Thirteenth-Century Holy Roman Empire and The Great Interregnum

Battle of Tagliacozzo, 23 August 1268. The Ghibelline Conrad V (Conradin) challenged the Guelph Charles of Anjou for the Sicilian crown. The Ghibellines had seemingly won the battle, before the Guelphs lured them into a trap and chased them from the field.

1250-1254 Conrad IV Civil wars continue in Germany. Conrad campaigns again the Pope and other independent Italian states

1254-1273 The Great Interregnum

Civil war rife in Germany. Rule has broken down

1268 Battle of Tagliacozzo. End of Hohenstaufen line

1273-1291 Rudolf I of Habsburg

War against Ottokar II of Bohemia, who is killed at the Battle of the Marchfeld (Durnkrut) ( 1278)

On Rudolf’s death the electors are so frightened by his territorial gain that the bypass his son.

The End of the Staufers

Territorialization advanced further and faster in Bavaria, Austria, Tirol, Bohemia and parts of west and north-west Germany. These were neither necessarily the richest nor most populous parts of the Empire. The prolonged royal presence in Franconia, Swabia, the Upper Rhine and parts of Thuringia contributed to the number of small fiefs emerging from the crown lands, while the concentration of people and wealth in the south-west also helped sustain a larger number of relatively small lordships. The Staufers’ demise after 1250 saw the monarchy shift to the more territorialized parts of Germany. At first glance, this appears to corroborate the old view of the Empire as being undermined by princely autonomy. However, the Staufers’ end was more personal than structural. After a 15-year absence in Italy and the Holy Land, Frederick II had returned to Germany in 1235 accompanied by lavishly dressed Muslim bodyguards, camels and elephants – the ultimate symbol of pre-modern imperialism. Despite not recruiting additional troops, he crushed a rebellion without a fight, deposed his son Henry (VII) and Duke Friedrich II Babenberg of Austria, and settled the long-running dispute with the Welfs.

The real problem was legitimacy, not autonomy. The princes certainly desired autonomy, but this is what the Staufers had been giving them since the 1180s. Individual princes might prove uncooperative, like Duke Friedrich II, who recovered Austria by force in 1237 and obliged the emperor to accept this three years later as the price of his support. However, it was Frederick’s mishandling of the situation in Italy and his second excommunication after 1239 that undermined his authority and made it harder to compel the princes to honour their commitments to the Empire.

The Survival of the Monarchy

The period from the death of Frederick II’s son Conrad IV in 1254 and Rudolf I’s accession in 1273 appears as an ‘interregnum’ in traditional accounts. The papacy certainly regarded the imperial title as vacant until Henry VII’s coronation in 1312. However, there was no break in German kings who throughout also claimed to rule over Burgundy and Italy. Indeed, there were often too many kings. The anti-king William of Holland outlived Conrad IV to enjoy two years’ uncontested rule. The double election after his death returned both Alfonso X of Castile and Richard, earl of Cornwall, who had Staufer credentials through being Frederick II’s brother-in-law. Unlike Alfonso, who never visited Germany, Richard came to be crowned king in Aachen in May 1257. He distributed privileges to his supporters, but also used force against those who had backed Alfonso. He was obliged in 1259 to return to England where deteriorating relations between his brother King Henry III and the barons threatened the flow of funds financing his rule. He came back briefly to Germany in 1260, before leaving to support his brother in the Barons’ War, in which he was captured. German princes continued to visit him in England, while his supporters successfully repelled an incursion of Conradin, the last Staufer, from Italy into Swabia in 1262. The Angevins’ execution of Conradin in 1268 eased Richard’s position just as he was at last able to return to Germany where he spent around a year enjoying uncontested rule, before being obliged to leave for England again where he died in April 1272. Richard retained the feudal relations developed by the Staufers, as well as several key officials who had served William of Holland. The idea of Richard’s reign as an interregnum only developed after 1273 as Rudolf I’s supporters presented him as ‘restoring’ the monarchy.

