Governance not Government

Part III examines how the Empire was governed, while Part IV looks at how governance related to social developments. The emphasis on governance rather than government is deliberately intended to overcome earlier presentations of imperial politics as a succession of failed attempts to create a unitary state. ‘Government’ implies a centralized, institutionalized state with a clear chain of command and responsibility. Modern politics are largely about determining who controls such states and what policies they should pursue. ‘Governance’ more commonly denotes auto-politics and self-regulation, both of which are closer to the Empire’s regimen of a broadly inclusive system relying more on consensus than command. This chapter begins by explaining how kings were chosen and the qualities they were expected to possess, before identifying their primary assistants and the resources at their disposal. The final section charts the main developments from the Carolingian to the Salian monarchs, thereby opening the chronological coverage continuing through the high and later Middle Ages in Chapter 8 and across early modernity under the Habsburgs in Chapter 9.

Imperial governance was programmatic in that it was guided by coherent ideals and goals. All kings and emperors – like modern governments – had to react to circumstances and improvise, but they were not simply at the mercy of events. The difference lies in what they were trying to achieve. ‘State’ and ‘nation’ were not yet clearly delineated concepts functioning as focused policy objectives. Kings and emperors were not state-or nation-builders, because no one felt either needed building. Medieval monarchs were expected to build churches and cathedrals. Otherwise, their role was primarily to uphold peace, justice and the honour of the Empire. Changing circumstances, like violence, rebellions, or invasions, were not seen as ‘problems’ to be ‘solved’ through new laws, better institutions, or more coherent frontiers. Most of the misunderstandings surrounding the Empire’s political history stem from attempts to impose anachronistic expectations on its rulers’ behaviour. For most of the Empire’s existence, imperial governance was guided by the prevailing ideals of good kingship.

Imperial and royal powers were never explicitly delineated. It was accepted by the twelfth century that the emperor possessed exclusive prerogatives (jura caesarea reservata  ) largely relating to a clearer understanding of his position as feudal overlord. Subsidiary reserved powers (jura caesarea reservata limitata  ) could be exercised with the advice of great lords. These were identified more precisely from the mid-fourteenth century and included declarations of war and the imperial ban. A final set of shared powers (jura comitialia) were clarified during fifteenth-century imperial reform as being shared with all imperial Estates.1 As later chapters will show, this gradual clarification of the Empire as mixed monarchy evolved with changing expectations of what authorities should do, rather than from a desire among princes to leave the Empire.

Ideal Kings

The collective element in governance was expressed most clearly in how kings were selected. The element of election was mixed with other forms and the monarchs should not be considered a kind of life president. Those involved never enjoyed an entirely free choice. The number of candidates was always limited to a select group considered Caesarable. Selection criteria were never formally specified, but can be extrapolated from discussions of ideal kings in contemporary chronicles, lives of saints, liturgical texts, and reflections on kingship known as the ‘mirror of princes’ (Fürstenspiegel), which existed under the Carolingians and became more common again from the twelfth century.

Religion and morality are central to these texts, which generally used biblical examples like Moses, David and Solomon.2 As most authors were clergy prior to the fifteenth century, this emphasis is unsurprising. Kings were admonished to follow the clergy’s advice, not to exceed their legitimate prerogatives and to display humilitas by acknowledging their own mortality and subordination to divine power.3 Humility remained significant into the thirteenth century as a way to demonstrate purity of motives, accepting royal responsibilities as a duty to God rather than as a lust for power. Henry I was nicknamed ‘the Fowler’ because he was supposedly busy setting bird nets rather than politicking during his election. Displaying humility was a good way to suggest that rivals were dangerously eager to be king.

Ninth-and tenth-century clerics often stressed purity of inner character over material achievements. Pious ‘failures’ were preferable to sinning achievers, but even clerics like Thietmar of Merseburg expected tenth-and eleventh-century monarchs to act forcefully, considering cunning and anger to be appropriate manly virtues and necessary for political success.4 The laity’s views before the later Middle Ages can only really be discerned from how far royal actions met with approval or opposition. Core expectations remained stable: kings should defend the church, uphold the law, and be victorious in battle. However, the precise mix varied across time, while contemporaries often disagreed on how kings should achieve these goals.5

Not everyone was considered to possess these qualities from birth. Lineage remained an important element throughout the Empire’s history and mostly the only viable candidates were those from what Tacitus called the stirps regia or royal kin. The modern German word König (king) derives from the older kunja, meaning both kinship and the warrior clan and its leader.6 Real or fictive kinship was important in each transition in royal line until at least the thirteenth century. Challengers from outside the immediate circle still had to demonstrate royal blood. The first anti-king to be elected, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, was related to the former Burgundian royal family and had served as both governor of Burgundy and duke of Swabia from 1057. His first wife was Henry IV’s sister Matilda, while his second spouse, Adelaide of Savoy, was also associated with royalty. The next anti-king, Hermann of Salm, headed the first line of Luxembourg counts (extinct 1198) and was thus grandson of Empress Kunigunde, wife of Henry II, and was related to the Ottonians and, distantly, the Salians. These connections made him appear an ideal compromise candidate to challenge Henry IV in 1081, but Hermann’s lack of military success soon alienated his supporters.7

The ideal royal connections remained those with the Carolingians, especially Charlemagne. Berengar II and his son Adelbert claimed Carolingian descent while contesting Otto I’s grab for Italy in the 950s. Associations with Charlemagne remained important into the sixteenth century, by which time royal apologists fitted the Empire’s rulers into a seamless line stretching through the ancient Roman emperors back to the Trojans.

Lineage subsumed other aspects of heritage, including what would later be considered nationality. A sense of not being ‘one of us’ did not prevent the Saxon Ottonians replacing the Frankish Carolingians in 919, nor them in turn being followed by the Rhenish Salians, but the new lines nonetheless had to tread carefully at first in both cases. Otto I’s coronation as Holy Roman emperor in 962 cemented the association of the imperial and German titles, but there was still no formal requirement that the German king actually be ‘German’. Pope Innocent III asserted in his decree Venerabilem of 1202 that Leo III had ‘transferred the Roman Empire in the person of Charlemagne from the Greeks to the Germans’. This statement was intended to historicize the papacy’s claim to supremacy as ‘translator’ of the imperial title. It did not prevent the election of both English and Spanish candidates (respectively Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X of Castile) as German king in 1257, nor was it a primary reason for the failure of several French candidacies around 1300. The papal decree assumed an unintended significance following renewed double election in 1314 as Innocent had unwittingly supplied an argument to exclude the papacy from interfering in the election of future German kings. However, it was only after the wider acceptance of new ideas of nationality that the decree’s full impact was felt, enabling Charles V to win the 1519 imperial election against François I of France by depicting him as a ‘foreigner’. Charles proved subsequently to be too ‘Spanish’ for many Germans, but this simply reinforced the consensus that only a ‘German’ should be emperor.8

Kings were expected to act kingly, imposing constraints both before and after accession. A bad man could not have divine favour. Henry IV was mercilessly attacked by his critics for his alleged debauchery and cruelty to his wife Praxedis. Acting regally ahead of an election could convince doubters, but it might also be perceived as haughty. Duke Friedrich II of Swabia was the Staufer candidate in 1125 and enjoyed Henry V’s public endorsement as his successor, but he was criticized for being ‘ready to be elected king, but not to elect a king’. His fellow dukes opted instead for Lothar III of Supplinburg, who had already kneeled before the assembled lords, exclaiming he would not accept the title. In this case, lack of lineage actually helped, because Lothar was unrelated to the Salians, whose command style of rule the dukes wanted to end.9

Kings were expected to show due regard for their senior vassals’ sensibilities. Another of the many charges against Henry IV during his reign was that he kept the Saxon lords waiting all day to see him while he played dice with his cronies.10 Displaying courage in battle and securing victory were also essential, not least because they provided evidence of true faith and divine favour. Henry I deliberately broke his truce with the Magyars in 932, securing his lords’ support by arguing it would be better to devote their money to memorializing their heroic defence of Christendom than continuing paying tribute to pagans. The subsequent victory at Riade the following year was hugely significant in cementing acceptance of Ottonian rule. Much was made of the king’s use of the Holy Lance in this battle, and again by his son Otto I at Lechfeld in 955, constructing a story of continued divine favour leading to Otto’s imperial coronation in 962.11

Nonetheless, direct participation in warfare was very risky, as demonstrated by Otto II’s defeat at Cotrone (982), which shook confidence in the Ottonians throughout the Empire. Personal courage at least could compensate for strategic failure. The two crusading emperors, Conrad III and Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, are both associated with stories of having cleaved opponents in two with single sword blows.12 Richard of Cornwall was a distinguished crusader prior to his election in 1257, while Sigismund managed to come out of the doomed Nicopolis crusade of 1396 with an enhanced reputation. Martial prowess remained important into early modernity. Maximilian I was famed as the ‘last knight’. Charles V had a magnificent equestrian portrait of himself painted by Titian to celebrate his victory over the Schmalkaldic League at Mühlberg in 1547 (see Plate 8). Both Ferdinand III and Joseph I were praised for their coolness under fire.

By that point, good generalship was more expected of a king than a warrior’s deeds. However, medieval kings were expected to look as if they might be mighty fighters. Several kings, including Henry IV, were said to measure up to Charlemagne’s 1.8 metres, while Conrad II exceeded him at 2 metres as well as being celebrated for riding 150 kilometres in a single day. Henry VII was known as Alto Arrigo (Tall Harry) in Italy. Poise, gait, dexterity and general appearance were also important in this culture of personal presence. The fact that he had lost an eye was another factor against Duke Friedrich of Swabia compared to his younger brother, Conrad III. Ninth-century emperors and kings were expected to appear wearing silk robes with gold hems, golden sword belts and spurs. Items considered traditionally ‘Frankish’ remained important markers of legitimacy and continuity into the thirteenth century.13

Less stress was placed on intellectual ability. Conrad II was called idiota because he was illiterate. However, this reflected both the prejudice of the tiny clerical elite and the fact that he had not been raised in the expectation he would become king. Conrad gave his own son a much more rounded education. Conrad II’s next three successors were all well educated; Otto III’s main tutor was Gerbert of Aurillac, one of the leading intellectuals of his age and the future Pope Sylvester II. Henry III’s Latin was sufficiently good for him to poke fun at Bishop Meinward of Paderborn’s conduct of a church service.14 Louis IV ‘the Bavarian’ was the last emperor to have only a nobleman’s basic education. His successor, Charles IV, studied in Paris, wrote his own biography, spoke five languages and participated fully in Europe’s high Gothic culture.15 Later emperors also showed artistic flair, or at least patronized the arts, but this was scarcely unique amongst European royalty following the Renaissance.

As we have seen in the discussion of presentational culture (pp. 13 and 267), the politics of the medieval Empire emphasized direct, personal interaction; in short, a culture of personal presence. However, problems of distance and pressure of other concerns inhibited kings – and especially potential kings – from meeting everyone who might prove significant. Several prospective monarchs were relatively unknown quantities prior to their election. Under these conditions, it was important to adhere to other, accepted norms and to present oneself in accordance with expectations. Possession of the ‘right’ insignia was already an issue during the Carolingian civil wars of the 840s when rivals attempted to bolster claims through displaying allegedly ‘authentic’ items. Widukind of Corvey emphasized how the dying Conrad I allegedly legitimized the transition to Ottonian rule by giving Henry I the royal insignia. Henry II’s widow, Kunigunde, played a similar role by entrusting the first Salian, Conrad II, with the insignia. Likewise, surrender of the insignia was interpreted as renunciation of kingship; unwillingly in Henry IV’s case in 1105, but amicably by Frederick ‘the Fair’ in 1320.

Henry II intercepted Otto III’s funeral cortège to seize the insignia in 1002, but this alone was insufficient: the lords initially rejected him on grounds of his weak physique and the absence of children despite a marriage of two years. However, Henry enjoyed the backing of Otto’s sisters and reached Mainz ahead of his rival, Hermann II, duke of Swabia, to stage his own coronation first.16 Similarly, Otto IV trumped Philip of Swabia, who had the insignia, by controlling Aachen and being crowned by the ‘right’ person – the archbishop of Cologne in 1198. In short, other elements were important in securing wider recognition of legitimacy. Another archbishop of Cologne insisted on there being only a single, recognized set of insignia in 1315 to consolidate his role in crowning kings. The desire to pre-empt potential rivals and anti-kings also influenced the Luxembourgs’ efforts to concentrate all the items in a single treasury. However, as late as 1400 their rival Ruprecht was able to get away with a cheap imitation crown that he pawned three years later for just 150 florins.17

Election and Hereditary Succession

A variety of methods were used to decide the succession prior to their standardization in the Golden Bull of 1356. The elective element has long been blamed as a prime source of political weakness.18 For the following, it is important to remember that until the late Middle Ages contemporaries did not regard ‘elective’ and ‘hereditary’ monarchies as sharply defined constitutional alternatives. Even English kingship contained elective elements in that the aristocracy’s consent was required for a succession to be legitimate, while hereditary rule in France was achieved in practice by many kings crowning their sons as successors during their own lifetime.

As the participants in the Empire were well aware, hereditary succession was not inherently superior. Otto I, Henry IV and Frederick II all faced serious rebellions from their sons whom they had groomed as successors. The periods when the hereditary principle was strongest were also those of the longest royal minorities, notably for Otto III and Henry IV. While lineage was valued, direct descent was no guarantee of an ideal king. Aged 15, Wenzel succeeded his father Charles IV in 1378. Lavish preparations left the new king a spoiled teenager who soon took to drink. By contrast, election reduced the chances of an incompetent king. Five of the six monarchs elected in the century after 1254 were ‘exceptionally able politicians’.19 The exception, Adolf of Nassau, was deposed, something that was also easier to handle under an elective monarchy.

