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By the end of the 13th century


Frederick II and his falconers
Frederick II and his falconers

By the end of the 13th century, dynastic realignments resulted in the gradual replacement of the stem duchies by several new principalities. Three of the new dynastic powers in particular—the Habsburg, Wittelsbach, and Luxemburg families—struggled to secure the imperial crown. In 1273 the electors ended the Great Interregnum by choosing Rudolf of Habsburg, a minor Swabian prince who was unable to repossess the lands that the principalities had usurped. Instead, Rudolf I concentrated on aggrandizing his own dynastic holdings. Aided by the Wittelsbachs and others, he defeated the rebellious Ottokar II of Bohemia and took the lands of Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola (modern Slovenia). The Habsburgs thus became one of the most powerful dynasties in the empire.

By the end of the 13th century, dynastic realignments resulted in the gradual replacement of the stem duchies by several new principalities. Three of the new dynastic powers in particular—the Habsburg, Wittelsbach, and Luxemburg families—struggled to secure the imperial crown. In 1273 the electors ended the Great Interregnum by choosing Rudolf of Habsburg, a minor Swabian prince who was unable to repossess the lands that the principalities had usurped. Instead, Rudolf I concentrated on aggrandizing his own dynastic holdings. Aided by the Wittelsbachs and others, he defeated the rebellious Ottokar II of Bohemia and took the lands of Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola (modern Slovenia). The Habsburgs thus became one of the most powerful dynasties in the empire.

At Rhense in 1338, the electors made the momentous declaration that henceforth the king of the Germans need only be the majority choice of the electors, instead of the unanimous one as was previously the case. This decision averted a civil war. They also declared that he would automatically be emperor without being crowned by the pope. This was reflected in the king’s title, official by the 15th century: Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation.

The popes, of course, objected to this change. Clement VI immediately opened negotiations with Charles, king of Bohemia and grandson of Henry VII. In 1347 Charles was chosen by five of the seven electors, who had deposed Louis IV. Charles IV diplomatically ignored the question of papal assent. In the Golden Bull of 1356, he specified the seven electors as the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the king of Bohemia.

Because the bull made their lands indivisible, granted them monopolies on mining and tolls, and secured monetary gifts from all imperial candidates, these seven rulers were now the strongest of all German princes. Charles then began building a great state in the east by entrenching his own dynasty in Bohemia, buying Brandenburg (which allowed him to become one of the seven electors), and taking Silesia from Poland. To obtain cash, he encouraged the silver, glass, and paper industries of Bohemia. He also oversaw a major cultural revival, adorning his capital Prague with new buildings in the late Gothic style and founding the first German university in Prague in 1348.

Charles’s son, Sigismund, who reigned from 1410 to 1437, was involved in calling the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The council invited the popular religious reformer Jan Hus (John Huss) to come to the assembly under imperial protection to present his views. Huss’s proposals for ecclesiastical reform challenged not only the authority of many church figures but also the political and cultural dominance of Germans in a predominantly Czech region. When he arrived in Constance, Huss was immediately imprisoned, tortured, and burnt at the stake as a heretic. His death was considered a martyrdom by many Czechs in Bohemia and led to a series of confrontations, known as the Hussite Wars, during the 1420s and 1430s.

While the more radical branches of the revolt were suppressed, moderates won some concessions from both Sigismund and the church in exchange for reconciliation.

When Sigismund died without an heir, the electors unanimously chose his Habsburg son-in-law Albert of Austria as Emperor Albert II. Albert died shortly thereafter, in 1439, but from that time on the imperial crown became in practice, although not officially, hereditary in the Habsburg line. Albert’s cousin and successor Frederick III successfully reunited different branches of the Habsburg family that had been previously split by inheritance, but he lost Hungary and Bohemia and sold Luxemburg to France. He also continually struggled with the German princes and the ever-encroaching Ottoman Empire on his eastern borders. In 1486 the princes forced him to cede his authority to his son Maximilian, but he retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor until 1493.

Maximilian I, who reigned from 1486 to 1519, was a knight and art patron. He enthusiastically laid many plans for the empire, but these never materialized. His chief success was in arranging marriages to benefit his family. By his own marriage to Mary of Burgundy, he acquired a rich territory that included thriving Dutch and Flemish towns. By marrying his son, Philip the Handsome, to Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, Maximilian ensured for his heirs all of the expanding Spanish empire, including possessions in Italy and the Americas. He betrothed his grandson Ferdinand to the heiress of Hungary and Bohemia, thus adding those states to his inheritance. The office of emperor meanwhile had become an increasingly symbolic position, to be used in the next five centuries to further Habsburg dynastic ambitions. "Germany" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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