Core and Periphery

The Empire was never a unitary state with a homogeneous population, but instead a patchwork of lands and peoples under an uneven and changing imperial jurisdiction. This chapter outlines how and when different parts of Europe were associated with the Empire, arguing that its political core was not necessarily its geographical one. Empires and imperial expansion are usually explained through the core–periphery model. The Roman, Ottoman, Russian and British empires are presented as expanding outwards through the conquest or control of other lands. An empire is thus defined by the dominance of a core over more peripheral territory that is only loosely integrated or kept entirely separate. The core is usually considered more highly organized, economically developed and militarily superior to the often less densely populated periphery. This relationship also appears to explain collapse through the law of diminishing returns, with further conquests bringing additional administrative and security costs that outweigh gains in resources.

The Empire only loosely fits this model, contributing to the speculation already noted in the introduction of whether it was really imperial. The Franks were not, in fact, unusual in appearing more ‘backward’ than the late Roman societies they conquered in Gaul and parts of Italy. The same has been said of the Mongols during the thirteenth century or the Manchus in China after 1644. However, the Carolingians and their successors (with the partial exception of the Ottonians) generally disdained the more urbanized, densely populated Italy in favour of remaining north of the Alps. Aachen and Rome were only two of several important sites in a realm that remained characterized by multiple centres rather than a single core. The original Frankish heartland had stretched from the Loire valley eastwards to Frankfurt, and from Aachen in the north southwards into Provence and (later) Lombardy. This region was fragmented three ways by the ninth-century partitions, while the imperial title migrated among the Frankish successor kingdoms before finally coming to rest in Germany under Otto I. Ottonian rule shifted political geography northwards into Saxony without entirely displacing the significance of earlier centres. The focus moved south-west to the Middle Rhine under the Salians and then also to Italy with the Staufers, before shifting back to the Rhineland in the later thirteenth century. Luxembourg rule moved the imperial title to Bohemia, before it came to reside in Austria under the Habsburgs, though again without completely overshadowing established centres like Aachen, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Regensburg.

This movement suggests we should re-imagine the interrelationship of the Empire’s territories according to their degree of openness to the emperor’s authority, rather than as a fixed pattern of control.1 We can label ‘king’s country’ the areas which elsewhere correspond to a core, provided we recognize that their identity changed during the Empire’s history. The Franks merged relatively quickly with other elites and thereafter the Empire never had a single ‘imperial people’ akin to the position of the Manchus in China or Anglo-Saxons in the British empire. Instead, king’s country was defined legally through prerogatives allowing the emperor to exploit particular resources to sustain his rule. While these properties were concentrated in certain regions, there were always some scattered elsewhere to enable him to roam more widely. Personal royal possessions assumed greater importance, becoming what can be called more properly ‘dynastic territories’ from the fourteenth century. These ultimately replaced properties associated with imperial prerogatives and constituted the king’s country of late medieval and early modern emperors. Throughout, king’s country was never contiguous, as a glance at a map of Habsburg possessions will readily show.

A second category of land ‘close to the king’ was also defined politically rather than geographically or ethnically and comprised areas on which the monarch could normally rely, but which were controlled indirectly through vassals. Initially, these lands were usually held by men who were related by blood or marriage to the royal family, but their support was contingent on how far they could persuade their own dependants to cooperate. These hierarchical ties of kinship and dependency become more formal, especially after the twelfth century, and were codified through the imperial reforms around 1500. Dynastic ties retained significance even into the eighteenth century, including the role of Habsburg archdukes as prince-bishops in the imperial church.

Areas ‘open to the king’ formed a third category, also mediated by vassalage and other jurisdictions, but held by people who would not necessarily fully honour formal obligations. The success of individual monarchs was often determined by their ability to maximize support from these areas. The constitutional changes around 1500 essentially involved the Habsburgs’ acceptance of more formal power-sharing in return for binding the ‘open’ and ‘close’ areas within a system of more enforceable obligations. ‘Distant’ regions formed a fourth category and were the more peripheral politically, sharing some of the characteristics with the classic core–periphery model. The frontier zones of northern and eastern Germany remained peripheral for most of the Middle Ages. This relationship could change, however. Austria, established as a border zone in the tenth century, became the imperial core from the mid-fifteenth century. Conversely, Brandenburg shifted from open to the king under the Luxembourgs to become the Habsburgs’ chief opponent after 1740.


The four categories just discussed varied in their political proximity to the emperor, but did not necessarily relate hierarchically to each other. For example, distant regions were rarely subordinate to any of the other categories, but instead enjoyed the same immediacy under the emperor as much of the king’s country. Hierarchy was a central feature of the Empire throughout its existence, and some important aspects require discussion here.

The Empire was neither a single command chain nor a neat pyramid with the emperor at the pinnacle. Instead, the Empire was an idealized overarching framework encompassing multiple elements that were both internally hierarchical and that interrelated in complex patterns characterized by inequality. The most significant of these components were already identified as kingdoms (regna) in the ninth century. However, what actually constituted a kingdom was not constant. Similarly, not all the places which contemporaries called regna were actually ruled by men titled ‘kings’. The Carolingians accorded Aquitaine and Bavaria semi-regal status, without either of them becoming full kingdoms at that point. It was generally accepted that a kingdom should be large, but there was no agreed minimum size defined by either territory or population. Ecclesiastical autonomy was significant early on, with the creation of separate archdioceses important to the recognition of Hungary, Poland and Bohemia as kingdoms during the eleventh century. This tied regal status to Christianization, especially manifested through cathedral-building and recognition of a patron saint. Heathen barbarians never could be fully regal, no matter what they might themselves claim. Political autonomy lagged considerably behind, since kingship was not equated with sovereign independence until early modernity. Despite being ruled by their own kings, Burgundy and Bohemia remained parts of the Empire.

The interrelationship of the Carolingian kingdoms remained unstable while the imperial title passed between them. Otto I’s coronation in 962 permanently associated the imperial prerogatives and status with the position of German king, making Germany the Empire’s premier kingdom (see Plate 15).2 Italy slipped into second place after having been primarily associated with the imperial title between 840 and 924. Otto’s defeat of Berengar II ended the sequence of separate Italian kings. Henceforth, whoever was German king was also king of Italy, even without a separate coronation. Burgundy emerged from the Carolingian middle kingdom (Lotharingia) in 879 and maintained a distinct existence despite being considered subordinate to the Empire from the late tenth century. After 1032, Burgundy passed to the German king, who assumed authority directly, as in Italy. Italian and Burgundian lords were not always prepared to accept this unless the German king had also been crowned emperor, but they no longer sought to raise one of their own number as king.3

Germany’s premier status was demonstrated by the use of its royal insignia for imperial coronations. Those of Italy and Burgundy only assumed significance during the fourteenth century with international challenges to the German king’s pre-eminence. The title ‘king of Italy’ replaced that of ‘the Lombards’ used by Charlemagne, though it was still associated with the Lombard iron crown said to have belonged to Theodoric. Italian coronations were generally held after 844, though many German kings dispensed with one. When Henry VII arrived in Milan in 1311 the iron crown could not be found; it was believed to have been pawned but in fact had never existed. By then, however, it was thought that the German king received a silver crown, before being crowned with an iron one in Italy and finally the golden imperial crown at his imperial coronation in Rome. Siena goldsmiths were accordingly instructed to make an iron crown for Henry. Within two centuries this was so rusty that it was replaced by an ancient diadem preserved in the church of San Giovanni in Monza, which contained an iron hoop said to have been made from a nail from the Holy Cross. This was used to crown Charles V as king of Italy at Bologna in 1530 – the last emperor to go through a formal Italian coronation.4Burgundy lacked any enduring royal insignia. When it re-emerged as a separate state in the fifteenth century, its ruler was only a duke and he established the heraldic Order of the Golden Fleece to assert his prestige instead.


Demarcation and Integration

The Empire’s principal kingdoms were not clearly delineated before the eleventh century. Their inhabitants lacked maps and regarded geography differently from later generations. For example, rivers like the Rhine were medieval expressways rather than potential frontiers. Politics involved networks and chains of obligations and responsibilities, not uniform control of clearly bounded territories. Internal subdivisions within the three kingdoms of West Francia, East Francia and Lotharingia also remained in flux, in contrast to the wider European pattern of gradual integration of regions within a recognizable ‘national’ whole. Italian and German history has generally been written as if it ran in the opposite direction: as stories of national disintegration only redressed violently through nineteenth-century unification. Meanwhile, Burgundy largely disappears, because it is no longer a single country, instead being absorbed into France, Germany, Italy and the smaller ‘nations’ of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

The picture becomes clearer when we accept that ‘integration’ and ‘demarcation’ are not necessarily opposites. The integration of autonomous or conquered regions into more obviously centralized monarchies like France also required fixing boundaries and defining jurisdictions, especially where distinct legal arrangements were allowed to persist. The situation in the Empire had unique features, but was not wholly dissimilar. Demarcation here has been labelled ‘territorialization’ (see pp. 365–77) and entailed clearer spatial divisions, around 35 of which ultimately emerged as sovereign states after 1806. However, this process was neither one of progressive fragmentation into ever-smaller territories, nor the steady evolution of existing subdivisions towards sovereign statehood. Rather, the components changed their size and character throughout the Empire’s existence. Some territories indeed fragmented, or became more distinct. Others appeared at some point, only to be subsumed later within neighbouring territories. Moreover, this process was not an expression of declining central power. Rather, spatial demarcation co-evolved with how the Empire was governed. In particular, demographic and economic expansion around 1000 opened new possibilities to expand the lordly elite through subdividing existing jurisdictions. In short, integration proceeded through demarcating more jurisdictions, rather than trying to bind those already established under tighter central supervision.


