Political Tendencies and Common Features

The creative tension between lordship and fellowship characterizing relations between lords and communities was present in all forms of association. Exploring these underscores the previous chapter’s argument that political and social orders were mutually reinforcing. Associations were almost invariably based on members of a similar socio-political status and were formed to advance corporate goals. They provided a means to transcend localism by providing a framework for individuals or communities of similar status to combine for mutual benefit. Most associations were formed to preserve existing status and privileges, but they could also seek to expand their members’ influence and bargain new rights. Emperors often viewed princely alliances with suspicion, while peasant and artisan movements generally appeared subversive, and have certainly been presented as such by many historians. Associational forms emerged alongside Estates society, which they reinforced rather than challenged. Their relationship to the Empire was broadly similar, and only two leagues, albeit important ones, led to the formation of independent states (Switzerland and the Dutch Republic).

Regardless of their different status, all corporate groups combined in similar ways. Until well into early modernity, all associations were at heart sworn alliances (coniurationes, or Einungen). These had already appeared amongst the Frankish clergy in the eighth century and spread to laity in the eleventh as a way to secure aid and protection on a mutual and more symmetrical basis than through subordination to a lord. As we have seen (pp. 513–15), sworn associations were important to the foundation of new towns and the urban communal movements. Townsfolk agreed to treat each other as brothers, creating a larger and formalized extended kinship. Oaths gave alliances a sacral character, heightened by the culture of personal presence. Members gathered together and signalled their participation by holding up the first two fingers of their right hand as their ‘oath fingers’ (Schwurfinger); hence the punishment of cutting off these fingers for those accused of breaking their promises.

The sacral element was strengthened by common religious activities like celebrating mass and venerating specific saints as patrons of an organization. Guilds, for instance, often maintained their own chapel and marched together in civic religious processions. This aspect peaked between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries when many associations were specifically founded for prayer or charitable purposes. The theological aspect lessened in Protestant areas with the Reformation, which undermined the basis for ‘good works’, but the Counter-Reformation gave renewed impetus in Catholic regions, notably with the establishment of Marian cults.1 Written culture contributed to lessening the religious element by allowing members to communicate across greater distances. Alliances were now enshrined in treaties, often signed and sealed by representatives acting for absent masters, though nobles clung to the practice of swearing personal oaths longer than did cities. The overlap between presence and written culture was strongest during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when common activities remained important elements in fostering solidarity. For example, Strasbourg’s guilds were known after the taverns where they met rather than by their trades. Princes and lords shared these changes of culture. For example, weddings and funerals provided important opportunities for political discussions and were a major feature of Protestant alliances.2

Oaths and charters were generally fixed in purpose and scope. Most associations were time-limited, though some were hereditary pacts binding on heirs and descendants. Exceptions were usually made so that individual members did not contravene any existing obligations to non-members. This became routine for all alliances between imperial Estates during early modernity, which usually stated they were not directed against the emperor or Empire. Members were nominally equal, unless the alliance combined several status groups. Equality was understood in terms of law, status and honour, but could take on a broader meaning in the more radical forms of association emerging in the high Middle Ages. Such trends were not restricted to those movements later historians have labelled as ‘popular’. For example, nobles also advocated openness and transparency, encouraging each member to declare his wealth under oath to ensure fair distribution of common burdens. Princes placed the least emphasis on equality, and were reluctant to enter blanket, open-ended arrangements that might threaten their autonomy. However, internal stratification was apparent in all associations, including those of the ‘common man’ (see pp. 579–94).

Regardless of their social composition, virtually all associations at least nominally elected their leaders, even if in practice it was often clear who the successful candidates would be. Nobles preferred small advisory committees, regarding plenary meetings as inconvenient and expensive. Towns preferred full meetings, since their own governments already included citizens’ assemblies balancing city councils, and alliances combining more than one status group adopted a similar approach.

Lay Associations

The spread of associations to laity in the eleventh century was part of the general disappearance of older forms of servitude and the adoption of more communal forms of living. As we have seen (pp. 240–42 and 487–9), both processes were related to the emergence of Estates society and thus also to hierarchy and the political order. The freedom to associate was never entirely autonomous and all alliances were concerned to assert their legitimacy. Most alliances appearing between 1100 and 1300 were local and related to specific economic activities and aspects of urban life. Merchants’ guilds were already appearing in northern Germany during the eleventh century, because individual lords were unable to protect long-distance traders. By combining, merchants were able to bargain for recognition and security from lords along their trade routes. Artisans’ and traders’ guilds emerged during the twelfth century to protect specific economic interests, such as fish-sellers in Worms (1106), Würzburg cobblers (1128) and Mainz weavers (1175). Such groups were always more than purely economic organizations. They certainly acted as closed shops, demanding high qualifications as barriers to new entrants, and imposing self-regulation and quality controls to discriminate against others seeking to engage in their trade. However, they also operated an internal moral economy to ensure all members had reasonable opportunities to make a living, and sustained collegiality by helping each other in the event of personal or family misfortune, and through various social and religious activities. Guilds proved potent platforms from which to bargain for rights and demand a share in communal government. Frederick II issued decrees banning them as subversive in 1219 and 1231, but their utility as a means of organizing and controlling trades ensured they continued.3

Apprentices’ and journeymen’s brotherhoods appeared during the economic depression of the 1330s and spread following the Black Death in reaction to the guilds’ increasing exclusivity. The practice of restricting masters’ titles to the sons of existing guild members excluded journeymen economically and politically. Craft guilds and journeymen’s associations survived into the nineteenth century, long after the merchants’ organizations had lost their function as international trade developed during the seventeenth century with greater legal protection from territorial governments. Journeymen followed craftsmen by making membership selective rather than voluntary, despite their continued outward assertions of freedom.

Lay organizations had already assumed their definitive form by the later fourteenth century, with further development restricted largely to consolidating existing practices. These organizations had become a permanent feature of towns and also rural crafts in many areas. As urban society matured, it spawned other associations, notably shooting clubs (Schützengesellschaften) between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their members were initially armed with crossbows, and, though they updated their weaponry to firearms as these developed, the shooting clubs remained primarily expressions of neighbourhood identity rather than practical military organizations.4 Humanist debating societies developed in the fifteenth century, such as the Societas Rhenania, founded in Heidelberg in 1495. These rarely had over 30 members each and declined during the confessional tension of the Reformation era, only to re-emerge around 1600 with a new focus on language and science. The Empire lagged behind Britain and France in developing coffee-house culture from the late seventeenth century, partly because it lacked such easy access to imported coffee, while the modest size of most towns restricted the market for what remained a luxury product. Vienna had only 80 cafés in the 1780s compared to 900 in Paris. However, the Empire’s polycentric socio-political structure encouraged a much more evenly distributed intellectual culture, especially given the equally broad spread of literacy and media outlets. There were 50 to 60 ‘patriotic’ and economic societies by the late eighteenth century, whose 4,500 members debated practical aspects of public life ranging from political economy to bee-keeping, and often published their own journals. In addition, there were 430 reading societies, with up to 20,000 members, and 250 to 300 freemasons’ lodges, with a similar membership.5

Unlike monastic orders that operated internationally, the Empire’s lay organizations remained local. The craftsmen’s and journeymen’s associations did not seek to federate between towns or across territories on the basis of common trades. Very few of the intellectual societies recruited members beyond their home region, though the relatively free flow of information allowed them to communicate with each other. Social life in the new universities established in Germany during the late fifteenth century was initially organized around their academic structure of four faculties: theology, law, medicine and philosophy. However, by 1600, student societies had formed around young men on the basis of their home region rather than subject of study. For instance, Rostock University, which only admitted around 200 students annually in the 1640s, had separate societies for Pomeranians, Westphalians, Brandenburgers, Silesians, Thuringians, Brunswickers, Prussians, Frisians, Holsteiners and Scandinavians, in addition to local boys from Mecklenburg.6


The Electors’ League

Associations between nobles and princes lacked the basis in physical proximity underpinning organizations like guilds within individual communities, but otherwise they shared many common features. They claimed to be free associations of legally empowered individuals, like those joining groups within communities, but unlike civic leagues, where communities combined as collective actors. Despite their more elevated socio-political status, combinations of nobles and princes were likewise often regarded as subversive by their superiors, notably during Henry IV’s reign. Princes initially had little interest in alliances, operating instead as kinship groups rather than as dynastic families needing allies. By contrast, collegiality developed much earlier among the electors, who shared an interest (like guildsmen) in excluding others from their organization.

The seven electors held 18 meetings independent of royal elections between 1273 and 1409, demonstrating a sense of corporate identity and responsibility for the Empire.7 The process of excluding papal interference encouraged the formation of the Electors’ League (Kurverein) in 1338, which became their main vehicle to assert collective pre-eminence over other princes through an exclusive, direct relationship to the emperor.8 Their identity was enshrined in the Golden Bull of 1356, which confirmed their right of free assembly. The four Rhenish electors of Mainz, Cologne, Trier and the Palatinate remained more influential than those in Bohemia, Saxony or Brandenburg throughout the later Middle Ages, partly because the latter three were held by the ruling Luxembourg family or its close allies. It was this Rhenish group that deposed Wenzel in 1400 and planned to do the same with Sigismund in 1424. However, the Hussite emergency encouraged Brandenburg and Saxony to cooperate more closely with their Rhenish colleagues, while the parallel decline of the three ecclesiastical electors relative to neighbouring secular princes prompted them to welcome greater collaboration. The Luxembourgs’ demise in 1437 ended the direct possession of an electorate by the monarch until the Habsburgs acquired Bohemia in 1526, further encouraging collegiality.

However, tensions continually resurfaced, especially between Mainz and the Palatinate, and prevented the electors dominating the Reichstag as it emerged around 1495. The four Rhenish electors remained the active core, leading the process of electing Charles V and holding at least 15 meetings separate from their other three colleagues during his reign. Their attempt to assert exclusive leadership had failed by 1567, ensuring the electors remained a single college, despite new tensions following the conversion of the elector Palatine (1560) and his Brandenburg colleague (1613) to Calvinism. The Electors’ League was confirmed in 1558 and 1635, but the development of the permanent Reichstag after 1663 removed the need for separate meetings.9 This brief survey already reveals a pattern that will reappear throughout this chapter. Collaboration developed along corporate-status lines in the late Middle Ages, assumed more institutional form around 1500, and was ultimately rendered superfluous by the Reichstag’s permanence after 1663, leading to a decline in most forms of political associations.

Aristocratic Associations

Aristocratic associations developed in response to the adverse circumstances affecting many nobles from the mid-thirteenth century, including the growth of more coherent principalities and more potent towns, as well as economic fluctuations. While many lesser lords thrived by exploiting the new opportunities, there were always large numbers who found themselves squeezed between assertive peasants and aggressive princes. Princes and other titled aristocrats like counts were emerging as clearly superior to knights and other untitled lords, who were simultaneously losing their immediate relationship to the emperor (see pp. 375–7). Charles IV’s wholesale dissipation of the crown lands accelerated this trend from the 1370s and princes replaced the emperor as lord over many of the Empire’s lesser fiefs.

The knights and other lesser nobles were not doomed feudal reactionaries, nor is there evidence of any general ‘crisis of the aristocracy’.10 Götz von Berlichingen was the most famous of the ‘robber barons’, immortalized in Goethe’s play of 1773, which presents his predicament as exemplifying a clash between old and new orders. As the fifth and youngest son of a family of Swabian knights, Götz’s options indeed appeared limited and he pursued 15 separate feuds that eventually made his name as both a troublemaker and a skilled commander. In fact, he adapted well to the changing circumstances, amassing considerable wealth and writing his autobiography, which eventually served as Goethe’s source material. Götz’s knightly contemporary, Ulrich von Hutten, was one of the Empire’s leading intellectuals. Franz von Sickingen, who died leading the Knights Revolt in 1523, exemplified the many former ministeriales who rose in princely service. Sickingen’s own family secured the status of immediacy in 1488, while he acquired land, castles and considerable wealth through controlling the Palatinate’s mercury mines. Like other knights, he both fought princes and served them as a mercenary commander and moneylender.

Thus, we should see the associations of the lesser lords and knights both as means to defend their autonomy amidst often threatening circumstances and as vehicles for individuals to profit from those same circumstances. Knights were not averse to serving princes, but they generally wished to preserve or acquire immediacy. The counts of the Harz region in north Germany attempted this by forming a sworn association based on kinship to manage their possessions collectively as a condominium. Like townsfolk and guildsmen, they hoped to minimize internal discord, because this threatened to expose them to potentially dangerous neighbours. To this end, they forswore feuding and agreed to submit disputes to common arbitration, as well as to cooperate in exploiting their mines and to ransom any member captured in disputes with outsiders.11 The Harz region failed to develop as a coherent territory when the individual counties were acquired by neighbouring princes. However, princely families also found similar arrangements useful to preserve collective weight if dynastic partition had created several branches sharing relatively small areas, as was the case among the Welfs, the Askanier in Anhalt and the Ernestine Saxons into the seventeenth century. The spread of primogeniture and the development of a clearer status hierarchy discouraged this practice by identifying princely rank and constitutional rights more precisely with individual imperial fiefs by the 1580s.

