GERMANY: CHARLES IV
When he heard of the death of Lewis, Charles was on the point of invading Bavaria with a large army. The loss of the Emperor was fatal to the Wittelsbach cause. Charles ravaged Bavaria, traversed Swabia, and passed down the Rhine to Mayence (Mainz), returning to Bohemia at the beginning of 1348. The Wittelsbach princes held out, and a few cities remained faithful to them. But nearly all the princes of South and Central Germany, and most of tire cities, had recognised Charles, and the north, which cared little who was king, acquiesced in his rule. His success, however, cost him heavily in gifts and concessions of all kinds.
Charles, now thirty-one years old, was not such a poor creature as the circumstances of his election might lead one to suppose. His boyhood had been mainly passed at the French court. As a youth he had for a time represented his father in Italy. Thence he had gone to Bohemia, where he became very popular and ruled with conspicuous wisdom and success. He had already, as the previous chapter shewed, taken a prominent part in the politics of Germany. He could speak and write Latin, French, German, Czech, and Italian with equal facility. He was thoroughly well versed in the arts of international diplomacy and the conditions under which it must be carried on. Few princes of that age had strong national prejudices, but Charles was conspicuously free from them.
Charles was not handsome. He had proved his courage and prowess in both real and mimic warfare, but his health was poor and he did not share his father’s love of fighting. He was simple in his tastes, and after a precocious scattering of wild oats, was austere in his private life. For a medieval king he was well educated, with a special interest in theology and jurisprudence. He wrote an autobiography of his early life, a treatise on Christian ethics, and a life of St Wenceslas, and his letters were much admired by learned contemporaries.
Charles was a careful administrator, a great advocate of order and system, and under him the chanceries of the Empire and the various parts of his territories were conducted with great efficiency, and many improvements in their organisation and routine introduced. Finance claimed much of his attention, and he gained a reputation for avarice. But if he was somewhat greedy after money, he was willing to spend it lavishly in pursuit of his political ends.
According to the standard of his age, Charles was a very religious man. He was devoted to the Church and punctilious in attendance at her services. His piety indeed merged into childish credulity and morbid superstition. He was an indefatigable and guileless collector of relics, of which he possessed an amazing variety. Future events, he believed, were frequently revealed to him in dreams.
Charles left behind him a high reputation as a diplomatist, and at various critical junctures he certainly showed much political judgment and address. Too often, however, he got out of a difficulty by buying off opposition without trying to overcome it, and in his eyes the authority and resources of the Empire were merely useful to bargain with. The tendency of modern historians has been to whitewash Charles; but when vindications of his treatment of Germany are scrutinised, they seldom amount to more than a demonstration that he might have done more harm than he did. Maximilian I described him as the most pestilent pest that ever afflicted Germany, and if this is an exaggeration, there is much truth in the famous epigram in which the same Emperor called Charles “arch-father of Bohemia, arch-stepfather of the Empire.”
Like Lewis, Charles regarded the advancement of the interests of his house as his main object, and, like Lewis, he had to begin his reign by quelling those who denied his title to the crown. He had, however, to encounter less powerful opposition than had confronted his predecessor. Still, even had the Wittelsbach princes been wholly without allies, their extensive lands would have made them formidable enemies. Lewis left six sons, three of whom were of mature age—Lewis of Brandenburg, Stephen, and a second Lewis, commonly called the Roman, apparently because he was born soon after his father’s return from Italy. Had they known their own minds, they might have given Charles much trouble. They could count on the support of the Wittelsbachs of the Palatinate, the Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg (who claimed the electoral vote of Saxony), and Henry, the deposed Archbishop of Mainz, who still held the temporalities of the see. But instead of promptly electing a German prince in opposition to Charles, they delayed till January 1348, and then offered the crown to Edward III of England. Charles, however, promised to allow his subjects to enlist in Edward’s service against France, and his envoy had little difficulty in persuading the English king to decline the invitation. Then the Wittelsbach brothers turned to their brother-in-law Frederick of Meissen, but Charles bought him off without much trouble.
Meanwhile luck had offered Charles an opportunity for embarrassing the Wittelsbachs without involving himself in costly and hazardous military undertakings. In 1348 there appeared an old man who claimed to be the Ascanian Margrave Waldemar of Brandenburg, supposed to have been in his grave for nearly thirty years. His story was that, being troubled in conscience because he and his wife were within the prohibited degrees, he had put about reports of his death, procured a corpse which was passed off as his own, and retired to the Holy Land, where he had since led an obscure existence. He was doubtless an impostor, but he had been well drilled in his part—by whom has never been discovered—and was evidently a plausible fellow. Many people sincerely believed in him; he was recognised by Waldemar’s kinsmen, the ruling family of Anhalt; and all enemies of the Margrave Lewis lent a credulous ear to his tale. On entering Brandenburg he was welcomed almost everywhere. Charles, having instituted an official enquiry by Rudolf of Saxe-Wittenberg and others who had known Waldemar personally, professed himself convinced by their verdict, and bestowed the Mark on the old man, who in his gratitude agreed that Charles might take possession of Lower Lusatia, a strong indication that he was not the real Waldemar.
