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HISTORY OF GERMANY
 
 


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Feudal upstarts: 9th - 10th century

The external threat from marauding Vikings in the west and from Magyars in the east aggravates an already grave internal problem for the feudal dynasties of Charlemagne's descendants. Feudalism, with its decentralization of military and territorial power, has at the best of times a tendency to foster regional independence. In periods of crisis, when the regions need to be well armed if they are to repel invaders, it is almost inevitable that the feudal holders of large tracts of frontier territory grow in strength until they are capable of challenging their own king.

Baronial contenders upset the succession to the throne in the west Frankish kingdom from the late 9th century and in the eastern kingdom a few years later.
 










In 911 the east Frankish king dies without a male heir. The only legitimate claimant within the Carolingian dynasty is Charles III, ruler of the west Frankish kingdom. Rather than do homage to him, and reunite the empire of Charlemagne, the eastern Franks and the Saxons elect one of their own number to the vacant throne. Conrad, the duke of Franconia, becomes the German king.

Although not of the Carolingian line, Conrad is nevertheless a Frank. But on his death the Franks and the Saxons together elect a Saxon king. In 919 Henry I becomes the founder of the Saxon, or Ottonian, dynasty.
 







Ottonian dynasty: 919-962

The east Frankish kingdom over which Henry I becomes king in 919 consists of four great duchies - territories settled by tribes (such as the Baivarii and the Suebi) which have been conquered by the Franks and converted to Christianity. Their leaders, becoming dukes in the Frankish feudal system, accept the rule of any strong Frankish king but tend to independence in other reigns. The four are Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony and the Franks' own region, Franconia. Lorraine, a fifth duchy, is a frequently disputed territory between the east and west Frankish kingdoms.

Henry succeeds in asserting at least nominal control over these five duchies (often called the stem duchies). He is succeeded by his son Otto in 936.
 









The rule of Otto I, or Otto the Great, amounts to a revival and extension of the eastern half of Charlemagne's great empire. Where Charlemagne used a combination of force and Christianity to subdue the Saxons on his border, Otto applies the same tactics in the north against the Danes and in the east against the Slavs. He protects the eastern border of what now becomes known as the Reich (the German 'empire') by a decisive victory against the Magyars of Hungary on a plain near the river Lech in 955.

Like Charlemagne, Otto marches into northern Italy and proclaims himself king of the Lombards. Like Charlemagne he is crowned by the pope in Rome.
 






Emperors and popes: 962-1250

The imperial role accorded by the pope to Charlemagne in 800 is handed on in increasingly desultory fashion during the 9th century. From 924 it falls into abeyance. But in 962 a pope once again needs help against his Italian enemies. Again he appeals to a strong German ruler.

The coronation of Otto I by pope John XII in 962 marks a revival of the concept of a Christian emperor in the west. It is also the beginning of an unbroken line of Holy Roman emperors lasting for more than eight centuries. Otto I does not call himself Roman emperor, but his son Otto II uses the title - as a clear statement of western and papal independence from the other Christian emperor in Constantinople.
 









Otto and his son and grandson (Otto II and Otto III) regard the imperial crown as a mandate to control the papacy. They dismiss popes at their will and instal replacements more to their liking (sometimes even changing their mind and repeating the process).

This power, together with territories covering much of central Europe, gives the German empire and the imperial title great prestige from the late 10th century. This high status is unaffected by a minor change of dynasty in the early 11th century.
 







In 1024 the male line of descent from Otto I dies out. The princes elect the duke of Franconia, descended from Otto in the female line, as the German king Conrad II. His dynasty is known either as Franconian (from the province of the Franks) or Salian (from the Salii, one of the main tribal groups of the Franks).

Conrad's son, Henry III, is crowned emperor in Rome in 1046. Before his coronation he deposes three rival claimants to the papacy and selects a candidate of his own - the German bishop of Bamberg - who carries out the coronation in St Peter's. This renewed intervention in Rome's affairs launches two centuries of conflict between German emperors and the papacy.
 






Guelphs and Ghibellines: from1152

The struggle between emperors and popes is at its most extreme during the reign of Henry III's son, Henry IV. But it continues unabated after the next change of dynasty.

Henry IV's son, Henry V, dies without an heir in 1125. By this time two of the most powerful German families, each closely linked to the imperial house, are the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen. They are bitter rivals, but the German electors show signs of resolving that issue when they select Frederick I as German king in 1152. On his father's side he is a Hohenstaufen, on his mother's a Welf.
 









The hostility of the popes to the German emperors remains a factor in European and Italian politics during the Hohenstaufen period. Indeed the ancient Welf hatred of the Hohenstaufen becomes linked to papal hostility. Supporters of the papacy in Italy become known as Guelphs (a version of Welf), while the imperial party are called Ghibellines (from Waiblingen, the name of a Hohenstaufen stronghold in Swabia).

The particular bugbear of the papacy is the emperor Frederick II. He alarms them because the dynastic marriage of his parents has brought him control of southern Italy and Sicily as well Germany. Yet this unwieldy extension of the German empire is also a source of weakness within Germany itself.
 