The standard fragmentation narrative sees Germany as already composed of several distinct tribal regions prior to 800. The Frankish conquests advanced through several stages from the sixth century as the Merovingians recognized certain tribal chiefs as ‘dukes’, or military leaders, in return for tribute and submission. Full conquest from the late eighth century integrated these duchies more closely within the Carolingian system, whilst demarcating them more clearly through, for instance, new law codes (see pp. 238–9) and diocesan boundaries (see pp. 84–6). This process occurred relatively rapidly in about four decades after 780 and gave shape to what later historians claimed were authentic ancient Germanic tribal ‘stem-duchies’ (Map 1).

Germany came to be defined through the association of a specific royal title with rule over these duchies. The Carolingian succession disputes from 829 kept this definition in flux – and likewise for Italy and Burgundy – since duchies were switched between the competing kings, or were truncated or extended as part of unstable partition agreements. The term regnum teutonicorum only emerged during the eleventh century, replacing a more diffuse sense of ‘German lands’ associated with the imperial title since Otto I’s coronation in 962. Few authors identified these lands explicitly. As late as 1240, Bartholomaeus Anglicus included Brabantia, Belgica, Bohemica, Burgundia, Flandria, Lotharingia, Ollandia (Holland), Sclavia (the Slav lands) and Selandia (Zeeland), whilst omitting the perhaps more obvious Austria and Bavaria from his list.5

Bavaria, Saxony and Swabia were the most prominent tribal regions alongside Franconia, which identified the Frankish homeland in Charlemagne’s day. None of these was clearly delineated in 800, and all were considerably larger than later regions bearing these names. Franconia originally encompassed the key Carolingian sites along the Rhine–Main nexus, including Frankfurt and Mainz. It also incorporated Thuringia around the upper Saale river since 533, though this region was still recognized as distinct. Thuringia gravitated towards Saxony under the Ottonians, before re-emerging in the thirteenth century as a regional designation for a group of separate territories (see pp. 374–5). The western half of Franconia meanwhile acquired its own identity as the Upper Rhineland, in turn subdividing into territories that included Mainz, Hessen and the Palatinate. The duchy of Franconia was formally dissolved in 1196, but the ducal title was revived under different circumstances in 1441 and held thereafter by the bishop of Würzburg until 1802, when most of the Franconian territories were absorbed into Bavaria.

Swabia emerged from the region known as Alemania after the tribal confederacy of the ‘All-Men’ (Alemanni), who occupied what would later be Alsace, Baden, Württemberg and most of Switzerland, which was then still often referred to by its Roman name of Rhetia. Swabia also underwent significant changes, including the separation of Alsace in 1079 and the demise of the Swabian ducal title around 1290 as the region reshaped itself into numerous, more distinct territories.6

Saxony was even larger in 800, stretching across the entire area north of Franconia from the North Sea coast to the middle Elbe. It was from here that the Saxons departed to settle in England during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Saxons also provided the Franks with one of their toughest opponents, resisting both them and Christianity longer than other German tribes, perhaps because they were a loose confederacy without a capital that could be captured.7 Three main subdivisions within Saxony were apparent by 900, which provided spaces for later, more numerous territories to emerge. Westphalia to the west covered north-west Germany without yet being entirely distinct from Frisia along the North Sea coast or the areas that would later become Holland, Zeeland and the other Dutch provinces. The Frisians are often hard to distinguish from Saxons in early sources, but they acquired their own identity thanks largely to the particular topography of their low-lying region blending into the sea through marshes and islands. Westphalia was elevated to a duchy in 1180, but like Thuringia’s re-emergence, this occurred while sharper demarcation generally meant contraction in size as other, new territories were also identified, albeit through association with counts and other lesser lords. Central Saxony was originally known as Engern and straddled the Weser river, but it was known by early modernity as Lower Saxony, which included the principalities of Brunswick and Hanover. The eastern part (Eastphalia) along the Elbe remained vulnerable to raiding and interaction with Slavic peoples beyond the river. Eastphalia expanded and contracted several times across the ninth and tenth centuries, but was particularly promoted by the Ottonians, who founded the archbishopric of Magdeburg. Imperial favour cemented the lasting identification of ‘Saxony’ with this region, and it was here that the duchy and the later Saxon electorate emerged.

Bavaria is identifiable from the mid-sixth century as distinct from the eastern part of the former Roman province of Rhetia beyond the river Lech, north of the Alps and south of the Danube. The Bavarians also resisted Frankish attacks, but they faced simultaneous pressure from the Avars in what is now Hungary to the east, and were forced to submit in 788.8 Bavaria remained politically ‘distant from the king’ throughout the ninth and into the tenth century. The Ottonians were careful not to combine Bavaria and Swabia under the same lord, who might block the best Alpine routes to Italy. Bavaria’s eastwards expansion was characterized by the creation of a succession of ‘marcher lordships’, or militarized frontier regions, like those also established along the Elbe (see pp. 200–202). The Ottonians used the opportunity of a victory over a Bavarian rebellion in 976 to separate the eastern marches, or Ostarrichi, which eventually became Austria.9 Simultaneously, the southern Alpine region was detached as the march of Verona, neutralizing the chances of Bavarian lords extending their influence in Italy. These moves effectively ended earlier possibilities that Bavaria might emerge as a distinct sub-kingdom in the manner of Bohemia.

The Ottonians’ victory over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 stabilized the Empire’s south-east frontier, enabling Austria to develop from a thinly populated frontier region to become a firm part of the German kingdom by the eleventh century. Austria continued to expand south and east through the creation of new march lordships, notably Carinthia and Krain, as well as Tirol in the Alps to the west. All these jurisdictions were eventually raised to ducal status during the later Middle Ages.

Eastwards migration after 1140 transformed the northern march lordships along the Elbe originally established by the Ottonians to protect Saxony during the tenth century. Meissen at the exit through the mountains between Bohemia and Saxony was eventually absorbed into the electorate of Saxony around 1500. By contrast, Brandenburg, emerging around what would become Berlin, acquired distinct status as an electorate in the mid-fourteenth century. The Slavic principalities of Mecklenburg and Pomerania were Christianized in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, facilitating their incorporation into the Empire under their indigenous rulers despite counter-claims from Denmark and Poland (see pp. 213–14).


Charlemagne preserved Lombardy as a separate kingdom when he conquered it in 774, but it was known as the kingdom of Italy from 817. Having been the object of struggles between the main Carolingian kings from 875 to 888, the Italian royal title passed to local Carolingian lords, initially the margraves of Friaul and then the dukes of Spoleto. This succession of Italian kings had sufficient influence to be crowned emperors by the popes. A new round of competition after 924 saw the intrusion of Burgundian lords, chiefly the counts of Arles (Provence) who secured the Italian title but not the imperial crown, which fell vacant until 962. The Provencials were in turn being displaced by the margraves of Ivrea after 945. Otto I’s invasion secured control of northern Italy for the German kings by 966, ending 78 years of instability during which there had only been 18 years with a single, unchallenged Italian king.10

The settlement did not go entirely unchallenged thereafter, especially as the later Ottonians were often absent in Germany. The imperial position was weakened by a crushing defeat by the Saracens at Cotrone on the Calabrian coast (13 July 982). After further setbacks, the situation was deemed so precarious that Otto III’s death in Italy on 23 January 1002 was concealed until reinforcements arrived to collect his corpse. Discontented Italian aristocrats elected Margrave Arduin of Ivrea as their king on 15 February. The new German king, Henry II, needed two major expeditions in 1003–4 to neutralize Arduin, who only formally abdicated in 1015. Problems resurfaced at Henry’s death in 1024 when it took his successor, Conrad II, three years to remove another Italian rival. Conrad foiled a final conspiracy by Italian bishops to depose him in 1037, and there was no opposition on his death in 1039 to Henry III’s succession or subsequently against later German kings.11

The Italian kingdom changed considerably across these three centuries. Charlemagne continued the recovery of royal power begun under the Lombards around 740, defeating a lordly revolt in 794. Although the actual realm remained restricted to the original Langobardia (Lombardy) in the north, it had a relatively well-organized core around Pavia and access to the wealth of the Po valley with its numerous towns. Pavia remained the capital of Italian kings from 888 to 962, kings who, like later emperors, always found relations with Rome difficult.12 The Carolingians appropriated parcels of former Lombard royal land, including the former Byzantine outpost at Ravenna that remained a key imperial base into the early thirteenth century, as well as the area around Cremona and a strip from Vercelli south to Genoa. The king also possessed palaces in the towns plus considerable influence over most of the senior clergy, including the archbishop of Milan.

