3rd Century

Germanic tribes raid the Roman empire and some begin to settle and become assimilated.


Conversion of Emperor Constantine. Christianity spread to become the official religion of the Roman empire by 391 when all other cults were banned. The Christian church developed an infrastructure mapped onto the Roman provinces across the empire, with five patriarchs, or leaders, based in Rome, Constantinople (former Greek town of Byzantium), Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria.


The intermittent splits in the Roman empire since 286 became permanent with the continuous existence of a western emperor in Rome and an eastern one in Constantinople.

5th Century

Age of migrations. The arrival of Slavs and Huns in central Europe by the mid-fourth century displaced some Germanic peoples south and west, adding to the pressure on the Roman empire. The invaders founded their own kingdoms inside the Roman empire, including the Visigoths in Spain and southern France, the Burgundians along the Rhône, the Alemanni on the Upper Rhine, the Franks between the Loire and the Main, the Bavarians south of the Danube, and the Lombards in northern Italy. The invading Visigoths sacked the city of Rome (410), shaking confidence in the Roman imperial order, which was now clearly in decline. The Germanic tribes resented the Huns as competitors and were often happy to cooperate with the Romanized population against them. The Huns were defeated at Troyes (451), and subsequently retreated after decimation by plague and the death of Attila (453).


Augustulus, the last western Roman emperor, was deposed by Odovacar, leader of the Goths invading Italy. Eastern imperial rule continued as the Byzantine empire, which saw itself as the direct continuation of ancient Rome and entered a period of revival and expansion. The Byzantine emperor sponsored Theodoric (454–526), leader of the Ostrogoths (another tribe displaced by the Huns), to recover Italy. Theodoric invaded in 489, defeating and killing Odovacar four years later, and was recognized by the emperor as ruler of Italy (497).


Accession of Clovis, of the Merovingian clan of the Franks, as king. Within 20 years, Clovis had united all the Frankish lordships in former Roman Gaul into a single kingdom (Francia), adopting Roman Christianity and the remnants of Roman administrative and ecclesiastical institutions. Clovis and his successors repeatedly partitioned their kingdom between their sons, but it nonetheless continued to grow through reunifications and new conquests. By 730, the Franks ruled most of the Germanic tribes north of the Alps, including the Burgundians, Alemanni, Thuringians and Frisians. To the north and east, the Saxons and Bavarians remained outside Frankish influence.


Gothic War. The new Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, was not content to rule Italy indirectly through the Ostrogoths. Having already recovered north Africa and parts of southern Spain by 534, Justinian invaded and eventually conquered Italy. The Byzantine administrative structure was introduced, with military districts (themes), each with its own commander (dux, or duke), mapped onto the old Roman provinces. A command base (exarchate) was established in Ravenna in 540 as the seat of Byzantine government in Italy.


The Lombards, who had previously cooperated with the Byzantines against the Ostrogoths, crossed the Alps and swiftly overran much of Italy. The Lombards intermarried with local elites and established a stable kingdom (Langobardia) based initially (584) in Milan, and later at Pavia (616). Refugees fleeing the Lombards established Venice in the safety of the lagoons (569). The Byzantine presence was reduced to the ‘Roman part’ (Romagna) based around Ravenna.


Accession of Pope Gregory I the Great whose rule laid the groundwork for the papacy to fill the void left by the contraction of Byzantine influence in Italy.


Emergence of Islam. Within two decades Mohammed’s followers had overrun Arabia, and between 634 and 640 they had conquered Palestine, Syria, Armenia and western Anatolia, removing them from the Byzantine empire. Byzantine Egypt fell two years later as the Arabs advanced westwards across north Africa, completing their conquest by 709. The last Visigoth kingdom in Spain fell to them in 711. Although Constantinople repulsed three Arab attacks, the Byzantine empire remained on the defensive and was unable to oppose the Lombard advance in Italy. The Arab capture of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria by 642 increased the significance of the two surviving Christian patriarchs based in Rome and Constantinople.


Constans II became the last Byzantine emperor to visit Rome. The brief Byzantine revival in Italy subsided after his murder in 668. Lombard lords established semi-autonomous duchies in the former Byzantine districts at Benevento, Spoleto and Capua in central-southern Italy.


The Byzantine empire recognized the existence of the Lombard kingdom in Italy, while around this point the papacy effectively usurped the administrative powers associated with the Byzantine dux around Rome, thereby establishing itself as a temporal as well as spiritual power. The area of papal political jurisdiction became known as thePatrimonium and provided the material underpinning for the pope’s claims to lead the western Christian church, as well as enabling him to maintain his independence from the Lombards.


The Lombards exploited deteriorating papal-Byzantine relations to expand their influence in Italy at the expense of both, capturing Ravenna (751) and effectively ending Byzantine influence in mainland Italy. Rather than attempt to recover Italy, Byzantium exploited the collapse of the Arab caliphate in Damascus (750) to recover its lost territories in the eastern Mediterranean.


Victory of a Frankish army under Charles Martel over the Arabs at Poitiers. The Arabs were confined to Spain, and Martel enhanced the influence of his clan (the Pippinids, later called the Carolingians) at the Merovingian court.


Martel’s son, Pippin the Short, deposed the Merovingians and made himself king of the Franks with papal assistance. Pippin formally sanctioned papal territorial jurisdiction over the Patrimonium and promised to protect the pope. Following two papal visits, Pippin intervened against the Lombards in Italy in 754–6 without securing a definitive settlement there. The Franks were then distracted by a succession dispute amongst Pippin’s sons after 768, from which Charlemagne emerged as sole heir by 771.


Charlemagne defeated the Lombards and asserted himself as their king, thereby combining Langobardia with Francia. The Lombard duchies in Spoleto and Benevento retained their autonomy in return for accepting this outcome.


Charlemagne subdued the Saxons and Bavarians, whom the Franks regarded as vassals, but who had in fact remained independent until this point. This was accompanied by a significant intensification of Christianization measures amongst the Germanic tribes, with new archbishoprics founded at Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Salzburg and Hamburg-Bremen. Carolingian administration expanded along lines broadly similar to that used by the Byzantines in Italy from the sixth century, with the establishment of military-judicial districts (duchies) subdivided into counties. This process accelerated the cooption and assimilation of Germanic and Lombard elites with the Franks.


Major Frankish victory over the Avars, a nomadic tribe who had overrun what is now Hungary and were raiding Germany and Italy.


Emperor Constantine VI was blinded by his mother, Irene, who became the first woman openly to rule Byzantium in 797 until she was deposed by another coup in 802. These events allowed Pope Leo III to claim that the ancient Roman imperial title was vacant and could be ‘translated’ to Charlemagne.



Charlemagne crowned emperor on Christmas Day by Leo III in Rome.


Arab conquest of Sardinia (held until 1003).


Death of Charlemagne and reign of his son Louis ‘the Pious’ (died 840). Tensions within the ruling elite and clergy over the distribution of power and role of the emperor.


Arab invasion of Sicily, completed by the capture of Syracuse (878). Meanwhile, Arab raiding of mainland Italy intensifies, including an audacious attack on Rome itself (846) and the conquest of Bari and Apulia by 840. The latter were reconquered for the kingdom of Italy in 871–6 by Louis II, but the continued Arab threat sustained the papacy’s interest in having an emperor as protector.


Start of Viking raids along the North Sea and Channel coasts into the Empire, especially up French rivers, becoming a serious problem by the later ninth century.


A succession dispute within the Carolingians led to the Treaty of Verdun (843), which divided the Empire into three kingdoms: West Francia (roughly France, under Charles ‘the Bald’), East Francia (roughly Germany, under Louis ‘the German’) and Lotharingia (a middle kingdom from the North Sea up the Rhine and into Italy, under Lothar I, who also received the imperial title). The Carolingians retained a sense of common kinship and a single Frankish empire, but continued rivalry frustrated cooperation.


The subdivision of the middle kingdom on Lothar I’s death into a smaller Lotharingia, Italy (whose king held the imperial title until 875) and Provence (until 863). Borders remained fluid even after further adjustments through the Treaties of Meersen (870) and Ribemont (880), which transferred northern Lotharingia (Lorraine and Brabant) to East Francia, reducing Lotharingia to Italy and Burgundy.


Onset of raiding into East Francia by the Magyars, who had supplanted the Avars in Hungary. Raids extended into Italy after 899.


Succession dispute between the East and West Frankish kings triggered by the extinction of the Carolingian line holding Italy and the imperial title. The East Frankish kingdom was temporarily partitioned, 876–82.


Brief reunification of all three main Frankish kingdoms under Charles III ‘the Fat’, East Frankish king since 876 and emperor since 881.


Definitive split of the Frankish lands into (initially) five successor kingdoms:

1. East Francia, evolving into Germany, ruled by a Carolingian line until 911

2. West Francia, evolving into France, and afflicted by a long struggle between a Carolingian royal line and the Capetian clan, who displaced them as kings in 987

3. Burgundy, ruled 888–1032 by the Guelphs (Welfs), who had risen from knights in Carolingian service

4. Italy, under a succession of local nobles chosen as king and who were usually able to persuade the pope to crown them emperor between 891 and 924

5. Lorraine, which re-emerged as a separate duchy in 895. This passed to West Francia in 911, but to East Francia in 925.


Reign of Arnulf, an illegitimate son of the East Frankish royal line. Arnulf intervened in Italy, becoming its king (894) and was crowned emperor (896), but had difficulty controlling the four duchies of his kingdom: Franconia, Saxony, Bavaria and Alemania (Swabia). These problems grew during the reign of his son, Louis (IV) ‘the Child’ (900–11). Magyar raiding intensified in 907–11. Meanwhile, the Italian royal title passed to Margrave Berengar I of Friaul after Arnulf’s death. Berengar was made emperor by Pope John X in 916, partly in recognition of his role in curbing Magyar incursions. His successors after 924 won sufficient support among Italian lords to retain the royal title, but the imperial one remained vacant until 962.


Guido of Spoleto became the first non-Carolingian to be crowned emperor. His wife, Ageltrude, also became the first empress to be crowned.


The Premyslid family became recognized as dukes of Bohemia (title hereditary from 950).


Byzantium temporarily recovered its former possessions in Apulia, which had been lost to the Carolingian kingdom of Italy in 876.


The East Frankish Carolingian royal line died with Louis ‘the Child’ in 911. Conrad I, duke of Franconia, became king, but had no heirs, opening the transition to Ottonian rule.

OTTONIANS, 919–1024


The East Frankish lords decided against partition and accepted Henry I, duke of Saxony, as king. Henry was from the Ottonian clan (also known as the Liudolfinger). Ottonian rule was accepted by the West Frankish Carolingians in 921 and the kingdom was declared indivisible (929). Henry stemmed the Magyar raids by organizing defences in eastern Bavaria and by buying a truce through tribute, 926–32, before attacking and defeating a Magyar force at Riade (May 933).


The reign of Henry’s son, Otto I ‘the Great’, saw the consolidation of Ottonian rule and the permanent association of the imperial title with East Francia. As the second king from his line, Otto was able to act more forcefully than his father in managing his kingdom. He cemented the techniques used to govern the Empire for the next century or more, ruling by a combination of decisive acts to assert authority, whilst otherwise seeking a consensus amongst the lordly elite. The duchies were distributed to close royal relations, and could be revoked as punishment for rebellion. Greater use was made of educated clergy as advisors and to train future bishops, who were given sees as they fell vacant as a means to counterbalance the secular lords and to promote Christianization and royal influence. Bishoprics and monasteries that cooperated were favoured with charters granting immunities and privileges. In return, the church provided accommodation for the royal court, and military assistance in the form of warriors when needed. New bishoprics were founded along the eastern Saxon frontier at the Elbe, together with militarized ‘march’ lordships, to curb raids from the Moravian and Elbian Slavs. These policies were broadly successful, but could provoke jealousies, notably when Otto insisted on depriving some new bishoprics of resources to found a new archbishopric at Magdeburg (960s).