The Wittelsbachs, now in dire straits, still lacked a candidate for the crown, and in their desperation the Electors of the party on 30 January 1349 chose Gunther of Schwarzburg, a brave but impecunious Thuringian count, who received acknowledgment only at Frankfort and in its immediate neighbourhood. Charles went with an army to the Rhine, bought a number of princes and cities, detached the Count Palatine from his kinsmen by proposing to marry his daughter, and after a little trivial fighting forced Gunther and his friends to accept the treaties of Eltville, which virtually ended the conflict for the crown. Charles treated his enemies with singular forbearance. Henry of Mainz, in defiance of the Pope, was allowed to retain his temporalities. The Wittelsbach family were confirmed in the possession of all their lands and rights, and the elder Lewis was expressly recognised as lord not only of Tyrol but also of Carinthia. Charles further promised to give no more aid to the alleged Waldemar, and to use his good offices with the Pope to obtain the removal of the excommunication under which the Wittelsbachs still lay. Gunther was consoled with cities and revenues in pledge, but died very soon afterwards. On the conclusion of the treaties, Henry of Mainz, the Count Palatine, and Lewis of Brandenburg announced that they now gave their votes to Charles, who, to render his title unassailable, had himself ceremonially placed on the altar of St Bartholomew’s at Frankfort, and was crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle by the Archbishop of Treves.
Lewis of Brandenburg, allying himself with Denmark, next began a vigorous attack on the pseudo-Waldemar. The princes who had previously recognised him now discovered timely reasons for doubt, and when he failed to answer a summons to prove his case before an assembly of princes and lords at Nuremberg, judgment was given against him. Charles renounced Lower Lusatia, and formally bestowed on the three Wittelsbach brothers Brandenburg, Lusatia, and the right to the electoral vote. It was several years before the opposition in the Mark was finally broken down, but in 1355 the Ascanian Counts of Anhalt, the most obstinate foes of the Wittelsbachs, made peace in consideration of an indemnity. They continued to hold the soi-disant Waldemar in honour, and when he died buried him among their ancestors at Dessau.
Meanwhile, from 1348 to 1351, Germany had shared with most other parts of Europe the calamities which attended the Black Death. Its approach from the east had occasioned a great persecution of the Jews, instigated in part by the Flagellants, a characteristic product of the fear which the impending catastrophe excited. The experiences of Germany under the pestilence did not differ in any notable particular from those of other countries, but it is worthy of remark that one or two regions, such as Bohemia and Eastern Franconia, enjoyed almost complete immunity.
After the peace of Eltville, Charles set his mind on going to Italy to receive the imperial crown. He soon found that there were serious obstacles in the way. Clement VI was annoyed because Charles, though always deferential to the Holy See and devoted to the Church, had shown an independent disposition in politics, having indeed encouraged the rebellious Henry of Mainz and made peace with the contumacious Wittelsbachs. Consequently, when Charles raised the question of a visit to Rome, Clement refused his consent, and it was not until he was succeeded by Innocent VI that cordial relations between Charles and the Papacy were restored. It was also necessary to compose discord in Germany before Charles could safely leave the country. Despite the treaty of Eltville, the sons of Lewis the Bavarian still nourished a grudge against him, and only the intervention of Albert of Habsburg prevented a renewal of civil war when in 1354 Charles pronounced that the electoral vote hitherto shared by Bavaria and the Rhenish Palatinate was in future to be exercised by the Palatinate only. In return, Charles tried to avert strife between Albert and the growing Swiss Confederation, and, when war nevertheless broke out, lent him military aid in his attack on Zurich. In 1353 he had begun a long progress through Germany with the object of establishing universal peace before his departure for Italy. Wherever he went he established landfrieden. He placated the Swabian cities, which eyed him with special suspicion, by giving them permission to defend themselves unitedly if their rights were attacked. He went as far as Metz, where no German king had been since the days of the Hohenstaufen, and, having handed over Luxemburg to his younger brother Wenceslas, evidently felt that Germany might be safely left. The course of his journey was marked by a trail of gifts, franchises, and royal prerogatives, which he had scattered abroad to purchase a period of quiet.
If Charles cared little for Germany, he set even less store on Italy. He had shown small interest when Rienzo went to Prague for the express purpose of persuading him to go to Rome; indeed he had imprisoned the demagogue and handed him over to the Pope. A letter from Petrarch with a similar invitation met with more politeness but no practical response. To Charles Italy was probably not worth the quarrel with the Pope that would certainly follow any attempt to assert his authority there. Still, there was some revenue to be got out of the cities of Lombardy and Tuscany, and the title of Emperor carried with it a certain prestige.
In September 1354 Charles left Nuremberg with a small escort, and, riding quickly through Salzburg to Udine, achieved his object of arriving on Italian soil unexpectedly. The details of his doings in Italy do not concern us here. He scrupulously observed the promises regarding Italy which he made at Avignon before his election as king. He was crowned Emperor at Rome by Cardinal Peter of Ostia, papal legate, on Easter Sunday 1355, entering and leaving the city that same day. Then he hurried back to Germany, towards the end of the journey riding even at night. He had raised considerable sums of money from the Italian cities, but had made himself a laughing-stock to the people. Lewis the Bavarian had stirred up indignation and hostility but never ridicule.