The rest of the kingdom was already divided into numerous fairly small jurisdictions reorganized as counties by Charlemagne, in contrast to the large German duchies. Additional marcher lordships (marquisates) were established on the frontiers: Ivrea covering Piedmont and Liguria in the north-west; Tuscany to the south securing access to Rome; and four created in 828 from the former Lombardy duchy of Friaul to block Magyar raids from the north-east. The counties remained fairly stable, but the marquisates fragmented during the tenth century, except Tuscany, which developed under the Attoni family based at their castle of Canossa after 940. The Attoni benefited by backing Otto I and Conrad II before it was clear that either would be victorious in Italy. Rich rewards followed, expanding Tuscany north to the Po and south over the Apennines almost to Rome itself, making it the largest feudal conglomeration in Italy.13

The patriarchate of Aquileia, which lay along the Isonzo river at the head of the Adriatic, was detached from Byzantium by Charlemagne. Existing since the third century, the see of Aquileia exercised superior spiritual jurisdiction west along the Alps to Lake Como. Although declining, the city still offered a potential counterweight to the secular lords. Having consolidated his hold over Italy by 1027, Conrad II gave Aquileia its own secular jurisdiction, which was later expanded by Henry IV after his difficulties in reaching Canossa in 1077 to secure an alternative route over the mountains. These changes underscore how medieval rulers saw physical geography in terms of access rather than ‘natural frontiers’. Neighbouring Venice developed from refugees who escaped the Lombard invasion of 568 by fleeing to the lagoons, and thereafter it secured autonomy by recognizing papal spiritual jurisdiction whilst leaning politically towards Byzantium. Medieval emperors tolerated this, because Venice provided a useful commercial and diplomatic intermediary between the Empire and Byzantium. Venice rapidly conquered Aquileia’s secular jurisdiction after 1418 and this was recognized by Emperor Sigismund as Venice’s Terra Firma in 1437. Although Friaul was seized by Austria in 1516, the rest of the Terra Firma was essentially independent of the Empire after 1523. Aquileia’s spiritual jurisdiction was dissolved in favour of its subordinate bishoprics in 1752.14

The pope had the largest secular jurisdiction of any western cleric, having acquired property across Italy, Sicily and Sardinia during late antiquity. These possessions were known as St Peter’s Patrimony (Patrimonium Petri) by the sixth century, but contracted to the area around Rome during the Lombard era of the late sixth to late eighth century. As part of his alliance with the pope in 754, Pippin promised to restore the lost lands, adding some precision to what these were by identifying Ravenna and five towns known as the Pentapolis. Their acquisition promised to push papal jurisdiction across the Apennines to the Adriatic and establish control of all north–south movement. The reluctance of later emperors actually to relinquish these lands added a geo-strategic element to papal-imperial disputes.

Otto I renewed Carolingian arrangements whereby the pope held the Patrimonium under imperial suzerainty as part of the Empire.15 Pope Leo IX began to widen his autonomy and this was finally conceded by the emperor in the Concordat of Worms in 1122. From 1115, popes claimed the huge Tuscan inheritance bequeathed them by their faithful ally, Matilda of Canossa. Lothar III and Henry VI temporarily reasserted imperial jurisdiction over this, but the Staufers’ demise allowed the papacy to consolidate its claims after 1254.16 A key factor in this was the post of imperial vicar, developed during the eleventh century to provide a guardian of imperial prerogatives in Italy during the emperor’s absence. By the early thirteenth century, popes claimed this position as part of a wider imperial authority they now asserted as their own. However, such claims meant that Tuscany never entirely lost its association with the Empire, allowing its reintegration within it during the late fourteenth century.

The Frankish conquest interrupted the revival of Lombard royal power over the central and southern Italian duchies, which had enjoyed an autonomous existence since the sixth century. The Carolingians largely abandoned efforts to conquer the south, concentrating instead on subduing Spoleto, straddling the Apennines halfway down the peninsula. Their concern to retain Ravenna and the Pentapolis stemmed from the access they gave from Lombardy to Spoleto, which in turn covered the route southwards, as well as offering a good post from which to supervise the pope. Spoleto’s strategic significance led to it being entrusted in 842 to the (then) loyal Widonen family, who were sufficiently powerful by the 880s to challenge the later Carolingians for the Italian title. The Ottonians would also give Spoleto to trusted vassals, as well as carving out the marquisate of Ancona in 972 as a check against Spoleto becoming too powerful. Again, this shows how fragmentation could serve royal interests rather than simply being an indication of weakness.

The south remained distant to the kings of Italy throughout the Middle Ages. The large Lombard duchy of Benevento controlled most of the south in 800, except for the Byzantine outposts of Calabria (Italy’s toe), Apulia (the heel), along with Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi.17 The entire south was raided by the Arabs, who had conquered Sardinia and Sicily from Byzantium by 827. The later Carolingian emperors briefly established authority between 867 and 876, but lost this to a Byzantine rival amidst the disorders of the later ninth century. Otto I recovered influence a century later, but Benevento fragmented in the process, adding new duchies at Salerno and Capua ruled by lords claiming Lombard descent. Otto tried to integrate these into the Empire by enfeoffing Pandulf Ironhead, the ruler of Capua and Benevento, with Spoleto.18 Pandulf’s death in 981 was followed a year later by the disaster at Cotrone, in which his two sons died, eliminating the emperor’s most reliable southern partners.

Weak imperial and Byzantine influence cancelled each other out, creating a vacuum filled by the Normans, who arrived from the west around 1000 as pilgrims and adventurers on their way to the Holy Land. Originally the ‘north men’ (i.e. Vikings), the Normans had conquered north-west France during the early tenth century. A century later, Normandy was too crowded to accommodate ambitious nobles who also saw rich pickings in southern Italy, which (thanks partly to Byzantine influence) was one of the few places in the west where gold coins still circulated. The Norman conquest of southern Italy was even more impressive than their better-known invasion of England in 1066. Whereas that expedition was backed by the full apparatus of the duchy of Normandy and comprised 8,000 well-armed troops, there were rarely more than a few hundred Norman freebooters in southern Italy. They were not inherently militarily superior to the locals, but proved skilful in adapting to circumstances and gained ground through intermarriage with Lombard and Byzantine elites. Something of their ruthless opportunism can be gauged from the contemporary nicknames for their leader, Robert d’Hauteville: ‘the Weasel’ and ‘the Terror of the World’.19

Renewed Byzantine-imperial conflict over southern Italy in the 1020s allowed the Normans to gain a foothold by playing both sides. They controlled the entire south by 1077, conquering Sicily within another 20 years, ending nearly three centuries of a four-cornered contest between the Empire, Byzantium, Lombard dukes and Saracens. The Salians persisted in futile efforts to subdue the newcomers. By contrast, the papacy copied the traditional imperial response to assertive barbarians and legitimated their possession of the south in 1054 in return for accepting papal suzerainty, establishing an uneasy but mutually beneficial alliance lasting into the late twelfth century.20 The high point came in 1130 when the pope recognized the Normans as kings in return for formal vassalage to the papacy on behalf of Sicily and the southern mainland, which became known as Naples after its capital.

The Investiture Dispute disturbed the political balance within the kingdom of Italy, enabling numerous towns to escape lordly control and acquire jurisdiction over their own hinterlands, often with papal backing (see pp. 512–15). Civic emancipation was temporarily interrupted by an imperial resurgence under the Staufers, who benefited from the Normans’ heavy involvement in the Crusades after 1095. Henry VI acquired a claim to Sicily by marrying the Norman heiress Constanza and asserted this after hard fighting in 1194.21 Henry’s programme of uniting Sicily and Naples to the Empire (unio regni ad imperium  ) was symbolized in the choice of Staufer and Norman names for his son born in 1194: Frederick Roger, the future Emperor Frederick II. Henry’s bold stroke simultaneously deprived the pope of his main ally and placed Staufer territory on three sides of the Papal States. Determination to prevent the union drove papal policy throughout the next fifty years, including Innocent III’s intervention in the double election and subsequent Staufer–Welf civil war of 1198–1214.22

A new balance emerged as the pope sanctioned the liquidation of the Staufers through the Anjou (Angevin) family, an offshoot of French royalty who conquered Sicily and Naples in the 1260s. The papacy re-established the indirect influence it had enjoyed with the Normans by recognizing the Angevins as kings in return for their acceptance of papal suzerainty. Sicily fell to the king of Aragon in 1282 and through him eventually to Spain along with Sardinia, but an Angevin line persisted in mainland Naples till 1442, before that too passed via Aragon to Spain.23 Feudal jurisdiction over Sicily and Naples bolstered the pope’s international standing, but never amounted to effective control of either territory, the rulers of which occasionally used their obligation to protect the papacy as cover for unwelcome intrusion into its affairs. The real Papal State remained much as it had been during the earlier Middle Ages. In 1274 Rudolf I accepted his predecessors’ transfer of imperial rights, effectively emancipating the Patrimonium from the Empire and extending it to include Spoleto, Ancona and (finally) Ravenna and its surrounding region known as the Romagna. In practice, the pope governed these possessions indirectly through lesser secular lords who were often heavily involved in papal politics. After two decades of renewed consolidation, the Papal States were rocked by a massive popular revolt involving over 60 towns and 1,577 villages between 1375 and 1378. Although order was restored, in the process Tuscany was lost for good.

The defeat of Staufer ambitions confirmed the kingdom of Italy as confined to Lombardy and Tuscany and composed of city states that had usurped the secular powers of the bishops and earlier lay lords by the mid-thirteenth century. Other than a few notable exceptions like Genoa and Florence, civic government slipped via oligarchy into the hands of single families, in turn creating the basis for new duchies to emerge as regional centres extended dominance over surrounding lesser towns and lordships. These leading families, known as signori, became hereditary rulers from the 1260s. Their authority rested on jurisdictions sold or otherwise transferred to the town councils by emperors since the twelfth century, as well as counties bought or conquered from local lords.24 This process completed a fundamental shift in Italy’s relationship to the Empire. The old lords were gone, extinguishing kinship and other personal bonds between the German and Italian elites, while the prolonged conflicts with the papacy drastically reduced the emperor’s influence over Italian bishops, who were no longer fully part of the imperial church.

