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The fall of Henry the Lion

Forced to retreat before the papacy and the Lombard League after the Battle of Legnano, Frederick cooled toward his Welf cousin, whom he could justly blame for some of his setbacks. Hitherto, the enemies of Henry—the princes, bishops, and magnates of Saxony—had been unable to gain a hearing against him at the emperor’s court days. By 1178, however, the emperor was ready to help them. Outlawed (1180), beaten in the field, and deserted by his vassals, Henry had to surrender and go into exile in 1182. His duchies and fiefs were forfeited to the empire.

His fall left a throng of middling princes face to face with an emperor whose prestige, despite reverses, stood high and whose resources had greatly increased since the beginning of his reign. The princes were nonetheless the chief and ultimate beneficiaries of the events of 1180. The final judgment by which Henry the Lion lost his honours was not founded on tribal law but on feudal law. The princes who condemned him regarded themselves as the first feudatories of the empire, and they decided on the redistribution of his possessions among themselves. During the 12th century the tribal duchies of the Ottonian period finally disintegrated. Within their ancient boundaries not only bishops but also lay lords succeeded in eluding the authority of the dukes. In their large immunities, bishops and nonducal nobles themselves wielded ducal powers. To enforce the imperial peace laws became both their ambition and their justification. Everywhere the greater lay dynasties and even some bishops tried to acquire a ducal or an equivalent title that would enable them to consolidate their scattered jurisdictions and, if possible, to force lesser free lords to attend their pleas.

These highest magnates had interests in common, and they closed their ranks not only against threats from above but also against fellow nobles who had been less successful in amassing wealth, counties, and advocacies and who did not possess the superior jurisdiction of a duke, a margrave, a count palatine, or a landgrave. They and they alone were now called princes of the empire. To lend a certain cohesion to their varied rights, they were willing to surrender their house lands to the empire and receive them back again as a princely fief. For the emperor it was theoretically an advantage that men so powerful in their own right should owe their chief dignity and most valued privileges to his grant. It opened the possibility of escheats (reversions to the property of the emperor), for in feudal law the rules of inheritance were stricter than in folk right. In Germany, however, the political misfortunes of rulers succeeded, by and large, in ensuring that ancient caste feeling and notions of inalienable right conquered the principles of feudal law. By 1216 it was established that the emperor could neither abolish principalities nor create princes at random.

The “heirs” of Henry the Lion had to fight a ceaseless battle to establish and maintain themselves. In Bavaria the Wittelsbachs had received the vacant duchy, but they were not recognized as superiors by the dukes of Styria or by the dukes of Andechs-Meran. In Saxony the archbishop of Cologne was enfeoffed with Henry the Lion’s ducal office and with all his rights in Westphalia, while an Ascanian prince, Bernard of Anhalt, received the eastern half of Henry’s duchy. Neither Bernard nor the archbishop, however, could make much out of their dukedoms, except in the regions where they already had lands and local jurisdictions. All over the empire these and regalian rights, such as mints, fairs, tolls, and the right of granting safe-conducts, were the substance of princely power. To possess them as widely as possible became the first goal of the abler bishops and lay lords.

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