Medieval German Dynastic History


Figure 1.--Conradin or Conrad the Younger was the son of German Emperor Conrad IV. He is seen here at age 16. He was executed soon after with the support of the pope in 1268. He was the last of the Hohenstaufen male line. This image was painted arounf 1305-40. Source: University of Heildelberg. Click on the image for more information about Conradin.

The dynastic history of Medieval Europe in many ways begins with Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty, but even more with Charlemagne and his successors. Charlemagne founded the first empire after Rome. His grandson Louis II became the first King of Germany. The Saxon King Otto I founded the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire is a misnomer. It was not Holy, although the pope crowned the emperor, nor was it Roman. It was essentially a Germanic empire encompassing much of Western Europe and later was named by historians the First German Reich. he Salian Dynasty under Henry II became involved in thre The Empire was rocked by the Investiture Controversy in the 10th century and the struggle between Emperor Henry II and Pope Gregory VII. Although the Emperor established the principle of civil power, regional leaders used the controversy to significantly weaken the authority of the emperor within Germany and was a major reason that no centralized German state emerged as was the case in many other countries (England, France, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden) during the Medieval era. Several different dynasties ruled Germany during the Medieval Era. The first was the Merovingian dynasty founded by Clovis. It was the Hapsburgs that would lead Germany out of the Medieval Era and dominate Germany until after the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.

Merovingian Dynasty (486-751)

The Salian Frank leader Clovis fonded a Germanic kingdom made up of a Roman-Germanic population (486). Clovis defeated Gallo-Romans and other Frankish tribes. He and his successors expanded the boundaries of the new Frankish kingdom and dominated much of central Europe during the 6th century and 7th century. They also forced other Germanic tribes to become tributaries. During the Merovingian Dynasty there was a gradual melding of Roman and Germanic peoples and cultures. Many Romans were Christians and with the baptism of Clovis, the Franks also began to accept Christianity. The Frankish kingdom was grdually weakned by internal feuds.

Carolingian Empire (752-911)

Charles the Great (Charlemagne) rise to the Frankish throne in 768 and greatly expanded the Frankis kingdom into a huge empire. He subdued an independent-minded Bavaria, conquered Lombardy in northern Italy and Saxony to the east in Germany. Charlemagne subjugation and christianization od the pagan Saxons was a major step in the Christinization of the Germans. He also estanlished Frankish dominance into central Italy. Harkening back to the Roman Empire, Charlemagne had the pope crown him Holy Roman Emperor, lending Church sanction to his rule (800). Charlemagne by 800 and estanlished on of the largest empires in European history. It streached from the North Sea (the Netherlands and Belgium south through France and Austria to much of Italy and Spain and dominated 9th century Europe. In German history, Charlemagne empire has become known as the First Reich. Charlemage after his death (814) was followed by his only son Louis I. The Carolingian Empire they ruled played a major role in estanlishing the basic structure of the developing Feudal System in Europe appointing counts and forming an alliance with the Church. Charlemagne firmy established the principal of cooperation between the civil authorities and the Church--a hallmark of the Medieval Europe. The Carolingian Empire had some of the attributes of Rome, a vast territory and centralized rule, but the Empire was based on the emperor's personal rule and thus splintered only one generation after Charlemagne. After Louis' death (840) internecine warfare was wages by his sons which ended with the Treaty of Verdun (843) dividing the territiry, but continuing the principle of the Empire. The division was complicated, but in essence involved an Eaestern and western kingdom which became Germany and France and a central area which was to emerge as a number of small states that were to be contested in future struggle between Germany and France and Italy to the South. Lothair became the nominal Emperor (840-55), but with limited authority. More importantly he had the central territories, Italy and a varietty of provinces including Burgundy, Belgium, Netherland, Alsace, Lorraine, France Comté, Provance, andc Lyonnais. Pepin before his father's daeth became King of Aquataine (817-38). Louis II in an arrangement with his older brother received the eastern territories became King of Germany (843-76). Charles I received the western territories and became King of France (840-77). Gusela's son Berengar became King of Lombardy (898-924). This political division mirrored linguistic and cultural trends. The Frankish tribes in the east lived in a region that had not been conquered by Rome and therfeore not Romanized. They still spoke Germanic dialects. The Frankish tribes in the west resided in Roman Gaul and other areas that hd been within the Roman Empire and heavily omanized. The population there were spealing Old French with strong Latin roots. Throughout the former Carolingian Empire several regional rulers emerged to challenge central authority. This occurred both in the western kingdom (France) and eastern kingdom (Germany), but was especially pronounced in Germany. The end of the Carolingian line in Germany (911) provided the opportunity for regional duchies to exert their independence.

Saxon Dynasty (919-1024)

It was Saxony emerged as the most important kingdom in Germamy and dominated the 10th century. The Saxon rulers established a monarchy which established their dominance over the territorial dukes. The Saxon kings founded a new empire based on all the hall marks of Medieval Feudalism such as hereditary succession, crown lands, and monarchical power. The Saxons pushed east adding Slavic people in Poland and Bohemia as well as Germanic Austria to their domains. The greatest Saxon king, Otto I known as Otto the Great seized control of much of the central territories between France and Germany and had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor (962). The state he created was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The Empire was to be the essential organization of Germany until Napoleon, although the centralized power exercized by Otto was to gradually diminish. The German kings faced serious difficulties. The state they ruled was certain not akin to the old Roman Empire, not ws it even a revival of Charlemagne's empire. This is what they wanted to reserect. But as a cynical Voltaire noted centuries later, the Hily Roman Emoire "... was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." In the early 10th century there were five German stem duchies composing the bulk of the empire: Franconia, Lorraine, Saxony, Bavaria, and Swabia. Linguistic and cultural diversities within these duchies have not disappeared even today. In the 10th century, these differences were very significant. The one common thread running through the history of these diverse people was for nearly 10 centuries the Holy Roman Empire.