All this changed rather than ended northern Italy’s place in the Empire. As new men, the signori generally craved recognition and legitimacy, especially as they faced numerous local rivals. They looked to the emperor rather than the pope to provide this, because ties to the Empire remained much stronger in the north than elsewhere in Italy, while the papacy’s ‘captivity’ in Avignon after 1309 reduced its attractions as a political partner. Fourteenth-and fifteenth-century emperors were generally willing to recognize powerful signori in return for their acceptance of the new city states as imperial fiefs. Although largely absent from Italy throughout this period, emperors nonetheless remained the sole recognized fount of all honours. They retained indirect influence by rewarding cooperative signori with successive elevation to higher titles, whilst withholding this from those who proved difficult. The larger of the new city states thereby progressed from counties to duchies by the late fifteenth century. Although Ferrara (emerging from Tuscany) and Urbino (which replaced Spoleto) were subsequently incorporated within the Papal States, Modena, Gonzaga and Milan all remained imperial fiefs alongside older jurisdictions like Genoa and the rump of Tuscany.

The new Italian princely elite differed considerably from that in Germany. Assemblies of Italian lords were already rare in the twelfth century and disappeared during the prolonged absence of the emperors after 1250. The signori had no tradition of direct personal relations with their monarch. Their emergence in a highly competitive environment further discouraged any corporate identity, while German kings saw no reason to foster anything that might threaten their ability to retain influence by playing off Italian rivalries. Finally, the desire to exclude papal interference in German royal elections encouraged a sharper demarcation of politics through new charters after the 1220s. Consequently, the Italian princes were excluded from the more formalized structures created in Germany during the fourteenth century – notably the Golden Bull, which restricted the German election to Bohemia and six German princes (see pp. 306–7). Italians rarely attended royal assemblies north of the Alps and Charles V refused to summon them to the Reichstag after 1548.

The significance of this is demonstrated by the anomalous position of Savoy, which assumed such significance in the process of Italian unification in the nineteenth century, yet remained the one Italian lordship formally integrated within ‘German’ imperial structures. Unlike the rest of imperial Italy, Savoy remained in the hands of an old lordly family, the Humbertines, who were originally Burgundian counts. Conrad II rewarded the Humbertiner for their help in securing Burgundy in 1032 with the gift of Alpine lordships. Further grants followed their support during the Investiture Dispute, developing Savoy as a secure anchor at the intersection of the Empire’s three main kingdoms in the western Alps. Its strategic position prompted Charles IV to incorporate it within the kingdom of Germany in 1361, where it formally remained until 1797.25


Burgundy was the least coherent of the Empire’s principal kingdoms and has often been viewed as an unstable frontier zone between France and Germany. It was also medieval Europe’s main north–south route, containing the Rhine, Moselle and Rhône rivers, as well as the western Alpine passes and many of the most important towns of the Carolingian era. These factors explain why Lothar I chose Burgundy together with Italy as his middle kingdom of Lotharingia in the 843 partition. It was certainly difficult to forge a common identity across this long strip of territory.26 Fragmentation was not inevitable, but the proximity of the West and East Frankish kings did offer alternative patronage for local lords, while the initial abundance of Lotharingian heirs encouraged partitions into separate royal lines that soon became extinct, frustrating possible reunifications. The result was a territory of extreme complexity, which over the longer term looks appallingly tangled, but would have appeared to contemporaries much more solid and coherent, with the seemingly endless changes of ownership and territorial size in practice carried out only at intervals of a century or more.

The most important partitions were those at Lothar’s death in 855 and that enacted in the Treaty of Mersen in 870. These definitively detached Italy and split the rest of Lotharingia into a southern kingdom (Burgundy) and northern duchy (Lotharingia, usually known under its French label ‘Lorraine’). The southern kingdom was initially based at Arles, north of the Rhône’s mouth, hence its other name as Arelat. It stretched northwards to the headwaters of the Saône and Doubs rivers. It had been settled by the Burgundians, a tribe originating on the river Oder, during the fifth century and had been incorporated into the Frankish realm in 534.27

A further partition in 888, this time east–west, definitively detached the old core area around Mâcon and Châlons west of the upper Saône. Forming a third of the original Burgundian kingdom, this had already been assigned to West Francia in 843 and now became the duchy of Burgundy (Bourgogne) thanks to the permanent involvement of its ruling lords in French politics. Ducal Burgundy passed to a junior branch of the Capetians between 1002 and 1361. The remaining two-thirds also split roughly equally, but north–south. The northern part became a second, semi-regal duchy called Upper Burgundy and included the western half of what would later be Switzerland. The southern part, comprising the former Roman provincia Gallia Transalpina, became Lower Burgundy, later known as the county of Provence.

Upper and Lower Burgundy acquired considerable autonomy during the conflicts of the later Carolingian era. They were reunited by 948 as a single kingdom of Burgundy, also known as the regnum Arelatense (Arelat) after its capital, Arles. Between 888 and 1032 the Burgundian kings came from the Rudolfinger branch of the Welfs, an extensive Carolingian lordly family. Dynastic continuity did not translate into a strong monarchy, because the succession of partitions and reunifications had reduced the Burgundian kings’ core areas to that around Lake Geneva and a few outlying castles and monasteries. Meanwhile, the counts of Provence effectively became independent to the south-west, while the lords of Maurienne established themselves in the part of the western Alps that eventually became Savoy. To the north, yet another part detached as the ‘free county’ (Franche Comté). German commentators like Thietmar of Merseburg regarded Burgundian kings as in thrall to their nobles.28 The Rudolfinger sought protection by placing themselves under Ottonian suzerainty in 926, and agreed 80 years later to make Henry II their direct heir.

However, the Rudolfinger outlived the Ottonians, whose line ended with Henry II’s death in 1024, and the relations of the current Burgundian king felt they had better claims to succeed him. They joined a loose coalition of Italian, Lorrainer, Swabian and Burgundian nobles in rejecting the authority of the Salian Conrad II, who succeeded Henry II as German king. Briefly, it appeared that much of old Lotharingia might be reunited by Conrad’s principal challenger, William V of Aquitaine. Throughout, however, Conrad retained solid backing in Germany, while his opponents failed to combine effectively and were defeated in swift succession between 1027 and 1032. A short winter campaign concluded with Conrad’s coronation as king of Burgundy in January 1033, a few months after the death of the last Rudolfinger.29 Conrad asserted royal, not dynastic, claims. He had to, because he lacked any personal connections to Burgundy, unlike Henry II, whose mother was a Burgundian princess. Although probably an expedient, Conrad’s decision to emphasize the continuity of royal claims contributed to acceptance that the Empire endured beyond the lives of its individual monarchs and even entire royal dynasties.

The bulk of the Burgundian crown lands had long since disappeared into the hands of local nobles who enjoyed considerable autonomy – indeed, this aided Conrad’s victory, because many Burgundian lords defected to him, recognizing he would be a more hands-off ruler than Odo of Champagne, who had replaced the deceased William of Aquitaine as his main local opponent.30 Nonetheless, Burgundy’s acquisition cemented the Empire as a union of three major kingdoms, adding to its premier status in Christian Europe. It also improved access to Italy, whilst constricting French influence in the same direction. Control was consolidated in 1044 by Henry III’s marriage to Agnes of Poitou, daughter of William of Aquitaine.31

Burgundy had even less of a royal tradition than Italy. There was no royal election and rarely a coronation. The Burgundian nobility comprised only counts and lesser lords, all of whom remained outside the Empire’s elite, removing another reason why the emperor should visit often. In short, its internal fragmentation and politically distant character meant it could largely be left alone. Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ renewed authority in 1156 through his marriage to Beatrix, heiress of Franche Comté, and had himself crowned king of Burgundy at Arles in 1178; all these moves were largely intended to secure Burgundy while he pursued his main interests in Italy. Otherwise, Burgundy was generally entrusted to royal governors, notably the Zähringen family, which amassed lands in what later became Baden on the Upper Rhine.

Barbarossa detached the free county again in 1169, while Savoy became an immediate imperial fief separate from Burgundy in 1310. Provence left the Empire after it was acquired by the Angevins in 1246, and Avignon (until then associated with Provence) was ceded to the papacy in 1348. France’s repeated internal problems indicate that there was nothing inevitable about its gradual encroachment into what had once been the western and southern reaches of the Burgundian kingdom. Charles IV was the last emperor to be crowned Burgundian kings, in Arles in 1365. Having backed France in its war with England (and fought at Crécy in 1346), Charles did not see French royalty as his natural enemy. He entrusted the Viennois (the northern end of old Provence) to the future Charles VI of France, who was simultaneously named imperial vicar over Arles in 1378. This area became the Dauphiné, the land traditionally given to the French king’s eldest son prior to his own succession. However, it was only through Charles VI’s own longevity as French king after 1380 and coincidental internal problems in Germany that the Dauphiné became permanently detached from the Empire.32 Consequently, the old Burgundian kingdom had largely disappeared by the fifteenth century.