Renewed warfare with the Magyars in Bavaria culminated in Otto’s decisive victory at Lechfeld (August 955), ending further raiding and stabilizing the south-eastern frontier.


Intervention in Italy. The former Frankish kingdom of Italy was combined with Otto’s German kingdom. Access to Italy was secured by creating a new march lordship at Verona, which was initially attached to Bavaria.


Rebellion of Liudolf and Conrad the Red against Otto I.


Coronation of Otto I as emperor in Rome. Otto issued the Pactum Ottonianium regulating relations with the papacy, by accepting the pope’s continued rule over territory around Rome. Negotiations for recognition by Byzantium led to Otto II’s marriage to the Byzantine princess Theophanu in 972.


John XII became the first pope to be deposed by an emperor, as punishment for opposing Otto I (4 December).


The reigns of Otto II and Otto III saw repeated attempts to sustain a more active imperial presence in Italy, including campaigns to assert overlordship over the south Italian duchies and to repel Arab raids from Sicily.


Otto II’s suppression of the bishopric of Merseburg created a rift amongst the imperial family and the Saxon bishops, which lasted until 1004 when Merseburg was restored.


Otto II was decisively defeated by the Arabs at Cotrone in his attempt to conquer southern Italy.


A massive Slav invasion swept away many of the Ottonian castles and missions along the Elbe. Otto II’s death coincided with this crisis, but Ottonian rule was sufficiently robust to continue, despite the need for an unprecedented female regency of the late king’s wife and mother for the young Otto III.


Otto III signalled a more sacral monarchy with an extended pilgrimage to Gniezno in Poland. The eastern frontier was secured by renewed campaigning along the Elbe (996), and (more temporarily) through agreements with the Polish and Hungarian rulers (1000).


The reign of Henry II, duke of Bavaria and great-grandson of Henry I, who succeeded because Otto III died childless. Otto’s death exposed the weakness of imperial rule in Italy where leading nobles elected Margrave Arduin of Ivrea as king, with French and Burgundian backing. Henry reasserted authority with two military campaigns (1003, 1004), which rallied supporters and isolated Arduin, who eventually abdicated (1015). Henry continued the trend towards a more sacral monarchy, founding the new bishopric of Bamberg and relying heavily on the imperial clergy to assist his rule.


An intermittent three-way conflict between the Empire, Bohemia and Poland over jurisdictions and imperial claims to overlordship. The struggle broadened after Henry II’s death (1024) with additional conflicts with Hungary, and Hungarian intervention in Bohemia (1030–31, 1039–44).


A rebellion in the Byzantine parts of southern Italy (Apulia, 1009–18) triggered a long conflict ultimately benefiting the newly arrived Normans, whose growing power was recognized by their enfeoffment with the county of Aversa (1029).

SALIANS, 1024–1138


Henry II’s death ended the Ottonian royal line. Conrad II from the Salian royal family was accepted as German king, but had to fight to assert his authority over Italy and Burgundy, famously articulating the view of impersonal monarchy enduring ‘like a ship whose helmsman has died’. This completed the process begun under Otto I of consolidating the Empire as led by the German king who automatically acceded to the Italian and Burgundian crowns without separate elections or coronations.


Conrad II imposed his authority on those German dukes who had failed to pay homage. Although continuing Ottonian methods of seeking face-saving compromises, Conrad also moved towards a more commanding style of monarchy that would characterize Salian rule. Repeated offenders were now punished by losing hereditary family property, as well as their ducal or comital titles. The number of duchies increased with the elevation of the march of Carinthia (976) and the permanent partition of Lorraine into two (1044). The centre of political gravity shifted from Saxony (under the Ottonians) to the Rhineland, though the Salian base around Worms only briefly enjoyed ducal status.


A final Byzantine expedition failed to reverse the Norman advance in southern Italy. Meanwhile, the growing power of the Seljuk Turks threatened the Byzantine heartlands in Anatolia.


The reign of Henry III, variously interpreted as the peak of Salian rule or the origins of later problems. A series of military campaigns ended the intermittent conflicts since 1003 along the eastern frontier as Henry bound Bohemia more closely to the Empire (1041) and defeated the Hungarians at Menfö on the Raab (1044), ending their interference in imperial politics. Repeated problems between the papacy and the Roman clans increased calls for imperial intervention, culminating in the Synod of Sutri (1046) when Henry deposed three rival pontiffs and imposed his own.


Henry IV was only six at his father’s death, necessitating the first regency since 983–94. Rivalry between Archbishop Anno of Cologne and his opponents prevented coherent policy and led to renewed intervention in the papacy under much less favourable circumstances than in 1046. This damaged royal prestige, especially among reform-minded clergy, though the situation was not irretrievable.


The Normans took the remaining Lombard duchies of Capua (1057), Salerno (1076) and Benevento (1077), as well as the last Byzantine outposts of Bari (1071) and Brindisi (1072). Sicily was meanwhile conquered and taken from its Arab masters (1061–91).


The last major Slav (Wendish) rising along the lower Elbe destroyed Christian churches north of the river and definitively ended the ambitions of Hamburg-Bremen’s archbishop to exercise spiritual jurisdiction over all of Scandinavia (which acquired its own archbishop at Lund in 1103).


The Saxon War caused by discontent at Henry IV’s assertion of royal authority through a castle-building programme and use of unfree knights (ministeriales).


A dispute since 1071 over the appointment of the archbishop of Milan escalated into the Investiture Dispute as Pope Gregory VII refused to allow the king to choose and confirm senior clergy. This threatened royal influence in the German and Italian imperial church that had become an essential support of imperial rule since Otto I. The controversy began to polarize German and Italian clergy and nobility, adding theological weight to those discontented with other aspects of royal policy.


The Investiture Dispute deepened as Henry IV rallied loyal bishops to depose Pope Gregory, who retaliated by excommunicating the king and his supporters. The pope was backed in Italy by Matilda of Canossa, who had inherited the extensive Tuscan lands guarding access to papal territory from the north. Gregory opened contact with discontented German lords, who began contemplating deposing Henry.


Henry pre-empted a coup by a dramatic winter crossing of the Alps to meet Gregory at Canossa, where the king compromised on some issues to secure a release from excommunication. The German malcontents pushed ahead regardless and elected Rudolf of Rheinfelden as the first German anti-king (March 1077). Gregory initially withheld recognition from Rudolf in the hope of pressurizing Henry to abandon royal claims to investiture.


The Investiture Wars. Henry and his German and Italian supporters waged a series of campaigns against two sets of opponents who only loosely cooperated against him. In Germany, Henry faced those who backed Rudolf of Rheinfelden and, after Rudolf’s defeat and death (1080), his successor as anti-king, Hermann of Salm. Although Salm eventually abandoned the struggle, Henry faced rebellions from his two sons, each of whom declared against him after he had named them his successor. Henry retained support in Germany, notably from the Staufer family, to whom he entrusted Swabia and Franconia in 1079 to guard access between Germany, Italy and Burgundy. In Italy, Henry fought the reform papacy under Gregory VII and his successors. Henry relied on pro-imperial Italian bishops, nobles and towns, and appointed his own popes, who only briefly controlled Rome. The reform papacy was backed strongly by Matilda of Tuscany, as well as the Normans, who used the confusion to consolidate their hold over southern Italy and Sicily. The conflict spawned numerous, more local struggles, because both sides appointed their own bishops to the same dioceses. This situation allowed many Italian and some German towns, already growing thanks to increasing population and economic activity, to bargain greater autonomy from royal and episcopal control.


Henry V seized control of the German crown from his father, who died shortly afterwards. Henry restored royal authority throughout most of Germany and was crowned emperor by the reform papacy. Abandoned by the king, the rival papacy established by Henry IV soon collapsed. A military campaign in 1108 failed to reassert overlordship over Poland and Hungary, which had lapsed during the Investiture Dispute.


Long negotiations between Henry V and the reform papacy and its supporters in Italy and Germany culminated in the Concordat of Worms (1122), whereby the emperor accepted canonical election of clergy, while the pope permitted imperial/royal investiture for bishops’ temporal jurisdiction and allowed the monarchy to retain considerable influence over appointments in the German bishoprics and imperial abbeys. This agreement ended the Investiture Dispute without resolving the underlying disagreement over the relationship between papal and imperial authority.


An increase in migration north and especially eastwards across the Elbe into Slav lands prompted a resumption of the Ottonian practice of naming marcher lords to control and extend the frontier, and to promote Christianization. New lords were named for Holstein (1110), Meissen (1123), Lusatia (1134) and Brandenburg (by 1157).


The reign of Lothar III of Supplinburg and transition from Salian to Staufer rule. Henry V died childless, but the leading German lords and clergy rejected his nephew, Duke Frederick of Swabia, who headed the Staufer family, in favour of the seemingly more malleable Lothar, a count from Saxony.


Civil war erupted as Staufer supporters proclaimed Frederick’s younger brother Conrad as anti-king after Lothar tried to deprive the Staufers of lands they had acquired under the Salians. Conrad crossed the Alps and was accepted as Italian king, but he failed to secure the important Tuscan lands, left without a clear ruler after Matilda’s death in 1115, and retired to Germany in 1130. Lothar wore down Staufer resistance from 1132, assisted by his coronation as emperor in 1133. Papal support was purchased by revising Tuscany’s status so that the emperor retained possession, but accepted it as a dependency of the pope. The Staufers accepted defeat in 1135, recognizing Lothar in return for retaining their principal possessions in Swabia, Alsace and eastern Franconia. Lothar had benefited from support from the Welf (Guelph) family based in Bavaria. The Welf duke of Bavaria was allowed to consolidate his hold over Austria and Carinthia, and to have his son (and Lothar’s son-in-law), Henry the Proud, be enfeoffed with Saxony and designated the future king.


Pope Anacletus II raised Norman Sicily to a kingdom under nominal papal suzerainty.


Thuringia was detached from Saxony as a separate landgraviate.

STAUFERS, 1138–1250


The Staufers rallied German lords who felt Lothar’s designation of Henry the Proud threatened their role in choosing a king. The former anti-king was now accepted as Conrad III and promptly sequestrated Bavaria and Saxony. An immediate Welf response was thwarted by the death of Henry the Proud (1139), leaving his ten-year-old son, Henry the Lion, as head of the family. Conrad continued the methods developed under the Salians of seeking a consensus amongst leading lords, provided this did not compromise royal authority. Saxony and Bavaria were returned to Henry the Lion by 1147 as part of a general settlement intended to pacify Germany. However, Conrad also signalled new directions by accepting a growth in the numbers and autonomy of the leading secular lords, notably promoting the influence of the Babenberg family holding Austria.


Start of the Wendish, or Northern, Crusade.


Conrad III led a contingent from the Empire in the Second Crusade, but failed to capture Damascus or establish a workable relationship with Byzantium, despite their common hostility to the Normans in the Mediterranean.


The reign of Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, nephew of Conrad III and cousin to Henry the Lion. Frederick greatly expanded and accelerated his predecessor’s policies, partly in response to rapid demographic growth and new legal concepts, and partly as a deliberate strategy to rebalance governance in the Empire. The number of senior secular lords was deliberately increased by elevating counties and marcher lordships to ducal status (Austria 1156, Würzburg 1168), and by recognizing Slav chiefdoms as imperial fiefs (Mecklenburg and Pomerania). Other lordships were created by detaching land from existing duchies. The duke of Bohemia, the most powerful Slav lord, accepted definitive incorporation in the Empire in return for his own royal title and considerable autonomy (1158). Meanwhile, the emperor and secular lords promoted urban development by granting charters to new towns (e.g. Freiburg 1120, Lübeck 1143, Leipzig 1161, Brunswick 1166) and extending the autonomy of existing ones (e.g. Deventer, Speyer and Worms).


