History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Wenceslaus of Bohemia and Rupert the Mild

Charles IV died in 1878, and was succeeded by his son Wenceslaus. He was only seventeen when he came to the throne, and he proved to be neither a good King of Bohemia nor a good Emperor. Perhaps no one less noble has ever sat upon the throne of Germany.

Wenceslaus cared nothing for his people; he thought only of low, mean pleasures. So besotted was he that it is said he could hardly be induced to attend to any business at all. What little he did attend to had to be done in the morning, lest later in the day he should be too drunk.

Charles IV had utterly neglected Germany, and the country was in wild confusion. The land was full of robber knights and barons who fought against the cities. The cities banded themselves together in Leagues. The nobles formed new confederations or societies, calling themselves knights of St. William or St. George, of the Falcon or the Lion, or what not. And while the land was wasted with their wars, Wenceslaus sat at ease, drinking and carousing in Prague.

Little cared he that the fair fields and vineyards were trampled and destroyed, that towns and villages lay in ruins. And when his courtiers urged him to mount his horse, to set his lance in rest and ride forth, as a King should, to quell the tumult, he replied indolently, "Every one knows where I live. If any one wishes to see me, let him come to Prague."

But as well as being slothful and drunken, Wenceslaus was passionate and cruel. His favourite companion was the hangman. He went about with him ever at his heels, together with a pack of savage hounds. Scant mercy was shown to any who aroused the wrath of Wenceslaus; and many are the stories told of his cruelty.

It was under this slothful and savage King that the Swiss made another great fight for freedom. Ever since the victory of Morgarten they had continued the struggle. Now once again a Leopold of Austria (nephew of that Leopold who was defeated at Morgarten) marched against them. Once again the peasants of Switzerland gathered to defy him.

The army which Leopold led into Switzerland was very great. In it were all the best and bravest knights and nobles of Austria. Clad in glittering armour, with banners fluttering in the wind, with trumpets blowing, they rode gaily along. Near the little town of Sempach hey met the rough-clad mountaineers.

The ground was uneven, it was almost impossible to charge on horseback, so most of the knights dismounted. Sending their horses to the rear, they stood shoulder to shoulder, a solid wall of steel bristling with lances.

On a slope above the Austrian army stood the Swiss, in the shadow of dark pine woods which stretched far behind them. Their weapons were poor and old-fashioned. Many of them, indeed, carried the clubs with which their forefathers had fought at Morgarten; many instead of shields carried a small board on their left arms. But their hearts were full of courage, and ere the battle began they fell upon their knees, as their custom was, to pray. "Oh, dear God in Heaven," they cried, "through Thy bitter death help us poor sinners in this hour of anguish and need." Then springing to their feet, and uttering a ringing war-cry, they charged.

But against the glittering mass of the Austrian nobles the Swiss threw themselves again and again in vain. The knights stood in firm unbroken order, while many a mountaineer fell dead, pierced by their long lances.

Already the hearts of the Swiss began to sink. Then a brave man, Arnold of Winkelried, resolved to die for his country, and force a way through that grim barrier.

"Comrades," he cried, "to your care I leave my wife and child. I will make a way for you."

Then stretching out his arms he ran upon the bristling fence of spears, gathering as many as he could in his embrace.

"Make way for Liberty," he cried as, pierced by many wounds, he fell, bearing to the ground with him all the knights whose spears he had gathered to his heart.

The wall of steel was broken, a breach was made, and over Arnold of Winkelried's dead body his comrades swept like a torrent. The nobles of Austria were now an easy prey to the lightly armed, agile Swiss. Hampered by their heavy armour, they fell and were unable to rise again. The day, too, was one of fearful heat, and many died, not from the blows of the Swiss, but from the heat of the sun.

The Swiss victory was complete. Duke Leopold himself was among the slain, and there was scarcely a castle in all Austria in which the sound of mourning was not heard.

For Austria the battle of Sempach was a crushing blow. But for the Swiss Sempach and the battle of Nafels, fought two years later, meant Liberty, and for many a long day they were left to enjoy it undisturbed.

Meanwhile, in Germany itself, the desolating war between princes and cities went on. Trade was at a standstill, the country for miles round every town was a barren waste, the roads were overgrown with weeds and nettles.

And the King cared little about it. He hunted and drank and idled his time away, "Like a pig in his sty," it was said. So at length the people grew weary of him and in 1400 the electors met together and declared that Wenceslaus was not worthy to be king. The next day they chose Rupert the Count Palatine to succeed him.

When Wenceslaus heard the news he burst into a terrible passion. "I will avenge this insult or die of it," he cried. "Rupert shall be cast down as far as he is now raised high." But Wenceslaus was not the man to fight valiantly for his crown, so the war against Rupert was long and undecisive.

Rupert was brave, and well fitted to be a king, yet he could not win the love or obedience of the people. He was king in little more than name. Seeing that he could do little in Germany, he turned his thoughts to Italy, and made up his mind to go there to try to win back some of the power which had been lost.

But the expedition to Italy was a pitiful failure. Defeated and beggared both in fame and in fortune, Rupert fled back over the Alps, followed by the scorn and laughter of his foes.

Rupert fled from Italy a beaten man, he returned to Germany to find the country in confusion, and himself of little importance. His reign was one long struggle for power, and just as it seemed as if he were about to succeed, he died.

Rupert was brave and kindly, and he received the name of the "Mild." For ten years he was, in name, ruler of Germany. But he was not strong enough really to rule in those turbulent times.