So yesterday we talked a little bit about the Holy Roman Empire, the King of the Germans, and how that all worked. It was boring, and it was confusing, but it’s somewhat important for what we’re talking about.
By 1250, when Frederick II died, the Electors had the chance to pick a new dynasty, and the last thing they wanted was another Frederick. According to David Abulafia, a tenured professor at the King’s College at Cambridge, Frederick was one of the first rulers who could have been termed “modern.” He spoke several languages and inherited Sicily from his father, which became an ideal base for him from which to control the Empire itself. At the time, Sicily was the wealthiest nation in Western Europe, due to its high grain production and ideal trade location, and Frederick leveraged this resource to marginalize the electors almost entirely.
Now, the electors had chosen three new dynasties – the Ottonians, the Salians, and the Hohenstaufen – and each one, over time, had begun to push the Electors aside and break the promises their families had made to the Princes while campaigning for the crown. As a result, the Electors began to choose weaker lords, whom they believed they could control. There was a major problem with this new problem, however – people tended to disagree on who would be easiest to control. The 1257 election after the death of the absentee king Wilhelm von Halland led to a 4-3 decision, which was close enough that Alfonso X d’Ivrea, King of Castile and Leon (in what is now Spain), decided to contest the winner – Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Cornwall. Ultimately, Alfonso never really got much support. He had alienated himself from the Pope due to his alliance with an unpopular Ghibelline lord in Treviso, and he ruled too far from most of the powerful German lords to have a relationship of any influence with them, but the contested election showed that the word of the Prince-Electors was not final.
In 1273, upon the death of Richard of Cornwall, the Electors convened in Frankfurt to determine their next choice. At first there was some dispute, as King Ottokar II at first voted for himself, but the waxing power of Austria entered the conversation abruptly, as its Duke, Rudolf von Habsburg, betrothed two of his daughters to two of the electors – the Pfalzgraf Ludwig II and Duke Albrecht of Saxony. Rudolf von Habsburg was a reasonably powerful king, although not on the order of a Heinrich IV, Otto the Great, or Frederick II. It is during his reign that our story begins in earnest.
In the northwest of the Empire in Duchy of Brabant (now in Belgium), Johann, the reigning Duke, had purchased Adolf, Count of Berg’s, claim on the Duchy of Limburg, near Liege. You see, Waleran IV, the Duke of Limburg, had died childless in 1282, and a few different lords held claim to the Duchy. The Duchy was first claimed by Count Rainald of Guelders, but the next year Johann declared war on him. The next five years were almost a cold war in the region, since the main power – the Archbishop of Cologne – remained neutral, for the most part.
The action began to rise in 1288 as a popular uprising in the Archbishop’s territory was sponsored by Johann von Brabant, and the Archbishop and Rainald forged an alliance against their common enemy. In June, the two sides met a Worringen, each with a coalition of local counts and lords. The battle had an interesting outcome, in that there were winners and losers on both sides. Johann von Brabant was the largest winner. He became the unquestioned most powerful lord in the Northwestern Empire, from which he would be able to influence the Elector of Cologne’s vote; not to mention, his claim on Limburg was now unquestioned, and he could move down the Rhine River to even influence the Pfalzgraf – giving him leverage over two separate Prince-Electors.
This was key for Brabant, since, as a frontier duchy, it was constantly on the verge of being occupied by the French, and unless Johann could count on support from the Emperor, he would not stand a chance against a French army. There was also concern throughout Europe about rising French power. Without going into too much detail, Philippe II Auguste, the French king in the early 13th Century, had turned France from one of the weakest monarchies in Europe, almost entirely dominated by the Dukes, to theoretically the most powerful. Under him, the crown seized a ton of land in Southern France during the Albigensian Crusade (which might be better termed “The French Civil War,” but more on that another time), and almost all English land in Normandy had been lost by King John in the early 13th Century. However, despite having, in theory, the strongest king in Europe, France had not really exercised this power. Philippe died in 1223 before he had much opportunity to exercise his newfound power, and his successor, Louis VIII, died three years after he took the throne. This left Louis IX to take the throne – the last European king to be made a saint by the Catholic church. Louis was so pious that he refused to declare war on any Christian king, and so from 1226 to 1270, an extremely powerful France only waged foreign wars on the seventh and eighth crusades and defending against Henry III’s attempts to regain Normandy for England. Now, with Philippe III on the throne (who had inherited Poitou, making the crown lands even bigger). Fortunately for Johann, Philippe was primarily occupied with the brewing Aragonese Crusade, as well as expanding his influence in Italy, but there was no guarantee that this would last.
So after that rabbit trail, let’s look at the other winners. Adolf, Count of Nassau, was a huge winner – perhaps, as we will see, the biggest – from the Battle of Worringen. He had sided with the Archbishop, and later on, when it came election time at the death of Rudolf, this would be key.
The City of Cologne was also a big winner here. Being freed from the suzerainty of the archbishop meant that they were on track to become an Imperial City, which came with certain privileges and tax breaks, and this battle can be considered a major reason why the city of Cologne is so large today.
As for the losers, the Archbishopric of Cologne had the most permanent losses. Never again would the Archbishop be a secular power; rather, he would have to auction his royal vote and work religious influence to maintain influence. These were no trifling things, but there had been moments in the 12th Century that one could have called the Archbishop of Cologne the most powerful man in Germany. This was no longer even close to true.
The largest losses were taken by the House of Luxembourg. Also a regional power, the Counts of Luxembourg had become more powerful than many dukes – they simply lacked the title, and assisting the Archbishop in his war was a large step toward gaining ducal status; however, the Count, along with his two brothers, all died in battle – eliminating an entire generation of the House of Luxembourg, and the last remaining scion of the main line of Luxembourg was the eleven-year-old Henri.