There were only four genuine ‘double elections’ across the millennium of imperial history (1198, 1257, 1314, 1410) when rival candidates were chosen very closely together, though never actually simultaneously. The others were all ‘anti-kings’ elected by their own supporters in opposition to a reigning monarch (see Table 2). Anti-kings were not a worse problem structurally than the ‘pretenders’ and ‘wars of succession’ affecting Europe’s hereditary monarchies. Only two of the double elections triggered a serious civil war (1198, 1314). Altogether, the Empire fared far better than its ancient Roman predecessor, which had no system beyond nomination by the existing incumbent, combined with the nominee’s ability to defeat rivals. Only two emperors were directly succeeded by their sons between 27 BC and AD 192, while over 80 gained power by usurping the throne between 235 and 284. Thereafter, there were only three years with a single, unchallenged emperor before 476.

The Empire got ‘the best of both worlds’, because its monarchy was theoretically elective but often hereditary in practice.20 Nobles and the population generally preferred sons to follow fathers as this was interpreted as a sign of divine grace. Of the 24 German kings between 800 and 1254, 22 came from four families, with sons following fathers 12 times. However, while some later historians interpreted this as ‘blood right’, contemporaries used the looser ‘hereditary right’ (ius hereditaria successio), which did not specify an exact sequence and allowed lords some say in elections.21 The Carolingians practised ‘designation’ whereby a reigning monarch already indicated which of his sons or relations should succeed him, providing the basis for co-kings (see Table 3, p. 312). Designation assumed particular importance during the change of royal families in 919 and 1024, with both Ottonian and Salian chroniclers claiming their line had received endorsement from the previous kings.

Table 2. Anti-Kings

Period Affected  


   Reigning Monarch  


   Heinrich II ‘the Quarrelsome’ of Bavaria  

   Otto III  


   Rudolf of Rheinfelden  

   Henry IV  


   Hermann of Salm  

   Henry IV  


   Ekbert of Meißen  

   Henry IV  


   Conrad of Franconia (official co-king since 1087)  

   Henry IV  


   Henry V (ruled uncontested from August 1106)  

   Henry IV  


   Conrad III (ruled uncontested 1138–52)  

   Lothar III  


   Otto IV  

   Philip of Swabia  


   Frederick II (ruled uncontested from 1218)  

   Otto IV  


   Heinrich Raspe of Thuringia  

   Frederick II  


   William of Holland (ruled uncontested 1254–6)  

   Frederick II till 1250, Conrad IV 1250–54  


   Alfonso X of Castile  

   Richard of Cornwall  


   Frederick ‘the Fair’ of Austria  

   Louis IV  


   Charles IV (ruled uncontested from 1347)  

   Louis IV  


   Günther von Schwarzenburg  

   Charles IV  


   Friedrich of Brunswick  



   Wenzel (reigning king since 1378)  

   Ruprecht of the Palatinate  


   Jobst of Moravia  


Only Henry VI tried to persuade the senior lords to accept a clearly hereditary Staufer monarchy in Germany along the lines of his newly acquired kingdom of Sicily. Despite his offer of concessions, the lords only took the conventional step of recognizing his two-year-old son Frederick II as successor, whilst leaving open the question of hereditary right. This episode assumed greater significance in twentieth-century writing than it probably deserves, since it was misinterpreted as an opportunity to have converted the Empire into a centralized monarchy supposedly cut short by Henry’s unexpectedly early death.22 Monarchs elsewhere certainly feared the Empire’s conversion to hereditary rule. Pope Innocent III threatened in Venerabilem to deprive the Germans of their electoral rights if they chose another Staufer. Sweden and France tried to write into the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that no two consecutive emperors could come from the same dynasty. Such attempts were always rejected by the German princes as unwarranted interference in their free choice.

The actual process of election was far from transparent prior to the late Middle Ages. It did not rest on ideals of popular sovereignty, or notions that the great lords were the representatives of ordinary people. Instead, election was seen as an expression of a divine choice; it was precisely this aspect that contemporaries celebrated as making it superior to direct hereditary succession.23 Although staged publicly as a spontaneous expression of divine will, selection always involved calculated assessments of the likely candidates’ personal characteristics, military power and kinship networks. Outward unanimity was important to convey legitimacy. Dissenters either failed to participate or left before the outcome was publicly declared. Election thus blended to an extent with homage ceremonies, as the new king needed to secure public acceptance from those who had not been present. Both Henry II and Conrad II were obliged to seek the Saxons’ agreement separately in ceremonies amounting almost to second elections in 1002 and 1024.24 This practice was curbed thereafter, with election remaining a single event.

Dissenters could voice objections or absent themselves, but they could not veto a choice. Majority voting became clearly established during the fourteenth century as the previous desire for public unanimity waned.25 Those who did leave risked handing the favoured candidate the appearance of being a unanimous choice. Usually, dissenters discreetly bargained concessions either just prior to the public acclamation of the new king or later in return for homage. Those who were irreconcilable generally retired to their lands and refused homage. This constituted the primary form of rebellion across the Empire’s first two centuries.

The anti-Henrician faction expressly adopted the church reformers’ call for ‘free election’ as expressing God’s will when they elected Rudolf of Rheinfelden in 1077. Rudolf’s promise not to designate any son as his successor was the first clear rejection of the hereditary principle in imperial politics.26 However, it was not a decisive turning point, since Rudolf was defeated by Henry IV, who proceeded to get both his sons recognized as his successors through designation. Lothar III’s election was ‘free’ in the sense that Henry V did not designate a successor, but exactly what happened is far from clear beyond that the proceedings did not constitute a break with past practice. Conrad III’s accession in 1138 was ‘a coup by only a few magnates’.27 Sons followed fathers thereafter, though always with the approval of important lords, until the final emergence of ‘free election’ during the later thirteenth century.

The Electoral College

Exactly who participated in early elections remains unclear, though there was never a simple popular vote by warriors acting as a ‘tribe’.28 Elections were always elite affairs, and by 887 it was expected that the main regions would be represented by their dukes and other senior lords, though it is not certain how far these canvassed their own vassals before voicing an opinion. All major regions were expected to be represented by 911, and the absence of the Bavarians and Swabians in 919 required their subsequent coercion by Henry I. Burgundian and Italian lords paid homage, but were excluded from German elections, except in 983 when Otto II sought greater integration and had his son Otto III simultaneously elected German and Italian king at an assembly in Verona, and subsequently crowned in Aachen by the archbishops of Mainz and Ravenna.

The identity of the elections emerged slowly as contemporaries began distinguishing more sharply between deliberate ‘choice’ (Kur) and allegedly ‘spontaneous’ acclamation. Bishops appear not to have acted in Otto I’s election, but clearly participated by the mid-eleventh century, having gained influence under Henry II. Abbots no longer participated after 1198, while bishops’ involvement contracted to those in western Germany. Nonetheless, ecclesiastical lords still predominated into the thirteenth century, perhaps thanks to a greater sense of collegiality.29 Meanwhile, any remaining regional grouping of secular representation disappeared with the emergence of smaller, more numerous duchies under the Staufers. Although the universal right of all lords to participate was still proclaimed in 1152, the number of electors had already narrowed. Counts were excluded after 1196, though the overall numbers of participants continued to fluctuate: the 1208, 1212 and 1220 elections were all large gatherings, while those of 1211, 1237, 1246 and 1247 were small, with only 11 princes appearing in Vienna to elect Conrad IV.30

The 1198 double election and those of anti-kings in 1246 and 1247 all revealed the dangers of faction. Both the Staufers and the papacy favoured reducing the electors to a clearly defined group, and their efforts were supported by writers like Eike of Repgow and Albert of Stade, whose influential treatise encouraged acceptance of a small group indirectly representing those who could no longer participate.31 Practicalities compelled this. The civil war of the 1240s made it obvious that electors would have to support their candidate against any opposition, discouraging many from risking involvement. The extinction of the powerful Babenberg family in Austria (1246) and the Ludowingers in Thuringia (1247) further reduced the number of electors.

The identity of the ecclesiastical electors had stabilized at three by 1237. Mainz had already played a leading role since 936 and asserted the right of ‘first vote’ (prima vox) by 1002. Cologne’s refusal to accept Mainz’s status was a major factor behind the double election of 1198 as it backed Otto IV against the majority choice of Philip of Swabia.32 Mainz’s pre-eminence was confirmed by 1356, when it was charged with organizing each election. Cologne and Trier continued to bicker with Mainz over status, but all three combined to exclude Magdeburg and Salzburg definitively by 1237. Ecclesiastical votes were fixed in a transpersonal archdiocese, whereas secular power was family based, making it harder to identify which individual should exercise it. The decisive step came with the permanent association of electoral votes with ceremonial ‘arch-offices’ (Erzämter), named after functions performed at the royal court. The electors now narrowed rapidly as it was in the interest of those already within the privileged circle to exclude others.33 Rudolf limited the secular recipients of arch-offices to his four sons-in-law: the count Palatine, the margrave of Brandenburg, the Askanier family in Saxony, and the king of Bohemia. A split in the Askanier complicated matters after 1273, but Charles IV fixed electoral votes to three ecclesiastical and four secular fiefs in the famous Golden Bull of 1356. Named after its imposing golden seal, this was deliberately intended as a definitive arrangement, consolidating the group as a corporate electoral college identified by special privileges beyond just their exclusive right to choose each king.34

The emergence of a clearly defined electoral college changed the practice of identifying a successor during the lifetime of an incumbent king. The last time this had occurred was in 1169 when the four-year-old Henry VI had been elected German king alongside his father, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, enabling him to succeed unchallenged in 1190. The next time was when Charles IV sought recognition of his son Wenzel as successor in 1376. This was the first election since the Golden Bull and established what became known as vivente imperatore (‘during the emperor’s life’) elections, with the next election occurring in 1486 for Maximilian I. Maximilian’s adoption of the title ‘elected Roman Emperor’ in 1508 led to the title ‘king of the Romans’ (Römischer König) being adopted for any successor elected during an emperor’s lifetime. The Golden Bull permitted this practice but, like all important imperial documents, was open to differing interpretations. Emperors argued they could summon the electors when they chose, while the electors claimed their prior agreement was necessary, effectively adding another means to delay a vivente imperatore election. In practice, the Habsburgs waited until they were confident the electors would agree. They got this wrong in 1630 when the electors refused to accept Ferdinand III as king of the Romans, but otherwise the tactic was modestly successful and 7 of the 16 elections between 1519 and 1792 returned kings of the Romans, beginning with Ferdinand I in 1531.35

Electoral Promises

Clarification of election rules also separated that process more clearly from homage ceremonies, when subjects acknowledged a new monarch, promising loyalty in return for protection and respect for their liberties. Although medieval rulers only gave oral promises, these were considered binding and legitimized opposition should they be subsequently broken. Homage ceremonies spread to all major levels of authority within the Empire by early modernity, but they were particularly important for the medieval monarchy. Charlemagne’s requirement in 802 that all males over 12 swear loyalty to him and his new imperial office continued under the later Carolingians, but the more intense personal bonds with senior lords always mattered more.36 It became customary for each newly crowned monarch to undertake a royal progress (Iter) to win recognition from those lords absent from his election.

Homage extracted under coercion was considered invalid, opening the door to discreet bargaining to secure acceptance. This already appears to have been practised under the later Carolingians, though evidence is patchy before 1152 except for negotiations surrounding the election of co-kings (for these see Table 3, p. 312).37 The issuing of diplomas soon after coronations suggests the delivery of pre-election promises, usually in the form of gifts of crown lands and immunities (privileges). All parties had an interest in discretion. The king’s honour was at stake, while those expecting gifts risked humiliation if they petitioned openly for them.

The promises extracted from Rudolf of Rheinfelden in 1077 were exceptional and due to his status as anti-king: in addition to concessions to the pope over investiture, Rudolf had to promise not to name his own son as successor. Electoral pacts became a more obvious feature during the era of ‘free election’, being a feature of at least 11 of the 14 elections between 1198 and 1298. Adolf of Nassau made especially extensive gifts to secure support in 1292, with such rewards now being presented as reimbursement of the electors’ expenses. However, the arrangements were mutual from at least 1273, when the electors were bound to assist the monarch in upholding imperial governance. The Golden Bull consolidated the electors’ corporate identity by giving them a common set of privileges, including the right of self-assembly and considerable judicial autonomy in their own lands, for which they now sought confirmation from each new monarch. Charles V’s election occurred under substantially altered circumstances. Not only was he already king of Spain, but the electors had absorbed new ideas emerging from imperial reform and demonstrated a greater sense of collective responsibility. The resulting ‘electoral agreement’ (Wahlkapitulation) was printed and publicly disseminated, becoming the basis for all future ones. The other princes demanded the right to participate in negotiating agreements after the Westphalian settlement of 1648, while there were also calls to stabilize the constitution by fixing the terms. A draft ‘permanent agreement’ (capitulation perpetua) was published in July 1711, but was never ratified by any emperor and, in practice, the 1519 text continued to be revised at each election, notably in 1742.38


All Frankish kings had held coronations since Pippin in 754, involving changing into royal robes, receiving the insignia, an anointing and being crowned.39 Variations in this sequence and the precise handling of each stage assumed great significance as political statements, especially of prevailing imperial-papal relations. The procedure was fixed in written documents known as Ordines. Twenty of these survive, including the oldest and most significant, dating from about 960, which was revised in 1309 and incorporated into the Golden Bull, remaining in force for the last coronation in 1792.