Frederick made seven attempts to extend these policies to Italy, which no German king had visited since 1137. He adapted to the changing conditions in Italy where civic emancipation from episcopal and lordly control was further advanced than in Germany, and where a resurgent papacy controlled the central lands, while the Normans, now recognized as kings, ruled the south (Naples) and Sicily. The emergence of the Normans as a third force in Italian politics altered the previous pattern of papal-imperial relations. Strong popes sought enhanced influence by playing the Empire and Normans off against each other, but circumstances often changed quickly, and weak popes (of which there were several) were compelled to make concessions to one in order to escape a dangerous dependency on the other. Fear of the Normans prompted a pro-imperial policy that saw Frederick crowned emperor in 1155.

Frederick used the opportunity to reorganize imperial rule in the old royal heartlands of northern Italy. The most controversial issue was the control of royal and imperial rights known as regalia. New ideas had emerged in the wake of the Investiture Dispute, which defined regalia more clearly as legal entitlements to material benefits like cash, labour and free accommodation, as well as rights to fortify settlements and appoint officials. Frederick asserted an exclusive monopoly of such rights at an assembly at Roncaglia (1158), and demanded the return of those he considered had been usurped by lords and communities over the last decades. However, he had no intention of exercising these rights directly, and was prepared to devolve them to lords and cities in return for cooperation and (from the cities) cash taxes. Implementation depended on local circumstances, since many cities saw advantages in cooperating, not least if their political and economic rivals currently opposed the emperor.

The result was a complex four-way struggle between the emperor, papacy, Normans and an increasingly autonomous group of cities that combined as the Lombard League (1167). The papacy was split from 1159 with rival pro-Norman and pro-imperial popes, prompting Frederick to emphasize the Holy Roman aspects of the Empire and its ideological mission. Measures included Charlemagne’s canonization by the pro-imperial papacy (1165). Frederick also astutely manipulated rivalries between the Italian cities, capturing many and destroying their castles. However, his enemies proved too numerous for the forces at his disposal, especially once the pro-Norman papacy cooperated with the Lombard League.


Frederick broke the hostile alliance by abandoning the pro-imperial papacy and ending the schism. A compromise with the Lombard League in 1183 was followed three years later by the marriage of Frederick’s 19-year-old son Henry to the 30-year-old Constanza, heiress to the Norman kingdom. Frederick continued to face opposition from individual north Italian cities, while he and the papacy still disagreed over their respective rights in Tuscany.


The rebellion of Henry the Lion, who had alienated many Saxon lords during Frederick’s absence in Italy. Henry was forced to flee to England. Western Saxony was detached as a new duchy of Westphalia, which was given to the archbishop of Cologne, who had been steadily amassing lands on the Lower Rhine since the later eleventh century. Ducal Saxony contracted eastwards, and lost its influence over the new march lordships that were being established north of the Elbe in former Slav territory. Meanwhile Styria was detached from Bavaria as a new duchy. The rest of Bavaria was given as a duchy to the Wittelsbach family, which now joined the ranks of the senior lords. The outcome consolidated the trend since Frederick’s accession towards a new, more obviously feudal relationship between the monarch and the lords, who now held their duchies and counties more clearly as hereditary fiefs. However, Frederick’s deliberate policy of breaking up the remaining large duchies and distributing the new ones to different families reduced the likelihood of any single lord amassing lands as substantial as those previously held by the Guelphs.


Frederick embarked on the Third Crusade (1189–92), launched in response to the Saracen victory over Christian forces at Hattin (1187), which led to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. Frederick’s decision also reflected his desire to sustain a working relationship with the papacy.


Henry VI succeeded his father, Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, who died during the Third Crusade. Henry successfully neutralized opposition to his accession in Germany and obtained a fortune extorted from the English King Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, who had conspired with Staufer enemies and was captured as he returned from the crusades in 1192. Richard was released in February 1194, having placed his kingdom (nominally) as a vassal of the Empire. The ransom financed Henry’s successful invasion of Sicily in December 1194. Sicily was formally joined to the Empire and Henry began steps towards a more hereditary form of succession for all his kingdoms. The annexation of Sicily transformed the strategic balance in Italy, leaving the papacy alone to face a much more powerful emperor who now insisted that papal possessions were imperial fiefs. Henry VI died unexpectedly at 31 amidst preparations for a new crusade and before his plans for his succession had received universal acceptance.


A double election and civil war. Henry VI had died leaving a very young son, Frederick II. Although Frederick had already been accepted in 1196 as the future German king, Staufer supporters decided instead in 1198 to back Henry’s uncle, Philip of Swabia. Staufer opponents elected Henry the Lion’s son as Otto IV, signalling a revival of Welf family fortunes, but entailing civil war for the Empire. Pope Innocent III seized the opportunity to reassert papal independence by proclaiming himself adjudicator and deciding in favour of Otto IV, who appeared less threatening than the Staufers. Philip was excommunicated. Meanwhile, Innocent dropped the earlier papal opposition to Staufer rule in Sicily in return for guardianship of the young Frederick II after 1198. Otto confirmed this by accepting papal overlordship over Sicily and disputed areas on the mainland like Tuscany. Many lords considered these concessions were damaging the Empire and defected to Philip, whose forces had largely defeated Otto’s remaining supporters by 1206. A settlement in Philip’s favour with papal support looked likely when he was unexpectedly murdered in a private quarrel in 1208.


Pope Innocent III issued the decretal Venerabilem articulating the theory that his predecessor Leo III had ‘translated’ the ancient Roman imperial title from Byzantium to the ‘Germans’ in the person of Charlemagne in 800 (translatio imperii).


Renewed civil war. Pope Innocent had no choice but to crown Otto IV emperor (1209). Otto immediately resumed Staufer policies to reassert imperial authority in northern Italy, as well as backing a rebellion against the young Frederick II of Sicily which broke out among the Norman lords in Naples (October 1210). This rebellion continued intermittently into the 1220s and spread to Sicily, where many resented the influx of German lords as Staufer advisors. Pope Innocent excommunicated Otto (November 1210), whose support collapsed again as German lords invited Frederick to become their king. Frederick won the race to reach Germany ahead of Otto in 1212 and was crowned king in Mainz. He secured papal backing through the Golden Bull of Eger (1213), confirming Otto’s earlier concessions to the papacy that now exercised feudal jurisdiction over central and southern Italy, as well as (nominally) Sicily. Otto supported an English invasion of France in order to retain the English support that his family had enjoyed since 1180. The invaders were crushed by Philip II of France at Bouvines (July 1214), effectively ending Otto’s attempt to be a serious force. The incident demonstrated how imperial politics were becoming enmeshed with wider European affairs.


Frederick II was crowned again at Aachen to legitimize his new power. Otto retired to his family’s hereditary possessions at Brunswick, where he died, childless, in 1218. Having initially sequestrated their possessions, Frederick forged a definitive settlement with the Welf family by detaching Brunswick from Saxony as a new duchy and imperial fief (1235).


Frederick resumed the earlier Staufer policy of feudalizing relations with the German lords, who received clearer local autonomy in return for accepting their lands as direct fiefs of the Empire. This arrangement was consolidated by a general charter (1220) for all senior German clergy, who now emerged as ecclesiastical princes. Many bishoprics and even abbeys had acquired counties and other secular jurisdictions, which were now demarcated more clearly as ecclesiastical fiefs dependent directly on the Empire. The charter also strengthened bishops’ powers over their cathedral towns, though this did not stop many cities emancipating themselves from episcopal authority as ‘free cities’ under direct imperial jurisdiction. A broadly similar charter was issued for the senior secular lords (1231).


The Golden Bull of Rimini granted secular jurisdiction to the Teutonic Order for lands it was conquering in the Northern Crusade against pagan Slavs along the south-eastern Baltic shore. This established the basis for the future Teutonic Order state in Prussia, which was considered part of the Empire but not an active part of the German kingdom.


Prolonged papal-imperial conflict. Frederick II desired good relations with the papacy and needed papal support to help legitimize his rule. He was also susceptible to pressure to answer papal calls for a new crusade to free Jerusalem. However, he was equally determined to reassert Staufer authority in both Sicily and Naples, as well as resume the earlier policy of establishing the emperor as direct overlord of all Italy. Frederick alienated the papacy by breaking his earlier promises (including the Golden Bull of Eger, 1213), and in 1220 by returning to Henry VI’s policy of linking Sicily directly to the Empire. Frederick’s brutal suppression of the Norman rebels in Sicily and Naples by 1225 also suggested his growing power. The pope excommunicated him (1227), having rejected his excuses for delaying his departure on the crusade.


The kingdom of Jerusalem. Frederick launched his own expedition to Jerusalem, having married its Christian queen, Isabella II of Brienne, as his second wife (1225). Jerusalem had been constituted as a crusader kingdom (1099) and maintained a shadowy existence during the Saracen occupation after 1187. Currently divided and facing the Mongols to the east, the Saracens granted the Christians access for ten years (1229). Frederick accepted rather than fight unnecessarily and returned to Italy after his coronation as nominal king of Jerusalem.


The Treaty of San Germano (23 July): the pope reluctantly abandoned support for a renewed Neapolitan rebellion and released Frederick from excommunication in return for renewed recognition that Sicily was a papal, not an imperial, fief.


Papal-imperial relations collapsed again when the pope refused to back Frederick against the Lombard League, which had re-formed in 1226 to defend civic autonomy,


The rebellion of Henry (VII), who had been left in charge of Germany during Frederick’s absence. Frederick returned to Germany in 1235 after an absence of 15 years. Henry’s support collapsed and he was deposed and imprisoned, dying accidentally in 1242.


Frederick asserted imperial protection for Jews in return for regular taxes.


Frederick regulated affairs in Germany in cooperation with the lay and spiritual princes, who agreed a public peace (1235) and in 1237 accepted his other son, Conrad IV, as the eventual successor.


War in Italy. Frederick’s efforts to suppress the Lombard League prompted his second and permanent excommunication by the pope (1239). Despite individual successes, Frederick was unable to gain a decisive preponderance. Meanwhile the pope escaped to Lyons, where he formally deposed the emperor (1245), emboldening Frederick’s German enemies to elect a succession of anti-kings: first the Thuringian landgrave Heinrich Raspe (1246), and after his death, Count William of Holland (1247). The war damaged both imperial and papal prestige and remained undecided at Frederick’s death in 1250.


The extinction of the Babenberg family ruling Austria since 976 opened a long dispute between the Bohemian Premyslid family and the Habsburgs, who eventually emerged as dukes of Austria in 1273.


The Staufer collapse. Although named as Frederick II’s successor, Conrad IV had not been crowned and quickly lost ground. The pope used his claims to feudal jurisdiction over Sicily-Naples to reassign this kingdom to Charles of Anjou, brother of the French king. The Anjou line lost Sicily to Aragon in 1282, but retained Naples until 1442. Charles’s execution of Conrad’s son Conradin (1268) definitively ended Staufer attempts to recover their Italian possessions.

‘LITTLE KINGS’, 1250–1347


The so-called Interregnum as rule of the Empire remained contested between several relatively weak monarchs. Meanwhile, the papacy refrained from crowning another emperor until 1312.


The first Rhenish Civic League spread rapidly to encompass 70 towns and enjoyed some backing from King Richard, earl of Cornwall, after 1257, who hoped it would counterbalance princely influence.


Rivalry among the leading princes led to another double election, which was also the first in which ‘foreign’ candidates were successful. Richard of Cornwall, the second son of the English King John, at least visited the Empire four times during his reign (1257–72). Alfonso X of Castile was a grandson of Philip of Swabia and thus a Staufer ally, but never came to the Empire or exercised any real influence before the end of his reign (1273).