Lesser lords also collaborated by pooling resources to build and maintain ‘co-heirship castles’ (Ganerbenburgen) like Burg Friedberg on the Middle Rhine founded in 1337 by 12 families who elected a common castellan. Such groups were quite common in Hessen, Baden, Württemberg, Alsace, Lower Saxony and the Palatinate, where the knights were more common than in eastern Germany. Like the Harz counts’ condominium, this form of co-proprietorship was binding on heirs and linked to internal discipline and self-sacrifice. For example, members who engaged in unsanctioned feuds were to be expelled for endangering the collective. The Friedberg group demonstrated considerable potential, acquiring the mortgage to the imperial city of the same name in 1455, and buying the county of Kaichen 20 years later. This enabled the Friedberg group to play an influential role in both the Wetterau counts’ group after 1492 and the Rhenish imperial knights’ canton, securing survival as a miniature aristocratic republic until annexed by Hessen-Darmstadt at the Empire’s dissolution in 1806.12

While such groups based on kinship and co-ownership were tolerated, associations between unrelated noblemen were viewed with suspicion after the formation of the first such league in 1331. The Golden Bull condemned such organizations as conspiratorial, but the prevailing circumstances continued to compel lesser lords to band together and so new leagues emerged after 1360. Faced with the Hussite insurrection and lacking his own territory within the Empire, Sigismund saw advantages in cooperating with the nobles and granted privileges to all knights, including those lacking immediacy, endorsing the formation of knights’ unions in 1422.

While their social character was broadly uniform, the political direction of knights’ unions diverged according to local circumstances. Those formed in less-populated areas were generally obliged to define themselves relative to only one locally dominant prince and so had less room to manoeuvre than organizations that could bargain with several powerful lords. Violence could erupt if the local princely family split internally, as occurred amongst the Habsburgs in the fourteenth century, or if the prince accumulated large debts or pursued dangerous external policies. Frederick III did both in the 1450s, prompting 39 Austrian nobles to establish the Mailberg League in October 1451. This soon expanded to 500 members, including Bohemians and Hungarians, and ultimately the League besieged him in Wiener Neustadt. Frederick clashed again with his nobles in 1461–3 and 1469–71, and while he prevented them from emancipating themselves as free knights, he had to allow them a greater say in managing Austria through the provincial Estates.13

A broadly similar pattern emerged in Bavaria, where the duke slowly persuaded his knights after 1311 that their status and privileges derived from him, rather than from some ancient right. Although this undercut claims to be immediate, it offered the Bavarian knights improved protection against other nobles during feuds, as well as opening employment opportunities in the duchy’s expanding administration. The Württemberg counts employed similar methods to encourage dependency and secure a ready pool of armed retainers. However, the Bavarian knights saw disputes within the ducal family after 1489 as an opportunity to escape its jurisdiction and established a league known as the Löwlerbund. Within five years they were obliged to accept submission in return for improved local corporate rights, which expanded in 1557 to representation in the Bavarian Estates. As in Austria, Estates representation enabled the nobles to oblige their prince to negotiate how much their tenants should pay in territorial taxes. Their position was consolidated through their employment as tax collectors and district officials.14

The chances to preserve autonomy were better in regions with more people and resources, like Swabia, Franconia and the Rhineland. The greater proximity of nobles encouraged cooperation, while princely jurisdictions were split, opening niches for more autonomy. Additionally, these regions were heartlands of the imperial church, which provided nobles with alternative employment, income and influence, lessening their dependency on secular masters. For example, princely power was split in Franconia by the fifteenth century between the margraves of Ansbach and Bayreuth and the bishops of Bamberg and Würzburg, together with a number of counts and other more modest lords. Württemberg’s influence in Swabia was balanced by the Habsburgs, whose possessions in nearby Alsace and the Breisgau allowed them to intervene as local princes as well as in their capacity after 1438 as the imperial family. This already proved significant during the events in Bavaria between 1489 and 1494 when the emperor initially backed the Löwler League to force Bavaria’s duke to relinquish his grip on the heavily indebted imperial city of Regensburg.

Swabia saw the formation in 1408 of the most important knights’ organization, the League of St George’s Shield (St Georgenschild). This soon encompassed all Swabian free nobles and many of those in Franconia who joined to defend their autonomy against powerful princes. Although the League declined after 1468, it revived two decades later when it was given greater coherence through regional subdivision into four ‘quarters’ and the creation of a court to regulate internal disputes. By that point, 29 prelates and 26 counts and barons were members along with 531 knights. The decision to back the Habsburgs in the Swiss War of 1499 overstretched the League. Many found membership too costly and numbers plummeted to 27 prelates, 10 counts and barons and just 60 knights. Attempts to revive it in 1512 foundered on growing status tensions, especially as the counts and prelates were better placed to participate in the new institutions created by imperial reform and no longer wanted such close ties to people they regarded as socially inferior.15

The Knights Revolt, 1522–3

As we have seen (pp. 408–9), the introduction of imperial taxes forced those claiming ‘free’ status to decide whether to pay to retain this, or risk losing immediacy by avoiding the new burdens. The knights had already resisted attempts by princes to include them in the new territorial taxes developed after the mid-fourteenth century (see pp. 531–4). Many opted out of the territorial Estates that emerged at this point by claiming they were ‘free’ and thus exempt from such burdens. Although the knights were usually personally exempt, they realized that the new taxes would take a significant proportion of their tenants’ rents, thereby reducing their own incomes just as it was becoming more expensive to fund an aristocratic lifestyle. When the Franconian princes convened in 1495 to discuss collecting the new Common Penny agreed by the Reichstag, the local knights responded with the classic argument that they were exempt because they already paid a ‘blood tax’ as society’s warriors.16

It is here that we can see another example of how society and politics interacted in the Empire. Unlike territorial taxes, the Common Penny and subsequent imperial levies enjoyed a higher legitimacy through being sanctioned by the Reichstag and through their purpose in upholding justice and repelling the Turks. Simultaneously, imperial reform disadvantaged the knights relative to the princes, who were now clearly identified as the prime guardians of the eternal public peace that had outlawed feuding. Princely dignity and status were anchored constitutionally, whereas knights had lost an important means of defending their autonomy, rank and honour. The new order was underlined by the deposition of Duke Ulrich of Württemberg for murdering a love rival and annexing the imperial city of Esslingen, which led to the imperial sequestration of his duchy between 1519 and 1534.17 The message was clear: princes had nothing to gain from defying the new order and everything to lose.

The situation was more complicated for the knights, who lacked both resources and a firm role in the new institutions. Although individually weak, they retained potential through cooperation. Franz von Sickingen and Götz von Berlichingen demonstrated this in 1515 when they drew on their personal contacts to recruit 7,000 mercenaries for their feud with the city of Worms. Seven years later they mustered 2,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry against the elector of Trier. Unfortunately, at the time this made the knights appear an even greater threat to the Empire’s peace and the newly institutionalized status hierarchy. Matters deteriorated as Sickingen convened a series of congresses in 1521–2 culminating in the formation of the Landau League of Swabian and Rhenish knights. There was nothing unusual about this organization, which displayed all the features of previous knightly associations, as well as those being formed among the counts to assert collective influence in the Reichstag. The Landau members promised mutual aid and forswore internal feuds. However, the wider circumstances, combined with the knights’ continued refusal to pay imperial taxes, made their organization immediately subversive.

The response also showed how much had been changed by imperial reform. Charles V’s brother Ferdinand mobilized support through the Empire’s new legal and peacekeeping mechanisms. Sickingen and his fellow knights were branded outlaws, making them fair game for the south-western princes who mobilized against them. Sickingen died as his castle of Landstuhl was pummelled by princely artillery on 7 May 1523. The princes went on to demolish a further 23 castles.18 Already suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, Ulrich von Hutten fled to an island on Lake Zürich where he died three months later, while the surviving knights submitted to princely authority.

Imperial Knighthood

The Franconian knights largely abstained from backing Sickingen, already adopting a less confrontational course after 1507 by stressing subordination to the emperor. By 1532, they and their Swabian counterparts accepted the logic of their own argument and paid a ‘voluntary subsidy’ (subsidium charitativum) direct to Ferdinand.19 This decision to contribute directly secured the hybrid status of imperial knighthood (Reichsritterschaft). The knights remained personally free under the emperor and distinct from mediate territorial nobles solely under a prince. Imperial knights thus did not participate in territorial Estates, causing those still doing so in Swabia and Franconia to opt out. However, the knights were not full imperial Estates since their earlier refusal to pay imperial taxes had led to their exclusion from the Reichstag and the Kreis Assemblies. For this reason, they were excluded from the religious settlement of 1555 and denied the right of Reformation to manage their own churches. Lacking full imperial fiefs, the knights also only possessed lesser criminal jurisdiction, meaning their tenants were subject to princely courts for more serious offences. In fact, though their possessions were immediate, they were also frequently bound in vassalage to local princes and generally followed their lead in religious matters.20

However, additional imperial privileges in 1559 exempted the knights and their tenants from being taxed or conscripted by princes, who were obliged to accept the knights’ fiefs as ‘freer’ than ordinary mediate fiefs. The situation remained in flux as the pace of imperial reform slowed in the later sixteenth century. Many knights pushed for allodification of their fiefs, meaning their conversion to direct personal possessions, which would have removed princely jurisdiction entirely and left them only with the emperor as direct overlord.

The ambiguities were exposed by another, more localized revolt, instigated by Wilhelm von Grumbach, a knight who played king-maker in the bishopric of Würzburg by securing the election of his preferred candidate, Konrad von Bibra, in 1540. Bibra’s death three years later exposed Grumbach to the revenge of the man he had originally defeated, Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt. Grumbach skilfully exploited all the Empire’s mid-sixteenth century problems, which provides a further reason to explore this incident in detail. The backdrop was the aftermath of Charles V’s victory over the Schmalkaldic League and his attempt to reorganize imperial management, which eventually led to the Princes Revolt of 1552. As elsewhere, Franconian lords were entangled in a myriad of local disputes over churches, landownership, territorial and criminal jurisdictions, and the pressures resulting from attempts to forge more centrally steered fiscal and administrative systems at the territorial level. All lords from prince to knight were also struggling to accommodate younger sons amidst changing forms of inheritance.

Like Sickingen, Grumbach was no reactionary throwback, and he exploited opportunities provided by the new institutions, including winning a case in the Reichskammergericht against Zobel over possession of his Würzburg knight’s fief. Grumbach secured the backing of princes who had been punished by the Habsburgs for picking the wrong side in the larger conflicts in the Empire between 1546 and 1553, notably the notoriously unruly Margrave Albrecht Alcibiades, who had been his pupil, and the Ernestine Saxon Johann Friedrich II, who had lost his electoral title to his Albertine cousin following defeat in the Schmalkaldic War. However, Grumbach also deliberately played the theme of the ‘good old days’ of knightly autonomy to rally support. Without his knowledge, one of his supporters murdered Zobel in 1558. The new bishop blamed Grumbach and confiscated his fief. Grumbach’s decision in 1563 to retaliate by declaring a feud transformed a complex case in which no party was entirely innocent, into a clear breach of imperial law.

Crucially, the new emperor, Maximilian II, decided to work through the institutional framework to restore peace, rather than accept the offer of an alliance with the knights against the princes. Efforts to defuse the situation in 1566 through talks in the Reichstag failed when Johann Friedrich II declared for Grumbach in the hope of recovering his lost electoral title. Maximilian branded the unfortunate Grumbach and his allies outlaws, thus sanctioning a repeat of 1523 as the south German princes combined to restore order by force. Grumbach was captured and executed to make an example in 1567.21

The ‘Grumbach Affair’ attracted attention across the Empire, not least for wild rumours of conspiracies involving Calvinists and the French. However, its real importance was in demonstrating both the effectiveness of imperial reform and how it had created a new constitutional order. By 1566 it was already obvious that there was little enthusiasm amongst the knights and territorial nobles for aristocratic associations as alternatives to accommodation with the Empire and princes. The latter worked to defuse tension by accepting the knights as junior, but nonetheless legitimate, partners in the Empire’s status hierarchy. The 1566 Reichstag confirmed that knights could incorporate their fiefs into ‘cantons’ on a regional basis, thereby giving them a distinct, common organization to secure autonomy whilst they still remained vassals of princes. The knights united as a common corporate group in 1570, agreeing to pay contributions to the emperor to subsidize defence against the Turks, and establishing a permanent infrastructure of five Swabian, six Franconian and three Rhenish cantons, plus a further, autonomous Alsatian canton. Although they held common congresses after 1577, cantonal organization remained restricted to membership fees that supported a small staff handling correspondence with imperial institutions. The most important attribute of self-regulation was the ability to decide collectively on applications from outsiders for membership.22

Internal solidarity remained heavily influenced by long-established family alliances, kinship and communal property ownership, like that at Friedberg. Cronyism and nepotism prevailed over confessional differences, except for increased tensions during the period 1590–1640. Knights established a firm grip on the cathedral chapters in Mainz, Bamberg, Würzburg and several other important church lands, enabling individual families like the Schönborns to exercise considerable influence in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century imperial politics.23

Princes broadly accepted the consolidation of imperial knighthood since this contained the knights as a distinct group, thus reducing the likelihood that their own territorial nobles would gain similar freedoms. There were some 1,600 to 1,700 imperial knights’ fiefs in the late eighteenth-century Empire. Together, these encompassed 10,455 square kilometres with 450,000 inhabitants, making them collectively equivalent to one of the larger principalities such as Hessen-Kassel or Salzburg. However, these fiefs were split between around 400 families and were scattered across south and west Germany. By contrast there were 1,400 mediate church and knightly fiefs in Bavaria alone, and perhaps around 50,000 noble families in Germany, with many more in the Habsburg and Hohenzollern lands outside the Empire.24

Residual jurisdiction still allowed princes to mediatize knights’ fiefs, for example if families died out or broke the law. The Franconian margraves recovered 99 fiefs in this way between 1618 and 1730, while the bishop of Würzburg suppressed 29. The dukes of Württemberg simply bought 21 fiefs between 1545 and 1724. Other forms of pressure could be applied, such as damming crucial streams or restricting the movement of goods and people. Württemberg, Hessen, Ansbach and the Palatinate were the most aggressive towards the knights, notably during Charles VII’s weak imperial rule (1742–5).25

The knights responded by seeking to upgrade their status from ‘members of the Empire’ (membra imperii) to full imperial Estates, but they continually undermined their case by refusing to accept additional burdens. The Wetterau counts had already accepted these in 1495 and secured a collective vote in the Reichstag’s princely college. The formalization of a clearer status hierarchy through imperial reform encouraged the counts to break ranks with the knights. The Wetterau counts had already separated from the local imperial knights in 1511, while the acquisition of similar collective votes by the Swabian, Franconian and Westphalian counts reduced cooperation in these regions too.26 The knights further wrecked their chances by recklessly insisting on precedence ahead of the imperial cities during negotiations to include them in the Reichstag in the 1640s. Further attempts later in the seventeenth century and again in the 1770s foundered on similar problems. The knights’ relationship to the Empire remained largely personal and direct to the emperor. They continued to pay significant voluntary contributions in wartime, while many validated their status by serving in the Habsburg army; over 80 knights held the rank of general or colonel in the Thirty Years War alone.27

Cross-Status Alliances

The knights’ relationship to the counts points to the difficulties encountered during early modernity in forming alliances across different status groups. A coincidence of interests could overcome this at regional level, especially in the south-west, which had the highest concentration of cities, knights, lords and princes. Most of these combined with Frederick III to form the Swabian League on 14 February 1488 (Map 18). The most potent of all late medieval regional alliances, the League absorbed the smaller Lower Union, founded in 1474, as well as the St George’s Shield association. Frederick joined in his capacity as Austrian archduke, allowing him to cooperate with a wide range of his socio-political inferiors without compromising his personal authority as emperor.

