The Habsburg Empire
The two decades of anarchy known as the “Great Interregnum” (1254-1273) leave Germany in political ruins. It is the “terrible time without an emperor” – or as the Germans word it, die kaiserlose, schreckliche Zeit.
A new period of German history begins when the German princes assemble at Frankfurt in the early autumn of 1273 and elect a Swiss count as German king. He is Rudolf of Habsburg.
Three weeks later on October 24, 1273 Rudolf is crowned at the city of Aachen, Charlemagne’s old capital. Later the following year he is recognized by Pope Gregory X.
Rudolf is the first Habsburg to hold the office of Holy Roman Emperor, though French influence in Rome prevents him from being officially crowned such by the Pope. Rudolf rebuilds Germany from the ruins left by the Great Interregnum. He suppresses the lawless robber knights at home and restores German prestige abroad. He also consolidates and adds to Habsburg ancestral lands, laying a solid foundation for future Habsburg greatness.
The major development in this regard comes in 1278, when Rudolf drives the non-Germans Ottocar, king of Bohemia from Austria. This victory establishes the Habsburg dynasty, which emerges as one of the most powerful of the German states. It will become the territorial nucleus of future Habsburg power.
Rudolf I of Habsburg dies in July 1291. The German Imperial Election – Germans princes who take part in choosing the Emperor are concerned over the rapid rise of the Habsburg. They therefore refuse to recognize the claims of Rudolf’s son, and instead recognize Adolf of Nassau as king of Germany.
A century and a half will pass before the next Habsburg sits on the imperial throne. Meanwhile, in 1355, Charles IV of Luxembourg (now the German king and king of Bohemia) receives the crown of the Holy Roman Empire in Rome. In an effort to check growing political disorder, he issues the following year an imperial edict known as the “Golden Bull.”
This document spells out a precise procedure for the election and coronation of a German king. Seven German nobles – including the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg and the archbishop of Trier will henceforth determine who is to be king of the Germans. Election is to be my majority vote.
The Golden Bull become the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and will remain its fundamental law for 4 ˝ centuries, until 1806.
Things have deteriorated rapidly since the pontificate of Innocent III, when the Church seemed unassailable in its prestige and power.
Some years before the Golden Bull, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) had sensed a rising national consciousness and development of a new type of secular authority in Western Europe. He realized this could be dangerous to the Church and attempted to reassert Papal power over the new forces of nationalism. His bull Clercis Laicos (1296) forbade kings, under the penalty of excommunication, to tax the clergy without Rome’s consent. In another bull, Unam Sanctum (1302), Boniface asserted that to obtain salvation, every man must be subject to Rome. In the same document, he declared the supremacy of the Pope over all kings:
“Both swords, the spiritual and the material, are in the power of the Church; the one to be wielded for the Church, the other by the Church; the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and knights, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. One sword, moreover, ought to be under the other and the temporal authority to be subjected to the spiritual.”
But this vigorous assertion of Papal power and rights comes too late. By the end of Boniface’s’ reign, the Papacy is no longer able to withstand the growing independence in the secular realm. Unam Sanctum receives violent opposition from many quarters; most notably form Philip the Fair of France. In a letter to Boniface, the French king dares to refer to the pontiff as “Your Supreme Foolishness.”
The Papacy is on a downward slide. With each passing year, it becomes clearer to all that the days when the Papacy could command are gone. Now it can only influence and advice.
Because of the unsetting political conditions in Rome, Pope Clement V (1305-1314) takes up residence at the city of Avignon, a Papal possession in France, in 1305. There he is subject to powerful French influence.
For just more than 70 years from 1305to 1377 the Popes remain in Avignon. The Papacy becomes a tool of the French court. This period will be called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Church an allusion to the 70 year exile of the Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.
The loss of Papal prestige is enormous. Leadership in Europe has clearly passed from the Pope to secular rulers. The German princes believe that Rome is the only rightful capital for the Church. Finally, in 1377, Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) returns to Rome from Avignon, ending the “Babylonian Captivity.” He dies the next year.
Urban VI, an Italian is elected as Pope by popular demand in 1378. But French cardinals hold that the election of Urban is invalid because of outside pressure on the voters. A Frenchman, Clement VII, is elected Pope and rules from French-dominated Avignon.