The election of Rudolf I. The leading princes were now emerging as electors who saw their role in choosing kings as a way to elevate themselves over the other ecclesiastical and secular lords. The electors recognized the dangers of a double election, while the papacy also urged a single choice, because it wanted help against the growing power of the Anjou kingdom of Sicily-Naples. These circumstances broadly repeated themselves in the next three elections (1292, 1298, 1308), as the electors compromised on candidates who lacked a substantial territorial base, like Count Rudolf of Habsburg in 1273. This frustrated the imperial ambitions of the Premyslid family ruling Bohemia, since all electors regarded the Premyslids as already too powerful. However, the process of so-called ‘leaping elections’, or successively choosing monarchs from different families, simply intensified the interaction between imperial and territorial politics. The rival families increasingly saw larger and more consolidated territorial possessions as a springboard to a royal candidacy, while those that were successful used their reigns to favour their own families to improve their chances at the next contest. Ambitions for the imperial title and rule in Italy persisted, but were frustrated by unfavourable circumstances and the imperative of building up strength in Germany.


The reign of Rudolf I. Rudolf combined efforts to recover crown lands with a consolidation of Habsburg family power. Imperial vassals were ordered to restore rights and properties illegally usurped since 1250. This was used against King Ottokar II of Bohemia, Rudolf’s main rival in the 1273 election, who refused to return former crown lands. Rudolf’s high-risk strategy culminated in his victory at Dürnkrut on the Marchfeld, north-east of Vienna, where Ottokar was killed (August 1278). The Premsylids were left with Bohemia and Moravia, but had to surrender Austria and Styria to Rudolf, who enfeoffed his sons as imperial princes (1282). The Habsburgs emerged considerably stronger, but, like many families, they did not yet practise primogeniture and continued to experience internal divisions and even open conflicts. Rudolf’s deliberate choice of Speyer, the burial place of Salian kings, as his own deathbed, also showed how traditional ideals of kingship remained important alongside the growing significance of dynasticism.

The policy of recovery (‘Revindication) of crown assets achieved mixed results elsewhere. Loyal counts were appointed as bailiffs to safeguard imperial rights in a new regional network of ‘bailiwicks’ (Landvogteien) across southern Germany. Rudolf cultivated good relations with the free and imperial cities to underpin this network and counterbalance the local and regional influence of ecclesiastical and secular princes. However, the increasingly powerful counts of Württemberg thwarted efforts to restore the duchy of Swabia through consolidation of imperial rights in that region (1285–7). Protests at Habsburg and imperial policy further south stimulated the communal movement amongst Swiss villagers, leading to the first cantonal alliance (1291). Rudolf’s death (July 1291) frustrated initially promising steps towards securing tighter royal control of Thuringia, which had passed to the Wettin family (based in Meissen) on the extinction of its previous rulers in 1247. Rudolf’s relatively long reign assisted the success of his measures. His next three successors continued his programme, but began afresh each time and died before they made much progress.


The Visconti family seized power in Milan, which they subsequently expanded at the expense of neighbouring lordships and cities, including the old Italian royal capital of Pavia (1359). The Visconti’s growing influence exemplified broader changes in northern Italy as the communal regimes, which had emerged since the late eleventh century, were transformed via despotic city states into new duchies during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.


The reigns of Adolf of Nassau (1292–8), Albert I of Austria (1298–1308) and Henry VII of Luxembourg (1308–13). Three issues divided the Empire’s ruling elite during this period. The first was the growing influence and self-consciousness among the electors, who were determined to assert their collective pre-eminence over all other princes and aristocrats. This encouraged the electors to avoid mutual disagreements that might undermine their exclusive control of royal elections. Building on their experience in 1273, the electors agreed their candidate in advance and extracted financial and political concessions in return for their endorsement of him as king. This impacted on imperial-papal relations, since the electors rejected any papal interference in their deliberations. However, it also increased the importance of the electors’ own interests in imperial politics, notably Cologne’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reverse its defeat at WÖrringen (1288) where a local coalition of lords had broken its domination of north-western Germany. The Empire’s centre of political gravity shifted to the Rhine, where the four leading electors were based: Mainz, Cologne, Trier and the increasingly influential secular elector Palatine. Bohemia’s influence declined after the Premyslids’ defeat at Dürnkrut, while Saxony and Brandenburg remained only junior partners.

The second issue concerned the continuing Habsburg–Premyslid rivalry, as the Bohemian royal family tried to recover Austria and Styria. This conflict hindered Habsburg efforts to retain the German royal title after Rudolf I’s death. Any chances of profiting from the natural extinction of the Premyslids (1306) was thwarted by Albert I’s murder (1308) by his own nephew, Johann, who felt aggrieved at the division of Habsburg property after 1291. The beneficiaries of this dispute were the Luxembourg family, since their patriarch, Henry VII, used his position as king to award Bohemia to his son, Johann (1310).

Thuringia provided the third issue, since all three kings continued Rudolf I’s policy of opposing Wettin claims to inherit this landgraviate. Again, the brevity of each reign negated royal successes, notably that of Adolf of Nassau, who persuaded the Wettin heir to sell his rights in 1294. Albert I’s military solution failed in his defeat at Lueka (1307), confirming the Wettin in possession of Thuringia as well as Meissen, and thus their influence in east-central Germany.


Deposition of Adolf of Nassau. Adolf’s success in Thuringia was perceived as a threat by the Saxon, Brandenburg and Bohemian electors, who secured the support of three of their four Rhenish colleagues to confront the king. Although it is unlikely they planned initially to depose him, their action gained its own dynamic, culminating on 23 June 1298 in the first deposition of a reigning monarch by the electors (earlier depositions had been by popes). Adolf’s attempt to reverse this ended in his death in the battle of Göllheim (2 July 1298). The electors had no choice but to elect the Habsburg duke Albert I (whom they had rejected in 1292), as both a supporter of their Thuringian policy and the only viable candidate as king.


The ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the papacy resulted from French pressure on the pope, who was obliged to leave Rome and live in Avignon.


The coronation of Henry VII as emperor (29 June). All German kings since 1273 wanted to be crowned emperor and had continued to assert imperial rights in northern Italy, notably disputing papal claims to Tuscany. Plans for a Roman expedition (notably under Rudolf I) had been repeatedly shelved due to adverse circumstances. The situation changed as the papacy sought to free itself from French influence and invited Henry to Rome. Henry received substantial German support, partly in the prospect of plundering Italian cities. Italian opposition delayed the march, and thus the coronation, by over four months. Henry planned to recover Naples from the Angevins, but died from malaria (August 1313).


The double election of Louis IV and Frederick ‘the Fair’. Electoral collegiality collapsed in the face of lobbying from the Luxembourg and Habsburg families, which intersected with disputes between the Luxembourgs and the duke of Carinthia over exercise of the Bohemian vote, and between rival branches of the Askanier family over the Saxon vote. The Luxembourgs accepted the compromise election of Duke Louis of Upper Bavaria (from the Wittelsbach family), but Habsburg supporters chose Frederick the Fair, Albert I’s eldest son, as king the day before (19 October 1314). This was the first double election since 1257, and the first since 1198 to lead directly to civil war.


A civil war erupted between Louis IV and Frederick the Fair, waged largely through intermittent skirmishing. The Swiss victory at Morgarten (1315) had no direct bearing on the royal contest, but it did confirm Swiss autonomy from Habsburg jurisdiction. The dispute triggered renewed papal-imperial tension, because Pope John XXII saw intervention as an opportunity to assert a more prominent European role and thus a way of loosening French influence over the papacy. Rather than choose between the rival candidates, Pope John argued that imperial prerogatives reverted to the papacy on the grounds that the German throne was vacant. Coinciding with the controversy surrounding the Franciscans’ critique of church wealth, papal intervention attracted considerable comment, much of it providing the basis for arguments about spiritual-secular relations and church governance that would emerge again during the Great Schism (1378–1417). Pope John’s excommunication of Louis IV (1324) merely increased resentment in the Empire against papal interference. Louis captured Frederick the Fair at the battle of Mühldorf am Inn (1322), but Frederick’s younger brother continued resistance until both Habsburgs accepted the Treaty of Munich (September 1325). In return for renouncing their royal claims, Frederick was left with the courtesy title of king and the Habsburgs retained their possessions.


Louis IV crowned emperor. After Pope John XXII had repeatedly rebuffed his peace overtures, Louis invaded Italy (1327), where pro-imperial (Ghibelline) sentiment had grown through resentment at the pope’s continued absence in Avignon. Having been crowned by two pro-imperial bishops, Louis formally deposed Pope John and installed a Franciscan as rival, Pope Nicholas V, who promptly repeated the imperial coronation in more lavish style (May 1328). Nicholas’s resignation ended the papal schism (1330), but Louis was unable to reconcile with Pope John or his successors, still based in Avignon.


The Electors’ League (Kurverein). Louis endorsed electoral pre-eminence and recognized the electors’ right of self-assembly. This event represented the breakthrough of the idea that the papacy had no influence on German royal elections and that a king could exercise authority without requiring papal recognition of his election. Louis remained excommunicated, but the papal interdict was soon ignored in the Empire.


Louis inherited Lower Bavaria, reuniting the duchy and consolidating Wittelsbach influence in the Empire. A further inheritance added the counties of Holland, Zeeland and Hainault (1345, held by the Wittelsbachs until 1433).


Louis IV’s deposition and renewed civil war. Louis had struggled throughout his reign to balance the Habsburgs and Luxembourgs, the two powerful families whose rivalry had prompted his election as king in 1314. Compromise with the Habsburgs in 1325 alienated the Luxembourgs (now based in Bohemia). The Habsburgs backed Louis against King Johann of Bohemia in 1335 over rival claims to the inheritance of the counts of Tirol (who had acquired Carinthia in 1276). However, Louis was powerless to prevent a separate deal that saw the Habsburgs take Carinthia while Tirol went to the Luxembourgs. Charles, Johann of Bohemia’s son, had carefully cultivated the support of the Avignon papacy. Pope Benedict XII declared Louis deposed (13 April 1346) and called upon the electors to choose a successor. With two votes already in the hands of his relations (Bohemia, Trier), Charles secured the backing of another three electors on 11 July 1346. His claims remained in doubt until Louis died of a heart attack (11 October 1347).

LUXEMBOURGS, 1347–1437


Reign of Charles IV, grandson of Henry VII and the most important of the late medieval emperors.


Consolidation of Bohemian autonomy as the ‘lands of the Bohemian crown’ (corona regni Bohemiae  ). This marked a significant shift in the methods of imperial rule away from reliance on imperial prerogatives and crown lands in favour of amassing a hereditary power base. The Bohemian lands (now including Silesia and Lusatia) were given firmer legal and administrative structures, while a lavish cultural and building programme raised Prague to a capital of European significance, complete with the Empire’s first university (1348). However, Luxembourg dynasticism stopped short of integrating Tirol and Luxembourg itself. The latter remained in the hands of a junior branch, while the former was transferred to the Habsburgs by 1363. Charles IV meanwhile transferred numerous imperial rights to the princes and lords to win acceptance of his rule after 1346, including the imperial bailiwicks established in the 1270s by Rudolf I, though Charles initially continued to buy back former alienated crown lands where possible.


The Black Death reduced the Empire’s population by around a third, and ended the high medieval economic boom and migration to lands east of the Elbe. The socio-economic dislocation heightened anxiety, contributing to violent anti-Jewish pogroms that Charles IV actively encouraged.


The election of Count Günther von Schwarzenburg as anti-king, as a belated and ill-coordinated Wittelsbach response to Charles’s usurpation of Louis IV. Schwarzenburg was defeated and renounced his title, dying a few months later as opposition to Charles collapsed.


Charles IV crowned emperor. The subsidence of the plague permitted Charles to go to Italy (1354), where his march was unopposed and he was crowned emperor. Charles returned briefly to Italy in 1368. The relative success of both interventions was contingent on his good relations with the papacy, and his avoidance of violent efforts to recover imperial rights.


The Golden Bull. Charles cemented his imperial rule through an accommodation with the electors which built on that reached by Louis IV in 1338. This document reflected the prevailing balance of power and Charles’s desire to consolidate Luxembourg dynastic influence. The electors were confirmed as a privileged elite above other princes. The dispute over the Saxon electoral title was resolved in favour of the Wittenberg branch of the Askanier family, which had backed the Luxembourgs. Electoral titles were henceforth permanently fixed in Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Bohemia, the Palatinate, Saxony and Brandenburg, whose lands were declared indivisible to prevent further disputes over these rights.