Anointing by a senior cleric was invented in 754 for Pippin to bolster his legitimacy after he had deposed the Merovingians. The practice became a permanent feature through its inclusion by Leo III in the ceremony created for Charlemagne in 800.40 Anointing combined elements of baptism, priestly ordination and Old Testament kingship, allowing it to be interpreted variously as a consecration or merely a blessing. It was certainly understood as transforming the new king from mere mortal to God’s instrument. The association of anointing with the imperial coronation probably led to its disuse amongst the East Frankish kings in the later ninth century. Henry I famously rejected it in 919, allegedly out of modesty.41 Nonetheless, it was a feature of German coronations after 936 as a visible demonstration of the church’s support and contributed to the sacralization of the monarchy under the Salians. English kings adopted anointing in imitation of the Empire. Scottish kings petitioned the pope for the right to do this, but were refused.

Coronations were supposed to follow immediately after elections, but could be delayed if the electoral site was deemed inappropriate. This was a feature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when elections were often held quickly to overawe potential rivals. Aachen remained the favoured site for royal coronations, with imperial ones held in Rome: 25 of the 30 emperors were crowned in Rome from 800 to 1530, including two by anti-popes (1084, 1328) and two by papal legates during the Avignon papacy (1312, 1355). St Peter’s was used, except when rioting compelled relocation to the Lateran (1133, 1312). One coronation took place in Reims (816) and one in Bologna (1530), as well as two in Aachen without papal involvement (Louis I, 813; Lothar I, 817). The Golden Bull confirmed Aachen as the German coronation site, with Frankfurt for elections and Nuremberg for assemblies. The last rule was largely ignored, but Aachen continued in use until Ferdinand I’s coronation there as king of the Romans in 1531. The end to papal involvement led to Frankfurt being used for both election and coronation from 1562, except for Rudolf II, who was crowned king of the Romans in Regensburg in 1575.

Timing was particularly important for medieval imperial coronations, since these usually involved adult males who were already German king and so could plan the event in advance: 15 of the 30 coronations took place on important holy days, including six at Easter and four at Christmas. The end to separate imperial coronations after 1530 reduced the liturgical element, since their timing was dictated more by the deaths of previous emperors and prevailing political circumstances.

Medieval imperial coronations began with a procession to St Peter’s, where the emperor would be greeted by Roman senators and clergy; in Germany, the senior archbishops assumed this role in royal and early modern imperial coronations. Mainz and Cologne disputed this right in Germany, because it implied the power to legitimize the king. The Golden Bull ruled that Mainz would preside over coronations in Frankfurt, while Cologne officiated in Aachen (see Plate 13). This rule was broken only once, in 1742, when Charles VII was crowned by his brother who was archbishop of Cologne, because the current archbishop of Mainz remained loyal to the Habsburgs.42

Inside the church, the king or emperor would kneel on a carpet during prayers. He would then advance and prostrate himself before the altar while the liturgy was sung. The act of standing up physically demonstrated his transformation from mortal to monarch. In Germany he would then be questioned by the presiding archbishop, providing space to articulate expectations of good kingship. The anointing then usually followed. Early kings may have appeared already wearing a crown, but from 800 for emperors and from the tenth century for kings coronation took place as part of the ceremony. The electors played a more prominent role at this point, especially from the thirteenth century, as they handed over the crown and insignia. The monarch then donned vestments, buckled on Charlemagne’s sword, put on his ring, received the orb and sceptre, and was crowned. Since the twelfth century, monarchs also swore an oath on Charlemagne’s Bible.

Enthronement sometimes preceded either anointing or coronation in the Frankish era, but generally occurred afterwards. Timing was less important than location. By the tenth century, it had become essential to sit on Charlemagne’s stone throne in Aachen, which was now recognized as the ‘arch-throne of the entire realm’ (totius regni archisolium  ). Early modern coronations in Frankfurt used a replica. It became customary at this stage in proceedings to dispense rewards, including ennobling knights. A coronation banquet followed, symbolizing shared joy but also demarcating status amongst the participants through the seating arrangements. Urbanization of the coronation sites created a larger number of participants, who by the high Middle Ages enjoyed free food and fountains of wine as visible displays of royal munificence.

Protestant writers minimized the coronation as part of their efforts to desacralize the Empire by 1600. Nonetheless, the coronation retained meaning and was necessary to complete the process of succession. After 1530 it was only required once for each monarch – those who had already been crowned king of the Romans did not have a separate imperial coronation. Seventeenth-century coronations remained lavish, and even those in the Empire’s last century remained grand affairs.43 They also remained unique to the emperor. German princes assumed office without coronations, though they acquired some symbols of office and held homage ceremonies. The lavish Prussian coronation of 1701 was an exception that was not even repeated in the nineteenth century. Otherwise, only the Bohemian king was crowned, and the Habsburgs’ virtual monopoly of this title after 1526 further underscored their distinct status within the Empire.



Governance remained personal rather than institutional for much of the Empire’s existence. The emperor’s most important assistants were those closest to him, above all his own relations. Co-kings emerged as a way of promoting stability by resolving doubt over the succession ahead of the monarch’s own death, but they also served to spread the burden of rule without delegating power outside the immediate royal circle. Securing recognition of a son as co-king was a favoured way of safeguarding control of Germany ahead of a coronation expedition to Rome. Initially, the title co-emperor was used, but it required papal involvement and was dropped after 967 in favour of co-king, which could be assumed once agreement had been secured from the German lords (seeTable 3).44

Thereafter, once they had been crowned emperor, fathers distinguished themselves by only seeking recognition of their sons as co-kings. Since imperial trumped royal authority, the position of co-king could become difficult, especially given wider expectations of kings as dynamic individuals, rather than passive executors of someone else’s instructions. Both Henry IV’s sons became the focus of wider discontent, prompting them to challenge their father in revolts. Frederick II’s son, known as Henry (VII), was particularly unfortunate; so much so that his regnal number appears in parentheses as his royal status was not considered when a later Henry became king in 1308. Henry (VII)’s father left him in charge of Germany while he was away in Italy and Jerusalem from 1220 to 1235, but still tried to micro-manage him through letters, undercutting his personal authority and exacerbating his task of managing the lords. Meanwhile, Frederick received complaints his son was exceeding his authority by ignoring previous royal legislation, including actions complicating the emperor’s already troubled relationship with the papacy. Henry was pushed into a position of open revolt by the autumn of 1234, but his support collapsed as soon as his father returned and Henry was compelled to surrender. Now a political embarrassment, he was imprisoned and died falling from a horse while being moved between castles in February 1242; many believed he had committed suicide.45 The last co-king emerged from an ingenious solution to the civil war following the 1314 double election: Louis IV accepted his rival Frederick ‘the Fair’ as titular king in 1325, but in return for unchallenged rule of the Empire.

Table 3. Co-Kings and Emperors





  Own Reign  


Louis I   






Lothar I   

   Louis I   




830, 833–4  

Lambert II   

   Lambert I   





Otto II   

   Otto I   





Otto III   

   Otto II   





Henry III   

   Conrad II   





Conrad (III)   

   Henry IV   





Henry V   

   Henry IV   





Henry (VI)   

   Conrad III   





Henry VI   

   Frederick I   





Frederick II   

   Henry VI   





Henry (VII)   

   Frederick II   





Conrad IV   

   Frederick II   





*not crowned

Queens and Empresses

The Empire and France were medieval Europe’s only two major states where female rule was not recognized, though its exercise elsewhere was also limited to only 20 reigning queens between 1100 and 1600.46 All the Empire’s rulers were married, and their female partners played important roles in imperial governance. Clerical pressure forced the Carolingians to accept that formalized marriage was necessary to legitimize birth and inheritance claims by the late ninth century. Louis I’s first wife, Irmingard, was crowned queen by Pope Stephen IV in 816 and all official consorts appear to have been crowned thereafter. Ageltrude, wife of Guido of Spoleto, was the first to be crowned empress, in February 891. The coronation Ordines of 960 provided for female coronation, and Otto I’s second wife, Adelaide, became the second crowned empress, in 962. The Salians continued this practice. Frederick III’s wife, Eleonora of Portugal, was the last to be crowned in the same ceremony as her husband, in 1452, until the practice was revived for Matthias and Anna of Tirol in 1612, though that for the empress was now staged two days after the emperor’s coronation.47

The relatively inferior status of early queens is illustrated by the way Louis II’s wife Emma was titled coniunx (wife) and not regina (queen) prior to the last two decades of his reign. The title shifted to Romanorum regina by the late ninth century for queens, andimperatrix augusta if her husband had been crowned emperor. An association with promoting spirituality and the patronage of family nunneries contributed to this improving status.48 However, wives still faced repudiation if they failed to produce a male heir or if remarriage became politically expedient. Senior male clergy tended to divide women into virtuous Esthers and wicked Jezebels, providing the language that was exploited by hostile aristocratic factions to charge queens with adultery in the hope of getting them replaced by one of their own kin.

Empress Adelaide was fundamental in securing both the status and political influence of future queens. She was the first to be titled ‘royal consort’ (consors regni) in a deliberate revival of ancient Roman practice, implying a political role.49 Later chroniclers called her ‘mother of the realm’ (mater regnorum), and she was certainly crucial in securing support from the Italian lords to Otto I’s accession in Italy. Adelaide was canonized in 1097, indicating the continued importance of royal women in promoting the sanctity, piety and virtue underpinning their husband’s political legitimacy. This peaked with Henry II’s wife Kunigunde, who, perhaps to compensate for the couple’s lack of children, played a leading part in developing the imperial church and became a cult figure after her canonization in 1200.50 Patronage of convents also allowed queens to maintain family memoria through prayers for deceased kings and kin.

Although they could not rule in their own name, wives could play political roles. At least three empresses presided as judges over sessions of the royal court, especially in Italy: Adelaide, Matilda of England and Richenza, wife of Lothar III of Supplinburg. Henry I’s widow Matilda brokered truces within the royal family during Otto I’s reign, while Otto’s own first wife, Edith of Wessex, patched up a feud between her husband and mother-in-law. A king could listen to his wife’s calming advice without losing face. Accepting it could be presented as being gracious rather than weak. Thus, female mediation was an important element in moderating violence, something that appears to have been replicated at lower levels of the elite. Queens frequently acted as intercessors, promoting petitions from kin, friends and others seeking royal favour. One-third of Henry II’s diplomas record his wife’s interventions. Other female relations performed similar tasks, extending the reach of the royal family, even into other countries. Otto I’s sisters Gerberga and Hadwig married the rival claimants to the West Frankish throne, enabling the emperor to broker peace there. His eldest daughter Liudgard married Conrad the Red in 944, helping to consolidate Ottonian control of Lorraine.

Royal women possessed agency and did not always do the bidding of male relatives. Engelberge greatly influenced her husband, Emperor Louis II, in his attempts to extend imperial control to southern Italy in the 870s. Matilda’s favouritism for her younger son Heinrich caused Otto I considerable trouble, while Adelaide sided with her extended kin against her own son, Otto II, until he temporarily exiled her to Burgundy in 978.51 Agency was clearest during regencies, because these lacked formal rules, offering scope for forceful personalities to assert themselves. The trend towards hereditary rule under the Ottonians necessitated regencies, because Otto III and Henry IV were both under 12, the Frankish age of majority, when they succeeded their father.52

Otto III was only three when he was elected co-king in June 983, just six months ahead of his father’s death in the wake of the catastrophic defeat at Cotrone and amidst the Slav uprising. In an age of warriors, many found the idea of a boy-king wholly unacceptable and Heinrich ‘the Quarrelsome’, duke of Bavaria, attracted some support when he declared himself king in 984. The Empire’s integrity was saved by Otto’s mother, Empress Theophanu, who, in so many ways, occupied an exceptional position (seePlate 22). Several of Otto II’s advisors urged him to send her packing back to Byzantium when it was discovered on her arrival in 972 that she was only the niece rather than daughter of the Byzantine emperor.53 Nonetheless, her imperial lineage and the fact that she arrived with her weight in gold as a dowry ensured her marriage to Otto II went ahead. She became the only consort to receive the title ‘co-empress’ (coimperatrix augusta), and it was envisaged she would succeed as sole ruler if Otto II died without a son.54

Without question, Theophanu’s special status owed much to her own ability and force of character. She was aided by Archbishop Willigis of Mainz, who used the crisis of 983 to extract concessions consolidating his see’s premier status. Heinrich the Quarrelsome was soon isolated and obliged to back down, allowing Theophanu to direct affairs without ever formally assuming a title as regent. On the contrary, she issued documents in her own name whilst in Italy, dating them like a reigning monarch from the year of her own coronation in 972 and on one occasion using the male form imperator augustus.

This was the closest the Empire came to Byzantine-style female imperial rule. The contemporary response was mixed. Critics combined traditional misogyny with xenophobia, accusing Theophanu of spreading a craving for luxury amongst the Empire’s female inhabitants. Thietmar of Merseburg and others praised her for restoring stability after Cotrone. Theophanu’s interests were personal and she showed no sense of female solidarity with her mother-in-law, Adelaide, whom she tried to banish. Adelaide continued the regency from 991 to 994 after Theophanu’s death, while Otto III’s aunt Matilda acted as ‘matriarch’ (matricia), looking after Germany during his Roman expedition in 999.

The last female regency was less successful. Empress Agnes acted as regent for her six-year-old son Henry IV, but was more obviously dependent on male advisors, notably Bishop Heinrich II of Augsburg, who was rumoured to be her lover. She made important errors, but also took an unfair share of the blame, with the monks of Niederalteich dismissively recording that she, ‘as is often the case with women, was easily swayed by the advice of all sorts of people’.55 Her retirement into pious widowhood in November 1061 was ostensibly to atone for her mistakes, but it also allowed her to regain autonomy and she retained some influence until her son’s formal majority in March 1065.