The 75 years after Richard’s death proved an era of ‘leaping elections’ (springenden Wahlen) with five successive kings from different families until greater continuity emerged under the Luxembourgs. In contrast to previous monarchs, these were all ‘little kings’ unrelated to earlier royal lines and they came instead mainly from the ranks of the counts. Their low status should not mislead us into underestimating the continued power and prestige of the Empire’s monarchy. Apparent royal weakness was scarcely unusual. In Richard’s homeland, Edward I was the sole king to rule uncontested during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while only three English kings were succeeded directly by their sons, and just one ruled without an assassination attempt. Above all, the royal office never became a worthless prize in the manner of, say, the Chinese presidency in the warlord era of 1911–30, and those possessing it were able to achieve tangible goals.

One reason for the monarchy’s continued significance was that it was part of a wider framework in which the other participants still believed and valued. The king symbolized the proper order. Individual details might be disputed, but no one doubted that a proper order was monarchical. Aachen and Frankfurt remained the key political sites. The Empire did not fragment. Duke Friedrich II’s attempt to secure recognition of Austria as a kingdom failed in the mid-1240s. Bohemia remained a kingdom, but also firmly within the Empire. Continued subordination to the king was not simply out of habit, but because the Empire’s survival had become part of the princes’ self-consciousness. Individuals might acquire crown lands, but no one could usurp royal prerogatives without threatening the rights and autonomy of all princes as the monarch’s immediate vassals.

Despite the absence of a crowned emperor, the princes still saw themselves as part of the wider Empire rather than simply lords of what were, still, relatively small territories. They embraced the Staufers’ concept of collective honor imperii, because feudalization had heightened their sense of being stakeholders in the established order. This explains why they were prepared to cooperate with the resumption of the Staufers’ public-peace activities by Richard and Rudolf. New ideas of the princes’ roles were carried by men educated at Italian universities who were now entering royal and princely service. Princes were not simply royal agents following commands, but members of a corporate elite expected to act on their own initiative to secure peace within their jurisdictions. Although still subordinate, princes were thus co-constituents of monarchy, not counterweights to potential monarchical tyranny as elsewhere. This explains why the Empire’s princes did not develop a right of resistance like Polish or Hungarian aristocrats, nor did they seek to limit royal power through more institutional forms like a House of Lords in the English, Polish or Hungarian parliaments.

Another major reason was that the three senior princes were all ecclesiastical: Mainz, Cologne and Trier. As clergy, they could not stand as candidates in royal elections, and yet their own prestige derived from their arch-offices and roles in elections and coronations. Apart from 1257 when Trier broke ranks, contributing to the double election, the three ecclesiastical electors worked to preserve the collective order. Meanwhile, the deliberate partition of the old duchies after Henry the Lion’s defeat in 1180 prevented the emergence of an obvious candidate to follow the Staufers after 1254, since none of the secular princes held a commanding position. The situation embedded as a lasting characteristic of imperial politics. All the main actors wanted to preserve the overall structure whilst adjusting their own position within it. They tended to combine against anyone threatening this system’s basic stability. While self-correcting, the internal balance was far from harmonious. It was now much harder to pick a winner in royal elections, as no contender appeared much stronger than his rivals after 1250. This widened the political possibilities as different factions coalesced in the hope of security and reward. The absence of firm electoral rules prior to 1356 also encouraged this and contributed to the double elections of 1257 and 1314.

Each new king exploited his reign to reward his most reliable supporters, but particularly himself by enhancing the autonomy of his own territory. This naturally fuelled resentment amongst those who had backed defeated candidates and contributed to their refusal to repeat the practice before 1250 of recognizing a successor during the lifetime of an incumbent king. This explains the succession of kings from different families after 1254. However, there was no free-for-all. The situation worked to narrow rather than widen the number of viable candidates. Despite their expansion under the Staufers, the princes remained a small elite within a much larger aristocracy. Most were simply too weak to stand for election, especially as potential electors did not want to become obliged to bail out their candidate should he encounter difficulties, and so they still sought able men with considerable resources. Although they failed to secure a direct successor, each incumbent generally strengthened his own family’s position during his reign, thus elevating it further from those who had not yet provided a king.