The Golden Bull
On his return, Charles resumed his efforts to establish peace in Germany. Neither the German kingdom nor the Holy Roman Empire possessed what can properly be termed a constitution. There were traditions, there were also imperial laws on miscellaneous subjects. These, however, were little known, for the royal and imperial records were not only imperfectly preserved but were scattered in various places, while the imperial enactments cited in the writings of jurists were so overlaid with glosses that it was hard to tell what was law and what was comment. Advocates of the Empire’s rights cited natural law, Aristotle, Scripture, the Fathers, the Civil Law, the facts of Roman History, or, like Marsilio, founded their case on some general political principle, but rarely appealed to any legislation or precedents subsequent to the time of Charles the Great. Their arguments and theories consequently were of little practical value to fourteenth-century Germany, a collection of virtually independent principalities and city-states. There was, it was true, no desire among Germans to abolish the office of king or of Emperor, for on one or other were based the powers and privileges enjoyed by the princes and the cities. But the Crown was fast becoming a legal fiction. Its authority, still theoretically great despite the lavish alienation of royal and imperial prerogatives by recent Emperors, was in practice commonly ignored. The German king was invested with supreme legislative authority over all his subjects; but the laws which he promulgated, with or without the concurrence of the Diet, were not much more than pious exhortations, for he had no means of enforcing them. The same might be said of judicial sentences of the royal court, to which appeals were still sometimes brought and disputes between princes submitted; the execution of the sentence, indeed, was generally left to the successful party. This lack of administrative power was mainly due to lack of money. The royal domains, which had belonged to the Crown whoever might wear it, had been lost during the reign of Frederick II and the Great Interregnum, and notwithstanding the efforts of later kings few had been recovered. The revenues still at the disposal of the Crown were scanty and uncertain.
The dues of the imperial cities made up a large part of the royal income, but were hard to collect without the good will of the contributors—a consideration which explains the remarkable favour displayed towards them by Lewis the Bavarian and other kings of the later Middle Ages. A certain amount was yielded by tolls, mines, the royal mint, and the Jews; but the kings can hardly be blamed for frequently succumbing to the temptation to gain some political end by the alienation or pawning of such insubstantial and unreliable resources. It is the poverty of the Crown which offers the best justification for the neglect by Lewis and Charles of their royal rights and for their absorption in the concerns of their families.
Charles IV had an orderly mind. For the Empire, as we have seen, he cared little, and indeed openly stated his opinion that it was an anachronism. The German crown, however, was an asset of some value, particularly because it carried with it the right to dispose of vacant fiefs. But facts must be recognised; it was idle to suppose that the Crown could aspire to attain in Germany the position it held in France. After all, the situation of the Luxemburg family was pleasant enough. Charles possessed in Bohemia a prosperous and compact realm of his own, and, having as yet no son, he had not the same motive as his predecessor to plot and scheme for the increase of his family’s possessions. Could not existing conditions be stabilised? Could not further disintegration be prevented, and occasions for civil strife diminished? Was it possible to find a powerful body or class of Germans who were satisfied or might easily be made satisfied with things as they were, and who would be interested to prevent change and disorder? Nothing could be hoped for from the Diet. Once it assembled, indeed, the king had great influence upon it, but the nobles attended reluctantly and irregularly, and at best it was a body of very divergent interests. On the other hand, the Electors had of late manifested a growing corporate spirit. They were a small manageable body and shared in common certain dominating ideas and ambitions. Everything pointed to them as the natural upholders of peace and order in Germany. Their number, functions, and duties must be defined; the powers they enjoyed in practice must be granted full recognition in law. Thus they might be ranged on the side of conservatism.
Of the existing Electors none was likely to raise factious opposition to Charles’ plans. Henry of Mainz was dead; Gerlach, now in unchallenged enjoyment of the see, was not a man of strong character. In 1354 Baldwin of Treves, who had held the archbishopric for forty-seven years, also died; his successor, Bohemund of Saarbrücken, was an elderly man of no great account and on good terms with the Emperor. William of Gennep, Archbishop of Cologne, a prelate of ability, was likewise well disposed towards Charles, and so was Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine. The chief causes of anxiety were the sons of Lewis the Bavarian and the rival claimants to the Saxon vote. It was essential to define precisely to whom the electoral vote belonged. In the days of Lewis, it had been agreed among the Wittelsbachs that their right should be exercised alternately by the Palatinate branch and the Bavarian branch. This arrangement did not commend itself to the Emperor, partly because it was generally taken for granted that the number of Electors must be strictly limited to the mystic seven, and partly because if the scheme was followed, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, being in possession of Brandenburg, would have two votes at the next election. Charles therefore, as has been mentioned, declared that the Count Palatine had the exclusive right to the original Wittelsbach vote. Luckily, Lewis the Roman and his brother Otto, joint-rulers of Brandenburg, were at this moment friendly to the Emperor, and though other members of the family protested, they were at variance among themselves and could be safely disregarded.
The Ascanian ducal house of Saxony had for long been split into the two hostile lines of Wittenberg and Lauenburg. The latter sprang from an elder brother, but was inferior to the former in territory, and its lands, moreover, had undergone subdivision. The Wittenberg line had consistently exercised its vote since the reign of Rudolf of Habsburg, and its head, Duke Rudolf, had voted for Charles in 1346. After weighing these considerations Charles gave his decision in favour of Saxe-Wittenberg, Duke Rudolf in return and for other compensation renouncing a troublesome claim to Brandenburg which might at any moment have caused war between him and the house of Wittelsbach.
