Germany History - Late Middle Ages 1

Germany History: Late Middle Ages Part I

The Empire as an Elective Monarchy

While the dynastic principle and monarchical penetration of the empire prevailed in the kingdoms of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, the Roman-German Empire remained an elective monarchy until its end in 1806, in which personal ties and the principles of consensual rule were preserved. The modern state was not formed by the royal power in the empire, but by the princely rulers in their territories. Learn more about Germany and Europe, please click

Measured by its tasks and the resources available, the German kingship of the late Middle Ages appears to be “overwhelmed” in comparison to the neighboring Western European monarchies – viewed from the retrospective of statist statehood. There are multiple reasons for that. At first, the Roman-German Empire presented itself as a large empire, shaped by different regional forces and interests with differentiated power constellations. The monarchy only succeeded in asserting its rule in individual regions that were “close to the king” or “open to the king”. In addition, after the failure of the “inheritance plan” of Heinrich VI. and the double election of 1198, the idea of ​​free election of a king – regardless of the relationship to the royal family – prevailed. In the 13th century, a princely top group managed to gain the right to vote exclusively. This college, which was understood as the pillars of the empire, included the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg and the King of Bohemia. The voting behavior of these seven electors, whose legal status was finally determined in the most important imperial law of the Middle Ages, the Golden Bull (1356), was no longer based on kinship, but rather on power-political ideas.

That is why kings from changing dynasties (Habsburg, Nassau, Luxembourg, Wittelsbach) succeeded each other in office from 1254 to 1438. This meant a serious discontinuity in the royal rule, as each of these kings was dependent on their dynastic requirements to rebuild their rule on a different basis of power. In addition, the candidates, in order to be elected king at all or to enforce their claim in the face of ambivalent elections, repeatedly went over to rewarding their voters or supporters with imperial property. Therefore, the material basis of the kingship until the accession of Frederick III. (1440) almost completely consumed.

Home power kingship, strength of the electors

The consequence for the kingship was that imperial interests and dynastic house interests no longer necessarily coincide and that therefore the temptation was great to take a position unilaterally at the expense of the empire and in favor of one’s own house (house power kingship) in the event of a conflict of interest. This was shown by v. a. when larger imperial fiefs reverted to the kingdom at the free disposal of the king. Instead of confiscating these goods for the empire and building a royal crown domain on their basis, they were given preferentially to the royal sons as fiefs (e.g. Austria and Styria in 1282, Bohemia in 1310, Brandenburg in 1323).

After the attempt by the Salian-Staufer monarchy to turn the imperial ministry into the personal basis of a future administrative elite had failed, the German (Roman) king of the late Middle Ages was no longer able to build up an efficient imperial administration that would have been able to collect the remaining imperial income and to oversee the execution of imperial laws and judgments of the royal court.

With the dignity of the emperor, the late medieval kingship also had the problematic tension with the papacy that had existed since Innocent III. claimed a right to consent to the election of a king (approbation), inherited. Even if the papal claims could be rejected in the end, these disputes also contributed to the weakening of imperial power.

After the deaths of the last Hohenstaufen king, Conrad IV (1254) and the anti-king William of Holland (1256), it was neither of the two elected candidates who did not emerge from the ranks of imperial princes, Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso Xof Castile and León, managed to rule in Germany (»Interregnum«). The princes gained strength at the expense of the monarchy, especially Ottokar II. Přemysl of Bohemia, who took Austria (1251), Styria (1260) and Carinthia to himself. Rudolf I von Habsburg (1273–91), an important count from the southwest but not an imperial prince, had to laboriously reconstruct the foundations of royal power.

Germany History - Late Middle Ages 1