts over the throne. Frederic who was elected King of Germany was at the time of Henry’s death in Sicily and could not return to Germany because of the rebellion of the Lombard League. Thus Frederic returned to Sicily where he was crowned King of Sicily. The adherents of the Hohenstaufen family in Germany elected his uncle Philip of Swabia as German king in 1198. Few months later, Archbishop of Cologne who was supported by the English elected the son of Henry the Lion, Otto IV of Brunswick as King of Germany and crowned him in Aachen. Non of the rival German kings was not regarded as fully legitimate (because Frederic was elected king earlier) but the rivalry for the German throne continued. Otto had the support of Richard the Lionheart and later of John of England, while King Philip II of France supported Philip of Swabia. Eventually both sides turned to Pope Innocent III with aim to solve the question. Innocent III decided in Otto’s favor and excommunicated Philip in 1200/1201. However, Philip became increasingly popular in Germany, while Otto lost financial support from England after John of England lost Normandy, Anjou and Poitou. Pope Innocent III started to negotiate with Philip of Swabia but the latter was murdered in 1208. His adherents renounced the election of a new candidate and recognized Otto IV as King of Germany. In 1209, Otto IV was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Innocent III in Rome.

Otto IV tried to capture the Kingdom of Sicily from Frederic after his imperial coronation. His attempts disturbed the Pope who feared for his lands in central Italy and thus he gave his support to Frederic who went to Germany and gained recognition as German King. The conflict over the German throne finally ended with the Battle of Bouvines that was fought between the supporters of the rival kings, England and France in 1214. Philip II of France decisively defeated Otto IV who fought on the English side, while Frederic II who did not participate in the battle was crowned King of Germany in 1215. Otto IV did not give his claims to the throne until his death in 1218 but he lost all the support in Germany after the defeat in the Battle of Bouvines.

Political Changes in the Late Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Late Middle Ages went through major political changes which were marked by the rise of strong and royalty-based nation-states: England, France and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. The mentioned states saw the rise of centralized royal government which depended on collaboration or subjugation of the estates of the realm consisting of nobility, clergy and commoners (the Parliament in England, the General Estates in France and the Cortes in the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula).

The most notable events of the Late Middle Ages were the Ottoman expansion which resulted in the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Hundred Years’ War fought between France and England from 1337 to 1453. The Hundred Years’ War delayed the progress and prosperity in both England and France but it strengthened royal authority in both kingdoms and greatly influenced the development of modern nation-states. The war ended favorable for France which afterwards finally established strong central government and completed the unification of France by incorporating the Duchy of Burgundy, Provence with Marseille and the Duchy of Brittany.

The defeat in the Hundred Years’ War ended the English aspirations on the Continental Europe, while the English occupation with war against France enabled Ireland to develop virtual independence under English overlordship. After the victory of Robert the Bruce over the English forces in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 England temporarily lost Scotland which afterwards developed into a strong state under Stuarts, while the Welsh Revolt in 1400 resulted in the semi-independence of Wales. Almost immediately after the end of the Hundred Years’ War broke out a civil war over the English throne between the adherents of the House of Lancaster and the House of York known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485). However, the Wars of the Roses which ended with the accession of Henry VII to the English throne resulted in the establishment of a strong, central royal government.

Iberian Peninsula saw the unification of the most powerful Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula – Aragon and Castile which was achieved through marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon with Isabella of Castile in 1469. Unified Aragon and Castile continued the war against the Moors and by capturing Granada in 1492 finally ended the Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula and completed the Reconquista.

The three Scandinavian kingdoms – Denmark, Norway (with Iceland and Greenland) and Sweden were united under Queen Margaret I of Denmark in the Kalmar Union in 1397. The Kalmar Union unified the Scandinavian countries theoretically as equal but Denmark as the strongest state was dominating the union. The election of Gustav Vasa as King of Sweden in 1523 resulted in the collapse of the Kalmar Union although it was never formally dissolved.

In contrary to England and France, the political changes in Germany caused further decentralization of the central government. Numerous petty states emerged after the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire often ruled by nobles who claimed to be independent rulers, while the office of the Holy Roman Emperor was elective. The Holy Roman Emperors during the period of the Late Middle Ages were either elected from the House of Habsburg or the House of Luxembourg. Like Germany, Italy was not a nation-state in any aspect. The Italian peninsula was dominated by the cities-states (Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa) competing with each other for supremacy.

Major political changes also occurred in Eastern Europe which saw the establishment of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, a predecessor of the Russian national state and the rise of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, the greatest changes probably occurred in Southeastern Europe which was invaded by the Ottomans who finally destroyed the Byzantine Empire and made the Slavic kingdoms of the Balkan Peninsula their vassal states.

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