Gregorian misogyny increased hostility towards female power soon thereafter, but the prime reason why no future consorts played such roles was that the exercise of clearer elective monarchy ended the possibility of minorities. The Habsburgs still relied on female relations as governors of their various hereditary possessions during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, while empresses acquired new status with the development of dynastic, representative courts.56 The revisions to Habsburg inheritance law known as the Pragmatic Sanction allowed Maria Theresa to rule her family’s hereditary possessions herself after 1740, though the dispute over these changes caused the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and temporarily deprived the Habsburgs of the imperial title. Female regencies were fairly common in the German principalities where, usually, a widowed mother would rule jointly with a male relation until her son achieved his majority. Although women were personally ineligible from attending the Reichstag, this practice effectively widened female political influence in the Empire considerably beyond the remaining convents still recognized as imperial Estates, such as Essen and Quedlinburg (whose abbesses were likewise disbarred from attending in person and were represented instead by a male envoy). Women were disbarred from citizenship in imperial cities on the grounds they could not bear arms, but those in the countryside could still stand in for sick or absent husbands in village assemblies, or in some cases represent a household themselves as widows. In terms simply of female access to power, this situation contrasted favourably with that in supposedly more progressive western Europe.57

Imperial Vicars and Counts Palatine

The case of female regencies opens the question of how far others could substitute for an absent emperor. The position of imperial vicar emerged to exercise authority during the king’s absence (absente rege), especially for Germany during Roman expeditions. The term ‘vicar’ derived from the Latin vicarius, meaning ‘second hand’ and thus designating an assistant and not an ecclesiastical office (though the modern title ‘vicar’ also originated as a bishop’s assistant). The position of co-king generally fulfilled this function into the thirteenth century, but after the problems with Henry (VII), Frederick II planned to appoint vicars for Germany. Richard of Cornwall deliberately appointed the archbishops of Cologne and Mainz and the Count Palatine as vicars during his absences to ensure this important post was not held by a single person.58 Few subsequent kings left Germany for long periods, reducing the need to make such arrangements except for interregna following an emperor’s death without a king of the Romans having been elected. The Golden Bull established that in such situations the elector of Saxony would exercise imperial authority in northern Germany, while the elector Palatine was responsible for the south. The requirement to complete an imperial election within four months of an emperor’s deathwas overshot on several occasions, but it was not in the other electors’ interests to allow their Saxon and Palatine colleagues too long as vicars. Only in 1657–8 and 1740–42 were there prolonged interregna, in both cases deliberately and through external interference.59

Imperial vicars were more common in Italy where a count was already appointed in Spoleto in 972 to oversee imperial interests during the emperor’s absence. Others were appointed temporarily for all or part of Italy with powers to issue decrees, collect imperial revenue, name magistrates, and deal with disputes. The pope increasingly tried to usurp these powers, claiming the right to exercise a ‘general vicariate’ over Italy and Arles during imperial interregna. Since the papacy defined an ‘interregnum’ as the absence of an emperor rather than a German king, it felt fully entitled to these powers after 1250 and named its new ally Charles d’Anjou as vicar for ten years in 1268. Rudolf I already reasserted claims in 1281, even without being crowned emperor, and this stance was continued by Henry VII and Louis IV, who appointed imperial vicars for specific territories and cities.60 The count of Savoy was made general vicar by Charles IV in 1372 and his successors claimed this position as a hereditary right after 1422.61 Charles V entrusted the position to his son Philip II as duke of Milan in 1548, but an administrative error in the imperial arch-chancellery upheld Savoy’s objections in 1582. Despite the wide remit, actual powers remained curtailed by the emperor’s prerogatives as suzerain over all Italian imperial fiefs and by the practical presence of real Habsburg power in northern Italy.

The formal delegation of lesser imperial powers also remained quite restricted. The main figure was the count Palatine, literally ‘count of the palace’ (comes palatinus, Pfalzgraf), emerging from the position of palace mayor, the highest official at the royal palace in Aachen. Having themselves used this position to usurp the Merovingian throne (as would the Capetians later in France), the Carolingians limited its powers, which became associated with jurisdiction of a fairly large county on the Lower Rhine by 916. The Ezzonid family held the position from 1023 to 1095, but were displaced through conflict with the pugnacious Archbishop Anno II of Cologne to the Middle Rhine during the 1060s, forming the basis of the later territory known as the Lower Palatinate.62 Palatine powers included the ability to legitimize births and make other changes of status short of ennoblement. Such powers were increasingly also granted to other princes, for example Schwarzburg-Sondershausen in 1697. Nonetheless, the original count Palatine retained sufficient prestige to acquire both electoral status and the powers of imperial vicar in 1356.

The Royal Court and Arch-Chancellery

The itinerant character of imperial rule inhibited the growth of a fixed, institutionalized court to match that of the Byzantine emperor, which numbered 2,000 courtiers in the eleventh century. Nonetheless, the emperor’s mobile entourage was both large and impressive, numbering 3,000–4,000 people, including servants and soldiers, during the Salian and Staufer eras.63 Two primary functions already emerged under the Carolingians. One was the permanent, though itinerant, royal household charged with feeding, clothing and sheltering the king and his entourage. The second was an intermittent advisory role, which in turn divided into a confidential curia minor of trusted individuals and a wider curia major of larger assemblies of lords. Neither was institutionalized prior to the very late Middle Ages.

The boundaries between both advisory meetings and the royal household remained blurred, because assemblies required the king’s presence. The ceremonial roles assigned lords at assemblies and coronation banquets were marks of favour and one-way participants could ‘read’ in them the current political balance. As part of the gradual transition from a culture of personal presence to more formalized political practice, these positions became fixed as the arch-offices associated with secular electoral titles. The Bohemian king was already distinguished as the arch-cupbearer (Erzschenk) around 1290, while the other titles were fixed by 1356: arch-steward (count Palatine), arch-marshal (Saxony), arch-chamberlain (Brandenburg).

The ecclesiastical electors were distinguished as imperial arch-chancellors. The arch-chancellery was the only permanent central administrative institution prior to early modernity, owing its origins to the notaries employed by Charles Martel to look after his documents. Louis I entrusted oversight of this to his arch-chaplain (Archicapellanus) in charge of his court chapel, which travelled with him, distinct from the clergy serving the royal palaces.64 In the German kingdom Mainz secured control of both the chapel and chancellery, retaining the latter when the former was delegated to a more junior capellarius in 1040. Various senior clergy were appointed chancellors of Italy after 1012, though the post was eventually permanently associated with Cologne, despite the decline of actual business after the mid-thirteenth century. A Burgundian chancellery was established in 1042, initially under local archbishops before being transferred as an arch-office to Trier.

Only the Mainz chancellery developed as a functioning administrative body. It remained central to the city’s political prestige and provided the basis for new functions during the late fifteenth century: chairmanship of the Reichstag, management of the imperial archive, and appointment of the secretariat servicing the Reichskammergericht.65

Written Culture

The relationship of writing to imperial governance is controversial, because written laws, instructions and other documents have long assumed hallowed status in historical scholarship as totems of political progress. They offer the most accessible route into the past and have proved especially attractive for historians living in an age dominated by formalized procedures. Surviving Carolingian administrative documents known as capitularia appear to present a command-style monarchy operating through a clear, hierarchical institutional structure in which lesser officials were closely supervised and required to submit regular written reports. The capitulare de villis of 771, for instance, specifies how royal lands are to be run and orders stewards to provide inventories of assets and revenue streams.66 This has led to some extravagant claims for the Carolingians as conscious state-builders with a coherent grand strategy, allegedly capable of mobilizing 100,000 troops from a population of 20 million.67

There was certainly a surge in writing: 7,000 manuscripts survive across continental Europe from the ninth century, compared to 1,800 for the previous eight centuries combined.68 Many of these documents are religious commentaries or chronicles. The primary use of writing prior to the twelfth century was to convey religious truth.69 Even the most literate section of society, the clergy, did not possess a fully written administrative culture at this point. Writing itself lacked social prestige compared to martial prowess, horsemanship and other physical activities, as the earlier discussion of kingly virtues has illustrated. Charlemagne issued only around 80 capitularia across his reign and they are largely absent from both the era before 780 and after 820, though there is some evidence that established administrative routines continued into the early tenth century.70

Regardless of the exact extent of written culture, it is unreasonable to expect that Charlemagne’s subjects obeyed his sparse commands more completely than the Empire’s inhabitants during the much better documented period after the fourteenth century, when it is clear that written official rules were often ignored or misunderstood by their intended recipients, or even unknown to them. Early modern authorities had to repeatedly issue the same instructions and often tolerated high levels of non-compliance on less important matters just to ensure the really serious ones were followed. Byzantium was far larger and enjoyed a continuous existence since late antiquity, but even its army was nominally 120,000 in the ninth and tenth centuries, of which no more than 12,000 could usually be concentrated in any one place.71 Extrapolation of army size based on population estimates, or through calculating the number of men required to encircle the known extent of early medieval towns, are all highly speculative methods. The claims made for Carolingian capacity and efficiency would make even nineteenth-century German statesmen and generals ‘green with envy’.72

The exaggeration of Carolingian capacity sharpens the contrast with the more unlettered Ottonian era, thereby contributing to the general sense of the Empire in terminal decline. If Carolingian structures derived directly from late antiquity and were as effective as has been claimed, one would have expected them to have easily survived the civil wars of the mid-ninth century, which pale in comparison with those of third-and fourth-century Rome.

The preceding suggests that Carolingian governance was probably already more like that of the Ottonians in relying heavily on personal presence, rituals and consensus. A more plausible estimate for Carolingian capacity is that a large army was around 5,000–12,000 warriors, providing less of a contrast with the 2,000–8,000 that the Ottonians could usually muster.73 Practical difficulties of movement and supply inhibited large troop concentrations for long periods. A royal army would be composed from the king’s own retinue and those of his lords who were close allies or who had answered his summons. The king’s force would be supplemented by contingents provided by the lesser lords and communities of the immediate area where it was operating. Larger numbers of less-experienced and poorly trained men could be summoned locally for specific tasks, especially if major sieges were undertaken. These numbers grew largely thanks to the rise in population and production across the eleventh century. Frederick I’s army on the Third Crusade in 1190 was considered huge by contemporaries; it probably numbered 15,000 including 3,000 knights – still far short of the hundreds of thousands some chroniclers claimed.74

It is unlikely that Ottonian commanders needed to read transcriptions of late Roman military manuals in order to know how to fight; their Slavic and Magyar opponents certainly did not, yet were frequently successful. It is highly speculative to blame Ottonian defeats on supposed failure to follow such advice, while attributing successes to allegedly having done so. Later graduates of European military academies could make elementary mistakes, despite their formal training. In addition to oral tradition and actual experience, tasks like economic management and the self-confidence that generally comes with elevated social status would all have prepared Ottonian nobles for command.75 In short, change across the period from 800 to 1100 was by degrees rather than absolute. Written culture may have contracted around 900, but had never been widespread, while the level of contraction itself has been exaggerated.76

Few written documents were intended as universal laws. General laws were already considered fixed by moral and religious absolutes that could not be altered by mortals. Most documents issued in the name of German kings before early modernity were charters (Urkunden) regulating local, specific circumstances, and are better understood as ‘privileges’ rather than ‘laws’. They illustrate how much royal activity was reactive, rather than planned: charters were usually issued at the request of their recipient. Written documentation had yet to assume precedence over other forms of legitimation like custom. Except for intellectual exchanges between scholars, during the Middle Ages most letters were destroyed after they had been read, in contrast to early modernity, when even mundane items such as bills and receipts were often preserved. When Frederick I wanted to know how to greet Pope Hadrian IV in 1155, he asked the oldest princes in his camp who had been present at the last imperial-papal meeting 22 years earlier. Theirrecollections carried equal weight with formal recorded protocols.77 The relatively low volume of paperwork reduced the potential for conflict by making inconsistencies between claims and practice less obvious.

The Empire did not match the papacy’s use of writing to document claims and extend influence; the papal chancery issued ten times as many documents as its imperial equivalent during the first half of the fourteenth century. Princely and civic representatives began keeping diaries of their negotiations at royal assemblies from the 1380s, and the practice became widespread by the 1420s when the imperial arch-chancellery was also maintaining an official transcript (see Plate 24). Written communication surged from the early fifteenth century, with the chancellery’s output supplemented by additional letters sent directly by the emperor (see Table 4). Whereas only four personal letters survive for Henry III in the mid-eleventh century, Ruprecht in the early fifteenth sent 400 just to Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Cologne and Strasbourg. The transition to written culture was completed in the mid-sixteenth century under Charles V, who sent and received at least 120,000 letters, in addition to the vast number crossing his officials’ desks.78

The Imperial Chancellery

The expanding paperwork necessitated the development of an imperial chancellery (Reichskanzlei) separate from the arch-office held by Mainz. Some kind of archive existed from at least the Salian era and continued under the Staufers, who likewise employed successive bishops of Speyer to oversee it. Speyer officials handled the actual paperwork, a further indication of the medieval Empire’s reliance on the imperial church. They provided continuity into the later fifteenth century, with only a partial change of personnel under the later Luxembourgs, who enjoyed the additional services of the Bohemian royal chancellery. The original archive remained with Wenzel after his formal deposition in 1400, forcing his rival Ruprecht to develop a new one, but still relying on the bishop of Speyer and his staff. The new chancellery and some of its staff passed to Sigismund in 1410, indicating that the lack of dynastic continuity from 1254 to 1437 did not prevent the growth of an institutional memory.79

Sigismund’s papers passed to Albert II in 1438 to form the basis of the Habsburg imperial court chancellery (Reichshofkanzlei), run by the imperial vice chancellor, whose appointment had depended since 1356 on Mainz as arch-chancellor. In practice, the vice chancellor was a Habsburg official overseeing communication between the dynasty and the Empire. The actual business was channelled through the Reichshofrat, the second imperial supreme court, established in 1497 for this purpose as well as safeguarding imperial feudal prerogatives. Administration of the Habsburgs’ hereditary possessions was detached to separate institutions during the 1520s, while the imperial court chancellery re-emerged as a distinct body in 1559 when the Reichshofrat was reorganized as a purely judicial court. These changes created a tripartite split: the Habsburgs separated administration of their own lands from the task of communicating with the Empire, while Mainz ran the separate imperial chancellery handling the paperwork associated with the Empire’s common institutions, chiefly the Reichstag.80

Table 4. The Growth of Writing in Imperial Governance



  Documents and Charters  

  Annual Average  





Louis I   




Louis II   




Charles II   




Charles III   




Otto I   




Otto II   




Otto III   




Henry II   




Conrad II   




Henry III   




Henry IV   




Lothar III   




Frederick II   




Rudolf I   




Louis IV   




Charles IV   
















Albert II   




Frederick III   

  1440–  93  



Maximilian I   




*excluding 170 forgeries attributed to him

**The figures in the table refer to the period in which each monarch’s documents have been counted. For most cases it is the entire reign, but for Otto III only the first 13 years.