Lorraine meanwhile followed a broadly similar trajectory through the emergence of smaller, more coherent territories from an ill-defined set of loose jurisdictions. The absence of any distinct royal tradition made it more obviously a border zone between East and West Francia, whose kings were more concerned to assert prestige than delineate a clear frontier. Lorraine and the entire Lower Rhine basin remained largely distant from both the French and German kings into the high Middle Ages. The leading Lorraine lord assumed the status of prince (princeps) in 911 to assert parity with the East Frankish dukes, but decided against following them in accepting the Ottonians eight years later. Instead, Lorraine remained associated with the West Frankish Carolingians, becoming embroiled in their civil war after 922. This allowed the Ottonians to assert suzerainty in 925, but the episode reinforced the sense of a separate Lotharingian heritage distinguishing the Lorraine lords from their German counterparts.33

French kings continued to dispute possession into the eleventh century. German kings intervened repeatedly during the tenth and eleventh centuries to prevent the duke of Lorraine acting independently. Otto I partitioned the duchy into Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) halves in 959 to make it more manageable. As with Burgundy, such partitions were not irreversible and both parts were rejoined between 1033 and 1046. Henry III interpreted this as threatening his authority, not least because the ambitious duke, Gottfried the Bearded, married the Tuscan heiress Beatrix in 1054, simultaneously challenging imperial power in Italy. Henry achieved his objective of separating the two halves of Lorraine through a long, if intermittent conflict from 1044 to 1055.34

Upper Lorraine was entrusted to Salian loyalists after 1047, but the king gradually promoted the local bishops of Metz, Toul and Verdun by assigning them neighbouring counties to balance ducal power. Meanwhile, the counts of Luxembourg and Bar escaped ducal supervision by establishing direct subordination under the emperor. Royal influence waned with the end of the Staufers in 1254, but any potential resurgence of ducal authority was checked by the complex pattern of overlapping jurisdictions developing across the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Lords throughout the Rhineland accepted lucrative fiefs providing additional rents in return for recognizing the French king as their exclusive ‘liege lord’ (dominus ligius). However, the attractions of remaining within the Empire encouraged them to retain their existing possessions within imperial jurisdiction. Thus, the dukes of Lorraine, archbishop of Trier, bishop of Liège, counts of Flanders, Hainault (Hennegau) and others now had two feudal overlords: the emperor for their immediate imperial fiefs, and the French king for specific fiefs outside imperial jurisdiction.

Lorraine’s dukes continued to participate in imperial politics in the century after the Staufers’ demise, but French kings exerted growing pressure, for example giving Duke Raoul a house in Paris in 1336 to bind him closer to their court. Charles IV released the duke from his obligations to the Empire in 1361, but like many such acts, this was not definitive, especially as the duke was still tied to the Empire through his possession of the town of Pont-à-Mousson. The extinction of the ruling Alsatian line of dukes in 1431 gave Sigismund the opportunity to reassert Lorraine’s full obligations to the Empire and the duchy was included in the new infrastructure developed by imperial reform to distribute fiscal and military burdens in the fifteenth century.35

Flanders was detached from Lower Lorraine in 1007, while the rump duchy fragmented during the Investiture Wars and was replaced by the new duchies of Geldern, Limburg and Brabant by 1138. The new configuration was confirmed by Brabant’s victory over the archbishop of Cologne at Worringen in 1288, ending over 120 years of Cologne expansion across the Lower Rhine and Westphalia. Brabant acquired Limburg, but in turn was defeated by Geldern and Jülich in 1371, thus stabilizing the region as a patchwork of medium-sized duchies. Meanwhile, the old rights of the German kings in Lorraine had been assigned to the count Palatine of the Rhine (comes palatinus Rheni  ), who was given princely status in 1155, later consolidated as one of the secular prince-electors.

Ducal Burgundy

The last and greatest of the new minor powers to emerge from the former Lotharingian lands was ducal (French) Burgundy, which passed in 1363 to a junior branch of the Valois family ruling France since 1328. Beginning with Philip the Bold, within sixty years the new Burgundian dukes escaped French suzerainty and acquired Europe’s most heavily urbanized area north of the Alps. In addition to their own ability, key factors in their success included their intervention in France’s civil war between 1420 and 1435 and an alliance with Charles IV’s son and successor, King Wenzel, in 1378, which brought the eventual acquisition of Luxembourg, completed in 1443. Dynastic marriages netted Flanders, Artois, Franche Comté (all 1383) and Brabant (1430), while Hainault, Holland and Zeeland were conquered in 1433, and Charolais (1390) and Namur (1421) were purchased (Map 15).

Burgundian power peaked under Charles ‘the Bold’, who bought Alsace (1469) and conquered Geldern, Limburg and Zütphen (all 1473). Charles came closest to resurrecting the old middle kingdom, but under radically altered circumstances. Burgundy’s rapid ascent alarmed France and also Lorraine and the Swiss, who combined in the 1440s to resist its eastwards expansion. Frederick III declined Charles’s petition to be recognized as king. Any chance of realizing this dream ended with Charles’s death in battle against the Swiss at Nancy in January 1477. The subsequent Franco-Habsburg war over the Burgundian succession ended in compromise in 1493, confirming French possession of the original ducal Burgundy (Bourgogne), while the Habsburgs scooped all the duke’s other lands.


The Northern and Eastern Marches

The Empire was bounded to the north and east by peoples who had remained outside both the Frankish realm and Latin Christianity and who imparted very different characteristics than those present along the western and southern frontiers. To understand how these areas developed, we need to jettison the interpretations of Germanic conquest and various struggles for national self-determination that have since the nineteenth century so often been projected onto the history of this part of Europe. For most of the early Middle Ages, German kings intervened along these frontiers primarily to meet the expectations of their existing subjects, rather than conquer new ones.36

The Carolingians were beset by skilful, ruthless raiders after 800: Vikings ravaged West Francia and Frisia, Saracens plundered southern France and Italy, Avars and later Magyars raided deep into northern Italy and southern Germany, while the Slavs were a constant threat along the Elbe. All these peoples used unconventional tactics and often locally superior numbers. The Vikings and Saracens used the rivers to penetrate the hinterland – the former reaching as far as Lorraine in 891. Their own homes were either distant, or almost entirely absent in the case of the Magyars, who remained nomadic into the later tenth century.37 Infighting amongst the Carolingians simply widened the opportunities to plunder during the 880s.

Payments of the so-called ‘Danish money’ (Danegeld) to the Vikings by the relatively wealthy West Frankish kings after 845 could be quite successful in curbing violent raiding. However, such tribute was also considered unkingly and contributed to growing criticism of the western Carolingians. Where possible, kings preferred military action, which could also satisfy their own lords’ expectations of plunder.38 Such ideas were paramount in the development of the marcher lordships once the Carolingian Empire stopped expanding in 814. These militarized zones were partly outside the duchy structure and were entrusted to margraves (marquises) whose jurisdictions were often quite large and were endowed with important royal benefices to sustain them.39 Some margraves became powerful figures in imperial politics, despite their location on the Empire’s geographic periphery. The Ekkehardiner family rose to prominence in charge of the Saxon marches of Meissen and Merseburg after 985. A measure of their influence is that they persuaded Pope John XIX to move the bishopric of Zeitz to their castle of Naumburg in 1028. They were already considered potential contenders for the German royal title in 1002, but preferred to obtain further land in return for loyal service until their line was extinguished in 1046 (Map 4).

Sections of the marches included fixed defences, notably the Limes Saxoniae built in 810 from Kiel south to the Elbe, and the Danewerk earth wall extended between the Schlei and Treene rivers in 929 to stop Danish raiders heading south. Such extensive works were difficult to build and maintain. Elsewhere, defence relied mainly on fortified monasteries and castles; initially wooden palisades and towers were replaced by stone constructions in the eleventh century. Strongpoints offered places of refuge, but could have the perverse effect of attracting raiders hoping to take the booty stored in them. There is some controversy whether the Ottonians settled armed farmers on the south-east frontier in the 930s; the Habsburgs certainly did this six centuries later to oppose the Ottomans. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Ottonians developed defence in depth, with castles and posts covering important river crossings and intended to delay mounted raiders who rarely had the capacity for a prolonged siege. Such positions were not merely defensive, since they provided bases to launch raids in the other direction. Henry I and his successors repeatedly led expeditions to extort tribute from the Slavs, partly to redistribute amongst their lords, but also to assert prestige and signal their retention of divine favour.40

Slavs and Magyars

Interaction with the Slavs and Magyars along the Empire’s eastern frontier helped create the new kingdom of Bohemia, which became part of the Empire, and those of Poland, Hungary and Croatia, all of which ultimately remained outside it. Like their western European counterparts, these kingdoms subsequently claimed distinct identities based on myths of origins. These stories convey something of the tangled relationship between all these new states and the Empire. It was understood that Kievan Russia, Poland and Bohemia derived a shared heritage from three Slavic brothers. Rus travelled the least, stopping at Kiev to found the Ruthene peoples who eventually spread to the Carpathian Mountains. Lech settled in Gniezno between the Wartha and Vistula rivers and became the progenitor of the Poles, while Czech pushed on to discover terra Boemia – the land of honey (Bohemia).41

The Slavs to the north formed numerous powerful confederacies rather than kingdoms. Collectively known as the Wends, they in fact numbered several peoples. The Abodrites controlled the area between the Elbe and Denmark under their own duke. The Havelians along the Havel river occupied what became Brandenburg. The Veleti, or Liutians (Lutici), were a looser confederation emerging during the tenth century in what later became Pomerania along the Baltic coast. They were the principal force behind the rising that also drew Abodrite support and swept away much of the Ottonian presence along the lower Elbe in 983. The importance of restoring Ottonian prestige is demonstrated by the fact that the six-year-old Otto III accompanied the first retaliatory expedition (986), while another four major campaigns were launched between 991 and 997.42 These were all punitive expeditions intended to reassert prestige, especially in Germany, rather than serious efforts to reconquer the area. The Sorbs were an important group who refused to join the rising. They lived just north of Bohemia in Lusatia, deriving its name from their word for marsh, and were the first to be Christianized permanently. By contrast, the Ranians refused Christianity and though restricted to Rügen Island off Pomerania, they remained significant through their influence on Baltic trade.