Charles was thus fairly sure of his ground when in the winter of 1355-56 he met at Nuremberg a Diet, to which he had summoned an unusually large number of princes. His decisions on the doubtful points just mentioned were approved by the undisputed Electors. He announced his intention of creating a new and good currency, of reducing tolls and providing for the maintenance of peace on rivers and highways, and of introducing new regulations for the conduct of royal elections, with a view to reducing occasions of strife. He promulgated laws on the first two topics, but they were not of special account. The measure about elections, however, was of the highest moment. It was supplemented by several clauses published at a Diet held at Metz in December 1356, and the whole document is commonly known as the Golden Bull. This title was popularly given to it at an early date—why, is not clear, for the golden capsule impressed with the imperial seal was no peculiarity of the document but would be appended to any other emanating from the imperial chancery if the recipient was willing to pay for it.
The Golden Bull opens with a verbose and pompous preamble on the evils of discord, the purpose of the law being described as the cherishing of unity among the Electors, the securing of unanimous elections, and the avoidance of strife in general.
Much space is then devoted to the preliminaries of an election. All subjects of the Empire are to facilitate the passage of Electors to the place of meeting, and to each Elector are allotted certain princes, lords, and cities who shall be bound, if required, to furnish him with an adequate escort while he is passing through their territories. To avoid long vacancies of the throne, it is laid down that within one month after the death of an Emperor has been made known, the Archbishop of Mainz shall communicate the news to his fellow-Electors and summon them to choose a successor within three months, the election to be held at Frankfort-on-Main. Precautions against violence at elections are prescribed. No Elector may bring with him more than 200 mounted followers, of whom only fifty are to be armed men. Those who absent themselves and omit to send proxies shall forfeit their votes for the election concerned. The citizens of Frankfort, while the election is in progress, shall admit to the city no one except Electors and their attendants.
The clauses dealing with the election itself are less elaborate. On the day after the Electors have assembled, they shall hear a mass of the Holy Ghost in St Bartholomew’s Church, and each shall then swear that he will direct his full discretion and wisdom to the choice of one suitable to be King of the Romans and future Emperor, and that he will give his vote without any payment or reward or promise of such. The Electors shall not disperse until they have chosen someone, and if they fail to do so within thirty days they shall thenceforward be fed on bread and water. A majority vote shall constitute a valid election, which shall be deemed unanimous. The king-elect shall immediately confirm all the rights and dignities of the Electors.
A number of clauses deal with questions of the precedence to be enjoyed by the Electors in relation to one another and to other princes, and to the duties which each has to perform on formal or ceremonial occasions. An important clause lays down that during an interregnum the Empire shall be administered, under certain limitations, by the Count Palatine of the Rhine, save that, where Saxon law is followed, this function shall be performed by the Duke of Saxony. In the case of lay Electors, it is declared, the right to vote shall descend according to the rales of primogeniture and shall be heritable only by and through males. The principalities to which an electoral vote is attached are declared to be indivisible, and the vote to be inseparable from them. An electoral principality falling vacant shall be disposed of by the Emperor according to established custom, saving to the people of Bohemia the right to elect their king. The Electors shall have full right to all mines of metals or salt in their lands, and to the taxes payable by Jews for protection. They may coin and circulate gold and silver money. No subject of an Elector may sue or be sued, on appeal or otherwise, in any court outside his territories. Conspiracy against the life of an Elector is proclaimed high treason, and the children and accomplices of the plotters are to be visited with total or partial disinheritance. It is asserted to be desirable that the Electors should meet together more frequently than has been customary, in order to treat of the affairs of the Empire and the world. It is therefore ordained, on their advice, that they shall assemble four weeks after every Easter in some city of the Empire; this arrangement is to last, however, only as long as both Emperor and Electors approve. It is highly characteristic of Charles that he inserted an injunction that the sons of Electors should be taught Italian and Czech.
The Bull, furthermore, forbids the formation of conspiracies or leagues between the cities or subjects of the Empire, except such as have been established for the maintenance of public peace. Cities are not to receive Pfahlbürger, and civic privileges are to be enjoyed by none but bona fide residents. On the whole the document is dignified and impressive in tone, but there is one pitiable clause which lays down that challenges to private war shall not be valid unless notice be given three days before the opening of hostilities, while all “unjust” war, rapine, and robbery are sternly prohibited.