+upper estimate

++16 months

The position of the imperial court chancellery remained ambiguous, since it was both a Habsburg and an imperial institution. Much depended on how far the vice chancellor was willing to subordinate himself to Habsburg interests. Most vice chancellors were senior aristocrats closely connected to the Habsburg court. They increasingly became the dynasty’s expert advisors on imperial politics, reducing the imperial court chancellery to a clearing house for other Habsburg officials’ correspondence with imperial Estates. Joseph II repeatedly tried to exclude any remaining Mainz influence after 1767, and while the archbishop successfully defended his formal privileges, the episode merely contributed to the alienation of the Habsburg government from the imperial church around 1800.81


Key Characteristics in the Empire

Central financial institutions only emerged in the Empire around 1490 and looked very different from those in other European monarchies (see pp. 397–8). The general pattern in Europe was a shift from ‘private’ to ‘public’ finance as kings persuaded their subjects that their own resources were insufficient to meet rising expectations of royal governance. The king increasingly drew on his subjects’ private means to finance ‘public’ purposes. The usual mechanism was some kind of representative assembly through which taxes were negotiated and legitimated.82

There are complex reasons why the Empire did not follow this path, the most significant of which was that the methods of resource mobilization established around 800 enabled it to meet the expectations of governance until well into the thirteenth century. Pressures for change emerged only slowly during the later thirteenth century, primarily through internal competition for control of the German crown. This changed how individual territories were governed, but impacted less on how resources were mobilized for common purposes. Major alterations only became necessary to meet new, external threats towards the end of the fifteenth century. Unlike the earlier competition for the crown, external dangers were recognized as common, and so legitimated broader changes in the overall imperial structure. The timing of this was important, because it occurred long after the Empire had begun to evolve as a more clearly delineated status hierarchy. Thus, the development of fiscal institutions reinforced the Empire as a mixed monarchy, rather than promoting the kind of centralization characterizing western European states.

For much of the Middle Ages men, consumables and services were all more useful than cash. The Carolingians levied annual general taxes on all free men, who paid in local produce or high-value items like fur pelts or honey, as well as in coin. Other occasional levies were raised for specific purposes, such as aiding Christians in the Holy Land. The Carolingians and Ottonians also extracted tribute from the Slavs. Louis II ‘the German’ received tribute worth at least 170 pounds in silver annually, enough to equip 68 mounted warriors.83 Cash was imperishable and relatively portable, but always had to be converted into what was really needed (warriors, supplies, etc.) and which could not always be purchased easily when required. Thus, resource mobilization in the Empire involved developing legally enforceable claims to specific kinds of aid, rather than the fiscal institutions that feature so prominently in conventional accounts of European ‘state-building’. The combination of assistance secured through legally enforceable obligations and direct extraction from the emperor’s own possessions proved sufficient to sustain imperial rule so that both the limited taxation of the Carolingian era and the tribute along the eastern frontier could be allowed to lapse when their collection proved difficult.

The Carolingians created the basic framework for extraction by establishing different kinds of jurisdiction over land, material assets and people. Royal power was never solely limited to crown lands, and always extended over the entirety of the Empire. However, the monarch’s ability to draw support from other areas was filtered through the different jurisdictions. The royal domain (dominium) encompassed possessions reserved to sustain the king’s family and only ever accounted for a relatively small proportion of the total area. The bulk of the Empire was granted as benefices (beneficia), which remained royal possessions but were entrusted to dependants initially called both fideles (faithful) and vassi, the origins of the term ‘vassal’. The later German wordLehen is usually translated as ‘fief’, but is also cognate with the English ‘loan’, which more easily conveys the original relationship. The system allowed the Carolingians and their successors to dispense with the need to raise taxes, which would have required permanent institutions and a large number of officials. Instead, beneficiaries used the resources from their fief directly to sustain themselves and carry out tasks on behalf of the monarch. This method was ideally suited for an economy where coins were not yet the principal means of exchange, since beneficiaries could draw resources directly in kind.

Allodial property comprised the private assets of the pre-Frankish elite as far as they had survived, plus that granted to or acquired by Carolingian lords, including the royal family. Contemporaries distinguished between royal allodial lands and domains, but historians disagree whether this had any practical significance prior to the eleventh century.84 The Ottonians’ extinction in 1024 raised the fate of their family possessions separate from the domains that were now associated with an enduring monarchy. This distinction became clearer in the transition from the Salians in 1125 when Lothar III fought the Staufers as private heirs to Henry V’s personal possessions. Thereafter, family property was treated separately as hereditary dynastic assets separate from crown domains associated with the royal title. The same occurred with benefices, which were initially often assigned to lords who lacked private property in the same area, but frequently acquired it during their tenure as fief-holder. Possession of a fief by two or more generations of the same family swiftly encouraged ideas of hereditary ownership. Periodic royal efforts to stem or reverse this trend triggered relatively rare but nonetheless quite violent disputes with recalcitrant lords, as we shall see.


The distinctions between domains, benefices and allodial property remained fluid into the thirteenth century, because it was often not clear how individuals had acquired particular manors and other assets. The greater use of written documentation to record possession inevitably encouraged sharper distinctions and more coherent and exclusive concepts of personal property. Crucially, this occurred during the change from transpersonal kingship to enduring Empire. The exact nature of this process remains hotly debated.85

The root problem is semantics: a wide variety of terms were used well before they were defined in legal treatises in the twelfth century. The process of definition undoubtedly changed their meaning and use, complicating the interpretation of earlier evidence. The situation for the Empire was exacerbated by the excessive romanticization of the Germanic past, which reached new heights under the Nazis. Writing in the 1930s, Theodor Mayer presented the Empire as a Personenverbandstaat, or a state formed by ties of personal allegiance. This term proved very influential, yet it rested on imposing quite narrow and often anachronistic definitions on earlier medieval terms.86 Mayer’s model suggested the early Empire was organized with the king as leader of free warriors bound in personal allegiance. Finally, anglophone historiography brings its own problems, because the term ‘feudalism’ has been overloaded with other anachronistic interpretations implying a conscious system.87 Variations were part of the reality, not aberrant discrepancies within an otherwise coherent system. Local arrangements were negotiated according to immediate needs. Renegotiation could involve exemptions and changes to the level of burdens associated with fief-holding.

Some viable generalizations can be made. Relations between monarch and fief-holders were always asymmetrical, based on reciprocity and constituting a form of vassalage that became more clearly defined as ‘feudal’ during the twelfth century (see pp. 356–65). Both parties were free men until the emergence of the ministeriales as a new group of unfree vassals in the eleventh century. Throughout, relations involved questions of loyalty and trust, because they were mediated primarily through oral rather than written agreements. General rules were not fully codified until early modernity. The Carolingians and Ottonians used the term honores for both benefice and the function associated with it.88

Vassalage could emerge from below as ‘commendation’ whereby a free man placed himself subordinate to a superior lord in return for ‘protection and guardianship’ (Schütz und Schirm  ). It could also come from being entrusted with a benefice to carry out a specific task. A sharper articulation of rights and responsibilities around the mid-twelfth century clarified this act as ‘enfeoffment’. The term ‘benefice’ was simultaneously displaced by ‘fief’ (feodum).

Vassalage always included rights for the subordinate, especially excluding ‘servile duties’ (opera servilia) like manual labour, which remained a characteristic of the unfree population. Instead, vassals were expected to serve in ‘word and deed’ (consilium et auxilium). The former encompassed constructive advice, while the latter was understood primarily as military service and was driven by the introduction of the armoured cavalryman as a distinguishing feature of Carolingian warfare. The necessary equipment exceeded the resources of most free men, requiring assets to be grouped as benefices to sustain an elite of armoured knights. Although Carolingian and Ottonian lords expected royal campaigns to secure plunder, all accepted that benefice-holding would cover most of the costs of service. This freed the king from having to pay his army. Service was not fixed, but a period of six weeks became customary. Longer campaigns, like Roman expeditions, were restricted to exceptional circumstances agreed in advance at an assembly. The distribution of rich benefices to the imperial church resulted in this providing a substantial part of most emperors’ forces: 15 bishops accompanied Otto II’s ill-fated Italian campaign in 981–2, while twelfth-century archbishops could bring up to 1,700 troops, with 200 to 400 being the average size of an episcopal contingent.89 Other duties could be expected, especially if these were tied to a particular benefice; for example, garrisoning castles or guarding frontier marches. Senior lords were also expected to attend the royal court, assist in passing judgements, uphold the law and provide advice. Failure to perform duties opened the culprit to charges of ‘felony’ (felonia), providing grounds for the king to escheat the fief (see pp. 613–17).

Vassalage already extended to chains of three of more lords and vassals by 800. A Carolingian capitulary of 799 allowed the church to assign its property as benefices to lay subvassals to circumvent the canon law restriction on clergy serving as warriors. Longer hierarchies benefited the king by creating denser networks capable of mobilizing more men. The trend to hereditary possession was already obvious and could be deliberately granted as an inducement. For example, Charles II ‘the Bald’ allowed those accompanying his Roman expedition of 877 to bequeath their benefices to their heirs. Hereditary possession could aid the king by stabilizing arrangements and giving benefice-holders greater incentive to promote economic development.

The rituals of vassalage changed in line with the shift from benefice to fief, but always remained personal even after written codification. Homage (Latin homagium, German Huld) was the more solemn ceremony in which the vassal became the ‘man’ of his lord; hence the derivation of ‘homage’ from the Latin homo for man. Homage had to be performed in person and was often tied to land or services. Fealty (fidelitas) was an expression of personal allegiance, which could be sworn in person or by proxy. Both types involved personal oaths, which played a prominent part in medieval political culture. The vassal ‘commended’ himself by placing his hands inside those of his lord. The solemn oath accompanying this ‘joining hands’ was sworn on a holy object, such as the portable imperial cross accompanying the king on his royal progress. ‘Defiance’ meant literally renouncing fidelity. Those doing so lost entitlement to their lord’s protection and opened themselves to his punishment, including being deprived of their lands and offices.

Initially, the oath preceded investiture, which involved the lord handing the vassal an object symbolizing both the benefice and the vassal’s status in a wider hierarchy. The Ottonians introduced the practice of handing over a flag to senior lords, which ritual came to characterize duchies, margraviates, counties palatine and landgraviates collectively as ‘flag fiefs’ (Fahnenlehen). Other objects included sceptres, swords, lances, gloves and even twigs.90 The Salians’ problems with the papacy led investiture to precede the oath under the Staufers, while the whole process came to be considered enfeoffment.

In line with its personal character, vassalage ended in the event of Herren- und Mannfall. At the death of a lord (Herr), all vassals were required to seek renewal of service from his successor, while the death of a vassal (Mann) obliged his heirs to request a fresh enfeoffment.91 These requirements persisted after the Staufers formally accepted secular fiefs as hereditary. Hereditary fiefs meant that the king could not refuse to enfeoff a legitimate, able-bodied heir, but renewal was still required for the successor to exercise any rights or functions associated with the fief. Lordly families could choose one of their members as legitimate heir. This still required royal endorsement in the case of immediate imperial fiefs, creating additional opportunities for the king to intervene as arbiter of inheritance disputes.

Crown and Imperial Lands

Virtually any kind of property or right could be held as royal domains, fiefs or allodial possessions. Royal domains originally consisted of fairly extensive farmland worked largely by slave labour, as well as mills, fishponds and vast tracts of thinly populated forest reserved for hunting, notably the Dreieich Forest by Frankfurt and the Ardennes near Aachen.92 These possessions were not managed through centrally planned extraction. Most of the produce was perishable, bulky or both. It was difficult to transport across a kingdom that even an unencumbered rider required a month to cross. Much was consumed locally, just maintaining the producers and those who administered individual assets like palaces. Some produce might be concentrated regionally, for example to support a military campaign. However, the main purpose was to feed the royal entourage on its endless tours of the realm.