Other Slav confederacies occupied areas south of Bohemia. Ironically, it was Charlemagne’s victory over the Avars controlling Pannonia (the Hungarian Plain) by 800 that allowed several of these groups to expand.43 The Carinthians occupied the eastern Alps above the Drava river, while the Croats emerged from other, looser groupings on the Adriatic coast during the late ninth century.

All these peoples underwent a similar demarcation of power and territory between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Like the Carolingians and Ottonians they built castles, making their lands harder to conquer. Relations could be violent, notably with the second major rising along the Elbe in 1066, and the Wendish Crusade after 1147. However, gradual acceptance of Christianity from the tenth century offered a route to more peaceful engagement with the Empire. It remained unclear prior to the thirteenth century whether this interaction would end with a people’s incorporation within the Empire, or recognition as a separate realm beyond it.

The Frankish eastward expansion had the largest impact in the south, where the Carinthian Slavs were incorporated as a border march in 828. Elsewhere, the imposition of tribute was not necessarily a precursor to subjugation – especially as its purpose was usually prestige rather than annexation. The Bohemians and Moravians used the Carolingian civil wars to escape their tributary status imposed around 800. The Moravians established their own ‘Great Empire’ in the later ninth century in the vacuum left by Charlemagne’s destruction of the Avar Confederacy, while the Bohemians resumed raiding in 869.44 Both were soon under pressure from the Magyars, a Finno-Ugric people from the Volga who themselves were being pushed westwards by the Turkic Pechenegs sponsored by Byzantium. The Franks called them Ungari (Hungarians) after their ‘Confederation of Ten Arrows’ (On-Ogur  ), a name which, in turn, reflects their military organization as swift mounted archers skilled in hit-and-run tactics. Overrunning Pannonia within a few years of their arrival in 895, the Magyars soon controlled the lucrative east–west trade in slaves, food and livestock, supplementing this with plunder from raids deep into southern Germany and Italy after 899. By 926, Henry I paid tribute to secure a temporary end to their depredations.

Although the Moravian empire collapsed in 906, the Magyar intrusion indirectly benefited the Bohemians and Poles by pushing trade northwards to follow the Cracow–Prague route, safe on the other side of the Carpathians. The new wealth promoted greater political centralization favouring the Premyslids controlling Prague, who were recognized by the Franks as counts in 871. The discovery of silver at Jihlava (Iglau) in Moravia and then at Kutná Hora in Bohemia increased Premyslid influence, and gave them an advantage over their poorer German counterparts. Having lost ground mid-century, Christianity was again accepted in Bohemia during the 890s, and over the next four centuries the Premyslids married 19 German princesses, becoming a prominent part of the Empire’s elite.45 The Premyslids were already recognized as hereditary dukes in 895 and ruled Bohemia until their extinction in 1306. The emperor had no crown lands, monasteries or castles in Bohemia, and never visited it on the customary royal progression prior to the fourteenth century.46 Bohemia developed its own identity focused on the martyrdom of Prince Wenceslas I and it served as an important conduit for Latin Christianity’s penetration further south and east. Nonetheless, Bohemia remained within the imperial church with its bishops at Prague and Olmütz initially under Mainz jurisdiction.

Poland and Hungary

The Piasts occupied a similar position in Cracow to the Premyslids in Prague, becoming the dominant Polish lordly family between 842 and 1370. They embraced new ideas transmitted from the Empire through Bohemia, including the status of duke adopted by Mieszko I, who married a Premyslid princess and accepted baptism in 966, an act still celebrated as the birth of Polish Catholicism.47 The Piasts were not trying to create an independent Poland – a concept entirely alien to the early Middle Ages. However, they were prepared to work with the Empire as a means of securing and enhancing their own status relative to local and neighbouring lords. Not only did they have the Premyslids as an example, but the Croat elite secured recognition as a separate kingdom in 925 in return for recognizing Latin rather than Byzantine Christianity. Mieszko established a bishopric based in Gniezno, the Piast capital until 1039, and in 990 dedicated his land to the papacy as a means of asserting autonomy whilst joining Christendom’s princely elite.

Piast-imperial cooperation peaked with Otto III’s long pilgrimage in 999–1000 to Poland, which had complex motives but included a desire to cement alliances with Slav princes. Mieszko and his son and successor Boleslav I Chrobry had backed Otto’s punitive expeditions against the Wends during the 990s. Otto now recognized Gniezno as an archbishopric, securing Poland’s ecclesiastical autonomy, as well as establishing a suffragan bishop in Breslau (Wroclaw) for Silesia, which was within imperial jurisdiction but held by the Piasts from 990 to 1353. These measures also advanced Otto’s Christianizing agenda, because the new archbishop of Gniezno was better placed to promote missionary activity than his counterpart way to the west in Mainz, who had lost influence during the 983 Slav rising. Otto recognized Boleslav as the Empire’s ‘brother and helper’ (fratrem et cooperatorem imperii  ) and, according to some accounts, placed a crown on his head.48

Otto III certainly sent another crown to Stephen, who thereby became king of Hungary in 1001. Christianity gained ground amongst the Magyars following the shock of their defeat at Lechfeld to Otto I in 955, which suggested easier riches lay in adopting a settled existence. Although Byzantine influence remained potent, the Ottonians offered military aid and recognition from the 970s, backing the Arpad family against those Magyars who wanted to continue the traditional life as nomadic raiders. Prince Vaik adopted the Christian name Stephen (Istvan) at his conversion in 985, soon importing western political ideas like the Empire’s administrative structure of counties under sheriffs, and converting the enslaved population into freer, but still dependent serfs. Hungary’s elevation to a kingdom in 1001 was underpinned by a new ecclesiastical structure with two archbishops and ten bishops. This process was slow, and twelfth-century travellers reported the Hungarians still lived in tents during the summer and autumn months.49

Otto III was subsequently criticized for converting tribute-paying princelings into independent kings. It is more likely that Boleslav and Istvan considered themselves the emperor’s primary allies, while Otto regarded himself as king of kings. The relationship remained fluid because of internal changes in the Empire, Poland and Hungary. Boleslav’s successors were not crowned kings, and his son Mieszko II returned the royal insignia to the Empire in 1031. A royal title could mark temporary ascendency over domestic foes, while submission to the Empire was a favoured tactic of weaker rulers seeking external backing. In practice, Poland remained a tributary of the Empire from the 960s until the late twelfth century without this infringing its internal autonomy or requiring its ruler to participate in German politics. In this sense, it remained more distinct than Bohemia, which was clearly an imperial fief by 1002.50

The emperor retained two additional forms of influence. Istvan’s marriage to Gisela, daughter of the duke of Bavaria, associated him with the Ottonian elite and was a significant factor in his conversion. Boleslav was related by marriage to the Ekkehardiner of Meissen and to the Billung family, who were dukes of Saxony. The Piasts continued to marry into the Empire’s elite for the next fifty years, but from the mid-eleventh century their choice of brides became more international, reflecting their desire for wider recognition.

The second option of military intervention remained possible into the twelfth century, but proved increasingly difficult. Boleslav seized Meissen following Otto III’s death in 1002 in what was both a land grab and a blow against Henry II, who was less willing to recognize him as king and demanded a resumption of tribute.51 A three-way fight developed between the emperor and the Polish and Bohemian dukes after 1003, joined by the Hungarians in 1030. Multiple issues were at stake. Each sought to assert prestige relative to the others, while the Polish, Bohemian and Hungarian rulers faced internal challenges, including from those unwilling to accept Christianity or embrace new socio-economic arrangements. Meanwhile, imperial intervention depended on cooperation from Bavaria and the eastern march lords like the Ekkehardiner who had their own regional interests. Conrad II’s difficulties in Burgundy and Italy were an added distraction between 1024 and 1033. The Veleti used the chance to launch a series of increasingly destructive raids over the Elbe from 1033 to 1066. The Premyslids removed the relics of the martyred Ottonian missionary Vojtech from Gniezno in 1039 to promote Prague’s elevation to an archdiocese independent from Mainz and secure ecclesiastical autonomy similar to that already enjoyed by Poland and Hungary.

Nonetheless, Conrad’s successor Henry III skilfully reasserted imperial pre-eminence in a series of campaigns culminating in a great victory in support of the Arpads over Hungarian rebels at Menfö in 1044. The problems that confronted his son Henry IV hindered further intervention after 1073, while the Arpads and Piasts reasserted a more independent royal status by supporting the Gregorian reform papacy during the Investiture Dispute. With his customary ingenuity, Gregory VII reinterpreted Henry III’s earlier gift of insignia captured at Menfö to argue that Hungary was subordinate to the papacy, not the Empire. The last serious efforts to enforce imperial suzerainty over Hungary and Poland failed by 1109, but infighting amongst the Piasts ensured some tribute was paid until 1184.