The Golden Bull was a measure of immense importance, which in the sixteenth century became recognised as a fundamental law of the Empire. To say with Bryce that Charles “legalised anarchy and called it a constitution” is brilliant but not history. There was no more anarchy in Germany after the Golden Bull than before, and if the Golden Bull did recognise the legality of private war within certain limits, it was the limits and not the legality that would seem remarkable to contemporaries. What Charles did was to acknowledge publicly the futility of pretending to revive the Roman Empire or even to maintain a strong centralised monarchy. The Golden Bull was an essay in Realpolitik. It was based on the assumption that Germany had ceased to be a unitary State, and it sought to make of the Electors a kind of Concert of Germany, whose business and interest it would be to preserve the status quo and compose the quarrels of other princes. Of this body the Emperor was to be the president and mouthpiece; but so great was the independence ascribed to the Electors in the Golden Bull that they were now in law as in fact rather his allies than his subjects. The plan of holding annual conferences, however, at once broke down, and it soon became evident that the Electors were still as restless and rebellious as other princes. One principal merit of the Bull was that it retarded the disintegration of the German principalities, which had been proceeding at a bewildering rate. It was not merely that electoral principalities were henceforth indivisible, but other princes gradually saw that, unless the subdivision of their estates was checked, their families would soon be of no account in comparison with the Electors. The Bull has earned much praise because from beginning to end there is no mention of the Pope. But though the need of papal confirmation of an elected king is nowhere admitted, it is nowhere repudiated, and there is nothing in the document which precludes it. The claim of the Papacy to the administration of the Empire during a vacancy is indeed implicitly rejected, but on the rights of the King of the Romans the Golden Bull is far less definite than the Declaration of Rense and the ordinance Licet iuris.
The Diet of Metz, at which the Golden Bull was published in its complete form, was a brilliant assembly. John of France had lately begged Charles for help against the English, and the Emperor had demanded the restoration of Verdun, Cambrai, and Vienne, and called upon John’s eldest son, who had inherited Dauphine in 1349, to do homage for this fief of the Empire. Before the Diet took place, the battle of Poitiers had been fought; King John was a prisoner, and the dauphin came to implore aid. The Pope had sent Cardinal Talleyrand de Périgord and the Abbot of Cluny to justify his recent demand of three tenths from the German clergy—an imposition which had aroused a storm of protest. The French prince having done homage, Charles formally enfeoffed him with the Dauphinate, and appointed him imperial vicar within its bounds, receiving in return rich presents and the promise of much money. For the relief of France, however, he did nothing, merely renewing an existing treaty with that country which contained only vague promises of mutual support. As for the Pope, Charles, after consulting the German bishops, offered him a sum much smaller than the yield of the taxes he had wished to levy, and with this Innocent was fain to be content. The Diet of Metz, which was accompanied by magnificent festivities, made a great impression on contemporaries, and certainly Charles appeared to better advantage on this occasion than he usually did when acting in his imperial capacity.
Rudolf Duke of Austria
Charles, however, was soon enmeshed once more in the petty politics of Germany. It was in his favour that the Wittelsbach brothers were losing ground through their incompetence, while in Holland the differences between Lewis the Bavarian’s widow and her son William had expanded into a war out of which was to grow the desolating feud of the “Hoeks” and the “Kabbeljaws.” But a new danger to the Emperor appeared from among the Habsburgs. In 1358 occurred the death of Duke Albert of Austria, who, though a cripple for many years, had directed the affairs of his house with great skill, shewing a moderate and statesmanlike temper. But his son and heir, Rudolf—a handsome and conceited young man, nineteen years old, and married to one of Charles’ daughters—had extravagant ambitions for the aggrandisement of Austria. It galled him that the Habsburgs did not belong to the sacrosanct aristocracy created by the Golden Bull, and he resolved to assert for his family a position to which not even an Elector could lay claim. He accordingly caused to be forged five documents purporting to emanate from earlier Emperors, one being ostensibly a confirmation by Henry IV of edicts issued in favour of Austria by Julius Caesar and Nero. The object was to prove that Austria was independent of the Empire and that the Habsburg lands were indivisible. The fraud was not badly executed, but Charles’ suspicions were apparently aroused by Julius Caesar and Nero, and he referred the documents to his friend Petrarch, who decisively condemned them. Rudolf, however, was but little abashed; and though when laid before the Diet his claims were rejected out of hand, he assumed a number of high- sounding titles on the strength of them, sought allies, and repulsed Charles’ characteristic efforts to placate him. The Emperor in fact had reluctantly to make war on the Count of Wurtemberg, who took up arms for Rudolf. On the defeat of his supporter, however, Rudolf gave in and received Charles’ pardon.
Soon afterwards the political outlook of Germany underwent a sudden change. In 1361 Charles’ third wife bore him a son, the future King Wenceslas. This disappointed the hope cherished by Rudolf that on the death of his father-in-law he would succeed to the Luxemburg lands and the German crown. His hostility to the Emperor consequently revived. Charles, on his part, had now a new incentive for increasing his power, and from this time his policy in Germany was less conciliatory and conservative than it had hitherto been.
In the same year died Lewis, the eldest of the Wittelsbach brothers, to be followed sixteen months later by his son and heir Meinhard, who had married a sister of Rudolf of Habsburg. Meinhard’s mother, Margaret Maultasch, handed over Tyrol to Rudolf, and retired to Vienna, where she died some years later. She left an unsavoury reputation for profligacy and ferocity. Both her husband and her son were believed to have been poisoned by her, but the unexpected deaths of prominent people were always ascribed to poison in the fourteenth century, and there seems to be no specific evidence of Margaret’s guilt or indeed any reason why she should have murdered either Lewis or Meinhard.
The surviving Wittelsbachs protested against Margaret’s action in surrendering Tyrol, but their mutual jealousies were fatal to the family fortunes. In 1363 Stephen, breaking an agreement, laid hands on Upper Bavaria, whereupon, to spite him, Lewis the Roman and Otto, the joint rulers of Brandenburg and Lusatia, announced that, should they both die without male issue, these lands were to fall to the house of Luxemburg. Both princes were young, and it seemed unlikely that the condition would be fulfilled; but Charles took their offer seriously, entered Brandenburg with an army, and by cajolery and threats induced the Estates to do him homage.