It seems likely that the Merovingian monarchy was already partially itinerant and while the Carolingians had favoured sites, they never stayed at them for long. Royal progresses were common in medieval Europe, but itinerant monarchy became a distinguishing feature of the Empire, persisting long after other European kings had largely settled down, and in stark contrast to the self-exclusion of the Chinese emperor in his Forbidden City. The ability to travel extensively distinguished the king from his lords, since he alone could freely move throughout the entire realm.93 Others would have to pay their way, unless they had strategically placed relations, and could find that prolonged absence weakened their local authority. The practice of royal progress continued well beyond the mid-thirteenth century, but gradually lost its significance as the formalization of elective monarchy by 1356 lessened each new king’s need to show himself to lords absent at his accession. The institutionalization of assemblies in the form of the Reichstag by the latefifteenth century also provided a convenient way to meet everyone at once, while the parallel move to territorially based imperial governance established a new focus in the capital of the imperial family’s hereditary lands.

The needs of itinerant monarchy dictated the extent and location of royal domains, which needed to be scattered to provide sustenance and accommodation along major routes and in areas of political and strategic significance. The Carolingians and Ottonians preferred travelling by river or lakes, given the lack of all-weather roads north of the Alps. Charlemagne had 25 major and 125 minor palaces sustained by 700 different royal estates (Map 14). Most of these were on or close to the Rhine, Main, Danube, Saale and Elbe.94

Aachen was the most important palace (palatium, Pfalz), used since the 760s as a winter residence because of its thermal springs. Other important sites included Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg, Ingelheim and Frankfurt. Paderborn provided a base in Saxony, while Regensburg served the same purpose in Bavaria. Konstanz and Reichenau on an island in the same lake were key staging posts between Italy and Germany. These locations remained significant into the later Middle Ages. Subsequent royal lines added further sites around their own family properties. The Ottonians developed Magdeburg, Quedlinburg and Merseburg in the Elbe–Saale region. The Salians added Speyer near their own base on the Middle Rhine, but also Goslar in the rich mining region of the Harz in northern Germany.95 Chapels were already present in Carolingian palaces, but the Ottonians developed closer connections between royal residences and religious sites, favouring royal abbeys and major cathedrals.

Most palaces were unfortified, except those near frontiers. There was no standard design, but the royal apartments were in an imposing building containing a great hall and chapel, while stables, servants’ accommodation and storehouses completed the complex. Aachen became the model for Magdeburg and Goslar as the Ottonians and Salians stressed continuity with the Carolingians. The later Carolingians began fortifying palaces, and already allowed other lords to protect their own residences from the 870s, especially if these were in frontier areas or along rivers vulnerable to Viking raids. Fortifications generally consisted of wooded palisades, sometimes atop a hill (Motte). Henry IV broke tradition by embarking on extensive castle-building to assert tighter control over royal domains in the former Ottonian heartland of Saxony, which risked becoming a ‘distant’ region with the transition to Salian rule in 1024. Using new wealth and manpower from economic and demographic growth, Henry IV constructed at least eight stone castles perched on rocky crags. The most powerful was the Harzburg, built after 1067 on a high hill south-east of Goslar, only approachable along a narrow path. Unlike earlier fortifications that had been intended as refuges for the surrounding population, Henrician castles were only large enough to accommodate a royal garrison intended to dominate the surrounding area.

The Carolingians had already created a special jurisdiction called a Burgwerk surrounding fortifications, which allowed the commandant to draw the resources and labour required to construct and maintain defences. Similar rights were attached to palaces, but were also granted to bishops and abbots so they had the means to develop their churches. Henrician castles were held by the unfree vassals known as ministeriales. By the thirteenth century, castle commanders were called ‘castellans’ (Burgmänner) and were usually endowed with a fief sustaining themselves and their garrison of between 30 and 50 men.96 These developments promoted the emergence of knights as a distinct group of vassals who were considered the lower echelon of the nobles.

The transfer of fiefs to support castellans was just part of a wider redistribution of resources under revised relationships throughout the Middle Ages. The Carolingians had already endowed monasteries and abbeys with additional royal assets, and the Ottonians extended this to enhance the ability of crown vassals to meet demands for royal service (servitium regis). The practice peaked under the Salians, who added few palaces, preferring instead to stay with abbots and bishops.97 The difficulties created by repeated clashes with the papacy prompted the Staufers to promote imperial cities as alternative accommodation on crown domains (see pp. 505–7).

Resources were earmarked as Tafelgüter, literally ‘table properties’, supplying food and other consumables to sustain the royal court when it stayed in the associated palace, abbey or city. A rare surviving list from 968 records just one day’s requirements: 1,000 pigs and sheep, 8 oxen, 10 barrels of wine, 1,000 bushels of grain, plus chickens, fish, eggs and vegetables. Information from the better-documented Staufer era indicates that an army of 4,800 troops needed 8,400 baggage attendants, 19,000 horses, mules and oxen pulling 500 wagons, together consuming 2.4 tons of food and 57 tons of fodder daily.98

The royal prerogatives included the right to fodrum regis, obliging communities to supply fodder, and to Gistum (hospitality). Various other rights existed, though their terms are not always clear. Fodrum regis retained its original meaning north of the Alps, but by the late Middle Ages meant accommodating the king in Italy where a separate term (albergaria) emerged by the eleventh century to denote obligations to house royal servants and troops.99 Non-material services could also be required, as indicated by Henry V’s charter removing legal and fiscal obligations from Speyer’s inhabitants in 1111 in return for their performance of an annual mass to commemorate his father buried in the cathedral.100 Royal service was commuted into cash in Italy during the eleventh century in a process that had become general across the Empire by the thirteenth century. As we shall see, however, indirect control of the Empire through vassalage remained the most important means of governance into early modernity, while the role of royal domains was taken by more extensive hereditary possessions directly held by the ruling dynasty.


Dukes and Counts

It is helpful to start our chronological examination of imperial governance by outlining the three main stages in development. The first three royal lines tried to control the Empire through a relatively flat hierarchy of functionaries bound to them through vassalage. Management of these vassals required constant personal engagement and was a major priority. Managerial style moved from a more consensual approach, most pronounced under the Ottonians, to a command style that reached its limits in the Salian period under Henry IV.

The Staufers’ accession initiated a second stage around the mid-twelfth century based on revising relations to vassals along more obviously ‘feudal’ lines enshrined in general charters. This entailed the definitive acceptance of hereditary fief-holding, but also the deliberate fragmentation of the previously fairly large fiefs to create a larger, more hierarchically structured lordly hierarchy now headed by a princely elite. This hierarchy continued to evolve after the Staufers’ demise around 1250 as jurisdictions gradually became more clearly delineated and territorially bounded. A fundamental division emerged between those holding full imperial fiefs immediately subject to the emperor, and lesser lords holding minor jurisdictions within these fiefs as vassals of at least one other layer of feudal authority between themselves and the monarch. Adapting imperial governance to these new conditions was delayed by the fact that all the realistic contenders to replace the Staufers were evenly matched materially and politically. The third stage opened as the Luxembourgs increasingly based imperial governance on extensive fiefs held as hereditary dynastic possessions rather than royal domains. This section explores the first of these stages, while the next two chapters examine the others in turn.

The Carolingians established the Empire’s basic internal political structure by combining elements of their existing practice with those adapted from the Lombards and Germans they had defeated. Their principal achievement was to convert the political capital garnered from three generations of successful conquests into a revised relationship with their senior lords who had been only loosely subordinated to the Merovingian kings. The lords were now distinguished through their appointment to public offices, which assumed new prestige through the consolidation of the Frankish realm as the Empire.101 Two parallel, partially overlapping secular and ecclesiastical hierarchies emerged; the latter was headed by archbishops and bishops endowed with benefices and collectively forming the imperial church already discussed in Chapter 2 (Maps 1 and 13).

The secular hierarchy comprised dukes and counts. The exact character of the early duchies remains controversial. The most likely conclusion is that the Carolingians initially distinguished between the title and function of ‘duke’ (dux) bestowed by the king, and the title and status of ‘prince’ (princeps), or tribal leader. The latter position only existed in recently conquered areas, especially Saxony, Bavaria, and, to an extent, Swabia, Lorraine and Lombard southern Italy. Princely power derived from below through recognition by lesser lords within the ‘tribal’ region. As with royal succession, contemporaries did not distinguish clearly between election and hereditary right. Kings affirmed ‘electoral’ rights in these regions into the eleventh century to curb the trend towards hereditary rule, which had, in practice, already become entrenched during the tenth century, notably in Saxony where the Billung family held sway from 961 to 1106.102

Ducal authority entailed military command, thereby providing the origins of the German word for duke (Herzog), as well as supervision of the counts. As with the royal selection of bishops, it is not clear how far the appointment of dukes was a free choice. Ducal titles appear to have been given to Saxon, Bavarian and Lombard princes to integrate them within Carolingian governance. Tribal structures were eroded through intermarriage and the transfer of land and influence across a broader elite. The title of ‘duke’ supplanted that of ‘prince’, which disappeared around 920, except in southern Italy, where it survived for another century. The attitude of local lords influenced the royal choice, not least because ducal authority was impossible to exercise without their cooperation. Developments across the tenth and eleventh centuries saw ducal positions fluctuate between royal appointments and hereditary possessions, with the overall trend in favour of the latter. Hereditary possession entailed the right to pass the title to a chosen successor, reducing the role of the king from one of appointment to confirmation, but this change was only possible through its parallel acceptance by the lesser lords. It should be remembered that for most of the Middle Ages what was being held hereditarily was a title and its associated functions and jurisdictions, and not a territory in the sense of a distinct area and its inhabitants.

There were only four duchies in the ninth-century German kingdom (Bavaria, Franconia, Swabia, Saxony), to which Lorraine was added in the early tenth century. Lorraine was divided into two in 959, while Carinthia was carved out of south-east Bavaria in 976. Burgundy contained no duchies, though its southern and western sections eventually acquired equivalent status as they broke away (Map 3). Likewise, ducal structures proved transitory in Italy prior to the thirteenth century (see pp. 187–94).

By contrast, there were perhaps 600–700 counties across the entire Frankish realm in the year 800, of which 400 were north of the Alps. Those west of the Rhine were created as secular subdivisions of a diocese and were called pagi, the origins of the French word pays (country).103 Counties varied in size and were not fixed either in shape or numbers. The title ‘count’ (comes) literally meant the king’s companion. Counts remained ‘free’, directly subject to the emperor, though they owed certain obligations to the dukes. Their main task was to maintain peace and uphold justice in cases of more serious crimes. Those in frontier areas had additional military functions as margraves, or marcher lords (see pp. 186–9 and 200–202). Counties were subdivided into ‘hundreds’ (centenariae) or ‘vicarages’ (vicariae), though neither these nor their associated subordinate officials seem to have survived for long. Charlemagne used emissaries (missi) to inspect counties and receive reports. Important missions were entrusted to pairs of bishops and counts. Neither of these control mechanisms survived for long into the ninth century, when monarchs instead relied on trusted abbots and bishops to undertake specific missions as required.

The distinction between function and person was never clear, and these figures should not be confused with modern civil servants. The king named them, but could do little to shape the pool of those considered worthy to hold these titles. There were no training schools prior to the development of the court chapel, which only performed this function for the imperial church. All relied on subvassals rather than salaried staffs. Local knowledge and connections were valued and they discouraged kings from rotating men from one post to another.

Seeking Consensus

Success under these conditions depended on securing acceptance and support for royal policies. Royal assemblies provided the main mechanism to achieve this. These had echoes of the much earlier Germanic tribal gatherings (Thing) of free warriors, but by 755 among the Franks they were fairly exclusive affairs meeting under a variety of labels: placitum, synodus, conventus and Marchfeld. The latter literally means ‘March field’, deriving from the practice of meeting between March and May as the grass grew long enough to make campaigning possible. Religious beliefs greatly influenced the timing of important meetings, with top-level encounters between the different Carolingian kings after 843 usually being held on prominent holy days like All Saints.

The combination of consultative assembly and military muster reinforced the personal element, since the king’s presence was essential. It also reversed the relationship of the royal progress: rather than touring his kingdom, the king now made the ‘kingdom’ come to him, with some lords travelling hundreds of miles to meet him and participate in the assembly. Elite sociability was fostered through common activities like hunting, feasting and praying, which accompanied assemblies and provided additional opportunities for discussions, especially those that needed to be more private. Perhaps most importantly, they provided space for the king to present himself and display the virtues associated with good kingship, including leadership, justice, generosity and piety.104

Discussion of consensus requires some preliminary qualifications to avoid romanticizing it as some kind of manly, noble warrior culture with the king aided by reasonable, pragmatic and patriotic men. The sources are particularly difficult to interpret. There were no written rules, obliging us to infer these from how chroniclers recorded actual behaviour. Such writers were generally partisan, celebrating or criticizing kings, invoking idealized kingdoms, or airing grievances like Hinkmar, the ninth-century archbishop of Reims who wrote his De ordine palatii after his exclusion from the inner circle. His admonition to King Carlmann to follow the advice of wise old men like himself was clearly personally motivated, but Hinkmar’s work, like similar pieces, is still instructive, because his arguments reflected broadly accepted norms.105 Hinkmar urged the king to hold a general assembly of important men to test their response to his plans and to assist in determining general objectives. A meeting of ‘seniors and principal advisors’ should follow to agree the specifics. This more select gathering would have something of the character of a friendship group in which members would be freer to express opinions as there would be less risk of humiliation if the king rejected their advice.