There are now two Popes! Each excommunicates the other as the “Antichrist.” The states of Europe support one or the other according to political considerations.
The Papacy is rent asunder. Each section of Christendom declares the other “lost.” Many are uncertain which claimant actually possesses Papal authority. For nearly four decades, Western Christendom is divided. History will refer to the situation as the “Western Schism” (or “Great Schism”).
Neither Pope will abdicate. Neither will arbitrate differences. In 1409, cardinals from both camps meet at the Council of Pisa. They seek to end the schism by deposing both pontiffs and electing a third man, Alexander V. But the two “deposed” Popes refuse to resign.
Now there are three claimants to the Papal chair! This intolerable situation is finally rectified in 1417. The Council of Constance deposes the three rival Popes and unanimously elects Pope Martin V. The Great Schism is ended, but the Papacy has suffered irreparable loss of prestige.
By the 15th century, Germany is a jumble of virtually independent duchies, archduchies, margravates, counties and free cities – collectively known as “the Germanies.” There is no real “Germany” in a unified sense. The German king reigns, but does little ruling. Otto the Great had started Germany on the way to becoming a strong, unified state, but it did not work out as he had planned.
During the decades of trial for Western Europe and the Church, an influential family has been working quietly behind the scenes. It has added to its ancestral land holding and consolidated its power base. It is now ready to make its influence felt. That family is the House of Habsburg.
Having been held by members of the House of Luxembourg from 1347 to 1437, the German imperial crown now comes again into the possession of the Habsburg. In 1438, the Habsburg Albert II of Austria is made king of Germany. He is recognized as Holy Roman Emperor, but is not crowned. Henceforth, the imperial title will be hereditary in the Habsburg family. The House of Habsburg is on its way to becoming the most potent political force in Europe.
In 1440, Frederick III, a cousin of the now-deceased Albert II, is named German king. A dozen years later he is crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by the Pope. He will be the last Emperor to be crowned in that city. The deteriorating position of Rome in European affairs is thus further highlighted.
Frederick III has a mysterious royal monogram: the vowels of the alphabet (A.E.I.O.U.). Its meaning? They are the first letters of the words Austriae est imperare orbi universe – “All the world is subject to Austria.” The House of Austria – the Habsburg dynasty has indeed set high goals!
Maximilian I of Habsburg, son of Frederick III, becomes Emperor in 1493. He envisions himself as a new Constantine. His mission is to save Christendom from the scourge of the Turks.
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks under Mohammed the Conqueror had captured Byzantium (Constantinople), ending the Eastern Roman Empire. After centuries of decline, the last vestige of the Roman Empire in the East is gone. Many historians will later regard 1453 as the ending date for the Middle Ages.
By a calculated policy of dynastic marriages, the Habsburgs strengthen and enlarge their power. The marriage of Maximilian to Mary of Burgundy, heiress of the Netherlands, adds the Dutch kingdom to the Habsburg domains.
A son of this marriage, Philip, later marries Joanna (Juana), daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Juan, the only son of Ferdinand and Isabella, marries Maximilian’s daughter Margaret, linking Castile and Aragon in Spain with Austria.
It is now the year 1500. A son is born to Joanna and Philip. They name him Charles. To history, he will be Charles V – greatest of Habsburg emperors. Charles is elected king of Germany in 1519, following the death of his grandfather Maximilian. He is crowned at Aachen in October 1520. At the same time he assumes the title of Roman Emperor-elect. But he is not immediately crowned Holy Roman Emperor. That event will not come for another decade.
In the person of Charles the Spanish dominions are united with the Habsburg possession in the Netherlands, Austria and elsewhere in Europe. Never has any monarch so many possessions! Charles has more than 60 royal and princely titles, including king of Germany, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, king of Castile and Aragon, king of Hungary – to name just a few.
Spain is, in itself, an empire – a global empire, with colonial territories even in the New World. The Empire of Charles V stretches from Vienna to Peru! Charles declares, “In my realm, the sun never sets.” And it is so! The Habsburgs’ holdings constitute the world’s first truly great modern empire. Many observers begin to believe that the growth of sovereign nation states might be halted, and a universal Christian empire achieved in Europe! But other forces are already at work that will ultimately thwart this Habsburg dream.