The Habsburgs and Bavarian Wittelsbachs were excluded. The latter had temporarily neutralized themselves through further family partitions after 1348, but the Habsburgs responded by forging the Privilegium maius (1358) based on the real Privilegium minus (1156) to claim the entirely new status of ‘archdukes’, asserting ceremonial (though not political) parity with the electors. Charles ignored this, forcing the Habsburgs to swear loyalty. However, his acceptance of their claims to the Tirol (1363) paved the way for a Habsburg–Luxembourg family pact (1364), easing tensions. Luxembourg influence was consolidated when Charles bought off rival claims to Brandenburg on the extinction of its ruling Askanier electors (1373).

The rest of the Golden Bull codified arrangements for choosing the German king along lines already emerging by 1338. The electors were empowered to choose a king of the Romans as successor designate during a monarch’s lifetime, subject to his approval. Papal claims were rejected in favour of explicit claims that the German king was ‘emperor elect’ from his own election, and could exercise imperial prerogatives regardless of whether he was crowned emperor by the pope.


The adjustment of the western frontier. Charles asserted his authority as king of Burgundy, whilst adjusting actual control to the realities of growing French influence. The county of Savoy, the ‘free county’ (Franche Comté) of Burgundy and the bishopric of Basel were transferred from Burgundy to the German kingdom (1361). The count of Savoy was named imperial vicar for Italy with responsibility for upholding imperial rights in the emperor’s absence (1372). Meanwhile, the establishment of a new ducal line in the French part of Burgundy (1363) saw the growth of a dangerous regional power on the Empire’s western frontier.


Charles IV definitively abandoned the ‘Revindication’ policy, which had been initiated by Rudolf I in 1273 to recover crown lands, and instead switched to basing imperial rule on his extensive family possessions.


The election of Charles’s son Wenzel as king of the Romans, in return for privileges and the transfer of further crown assets to the electors.


Swabian Civic League. The cost of acquiring Brandenburg (1373) and buying Wenzel’s election was offset by new taxes on the imperial cities. Those in Swabia retaliated by forming a league that was also directed against encroachment by local princes. The cities defeated Charles and his Bavarian and Württemberg allies, forcing the emperor to agree not to pawn cities to princes. Further civic leagues were formed in Alsace (1376), the Rhineland (1381) and Lower Saxony (1382).


The reign of Wenzel exposed the contingencies upon which Charles had built his successes. Wenzel was barely 18 at his father’s death, and his overindulgent upbringing failed to prepare him for the task of kingship. Luxembourg resources were substantial, and grew as his younger brother Sigismund became king of Hungary (1387) through marrying the Hungarian heiress. However, Wenzel controlled only Bohemia directly, as he was forced to allow his relations to govern Luxembourg and Moravia. Brandenburg had to be pawned to finance Sigismund’s accession in Hungary. With the imperial crown lands dissipated by his father, Wenzel had few alternative resources with which to confront the many problems emerging in the aftermath of the Black Death and the progressive territorialization of princely power.


The Great Schism. An attempt by the papacy to escape French influence by returning to Rome was cut short by the pope’s death shortly afterwards. Pro-and anti-French factions amongst the cardinals elected rival successors who appealed to European kings for recognition and support. Wenzel continued his father’s policy of recognizing the anti-French pope, but was too weak to intervene.


The First (Swabian) City War. South-western Germany had the highest population density, supporting a more fragmented and complex hierarchy of lordly jurisdictions than elsewhere in the Empire. Cities, knights and lords were not necessarily enemies, but often had conflicts over rights as they struggled to adjust and profit from the changes following the Black Death. The Swiss towns and villages drew closer together, defeating Habsburg efforts to reassert lordly jurisdiction (battle of Sempach, 1386). The knights occupied an ambiguous position, by serving as officials helping to consolidate princely jurisdictions as more distinct territories, whilst simultaneously being threatened by these same processes. The formation of knightly leagues (1370s) threatened both princely authority and the cities that were sometimes the targets of ‘robber barons’. The Swabian cities defeated the local knightly associations (1381–2). Their growing power provoked retaliation from the princes, who defeated the Swabians at Döfflingen and the Rhenish League near Worms.


The Public Peace of Eger. The violence prompted growing calls for Wenzel to intervene, but he preferred to stay in Bohemia and extort cash from the cities in return for recognizing their leagues and allowing them and the princes to plunder their Jewish populations. The collapse of the civic leagues paved the way for imperial representatives to agree a comprehensive peace across the Empire. This involved recognizing the involvement of princes and towns in upholding peace in each region, and it has been interpreted as a step towards the structures that emerged in the era of imperial reform. At the time it diminished Wenzel’s authority.


The deposition of Wenzel. Wenzel’s reluctance to leave Bohemia encouraged the electors to hold their own meetings without him. Wenzel’s reliance on the Bohemian knights alienated the Bohemian lords, including his own Luxembourg relations, starting an open civil war in Bohemia by 1395. The Turkish advance towards Hungary fully occupied Sigismund, who was unable to respond to the elector’s pleas to act as regent in the Empire. After considerable deliberation, the four Rhenish electors deposed Wenzel on grounds of incapacity (20 August 1400). Wenzel remained king of Bohemia until his death (1419).


The reign of Ruprecht, elector Palatine, who was elected king the day after Wenzel’s deposition. Ruprecht’s reign was compromised from the start by the refusal of many lords and cities to recognize his authority. The Palatinate was too small to support royal rule, while dissipation of crown assets not only reduced income but meant that Ruprecht had little with which he could reward potential supporters. His weakness was exposed by his unsuccessful campaign in Italy in 1401–2, where he failed both to obtain an imperial coronation and to defeat the powerful Visconti family that now ruled Milan.


The last double election. The Luxembourgs had no serious rivals, but were split themselves between Sigismund and his cousin, Jobst of Moravia. The rivalry was deepened through its connection to the papal schism, as each candidate was backed by a different pope. Jobst’s death a few months later (1411) resolved the situation.


The reign of Sigismund, the last Luxembourg monarch. Sigismund remained king of Hungary, but held no land in the Empire, because Luxembourg had been transferred to ducal Burgundy (1409), while Wenzel remained king of Bohemia until 1419. Sigismund accepted he could never recover Brandenburg, which had been pawned to finance his acquisition of Hungary, and so transferred it to Friedrick IV of Hohenzollern, burgrave of Nuremberg (1415); this move initiated the slow rise of the Hohenzollern family to international prominence. The Wettin family also increased its influence with Sigismund’s sanction of their acquisition of Saxony-Wittenberg on the extinction of the Askanier line there.


The Council of Constance. Sigismund assumed the traditional imperial role as guardian of the church by intervening to end the Great Schism, deposing the now three rival popes and naming a new, generally recognized pontiff. He legitimized his action by backing the conciliar movement of senior clergy who wanted regular church councils to balance papal authority. Although reunited and back in Rome, the papacy underwent four decades of renewed tension between successive pontiffs and opposing church councils, which eventually elected Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy (1383–1451) as the last anti-pope, Felix V (1439–49).


The Hussite War in Bohemia. One factor in Sigismund’s intervention to end the Great Schism was to secure church backing against the Hussite fundamentalist movement in Bohemia. The Hussite movement was already fragmenting, but some strands became associated after Wenzel’s death with opposition to Sigismund’s succession in Bohemia. The pope sanctioned war against the Hussites as a crusade. Repeated campaigns were repulsed, but the failures did force many German princes to cooperate more closely with Sigismund, who was also calling for assistance to stop the Ottoman Turkish advance through the Balkans towards Hungary. Sigismund compromised to be free to go to Hungary, extending toleration to moderate Hussites in return for an end to the war and acceptance of his rule in Bohemia (1434).


The first imperial matricular list (Reichsmatrikel) agreed by a general assembly of electors, princes and cities at Nuremberg to provide a way of sharing military and financial assistance. Although the actual aid failed to defeat the Hussites, the meeting set an important precedent for the Empire’s future development, and can be seen as part of the beginnings of imperial reform. This reform was stimulated by the parallel discussions about church reform emerging from the Great Schism, but it likewise dissipated without firm results around the mid-fifteenth century.


Sigismund crowned emperor in Rome.


The reign of Albert II and the transition from Luxembourg to Habsburg rule. Sigismund had no son, and honoured the Luxembourg–Habsburg family pact of 1364 by marrying his daughter to Archduke Albert II of Austria and promoting him as his successor. Albert was accepted as king in Hungary, Bohemia and, in the absence of another viable candidate, in the Empire. His brief reign was consumed defending Bohemia against Polish claims, and Hungary against a Turkish invasion.



The reign of Frederick III, Albert II’s cousin, who was unanimously elected German king. Frederick was condemned at the time and subsequently for neglecting the Empire in favour of Habsburg interests, and it is true that the tension between dynastic and ‘imperial’ interests did become a more obvious political component at this point. However, his reign was the longest of any king/emperor and also saw the acceleration of those processes that have been labelled ‘imperial reform’ and that gave the Empire its early modern form. These processes were closely connected to the growing political significance of written culture, itself assisted by the invention of printing (c.1450). Imperial reform involved institutionalizing political arrangements through fixing rights and responsibilities in constitutional documents. This process transformed the Empire more visibly into a mixed monarchy where the emperor shared powers with a hierarchy of princes, lords and cities. These emerged more clearly now as imperial Estates (Reichsstände); a process that was largely mirrored by parallel developments within many of the Empire’s territories where princes only consolidated their jurisdictions by recognizing that their own vassals and towns could share the exercise of some powers (e.g. Magdeburg 1400, Bavaria 1453, Württemberg 1457). There was a growing consolidation of territorial jurisdictions through the delineation of districts (Ämter) as administrative subdivisions, together with the creation of central organs (advisory councils and law courts) and more codified territorial law (now issued in multiple printed copies).


An Ottoman victory over Christian crusaders at Varna, Bulgaria, signalled the end for the Byzantine empire, which disappeared with the fall of Constantinople (1453). The sultan incorporated the Byzantine Roman imperial tradition into Ottoman ceremonial, challenging the Empire’s claims to monopolize this tradition. Continued Ottoman expansion established their empire as a permanent threat by 1471 when raiding parties could reach into Austria.


The Concordat of Vienna provided a definitive settlement of imperial-papal relations lasting until 1803. In return for acknowledging the emperor’s influence over the award of clerical benefices in the imperial church, the papacy secured the right to tax minor benefices and obtained the emperor’s recognition of the pope’s superiority over any church council in matters of ecclesiastical reform. This broad agreement was supplemented over the next three decades through further concordats with individual princes, sanctioning greater princely authority over local churches. Secular territorial jurisdiction was consolidated, notably in several north-eastern principalities where the process of incorporating imperial bishoprics was already far advanced: Brandenburg (involving the bishoprics of Brandenburg, Havelberg, Lebus); Saxony (involving Meissen, Naumburg, Merseburg); and Mecklenburg (involving Schwerin and Ratzeburg). In each case, the bishops retained spiritual jurisdiction, but lost their status as imperial princes, along with many secular rights and assets. The Habsburgs acquired a similar position in their own lands, ensuring the local clergy and religious houses did not obtain the status of imperial immediacy.

The Concordat contributed to causing the Reformation in three ways. First, imperial recognition of papal supremacy over church councils renewed debates over reform, since the measures passed by the conciliar movement since 1414 were declared invalid. The conciliar movement collapsed with the death of Felix V (1451), history’s last anti-pope. Second, papal powers to tax benefices stimulated resentment amongst German clergy, who drew up the first ‘Complaints of the German Nation’ (Gravamina nationis Germanicae  ) in 1455, which was followed by many other critiques of ultramontane influence. Third, papal sanction of the incipient ‘secularization’ of several bishoprics prefigured that during the Reformation and indicated how secular authorities might take charge of church management in their own territories.