The contemporary concept of ‘friendship’ (amicitia) allowed the king to widen his inner circle beyond his immediate relations, some of whom might be proving troublesome. Friendship could also shorten the formal hierarchy of vassalage, allowing the king to employ junior but able or materially useful men as his familiares. Hierarchy remained fluid, as the above description of Carolingian structures has illustrated, with dukes outranking counts, yet both still considered ‘free’ men directly subject to the king. The king’s friends were already his vassals, but were bound by additional, ritualized activities staged deliberately to indicate a particular proximity. For instance, the king and his friends might alternate playing the roles of host and guest over different courses at a shared banquet. Gift-giving and exaggerated public displays of joy and sorrow were additional methods. Friends could extend royal influence by acting as brokers between the king and their own relations and clients. This was a major reason for seeking the king’s friendship, since the broker gained prestige amongst his own clientele through his enhanced ability to secure favours and rewards. Those involved had a vested interest in keeping things in proportion. Excessive requests from either the king or his friends risked rejection and humiliating failure. Much of imperial governance thus relied on discreet negotiation, often via friends and other third parties, to find acceptable arrangements that were then presented publicly as if they were spontaneous decisions.106

This form of rule was facilitated by the relatively small size of the Carolingian and Ottonian elites. Widukind of Corvey, writing around 970, names 130 people in his chronicle, while even 40 years later Thietmar of Merseburg still only mentions 500, one-fifth of whom were women. The overall number of families was, of course, even smaller.107 Moreover, the senior lords employed exactly the same methods to manage their own jurisdictions and wider networks. Social norms and ideals of justice and good kingship were also common currency. Finally, Frankish nobles also practised partible inheritance for their own allodial possessions so that, other than scale, there was no fundamental difference between the Carolingians who partitioned their empire into different kingdoms and their nobles who divided their lands amongst their sons. This sustained the hierarchy of power. What mattered to the lords was their personal proximity to the king, not their accumulation of hereditary possessions.

None of this meant that things necessarily ran smoothly. Admission to the primores regni was decided competitively, not consensually. This pinpoints the paradox of early medieval imperial politics. Governance was intended to achieve its goals amicably, but the actual process of seeking agreement was often disruptive and even violent. Consensus both shaped and reflected the shifting power balance, especially that between the king and his leading vassals. Disputes were personal, not constitutional, and generally stemmed from mismanaged expectations.

Carolingian Governance, 800–919

Having established the basic components to the governance of the early Empire, we can now turn to follow how it developed during the ninth century. The rapidity of Carolingian conquests from the 770s stoked expectations of rewards that could no longer be met after the 820s as imperial expansion halted amidst Arab, Viking and Slav incursions. The fratricidal wars after 829 were about dividing the spoils within what was still considered a common Frankish realm. Fighting was relatively brief and punctuated by frequent negotiations, often brokered discreetly by senior clergy. It was accepted that the internal strife differed from the earlier external wars of conquest in that the defeated side were still Christian Franks who could not be expropriated or enslaved. The particularly bloody battle of Fontenoy in June 841 shocked the elite and encouraged the collective lordly pressure that obliged the Carolingian royals to accept the first major partition of the Empire at the Treaty of Verdun (843) (Map 2).108

The partition into Lotharingia, East Francia and West Francia demonstrated the personal, rather than institutional, character to Carolingian rule in that it did not follow geographical, ethnic, linguistic or ecclesiastical boundaries. Instead, as eldest brother, Lothar went first, choosing to base his imperial authority in the middle kingdom anchored on Aachen and Rome, while Louis II received the lands to the east, and Charles II those to the west. There may be ‘something of a “bargain basement” feel’ to the later Carolingians, but they were neither as inept nor as indolent as both contemporary critics and later writers maintained.109 Charles III only acquired his sobriquet ‘the Fat’ in the twelfth century. Their real problem was not irresistible centrifugal forces of dukes and kinglets seeking independence, but their own inability to produce legitimate heirs. This fuelled competition for possession of the different kingdoms created by their partitions. Charles III’s deposition and death without legitimate heirs in 888 ended the last reunification and triggered a particularly vicious round of murderous quarrels amongst the Carolingian aristocracy.

Rivalry within the royal house stirred activism amongst the senior lords. Carolingian kings were obliged to consult their own vassals more often and to tolerate greater autonomy in return for military support. Meanwhile, many lords were left to shift for themselves in difficult circumstances, including threats from external raiders. Bishoprics and counties were now held successively by members of the same family, creating further vested interests and factions.110 The Babenberg family, deriving their name from Bamberg, were promoted in Franconia by Charles III, but they lost out through the accession of Arnulf as king in East Francia in 887, since he promoted the rival Conradiner to counter their regional influence. The resulting ‘Babenberger Feud’ from 902 to 906 saw their defeat and the stabilization of the eastern monarchy under Conradiner influence.

Lotharingia broke up completely after 888, though as we have seen (pp. 47–8 and 187–8) the imperial title remained associated with the Italian kingdom until 924. Italian bishops like those in Modena and Reggio regained some of the autonomy they had lost under the Lombards, and acquired additional properties entrusted to their own subvassals in return for serving the Carolingians and their local successors based in Friaul, Spoleto and Ivrea. The bishops overshadowed the counts after the 880s, thanks to their control of Italy’s still numerous towns, whereas comital jurisdiction was confined largely to the countryside. By the early tenth century, bishops began extending their jurisdiction over the suburban zones and acquired additional royal properties in return for backing the fairly weak Italian kings.111

West Francia had a larger and longer-established lordly hierarchy enjoying more stable local power. Around seven duchies emerged as the monarchy struggled to repel the Vikings who established themselves permanently in what would become Normandy. The Capetian family assumed a position equivalent to that held by the Carolingians’ forebears at the Merovingian court by establishing a controlling influence in Paris after 885. This enabled the Capetians to eventually displace the Carolingians entirely and to become kings of France after 987.

Despite the Babenberger Feud, East Frankish lords remained appreciative of the positive role their king could play in coordinating defence of the long northern and eastern frontiers. Crucially, an inner group in East Francia had become accustomed to proximity to royal power and had no desire to share the associated benefits more widely. While they continued to bicker amongst themselves, they still wanted the monarchy to succeed, and took steps to avert a series of potential crises. Frankish custom maintained that boys could not be kings and that their lands should revert to the senior adult male of the dynasty. This situation occurred in 900 at the accession of Louis (IV) ‘the Child’, but the East Frankish lords refused to permit the West Frankish king to inherit and instead held four assemblies between 899 and 905 affirming their loyalty to the boy-king, who was guided by the archbishop of Mainz and other senior clergy.112 Similar collective action ensured a transition to Conrad I, leader of the Conradiner family, as the first non-Carolingian king in 911, and again in 919 to recognize Henry I, head of the Liudolfinger (Ottonian) family.

Immediate circumstances and force of personality played a part. Conrad I was assisted by the lack of any viable local alternative candidate. Nonetheless, the same group of dukes and other senior lords cooperated throughout, not through any sense of ‘national’ consciousness, but because they recognized the East Frankish realm as a distinct political space guaranteeing their own regional clientele networks that had developed across the previous century. A general sense of shared Frankish heritage persisted into the 970s at least, but East and West Francia were both now more clearly defined as separate kingdoms organized around their own royal families and assemblies. Later chroniclers exaggerated the level of consensus. Conrad I faced a three-year revolt from the future Henry I, who demanded a greater share of the spoils, while the process of accepting Henry as king in 919 took five months, and required considerable force during 920–21 to obtain acquiescence in Swabia and especially Bavaria, which retained considerable autonomy.113

Ottonian Governance, 919–1024

The Ottonian remaking of the Empire in some ways resembled the earlier Carolingian achievement in that it followed a series of victories over the heathens (notably Lechfeld in 955), continued in an invasion of Italy to rescue the pope, and culminated in a carefully staged imperial coronation. The Ottonians were very conscious of Carolingian precedents and presented their rule as a revival of imperial authority, rather than a new beginning.114 However, they emerged from within East Francia with a relatively restricted family powerbase in Saxony. Their rise to prominence was not accompanied by any significant redistribution of property, but rather rested on their acceptance of established lordly power and influence.

Ottonian rule confirmed a super elite of the original four dukes of Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria and Saxony, plus those of Lorraine, Bohemia and, more loosely, Burgundy, all of whom held quasi-viceregal powers over castles, royal monasteries and associated resources. They assumed some of the perquisites of royalty, notably ‘by grace of God’ titles and seals for their own documents, less to challenge their king than to elevate themselves from the more numerous counts and lesser lords. The king remained far more than first among equals. Otto I did not visit Swabia for a decade after 939, but its duke came to see him six times.115 Although family possession of ducal status was more clearly hereditary, the original core duchy of Franconia was almost invariably held by the king directly until Henry IV gave it to the Staufers in 1079. The Ottonians also retained Saxony directly until 961 when it was passed to the Billungs, but the continued presence of extensive royal domains meant it was still known as ‘the emperor’s kitchen’ into the eleventh century.116

Henry I’s improved relations with Arnulf of Bavaria by 926 were an important factor in Otto I’s election. Otto used the opportunity of Arnulf’s death in 937 to assert firmer control over Bavaria before transferring it to his brother Heinrich in 948, who established the junior Ottonian branch that would provide Henry II as king after 1002. This arrangement was not unproblematic, because Heinrich’s son and successor as duke, Heinrich II ‘the Quarrelsome’, conspired with Poland and Bohemia and had to be deposed in 976 by Otto II, who also weakened Bavaria by detaching Carinthia and Austria. Heinrich II subsequently disputed Otto III’s succession, but was pacified by restoration to Bavaria in 985. Although occasionally turbulent, the existence of distinct duchies nonetheless allowed the Ottonians to contain the ambitions of close family members without having to resort to full partition of the kingdom.117

Indeed, the royal family dominated ducal ranks. The four primary duchies were held more frequently by the king or a close male relative than by other families between about 900 and the 1080s. Lorraine was in a different category, given its association with the now defunct Carolingian middle kingdom of Lotharingia. Unlike the four ‘German’ duchies, Lorraine was consistently ruled by indigenous dukes, though these were sometimes connected by marriage to the Ottonians. Although Swabia, Carinthia and, to an extent, Bavaria, were held by other families, sons rarely followed fathers. The continued significance of ducal offices is further illustrated by the fact that the Ottonians and Salians never suppressed those duchies they held directly, nor incorporated their jurisdictions within the royal domains. In short, duchies remained the principal ‘institution’ through which the king ruled the regions.

The Ottonians successfully distanced themselves from the violence of the later Carolingian era. Conrad I had crushed the Swabian revolt in 915 by beheading the opposing nobles, and two years later he decapitated his brothers-in-law Erchanger and Berthold for rebellion. By contrast, the Ottonians were prepared to pardon opponents where this appeared both safe and expedient, as their treatment of Heinrich the Quarrelsome indicates. Meanwhile, their tacit acceptance of the counties as hereditary removed them from often messy local politics, and allowed them to assume the status of superior, seemingly impartial judge.

Conflicts followed generally recognized lines. The king was rarely attacked directly, since most disputes were over the pecking order within the ducal elite. Malcontents would protest by leaving the royal presence and use their own kinship and clientele networks to mobilize support against their rival. They might add pressure by devastating crops or plundering, generally targeting their rival’s adherents rather than risking a battle that would considerably raise the stakes. Participants in the dispute minimized risks by opposing particular royal decisions, not the king himself, in contrast to the late ninth-century civil wars fought to control the throne. Military action was about demonstrating potency while friends and other intermediaries discreetly sought a settlement. Negotiations were especially important where the malcontents opposed royal actions, since peace depended on finding a way they could submit without losing face. The Ottonians generally preferred magnanimity to harsh punishment, pardoning rebels and restoring at least most of their lands.

The Ottonians drew additional strength from the imperial church. Otto I entrusted the governance of Mainz and Cologne to close relatives, but the family’s growing confidence is illustrated by his grandson’s ability to appoint bishops from a much wider social circle. Although plunder could still be won in campaigns against the Slavs and Magyars, the Ottonians also used royal prerogatives to create new rights that could be given as rewards to loyalty and service. Market, mint and toll rights were granted to bishops, enabling them to exploit new economic opportunities (see pp. 486–93). The conquest of Italy and imperial coronation dramatically improved Ottonian prestige and widened their political opportunities. Elevation to imperial status clearly placed Otto I far above the dukes, enabling him to relinquish Saxony, his original family homeland.

However, Italy also expanded an already large realm, adding to the difficulties of governing through personal presence. Not all German lords were happy to see their king assume the ambitions and responsibilities associated with the imperial mission, especially as this required his presence south of the Alps. Otto I spent 10 of his last 12 years in Italy, finally returning in triumph to hold a succession of assemblies in 972–3 that conveyed a sense of solid support. However, many of the men he had known whilst German king were now dead, and it took his son Otto II until 980 to assert his own authority. Meanwhile, those Ottonian methods developed in Germany were not entirely transferable to the very different political landscape in Italy where there were no large duchies other than Spoleto. Otto I relied heavily on Pandulf Ironhead, one of the last of the old Lombard elite, who was allowed to add Spoleto and Benevento to his original duchy of Capua.118

Pandulf’s death in 981 created a power vacuum in southern Italy just as Otto II was blockading Venice to force it to renounce ties to Byzantium. Otto expanded his actions, elevating Salerno to an archbishopric to counter the Byzantine one in Otranto. He then marched south with perhaps the largest ever Ottonian army, including 4,000 armoured cavalry, intending to demonstrate his imperial credentials by succeeding where the Byzantines had recently failed and drive the Saracens out of Calabria. He was lured into a trap and decisively defeated at Cotrone on the east Calabrian coast on 13 July 982. The dukes of Bavaria and Swabia died along with 16 counts and several bishops and abbots. Otto only escaped by riding out to sea where he was rescued by a Greek ship whose crew tried to kidnap him once they realized who he was.119 The disaster shook confidence in the Ottonians, who appeared to have lost divine favour. The heavy casualties amongst the elite intensified competition to fill the vacancies. Otto took the exceptional step of holding a joint Italian-German lordly assembly at Verona on Whitsun 983, rallying support and securing endorsement of his three-year-old son as co-king.