The League mixed elements of late medieval associations, like forswearing feuds and promising mutual aid, with new ideas deriving from imperial reform, including a quota system for military and financial contributions, and a coordinating council composed of representatives from all status groups. The members deliberately reconstituted their organization in 1500 as a formal league, dropping the earlier label ‘union’ (Einung) with its roots in looser, sworn associations.28 Despite its failure against the Swiss in 1499, the League prevailed over Bavaria in freeing Regensburg in 1492, liberated Esslingen from Ulrich of Württemberg in 1519, crushed the Knights Revolt in 1523, and surmounted the far greater challenge of the Peasants War in 1524–6. Importantly, cross-status solidarity proved stronger than cooperation in separate groups. Württemberg left the League in 1512, because its duke refused to work with the cities, yet his attempt to found an alternative, exclusively princely alliance collapsed amidst mutual recriminations. Similarly, the knightly St George’s Shield association withered because the League appeared to offer better security.

A major factor in the League’s success was its firm basis in imperial law, which had encouraged regional collaboration to uphold the public peace since the twelfth century. This became more complicated as the League expanded to include members across the Rhineland and central and south-east Germany, notably during the suppression of the peasants in 1524–6. By then, however, the League was already being rendered redundant by the parallel development of institutions created through imperial reform (see pp. 402–12). These appeared more attractive, partly thanks to their broader constitutional basis and closer relationship to the emperor, but also because they were more clearly organized hierarchically along status lines. The north German princes had already refused to join the League because, like Württemberg, they did not want to share power so evenly with the cities. The League’s court dealt with an average of five cases annually, whereas the number of cases brought by Swabians to the Reichskammergericht rose from 20 in 1500 to between 30 and 40 after 1515, prompting the League to subordinate its own judiciary to the new imperial court.29 Finally, the Habsburgs realized that imperial institutions were more useful, because they offered a way to engage with all imperial Estates, whereas the League’s members remained primarily concerned with their own region and, for instance, refused to back Maximilian I in his war with Venice in 1508. Whereas the Empire was eternal, the League was time-limited, requiring periodic negotiations to renew it. Habsburg-Bavarian tension further eroded cohesion and the last charter was allowed to expire on 2 February 1534.

Confessional Leagues

Confessional tension was a further factor undermining the Swabian League and a new element in imperial politics. Confession appeared to offer an alternative to regionalism as a way of uniting different status groups across a much wider area. The Schmalkaldic League emerged in 1531 from a northern group of Lutheran imperial Estates led by Saxony, and a southern group organized by Hessen.30 The Protestant Union (1608), Catholic League (1609) and Heilbronn League (1633) also demonstrated confession’s ability to foster solidarity across social and geographical distance. All four organizations included electors, princes, counts and cities from across the Empire (Map 19).

Apart from their confessional character, all resembled the Swabian League in combining traditional mutual aid and internal peace with the more formalized structures emerging from imperial reform, including written charters, governing councils balanced by plenary congresses, and the quota system to distribute burdens. The alliances, like the Empire, thus possessed mechanisms to mobilize forces when required, rather than permanent armies. They also copied the new regional framework of the Kreise. The Schmalkaldic and Catholic leagues had northern and southern ‘directories’, while a further south-western directory was briefly added to the Catholic League in 1615–17. The Protestant Union had a more geographically restricted membership consisting mainly of western and central German territories. Its successor, the Heilbronn League, was formed by Sweden to coordinate its German allies during the Thirty Years War and expressly used the Kreis structure to group the smaller Protestant and occupied territories of Swabia, Franconia, the Upper and the Electoral Rhine. Negotiations failed to include the larger principalities from the two Saxon Kreise. The Heilbronn League convened only two congresses and collapsed soon after Sweden’s defeat to the Habsburgs at Nördlingen in 1634. Although also weak, the Protestant Union nonetheless held 25 plenary congresses across its 13-year existence, matching the activity of its Schmalkaldic predecessor. The Catholic League also met frequently, both during its first incarnation from 1609 to 1617, and again once it was revived with imperial permission between 1619 and 1634. All four mobilized substantial armed forces, especially the Schmalkalders, who fought Charles V in 1546–7, and the Catholic League, which backed Ferdinand II during the Thirty Years War.

Yet it is going too far to claim that any of these organizations possessed ‘true state-like qualities’.31 None added to the range of institutional forms already pioneered by the Swabian League and imperial reform. All struggled to legitimate themselves, since appeals to confession could – and did – contradict loyalty to the emperor. The Schmalkalders already suffered severe internal tensions, because not all of them were willing to accept the more radical Protestant resistance theories (see pp. 109–10). Their comprehensive defeat in 1547 rendered purely confessional arguments doubly suspect thereafter. The Protestant Union laboured to present itself instead as a temporary auxiliary to the formal imperial institutions which it claimed had broken down, arguments that its own leadership undermined through their part in disrupting the Reichstag and imperial courts. Individual members fought the Habsburgs during the Thirty Years War, but the Union dissolved itself rather than break openly with the emperor. The Catholic League faced similar problems and was pushed into dissolving itself by Emperor Matthias in 1617. Its revival two years later owed much to the skills of its founder, Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria, who presented his organization merely as an auxiliary to official efforts at restoring peace on the emperor’s terms. Maximilian delayed military operations until he received mandates authorizing action against the emperor’s enemies.32

Concern over legitimacy deterred many potential members. The Schmalkaldic League had only recruited 23 imperial Estates by 1535, while the Union peaked at around 30 members, or barely half of all Protestant territories. Only three of the larger principalities joined the Heilbronn League, restricting its membership to the weaker counts and cities. The Catholic League was essentially a Bavarian-led alliance of the imperial church lands, with a few associated counts and cities. The Union and Catholic League were primarily vehicles for the interests of the rival Palatine and Bavarian branches of the Wittelsbachs. Apart from the Heilbronn League, which was formed in wartime, the other alliances were split between a majority who saw membership as insurance should sectarianism descend into violence, and a conspiratorial minority who secretly relished the prospect of confrontation. Like the Swabian League, all found it difficult to hold their leadership to account, especially as princes used personal meetings to hatch plans outside the formal framework of councils and congresses.

Kreis Associations

The Swabian League’s vitality inhibited the activation of the Kreis structure in that region. The first Swabian Kreis assembly only convened in 1542, eight years after the League’s charter expired.33 Thereafter, Swabia became the most active and effective of all ten Kreise, because its collective institutions repeatedly proved their worth in resolving common problems in this, the most territorially fragmented of the Empire’s regions. The more inclusive character of Kreis representation made the assemblies especially useful for the Empire’s weakest territories, which lacked full votes in the Reichstag. Confessional tension periodically disrupted the Swabian Assembly, which met in separate Protestant and Catholic congresses on several occasions during the seventeenth century. These were always ‘a crisis rather than a break’, as the overall Kreis structure survived throughout and ensured the two parties still talked to each other.34

The Kreise had been assigned a wide range of functions by the imperial legislation between 1500 and 1570, establishing them as legitimate platforms for regional and cross-regional collaboration. Their assemblies convened common congresses between 1544 and 1577, but these were rendered redundant by the Reichstag’s supremacy as the ‘national’ forum; this was something that the electors actively promoted to secure their own political pre-eminence. However, the Kreis Assemblies demonstrated their utility during the Thirty Years War when they provided confessionally neutral venues for the Empire’s weaker political elements to coordinate their response to the crisis.35 Security concerns after 1648 encouraged continued efforts to base regional and cross-regional defence on the Kreis structure. This gained momentum as mutual rivalries revealed the fragility of purely princely alliances, which proved unable to outlast the temporary coincidence of interest prompting their formation. The most significant was the Rhenish Alliance of 1658–68, which was the only princely group to have a broader agenda of stabilizing the post-1648 political balance in the Empire.36 Led by Mainz, the Alliance eventually encompassed around 20 Protestant and Catholic secular and ecclesiastical princes. Yet it was fatally compromised by its association with France, a power clearly intending its sponsorship of the group as a means to disrupt Habsburg management of the Empire.

As part of the imperial constitution, the Kreise offered a framework capable of sustaining broad cross-status alliances through formal ‘associations’ agreed by two or more Kreis Assemblies, which were binding on all their members. The more inclusive representation through the assemblies reassured the weaker Estates that they had a reliable mechanism to control their more powerful neighbours. The new responsibilities assigned the Kreise by the Empire’s defence reform in 1681–2 prevented the electors from frustrating such cooperation as they had done in the late sixteenth century. In fact, Mainz emerged as the main promoter of Kreis Associations, because its electors took their responsibilities towards the Empire seriously, and saw leadership of the smaller imperial Estates as a way of sustaining their traditional status as arch-chancellors.37 Swabian-Franconian collaboration expanded after 1691 into an association with the Bavaria, Westphalian, Upper and Electoral Rhenish Kreise, thus encompassing the majority of the Empire’s weakest territories. The association greatly assisted defence coordination, but suffered from the polarization of imperial politics through Austro-Prussian rivalry. Although renewed indefinitely on 1 March 1748, the association’s stipulation that its members be allowed to remain neutral rendered it useless for Habsburg policy and it effectively ceased to exist.38

Underlying the demise of the Kreis Association was a much broader factor that rendered all princely and noble leagues redundant: the Reichstag’s permanence after 1663 gave all imperial Estates an effective forum to debate policy and assert status. Eighteenth-century princely alliances were primarily expressions of clientele politics as princes sought to advance their dynastic goals by allying with the emperor or major international partners like France, Britain or the Dutch Republic.39 The pattern only changed in the 1770s as middling princes discussed how to preserve their autonomy amidst Austro-Prussian tension. However, they no longer saw the cities, counts, prelates or knights as useful partners and, indeed, harboured designs to annex them to make their own lands more viable. This direction assumed its logical conclusion in the ultimate of all princely leagues, the Confederation of the Rhine of 16 middling princes with Napoleon in July 1806, which precipitated the Empire’s collapse a month later (see pp. 653–4).


The Lombard League

Civic leagues were a response to the threats posed by lords and princes. Like aristocratic associations, they were ultimately rendered redundant by the growth of a variety of imperial institutions that proved a more attractive means to maintain their members’ identity and autonomy. Townsfolk were jealous of their freedoms, which they rarely wished to extend to their rural neighbours, whom they frequently derided as bumpkins or as servile followers of lords. The latter were also regarded as part of the rural world separate from urban sophistication, though this distinction was less pronounced in Italy than in Germany. Lords were resented for their demands for taxes and, later, soldiers and artillery. The development of effective gunpowder weaponry from the mid-fifteenth century prompted many towns to rebuild their fortifications and to store artillery and ammunition, placing them at the forefront of military developments. Even in the eighteenth century, imperial cities were expected to provide most of the imperial army’s artillery train.

For their part, lords saw towns as dangerous havens of equality, responsible for subverting their tenants and encouraging a land-flight that denuded them of workers. New ideas of knighthood partly transcended lordly and princely hierarchies from the thirteenth century to forge a common sense of themselves as noble warriors embodying true freedom in contrast to grubby towns filled with greedy merchants and wage slaves. However, lords and cities were not necessarily antagonistic. Lords were often involved in founding and promoting urban development and benefited from civic amenities. Townsfolk could see advantages in lordly protection, while the trend to more oligarchical urban government created an upper stratum whose members were often keen to acquire noble status.40

These ambiguities are manifest in the history of the Empire’s civic leagues, which was never a simple clash between progressive citizens and reactionary aristocrats. Lordly-civic relations were always part of a wider matrix that could see cooperation or conflict depending on circumstances. As we have seen (pp. 519–222), most towns experienced internal tensions between those holding power and others seeking to supplant them. The situation in Italy was further complicated by the attempts of major cities to control their surrounding regions, and by the papal-imperial conflicts of the high Middle Ages. Many Italian burghers, including the Romans, preferred the emperor to the pope, but as we have seen (pp. 34–6 and 512–14), the Empire’s rulers did not view politics in class terms and their alliances with individual towns were contingent on circumstances.

Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ demanded that Italian lords and cities return imperial regalia at the assembly in Roncaglia in November 1158. However, he was prepared to transfer privileges back to those cities that supported him, like Pavia, Cremona, Como and Lodi. Local tensions between these cities and their own rivals prompted Milan to establish an alliance with Piacenza, Brescia and Tortona in 1159, which proved the precursor to Italy’s most powerful civic group, the Lombard League (Lega Lombarda). Events fitted the pattern of imperial intervention in Italy since 1077 with the emperor becoming mired in local and regional disputes. Conflict escalated as he had to reward allies, defend his honour and avenge setbacks. Milan was besieged at the instigation of the archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, whom Barbarossa had appointed as legate in Italy. Once captured in March 1162, Milan was razed and even its churches were demolished, their holy relics being carried off in triumph to Cologne.41

With Milan temporarily eliminated, the emperor’s civic partners had little reason to continue their collaboration and soon resented his tax demands. In March 1167 Cremona and Pavia formed the Lombard League, which swiftly expanded to include Bergamo, Brescia, Mantua, Padua, Venice, Verona, Vicenza, and Romagnol towns such as Bologna and Ferrara. The organization was backed by Pope Alexander III, who gave his name to the League’s new fortress of Alessandria, built in 1168 to block imperial control of the Po valley. However, the League never encompassed all Lombard cities, as local rivalries drove many into the imperial camp, including Milan, which was rebuilt in 1167. Verona formed its own, generally anti-imperial group to the east, while the Tuscan towns combined on a similar basis to the south.

Barbarossa accepted the impossibility of defeating the League by agreeing a six-year truce in 1177, which was extended as the compromise Peace of Konstanz in June 1183. The cities accepted continued imperial overlordship in return for confirmation of their communal autonomy and recognition of their League. The good working relationship persisted until the imperial civil war following the double election of 1198. Self-interest trumped corporate solidarity as Milan and its allies backed Otto IV, while Cremona and its associates supported the Staufers. Milan established a new Lombard League in March 1226, which became a significant factor in the renewed round of imperial-papal conflicts lasting into the 1250s. However, centrifugal forces grew with the rise of the signori, who saw control of communal government as a means to extend local hegemony. The Staufers’ demise removed the emperor as a factor in north Italian politics for nearly three-quarters of a century, during which civic solidarity was further eroded by the continued growth of more despotic governments.

German Civic Leagues

Few German cities matched their Italian counterparts’ control of their immediate hinterlands, and they were much more dependent on good relations with lords and other neighbours to secure the free flow of food and trade. Meanwhile, the Staufers’ promotion of a more numerous princely elite created a different political environment in which many German towns felt acutely vulnerable. Most towns were clustered in the Rhineland, Wetterau and Swabia, the areas where lordly jurisdiction was most fragmented and complex. This was both an opportunity and a threat. Fragmented jurisdictions could open possibilities for greater civic autonomy, especially for episcopal towns to escape their bishops’ control. However, proximity to multiple lords increased the chances for friction and antagonism. North German towns faced different challenges. Although there were fewer lords in their immediate vicinity, the long-distance trade required by these towns crossed multiple lordly jurisdictions and brought them into contact with powers outside the Empire, like Sweden and Russia. The Staufers’ preoccupation with Italy and south-west Germany forced northern towns to find alternative ways to protect their interests.

The result was a diverging pattern of civic alliances. The northern towns gradually combined as the Hanseatic League (Hansa), the largest civic alliance anywhere in medieval Europe (Map 21). Centred on Lübeck, which itself had only been founded 17 years earlier, the Hansa developed after 1160 as a means to protect specific trade routes, such as that between Lübeck and Novgorod. It broadened in the thirteenth century into a federated network as trade criss-crossed between cities establishing closer ties, like that between Hamburg and Lübeck after 1241.42 Writing at a time of heightened global competition with Britain, nineteenth-and early twentieth-century German historians presented the Hansa as the economic and cultural representatives of their nation, while more recent writers by contrast consider the League as offering an alternative to centralized state formation.43

The Hansa’s reach was certainly impressive, for it absorbed the Westphalian and Lower Saxon civic leagues (both formed 1246), as well as the Wendish alliance of south Baltic towns. By 1300, its trade network encompassed 2 million square kilometres and 15 million people, half of whom were outside the Empire. The core area extended for 1,500 kilometres of coastline from Flanders to Finland, with links up major rivers to inland cities like Cologne, Goslar and Magdeburg.44 The Hansa began using its collective weight after 1277 to force kings and princes to grant favourable trading concessions, leading to a series of struggles after 1388 with England, Russia and the count of Flanders. The core group of Wendish cities around Lübeck were foremost in promoting these conflicts, often against the wishes of other members. Meanwhile, individual cities used their new wealth to buy out local lords, who sold their jurisdictions to the city councils. For example, in 1392 Hamburg bought out the count of Schauenburg, who claimed the old rights over the city once exercised by the archbishop of Bremen. This enabled Hamburg, Lübeck and some other cities to become ‘free’ like episcopal cities that had escaped their bishops’ control.

Lübeck was relatively unusual in securing the additional status of an imperial city in 1226, though it did not attend imperial assemblies at this point.45 The emperor rarely appeared in the north and was not regarded as a natural partner. Although still part of the Empire, the Hanseatic towns did not participate in its politics or contribute to imperial reform. However, they did not create much of an alternative either, remaining only a loose alliance until the 1470s, when they belatedly established more formal structures, including an assembly. The extended membership and diverse trading interests made it difficult to find common ground. Few members were prepared to help others engaged in what usually appeared to be distant, local disputes.

Civic leagues emerged elsewhere in Germany around the same time as the Hansa, but with different characteristics. The initial catalyst was Frederick II’s absence in Italy, which saw the formation of the first Rhenish League in 1226 around Mainz, Bingen, Worms and Speyer, all episcopal towns seeking to widen their autonomy. The royal towns of Frankfurt, Gelnhausen and Friedberg also joined, giving the organization a compact geographical focus on the Rhine–Main nexus.46 The emperor’s initial response was broadly hostile, and civic leagues were banned by the charter granted to princes in 1231. However, in practice leagues were still tolerated and even encouraged as ways of securing the public peace through regional cooperation. The Wetterau urban league was established on this basis in 1232, comprising Wetzlar and the three royal towns from the first Rhenish League. The promulgation of an imperial public peace three years later gave such organizations firmer legal footing, while the growing disorder following the appearance of anti-kings in 1246–7 encouraged cooperation for mutual protection.47

A second Rhenish League was established by Mainz and Worms in February 1254 with a ten-year charter (Map 20). Within a year it had been joined by over 100 towns across the Rhineland, Westphalia, and southern, central and northern Germany, including territorial towns that joined with lordly permission; Ladenburg was even ordered to by the bishop of Worms. Eight ecclesiastical and 12 secular princes also joined, while William of Holland endorsed the organization in 1255, hoping to bolster his relatively weak royal rule. Richard of Cornwall followed his example after his election in 1257, enhancing the organization’s legitimacy and imparting something of the cross-status character displayed later by the Swabian League. Unlike that organization, the Rhenish League remained dominated by the cities and failed to establish a formal infrastructure. Indeed, it exemplified the weaknesses inherent in all the Empire’s civic leagues, whose rapid initial expansion diluted coherence and undermined unity.48 Nonetheless, the Rhenish League demonstrated that such organizations could prove potent, at least when faced with common threats. Already in September 1254 it besieged Ingelheim castle to punish Werner von Bolanden, a knight who had broken the public peace, and in October 1256 it inflicted similar treatment on Count Dieter of Katzenelnbogen.

Like the Staufers, Richard of Cornwall chose his allies according to their respect for established socio-political norms and their support for specific royal policies, and his collaboration with the cities was not an attempt to escape dependency on the princes (seepp. 378–9). Moreover, unlike in Italy, there were 105 royal towns on crown lands by the 1270s, which provided the monarch with more immediate urban partners. Here, Richard acted just like other lords, expecting his towns to back him in return for protection and sanctions for communal freedoms. Subsequently, Rudolf I’s reorganization of the crown lands threatened some towns which did not want to exchange their previous direct relationship to the monarch for the supervision of a bailiff appointed from amongst local lords who might have their own, more threatening agendas. The rapid succession of kings after 1291 undermined stable royal patronage further, as well as creating a generally more disturbed political environment. The result was a wave of new regional civic alliances, all formally identified with upholding the public peace: Thuringian (1303), Swabian (1312), Upper Lusatian (1346), Alsatian (1354), Rhenish (1381) and Lower Saxon (1382).49 The greatest of these was the Swabian Civic League established by Ulm on 4 July 1376. By 1385, some 40 mainly royal towns had joined the League.

The leagues offered a practical way to preserve the peace on which their members’ trade and food supplies depended. However, they could lead to problems for the emperor, who was forced to decide between his continued support for their efforts and the backing of strong princes opposed to the cities. Württemberg’s defeat of the Swabian towns at Altheim in February 1372 was both a catalyst for the Swabian Civic League and a factor behind Charles IV’s reappraisal of his efforts to recover the crown lands.50The final break came in 1377 when the royal cities refused to pay homage to Charles’s son Wenzel, the newly elected king of the Romans, in protest against the imposition of new taxes and the pawning of four towns to Bavaria. Charles could not ignore such open defiance and began hostilities by devastating the area around Ulm. Despite backing from Bavaria and Württemberg, royal forces were defeated at Reutlingen later in 1377, forcing Charles to promise not to pawn further towns. Relations soon broke down again after Wenzel’s accession in 1378, because he continued to insist on the new taxes, and failed to restrain the knightly Lion’s Society (Löwengesellschaft), which had emerged from the former royal bailiwick in the Wetterau and had attacked Frankfurt.

In response, the Swabians strengthened their organization by adopting the classic elements of a late medieval union: regular assemblies taking decisions by majority vote and acting as a court. They also mirrored the electors’ alliance in expressing allegiance to the Empire as a transpersonal monarchy whilst opposing Wenzel as king. This was a potentially powerful ideology, since it offered a way to transcend localism and regionalism by linking the welfare of individual communities with that of the Empire. The Swabians prefigured the later Kreis Associations by forging alliances en bloc with the Rhenish (1381) and Lower Saxon (1382) civic leagues, as well as with the Swiss Confederates (1385). These developments appeared doubly threatening to lords, because they occurred during the aftermath of the Black Death, which saw peasants threatening to migrate to towns unless they were granted greater social and economic freedoms. Renewed fighting had already developed after 1381 between individual towns and the weaker, minor lords. The unrest was a major factor in the growing resentment of Wenzel’s perceived misgovernment of the Empire. Wenzel attempted to resolve this by promulgating another public peace, at Nuremberg in 1383. The towns objected to the king’s insistence that they join this individually, rather than collectively, and they forced the princes to recognize the Swabian Civic League as a formal partner in 1384.

Two City Wars

As with the second Rhenish Civic League in the mid-thirteenth century, the potency of the Swabian Civic League attracted some princes, notably the archbishop of Salzburg. The archbishop secretly became its ally to protect himself while he pursued his own policy of incorporating rich religious houses, like Berchtesgaden priory, leading to war with the Bavarian duke in 1387. Emboldened by the recent victory of their Swiss allies over a Habsburg army at Sempach (July 1386), the Swabians felt obliged to back the archbishop, opening what became the First City War (Städtekrieg) in 1388–9.51 This was waged in the typical late medieval manner. None of the belligerents were able to sustain large forces for long, restricting most operations to raids against economic assets, such as sorties by citizens to burn a lord’s villages. The townsfolk’s willingness to meet the princes in battle proved their undoing: they were defeated by Count Eberhard II of Württemberg at Döffingen (August 1388) and by Count Palatine Ruprecht II at Worms (November 1388). A new, general public peace was proclaimed at Eger in May 1389, obliging the disbandment of the Swabian and Rhenish civic leagues and banning such organizations in future.

The episode confirmed what many citizens already knew: princes were unreliable allies liable to wreck civic harmony. However, the complexity of local-regional-imperial interactions inhibited political polarization along status lines. Cities continued to cooperate during Wenzel’s last decade and the reign of his successor, Ruprecht, but they refrained from further formal alliances. However, they also joined forces with princes against local common threats. The Swabians even combined with Eberhard II of Württemberg, despite his earlier role as royal tax collector, when they felt threatened by the local knights. Meanwhile, the Wetterau, Swabian and Alsatian towns joined Mainz and various south German princes in the Marbach League against Ruprecht in September 1405.52

Open alliances became possible again with the accession in 1410 of Sigismund, who saw civic and knightly associations as substitutes for a territorial base in the Empire. However, the emperor still appeared a fairly distant and unreliable partner for towns that faced continued encroachment from powerful princes like those in the Palatinate, Württemberg and Ansbach, who were consolidating their jurisdictions more clearly along territorial lines. The 1440s saw the establishment of a new Swabian Civic League, along with a separate alliance of Lake Constance towns and a Franconian group led by Nuremberg. The result was another City War in Swabia in 1449–50, leading to the collapse of the civic league in that region in 1454, while the Franconians fought slightly more successfully against Margrave Albrecht Achilles of Bayreuth from 1449 to 1453.53 The short-term consequence was renewed burgher–noble antagonism. In the medium term, the violence helped propel imperial reform to find a more effective way of resolving conflict. This, in turn, ultimately ended civic emancipation and princely encroachment by stabilizing the identity and jurisdictions of the imperial cities and principalities that were collectively recognized as imperial Estates.

