Habsburg Dynasty

History of Germany between 1255 - 1516

For almost twenty years after the death of Conrad IV in 1254, the German princes fail to elect any effective king or emperor. This period is usually known (with a grandiloquence to match the Great Schism in the papacy) as the Great Interregnum. It ended with the election of Rudolf I as German king in 1273. The choice subsequently seems of great significance, because he was the first Habsburg on the German throne. During the next century the electors choose kings from several families.

Charles IV was crowned emperor in Rome in 1355. He made his capital in Prague (he has inherited Bohemia as well as Luxembourg), bringing the city its first period of glory. The imperial dignity remained in Charles's family until 1438, when it is transferred again to the Habsburgs. The real ascendancy of the Habsburgs began when Frederick V, the king of Germany from 1440, was crowned Holy Roman emperor as Frederick III in 1452. The Habsburgs married their way to the power. They began with Austria and then married the princesses from Netherlands, Burgundy, the duchy of Milan, Sicily and finally Spain merging countries under their power including all dominions on the American continent. The highpoint of Habsburg power came under Charles V (1500-58) who ruled over an empire over which the sun never set.

In 1356 Charles IV issues the "Golden Bull" which clarified the new identity which the Holy Roman empire had gradually adopted. It ended papal involvement in the election of a German king, by the simple means of denying Rome's right to approve or reject the electors' choice. The Golden Bull also clarified and formalized the process of election of a German king. The choice was traditionally been in the hands of seven electors, but their identity has varied. In return, by a separate agreement with the pope, Charles abandoned imperial claims in Italy - apart from a title to the kingdom of Lombardy, inherited from Charlemagne.

Imperial Cities

The fragmented political structure of Germany had certain advantages for the larger German towns. An elected emperor often found it difficult to control virtually independent territories, held by hereditary nobles or by dignitaries of the church. In such circumstances there may had a natural alliance between the emperor and the citizens of a prosperous borough - who frequently had their own grudge against their local feudal overlord. The rich burghers were able to help the emperor with funds or troops for his armies and he was able help burghers with privileges to protect their trade. Gradually, over the centuries, a premier league of German cities began to emerge. Such cities ran their own affairs and make alliances among themselves for mutual benefit, even put armies into the field to enforce their interests. Each of them was ran by a Rat, or council, membership of which is often limited to the leading local families. Imperial cities were inclined to group together in large trading alliances - of which the Hanseatic League is the best known example. A document of 1422 lists 75 free German cities. They included many of the most distinguished places in early German history - Aachen, Cologne, Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Dortmund, Frankfurt am Main, Regensburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm. From 1489 all the free cities were formally represented in the imperial diet.

The Hanseatic League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns (like Lübeck, Rostock and Wismar). It dominated Baltic maritime trade (c. 1400-1800) along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period.

Population and Economy

Around 1350 Germany and almost the whole of Europe were ravaged by the Black Death. Jews were persecuted on religious and economic grounds; many fled to Poland. The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60 percent of Europe's population in the 14th century. After the plague and other disasters of the 14th century, the early-modern European society gradually came into being as a result of economic, religious, and political changes. A money economy arose which provoked social discontent among knights and peasants. Gradually, a proto-capitalistic system evolved out of feudalism. The Fugger family gained prominence through commercial and financial activities and became financiers to both ecclesiastical and secular rulers. The knightly classes found their monopoly on arms and military skill undermined by the introduction of mercenary armies and foot soldiers. Predatory activity by "robber knights" became common.

During his reign from 1493 to 1519, Maximilian I tried to reform the Empire. An Imperial supreme court was established, imperial taxes were levied, and the power of the Imperial Diet was increased. The reforms, however, were frustrated by the continued territorial fragmentation of the Empire.

References: Wikipedia, Historyworld.net, Hyperhistory.com

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Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Broch of Gurness

The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age broch village. Settlement here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it. It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.

The remains of the central tower are up to 3.6 metres high, and the stone walls are up to 4.1 metres thick.