Royal Candidates

Politics thus resembled a game of musical chairs, with each successive reign reducing the number of ‘players’. Moreover, not everyone wanted to ‘play’ as personal interests and local concerns discouraged individual princes from standing. Only Bavaria remained from the original duchies by the thirteenth century as a substantial principality. Since 1180 it had been held by the Wittelsbachs, who originated from the counts of Scheyern in the eleventh century and took their name from their new castle south-west of Pfaffenhofen in 1115. Their influence really began once they acquired the more prestigious county Palatine on the Rhine in 1214, and they saw themselves as the Staufers’ natural successor after 1250. However, the family provides another illustration of how territorialization and dynasticism were not planned or desired historical outcomes. Bavaria was partitioned into Upper and Lower duchies in 1255 to accommodate two brothers as heirs. Both lines experienced further splits before a brief reunification from 1340 to 1349, with renewed partition only being resolved through a bloody inheritance dispute in 1504–5. Bavaria and the Palatinate were held combined until 1317 when a separate Palatine Wittelsbach line emerged before itself splitting four ways in 1410. Further partitions followed a brief reunion between 1449 and 1470. Bavaria and the Palatinate were not recombined until 1779, with a final reunification of all other possessions taking a further twenty years.

The Askanier also split with individual branches offering candidates in royal elections: the margrave of Brandenburg stood in 1257, followed by the count of Anhalt in 1273. The division of the line ruling Saxony in 1288 into rival Wittenberg and Lauenburg branches frustrated the family’s efforts to claim Thuringia and complicated royal elections, since both claimed the Saxon vote until this was definitively awarded to Wittenberg in 1356.

Battle of Kressenbrunn, (July 1260). Fighting for control of the duchies of Austria and Styria, the army of King Ottokar II of Bohemia routed that of King Béla IV of Hungary. Both forces were very large and were supplemented by mercenaries.

With Wittelsbach and Askanier influence dissipated, only Bohemia and the Habsburgs appeared plausible candidates to succeed Richard of Cornwall in 1273. Bohemia was now by far the most prestigious territory in the Empire, thanks to its royal title, relative size and annual revenues of 100,000 silver marks – five times that enjoyed by the duke of Bavaria. King Ottokar II voted twice in 1257 deliberately to force Richard to allow him to claim the vast Babenberg inheritance of Austria, Carinthia, Krain and Styria left vacant by that family’s extinction in 1246. However, Ottokar’s growing power alarmed the other electors, who chose Rudolf I of Habsburg instead in 1273.

Battle of Marchfeld, (August 26, 1278)

King Otakar II of Bohemia, who had managed to accumulate a large bloc of territories in the heart of Central Europe, suffered a major reversal in 1276 when King Rudolf of Habsburg forced him to surrender Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola. Many of the Austrians, and especially the Viennese, resented their new Habsburg rule and joined in Otakar’s attempt to reclaim those possessions two years later. Otakar’s slow advance gave Rudolf time to gather his forces, supported by allies like Hungary and Salzburg. The two forces met on a field by the river March, near the village of Dürnkrut, north of Vienna. The Hungarian mounted archers conducted a devastating attack on Otakar’s right flank, causing it to break and retreat. Otakar and his left flank charged for Rudolf himself, who was briefly unhorsed. An attack by Rudolf’s reserve broke Otakar’s lines, and a retreat became a rout. During the confusion personal enemies murdered Otakar.

The Battle of Marchfeld, August 26, 1278, or Dürnkrut, was one of the largest cavalry battles of the Middle Ages. It was also decisive for Central European history, since it marked the beginning of the rise of the Austrian Habsburgs, while Bohemia’s influence was greatly reduced.