Integration in Imperial Institutions

The Second City War already indicated that a balance was emerging between the princes and the royal cities. Albrecht Achilles was unable to breach Nuremberg’s impressive new fortified ring studded with 123 towers.54 Perhaps more significantly, Bavaria refrained from joining the margrave, preferring instead more peaceful means to extend its influence by negotiating treaties of protection with several towns. Increasingly, princes realized that their own territorial towns could replace the credit and consumer facilities offered by the imperial cities, making these less attractive targets. The improving agrarian situation eased tensions by discouraging land flight. With a few exceptions like Württemberg, princes abandoned attempts to subdue free and imperial towns in favour of developing those on their own lands, consolidating the Empire’s diversified urban landscape.

Meanwhile, the gathering pace of imperial reform provided royal towns with an alternative to civic leagues. A key factor in Nuremberg’s defiance of the Bayreuth margrave was that its annual revenue was far higher than his. Already in the 1420s, Sigismund and the electors looked to cities as valuable contributors to the common military effort against the Hussites and continued to do so as the Ottoman menace loomed throughout the century. By 1471, most royal towns sent representatives to each royal assembly, holding their own civic congress (Städtetag) as part of the proceedings. This provided the nucleus of what became the civic corpus as the Reichstag took shape around 1495, by which point the stronger monarchy of the Habsburgs appeared to offer cities a much more reliable partner. By participating in the common institutions, the royal towns now fully became imperial cities, as well as imperial Estates.

Their imperial status now trumped residual solidarity with other towns, which were now more firmly reduced to mediate elements of princely territories. The process remained in flux between about 1480 and 1555 as the status of individual cities like Trier fluctuated until they clearly accepted or rejected the burdens associated with Reichstag representation. Many city councils had doubts about embracing the new institutions, especially as they felt the official distribution of tax quotas favoured the electors and princes. In fact, the assessments were a reasonable reflection of the underdeveloped state of many principalities’ finances relative to those of leading cities. The cities were unable to prevent the princes using the Reichstag to force through anti-monopoly legislation in 1512 contrary to the interests of their leading merchants. Religious differences added to the tensions once 60 of the 65 active imperial cities embraced Protestantism after 1524, renewing lordly suspicions of townsfolk as subversives.55

Although these trends temporarily forged renewed solidarity with the inhabitants of territorial towns, they also opened new rifts amongst the burghers of the imperial cities. The Reformation often split populations along socio-economic lines, with the poor converting in Augsburg, Biberach, Ravensburg and Dinkelsbühl, while the patricians remained Catholic. The resultant unrest provided Charles V with the excuse to annex Konstanz and rewrite the constitutions of 27 other imperial cities between 1548 and 1552. Article 27 of the 1555 Religious Peace denied imperial cities the full right of Reformation, fixing their confessional character whilst providing some safeguards for dissenting minorities. By 1618, 35 were largely Protestant, while 20 were predominantly Catholic, but virtually all had significant minorities. Sectarianism fused with socio-economic problems to cause public disorder in Augsburg, Aachen, Kaufbeuren, Dinkelsb-hl and, most notoriously, Donauwörth, where Bavarian intervention to restore peace became one of the incidents cited by the Palatinate to justify establishing the Protestant Union. The problems of the late sixteenth century encouraged an introspective conservatism intended to reduce the risks of further intervention. Meanwhile, the improved effectiveness of the imperial courts during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided cities with more peaceful ways to defuse their internal problems whilst preserving their autonomy.

Continued attachment to the Empire was reinforced by the absence of any viable alternative. The Hansa failed to match either the political centralization of their royal trading partners like Denmark and England or the institutional integration provided by imperial reform. Their loose federation was unable to prevent the stronger members stealing economic opportunities from their weaker neighbours. The Flanders towns transferred with most of Burgundy to the Habsburgs in 1477. Leading north German members like Hamburg, Cologne and Goslar participated in the new imperial institutions emerging around 1500. Notably, the Kreis structure offered a new way of regulating relations with neighbouring princes in northern Germany, while the Reichstag’s development also served to integrate this region into the Empire. Although 63 Hanseatic towns agreed to federate with the Empire in 1557, full integration was delayed by their reluctance to accept the burdens of Turkish defence, which grew significantly during the second half of the sixteenth century (see pp. 445–62). Meanwhile, Russian and Swedish expansion along the southern Baltic shore both exposed the dangers and reduced the Hansa towns to those in the Empire.

Several leading towns advocated closer involvement with imperial institutions, especially as Rudolf II’s political alignment with Spain served their economic interests, which were suffering from English competition. In 1597 Rudolf banned the English Merchant Adventurers from trading in the Empire. England retaliated by no longer recognizing the Hansa after 1602, causing a split as Hamburg and other cities wanted to continue trading with the Merchant Adventurers. By 1604, only 14 cities still paid Hanseatic membership dues. The downward spiral reduced collective weight, further encouraging engagement with the Empire as an alternative. The Hansa attempted to remain neutral during the Thirty Years War, but only the heavily fortified cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck managed this, thanks also to their importance as financial and diplomatic centres for all sides. The Hansa were confirmed as a legal corporation in 1648, but were now viewed suspiciously by other imperial cities. Growing threats from Denmark and Sweden encouraged Hamburg and Bremen to secure their autonomy by formal recognition as imperial cities after 1654. They were simply too important to fall under the jurisdiction of a foreign power. By contrast, applications from other Hansa towns were all rejected in the 1640s, and these were allowed to slip into the status of territorial towns. Münster, Erfurt, Magdeburg and Brunswick were all bombarded into submission when they refused. By 1667 the Hansa was essentially defunct.56

The imperial cities stabilized as 13 Catholic, 34 Protestant and 4 bi-confessional cities, of which 31 were in the old imperial heartland of south-west Germany. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) consolidated their position as imperial Estates, while reform of collective defence and the development of Kreis Associations removed any incentive for separate civic leagues. Rather than seeking independence as sovereign republics, imperial cities asserted their corporate status as ‘noble’, meaning free and elevated above both their own subjects and other, territorial towns.57



The cities’ rejection of a broader alliance with rural inhabitants was another factor in the integration of the former within the Empire’s status hierarchy. The construction of a broader socio-political order based on the horizontal, associative aspects of communities has been labelled ‘communalism’ and has been claimed as late medieval Germany’s ‘third way’ to modernity between absolutist territorial state-building and the construction of a homogeneous national state.58 Communalism was a specifically late medieval–early modern form of egalitarianism that was collective in that it focused on the community, rather than the individual. Freedom was expressed and celebrated collectively through communal gatherings and festivals, and by verbal and visual reminders of the community’s traditions and identity. All this originated in the communal self-government emerging in the Empire’s towns and villages during the high Middle Ages. It was a movement of ordinary folk seeking a better life amidst often harsh and adverse circumstances, and it emerged pragmatically and well before the rediscovery of classical Greek civic democracy by Humanist scholars during the Renaissance. Communalism extended individual communal self-government by using the same practices to federate multiple communities, effectively building state-like organizations from the ground up.

As with all aspects of communal development, it is important not to romanticize or exaggerate communalism. As we have seen (pp. 510–22), communal government contained vertical as well as horizontal elements through its basis in the enfranchisement of (largely male) householders and its exclusion or marginalization of the poor, unmarried and recently arrived. Communities might indeed unite in the face of external threats, but these could also divide them. Harmony was often fabricated, or achieved through peer pressure and the punishment of ‘deviance’. Moreover, the communal ideal of freedom remained one of emancipation rather than empowerment: it was freedom from dependency and threat.59 Communal freedom was often voiced in antagonistic terms similar to what later ages would term the rhetoric of class war. Yet it lacked the abstract concepts of liberty and equality used by, for example, the American and French revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century. Although capable of innovation, communal movements were not seeking to build a brave new society according to a grand blueprint, but instead defended an idealized version of their existing order against perceived threats.

Communal forms derived strength from face-to-face interaction within communities. This restricted wider structures to federal forms, since only these allowed each community to preserve its own identity and purpose. The preceding examination of civic leagues has already revealed the free-rider problem inhibiting their development into more durable political forms. Cities might be vulnerable, but they were usually better protected, larger and wealthier than villages. Standing alone did not appear as daunting as it might for rural inhabitants. This generally restricted communalism to the areas of non-nucleated settlement, like hamlets and scattered farmsteads. The formation of some overarching governance in such areas was often the only way their inhabitants could combat natural hazards and external threats. Non-nucleated settlement tended to be located in regions where other geographic features also favoured communalism rather than lordship. Communalism thrived on the Empire’s economic and political periphery amongst communities sufficiently wealthy to be viable, but not rich enough to attract raiders or encourage involvement in wider politics.


One such region was the coastal strip from Flanders to the Danish peninsula (Map 22). Unlike the areas further east along the Baltic, the North Sea coast was incorporated relatively early into the Empire, but remained politically peripheral and underpopulated. It was included in the county and, later, parish structures, but was never a major area of interest to the lay or spiritual elite. A mix of lordly and communal elements emerged, with the former predominating in Flanders in the west and the latter to the east in Frisia.60While towns developed in Flanders, the more northerly and easterly areas saw smaller self-governing communities emerge through lordly absenteeism. Lords were few and more interested in affairs elsewhere. They delegated supervision to stewards and other intermediaries. Over time, these supervisory powers were transferred to locals, or lapsed altogether. Local people wanted autonomy, not the absence of all protection or recognition from existing authorities. The Empire’s multilayered structure allowed them to achieve their goals through securing imperial sanction for their special status.

The region was not unfavourable. The marshy soil proved quite fertile, especially in the area of Dithmarschen north of the Elbe estuary, which supported 40,000 inhabitants by the mid-sixteenth century or twice the population density of central Switzerland.61Dithmarschen had already been made a county in the Carolingian era, but lordly control was always weak, even after the count’s rights were transferred to the archbishop of Bremen in 1180. The inhabitants were only obliged to pay a small fee on the accession of each archbishop. Communal self-government had already emerged by the eleventh century thanks to the need to cooperate to maintain the dykes and other flood defences. The introduction of a parish structure during the thirteenth century provided a framework to construct more effective common institutions. Each parish sent representatives to a common assembly, codified in the charter of 1447, which confirmed a typically communal form of a 48-member council balanced by a general assembly representing a federation of around 20 parishes. Already termed Universitas terrae Dithmarciae by its inhabitants in 1283, this peasant republic demonstrated its potency by repelling attempts by the count of Holstein to assert lordly authority in 1319 and 1404.

Dithmarschen’s influence peaked in the century after consolidating its government in 1447. The emperor treated it as an imperial fief, summoning the peasants to send representatives to royal assemblies in the 1430s and again to the Reichstag in 1496. However, like the royal towns, the peasants found that the Empire’s growing status hierarchy made interaction with formal institutions difficult. Moreover, Frederick III wanted to extend his influence into northern Germany and saw the region’s lords as more obvious partners who could be integrated more closely within the Empire by elevation as imperial princes. To this end, he elevated Holstein’s count to a duke and recognized his territorial ambitions by formally enfeoffing him with Dithmarschen in 1474.

The peasants demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of imperial politics by protesting to Pope Sixtus IV that the emperor was undermining the imperial church, on the grounds that their county belonged to the archbishopric of Bremen. Frederick was forced to rescind his enfeoffment in 1481. The Danish king had inherited Holstein’s claim and now saw an opportunity to advance his territory to the Elbe, which would allow him to tax the lucrative river trade. Employing a ruthless mercenary band, the Black Guard, he invaded, only to be routed at the battle of Hemmingstedt on 17 February 1500 by the peasants, who exploited their local knowledge to pole-vault across the marshes and trap the invaders.62 However, what had been advantageous turned to Dithmarschen’s detriment by the mid-sixteenth century. Their relative isolation left them without natural allies, unlike either the Swiss or Dutch. In particular, the absence of any indigenous town deprived them of connections to the Empire’s urban networks. Neighbours resented them as wreckers and pirates, luring coastal shipping into their treacherous shallows. The Hansa accordingly rejected their application for membership. A renewed Danish invasion triumphed in 1559, though the king was obliged to leave the inhabitants considerable autonomy.


Frisia, immediately to the west of Dithmarschen, shared similar origins, but exhibited less coherence, despite articulating an identity around ‘Frisian freedom’. The region had been conquered by the Franks around the mid-eighth century, but was granted its own laws and largely left to look after itself. It was not until the Staufer era that a concerted effort was made to integrate the region more firmly within the Empire, a move encouraged by the general migration north and east into previously underpopulated areas. The Staufers’ first choice of ruler, the bishop of Utrecht, was killed by the Frisians in battle in 1227. The region was then assigned to Holland, whose Count William became one of the contenders for the German crown after 1247. His attempt – and his reign – ended when his horse crashed through the ice and he was captured and killed by the Frisians in January 1256. His successor as count managed to conquer West Frisia by 1289. Control remained difficult into the fourteenth century, and West Frisia passed along with Holland to Burgundy in 1433.