German kings and emperors: 10th - 13th century

When the Holy Roman empire was re-established in the 10th century, with the coronation of Otto I, the German kingdom was by far the most powerful territory in Europe. But the political structure in Germany contributes, in the long run, to a decline in the power of the German kings.

It is the tradition in Germany, an alliance of powerful duchies, for the king of the Germans to be elected from among the local rulers (though the practice of power ensures that the choice usually remains within a dynasty). And the reign of Otto I introduces an extra tradition - that the German king is also automatically the emperor, once the pope has crowned him in Rome.
 









During the 12th and 13th centuries, when the regions of western Europe (France, England, Spain) are developing strong centralized monarchies, Germany moves in the opposite direction. Large numbers of small territories grow in wealth and independence, while offering nominal allegiance to the emperor. Some are aristocratic in origin, domains of noble families; others are ecclesiastical, with a rich abbot or bishop wielding temporal power; a few are towns, flexing new economic muscle. All are ferociously competitive.

This tendency to anarchy results from the paradox of an elected feudal overlord. His position, not based on conquest, must depend on a network of negotiated alliances - meaning, in brutal reality, concessions.
 







The lack of authority of the German kings within Germany is compounded by the demands on their attentions elsewhere. Being Roman emperors, they have interests to defend in Italy.

The problem is at its extreme in the 13th century when marriage brings the rich kingdom of Sicily to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of German kings. For much of his reign Frederick II succeeds in controlling Germany, Italy and his favourite domain of Sicily, as well as going on crusade and becoming king of Jerusalem. But after his death, in 1250, the empire loses any real political meaning. The title becomes valued only as the most resounding dignity possessed by the German kings.
 






Pressure eastwards: 11th - 13th century

Dynastic politics may have the effect of making the German empire less cohesive, but the energies of the German people achieve at the same time a marked expansion of the realm. This is achieved commercially through the trading network of the Hanseatic towns. And it is reflected in territorial terms in the steady push eastwards (or in German Drang nach Osten) into the less developed and heavily forested lands occupied by Slavs and Prussians.

This process at first brings considerable benefits to the colonized regions, though it also inevitably leads to violent reactions against the colonists.
 









The German advance is gradual, achieved by peasant settlement (laboriously clearing the forests), by the granting of feudal rights in newly conquered territories, by the establishment of monasteries and bishoprics, and by the extension of Baltic trade along the coast.

By these means the ancient German duchies are expanded. Swabia absorbs much of what is now Switzerland. Bavaria extends spasmodically into Austria, with occasional disastrous reverses at the hands of the Magyars in Hungary. To the north the Prussians resist German attempts to conquer and convert them in the 10th century, remaining pagan in their remote forests until the arrival of the Teutonic knights in the 13th century.
 






Hanseatic League: 12th - 17th century

In 1159 Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, builds a new German town on a site which he has captured the previous year. It is Lübeck, perfectly placed to benefit from developing trade in the Baltic. Goods from the Netherlands and the Rhineland have their easiest access to the Baltic through Lübeck. For trade in the opposite direction, a short land journey from Lübeck across the base of the Danish peninsula brings goods easily to Hamburg and the North Sea.

Over the next two centuries Lübeck and Hamburg, in alliance, become the twin centres of a network of trading alliances known later as the Hanseatic League.
 









A Hanse is a guild of merchants. Associations of German merchants develop in the great cities on or near the Baltic (Gdansk, Riga, Novgorod, Stockholm), on the coasts of the North Sea (Bergen, Bremen) and in western cities where the Baltic trade can be profitably brokered - in particular Cologne, Bruges and London.

It suits these German merchants, and the towns which benefit from their efforts, to form mutual alliances to further the flow of trade. Safe passage for everyone's goods is essential. The control of pirates becomes a prime reason for cooperation, together with other measures (such as lighthouses and trained pilots) to improve the safety of shipping.
 







The rapid growth of Hanseatic trade during the 13th century is part of a general pattern of increasing European prosperity. During this period the towns with active German hanse gradually organize themselves in a more formal league, with membership fees and regular 'diets' to agree policies of mutual benefit. By the 14th century there about 100 such towns, some of them as far afield as Iceland and Spain. Their German communities effectively control the trade of the Baltic and North Sea.

But economic decline during the 14th century takes its toll on the success of the Hanseatic towns. So do political developments around the Baltic.
 







In 1386 Poland and Lithuania merge, soon winning the region around Gdansk from the Teutonic knights. On the opposite shore of the sea, the three Scandinavian kingdoms are united in 1389; the new monarchy encompasses Stockholm, previously an independent Hanseatic town. A century later, when Ivan III annexes Novgorod, he expels the German merchants.

Such factors contribute to the gradual decline of the Hanseatic League. What began as a positive union to promote trade becomes a restrictive league, attempting to protect German interests against foreign competitors. But great enterprises fade slowly. The final Hanseatic diet is held as late as 1669.
 






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