Charles might have secured Tyrol for his house as well, but Stephen of Wittelsbach was trying to win it by force, and the Emperor apparently did not think it worth fighting for. Instead, he used it to buy the friendship of Rudolf, who had lately formed a threatening alliance with Hungary and Poland. The bargain pleased Rudolf, and in February 1364 peace between the Luxemburgs, the Habsburgs, and Hungary was concluded at Brünn. The terms were of great moment for the future of Germany and indeed of Europe. It was agreed that on the failure of heirs, male and female, of Charles and his brother Wenceslas, all their lands should pass to the Habsburgs; while should descendants of Rudolf, his brothers and sister, and the royal house of Hungary be lacking, the Habsburg lands should go to the house of Luxemburg. Tyrol was formally granted to the Habsburgs, who held it, save for one brief interval, till 1918. After some years the Wittelsbachs renounced their pretensions to it for an indemnity and some territorial compensation. Rudolf did not enjoy his acquisition long, for in 1365 he died. He represents a type which appeared from time to time in the Habsburg family; but the resemblance often traced between him and the Emperor Joseph II is fanciful. He was succeeded by two brothers, both under age, and the Habsburgs were consequently dependent on Charles for the rest of his reign.
For some years after the treaty of Brünn Charles’ attention was largely given to ecclesiastical affairs. He had usually been on good terms with the German clergy, and had issued decrees safeguarding their privileges against encroachments by secular authorities. With Innocent VI, however, his relations had not always been happy. He had, as we have seen, given a passive support to the German clergy in their resistance to the Pope’s exorbitant demands for money, and he had urged on Innocent the need for reform in the German Church, hinting broadly that unless abuses were checked the secular princes would seize the Church’s temporalities. His reforming zeal, however, was not very deep, and when the Pope abandoned his opposition to the Golden Bull and shewed a conciliatory spirit on other questions at issue, Charles at once became ready to meet his wishes half way.
On Innocent’s death in 1362 he was succeeded by Urban V, who was eager to organise a crusade against the Turks, and for that reason and for fear of the Free Companies could not afford to quarrel with the Emperor. For his part, Charles was uneasy about Italy. Lewis of Hungary, whose interests clashed with his own at many points in Central Europe, was trying to make good a claim to Naples, and if he should succeed would become a very grave danger to the house of Luxemburg. Charles was therefore anxious to visit Italy and to persuade the Pope to return thither. Once the Emperor ceased to value his Italian crown, it was to his interest that the Pope should reside in Rome, removed from French domination, and in a position to frustrate the designs of princes whose establishment in Italy might result in trouble for the Emperor elsewhere. Urban himself was not ill-disposed to Charles’ suggestions; opposition to them came chiefly from the cardinals, though their affection for Avignon had been considerably cooled by the Free Companies.
In 1365 the Emperor visited Avignon, where his enthusiastic and ostentatious devotion to the Church caused some amusement. He promised to promote a crusade in which the Free Companies were to be employed and agreed to let them pass through Germany. The first consequence was that a united force of the companies broke into Alsace, murdering and ravishing up to the gates of Strasbourg. Charles, who was believed to have invited them, had to assemble a great army, which indeed forced them to withdraw, but inflicted on the Alsatians nearly as much harm as they. Fortunately for Germany, the Black Prince’s expedition to Spain tempted the mercenaries to other fields, and enabled Charles to evade his obligations to the Pope. As for the return of the Papacy to Rome, Urban shewed himself favourable to the project, and in fact proved better than his promises.
During his visit to the Pope, Charles tried to restore the almost vanished prestige of the Empire in the kingdom of Burgundy by having himself crowned at Arles. No one had received the Burgundian crown since Frederick Barbarossa; no one was to receive it after Charles. The coronation had only a ceremonial interest, though some modem German historians have written as if it indicated a real revival of imperial authority in the old Burgundian kingdom. As a matter of fact, French influence remained in the ascendant from one end of it to the other. To do him justice, Charles seems to have had no illusions about Burgundy, and after he had by diplomatic means tried to uphold a precarious influence there, he apparently lost heart, and one of his last acts was to bestow on the dauphin for life the imperial vicariate for the whole kingdom except the Savoyard lands.
Charles was now anxious to lead an expedition to Italy to prepare the way for the Pope. The princes, who had no intention of taking part in such an enterprise, were ready enough to approve; but the clergy, on whom Charles relied for money, and the cities, to whom he looked for men, responded to his demands reluctantly and sometimes flatly refused them. Times were bad in Germany, and a return of the Black Death, together with pestilence among cattle and disease among crops, made 1367 a year long remembered with horror. Thus, though Charles managed in the end to raise a sufficient force, he could not set out until Urban was already in Rome. His expedition did no good to his power or repute. His military operations against the Visconti failed; his subservience to the Pope while in Rome made him foolish in the eyes of the Romans; Urban, annoyed at not receiving more help from him, turned to his archenemy the King of Hungary; and though certain Italian cities paid him large sums of money in return for privileges or in hope of his speedy departure, this was but poor compensation for the general ill-success of the undertaking. Charles returned to Germany in 1369, Urban to Avignon in 1370. It was lucky for the Emperor that the Pope died immediately afterwards, for his successor Gregory XI was already a firm friend of Charles.
