Sunday, May 1, 2016

Birthday Greetings # 57

Happy birthday to Rudolf I, King of the Romans.  Just to be clear on this, the title "King of the Romans" didn't mean Rudolf was the king of Rome.  In fact he never even visited the place.  It was actually the courtesy title given to the German ruler elected as Holy Roman Emperor until such times as the Pope saw fit to make it official by dropping a crown on his head.  Just to be clear on this, the title "Holy Roman Emperor" didn't mean Rudolf would have been emperor of Rome, in fact he never even visited the place.  Holy Roman Emperor was actually a title originally given to a Frenchman (who did at least visit Rome) which through a series of political and dynastic eventualities too tortuous to go into in great length wound up being bestowed on the person who was actually the ruler of Germany.  Just to be clear on this, the titles "King of the Romans" and "Holy Roman Emperor" didn't actually mean you ruled Germany either although it was probably fair to say that you had got closer than anyone else alive at the time.

Officially the Pope would crown the King of the Romans who would thus become the Holy Roman Emperor.  But sometimes the Pope was busy, or mad or actively engaged in a war with the person that the princes of the Empire had seen fit to honour with the title.  Also the emperor had to be crowned in Rome and Rome was a long way away, the climate was foul, the population barely less so and most Kings of the Romans tended to find themselves with more pressing business on their own doorsteps.  As such quite a few of them went to the grave without the coronation that would make their august title official, no doubt with a vague sense of incompleteness.  Eventually they quite sensibly cut the pope out of the proceedings entirely and had themselves crowned emperor in Germany which was conveniently located and, unlike Rome, a place where not absolutely everybody wanted the emperor dead.

Rudolf (remember him, I got a little sidetracked with the vagaries of imperial investiture) was the very first member of the Habsburg family to gain the title and he laid the foundations for future Habsburg power.  Rudolf started life as the Count of Habsburg (well actually he started life as the son of the Count of Habsburg but mortality rates being what they were in the thirteenth century this need not trouble us too much) and his subsequent career is pretty much a lesson in medieval social climbing.  Have you read The Prince by Machiavelli?  Rudolf's career could be the movie version.  As Count of Habsburg then an obscure little dignity in south western Germany (so obscure in fact that it wasn't in Germany at all but Switzerland) Rudolf was liegeman first to the Duke of Swabia and through him to the Holy Roman Emperor.  This double loyalty was made easier by the fact that the Duke of Swabia and the Holy Roman Emperor were the same person, Frederick II Stupor Mundi.  Grovelling loyalty to Frederick and Frederick's son Conrad gained Rudolf rich estates to add to his own somewhat modest possessions.  Then Frederick died and his son was elected King of the Romans but there was a problem; the Pope hated him.  In fact the Pope hated his entire family and over the next few years succeeded in wiping it off the face of the earth.  It wasn't long before Conrad was dead and the electoral princes of the empire seemed at somewhat of a loss as to what to do next.

Suddenly the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) was bereft of both its emperor and its Duke of Swabia.  This elimination of two of the layers of authority within the land created chaos as every two bit thug with a castle and a sword grabbed whatever he could hold.  Rudolf was one of the most successful of the grabbers.  Through a combination of marriage, purchase, persuasion, extortion and outright violence he expanded his realm from his modest castle at Habsburg and stamped his authority on his newly gained lands.  This made him a genuine power in south-western Germany and suddenly people were measuring him up for imperial robes.  An emperor was needed to calm the incessant civil strife down a bit but it also had to be someone who wasn't actually powerful enough to ram centralised rule down the throats of the princes who had voted for him.  Rudolf seemed the ideal candidate.

At least Rudolf seemed the ideal candidate to six of the seven electors.  The seventh elector (the King of Bohemia) had a better candidate; himself.  Rudolf carried the day and his very first action was to demand the restitution of imperial lands that had somehow fallen into the hands of others.  If at this point you're thinking something like "I bet the King of Bohemia had a whole bunch of them" then you're starting to get a feel for imperial politics.  Some time previously the rulers of Bohemia had beaten the snot out of the rulers of Austria and seized their lands.  They had done so with the approval of the emperor of the time as the Austrian rulers had been a little too revolting but technically they should have handed those lands back to the emperor to dish out to loyal vassals.  Rudolf now demanded that they pony up.  The King of Bohemia demurred.  Rudolf threatened to take them by force.  The King of Bohemia said, "You and who's army".  Rudolf demonstrated.  The King of Bohemia picked up what was left of his army and slunk back to Prague muttering under his breath.  Rudolf could then distribute the Austrian territories to people appropriately loyal to the emperor.  He distributed most of them to himself thus laying the foundation for the Habsburg's Austrian powerbase which would last until 1918 (so far).  He also betrothed his daughter to the King of Bohemia's son.  This wasn't quite enough as the King of Bohemia invaded Austria again with the assistance of the Poles.  Rudolf saw his Poles and raised him Hungarians.  This time what was left of the King of Bohemia's army had to drag his corpse back to Prague. 

With that out of the way Rudolf attempted to bring some peace and order to the rather battered imperial state.  Here he was less successful.  The problem was that while everybody agreed that peace was desirable quite a lot of people (such as Rudolf himself) were doing quite well out of continued chaos.  Rudolf tried and it is probably fair to say that there was somewhat less anarchy in the empire when he died than there was when he was elected.  A measure of his success may be seen in the fact that the electors didn't elect his son to replace him.  In one generation the Habsburgs had gone from being virtual nobodies with a minor title to Austrian dukes with a significant powerbase.  If they kept the empire much longer they might be able to start ruling it.  So the electors picked someone else that they thought they could manipulate.  Futilely, first their chosen patsy turned out to be quite a clever manipulator himself and secondly Rudolf's son was even better yet.  The King of the Romans emancipated himself from the electors and then got himself killed by Albert of Habsburg.  With a sigh the lords of the empire realised that the Habsburgs were going to around for a while yet although if you had mentioned six hundred years they would probably have thought you were joking.  Rudolf would have just smiled gently and looked innocent.

No comments:

Post a Comment