Rudolf I

Rudolf is often presented as attempting to reset the monarchy on a centralizing course by initiating a policy of ‘Revindication’ in December 1273. Named from the Latin verb revindicare (‘to demand back’), this was intended to recover crown lands dissipated since the 1240s. The losses were indeed severe: only a tenth of mints remained in royal hands, while the crown now only held rights over one in ten towns compared to one in three at the start of the thirteenth century. Rudolf had to compromise, allowing politically important princes to retain some areas they had acquired, though he often reworked the basis to weaken their absolute ownership. Overall, the results were impressive: Rudolf revived crown control over imperial church fiefs to 66 per cent of the level under the Staufers, whilst recovering crown lands to 73 per cent and Staufer family property to an impressive 68 per cent considering this had been almost completely lost. The bulk of Staufer allodial possessions were thus added to the crown lands. Thanks to intervening economic development, the combined value of crown possessions was now higher than under the Staufers. Rudolf’s success further underscores the argument that the monarchy did not unduly suffer during the ‘interregnum’.

The main changes included an end to the expansion of the crown lands and their concentration in south-west Germany combined with a considerable contraction in Saxony and the Lower Rhine. Less obviously, management also changed in response to the continuing emancipation of the ministeriales as knights, as well as further immunities for royal monasteries. Some of these developments were long term. Already in the eleventh century, kings stopped drawing supplies from the economically weaker monasteries and instead granted these exemptions or assigned them to supplement the resources of larger abbeys or bishoprics. Meanwhile, obligations to provide food and accommodation for the royal entourage were increasingly converted into cash taxes from the early twelfth century – well ahead of similar developments in France. Taxation was extended to royal towns that had developed on crown lands under the Staufers. The obligation to feed and accommodate the king was frequently commuted into cash but, unlike the situation in Italy, German royal towns remained more directly subordinate to the king. Rudolf also developed structures already initiated by Richard of Cornwall by establishing jurisdictions called ‘bailiwicks’ (Landvogteien) to oversee the towns and recovered crown assets. Bailiffs were selected from loyal counts and knights who were charged with safeguarding royal prerogatives and upholding peace within their jurisdictions. The network was renewed in 1292 and continued into the first half of the fourteenth century. However, it only encompassed the crown lands and not the immediate fiefs of the lay and spiritual princes, who remained subordinate to the king through the feudal hierarchy developed under the Staufers.

The bailiwicks reflected the geographic spread of royal influence by being concentrated in the south and west. Bohemia was temporarily compelled to return the former Staufer crown land of Eger in 1276, but Rudolf encountered serious difficulties when he tried to recover Austria, Carinthia, Styria, Krain and Thuringia on the grounds these were vacant imperial fiefs since the deaths of the last Babenberg (1246) and Heinrich Raspe (1247). Repeated efforts to obtain these fiefs were a central feature of imperial politics until finally abandoned in the mid-fourteenth century. Virtually the entire north, constituting a third of the German kingdom, was ‘distant from the king’. Only 3 per cent of Rudolf’s charters were issued from locations in this area, while he never ventured further north-west than Aachen. The last royal visit to Goslar was in 1253. Political gravity shifted south-west, despite isolated later incidents like Charles IV’s visit to Lübeck in 1375. The regions ‘close to the king’ were now Swabia, Franconia, the Middle and Upper Rhineland and parts of Thuringia. These provided most of the resources sustaining the monarchy into the early fourteenth century. The reliance of kings on these regions helped sustain the still large numbers of free minor lords, several of whom benefited from elevations in status, like the Zollerns, who became burgraves of the Nuremberg bailiwick and later rose to prominence as the Hohenzollerns. Not everyone was prepared to cooperate. The Württemberg counts showed how it was still possible to prosper despite generally refusing to serve the king. They rallied support in the south-west from those who saw Rudolf’s plans as threatening the autonomy they had won since 1250. Count Eberhard I led a revolt in 1285–7 that blocked Rudolf’s attempt to re-establish the duchy of Swabia.