Frederick III crowned emperor by Pope Nicholas V. This was the last imperial coronation to take place in Rome. Frederick used his position as emperor to confirm and extend the Privilegium maius, which had been forged by Duke Rudolf IV in 1358 to assert Austria’s parity with the electors. Frederick now granted powers of ennoblement, normally reserved for the emperor, to his own family as hereditary rulers of Austria.


The death of Ladislas Posthumous, the son of Albert II born after the latter’s death in 1439. Frederick had tried to control Albert’s kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary through his guardianship of Ladislas, but the nobility of both countries elected their own kings after the boy’s death. Tensions escalated through Hungarian ties to Austrian nobles opposed to Frederick, especially during the 1460s, leading to full war with Hungary (1482–90).


The Princes War as the elector Palatine tried to recover regional influence his family had lost since 1410. Fighting remained confined to south-west Germany, but contributed to criticism of Frederick and to calls for imperial reform.


The Burgundian War. The violent and rapid expansion of ducal Burgundy came to an abrupt end with Charles the Bold’s death in battle against a hostile coalition of west German lords and the Swiss. Habsburg claims to the Burgundian inheritance led to war with France (1477–93), and provided a root cause of subsequent Habsburg-French rivalry.


The election of Frederick’s son, Maximilian I, as king of the Romans. This both secured Habsburg succession in the Empire and marked a new stage in imperial reform, because Maximilian was both more prepared than his father to accept changes and henceforth largely replaced him in dealings with princes, lords and cities.


The formation of the Swabian League (lasted till 1534) between the emperor and south-western cities, knights, lords and – increasingly – also princes. The League was a response to security concerns, but also provided a framework for the Habsburgs to manage a particularly complex part of the Empire where they had direct territorial interests. It also showed how constitutional developments remained open at this stage of imperial reform, because the League had the potential of being both a supplement for other institutions (such as the Reichstag) and an alternative to them for emperor–Empire interaction.


The reign of Maximilian I. This saw the consolidation of the Habsburgs’ core territories through the acquisition of the silver-rich Tirol by the main line, and the creation of a more robust administrative structure similar to those emerging in some other German territories. Dynasticism became more coherent and potent, especially through the network of marriage alliances spun by Frederick III and Maximilian that saw the Habsburgs acquire Burgundy (1477), Spain and its dependencies (1516), Bohemia and Hungary (both 1526).


The Italian Wars started with a French invasion of Italy to contest Spanish (Aragonese) claims to Naples, as well as imperial influence in Milan. Maximilian intervened to uphold imperial jurisdiction in northern Italy. A cycle of wars ensued, simplifying somewhat after 1516 as the Habsburg inheritance of Spain removed that country as an independent belligerent. Franco-Habsburg antagonism provided a common thread throughout and spread the conflict to the Franco-Netherlands frontier as France renewed claims to Burgundy. The larger Italian principalities like Tuscany and Modena emerged more clearly as independent, though still minor, actors alongside the papacy and Venice, which also became more prominent at this point.


The Reichstag at Worms, generally regarded as marking the division between the Middle Ages and early modernity for the Empire. The general assemblies (known as Reichstage) of emperor, princes, lords and cities had grown more frequent from the 1470s, helping to consolidate the Empire as a mixed monarchy by providing a viable forum for collective decision-making. The meeting in Worms proved of lasting significance in establishing the Reichstag’s membership, procedures and powers. The meeting approved the new Common Penny (Gemeiner Pfennig) tax levied directly on all inhabitants, adding a second way of raising money to the matricular system available since 1422. Grants under both systems were dependent on the Reichstag’s agreement. Although the matricular system had essentially displaced the Common Penny by the mid-sixteenth century, the decisions taken in 1495 proved decisive in confronting all princes, lords and cities with a fundamental choice. By accepting responsibility for paying their agreed share of imperial taxes, they secured their place in the Reichstag as ‘imperial Estates’ (Reichsstände) sharing governance with the emperor. Refusal to participate led to exclusion from the Reichstag and, generally, the other institutions being created through imperial reform. Exclusion threatened the status of immediacy directly under the emperor. Those cities and lords who refused to participate slipped into mediate status, whereby their relationship to the emperor was mediated by subordination, like other territorial towns and lords, to one of the imperial Estates. This process was accelerated by the preparation of a new matricular list at the 1521 Reichstag, which served as the basis for all future revisions to tax and military quotas assigned to imperial Estates.

The Reichstag’s procedural arrangements and financial measures entrenched the Empire’s internal political hierarchy by grouping the imperial Estates into three ‘colleges’ of electors, princes and cities, and ensuring that even within these bodies, interaction was guided by individual status in strict order of precedence. Status was fixed ever more precisely through its articulation in written privileges and procedures.

The Worms meeting also established new peace-keeping and judicial arrangements, declaring a permanent public peace to end feuding, whilst establishing the Reichskammergericht as a new supreme court to arbitrate disputes between imperial Estates. The new court symbolized the Empire’s mixed character through the court’s formation jointly by the emperor and imperial Estates, all of whom assumed responsibility for maintaining it, nominating judges and implementing verdicts. By being independent, the court also symbolized how the Empire and its new institutions were greater than the sum of their parts. The Empire, through its constitution, was emerging more clearly as a legal framework with its own dynamic. It legitimized the status of the individual imperial Estates and, more generally, all groups, communities and entities were recognized somewhere in the growing body of imperial law.


The Swiss or Swabian War. Maximilian I attempted to curb Swiss expansion and force them to accept the burdens and responsibilities associated with imperial reform. His defeat marked the definitive end of Habsburg efforts to assert lordship over Switzerland, but though the Swiss were exempted from the new institutions created by imperial reform, they nonetheless remained within the Empire.


The Reichstag in Augsburg (1500) established six ‘imperial circles’ (Reichskreise) to facilitate implementation of the measures agreed at Worms five years earlier. This Kreis structure was extended by bringing most of the remaining German territories within the system through the establishment of four additional circles. The Habsburgs deliberately enhanced their autonomy within the Empire by drawing the boundaries of the Austrian and Burgundian Kreise to ensure that both were almost entirely composed of their own possessions. Switzerland, imperial Italy and the Bohemian lands all remained outside this framework. The Kreis structure developed unevenly, but all ten Kreise were functioning by the 1540s, because their members appreciated the advantages of regional cooperation. The Kreise were another lasting achievement of imperial reform. By contrast, efforts to impose a permanent advisory council (Reichsregiment) on the emperor failed by 1530, partly through Habsburg opposition, but also because the imperial Estates came to realize that the Reichstag was a better vehicle for their interests.


The papacy recognized Maximilian I as ‘elected Roman emperor’, thereby accepting the arguments advanced since the fourteenth century that the German king exercised imperial prerogatives from his election. Papal involvement diminished, conveniently at a time when the military situation in Italy made a coronation journey more difficult.


The start of the Reformation with Martin Luther’s publication of his 95 Theses. Critically, the religious controversy began while imperial reform was still underway. Debates over the correct form of Christianity became entangled with disputes over the Empire’s proper political order.


The reign of Charles V, grandson of Maximilian I and already king of Spain since 1516. Even more than Maximilian, Charles embodied both old and new, reinforcing the sense that the early sixteenth century marked an important stage in the Empire’s development.


The Reichstag in Worms consolidated imperial reform through the new matricular list, and initiated a series of increasingly substantial grants in taxes and military aid, enabling the Habsburgs to defend the Empire’s eastern frontier against the Ottomans. Charles’s declaration of Luther as an outlaw further politicized the Reformation, which was now, formally, treated as a public-order matter. Those princes embracing Lutheranism subsequently became known as Protestants through their objections to the Catholic majority’s insistence on enforcing the imperial ban. The political history of the Reformation essentially became a sequence of Protestant efforts to suspend or reverse the legal measures initiated in 1521, most notably the Catholics’ use of the public-peace legislation from 1495 to prosecute Lutherans for theft when they took over church property and spiritual jurisdictions.


Charles transferred responsibility for Austria to his younger brother Ferdinand I, who subsequently became king of Bohemia and Hungary after the death of those countries’ monarch at the battle of Mohács against the Ottomans (1526). Ferdinand reorganized administration for his possessions (1527), consolidating their distinct status within the Empire as the Habsburg hereditary lands (Erbländer).


The Knights Revolt (1522–3) was followed by the German Peasants War (1524–6), as both groups sought to realize social and political aims within their embrace of the Reformation. The Empire provided a framework for a coordinated princely response, notably in the south-west through the Swabian League. The princes’ triumph ensured their subsequent leadership of the Reformation. However, the imperial constitution was changed to adjust how the defeated parties related to the Empire. Although still excluded from most of the new imperial institutions, the knights largely escaped incorporation within princely territories, because the emperor affirmed their immediate status as ‘imperial knights’ (Reichsritter) in return for cash taxes. Both they and the peasants were also granted access to the Reichskammergericht (supreme court) to resolve disputes with lords and to protect their rights (1526). The imperial cities, some of which had backed the peasants, were recognized more clearly as imperial Estates to prevent them ‘turning Swiss’ by joining the Swiss Confederation. This option remained into mid-century, but grew progressively less attractive with mounting differences between Swiss and German Protestantism, and a clearer appreciation of the effectiveness of imperial institutions as vehicles for civic interests.


Unable to pay his army, Charles V encouraged it to sack Rome after Pope Clement VII had sided with France. Up to 10,000 civilians were killed and the event severely damaged Charles’s reputation.


The peak of Ottoman-Habsburg conflict. Having conquered most of Hungary (1526), the sultan besieged Vienna (1529) in an attempt to eliminate Charles V as a rival to his imperial claims. Although repulsed from Vienna, Ottoman forces retained Hungary and forced Charles’s brother Ferdinand to pay cash tribute (1541, annual from 1547). Despite a major military effort in 1565–7, the Habsburgs were unable to conquer the Turkish part of Hungary, and had to continue their tribute in return for an extension of the truce.


The coronation of Charles V as emperor by Pope Clement VII in Bologna was the last imperial coronation by a pontiff; thereafter all future emperors were crowned by a German archbishop, usually in Frankfurt. There were no more separate royal and imperial coronations. Monarchs were crowned either when they were elected king of the Romans during the lifetime of an incumbent emperor (vivente imperatore), or when they were elected after the death of an emperor who died without a prearranged successor. The German royal title had become progressively less distinct since the fourteenth century and was now subsumed within the imperial one, without being formally abolished.


The consolidation of both the Reformation and imperial reform. Lutheranism emerged more clearly as a permanent alternative to Catholicism, complete with its own statement of faith (Augsburg Confession, 1530) and church structures established in those cities and principalities that had embraced it. These Protestant imperial Estates formed the Schmalkaldic League (1531) to oppose Catholic attempts to use the Empire’s legal machinery to reverse these developments. Despite religious tensions, the imperial Estates continued cooperation through the Reichstag, which passed wide-ranging regulations for public order, morality, economic management and defence, all of which influenced similar measures in the German principalities and cities. Charles’s younger brother, Ferdinand I, was elected king of the Romans (1531) and increasingly assumed responsibility for the Empire’s affairs.


The Schmalkaldic War. Charles V used a temporary ascendancy over France in the Italian Wars as an opportunity for a military solution to the religious deadlock in the Empire. The Schmalkaldic League was decisively defeated (battle of Mühlberg, 1547). Charles removed lands and the electoral title from the Ernestine branch of the Saxon Wettins who had led the League, and gave these to the Protestant Duke Moritz of the Albertine branch, who had backed him during the war. This was the first change amongst the electors since 1356, and demonstrated Charles’s imperial power.


The ‘Armoured Reichstag’ at Augsburg, so named by the presence of Charles’s troops as he attempted a definitive settlement of all important issues in his favour. Religious observance was to follow guidelines set out in the ‘Interim’, a pro-Catholic statement to remain in force pending a final decision from the Council of Trent (1545–63), chaired by the pope. Management of the Habsburg lands was reorganized through the Burgundian Treaty, assigning the family’s possessions in the Burgundian Kreis and Italy to Charles’s eldest son Philip II, who was also designated his successor in Spain with its dependencies in Naples, Sicily and the New World. Philip’s uncle Ferdinand I was accepted as Charles’s successor in the Empire and the family’s hereditary lands. Relations with the rest of the Empire were to run through a pact (the Reichsbund) between the emperor and leading imperial Estates.


