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Hohenstaufen: 1138-1254

The castle of Staufen, in Swabia, lends its name to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick, the builder of the castle, is a faithful follower of the emperor Henry IV. In 1079 he marries the emperor's daughter, Agnes. In 1138, after some years of upheaval and civil war, their son Conrad is elected the German king - as Conrad III.

For more than a century, with one minor interruption, members of the Hohenstaufen family inherit the German kingdom - usually together with the status of Holy Roman emperor. The first Hohenstaufen to make a profound impression on the empire is Conrad's nephew, Frederick I.

In a reign of thirty-eight years Frederick, known also as Frederick Barbarossa, asserts his authority throughout Germany and extends imperial power into Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. But his greatest effort is in Italy, where he tries to recover the empire in the north and to extend it south of the papal states down to Sicily.

He meets strong opposition in the north from the Italian communes, who form the Lombard league to resist him. And his attempts in the south are unpopular with the papacy, alarmed at the danger of being surrounded. In the long term Frederick's most significant act, before his death on crusade in 1190, is to marry his son Henry to Constance, heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

The marriage of Henry to Constance brings Sicily and southern Italy into the German empire. Henry VI is crowned emperor in Rome in 1191 and king of Sicily in 1194. But he dies shortly afterwards, in 1197, when his son Frederick is just three years old.

At first it seems unlikely that the boy can inherit both Sicily and the German kingdom, particularly since the prospect displeases the papacy. From 1198 he is recognized only as king of Sicily. But after a period of confusion, with warring candidates, he is also elected king by the German princes in 1211. With some reluctance the pope accepts the situation. He crowns Frederick II emperor in Rome in 1220.

Subsequent popes have cause to regret this coronation. They excommunicate Frederick II twice, and even proclaim a crusade against him, in a prolonged power struggle which eventually weakens his authority in both Sicily and Germany. In spite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieves his own crusade to Jerusalem, Frederick leaves an inheritance which cannot long survive him.

His son, Conrad IV, becomes the last ruler in the Hohenstaufen line. With Conrad's death, in 1254, there is a vacancy on the German throne which is not filled for another nineteen years.

After the Hohenstaufen: 1254-1438

The Hohenstaufen period has seen some notably forceful popes (Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) and powerful emperors (Frederick I, Frederick II). It is followed, after the death of the last Hohenstaufen ruler in 1254, by a prolonged time of uncertainty in both papacy and empire.

The popes abandon Rome in 1309 and spend most of the 14th century in self-imposed exile in Avignon. From 1378 there are two rival popes (a number subsequently rising to three) in the split known as the Great Schism.

Meanwhile, for almost twenty years after the death of Conrad IV in 1254, the German princes fail to elect any effective king or emperor. This period is usually known (with a grandiloquence to match the Great Schism in the papacy) as the Great Interregnum.

The interregnum ends with the election of Rudolf I as German king in 1273. The choice subsequently seems of great significance, because he is the first Habsburg on the German throne. But the Habsburg grip on the succession remains far in the future. During the next century the electors choose kings from several families. Not till the coronation of Charles IV in 1346 is there the start of another dynasty - that of the house of Luxembourg.

Charles IV is crowned emperor in Rome in 1355. He makes his capital in Prague (he has inherited Bohemia as well as Luxembourg), bringing the city its first period of glory. The imperial dignity remains in Charles's family until 1438, when it is transferred to the Habsburgs.

At the beginning and end of those eighty years Charles and his son Sigismund take a strong line with the papacy. Within a year of his coronation, Charles issues the Golden Bull of 1356 which excludes the pope from any influence in the choice of emperor. And in 1414 Sigismund is instrumental in bringing together the Council of Constance which finally ends the Great Schism and restores a single pope to Rome.

The Golden Bull and the electors: 1356-1806

The Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356, clarifies the new identity which the Holy Roman empire has been gradually adopting. It ends papal involvement in the election of a German king, by the simple means of denying Rome's right to approve or reject the electors' choice. In return, by a separate agreement with the pope, Charles abandons imperial claims in Italy - apart from a title to the kingdom of Lombardy, inherited from Charlemagne.

The emphasis is clear. This is now to be essentially a German empire, as reflected in a new form of the title adopted in 1452 - sacrum Romanum imperium nationis Germanicae (Holy Roman empire of the German nation).

The Golden Bull also clarifies and formalizes the process of election of a German king. The choice has traditionally been in the hands of seven electors, but their identity has varied.

The group of seven is now established as three archbishops (of Mainz, Cologne and Trier) and four hereditary lay rulers (the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg and the king of Bohemia).

This group of seven electors remains unchanged until the 17th century, when an eighth vote is added (the newcomer to the list is the duke of Bavaria). In 1708 the ruler of Hanover becomes a ninth elector. But by this time the idea of election is as meaningless as in any rotten borough. The office of Holy Roman Emperor has become a hereditary attachment of one family.

From 1438 to 1806 every Holy Roman Emperor but one is part of the Habsburg dynasty. The reason for the exception, in 1742-5, is that the Habsburg ruler of Austria is a woman, Maria Theresa.

An abrupt end: 1806

The official Holy Roman empire, based in Vienna, is by the early 19th century little more than a ceremonial shell, brittle with age and dignity. And it is under threat. It is widely assumed that Napoleon's intention, after appointing himself emperor of France, is to claim the greater title by defeating Austria.

The emperor, Francis II, has no way of ensuring victory on the battlefield, but he finds a simple way of frustrating the ambitions of his French rival. Declaring himself in 1804 the last Holy Roman Emperor, he now uses the title emperor of Austria (henceforth to be known as Francis I, being the first in his new hereditary role). In 1806 Francis formally abolishes the Holy Roman Empire. It has lasted just over 1000 years.

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