The Premyslids chose the opposite course of securing elevation as kings by backing the Salians. Henry IV granted Wratislav II a personal royal title in 1085 as thanks for defeating his German enemies at Mailberg three years earlier. This elevation underscores the significance of the imperial title, since Henry delayed the reward until after his own coronation as emperor in 1084, thereby maintaining his superior status. Only an emperor (or more controversially, a pope) could make a king. Kings could not make other kings, nor could royal titles simply be assumed: those attempting this failed to secure recognition from existing monarchs. As with the earlier example of the Piasts, the Premyslids’ own infighting prevented them from making their royalty permanent. Vladislav II received another personal title from Frederick I in 1158. Ottokar I secured confirmation of this as hereditary by trading his support for the Staufers during the Empire’s civil war after 1198. Frederick II’s subsequent problems obliged him to confirm this in 1212 and 1231, as well as recognize Prague’s autonomy from the imperial church. The ‘lands of the Bohemian crown’ (corona regni Bohemiae  ) were increasingly accepted as a distinct unit separate from the German kingdom. Frederick II issued a charter in 1212, agreeing to accept whoever the Bohemians chose as their king.

In future, each new Bohemian king automatically succeeded to the ‘lands of the Bohemian crown’, but his political rights in the Empire depended on being enfeoffed with the new title of Arch Cup Bearer (Erzmundschenk), created in 1212, which entitled him to participate in German royal elections. These changes consolidated Bohemia’s autonomy, but it would be wrong to interpret them simply as a ‘decline’ in imperial authority, since they reflected a new understanding of feudal vassalage developed by the Staufers to ease management of the Empire.52

German lords periodically criticized this arrangement, which placed Bohemia outside their king’s jurisdiction, yet still allowed it to help elect their king. The famous thirteenth-century legal treatise the Sachsenspiegel added ethnic arguments by claiming the Bohemians were a different people. Such criticism generally only surfaced in moments of tension and many Germans regarded Bohemians positively. Perhaps one in six of Bohemia’s inhabitants were German-speaking by the late Middle Ages, following large-scale immigration encouraged by Bohemia’s kings who valued Germans for their skills and labour. Although outside the imperial church, Bohemia was still involved in the major monastic movements like the Cistercians and Premonstratensians, while Bohemian lords built German-style stone castles like their Polish and Hungarian counterparts.53

The Premyslids made serious bids to secure election in Germany from the 1270s, only to be blocked by their Habsburg rivals in Austria. The struggle thwarted Rudolf I’s efforts to reverse the 1212 arrangement and reduce Bohemia to the status of an immediate fief again. In an entirely unpredictable sequence of events, the Luxembourg family, previously based in north-western Europe, inherited Bohemia in 1310 after the Premyslids’ extinction. They expanded the Bohemian crown lands by acquiring Silesia in stages between 1327 and 1353 through marriage with the local dukes, as well as the Sorb region of Lusatia by 1370 – in both cases at the Piasts’ expense. Various junior Piast branches survived as Bohemian vassals in Silesia until 1653.54 Where the Premyslids had failed, the Luxembourgs succeeded in using Bohemia as a base from which to rule the Empire, between 1346 and 1438. Bohemia now became ‘king’s country’ as its autonomy was consolidated to secure it as a large territorial base from which to govern the Empire (see pp. 389–96).


The Salians’ efforts to assert suzerainty over Poland and Hungary failed just as demographic and economic growth in the Empire gathered momentum, prompting a resumption of eastward expansion suspended since the 980s. The subsequent Wendish Crusade after 1147 involved Bohemians, Danes and Poles, but is associated in the popular memory primarily with the Teutonic Order. This was a self-consciously Germanic organization, but was highly unusual in the much wider process of migration and in fact did not require its knights to be born Germans and made little effort to Germanize its multi-ethnic subjects ‘beyond enforcing the most perfunctory Christianization’.55

The Order kept its relationship to the Empire deliberately ambiguous. Grand Master Hermann von Salza negotiated purposely contradictory agreements with Emperor Frederick II, Pope Gregory IX and the Piast Prince Conrad of Masovia in return for agreeing to assist the northern crusading effort in 1226. His agreement with Frederick secured the emperor’s sanction and protection, whilst guaranteeing the Order’s independence as only the Empire’s ‘associate’ rather than vassal.56 Utterly ruthless, the Order continued its aggressive expansion long after achieving its original goal of defeating the pagan Prussians. It exploited Poland’s internal divisions into the 1320s to expand at the expense of fellow Christians, including capturing Gdansk in 1308, as well as buying Estonia in 1345 from Denmark, which had conquered it during the 1220s. Suzerainty was extended over the archbishopric of Riga in 1395, reducing the parallel Livonian Order to a subordinate branch (Map 21).

Thereafter the Order contracted in the face of a resurgent Poland, which inflicted a crushing defeat at Tannenberg in 1410 and by 1466 had captured western Prussia, including Gdansk. The prolonged conflicts with the Order after 1409 encouraged Polish intellectuals to embrace the western concept of monarchical sovereignty and argue their kingdom was fully independent. This was symbolized by Polish monarchs’ adoption of a closed ‘imperial’ crown rather than the open diadems worn previously.57 Renewed war with Poland after 1519 precipitated the Order’s collapse. Seeking to escape total defeat, Grand Master Albrecht von Hohenzollern secularized the remaining, eastern, half of Prussia as a hereditary duchy under Polish suzerainty in 1525, parting ways with the rest of the Order that remained based in southern Germany.

The Livonian Order refused to follow suit and emancipated itself as an independent military order still controlling 113,000 square kilometres inhabited by a million people.58 Still beset by enemies, the Livonian Order reinterpreted its thirteenth-century charter to claim its grand master was an imperial prince entitled to the Empire’s protection. The Habsburgs had more pressing matters in western Europe, obliging Grand Master Gottfried Kettler to follow the Teutonic example and secularize his remaining territory as the duchy of Courland under Polish suzerainty in 1561. The Reichstag continued to debate Livonia’s and Prussia’s relationship to the Empire into the 1570s before accepting that both lay outside its frontiers. Courland remained an autonomous part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until falling to Russia in the third and final Polish partition in 1795.

Ducal Prussia remained more closely connected to the Empire, having been inherited in 1618 by the main Hohenzollern line ruling Brandenburg since 1415. The Teutonic connection persisted in the Hohenzollerns’ use of black and white as two of their heraldic colours, as well as the Order’s iron cross that first appeared on Prussian battle flags after 1701. Ducal Prussia remained underpopulated and strategically vulnerable, often more of a liability than an asset to Brandenburg’s rulers who were yoked through it as Polish vassals until 1660. Adroit intervention in the Swedish–Polish war of 1655–60 secured international recognition of ducal Prussia as a sovereign possession. The Hohenzollerns thereby joined the Habsburgs as the only German dynasties ruling sovereign land beyond imperial frontiers. Hohenzollern Prussia was raised to a kingdom by Emperor Leopold I in November 1700 to buy military support for the impending War of the Spanish Succession. The lavish coronation in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) in January 1701 was intended simply to win international recognition and was never repeated – Prussian kings assumed authority like Austrian emperors after 1804 without coronations. Poland-Lithuania only recognized Prussia’s royal status in 1764, while the Teutonic Order always refused.Later pro-Prussian historians dismissed these protests as irrelevant, yet Hohenzollern monarchs remained extraordinarily touchy about their new status and felt obliged to assert it through aggressive policies later in the eighteenth century.59

Poland, Hungary and Bohemia in the Later Middle Ages

Poland and Hungary underwent considerable internal change, accelerated by the devastation wrought by the brief but terrible Mongol invasions during the 1240s, which claimed the lives of a third of all Hungarians. Hungary already adopted a more formal form of mixed monarchy in 1220. This included significant political rights to the nobles, who, by now, exercised hereditary control of the counties, and established regular diets, or assemblies, where they and representatives from leading towns discussed policy with the king. On the Arpads’ extinction, Hungary passed to a branch of the extensive Angevin family between 1308 and 1387, which made similar concessions to secure their acceptance in Poland where the Piasts died out in 1370.60

Polish nobles asserted new powers to escape Angevin rule in 1386, giving their crown to Prince Jogaila, who ruled Lithuania, Europe’s largest surviving pagan country, on the condition he accept Christianity. Jogaila’s family, the Jagiellons, ruled until 1572, but the union between Poland and Lithuania persisted beyond until the state was partitioned off Europe’s map by Austria, Prussia and Russia between 1772 and 1795. Renewal of the union at Lublin in 1569 gave the Commonwealth its definitive shape as an elective monarchy. This was much broader than that in the Empire, while the Polish nobles (the szlachta) had a far more coherent and integrative ideology than their more hierarchically organized German counterparts, whose electoral rights were restricted to a tiny elite. The number of Polish noble electors rose from 6,000 in 1573 to 20,000 by 1587. Very few of them had landed titles like German nobles; instead they derived status from possession of hereditary royal offices with provincial responsibility. This bound them to the monarchy and helped ensure that the otherwise unwieldy Commonwealth remained a significant European power into the later seventeenth century.61

Hungarian nobles rejected a possible union with Poland in 1387, instead choosing Emperor Charles IV’s younger son, Sigismund, as their king, thereby associating their kingdom with the Luxembourgs, who had ruled Bohemia since 1310 and the Empire as a whole since 1346. Sigismund’s problems with his elder brother Wenzel delayed his succession in Bohemia until 1419, by which time it had become ungovernable through the Hussite insurrection. Although designated Sigismund’s heirs in 1438, the Habsburgs soon lost both Hungary and Bohemia, opening a three-way struggle after 1468 that meshed with a revolt of the Austrian nobility. Hungarian influence in eastern Austria was not broken until 1490.62

The growing Ottoman threat encouraged east-central European nobles to accept monarchical unions as offering prospects for a more coordinated response. Hungary and Poland were linked by personal union from 1370 to 1387 and 1440 to 1444, as were Hungary and Bohemia from 1444 to 1457 and 1490 to 1526. The multiplicity of these connections and the frequency with which they changed reveals the relative openness of the situation immediately east of the Empire, as well as how Bohemian, Austrian and Silesian nobles had political and familial interests stretching across east-central Europe, and also west into Germany. The coincidence of Habsburg rule in the Empire, Bohemia and Hungary with the arrival of the Ottomans in the 1520s did not end these connections, but nonetheless radically altered the wider context, as we shall see shortly.