Henri’s mother tongue, despite the fact that he was a German vassal ruling over largely German-speaking people, was French. He beat the war drum against Brabant, even before attaining his majority, as he desired to avenge his father and uncles against Johann. At this point, Rudolf von Habsburg was old and cared little what happened so far from his crown lands. There was a king whose crown lands were not far at all from the dispute, however, and his name was Philippe IV the Fair of France. Henri married Margaret, Johann von Brabant’s daughter, in 1292 (the year after Rudolf von Habsburg died, but we’ll get there in a second), and it was believed that the matter between Johann and Henri was settled, but common sense would say otherwise. One does not forgive the death of an entire generation of males within one’s family so quickly – particularly in a time in which male heirs were so prized.
Two years later, Henri submitted to Philippe IV as his vassal, which might suggest that the affair with Johann was not as over as it might have seemed. The only reason why Henri would have done this, however, would be if he for some reason required Philippe’s protection, and the only other major power in the area was… Brabant. To my mind, it is no coincidence that the same year in 1294, Johann was murdered – by a Frenchman. Hm…
Anyway, back to more Elector drama. Rudolf von Habsburg was dead, but he had willed it that his realm pass to his brother. However, during his reign, most of the Electors had fared poorly. We’ve already discussed what happened to the Archbishopric of Cologne, but the King of Bohemia had also been greatly reduced due to his wars with Rudolf. Using their combined influence, they convinced the other two archbishops to join their bloc, which denied Rudolf’s brother, Albrecht, the throne, simply because he was Rudolf’s brother (mind you, at this point, it had been almost a century since the last succession that stayed in the family, so there was no recent precedent for what Rudolf was requesting).
The only remaining issue was that this new bloc needed to decide on a new King, and they decided on Adolf, Count of Nassau. He was weak, had an existing relationship with the Archbishop of Cologne, and would be – or so the electors thought – easy to control. Perhaps the main difference between the German crown and the other thrones of Europe was that there were no “Crown Lands” (land that the king would always own, no matter who he was). The only source of income for a German king was from his existing territory, and Nassau afforded neither a sophisticated military, nor considerable wealth. Resultantly, Adolf began implementing various schemes to accrue wealth by using the symbolic power of his office. For instance, he demanded payment from the clergy in order to grant them their secular powers, and although he was not particularly powerful, he could still bully most bishops. He also offered assistance to Edward I of England in his war with France in exchange for a hefty sum of silver. Adolf was forbidden from going to war with Philippe, however, by Pope Boniface VIII, and under threat of excommunication, he chose to keep his armies at home. He kept the silver as well.
With his newly acquired coin, Adolf began accumulating power so that he could compete with the powerful dukes and counts of his empire. He bought the Landgravate of Thuringien and then occupied the vacant Margravate of Meissen. As a result, by Christmas of 1296, Adolf was at least as powerful as any of the electors save perhaps King Ottokar of Bohemia. The Electors realized that they had created a monster. The Habsburgs in Austria and Swabia were already an issue, and the rise of Brabant had created its own set of problems. The last thing the Electors wanted was a tenth major power in Germany.
In May of 1297, a majority of the Electors – Cologne, Saxony, Bohemia, and Brandenburg (due to the fact that there was a recently appointed Archbishop of Cologne, none of these men had personally voted for Adolf to become king) – declared their intent to depose the king and allied themselves with Albrecht von Habsburg (which fairly clearly stated whom they wanted on the throne). The Electors were clearly stating here that they not only had the power to crown a king, but they also had the authority to reverse their decision. At a council in Mainz, Adolf of Nassau was officially deposed, and Albrecht was crowned, but, of course, Adolf refused to accept the verdict.
Albrecht and Adolf fought over the throne for the next year, which almost certainly delighted the Electors, since it would mean that the victor would be even easier to control, but at the Battle of Göllheim, Adolf was killed, and the war ended as abruptly as it had started. The Habsburgs were back on the throne, which was not what the Electors had hoped for, but it was far preferable to the ambitious Adolf.
Albrecht reigned for five uneventful years, but he was killed by his nephew, Johann, whom he had deprived of his inheritance from his father, Rudolph. The Electors could now breathe a sigh of relief, as internal strife would take the Habsburgs off the table as viable candidates for the throne for about a century, and things appeared like they wouldd be going back to the way they were. In their tradition of picking a weak king, they chose our friend Henri, whom we earlier discussed, but he, like Adolf, was not as weak as he seemed.
So that’s my story, here. It’s the story of an orphaned boy, who was raised by self-interested regents becoming the king of the Germans (or the Romans, as the title was actually called). Henri would go on to become King of Italy, the first German monarch to take the crown in fifteen years since the death of Rudolf. He also secured the Kingdom of Bohemia for his son Jean after long wars with Ottokar. Fun fact about Jean, he would later charge into battle at age fifty, by which point he had gone blind. Allegedly, he said at the Battle of Crecy in the Hundred Years’ War, “Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away. Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is the loudest. The Lord will be with us. Nothing to fear. Just take good care of my son.” He, somewhat predictably, died in the battle, but he earned the admiration of many of the Bohemian lords in doing so, which may have helped solidify the House of Luxembourg’s position as Kings of Bohemia, despite his death.
I hope this sheds a little light on the way that German politics operated in the High Middle Ages. These anecdotes are not the only examples of such politics; in fact, it would continue until the Habsburgs established a stable father-to-son succession in the 15th Century, but the title King of the Romans was abolished in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, making any illusion of a German nation a pure myth. Germany would not reunify until 1871, the last Western European nation to do so.