Salian Dynasty (1024-1125)

The last Saxon emperor was Henry II. When he died, the imperial crown was obtained by the Salians, a Frankish tribe (1024). The Salians forged Germany into the premenant European power of the day. The Salian emperors ruled as absolute monarchs and developed a permanent class of administrators consituting a permanent civil service loyal to the crown. The Salians dynasty dominated Europe of the 11th century until challenged by the Church. Salian authority was threatened by Pope Gregory VII as part of the Investiture Controversy (1075). The struggle was for control of the German Church. Gregory escalated the controversy by questioning divine right monarchy upon wich Henry's rule wa based. Gregory managed to inspire resistance within Germany by regional nobels who objected to Henry's absolute rule and also wished to limit imperial authority. Gregory's ultimate power was excomunication which horrified Medieval Christians. Not only would his mortal soul be in danger, but his crown would be threatened. Henry was forced to go to Canossa in northern Italy where Gregory was staying and do penance. He stood barefoot in the store for 3 days before receiving absolution. Henry then, however, proceeded to challenge the Gregory. He resumed lay investiture and engineered the election of an antipope. The result was a destructive civil war in Germany which ragaged Germany for decades (1077-1122). The War was finally ended with the Concordat of Worms (1122). The emperor lost control of Italy. More importantly, the nature of the imperial crown was fundamentally changed. Rather than an absolute divine right monarchy passed by inheritance, the emperor became an elected office chose by the great princes of Germany who became known as electors. The change was not just constitutional. During the more than four decades of civil war, the German princes established control over extensive territories and built substantial military forces. These forces defended by an increasing number of formidable castles permitted the rise of virtually independent kingdoms or principalities within the empire. During this period Pope Urban II helps launch the crusades, but because of the internal struggle, German did not participate in the First Crusade (1095).

Hohenstaufen Dynasty (1138-1254)

The reign of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty and the 12th century correspond to the full flowering of the Medieval era, often referred to as Age of Chivalry. Until the 12th century culture and the arts as well as writing and literature had been largely the preserve of the church. Many German and other European nobels were uneducated and often illiterate. This began to change in the 12th century. Castles and courts began to replace monasteries as centers of culture. Important literary works were written. The dominant figure was Emperor Frederick I, Frederick Barbarossa, (1152-90) who was seen as the embodiment of a virtous Christian prince who died pursuing the Crusades. Frederick helped to restore peace and traquility to Germany. He proihibited feuds between Feudal lords. Frederick and his son Henry VI (1190-1207) expanded the territory of the Empire. Their successors added Prussia to the Empire for the firt time. A major development in the 12th and 13th centuries with the expansion of economic activity was the growth of towns. Henry VI and his succesor Frederick II were involved in the continuing struggle with the papacy and during this period the German princes were able to obtain even more authority which the emperor was forced to accept. The Empire during this period experienced one crisis after another. There was a steady decline in the prestige and authority of the emperor. The imperial statute of 1232 established the civil and ecclesiastical princes of Germany as essentially independent rulers in their territories. The Hohenstaufen Dynasty by the mid-13th century after an iladvised Italian adventure died out. When Frederick II died (1256) an era of near anarchy ruled in Germany as the German princes vied for control of the Empire in what is known as the The Great Interregnum (1256-73). The uncrowned Conradin was the last of the Hohenstaufens (figure 1). He was the grandson of Frederick II, but was executed under the authority of the pope. This extinguished the Hohenstaufen male line.

Habsburg Dynasty (1273- )

The Hapsburg fortunes were changed dramtically when Rudolf became count. Rudolf was the son of Albert the Wise. The origins of the Hapsburgs are obscure, but family was apparently founded by a Carolingian nobel. The Habsburgs were a still relatively minor German nobel family when Count Rudolf came to the throne. His choice relects the reluctance of the German princes to chose a more powerful emperor which could threaten them. He ended the Great Interegnum. Rudolf was elected both King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor (1273-1291). His choice was in part because he was a relatively minor German nobel and was not seen as threatening. He was, however, responsible for seizing control of the territory that was to serveas the basis of Hapsburg power for over 8 centuries. Rudolf seized the Babenberg inheritance (the duchies of Austria, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola) from King Ottokar II of Bohemia in 1278. Rudolf in 1282 he invested his successors, his sons Albert and Rudolf, with these duchies as their heriditary patrimony. The Hapsburgs were to rule here without interuption until deposed in 1918 in the aftermath of World War I. In the 14th century the emperors were chosen from three royal families: Luxemburg (Bohemia), Wittelsbach (Bavaria), and Habsburg (Austria) until the Hapsburgs were able to control the crown returned in the mid-15th century and retained it until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Luxemburg emperor Charles IV (1355-78) issued The Golden Bull (1356). This established the basic consitution of the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution. This proclamation confirmed the election of the emperor by the seven leading princes of Germany called princeelectors or electors to choose the emperor. The election of the emporer and the limittions on his power assured that the larger German states would emerge as soverign states. Thus Germany by the 16th century was a loose association of soverign states and numerous small principalities under the limited influence of a Habsburg emperor.

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Created: August 22, 2003
Last updated: 2:14 AM 2/9/2010