Frisia’s fragmentation was part of the gradual process of demarcating clearer territorial jurisdictions across the late medieval Empire. Regions without lords either had to find their own place in the hierarchy or risked incorporation within another territory. Frisia’s eastern edge became the county of Oldenburg, whose ruler benefited from kinship with the Danish king after the mid-fifteenth century. While Oldenburg evolved as a conventional lordship, several other communities were settled by colonists between the lower Weser and the mouth of the Elbe, and they, like Dithmarschen’s peasants, were able to secure greater self-governance under the loose superior jurisdiction of Bremen’s archbishop. The community of Stedingen was the most westerly, sited on the Weser north of Bremen and inhabited by around 12,000–15,000 people who were personally free but under the archbishop’s suzerainty. The need to cooperate to maintain flood defences forged this community around 1200, but its attempt to escape the archbishop entirely foundered after 1207 as he was not prepared to grant the same freedoms as those secured in Dithmarschen. Lordly control was asserted using a crusade after 1232, the same method then being employed further east along the Baltic shore. Stedingen’s inhabitants were defeated in 1234 and their community was divided by Oldenburg and the archbishopric of Bremen. The fate of the remaining four communities was mixed. Rüstingen was physically split asunder by an inundation in 1314, with half subsequently absorbed into Oldenburg, while the western part became the lordship of Jever. Wursten on the marshes north of Bremerhaven fell under the archbishop’s control during the 1520s. Kehdingen was a 47-kilometre long marsh along the lower Elbe, which passed to Bremen along with the rest of the county of Stade in 1236. Four campaigns finally forced its inhabitants to accept the bishop’s rule, though he allowed them to retain considerable autonomy. Along with the other marsh communities, Kehdingen became the fourth (peasant) Estate in Bremen’s territorial assembly in 1397. Although excluded from representation during the 1590s, the peasants continued to claim rights to participate. Hadeln differed from the other communities in that it had been settled much earlier and was part of Saxony. Like the others, it asserted greater autonomy during the thirteenth century, but more successfully because the old Saxon duchy fragmented. Hadeln was a 300-square-kilometre self-governing peasant republic with its own law and assembly by the fifteenth century, and it preserved this directly under the emperor after 1689. Charles VI ceded Hadeln in 1731 to Hanover in return for Hanoverian recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction changing Habsburg inheritance law.63

Only East Frisia retained communal government into the eighteenth century. As with other peasant communities, there was a tendency for village leaders to emerge as hereditary chiefs and gradually acquire the status of lesser nobility from the thirteenth century. Although they feuded amongst themselves, the Frisian chiefs accepted the Brok family as pre-eminent from the mid-fourteenth century until 1464, when they were succeeded by the Cirksena, who ruled until 1744. The Cirksena had likewise risen from village leaders, but benefited from Frederick III’s policy of integrating the northern periphery by granting titles to local notables. The Cirksena were made imperial counts (1464) and later princes (1654), but the bulk of the population remained free householders enfranchised through possession of qualifying farmsteads. Householders dominated the East Frisian Estates, which also included the port of Emden, the small towns of Aurich and Norden, and a handful of knights who, unlike those elsewhere, were independent landowners rather than the count’s feudatories. The Estates bargained for constitutional guarantees in 1595 and 1611. Mirroring Frederick III’s policy, Rudolf II endorsed these treaties to tie East Frisia’s own constitution to that of the Empire and so stopped it slipping under Dutch influence.64

The Cirksena periodically tried to expand their influence by espousing the cause of the villagers who were disenfranchised by lacking qualifying property. Confessional differences added to political tensions as Emden embraced Calvinism while the rest of the population adhered to Lutheranism. Problems grew after 1665 as the Cirksena adopted a different lifestyle and political behaviour in an attempt to join other imperial princes as social equals. Imperial intervention barely held the balance between the competing interests, including renewed external interference from the Dutch, Danes and neighbouring Welf dukes, and the bishop of Münster. Brandenburg-Prussia exploited these difficulties to establish a permanent military presence in Emden after 1682. Tension spilled over into civil war between 1725 and 1727, splitting the Estates before the radical Emden faction was defeated and the previous status quo restored. Prussia accepted this situation when it annexed East Frisia in 1744 following an inheritance pact with the last Cirksena. The friction seriously impaired functioning governance, rendering the Estates incapable of effective action and thereby essentially disempowering the communes, which had lost their main forum for action.65

The Swiss Confederation

The Swiss Confederation went further than any of these examples by separating from the Empire as an independent state (Map 16). Like the peasant communities of the north-west, those of the Empire’s long Alpine strip were also favoured by geography, though of a very different kind. The mountains allowed varied forms of agriculture and animal husbandry, sustaining a modest population that did not need to move since others travelled through their lands, which lay across the routes between Burgundy, Germany and Italy. Control of vital passes made the Alpine communities strategically important to all medieval monarchs and helps explain the rich ecclesiastical endowments in this region, which included the archbishopric of Salzburg, the bishoprics of Basel, Chur, Brixen and Trent, and important abbeys like St Gallen and Einsiedeln.

The mountain ridges made lateral communications often very difficult and encouraged a wide variety of communities, including numerous small and medium-sized towns and different kinds of villages, as well as lay and spiritual lordships. Apart from the local bishops, the senior lords tended to be busy elsewhere, creating scope for local self-rule, similar to that encountered in the North Sea marshes. Like the Frisians, local communities developed a myth of ancient freedoms that were in fact quite new, dating mainly to the twelfth century. Jurisdiction followed natural features like valleys, helping to shape how communities engaged with each other. Central and western Switzerland saw the development of incorporated valleys (Talschaften), which in turn formed the basis of what were later called ‘cantons’.66 By contrast, communal forms developed within lordly lesser jurisdictions in Rhetia, Vorarlberg and the Tirol in the eastern Alps, where judges’ circuits formed the basis for districts. Both the cantons and districts established management committees to coordinate common activities and represent the inhabitants in dealings with outsiders.

There is a tendency to lose sight of this diversity in favour of the stirring story of hardy Swiss mountaineers, such as William Tell, overthrowing Habsburg lordship and establishing what is widely interpreted as one of the modern world’s first democracies.67 In fact, the William Tell story only surfaced around 1470, long after Swiss communities acquired self-governance. The process of emancipation involved some communities asserting their own control over others, broadly similar to the dominance of Italian cities over their hinterlands. Meanwhile, the complexity of settlement patterns led to differing forms of engagement with local and more distant lords, including the emperor, any one of whom might be an ally rather than an enemy under some circumstances.

Moreover, the formation of communal governance in the Alps needs to be placed in the wider context of the Empire’s reorganization along feudal and territorial lines, which, by the thirteenth century, increasingly compelled previously ‘peripheral’ areas to define their own status and relationship to more distant communities. In particular, the fragmentation of the old duchy of Swabia ended the political unit previously containing much of the Alps, including the former Roman province of Rhetia. The extinction of the Zähringen dukes in 1218 led to the emancipation of Bern and Zürich as imperial cities, especially as the Staufers saw the granting of political immediacy as a way to prevent key Alpine routes falling into the hands of potential rivals amongst the Empire’s princely elite. To this end, Henry (VII) bought up the Habsburgs’ claims from the Zähringen inheritance to exercise jurisdiction over the Uri and Schwyz valleys in 1231 and 1240, since these gave access to the newly pioneered St Gotthard Pass, opened in 1230. Like Bern and Zürich, the valleys became part of the royal lands under direct Staufer protection, but with communal self-government.

Much of the conflict that emerged by the late thirteenth century was not against feudalism, but involved disputes over the exercise of stewardship rights (Vogteirechte) associated with management of the crown lands in the wake of the Staufers’ demise. These disputes often pitted local nobles against more powerful outsiders like the Habsburgs who wanted to control the powerful abbeys of Einsiedeln and Engelberg. The abbeys and towns pursued their own interests in these conflicts, such as Zürich and Bern, which asserted control over their own hinterlands. Meanwhile, the economic transformation of the Alpine valleys across 1200–1400 involved smallholders being dispossessed by cattle ranchers expanding their operations to feed populations in the growing Lombard cities.68

Rudolf I’s election as king in 1273 transformed the situation by adding royal power to the Habsburgs’ already considerable regional influence thanks to his family’s existing possession of the county jurisdiction around Zürich. Rudolf’s policy of Revindication (seepp. 382–6) appeared particularly threatening to many Swiss lords and communities who perceived it as a bid to consolidate Habsburg power along the Upper Rhine and western Alps. The famous ‘oath comradeship’ (Eidgenossenschaft) between the three incorporated valleys of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden was made in August 1291, two weeks after Rudolf’s death, because they feared the election of another Habsburg as king.69 Such associations were not uncommon, and that of 1291 was not celebrated as the foundation of Swiss independence until 1891. It was directed against a perceived lordly threat, and was not a bid to leave the Empire. Indeed, Alpine communities generally looked to the emperor to consolidate their autonomy by enshrining it in legal charters. Henry VII granted a privilege in 1309 endorsing the three valleys as self-governing rural feudatories forming their own imperial bailiwick directly under him.

Imperial politics again intervened to push this development, since the double election of 1314 raised the possibility of another Habsburg, Frederick ‘the Fair’, as king. Frederick’s relation, Duke Leopold of Austria, intervened to punish the Schwyz peasants who had plundered Einsiedeln abbey, which was under his protection. His punitive expedition was defeated at Morgarten on 15 November 1315, though only around 100 of his troops were killed, and not the thousands claimed by some later historians. Nonetheless, it was a significant reverse, precipitating the collapse of Habsburg influence in the area based on possession of the rights of imperial bailiff. The three valleys renewed their confederation, which was increasingly known to outsiders as the Schwyzer, or Swiss. Their status of imperial immediacy elevated the confederates above other rural communities and made them acceptable partners for cities like Bern and Zürich, enabling the Confederation to expand between 1332 and 1353 through additional alliances with other cantons.

Habsburg regional influence, however, grew simultaneously with the acquisition of the Breisgau (1368) immediately to the north and the Tirol (1363) to the east, while their competition with the Luxembourgs encouraged redoubled efforts to reassert authority over the Swiss. Habsburg defeats at Sempach (1386) and Nüfels (1388) coincided with the First Civic War (see pp. 574–5 above) and the general backdrop of protest following the Black Death. The Alpine communities further east responded to Habsburg encroachment from the Tirol by forming the God’s House League (Chadé, 1367), Rhetia, or the ‘Grey League’ (Grisons, 1395) and the Ten Parish League (1436). They combined in 1471 as a federation known as the ‘Three Leagues’ (Drei Bünde), which encompassed 52 communities with a total population of 76,000 by the eighteenth century.70 A further ‘League above the Lake’ emerged among communities south of Lake Constance during a revolt by the Appenzell region against the abbot of St Gallen in 1405. Although joined by communities in the Vorarlberg, Upper (southern) Swabia and the imperial city of St Gallen, this league was crushed by the local knights combining as the League of St George’s Shield in 1408.

Despite the sharper social tension, localism and conflicting interests prevented a broad alliance between the different Alpine leagues. The Swiss allied with Appenzell in 1411, but only admitted it as a member of their Confederation in 1513. Each of the Three Leagues allied separately with the Confederation in 1497–9, but reaffirmed their own federation in 1524. Meanwhile, the Swiss pursued their own policy of expansion, conquering the rural communities of the Aargau (1415) and Thurgau (1460) from the Habsburgs. The growing military reputation of the Swiss allowed their leaders to sign lucrative contracts with the French king and Italian princes to supply mercenaries, entangling the Confederation in more distant politics, notably the wars against ducal Burgundy from the 1440s to 1477, and the Italian Wars after 1494.71 The Swiss also responded to Burgundian and Savoyard pressure from the west and south by accepting the imperial cities of Fribourg (1478) and Solothurn (1481) as members. The Valtelline and other parts of Milan were conquered by the Swiss in 1512.

These conflicts were frequently brutal: Swiss and German troops waged ‘bad war’, meaning the normal rules governing the taking of prisoners were suspended. However, the wider context remained strategic rather than ideological. France’s intrusion into Italy after 1494 heightened the significance of the Alpine passes to the Empire’s integrity. Crucially, this coincided with the peak of imperial reform, forcing the Alpine communities to define their relationship to the Empire. Their earlier conflicts with the Habsburgs had left them suspicious of the new Reichstag, and they refused the summons to attend meetings after 1471, in contrast with the German cities who used this opportunity to integrate themselves in the Empire as full imperial Estates. The Swiss held their own assemblies (Tagsetzungen) after 1471. These drew in Basel, Zürich and other local towns like Luzern, which might otherwise have participated in the Reichstag, while the Three Leagues held separate meetings, especially after renewing their federation in 1524.

The introduction of the Common Penny tax in 1495 forced a decision. For the first time, the Empire was asking the Alpine communities for a substantial financial contribution, yet appeared to offer little in return, having largely left the Swiss on their own to repel the Burgundians before 1477. Moreover, the Swiss did not feel the need for the new imperial public peace, because they had already agreed a version of this through their own confederation. The Swiss refusal compelled Maximilian I to respond with force to assert both his imperial and Habsburg regional authority. The resulting conflict was known (depending on perspective) as the Swiss or Swabian War.72 Maximilian mobilized the Swabian League on the basis of his membership as ruler of Austria and the Tirol in January 1499. The Swiss won three victories, but failed to cross the Rhine northwards into Swabia, and so accepted the compromise Peace of Basel on 22 September.