The spirit of the Middle Ages has been one of faith and devotion to institutions. The individual has not been considered very important in the vast scheme of things. But now a change is in the wind. A movement had begun in 14th century Italy known to history as the Renaissance (“rebirth”). It is a great reawakening of interest in the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. It is marked by a flowering of the arts, a turning toward an appreciation of worldly things and a lively interest in secular affairs.
Man is now growing conscious of his own importance. The present world, rather than the “next world,” is becoming the chief concern.
The Renaissance brings a new spirit – a spirit – a “pagan” spirit, as some contemporary critics describe it. It is a questioning and critical spirit, a spirit of skepticism. Not surprisingly, this new spirit spawns a revolt against time-honored institutions, including the Church. The Church’s ideals no longer command the same respect among the population at large.
The personal lives of the Popes of this period don’t help the situation. Renaissance Popes such as Alexander VI (1492-1503) formerly Rodrigo Borgia of the noted Borgia family lead corrupt lives, neglecting affairs of the Church in pursuit of personal pleasures.
The critical spirit of the Renaissance spreads from Italy northward to the German universities. There, discontent with ecclesiastical corruption and immorality grows rapidly. And there, early in the 16th century, religious dissidents finally find a champion.
In 1511, a German monk and educator named Martin Luther makes a pilgrimage to Rome. He is appalled at the corruption and vice he finds so openly practiced there. He has often heard the popular proverbs, “If there is a hell, Rome is built over it.” Now he believes it. After his return to Germany, Luther is further disturbed by the practice of selling Papal indulgences, or pardons for sin. The profitable selling of indulgences has become big business in many parts of Europe.
On October 31, 1517, Luther mails a document to the door of the court church at Wittenberg, Germany. On it are his “Ninety-five Theses” in criticism of selling Papal indulgences. The documents are forwarded to Rome. In June 1520, Pope Leo X issues a Papal bull criticizing Luther’s teachings.
On December 10, 1520, Luther publicly burns the Papal bull. An ecclesiastical revolution to be known as the Protestant Reformation is now in full swing! It will spread like wildfire over Germany and beyond.
Luther is excommunicated in January 152. Soon afterward, he is summoned by Emperor Charles V, a devout Catholic, to appear for a hearing before the Diet (assemble) of Worms, a German city on the Rhine. But it is already too late to arrest the movement. The assembly settles nothing. Luther refuses to recant – and Charles declares war on the protestors.
German Protestantism gains rapid headway. Many German states sever themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. In 1531, the Lutheran princes within Charles’ Empire establish a defensive alliance known as the Schmalkaldic League. A threatened invasion by the Turks prevents Charles from taking immediate action against these “heretic Lutherans. By 1540, all North German y is Lutheran.
Luther has demolished the old order. The religious unity of Europe is destroyed! Nations begin to go their separate ways. The Reformation destroys the meaning of the office of Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor now becomes the head of one party, the Catholics. Though the outward form of the Holy Roman Empire will continue for some centuries, it is never the same again.
The political as well as the spiritual muscle of the Papacy is eroded. To counteract the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church organizes the “Counter-Reformation.” The Council of Trent (1545-63) decrees a thorough reform of the Church and clarifies Catholic doctrine. These efforts eliminate many of the abuses that had triggered the Protestant Reformation, and revitalize the Church in many part of Europe.
But the Church has plummeted far from the zenith of its power, when Papal authority was felt and feared in every country in Europe.”The wars of religion and the collapse of church unity marked the end of theology as the decisive force in Western civilization,” a West German political figure, Franz Josef Strauss, will observe centuries later.
In the meantime, a rather complicated situation has developed in the political arena. Geopolitical events in the early 16th century revolve around four powerful monarchs: Emperor Charles V, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Suleiman of Turkey.
In the same year Charles was crowned at Aachen (1520), a new Turkish sultan had ascended the throne in Constantinople – Suleiman, known to Turkish history as “the Magnificent.” The Ottoman Turks now control the eastern Mediterranean and are viewed as a menace to Christian Europe.