The bulk of the assets recovered through Revindication were alienated again in the century following Rudolf’s death in 1291. The form of alienation differed from that prior to 1273, because many were now pawned either for cash mortgages or under new service agreements binding the mortgagee to provide support over long periods. Pawning became more common from the late thirteenth century, because mortgages circumvented canonical prohibitions on usury by transferring assets rather than contracting loans against interest. Only 13 imperial cities were never pawned between 1273 and 1438. Unlike transfer by gift or enfeoffment, the king retained the option of recovering the property by redeeming the mortgage. However, the mortgages were often so high as to make redemption unlikely: Louis IV mortgaged Eger for 20,000 pounds of silver in 1322 back to Bohemia, which retained it permanently. Eger is still today the westernmost point of the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, mortgages cut the king off from the real value of the land since the mortgagee drew the revenue and other benefits in the meantime. Lucrative assets like Rhine tolls, mints, and ore and salt mining rights were repeatedly mortgaged until they were effectively permanently alienated.

All this might suggest that Rudolf’s reign indeed represents a lost opportunity to centralize. However, the bailiwicks never represented the basis for a new royal bureaucracy, but instead relied on using established prerogatives to entrust minor lords with supervision of royal assets. The dissipation of these assets through mortgages and other forms of alienation effectively removed the crown lands as a significant resource by the late fourteenth century. Rather than constituting ‘decline’, this instead reflected a fundamental shift in the basis of imperial rule to rest on the king’s direct possession of immediate fiefs as hereditary family lands.

This was already apparent under Rudolf. He owed his election to appearing less of a threat to princely liberties than Ottokar, because Rudolf only held modest possessions in Switzerland and on the Upper Rhine. These produced an annual revenue of just 7,000 pounds in silver; hence the Revindication policy begun soon after his coronation. However, his use of the royal office to contest Ottokar’s claims to the Babenberg inheritance proved far more significant in the longer term. Rudolf’s methods also illustrate the potential of the new feudal structures developed under the Staufers. Rudolf held an assembly at Nuremberg in November 1274 when he confirmed the princes in possession of their immediate imperial fiefs. However, this act explicitly asserted the monarch as suzerain, requiring all to seek formal re-enfeoffment within a year under the practice of Herren- und Mannfall (see here). Rudolf used Ottokar’s failure to do this as an excuse to employ force to resolve the disputed Babenberg inheritance in his own favour after 1276. Rudolf’s strategy entailed high risks, because few of the princes were prepared to see Ottokar fully divested of his lands. However, this problem was solved by Ottokar’s death amidst defeat at Dürnkrut, north-east of Vienna, on 26 August 1278. The electors eventually agreed in 1282 that Rudolf could enfeoff his sons as dukes of Austria and Styria. These acquisitions added 18,000 pounds of silver in annual revenue for the Habsburgs, compared to only 8,000 pounds now flowing from all the imperial cities after Revindication.

Rudolf’s victory signalled the new direction, but not yet the definitive turning point. The leading princes still expected the king to live from what were increasingly termed the imperial lands (Reichsgut) and, for this reason, had backed Revindication in principle if not always in practice. They remained suspicious of a king who wanted to acquire too many large fiefs directly as family property (Hausgut). A transitional pattern set in for the next century. Kings continued to use imperial lands, though increasingly as objects to pawn. Meanwhile, they used their royal office to secure vacant fiefs for their immediate relations. Henry VII was able to enfeoff his son Johann with Bohemia in 1310, while Louis IV gave Holland, Zeeland and Hainault to his son Wilhelm in 1345. By keeping his gains split between his sons in 1282, Rudolf allayed the electors’ fears that either would be too powerful. Unfortunately, two of his sons predeceased him, leaving only Albert as sole heir when Rudolf died in July 1291. Albert’s curt manner further discouraged the electors, while he was simultaneously distracted by a revolt against Habsburg rule in Switzerland.