Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall
With the death of Frederick II (see Chapter XXVII) the MediŠval Empire may be said to end. After him came Conrad IV, the last of the Hohenstaufens, and the Great Interregnum, when for a space of nineteen years there was no real emperor, and the crown was bandied about among foreign princes. Then followed a period of a hundred and sixty-four years, when the crown passed from one house of nobles to another, in all ten emperors. During this time the borders of the Empire shrank considerably. Italy was entirely lost. In the north the great trading cities became independent republics, the middle was held by the pope. In the south the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples were conquered by Charles of Anjou. He was called in by Pope Urban IV to crush the Hohenstaufens, and by him Conradin, the last of the German-Norman kings, was put to death.
Poland became an independent monarchy and rendered no more allegiance to the German crown. Denmark and Hungary also became free of the Empire. To the emperors there remained only Germany itself. It was a Germany more hopelessly divided than ever. While every other kingdom in Europe had been moving steadily towards united nationality, Germany had moved in the opposite direction and now contained two hundred and seventy-six independent states.
The rulers of these states were constantly at variance with each other. They were always ready to fight each other, but never to combine and fight a foreign foe. There was no sense of nationality among them, and their loyalty to their overlord the emperor was of the slightest. These overlords still regarded themselves as emperors, but for two centuries few went to Rome to receive the crown at the hands of the pope, and after the middle of the fifteenth century none did so. As kings they had little power, they had no capital, and no government worthy of the name. Thus striving for world dominion the emperors ceased even to rule in Germany.
During this time the power of the electors who chose the emperor grew rapidly. In early days the emperors had been elected by the whole of the nobles. But by degree most of them lost this right, which was at last usurped by seven men only, three churchmen and four nobles. The churchmen were the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, and Treves. The nobles were the King of Bohemia, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Duke of Saxony, and the Count Palatine. In the seventeenth century the princes of Bavaria and of Hanover were added, making the number of electors nine.
As time went on the power of these electors increased enormously, until at length they claimed to be the seven pillars upon which the Empire rested. They forced the emperor of their choice to agree to any conditions they liked to impose. If he tried to go his own way they waged war against him, and sometimes even deposed him. And in this they always found a friend in the pope, to whose advantage it was to have a weak emperor on the throne.
In 1313 the electors could not agree and two emperors were elected, Lewis IV and Frederick the Handsome. In consequence the land was torn with civil war for many years. The popes were by this time living in Avignon, little more than vassals of the French king. Yet Pope John XXII still tried to impose his will upon Germany. He more or less took the part of Frederick and commanded Lewis to give up the crown in three months under pain of excommunication.
Lewis replied with fury. The election of a German king he declared lay with the German people only and needed no sanction from the pope. As to the quarrel between the two rival emperors, that should be settled by the sword and not by the pope's decree. It was so settled, and after long years of warfare Lewis became reconciled to Frederick and agreed to share the throne with him.
Lewis then marched to Rome, deposed John, and enthroned an anti-pope of his own choosing. At first the Roman people received him with joy. But soon their mood changed, and anti-pope and emperor alike fled for their lives. In 1330 Frederick died, and three years later Lewis, weary of the long conflict, tried to make peace with the pope. He declared himself willing to be recrowned by the rightful pope, and do any penance that he should lay upon him.
But Benedict XII, who had now succeeded John XXII, asked too much. He demanded that Lewis should give up the imperial title until the Church should decide whether he had a right to it or not. At this both the emperor and the electors were filled with wrath, and they issued a solemn manifesto in which they declared that the emperor took his rank and crown from them, and that there was no need whatever for confirmation from the pope. Thus the independence of the Empire from all papal interference was made legal.
But although the princes of Germany had by this manifesto at last shown some dawning loyalty the popes clung obstinately to their powers, and in 1346 Clement VI deposed Lewis and called upon the electors to choose another emperor. By this time the electors were weary of Lewis, and they obeyed the pope and chose Charles the son of the blind king of Bohemia.
GERMANY, A.D. 1254 TO 1500.
This happened in July. In August the battle of Crešy was fought, and in it both King John and his son Charles fought on the side of France. King John was killed, and Charles fled back to Germany. Here once again the land was torn with civil strife. For Charles was not the choice of the people. They felt that he had been imposed by the pope, and called him "a priest's king," and would have nothing to say to him.
Then in 1347 Lewis died, and the crown went begging. It was offered to Edward III of England, refused by him and one German prince after another, and finally by dint of enormous bribes secured by Charles.
During his reign Germany, like the rest of Europe, was devastated by the Black Death, which carried off nearly half the inhabitants. It was followed by a terrible persecution of the Jews who, according to the superstition of the times, were believed to have caused the plague. But "Germany," said a later emperor, Maximilian I, "never suffered from a more pestilent plague than the reign of Charles IV." He utterly neglected Germany, but did everything in his power to aggrandize his own kingdom of Bohemia.
On the other hand he issued a great document, which from the colour of its seal has come to be known as the Golden Bull of Charles IV. It was a document almost as important for Germany as the Magna Carta for England, forming as it did the groundwork of the laws for more than four hundred years.
One of its chief aims was to put an end to strife over the election of the emperor. By it the electors were made still more important. They were given full sovereign rights in their own lands. They could coin money, levy taxes, and make war as they chose. From their courts of justice there was no appeal even to the emperor, and the smallest crime against their persons was punishable as high treason. They were thus raised far above all other princes of the realm. Taken together they were far more powerful than the emperor himself. In the whole Bull there was no mention of the pope and his claims, or even of Italy.