The Princes Revolt. An alliance of Protestant princes emerged amidst mounting violent disorder in Franconia and parts of Saxony. Moritz of Saxony secured French support for the revolt by allowing France to extend jurisdiction over the imperial cities (and de facto the associated bishoprics) of Metz, Toul and Verdun. The princes forced Ferdinand to agree the Peace of Passau, suspending much of the settlement reached four years earlier in Augsburg.


The Religious and Profane Peace of Augsburg. Prolonged negotiations since 1553 produced a comprehensive settlement at a Reichstag in Augsburg to the religious and political problems of the first half of the sixteenth century. The religious clauses were deliberately ambiguous to allow parties of different faiths to agree on a common document. Lutherans received legal recognition alongside Catholics in the Empire. All imperial Estates were declared to possess the right of Reformation (ius Reformandi), embodying the secular supervision of church affairs in their territorial jurisdictions. The Peace of Passau was recognized as a normative year for the possession of church property, meaning the Lutherans could keep what they had taken from the Catholic church up to that point. Dissenting minorities received certain safeguards, but the treaty made contradictory provisions regarding the status of the imperial church. Catholics believed the Peace reserved all imperial church jurisdictions and offices exclusively for them, giving Catholics an in-built majority in the new imperial institutions, because there were more ecclesiastical than secular imperial Estates. Lutherans believed special guarantees issued by Ferdinand I allowed them to acquire such lands despite the recognition of 1552 as a normative year elsewhere in the Peace.

The more lengthy secular clauses codified and extended the imperial reform measures for defence, public order, coinage and economic coordination. The Kreise received enhanced powers, increasing the scope for regional collaboration and initiatives. Other than Austria and Burgundy, all Kreise developed assemblies as platforms to coordinate implementation of imperial laws and Reichstag decisions, as well as to introduce regional measures of their own. Representation amongst immediate lords was much broader in the Kreis Assemblies than at the Reichstag, where the majority of minor princes and counts lacked full votes in the princely college. These measures mark the high point of imperial reform. Further important legislation passed by subsequent Reichstag meetings into the 1570s modified and consolidated existing constitutional arrangements without fundamentally altering them.



The abdication of Charles V and partition of the Habsburg monarchy. Charles interpreted the events of 1552–5 as a defeat of his measures imposed in 1548. He accelerated the transfer of power already underway to his brother Ferdinand, formally abdicating (3 August 1556) and returning to Spain, where he died (21 September 1558). Ferdinand I was recognized as Roman emperor a few weeks later in 1556, but the full transfer of power was not completed until a formal ceremony on 15 March 1558 once he secured agreement from the electors. The process further consolidated the Empire as a mixed monarchy: the emperor remained pre-eminent (the Habsburgs had initiated the transfer), but ruled only through agreement from leading imperial Estates (the transfer was only completed through the electors’ agreement). The transfer also completed the separation of the Habsburgs into separate Austrian and Spanish branches, which persisted until the extinction of the latter in 1700.


The reigns of Ferdinand I (to 1564) and his son Maximilian II (1564–76). The administration of the Austrian lands was strengthened, but structural problems emerged following Ferdinand I’s allocation of the Tirol and Inner Austria (Styria, Carinthia and Krain) to his younger sons, creating junior Habsburg branches. The Reichshofrat, established under Maximilian I, was reorganized and placed on a firm footing (1559) as a second imperial supreme court to safeguard imperial prerogatives, including feudal jurisdiction across imperial Italy. Good relations with individual important princes ensured the maintenance of the 1555 Augsburg Peace, despite the emergence of Calvinism as a major third religion without clear sanction in imperial law, and despite the onset of Catholic ‘Counter-Reformation’ measures, including the activities of the Jesuits in Germany.


The Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) ended the Italian Wars in the Habsburgs’ favour, with France renouncing its claims to Spain’s Italian possessions, including Milan. Unlike earlier treaties, the Peace held because the death of Henry II (at a tournament celebrating the peace) plunged France into a crisis, which deepened into the French Wars of Religion (1562–98). Discontent over the cost of the Italian Wars, plus exclusion from influence and religious grievances amongst the Netherlands nobility, escalated during the mid-1560s into open opposition to Spanish rule, culminating in the Dutch Revolt after 1568 (also known as the Eighty Years War). The Revolt also assumed the character of a civil war, with most of the Catholic population backing Spain against the largely Calvinist Dutch rebel leadership.


The reign of Rudolf II. Habsburg management of imperial politics gradually lost direction amidst considerable problems. The deepening of the French and Dutch civil wars threatened the Empire’s western territorial integrity as all parties sought to recruit German troops. Rudolf refused to back Spain against the Dutch rebels, whose territory effectively became an independent republic after 1585. Disputes over the religious terms of the Augsburg Peace sharpened around 1583 when Rudolf refused to allow Protestants who had become imperial bishops to exercise the prerogatives of imperial Estates.


The Cologne War. The open conversion of the archbishop of Cologne to Calvinism triggered Spanish military intervention, which installed a member of the Bavarian Wittelsbachs instead. The episode exposed Rudolf’s inability to resolve problems himself whilst greatly extending the influence of Bavaria, which emerged as the political leader of the more militant German Catholics.


The rival Wittelsbach branch in the Palatinate definitively converted to Calvinism, having previously switched between this and Lutheranism. The elector Palatine promoted an agenda of constitutional reform intended to secure recognition of Calvinism and dismantle the Catholic majority in imperial institutions, by levelling some of the status differences between imperial Estates in favour of his supporters amongst the partially disenfranchised imperial counts and minor princes. As the rival Wittelsbach branches associated with diverging interpretations of the Augsburg Peace, politics began polarizing more sharply along confessional lines. The elector Palatine manipulated controversies over church property to undermine confidence in existing institutions and rally support for a new Protestant league.


The Long Turkish War. Rudolf capitalized on continued cross-confessional support against the Ottoman threat to escalate problems on the Hungarian frontier into full-scale war. The Habsburgs compelled the sultan to accept the validity of their Roman imperial title, but were bankrupted by the war and bought a renewal of the 1541 truce by ceding some Hungarian territory and renewing their tribute. The 1606 truce was renewed five times by 1642, ensuring that the Ottomans did not challenge the Habsburgs during the crisis of the Thirty Years War.


The Habsburg Brothers’ Quarrel. The unsatisfactory outcome of the Turkish war fuelled resentment of Rudolf amongst his Austrian and Spanish relations. Habsburg authority eroded as Rudolf and his rival brothers made political and religious concessions to their provincial Estates in return for backing in their own quarrel (notably, Rudolf’s ‘Letters of Majesty’, granting privileges to Bohemian and Silesian Protestant nobles in 1609).


The formation of the Palatine-led Protestant Union (1608) and its rival, the Catholic League (1609) under Bavaria, in the wake of grandstanding by both Wittelsbach dynasties following the inconclusive Reichstag at Regensburg (1608). The Palatinate capitalized on Rudolf’s mishandling of the Donauwörth incident (involving religious riots) to argue that existing institutions were impaired.


The Jülich succession dispute exposed weaknesses in the Catholic League and especially the Protestant Union, as well as the general aversion to major war amongst most powers in and outside the Empire.


The reign of Matthias, who progressively usurped control of the Habsburg lands from Rudolf, before succeeding him as emperor after his death. Political and confessional tensions persisted, but there was no inevitable slide towards major war. The League was dissolved (1617), while the Union lost members.


The Thirty Years War ran in parallel with a resumption of the Spanish-Dutch conflict (1621–48) after a 12-year truce, and a new Franco-Spanish war (1635–59). The Thirty Years War escalated through the failure to contain a revolt of disaffected Protestant Bohemian nobles against Habsburg efforts to reassert authority on the basis of equating Catholicism with political loyalty. The decision of the elector Palatine to accept the Bohemian crown from the rebels (1619) spread the conflict into southern and western Germany. Despite repeated imperial victories, the war was prolonged by Danish (1625–9), Swedish (1630–48) and French (1635–48) interventions, as well as Habsburg miscalculations. Despite the foreign intervention, war in the Empire remained distinct from conflicts elsewhere in Europe.


The reign of Ferdinand II, from the Inner Austrian branch of the Habsburgs.


The War of Mantuan Succession. Spain’s concern for the security of its north Italian possessions frustrated imperial efforts for a peaceful solution to disputed claims to the duchy of Mantua, and eventually compelled Austria to back France in a limited war. France secured its candidate in Mantua, but lost influence in northern Italy once open Franco-Spanish war began in 1635.


The Edict of Restitution. Ferdinand II capitalized on a commanding military position to issue what was intended as a definitive verdict to end disputed interpretations of the religious clauses of the Peace of Augsburg (1555). This imposed a narrow Catholic interpretation, alienating most Protestants, who, like some Catholics, also felt the emperor had exceeded his powers by issuing such a verdict unilaterally.


The Peace of Prague. Ferdinand II suspended the Edict as part of a wider settlement aimed at isolating Sweden by detaching its German supporters. The Peace still favoured Catholics, since these formed the majority of the emperor’s supporters, but included important concessions, notably to Saxony. The Peace is widely interpreted as the high point of imperial influence, but any advantage was soon squandered by Habsburg mismanagement of the war.


The reign of Ferdinand III, who took a more pragmatic approach than his father, Ferdinand II.


The Peace of Westphalia, involving three treaties. Spain recognized Dutch independence in a treaty signed at Münster in January. The southern provinces remained part of the Empire as the Spanish Netherlands, still formally constituting the Burgundian Kreis. A second Treaty of Münster (24 October) settled peace between France and the Empire at the cost of Austria ceding its rights in Alsace. The Treaty of Osnabrück (24 October) ended war between Sweden and the emperor. The settlement stabilized the Empire as a mixed monarchy in which the emperor shared power with the imperial Estates, and confirmed the autonomy of the Habsburg hereditary lands, which were now more firmly under the dynasty’s control.


The Nuremberg ‘execution congress’ implemented the peace terms. Demobilization was completed successfully by 1654, ensuring the lasting success of the Westphalian settlement.


The Reichstag in Regensburg convened to settle the remaining constitutional issues postponed by the Westphalian peace congress. Ferdinand III’s management of the Reichstag signalled the Habsburg strategy of rebuilding influence in the Empire by working within the new constitutional framework. Rather than produce a definitive settlement, the Reichstag contributed to the evolution of the imperial constitution as a framework for continuing discussion of common problems. These discussions continued in various forms until the end of the Empire, though successive minor amendments had eroded much of the constitutional flexibility by the mid-eighteenth century.


The publication of the ‘Latest Imperial Recess’ (J-ngster Reichsabschied). The 1653–4 meeting was the last time the Reichstag concluded by publishing a ‘recess’, or list of its decisions, which had been customary since the later fifteenth century. This was because the next meeting (1663) remained permanently in session and published decisions as they were made.


The interregnum caused by the death of Ferdinand IV (king of the Romans since 1653) before his father, Ferdinand III. Louis XIV’s possible candidacy in the ensuing imperial election was the first attempt by a French monarch to become emperor since François I in 1519, and the last time a foreign monarch considered standing.


The reign of Leopold I, younger son of Ferdinand III, who continued his father’s policy of managing the Empire by presenting Habsburg objectives as common, imperial interests.


A renewed Turkish war followed the breakdown of the earlier truce. Leopold I received substantial military assistance from the Empire, Sweden and France, enabling his forces to repel an Ottoman attack. The Treaty of Vasvár (1664) renewed the truce, but ended the humiliating tribute paid to the sultan.