But the main foe of the Habsburgs is France. France has emerged as a major continental power and an aggressive antagonist of the German empire. Habsburg power all but surrounds France. In response, Francis I allies himself with the Islamic Turks and German Protestants, despite the fact that he is a French Catholic king.
In England, Henry VIII seeks to maintain the balance of power to prevent the domination of Europe by either the Habsburgs or France. He shifts his supports from side to side as circumstances require, equalizing the power of the continental rivals.
In 1525, a defensive alliance is created to check growing Habsburg power. It is the Holy League of Cognac, made up of France, the Papal States, Rome and Venice. England supports the new league.
Early in 1527, mutinous troops of Charles V march against the Pope. They enter the defenseless city of Rome and plunder it. This is the infamous sacco di Roma – the Sack of Rome. The Pope, Clement VII, surrenders. The Pope is ready for a compromise, he makes peace with Charles, and meets with him in Bologna in February 1530.There, Pope Clement crowns Charles Holy Roman Emperor. This is the last time that a Holy Roman Emperor will be crowned by a Pope.
Charles believes the Emperor must be supreme if there is to be real peace. But the imperial title is not what it used to be. The Empire has more shadow than substance.
Charles’ globe-girdling Empire is united only in the sense that it has a common personal ruler. The nation-state is on the rise, and the Empire is torn religiously. Charles is opposed by princes whose own power is stronger when the Emperor is weak.
The very extent of Charles’ vast realm is in itself a drawback. There are too many problems in too many places. The political situation is dire. In 1546, open civil war erupts between the Schmalkaldic League and Catholic forces led by Charles. The imperial armies score a victory over the League at Muhlberg in April 1547. But a new war breaks out in 1551. It wears on for four years.
In September 1555, the Peace of Augsburg ends the hostilities. This compromise officially sanctions the Lutheran faith in the Empire. Now, the two opposing Christian religious communities can lawfully live together within the Holy Roman Empire side by side. The princes of the territories of the Empire can choose between Lutheranism or Catholicism, each prince’s choice being made obligatory for his subjects. Charles’ dream of restoring religious unity throughout his dominions has been thwarted. And by further entrenching the power of the princes, the Augsburg settlement reinforces the decentralization of the Germanies.
Disappointed in his ambitions and ill of health, Charles V abdicates and retires to a monastery in August 1556. He turns over the rule of Spain, the Netherlands and Italian holdings to his son Philip II. To his brother Ferdinand goes the imperial office and Habsburg lands in central Europe.
After 35 years’ rule, Charles – the last universal Emperor of the West steps aside. Historians will consider him to have been the greatest monarch to bear the imperial crown since Charlemagne. He dies September 21, 1558.
Charles V was the last Emperor to actively attempt to realize the medieval ideal of a unified Empire embracing the entire Christian world. Inspired by the concept of a spiritually and politically united Christian realm, he had fought vigorously for a united Church.
More than four centuries after the death of Charles, a 20th century descendant – Otto von Habsburg will write a biography of his illustrious ancestor. Dr. Habsburg will observe that “he (Charles V) was attempting not to conquer or to dominate but to establish the nations in a free community of equal partners. His ultimate aim was to create an alliance of peoples who, while retaining their own individual characteristics and laws, would be linked together by a united Church and a common desire to defend the west.”
Dr. Habsburg will also note: “The ideas coming to the surface in this, the second half of the twentieth century, are surprisingly allied to those problems and concepts which preoccupied Charles. Together with ecumenicity (the movement promoting Christian unity), European unity has become the major issue of our time. The notion of a united Europe is taking hold again. People are once again beginning to appreciate that religion and politics are indeed interdependent.”
In assessing the role of Charles V, Dr. Habsburg will observe: “Thus Charles V, once regarded as the last fighter in a rearguard action, is suddenly seen to have been a forerunner. Our generation will find its historical inspiration in the concepts last embodied in the person, mind and political views of Charles V.
“Inasmuch as he represents an eternal ideal, the Emperor (Charles V), after more than five centuries, is still living among us, not only as our European ancestor, but as a guide towards the centuries to come.”