Otto II’s unexpected death in December 983 added to the crisis of the Slav revolt along the Elbe. Yet the situation demonstrated the inherent strengths of Ottonian rule. The years spent patiently cultivating the ‘friendship’ of key lords now paid off, as most remained loyal, despite now serving a boy king, Otto III, under the female regency of his mother Theophanu (see pp. 315–16). Heinrich the Quarrelsome’s support was restricted to the political (and geographical) periphery: the dukes of Poland and Bohemia, the Abodrites, some Lorraine lords, and the western archbishops of Trier and Cologne. By acting as if he were already king, Heinrich alienated potential Saxon support. Careful negotiations gave him a face-saving way out and removed the need for Theophanu and her supporters to fight.120

Otto III’s death in 1002 ended his family’s main line and allowed Heinrich the Quarrelsome’s son, Henry II, to seek recognition. He only gained acceptance after some violence in which a rival candidate, Margrave Ekkehard of Meissen, was murdered and Strasbourg was plundered.121 Henry is usually presented as stepping back from the supposedly more expansive ambitions of his two immediate predecessors, but the change was mainly one of style as he intensified the sacral element of kingship and toured the Empire more extensively.

Salian Command Monarchy, 1024–1137

Henry II’s lack of children raised concern during his reign over the succession. The response was similar to that at the end of the Carolingian line: a meeting was organized at Kamba on the Rhine opposite Oppenheim in the summer of 1024 by the inner circle comprising Henry’s widow, Kunigunde, her brothers the duke of Bavaria and counts of Luxembourg and Mainz, and key bishops. The Salians were the only viable candidates. They were favoured by Kunigunde and her relations, and were backed by the Lorraine aristocracy, perhaps because of their shared roots in the Rhineland. There was currently no duke of Franconia since this post had been retained directly by the king since 939, while Swabia was held by a minor at that point. The Saxons, Italians and Slavs appear to have stayed away. Consequently, the proceedings became a discreet test of how much support the two Salian branches could muster. Conrad (II) the Elder, heading the junior Salian branch based at Speyer, emerged as the favourite allegedly because he already had a son. Conrad the Younger of the senior (older) Worms branch left Kamba with his supporters before the result was announced publicly, thereby preserving the appearance of unanimity. The Saxons continued to maintain their distance as in 1002, requiring Conrad II to secure their acceptance separately at Minden in December. Conrad encountered difficulties broadly similar to Henry I a century previously, but on a far wider scale because he succeeded to Italy as well as Germany, and inherited Henry II’s claims to Burgundy. Opposition in Swabia only ended when its duke, Ernst, was killed in 1030, and it took a further two years for Conrad to secure both Italy and Burgundy (Map 4).122

Conrad’s success confirmed the Empire as a hierarchy of three principal kingdoms headed by Germany, Italy and Burgundy. The challenge of governance was now even greater than under the Ottonians. The expanded size of the realm added to the difficulties of governing through personal presence. Meanwhile, the lordly hierarchy had lengthened and its members had become more numerous. There were now several pushy new families who had the power though not yet the status of dukes, achieved by acquiring several counties and placing relations in the imperial church. In addition to the Salians themselves, these included the Ekkehardiner at Meissen, the Luxembourgs, Ezzonids, Babenbergs and Welfs. There were also more numerous and distinct lesser nobles, plus the class of servile ministeriales emerging about 1020. These were not, as once thought, a royal creation to free the king from dependency on the great lords, but instead ministeriales were promoted by the imperial clergy.123 Bishops and abbots selected able men of unfree status and enfeoffed them with resources to enable them to serve as knights or administrators. The Salians also began employing ministeriales to administer royal domains and garrison the new castles built in the 1060s. The ministeriales gradually acquired other privileges, embraced an aristocratic ethos, and eventually converted their relationship based on servitude into one of more conventional vassalage to fuse with other lesser nobles as knights and barons by about 1300.

It would be wrong to interpret the ministeriales as the potential staff required to create a centralized monarchy. They were indeed used to oversee more intensive management of royal domains, notably in Saxony. However, the Salians were themselves a product of the same political culture as their lords. There was no blueprint for a centralized state to follow, nor evidence that anyone thought such a structure was superior. Instead, Conrad and his successors tried to improve established methods by making it harder for lords to refuse royal commands. Conrad’s well-known articulation of the Empire as ‘an enduring crown’ was one element in this, as was the increasing emphasis on royal authority, underpinned by a more elevated, sacral monarchical image.

Conrad remained in the late Ottonian mould of an emperor touring the Empire to meet lordly expectations of good kingship. One-fifth of his trips were to Saxony, where the local lords clearly resented the Salian accession and their displacement to the outer circle.124 This paid off, and Henry III’s accession in 1039 resembled a triumphal progress. Conrad also returned to the earlier policy of concentrating duchies in royal hands as they became vacant: Bavaria in 1027, Swabia in 1038 and Carinthia in 1039. All three passed along with Franconia to Henry III on his accession, but he broke past practice by giving them away, keeping only Bavaria. Bavaria was held by a king or his son for 46 years between 1002 and 1125, with the other six individuals chosen from close allies, though four had to be deposed after brief periods by the king. Meanwhile, the Salians continued Henry II’s practice of promoting Bamberg, Eichstätt and other Bavarian bishops as counterweights. This seems to have worked well and Henry IV had little difficulty retaining their loyalty after 1075, unlike Saxony, where the policy of backing the archbishop of Bremen simply antagonized local lords further and contributed to the Saxon revolt in 1073.125

This policy represented a fundamental shift from using ducal jurisdictions directly to a more indirect management of the ducal elite. It reduced friction by accepting the trend to hereditary possession, which was already clearly established in Lorraine and soon also Swabia. The king retained powers of confirmation, but local ‘elections’ were now far more like homage ceremonies where the new duke sought acceptance from the lesser lords. Ducal power rested on possession of significant allodial property, much of it often former royal domains, as well as clearer political jurisdiction over the lesser nobles.126

However, the ducal elite faced harsher punishments if they abused their new autonomy. The Ottonians had operated what was, essentially, a ‘two strikes’ policy with only repeat offenders facing serious consequences, though even here exceptions were made, as in the case of Heinrich the Quarrelsome. This was no longer possible under the more elevated concept of monarchy cultivated by the Salians. Rebellion ceased to be a personal dispute over status and became an affront to divine order. It was harder to forgive wrongdoers who were now considered sinners. Using the Roman law concept of crimen laesae maiestatis, revived by Henry III, Salians no longer simply removed offenders from office, but also confiscated their allodial property.

The difficulties of the new course were already exposed in 1035 when Conrad II deposed Adalbero Eppensteiner as duke of Carinthia for pursuing a policy towards the Hungarians contrary to royal wishes. Conrad clearly intended an assembly of lords as a pliant court to endorse his verdict, but many of those present expressed disquiet, including the king’s son, Henry (III), who, as duke of Bavaria, had sworn friendship with Adalbero. Conrad secured consent by falling to the floor crying, a move that could easily have backfired and damaged his prestige.127 Although Henry III appears to have curried favour by reversing many of his father’s decisions, he continued the same methods, encountering even greater difficulties when he tried to enforce a new partition in Lorraine after 1044. He eventually achieved his goal, but alienated the duke’s relations in Tuscany.

Long the beneficiary of Ottonian patronage, the Tuscans had proved crucial in Conrad II’s victory over Italian opposition to his succession from 1024 to 1027. Tuscany’s defection to Pope Gregory VII after 1077 was a serious blow to the imperial position in Italy. The absence of other large jurisdictions necessitated a different approach to governing south of the Alps. The Salians spent only 22 of their 101 years of rule in Italy, and half of that was Henry IV’s largely unwilling presence during the Investiture wars. Their preferred method was to rely on the Italian bishops, both by appointing loyalists trained in the royal chapel, and by strengthening the episcopate by extending their control over their cathedral towns and surrounding area. This made some sense, given that demographic and economic growth began earlier in Italy than in Germany, eroding the old county structure and fuelling popular demands for greater civic autonomy. The Salians were not necessarily hostile to these developments, for instance extending their patronage by giving the post of royal judge to wealthy townsmen, some of whom subsequently rose to become counts or bishops. Conrad II also intervened to settle what became known as the Valvassores’ Revolt between 1035 and 1037. The valvassores were the subvassals of the ‘captains’ (capitanei) who held both urban property and church fiefs in the surrounding countryside. Conrad’s Constitutio de feudis of 28 May 1037 extended the benefits of hereditary possession of fiefs to the lesser lords, whilst continuing to assert the king as final judge of all disputes.128

These policies were unintentionally conflictual, because they weakened episcopal authority over the valvassores and captains, notably in Milan, where a complex dispute developed over popular demands for autonomy and conflicting claims from the emperor and pope to intervene. When aligned with the difficulties encountered over Lorraine, this suggests the Salians were already encountering serious structural problems ahead of Henry IV’s minority following his father’s death in 1056.129

The Saxon and Investiture Wars, 1073–1122

Discontent amongst east Saxon lords coincided with the first stages of what would become the Investiture Dispute around 1073. Neither of these problems was immediately life-threatening for the Salian monarchy. Henry IV continued to enjoy considerable support amongst the German and Italian episcopates, as well as many lay lords. However, his inability to find quick solutions to these problems fuelled underlying discontent at Salian methods and gave credence to charges of misrule. A more exalted style of monarchy inhibited the cultivation of ‘friends’ and made it difficult to compromise without losing face, and Henry rebuffed several attempts by lay and secular lords to broker settlements. Royal prestige was now defined by power and victory, not consensus and clemency. Unfortunately, open defiance, as in Saxony, left the king no choice but to employ force. The Salians were thus in the same bind in Germany as the Ottonians had been in earlier disputes with the papacy: violent methods conflicted with most people’s ideal of good kingship. The German lords provided Henry with an opportunity to restore politics to the earlier consensual course by summoning him to their assembly at Trebur in October 1076. Yet acceptance would have entailed an unacceptable humiliation, and so Henry undertook his extraordinary journey to Canossa in an attempt to outflank his opponents by reaching a deal with Pope Gregory.130

The move failed to stop the malcontents electing Rudolf of Rheinfelden as the first real anti-king in March 1077. Rudolf was backed by the leading Saxons, the dukes of Bavaria and Carinthia, and around eight middling secular lords, plus the archbishops of Mainz, Salzburg, Magdeburg and their suffragan bishops. The majority of lay and ecclesiastical lords were still loyal to the emperor or at least neutral. However, the combination of civil war in Germany and the open struggle with the Gregorian papacy intensified the divisions. Both Henry and the Gregorians deposed each other’s supporters from the episcopate, while the king replaced the rebellious southern dukes with loyalists in 1079, including the Staufers, who received Swabia. There were now rival kings, popes, dukes and bishops, entrenching the conflict in the localities and widening the numbers of those involved with vested interests. The relatively even balance prevented either side from achieving sufficient preponderance to force their opponents to accept peace.

Although obstinate, Henry was sufficiently astute to seize the collapse of the Welf-Tuscan alliance in 1095 not merely to escape from northern Italy but to offer significant concessions across the next three years. This confirmed one of the two main political outcomes of this turbulent period: the demise of the old ducal elite and its replacement by a more numerous group controlling more modest jurisdictions. This group was recruited from the middling families who had amassed allodial property and county jurisdictions and were now accommodated by the creation of new jurisdictions associated with ducal rank. Henry reconciled the Zähringer, whom he had deposed from Carinthia in 1078, by raising their allodial property in the Black Forest to a new duchy 20 years later. This was rounded out by transferring Zürich, the richest royal domain in the region, as well as other jurisdictions formerly associated with Swabia. Meanwhile, the counts Palatine emerged as equivalent to dukes on the Middle Rhine by 1156. Henry V continued this policy after his accession in 1106, which coincided with the extinction of the Saxon Billungs. Although Saxony was not partitioned, Henry gave the Billung allodial property to the rising Askanier and Welf families. Other jurisdictions in Saxony were consolidated as a distinct landgraviate of Thuringia by 1131, while the remnants of what had been the Saxon North March (Nordmark) were detached in 1134, becoming the margraviate of Brandenburg after 1157.131

The tentative return to consensual politics unravelled as Henry V sought to supplant his father after 1105, leading to renewed war until the latter’s death the following year. Henry V’s heavy handling of his former favourite, Lothar von Supplinburg, triggered another revolt in 1112–15 during which the king lost control of northern Germany and only survived thanks to continued Staufer support. Antagonism resurfaced at Henry V’s death in 1125. The leading Welf, Heinrich ‘the Black’ of Bavaria, defected from his former Staufer allies and backed the election of Lothar von Supplinburg. Conrad Staufer of Franconia was proclaimed king by his own supporters, including his elder brother in Swabia, splitting Germany north–south. He only accepted defeat in 1135 in return for a pardon, finally allowing Lothar III to tour the south.132

The outcome confirmed the second lasting consequence from the troubles since 1073: command monarchy was discredited and defeated. The Trebur meeting of 1076 was the first of what historians have called ‘kingless assemblies’ (königlose Tage), as senior lords convened on their own initiative. Other meetings followed in 1105, 1121 and 1122, the latter compelling Henry V to settle the Investiture Dispute with the Worms Concordat. Although further collective action failed to avert violence in 1125, Lothar III nonetheless returned to a more consensual style. However, this did not restore Ottonian conditions. Instead, the restructured elite now saw themselves as sharing responsibility for the Empire’s welfare. This was expressed as ‘emperor and Empire’ (imperator et regnum  ), first voiced at the 1122 assembly and signifying that lords expected to participate in important decisions rather than merely offer advice. It remained for the Staufers to adapt governance to meet these expectations.133

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