The Reichstag summoned to Regensburg to discuss military aid remained permanently in session, becoming the Eternal Diet (Immerwährender Reichstag) and lasting until 1806.


A sequence of wars in western Europe: War of Devolution (1667–8), Dutch War (1672–9), Nine Years War (1688–97), War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). These conflicts threatened the integrity of the Empire’s western frontier through French territorial ambitions and the growing involvement of German princes. The demographic and economic recovery from the Thirty Years War slowed as princes created new, permanent armies maintained from territorial taxation. Although partly defensive, these measures were also a response to the wider changes in the Empire and Europe generally since from mid-century, as the international order became more obviously based on the new concept of indivisible sovereignty (articulated since the 1570s). Imperial princes lacked full sovereignty, yet many refused to consider themselves merely the Empire’s aristocracy. Involvement in international conflict allowed them to seek recognition and elevation in status in what can be termed the ‘monarchization’ of princely ambition. Internally, militarization fuelled longer-term trends that have been labelled ‘absolutism’, as princes asserted a more exclusive style of government in their territories, refusing to share power with their nobles through formal bodies like territorial assemblies. For the Empire, it meant a new status division between larger and richer ‘armed Estates’ with their own forces, and those without permanent troops.


Imperial defence reform. Mobilization against France during the Dutch War (1672–9) had exposed the dangers of reliance on the armed Estates, who compelled Leopold I to assign them the resources of the unarmed territories in return for substantial military assistance. These pressures continued after 1679 with further French encroachment on the Empire’s western frontier (the ‘Reunions’ culminating in the annexation of Strasbourg in 1681). Leopold responded to the concerns of the smaller imperial Estates by incorporating them within a reformed system of collective security agreed at the Reichstag. Defence henceforth relied on a mixed system of collective imperial forces raised through the matricular quota system, and large contingents fielded by Austria and the other armed principalities.


The Great Turkish War, precipitated by the Ottoman attack on Vienna. Although Polish assistance played a vital role in relieving the city, the reformed defence structure proved its worth and enabled Leopold to begin a reconquest of Turkish Hungary, which expanded to include the annexation of Transylvania by 1698. The outbreak of the Nine Years War on the Empire’s western frontier (1688) threatened Leopold’s chances of securing all of Hungary and obliged him to trade particular privileges in return for substantial military support from powerful German princes. The duke of Calenberg (Hanover) was given a new electoral title in 1692, triggering a controversy not settled until 1708. Leopold also backed the Saxon elector, who became the first prince to secure a royal title, through his election as king of Poland (1697), establishing a personal union between Saxony-Poland lasting until 1763. Meanwhile, the semi-regal title of grand duke was conferred on the ruler of Savoy (1696) to retain his cooperation in keeping France out of imperial Italy. The Ottomans conceded Habsburg control of all Hungary and Transylvania in the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), for the first time replacing the previous temporary truce with a settlement intended as a permanent peace.


The conversion of the Saxon elector to Catholicism to further his Polish ambitions coincided with the conclusion of the Nine Years War in the Peace of Rijswijk, which contained a special clause permitting the now Catholic Wittelsbach line ruling the Palatinate to breach the 1624 normative year fixed at Westphalia. The controversy partially re-confessionalized imperial politics until the early 1730s, without polarizing them along the lines experienced around 1600.


The death of Charles II extinguished the Spanish Habsburgs. The issue of the Spanish succession had become ever more pressing since 1665 as it emerged that Charles would not have a direct heir. It was already a factor behind Leopold I’s concessions to Hanover and Saxony in the 1690s, and now prompted him to grant the title of ‘king in Prussia’ to the Hohenzollern elector of Brandenburg, who crowned himself in a lavish ceremony in January 1701.


Leopold I precipitated the War of the Spanish Succession by disputing last-minute arrangements that assigned all of Spain to Louis XIV’s younger grandson, Philip V. Britain and the Dutch Republic backed Austria from 1702, while Leopold used the formal framework of the Reichstag to sanction full imperial mobilization against France. The conflict overlapped with the Great Northern War (1700–1721), in which Denmark, Russia and Saxony-Poland challenged Sweden’s status as the dominant Baltic power. Bavaria and Cologne (held since 1583 by Bavarian Wittelsbach archbishops) backed France in the hope of securing a kingdom to be carved out of the Spanish Netherlands. The rival Palatine branch backed Austria for the same reason. Bavaria and Cologne were declared outlaws following the allied victory at the battle of Blenheim (1704).


The reign of Joseph I, elder son of Leopold I, represented the peak of the Habsburgs’ recovery of imperial influence since 1648.


The reign of Charles VI, younger brother of Joseph I. Joseph’s unexpectedly early death wrecked Leopold’s arrangement with his British and Dutch allies, who had insisted on the continued separation of the Spanish and Austrian possessions and refused to accept Charles as ruler of both. Charles was obliged to agree peace with France, ending the War of the Spanish Succession in the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt and Baden (both 1714). Philip V received Spain and its colonies, while Naples, Sicily, Milan and the Spanish Netherlands were recognized as Austrian possessions.


The Hanoverian accession in Britain added another German prince with a royal crown. Bavaria and Cologne were released from the imperial ban, but, like their Palatine relations, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs had failed to secure a kingdom from the War of the Spanish Succession. The Grand Duke of Savoy became a full king, initially in Sicily, and then Sardinia (from 1720).


The Austrian conquest of Serbia in a renewed war with the Ottomans. Following the other Habsburg gains since 1699, this made Austria a European great power, reducing the significance of its association with the imperial title.


Austria recognized the tsar as Russian emperor to secure the continued friendship of this increasingly powerful eastern neighbour.


The War of the Polish Succession saw a revision of the 1713–14 settlement in Spain’s favour, forcing Austria to cede Naples and Sicily to a junior line of the Spanish Bourbons. Lorraine was detached from the Empire to compensate the defeated candidate in the Polish succession dispute. It transferred fully to France in 1766.


The renewed Turkish war, in support of Russia, cost Austria its gains from 1716–18 and compounded the financial and political crisis following the Polish succession conflict.



The death of Charles VI ended the main Habsburg male line ruling since 1440 and precipitated another interregnum (the first since 1657–8) as the electors rejected Francis, former duke of Lorraine and husband to Charles’s daughter Maria Theresa.


The War of the Austrian Succession began due to the unprovoked Prussian invasion of Silesia by Frederick the Great, who sought to profit from the crisis to enlarge his lands at Austria’s expense. The war expanded through the merger of the Austro-Prussian conflict with renewed Spanish efforts to recover the remaining possessions lost in 1714, as well as a new Anglo-French War.


The reign of Charles VII, elector of Bavaria (the Wittelsbach Carl Albrecht), who contested Maria Theresa’s inheritance of Austria and Bohemia (but not Hungary) since 1741. Although initially welcomed by many minor imperial Estates and those disillusioned with the last years of Habsburg rule, Charles’s obvious dependency on French and Prussian support weakened imperial authority and prestige.


The death of Charles VII and election of Maria Theresa’s husband as Francis I. The electors recognized that only the Habsburgs had sufficient direct possessions to sustain an imperial role. Prussia accepted Francis’s accession and withdrew from the war in return for Austria’s reluctant acknowledgement of its retention of Silesia.


The Seven Years War, started by Prussia to break a coalition forming to deprive it of Silesia. Like the War of the Austrian Succession, this was an imperial civil war, but this time the Empire was formally mobilized against Prussia. Prussia survived with its territory intact, demonstrating its influence as a second great power alongside Austria. Although the Empire achieved its official aim of restoring peace, the war discredited its system of collective security and encouraged a growing debate on renewed imperial reform.


The reign of Joseph II, eldest son of Francis I and king of the Romans since 1764. Joseph accelerated internal reforms initiated after 1748 and intended to match Prussia’s military efficiency. These reforms not only consolidated Austrian power distinct from its imperial status, but increasingly impinged on its position in the Empire by alienating traditional imperial supporters, notably amongst the imperial church by 1781. This allowed Prussia to assume the mantle of constitutional champion, rallying anti-Austrian sentiment to hinder both Habsburg imperial management and the reform agenda.


The First Partition of Poland, by Austria, Prussia and Russia, raised the possibility of a ‘Polish Future’ for the Empire should the two German great powers ever decide to settle their rivalry at the expense of the weaker imperial Estates. This stimulated the reform debate, which was boosted further by the brief Austro-Prussian War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9).


The reign of Leopold II, Joseph II’s brother, dominated by the difficulty of responding to rapidly changing circumstances: the French Revolution (1789), revolt in the Austrian Netherlands (1790), and the growing power of Russia in Poland and the Balkans.

THE END, 1792–1806

April 1792

The French declaration of war on Austria began the French Revolutionary Wars. Austria bought Prussian support (recognition of Hohenzollern inheritance of Ansbach and Bayreuth), and both pressured the imperial Estates to declare imperial war (1793).

July 1792

The accession of Francis II in the last imperial election and coronation.

1793, 1795

The Second and Third Partitions removed Poland from the map, and distracted Prussia, which had difficulty digesting its new gains.


The Peace of Basel. Prussia withdrew from the war against France, taking the whole of northern Germany into neutrality (until 1806). Several other princes began negotiating with France. French annexation of the Austrian Netherlands removed the Burgundian Kreis and shifted the imperial frontier east to the Rhine.


The Peace of Campo Formio. Austria accepted French annexations west of the Rhine and opened a congress at Rastatt to settle peace between France and the Empire.


The failure of the Rastatt Congress led to renewed imperial war with France. Without aid from Prussia and the north, Austria and the rump Empire were defeated.


The Peace of Lunéville. The Empire accepted peace on the basis of Campo Formio. Imperial Italy was ceded to France, but Austria took Venice. Those princes who had lost territory west of the Rhine were to be compensated east of that river at the expense of the imperial church and cities. Powerful armed princes forced the pace, occupying land ahead of formal sanction, but with the backing of international allies, especially France and Russia.


An Imperial Deputation decision sanctioned the redistribution of territory, radically altering the Empire’s internal balance and status hierarchy. Reform discussions intensified, but little could be achieved in the face of Austrian and Prussian opposition.


Francis II responded to Napoleon Bonaparte’s self-coronation as ‘emperor of the French’ by assuming an hereditary Austrian imperial title distinct from the Holy Roman one.


Napoleon forced the pace of events by assuming the title of ‘king of Italy’, and forging closer alliances with German princes. Austrian efforts to resist were crushed at the battle of Austerlitz, leading to the Peace of Pressburg, which declared France’s German allies to be sovereign states.

July 1806

Sixteen princes renounced allegiance to the Empire and formed the Confederation of the Rhine in alliance with Napoleon.

August 1806

Francis II abdicated to prevent Napoleon usurping the Holy Roman imperial title and its associations.



   American Historical Review  


   Archiv für Kulturgeschichte  


   Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte  


   Blätter für deutsche Landesgeschichte  


   Central European History  


   Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters  


   English Historical Review  


   Early Medieval Europe  


   European Union  




   Frühmittelalterliche Studien  


   German History  


   German Historical Institute London Bulletin  


   Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht  


   Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv Vienna  


   Historical Journal  


   Historisches Jahrbuch  


   Historische Zeitschrift  


   International History Review  


   Instrumentum Pacis Monasteriense   (Peace of Münster)


   Instrumentum Pacis Osnabrugense   (Peace of Osnabrück)


   Journal of Modern History  


   Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung  


   Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchivs  


   Nassauische Annalen  


   Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte  


   Neues Teutsches Staats-Recht  , by J. J. Moser (20 vols., Frankfurt, 1766–75)


   Parliaments, Estates and Representation  


   Past & Present  


   Roman Month  


   Rheinische Vierteljahrsblätter  




   Transactions of the Royal Historical Society  


   Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte  


   Westfälische Zeitschrift  


   Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte  


   Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins  


   Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung  


   Zeitschrift für Neuere Rechtsgeschichte  


   Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Germanistische Abteilung  


   Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Kanonistische Abteilung  


   Zeitschrift für Württembergische Landesgeschichte  

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