It would be premature to call the treaty the birth of Swiss independence. The Swiss were granted exemption from the taxes and institutions agreed at the 1495 Reichstag, but otherwise remained within imperial jurisdiction. Both the Confederation and the Three Leagues continued to display their roots in the Empire’s socio-political order. They remained networks of separate alliances between distinct communities that retained their own identity, laws and self-government. In this respect, the Confederation failed to match the Dithmarschen peasants who already had a codified constitution and common legal system by the mid-fifteenth century. Neither the Confederation nor the Three Leagues had a capital. A few communities remained apart, notably Gersau, which effectively acquired imperial immediacy when its local lord sold his rights to the parishioners in 1390. As with the other places, Gersau’s inhabitants secured imperial confirmation of their immediacy (in 1418 and 1433). Although they had cooperated with the Swiss since 1332, the fact that their tiny community was only accessible by boat across Lake Luzern enabled them to remain fully autonomous until 1798, when they were forced by France to join the Swiss Confederation and the Three Leagues in the new Helvetic Republic.73

The Confederation eventually encompassed 13 cantons with 940,000 inhabitants by 1600.74 Basel, Bern, Luzern and Zürich were civic republics that had extended economic and political dominance over their rural hinterlands similar to the pattern in northern Italy. Tensions from this process erupted periodically into civil war, notably between 1440 and 1446 when Zürich was temporarily expelled from the Confederation. Confessional differences following the Reformation exacerbated existing rivalries. Renewed conflict prompted a compromise in 1531 that prefigured the Empire’s Peace of Augsburg (1555) by fixing the confessional identity of each canton. The six Protestant cantons were especially concerned not to push their seven Catholic neighbours into a closer alliance with the Habsburgs.

The Swiss rejected the formalized status hierarchy entrenched in the Empire by imperial reform, and instead did not differentiate between the more urbanized and the rural cantons, each of which had two votes in the federal assembly. However, canton boundaries reflected their origins as imperial fiefs, meaning they varied considerably in size and wealth. Protestant wealth and population grew faster, adding to the resentment that the Catholics had two more votes. The Peace of Aargau stabilized the Confederation after renewed civil war in 1712, but without resolving the underlying problems. Meanwhile, both the Confederation and the Three Leagues controlled subordinate dependencies conquered collectively during their period of territorial expansion between 1415 and 1512. These areas retained self-government, but were denied representation in the federal assemblies. The Italian-speaking Catholic inhabitants of the Valtelline especially resented domination by the Protestant German-speakers of Rhetia, leading to prolonged unrest between 1620 and 1639.75 In short, the exclusion of superior lords did not bring peace, but was followed by serious socio-economic and religious divisions.

Social practice remained hierarchical, and only outsiders believed the Swiss were all ‘peasants’.76 Swiss equality involved the assertion that they were equal to any noble, opening the door to a noble lifestyle for those who could afford it. Lordly jurisdictions were converted into property rights that generally passed to a class of powerful, rich families like the Salis, Planta, Guler and Schauensteins in Rhetia, for instance. These displayed their status through coats of arms, and used their near monopoly on communal posts like district judges or military commanders to secure access to the best meadows and take control of lucrative transit trade. Rhetian politics became particularly nasty during the later sixteenth century when unscrupulous leaders exploited mass assemblies of enfranchised citizens to promote their own agendas, which could culminate in armed intimidation, kangaroo courts or, in the worst case, the sectarian massacre of 1620. Populist politics exposed communalism’s dark side and was, unfortunately, the one area where the Alpine communities deviated substantially in political culture from the Empire.

17. Johannes Patsch’s 1537 map of Europe as a single Empire, with Habsburg Spain as its crowned head.

18. The sober woman from Metz, from Hans Weigel’s Trachtenbuch of 1577.

19. Hans Burgkmaier’s 1510 version of the Quaternionenadler, showing the Empire’s corporate order in groups of four locations identified by their heraldic device, topped by the seven electors and the papacy.

20. Regensburg’s old town hall (left), where the Reichstag met, is flanked to the right by the city’s new hall, built for its own council.

21. Imperial majesty. The collective character of imperial politics is symbolized through the widely reproduced image of the emperor surrounded by the seven electors.

22. Christ crowning and blessing Otto II (left) and his wife Theophanu (right), from an ivory relief c.982.

23. The rituals of enfeoffment. Emperor Sigismund (seated) enfeoffs Friedrich I with the electorate of Brandenburg in 1417.

24. The power of writing. The intellectual Nicholas of Cusa, portrayed by Dr Winard von Steeg (1371–1453).

25. The so-called ‘Cappenburger Barbarossa Head’, widely interpreted as a contemporary portrait of Emperor Frederick I.

26. The Reichstag in plenary session in 1653. The ecclesiastical rulers are to the left, the secular to the right, with the emperor’s commissioner and the electors at the far end.

27. Carolingian peasants engaged in seasonal tasks, as depicted in a ninth-century calendar.

28. The community as a sworn association. The citizens of Ulm gather for their annual ceremony at their city hall in 1650.

29. The emperor and the law. Title page of a ninth-century collection of capitularies showing Charlemagne (left), his son Pippin and a scribe.

30. The Reichskammergericht in session. Note how the general layout resembles that of the Reichstag (plate 26).

31. The end of the Empire. Carl von Dalberg receives Napoleon in front of the archiepiscopal palace at Aschaffenburg in September 1806.

32. The Kyffhäuser myth. Emperor Barbarossa awakes from his slumbers, in a late nineteenth-century mural in the rebuilt Imperial palace at Goslar.

33. Heinrich Himmler laying a wreath at the tomb of Henry the Fowler in Quedlinburg Abbey, 1 July 1936. This first Heinrichsfeier was an attempt to fit Henry into the Nazi version of history.

34. Sergeant Ivan Babcock photographed on 13 June 1945 wearing the Aachen copy of the imperial crown (made for Wilhelm II in 1912), which had been hidden in a mine near Siegen during the Second World War.

35. A modern statue in Konstanz harbour by Peter Lenk, of Imperia holding aloft the diminutive forms of Emperor Sigismund and Pope Martin V.

The German Peasants War

Otherwise, Alpine communal self-government was similar to that found in many rural areas across the Empire. The crown lands not only included towns and abbeys, but at least 120 autonomous villages immediately under the emperor’s jurisdiction.77 These ‘imperial villages’ (Reichsdörfer) were sold off fairly quickly once the dissipation of crown lands began in the late fourteenth century, because they were considered less valuable assets than the towns. The Free People of the Leutkirch Heath near Ravensburg were repeatedly pawned, but survived thanks to their having been attached to the imperial bailiwick of Swabia since the 1270s and in 1541 were eventually redeemed by the Habsburgs, who saw the jurisdiction as useful in managing their scattered south-west German possessions. Leutkirch retained its autonomy until 1802, when the Habsburgs were obliged to cede it to Bavaria. Another four villages survived through similar quirks.78

The bulk of the German rural population still enjoyed communal self-government, having bargained improved rights following the Black Death (see pp. 494–8). Alliances between communes already served as a platform for large-scale revolts in the Rhineland and Swabia during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Foremost amongst these was the Bundschuh movement, so-called after its symbol of an unlaced boot. The Poor Conrad rising of 1514 proved fundamental in consolidating the Württemberg Estates as a check on ducal authority.79 The revolts were a response to the intensification of lordship, as lords used the economic and demographic recovery after 1470 to try to regain the influence they had lost a century earlier. Peasants objected to new restrictions on their access to woods and streams, as well as tax demands that grew with the Common Penny and other imperial taxes.

Existing lordly structures were poorly placed to handle large-scale protest, which soon overwhelmed the system of lesser jurisdiction with its village and district courts. The highly fragmented jurisdiction in south-west Germany left peasants without clear opportunities to appeal against unfavourable verdicts. A new rising began in May 1524 as a protest against taxation, but became radicalized within six months under the rapid diffusion of Reformation evangelism and the media revolution: 25,000 copies of the Upper Swabian peasants’ Twelve Articles were printed within two months of their appearance in Memmingen. The Articles were the most famous of several sets of demands. Only 13 per cent of the programmes included the demand that communities should elect their own pastors, meaning the freedom to adopt the Reformation, whereas 90 per cent attacked serfdom and lordly exactions. References to religion were part of a broader call for a fairer society. The third of the Twelve Articles claimed ‘it is demonstrated by Scripture that we are free and wish to be free’, but qualified this by saying: ‘not that we wish to be completely free and to have no authority, for God does not teach us that’. What the peasants really wanted is not always clear, because their programmes were usually drawn up with the assistance of burgher lawyers. Many clearly thought their villages were, or should be, directly subordinate to the emperor. All expressed loyalty to the emperor, who was a conveniently distant authority. Their main concern was securing real improvements in their daily lives. The murder of lords and princes was very rare and most hoped the authorities would become their Christian brothers in an idealized harmony. Rebels in larger territories like Bamberg and the Tirol envisaged forming assemblies exclusively composed of commoners (Landschaften) to govern alongside their prince, while those in Württemberg, Baden and Salzburg planned to use similar institutions as the sole form of territorial government. Rebels in more fragmented areas attempted something closer to the organization of the Swiss and Dithmarschen peasants by forming sworn associations of autonomous communities. Few of these plans were realized, owing to the violence and to rapidly changing events.80

The rising developed its own momentum as the German Peasants War, with around 300,000 under arms by 1525 in a clear demonstration of the potency of communal government. Peasant organization was often quite sophisticated, with villages sending men on rotation to spread the burden and minimize social and economic disruption. However, peer pressure was also often necessary, with participation enforced by the threat of expulsion from the community.81 The initial spread was facilitated by the inability of the authorities to coordinate a response. Individual lords often conceded local demands, emboldening neighbouring communities to voice demands as well. Mühlhausen in Thuringia was one of the few imperial cities openly to join the peasants; solidarity elsewhere was fragile at best and peasants often resented burghers almost as much as lords. The cities’ decision to back the princes in the Swabian League proved a major factor in the peasants’ eventual defeat. Working through the League, the authorities made further tactical concessions to isolate radicals from moderates while they gathered their forces to restore order in the name of the Empire’s public peace. Around 75,000–100,000 ordinary folk were killed, amounting to 10 to 15 per cent of able-bodied males in the worst-affected regions.82

The outcome has widely been interpreted as a failure, condemning Germany to an authoritarian future.83 In fact, it stabilized the Empire’s corporate social order. Many communities secured real improvements: even the Swabian League’s commander, Georg Truchsess von Waldburg, granted most of his own peasants’ demands. Peasant representation was incorporated into the Estates in the Tirol, Salzburg, Baden and several smaller territories. Social regulation was tightened, partly to address perceived injustice, but also to win the loyalty of householders whose position relative to other community members was strengthened through new legislation. Finally, the system of imperial justice was substantially revised in 1526 to extend the right of appeal and channel future grievances towards peaceful arbitration.84

Turning Swiss

It took some time for these changes to ease tensions, especially as economic conditions worsened for many people during the last third of the sixteenth century. Meanwhile, the Swiss Confederation appeared to offer an alternative, encouraging a desire among peasants and burghers to ‘turn Swiss’. Although the Hegau and Sundgau communities applied to join during the Peasants War, most were too far away for this to be an immediate option, while the Confederation had no desire to become involved. South-west German peasants continued to voice this aspiration occasionally during disputes with lords into the eighteenth century.85 Imperial cities had greater prospects, since they enjoyed the same immediacy as the Swiss cantons. The Confederation extended special protection to favoured allies as ‘associated places’ (Zugewandte Orte) after 1475.86

The issue became pressing during the 1530s as Zwinglianism, the Swiss brand of Protestantism, gained ground in several Swabian, Alsatian and Rhenish cities, while princes like Philipp of Hessen saw the Swiss as potential allies of the Schmalkaldic League.87The Schmalkalders’ defeat in 1547 exposed the risks of confessionally based alliances, while the Swiss were increasingly reluctant to accept the liabilities that came with additional associates. Even existing associates were neglected. For example, Rottweil allowed its associate status to lapse during the later sixteenth century when, like many other imperial cities, it saw greater advantages in cooperating with more immediate neighbours in the Kreis Assembly, and with other cities in the Reichstag. It tried to reactivate the link when threatened by the duke of Württemberg during the Thirty Years War. That conflict threatened to reopen confessional tensions within the Confederation, which struggled to maintain neutrality. The Swiss only lodged an ineffectual protest when Württemberg captured Rottweil in 1632, and instead it was the imperial army that liberated the city two years later.88 The Swiss opt-out of imperial institutions meant their voice carried no weight within the Empire’s legal system, preventing them from aiding their associates.


The Dutch and Bohemian Revolts

The incorporated assemblies that emerged in virtually all territories from the late fourteenth century were another form of association. They enjoyed a stronger legal basis than peasant communes, whose rights were more local, while their involvement in territorial taxation and politics had encouraged a higher level of institutional development, with committees, archives, fiscal systems and, often, involvement in militia organization. They also combined several status groups, unlike rural and urban communes, which generally excluded clergy and nobility, the two wealthiest social Estates. Estates offered two possible alternatives to princely led territorialization. They could develop trans-territorial federations similar to the larger Alpine leagues, but based on agreements between Estates assemblies rather than among towns and incorporated valleys. Alternatively, they might remain within territorial boundaries, but transform government along more republican lines.

Both possibilities were early modern phenomena, the first peaking between about 1560 and 1620 with the emergence of the Dutch Republic and the outbreak of the Bohemian Revolt. The Estates of the seven northern Burgundian provinces formed a union in 1579 following their rebellion against Spanish rule around a decade earlier. The union established its own common institutions in 1585, effectively becoming an independent republic by 1609, though a further 27 years of renewed fighting after 1621 were necessary to secure definitive recognition from Spain.89 The republic’s official name was the United Provinces, each of which was governed by its own States, or assembly, composed of representatives from towns and landowning knights. The seven States sent delegates to a common States General to coordinate defence and represent the republic to outsiders.