The acquisition of Brandenburg
Had Charles also died on his return from Italy, he would have gone down to history as one of the most unsuccessful rulers that Germany ever had. For the rest of his life, however, luck was on his side, and everything he took in hand prospered. He had three sons, Wenceslas, Sigismund, and John, and it behoved him to make provision for them, if possible without dividing his existing territories. In 1369, indeed, his prospects were gloomy. Suspicion of his designs for increasing the Luxemburg possessions had turned many princes against him. The Wittelsbachs had suddenly become formidable again, for the grandsons of Lewis the Bavarian were coming to the front. Two of them, Stephen and Frederick, sons of Duke Stephen of Upper Bavaria, had already made a reputation for bravery and resolution, while Frederick, who was a shrewd and ambitious politician, had associated himself with a powerful alliance hostile to the Emperor, to which belonged the Elector Palatine and the Archbishop of Mainz, whom Charles had offended, besides the Kings of Poland and Hungary. Further, Charles’ interests had suffered a blow in Brandenburg. After the death of Lewis the Roman in 1365, the feeble and impecunious Otto handed over to Charles the government of the Mark for six years; but during his absence in Italy the Brandenburg nobles, under the leadership of Klaus von Bismarck, had expelled the council which he had left in charge of the administration. On his return from Italy Charles demanded from Otto the renewal of the treaty of 1363, but at the instigation of his nephew Frederick he refused. The Emperor had resort to his usual diplomatic methods in order to divide the combination against him. In his difficulties he transgressed the Golden Bull by allying with certain Swabian cities; but his cause benefited more by the opportune deaths of the King of Poland and the Archbishop of Mainz than by any measures of his own. Meanwhile, Otto declared Frederick his heir, and prepared armed resistance with the aid of Hungary, whose king attacked Moravia. Charles accepted the challenge and invaded Brandenburg. But neither there nor on his eastern frontier was there fighting on a large scale. Taking advantage of a truce, Charles detached the King of Hungary from the alliance by suggesting a match between his son Sigismund and Lewis’ daughter Mary, and when the Emperor renewed the attack on the Mark, the two Wittelsbach princes had to struggle unaided not only against Charles but also against several neighbouring princes whom he had gained to his cause. They soon lost heart, and in August 1373 the treaty of Fürstenwalde gave Brandenburg to the house of Luxemburg. Charles as usual showed moderation in victory. Otto was allowed to retain for life the title and rights of an Elector, though these had been declared inseparable from possession of the Mark by the Golden Bull. Several cities and castles were handed over to him for the rest of his life, and he and his nephew received a vast sum of money, much of which was extorted from the cities of South Germany on the pretext that they had not furnished the Emperor with the aid due from them for the Brandenburg war. Otto went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and died in 1379.
Thus, of the lands which Lewis the Bavarian, at the cost of so much scheming and sacrifice, had acquired for his family, only the Netherland provinces remained in Wittelsbach hands, and these, ruled now and for long afterwards by Albert, Lewis’ fifth son, were detached from the main currents of German life and politics and added little to the influence of the Bavarian branch of the family, which now fell into the second rank of German princely houses.
Inspired by good fortune, Charles next embarked on a scheme which he might well have rejected as impossible—the election of his son Wenceslas as King of the Romans during his lifetime. The melancholy experiences of the Wittelsbachs shewed how desirable it was, in the interests of the Luxemburg family, that Wenceslas should succeed to the German throne; but it was most improbable that the Electors, whatever promises they might give while Charles was alive, would elect his son after he was dead. The Golden Bull had nothing to say about the election of a successor to a living Emperor, but the whole tenor of the document suggests that, to those who framed it, such a proceeding would have seemed highly irregular, if not positively illegal. At first sight, too, it looked as if the Electors were unpromising material for Charles’ machinations. Otto of Brandenburg, it is true, was at Charles’ mercy and the Elector of Saxony under his influence. The see of Mainz was again a prey to strife, but the archbishop recognised by the Pope and Charles belonged to the family of Wettin and was naturally disinclined to contribute to an increase of the already great power of the house of Luxemburg. The archbishopric of Trèves was ruled by Kuno von Falkenstein, an energetic and warlike prelate, who, putting the temporal interests of his see above everything else, was opposed to the exaltation of any princely family. He would doubtless determine the attitude of the Archbishop of Cologne, his nephew. As for the Elector Palatine, though he had done nothing to save his Wittelsbach kinsmen in the recent war, he had been the chief promoter of the league against the Emperor, and he and Charles had not been reconciled. Furthermore, the Pope was to be considered, and, friendly as he was to Charles, he was not likely to welcome the plan.
Nevertheless every Elector had his price, and Charles was prepared to pay it. Money changed hands, cities were pledged, imperial and royal rights were dissipated. There must have been much perjury when the Electors took the oath before the next election. Similar means were used to win over certain important princes outside the circle of Electors, whose good will it was important to gain.
