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.
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.
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.
Wawel Hill – a Jurassic limestone rock, a dominant feature in the landscape of Kraków, have provided a safe haven for people who have settled here since the Paleolithic Age. It is supposed that the Slav people started living on Wawel hill as early as the 7th century. Early medieval legends tell stories about a dreadful dragon that lived in a cave on Wawel Hill, about his slayer Krakus, and about the latter’s daughter Wanda, who drowned herself in the Vistula rather than marry a German knight. Towards the end of the first millennium A.D Wawel began to play the role of the centre of political power.In the 9th century it became the principal fortified castrum of the Vislane tribe. The first historical ruler of Poland, Miesco I (c.965-992) of the Piast dynasty as well as his successors: Boleslas the Brave (992-1025) and Miesco II (1025-1034) chose Wawel Hill as one of their residences.
At that time Wawel became one of the main Polish centres of Christianity. The first early Romanesque and Romanesque sacral buildings were raised here, including a stone cathedral that was erected after the bishopric of Kraków was established in the year 1000.
During the reign of Casimir the Restorer (1034-1058) Wawel became a significant political and administrative centre for the Polish State. Casimir’s son, Boleslas the Bold (1058-1079) began the construction of a second Romanesque cathedral, which was finished by Boleslas the Wrymouth (1102-1138). In his last will of 1138, this prince divided Poland into districts, and provided that Kraków was to be the residence of the senior prince. In 1291 the city of Kraków along with Wawel Hill temporarily fell under the Czech rule, and Wenceslas II from the Premysl dynasty was crowned King of Poland in Wawel cathedral.
In 1306 the Duke of Kuyavia Ladislas the Short (1306-1333) entered Wawel and was crowned King of Poland in the Cathedral in 1320. It was the first historically recorded coronation of a Polish ruler on Wawel Hill. Around that time, at the initiative of Ladislas the Short, the construction of the third Gothic cathedral began, the castle was expanded and the old wooden and earthen fortifications were replaced by brick ones. The tomb of Ladislas the Short in the cathedral started a royal necropolis of Polish kings in Krakow.The last descendant of the Piast dynasty, Casimir the Great (1333-1370) brought Wawel to a state of unprecedented splendour. In 1364 the expanded gothic castle witnessed the marriage of Casimir’s granddaughter Elizabeth to Charles IV accompanied by a famous convention of kings and princes, subsequently entertained by a rich burgher Wierzynek. The accession to the throne in 1385 of Jadwiga from the Hungarian dynasty of Andegavens, and her marriage to a Lithuanian prince Ladislas Jagiello (1386-1434) started another era of prosperity for Wawel. The royal court employed local and western European artists and also Rus painters. During the reign of Casimir Jagiellon (1447-1492) the silhouette of the hill was enriched by three high brick towers: the Thieves’ Tower, the Sandomierz Tower and the Senatorial Tower. The first humanists in Poland and tutors to the king’s sons: historian Jan Długosz and an Italian by the name Filippo Buonacorsi (also known as Callimachus) worked there at that time.
The Italian Renaissance arrived at Wawel in the early 16th century. King Alexander (1501-1506) and his brother Sigismund I the Old (1506-1548) commissioned the construction of a new palace in place of the Gothic residence, with an impressive large courtyard with arcaded galleries which was completed about 1540. Sigismund’s patronage also left an indelible impression in the cathedral, where a family chapel was erected, known today as Sigismund’s Chapel - the work of Bartolomeo of Berrecci Florence, and through various foundations, one of which was that of a large bell, called the Sigismund to commemorate the king. Close artistic and cultural relations with Italy were strengthened in 1518 by the king’s marriage to Bona Sforza. Alongside Italian artists, German architects, wood workers, painters and metal smiths worked for the king. The last descendant of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Sigismund II Augustus (1548-1572), enriched the castle’s interiors with a magnificent collection of tapestries woven in Brussels. In the “Golden Age” of Polish culture Wawel became one of the main centres of humanism in Europe.
The reign of Sigismund III Waza (1587-1632) also made a strong impression on the history of Wawel. After a fire in the castle in 1595 the king rebuilt the burned wing of the building in the early Baroque style. The relocation of the royal court to Warsaw was the cause of a slow but nevertheless steady deterioration in the castle’s condition. The monarchs visited Kraków only occasionally. Restoration of the castle was undertaken during the reign of John III Sobieski, the Wettins and Stanislas Augustus to counteract neglect.
After Poland had lost its independence in 1795, the troops of partitioning nations, Russia, Prussia and Austria, subsequently occupied Wawel which finally passed into the hands of the Austrians. The new owners converted the castle and some of the secular buildings into a military hospital, and demolished some others, including churches. After the period of the Free City of Kraków (1815-1846) Wawel was once more annexed by Austria and turned into a citadel dominating the city. By the resolution passed by the Seym of Galicia in 1880, the castle was presented as a residence to the Emperor of Austria Franz Josef I. The Austrian troops left the hill between 1905-1911. At the turn of the 20th century a thorough restoration of the cathedral was conducted, and shortly afterwards a process of restoration of the royal castle began which lasted several decades.
When Poland regained its independence in 1918, the castle served as an official residence of the Head of State, and as a museum of historic interiors. During the Nazi occupation the castle was the residence of the German governor general, Hans Frank. Polish people managed to remove the most valuable objects, including the tapestries and the “Szczerbiec” coronation sword to Canada, from where they returned as late as 1959-1961. At present, the main curators of Wawel are Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection and the Metropolitan Basilica Board on Wawel Hill.