The Dutch initially struggled to govern without a king, briefly raising the prospect, between 1577 and 1581, that they might accept Archduke Matthias, the future emperor, as a constitutional monarch. He was followed by François d’Anjou as prince et seigneuruntil the latter’s death in 1584 coincided with more favourable military circumstances that enabled radicals to consolidate a more republican form of government.90 A serious monarchical element was nonetheless retained in the position of ‘stadholder’, or governor appointed by the States of each province. These positions could be combined by one person, enabling the influential princes of Orange to assume political leadership of the republic for long periods.91

The Dutch were thus well on their way to establishing an Estates-based republic when the Protestant nobility of the Austrian monarchy sought to use similar institutions to underpin their bid for constitutional and religious liberties after 1618. The Bohemian and Austrian Estates were well established and accustomed to cooperating across provincial boundaries to coordinate taxes and defence against the Turks. They also had strong ties to their Polish and Hungarian equivalents thanks to the legacy of common rule under the Jagiellon family. Many Humanists considered Polish and Czech as dialects of a common language, while aristocrats of all four countries were frequently multilingual, or could at least converse with each other in Latin. Study at German and Italian universities provided further common bonds, as did military service against the Turks. Above all, they shared concepts of corporate rights (libertates), conceiving themselves as a societas civilis sustained by individual engagement for the public good through office-holding, representation in provincial diets and general opposition to dominium absolutum, or unrestrained royal rule, considered dangerous to all inhabitants.92

The ideology of the Estates as public guardians gained ground with the Habsburg failures and dynastic infighting after 1606, while concessions from the rival archdukes added to each province’s store of privileges. The famous Letter of Majesty extorted from Rudolf II allowed the Protestant members of the Bohemian Estates to establish what amounted to a parallel government after 1609. However, the dynasty’s renewed confidence enticed many key figures to signal renewed loyalty by converting to Catholicism. Skilful management ensured that the Bohemian diet accepted Archduke Ferdinand, the future emperor, as their king in June 1617.93 The Bohemian elite was thus far from united when the radical malcontents staged the Defenestration of Prague in May 1618, precipitating a full-scale revolt.

However, it would be wrong to see the revolt in the Austrian Habsburg lands as doomed on account of its largely aristocratic leadership, compared to their supposedly more progressive, bourgeois Dutch equivalents. The Dutch provinces were already Europe’s most economically advanced region. The rebels benefited from continued economic growth, enabling them to develop permanent, disciplined armed forces whose loyalty was secured through regular pay.94 This enabled the Dutch to win independence with the conventional military methods of a regular army under state control, despite the significance of both their civic militia and maritime piracy to republican ideology. Theirs was not a people’s war. The Bohemian and Austrian rebels attempted the same, even preferring to negotiate for Ottoman military aid rather than arm their peasants. However, they never solved their financial problems, and their army’s discontent at its pay arrears was a major factor in its catastrophic defeat at White Mountain in 1620.95

The Bohemian rebels formally deposed Ferdinand and established the Confoederatio Bohemica on 31 July 1619.96 The five Bohemian provinces established a Confederation, whilst retaining self-government like the Dutch provinces. Although in many ways still conservative, the Confederation’s leadership adopted new institutions, like a general diet of all five provinces and a common supreme court. In an effort to make the union work, Bohemia accepted parity of status and rights with the other four provinces. The Confederation was extended on 16 August through a federation with the Protestant rebel factions in Upper and Lower Austria, while later an alliance was formed with the prince of Transylvania, who had instigated renewed revolt in Habsburg Hungary. The Confederates designed their constitution ahead of offering the Bohemian crown to Frederick V, the elector Palatine, who unwisely accepted, thereby widening the revolt into the Thirty Years War (see pp. 123–6). Whilst following a broadly similar trajectory to the Dutch, the Bohemian rebels moved faster in rejecting the Habsburgs, thanks to their stronger identity as a distinct country.

Like the Dutch, they faced considerable problems in rallying the support of the wider population. There were still substantial Catholic minorities, who were discriminated against under the new constitution and whose presence increased the Habsburgs’ incentive to continue fighting. The leading rebels were largely Calvinists, whereas the majority of Bohemians were Utraquists or Lutherans. The obviously Calvinist bias of Frederick V and his courtiers alienated many Bohemians.97 Religious diversity was both greater and more problematic than during the Dutch Revolt. Despite their common bonds, there were also significant divisions between Austria, Bohemia and Hungary, as well as amongst their component provinces, while the tradition of general diets was less established than that of the Burgundian States General. Concern for provincial liberties frustrated military and fiscal coordination, seriously undermining the Confederation’s war effort.

Wider circumstances were also against the Bohemians and their allies. Their uprising was broadly regarded as a repeat of the earlier Dutch Revolt, which had been marked by sectarian violence and civil war. The Defenestration immediately rebounded on the rebels. Their preferred choice as leader, the Lutheran Saxon elector, Johann Georg I, refused to have anything to do with them and eventually aided Ferdinand II in crushing the rebellion. International assistance was less forthcoming or effective than that received by the Dutch, with the Dutch themselves aiding the Bohemians only as a means to keep both Habsburg branches distracted.98

The Jülich-Cleves Estates Union

The historical prominence of the Dutch and Bohemian revolts has overshadowed another example of Estates-based federalism: the union of the Cleves, Mark, Jülich and Berg Estates in 1521. This was formed to match the acquisition of all four principalities by a single family previously ruling just Cleves and Mark. All four assemblies retained their own administration and laws, but the previous two pairings of Cleves-Mark and Jülich-Berg forged closer ties. Further consolidation was inhibited by the spread of Protestantism, which failed to convert all inhabitants, leaving the four principalities confessionally mixed. The Estates also suffered from the usual tensions between nobles and towns over the subdivision of tax burdens. However, the duke was also unable to forge a more unitary administration, not least due to his defeat by Charles V in 1542–3 over rival claims to Geldern, which left him with 633,000 talers in debt. The duke was then forced to allow the four Estates a greater role in governance.

The Estates retained influence throughout the sixteenth century, thanks to further problems. The Dutch Revolt after 1566 threatened to destabilize the entire Lower Rhine, while the accession of the mentally ill Duke Johann Wilhelm in 1592 opened the question of succession as he had no direct heirs. The ducal government regularly dealt with a combined committee representing the four Estates from the 1580s, especially to promote an irenic form of Christianity intended to reduce sectarianism and deny outsiders excuses for intervention. A month ahead of Johann Wilhelm’s death in May 1609, the Estates agreed to remain united and not to favour either of the two main claimants, Brandenburg or Pfalz-Neuburg. They failed to prevent a short war in 1609–10 that led to de facto partition, with Brandenburg holding Cleves and Mark, and Pfalz-Neuburg occupying Jülich and Berg. Nonetheless, Estates’ envoys continued to work for an amicable settlement, and they were included collectively in the Treaty of Xanten (1614), by which Spain and the Dutch avoided open war by mutually accepting continued partition of this strategic area.99

The Estates renewed their union in 1647 as it was feared the partition might become permanent. They hoped to preserve the integrity of the four principalities and their associated dependencies in Ravenstein and Ravensberg. These goals were traditional and the Estates did not seek to usurp princely powers and form a republic. However, the princes suspected them of wanting to ‘turn Dutch’ through a federation with the United Provinces. Dutch commercial and religious influence was strong across the Lower Rhine and Westphalia, and was underpinned between 1614 and 1679 by the occupation of strategic small towns.100 Charges of seeking to join the Dutch were also levelled against the Estates of both East Frisia and the bishopric of Münster. The princes’ criticism reflected genuine fears for their own authority, but was also good propaganda since it presented the Estates as trying to leave the Empire. The Estates were also disadvantaged by the Peace of Westphalia, which firmly identified them as belonging to the mediate political sphere, thus clearly denying them the right to negotiate with external powers.

Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg was particularly aggressive, refusing to allow a general diet of the united Estates and attempting to isolate them by dealing with each individually. However, the elector overplayed his hand by invading Jülich-Berg in a bid to seize the entire inheritance in 1651. Although they lacked formal representation in the Reichstag, the Estates sent envoys to the meeting in 1653–4, causing Frederick William to fear that Emperor Ferdinand III might respond to their petition by depriving him of Cleves and Mark. However, the outcome indicated that the days of Estates unions were over. Ferdinand III preferred to deal with the elector, who, as an imperial prince, was party to much wider political issues, notably resolving Sweden’s relationship to the Empire following the Thirty Years War. Brandenburg’s compromise with Pfalz-Neuburg in 1666 removed the Estates’ last hope as both princes agreed that the partition was permanent and forbade further unions between the assemblies.101


Republican ideas were rarely involved in these struggles, except for the Dutch once they decided to reject Spanish rule entirely. Dutch republicanism was inspired by the late Humanist reading of ancient Greek and Roman history and philosophy that presented an idealized society of sober, patriotic citizens.102 This aspect of the classical legacy was largely rejected in the Empire, which drew inspiration instead from imperial Rome. Later sixteenth-century observers interpreted the French and Netherlands civil wars as the direct consequence of ‘Monarchomachs, or self-appointed ‘king-makers’ who had usurped divine authority and overturned all proper order. These beliefs were reinforced by the experience of the Bohemian Revolt and subsequent Thirty Years War, as well as the parallel British civil wars, which culminated in the execution of Charles I in January 1649 and Cromwell’s military dictatorship. By the late seventeenth century, German thinkers even criticized their few predecessors, like Johannes Althusius, who had advocated a greater role for territorial Estates in governance.103 Most commentators interpreted republicanism as moral rather than constitutional, relating it to the early modern ideal of a res publica, or a commonwealth where liberties were safeguarded by orderly government and the rule of law. This accorded Estates their traditional role as part of the broader multilayered legal structure protecting German liberties in the Empire.

Gottlieb Samuel Treuer was the first to link despotism explicitly with tyranny, in 1719, thereby encouraging a trend to discuss politics in binary abstract terms like freedom or slavery, rather than as remedies for specific problems. However, the Empire’s political pluralism encouraged most writers to focus on finding the right balance among existing institutions rather than present politics as a stark choice between diverging alternatives.104 The century after the Thirty Years War saw the slow acceptance of the idea of the impersonal state at the level of the Empire’s territories, defining these as public entities embodied less by their princes than by charters, laws and legal agreements belonging to all inhabitants. This adversely affected how many intellectuals viewed the Estates, which were increasingly criticized as sectional, corporate interest groups, rather than benevolent guardians of inhabitants’ liberties. Authors now assigned civil freedoms to a new conception of the private sphere, in which individuals were entitled to act as they pleased within the law, sheltered from arbitrary state intervention.

Debates increasingly hinged on what form of government could best guarantee such freedoms. The outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 attracted wide attention, not least because America’s last king, George III, was also elector of Hanover and hired 30,000 Germans to suppress the kind of liberties many intellectuals desired for the Empire. The war placed a ‘German’ monarch clearly in a despotic, even tyrannical role. The debate widened during the 1780s as intellectuals deliberately addressed wider audiences through the burgeoning periodicals and regular press, leading to calls for ‘people’s representation’ by 1790. These advocated replacing assemblies based on corporate social status, with gender and wealth criteria, simultaneously opening direct representation to all richer males, whilst still denying it to the poor and more clearly excluding all females.105

Although some writers now envisaged states without princes, debates in the Empire still differed from those in the anglophone world. English-speaking writers since the late seventeenth century had linked political organization to property. The primary purpose of the social contract believed to underpin civil society was the preservation of property. Consequently, property-owners should have a say in government, an argument that the Americans expressed in 1775 as ‘no taxation without representation’. By contrast, German writers generally continued to define the state as the rule of law, arguing that good laws protected rights and property. Justi still saw the Estates, like Althusius had, as guardians of laws, rather than law-makers. Most Germans regarded fully republican government as dangerous, citing the examples of Britain and Poland-Lithuania to argue that disassociating representation from corporate groups and incorporated communities gave too much scope for divisive ‘parties’ and ‘factions’. Without imperative mandates, representatives would be free to pursue their own self-interests. These arguments gained a new lease of life as news arrived after 1789 of the horrifying excesses of the French revolutionaries, while the final two Polish partitions (1793 and 1795) suggested that factionalism could lead to political extinction.106

Actual practice remained in the established pattern, as exemplified by the discussions since 1762 of how to revive Saxony, which had been devastated during the Seven Years War. The need to finance reform raised the question of taxation and representation, but proposals concentrated on detailed tinkering with existing structures, for example by suggesting the nobles should assume a greater share of common burdens and allow commoners holding knights’ fiefs to exercise the associated rights to participate in diets. The pace of change accelerated slightly following large-scale peasant protest between August and October 1790. The Saxon Estates were modified in 1805, but it was not until 1831 that they were replaced by a two-chamber parliament that finally abolished the nobles’ patrimonial jurisdiction in 1855.107

The Saxon unrest encompassed 50 parishes and was the largest popular protest in the Empire outside the Habsburg lands since the Peasants War. It was caused by frustration at the local courts’ inability to clear a backlog of 230 cases against lordly exactions and abuses. Contemporaries stressed the differences between Saxony and France, including the resolution of the former’s problems through the established methods of administrative and judicial review, rather than mass bloodshed. The Saxons were not seeking a new form of government, but to make the existing one work properly. Where peasants did criticize Estates as unrepresentative, it was simply to reinforce demands that they be included as a corporate group.108 Association was thus a way in which different social groups could secure specific identities and rights within a hierarchical corporate legal and political order. The next chapter examines how this order attempted to regulate disputes between these groups and how far it could accommodate further change by the late eighteenth century.

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