Avignon, as was to be expected, proved hostile, but was outwitted by Charles. On being informed of Charles’ project, the cardinals counselled Gregory XI that he should not lose so good an opportunity of strengthening papal control over the Empire. The Pope therefore replied that everything done in the matter must be subject to papal approval, which could not be looked for unless Charles and Wenceslas repeated the promises made by the former in 1346. Charles led the Pope to believe that he would comply, but gave no formal undertaking. There the matter was left for about a year. Suddenly, in the spring of 1376, Gregory learned from the Emperor that the election of Wenceslas would take place in two months and would straightway be followed by his coronation. Charles had chosen his time well, for Italian affairs were going badly for the Papacy. The Curia could only threaten, and demand that the coronation of Wenceslas should not take place until his election had been confirmed by Gregory. Charles took care that the Pope’s messenger was present when he laid this request before the Electors, and warned him that the anger they displayed would be generally felt by the German magnates. Out of empty politeness to the Holy See, it was agreed to postpone the election for ten days, but on 10 June Wenceslas was elected at Frankfort. The Electors reported to Gregory what they had done, asked his favour for Wenceslas, and requested that he might in due course receive the imperial crown. Before an answer could come, he had been crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle.
Election of Wenceslas: its consequences
In view of the circumstances which attended it, the election of Wenceslas has been often celebrated as a great victory of the Empire over the Papacy. It appears, however, that the skill and resolution which Charles had undoubtedly shewn were due mainly to a fear lest concessions to the Papacy should alienate the dearly-purchased Electors. As soon as these had done their part, he threw away many of the fruits of victory, for Wenceslas agreed to confirm the oath taken by his father in 1346, and Charles consented to draw up a document, dated as written on the day of the election, in which he asked the Pope to approve of his son’s election during his own lifetime. To this Gregory returned a gracious reply, though it was his successor who pronounced the papal approbation.
Charles’ family policy had achieved an astonishing triumph, but the methods he had employed gave rise to unexpected trouble for himself and his successor. The cities of Germany had on the whole prospered since the beginning of the fourteenth century, and the Hanseatic League in the north was now a great political force and paid little regard to the Emperor. But the imperial cities of the south viewed Charles with much suspicion. He had supplanted their benefactor Lewis; he had lavished favours on princes, but to cities he had shown himself niggardly; clauses in his Golden Bull were specially directed against those leagues of cities for common defence which Lewis had actively encouraged; while Charles’ demands on the cities for men and money had been heavy, especially at the time of his second Italian expedition. In 1372 war broke out between the cities of a Swabian Landfriede, organised by the Emperor himself, and the knights of that region, who were aided by Eberhard, Count of Wurtemberg. The war went against the cities, but as Charles happened to visit the disturbed area while it was in progress, the issue was referred to his judgment. His verdict was on the whole favourable to the cities, yet he demanded from them large sums in expiation of alleged breaches of the terms of their agreement with him and for the promotion of the war in Brandenburg. Later, as was mentioned above, they were further mulcted to pay the indemnity which Charles gave to the Wittelsbachs.
The news of the Emperor’s negotiations with a view to the election of Wenceslas filled the cities with alarm. They expected, and rightly, that many of them would be given to princes as security for the payment of large sums of money—a fate which often meant the permanent loss of direct relationship with the Emperor and subjection to a lord who could make his authority effective. Soon after Wenceslas’ election, therefore, fourteen Swabian cities formed a league for mutual defence against anyone who should threaten them with fresh taxation, grant them in pledge, or otherwise derogate from their status. They demanded a guarantee of inviolability from the Emperor, but Charles, with unwonted truculence, laid them under the imperial ban, and, supported by a number of princes, attacked Ulm with a strong force. After being ignominiously repulsed, he abandoned the conduct of the war to the princes of South Germany; but these fared no better, and in 1377 Ulrich, son of the Count of Wurtemberg, was defeated by the league at the famous battle of Reutlingen. Wenceslas, appointed imperial vicegerent, then made peace at Rotenburg on behalf of his father, the cities receiving guarantees against being given in pledge, and permission, notwithstanding the Golden Bull, to unite for defence. Next year the war between the league and Wurtemberg was ended by Charles to the advantage of the cities. These successes naturally gained for the league much prestige and many new members, but its later history belongs to the reign of Wenceslas.
Charles’ lack of vigour in the war was perhaps due to the exceptionally bad health from which he was suffering. After a visit to Paris in the hope of arranging a marriage between Sigismund and the heiress to the county of Burgundy, he turned his mind to the disposal of the family possessions. For his third son John he created the duchy of Gorlitz in Lusatia and allotted to him also the Neumark, an appendage of Brandenburg. The last he bequeathed to Sigismund, regardless of a promise to the Estates of the Mark that it should be for ever united to Bohemia. The rest of the lands over which he had ruled went to Wenceslas. Charles has been blamed for making this division, but it is to be remembered that, except for the small duchy of Gorlitz, the lands given to his younger sons had been acquired by himself, and that his efforts to secure them had probably been dictated by a desire to provide for his children without destroying the territorial importance of his house.
Charles died at Prague on 29 November 1378. His character and policy have been the theme of controversy from his own time to now, and may best be considered in connexion with a survey of his rule in Bohemia. That he did grave harm to the Empire and the German Crown can hardly be disputed, and if the Golden Bull in the long run proved beneficial to Germany, the credit which Charles deserves as its author is gravely impaired by the offences against its provisions which he himself committed.