Before we follow developments into early modernity, we need to conclude coverage of the Middle Ages by examining the situation to the north and north-west of the Empire. Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia remained beyond the Frankish world, though contacts deepened as the Saxons embraced Christianity from the 780s, allowing missionary work to extend northwards. The Franks and early Ottonians cooperated with the Abodrites along the lower Elbe to contain Viking raiding, while Henry I established a bridgehead to the north by conquering Schleswig in 934. The conversion of the Danish chieftain Harald Bluetooth then stabilized the northern frontier and opened possible cooperation to Christianize the Wends through the Hamburg-Bremen missions. Cooperation peaked in negotiations from 1025 to 1027 between Conrad II and Knut, the last and greatest of the Viking kings who temporarily united Denmark and England and extended control into Norway and the Vistula estuary. Knut sealed the alliance by attending Conrad’s coronation in Rome in March 1027. Like the earlier agreements made by Otto III around 1000, this was sufficiently ambiguous to allow both parties to interpret it to suit their domestic audiences. Conrad ceded Schleswig to Denmark in 1036, but by then Knut’s empire was already fragmenting following his death the previous year.

Knut’s successors abandoned their cooperation with the Hamburg-Bremen mission and established their own ecclesiastical and dynastic ties to France, Hungary and Poland during the mid-eleventh century. However, the Danish monarchy’s status as first among equals left it vulnerable to succession disputes. Thus, like those of east-central Europe, Danish rulers were often prepared to trade nominal submission to imperial suzerainty in return for the political capital of imperial recognition as kings.63 Unfortunately, this could also bring risks for the Empire, demonstrated after 1146 when renewed Danish civil war spilled south across the Elbe as the rival claimants sought recognition and support in Germany.

The resulting prolonged, if intermittent, conflict eventually demarcated the Danish-imperial frontier, not along geographical or ethnic lines, but according to which master local lords eventually recognized. The Staufers relied heavily on the cooperation of their marcher lords, notably Frederick I, who gave Henry ‘the Lion’, duke of Saxony, a free hand to intervene in the Danish conflict. Henry promoted his own vassals, like the count of Holstein, who secured control of the North Sea coast between the Elbe and Schleswig. These political ambitions were a further factor adding to the violence of German migration into this region, as well as fuelling the Wendish Crusade after 1147. The situation grew more complex still with Henry’s rebellion against Frederick after 1180. Frederick sought to regain control by awarding ducal titles to the remaining Abodrite and Veletian princes, thereby integrating their possessions of Mecklenburg and Pomerania within the Empire as imperial fiefs in 1181. The Staufer–Welf civil war interrupted this after 1198 by allowing Denmark to displace imperial influence across Mecklenburg and most of Pomerania and Holstein. Eventually, an alliance of north German and Wendish princes and towns defeated the Danes at Bornhöved in July 1227, forcing them to return the area north of the Elbe. Thereafter, Denmark remained confined to its peninsula and islands, allowing Lübeck and other newly founded towns to expand as the Hanseatic League.64 The newly minted Wendish dukes re-emerged as imperial vassals, with the Abodrite line ruling Mecklenburg until 1918, while the Veletians survived in Pomerania until 1637 (acquiring Rügen in 1325).


Many German and English writers were fond of expressing a common Anglo-Saxon-Germanic heritage prior to 1914, but in fact this largely disappeared after the Saxon migrations of late antiquity. Important contacts remained, especially with the renewed missionary activity promoted by the Carolingians, who often relied on qualified monks from the British Isles, like St Boniface, but otherwise England and the Empire evolved separately. While a sense of Saxon heritage may have played a part, both countries were sufficiently distant not to be immediate competitors. Ironically, this opened possibilities for royal marriages which, like Byzantine-imperial matches, were intended mainly to impress a domestic audience and avoid antagonizing a king’s nobles by tying him to one local family. Otto I married Alfred the Great’s granddaughter, Edith of Wessex, while Henry III married Gunhild, daughter of Knut of Denmark-England. Edith’s and Knut’s deaths ended any chances of a lasting alliance in both cases.65

By contrast, connections in the high Middle Ages were more significant, if less celebrated in the nineteenth century. Emperor Henry V married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, in 1114 as a deliberate attempt to forge an alliance with the Anglo-Norman dynasty ruling much of Britain since 1066. It was hoped this would outflank a Franco-papal alliance threatening the Empire towards the end of the Investiture Dispute. A huge dowry of 10,000 pounds of silver was an added inducement, especially as this was paid upfront and financed Henry’s Italian expedition in 1111. Matilda was accorded the rare honour of being crowned German queen ahead of her marriage. Despite the Investiture Dispute, the Empire’s prestige was sufficient to attract English interest. After her husband’s death in 1125, Matilda returned to England, where she was known as ‘the Empress’. She triumphed over her English opponents and, through her second marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, established the Plantagenet dynasty that ruled England-Normandy until 1399.66

Matilda’s namesake and granddaughter married Henry ‘the Lion’ in 1168, forging a lasting alliance with the powerful Welf family based in Saxony and drawing English and imperial politics into closer contact. Henry sought shelter with his in-laws after his defeat by Frederick I in 1180 and found strong backing from his brother-in-law, Richard the Lionheart, who became English king in 1189. Richard used his crusading expedition to support Welf and Sicilian opposition to the Staufers in Italy. Having been shipwrecked on his return journey, Richard was apprehended in 1192 by the duke of Austria, whom he had offended in the Holy Land; allegedly he was disguised as a kitchen servant and caught holding a roast chicken. The duke handed him over to Emperor Henry VI in what was the first meeting of English and German monarchs. Henry extorted a huge ransom, racking up the price when he received a counter-offer from Richard’s rival brother John, who was willing to pay to have him remain imprisoned. Eventually, Richard transferred 150,000 silver marks (weighing nearly 16 tons) and accepted imperial suzerainty over England in February 1194. The latter concession has caused some speculation, but Henry VI received several such nominal submissions from distant kingdoms without ever being in a position to convert these into effective control. The act’s significance lay in the prestige accruing to Henry and the fact that Richard was bound not to assist his enemies. More practically, the huge ransom financed Henry’s successful conquest of Sicily.67

Unsurprisingly, the Plantagenets financed Otto IV, son of Henry the Lion and grandson of England’s Henry II, in his bid to displace the Staufers through the double election of 1198. In addition to kinship with the Welfs, the Plantagenets wanted to halt the French, who were now Staufer allies and busy conquering most of Normandy. The Anglo-Welf alliance came to grief in the Welfs’ ignominious flight from the victorious French at Bouvines in 1214. As was becoming common practice, international tensions were defused by another dynastic marriage: Frederick II took Isabella, sister of England’s Henry III, as his third wife in 1235 as part of a general reconciliation extending to rehabilitation of the Welfs in northern Germany. England was thus linked to the Staufers at the height of their final conflict with the papacy.

The marriage enabled Henry III’s younger brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall, to present himself as the Staufer’s successor. His bid for the German throne has often been dismissed as quixotic, while his bribes and concessions to secure election in January 1257 make him appear weak. In fact, Richard was both serious and quite successful. By 1258 he was prepared to abandon Plantagenet claims to Normandy if this would secure his German throne.68 England remained an attractive ally after Richard’s death in 1272, thanks to its growing trade with north-west Europe and its potential to hold France in check. England’s more centralized monarchy also enjoyed significant tax revenues, enabling it to pay subsidies in 1294 and offer them in 1338. Four electors picked Edward III as anti-king against Charles IV in January 1348, but they had failed to consult Edward and he wisely declined to become involved. Thereafter, English relations with the Empire conformed to the emerging European pattern of interacting as nascent sovereign states, apart from Henry VIII’s brief candidacy in the 1519 imperial election.


The Centre

Two related processes transformed the Empire’s internal composition around 1490. Constitutional reforms arranged the different levels of authority more clearly along a single, hierarchical order, distinguishing some spatial jurisdictions as superior to others. The superior jurisdictions associated with the status of imperial Estate now emerged as distinct territories. Lesser, mediate jurisdictions were subordinated as subdivisions within these territories. This process of greater distinction has been labelled ‘territorialization’ and will be discussed at greater length later (pp. 365–77 and 408–16). It simultaneously embedded the territories more deeply within the Empire, because each owed its rights and status through recognition from the other territorial authorities. In short, status was mutually agreed rather than self-determined, and thus tied to continued membership of the Empire rather than offering the basis for sovereign independence. Consequently, both processes contributed towards delineating the Empire’s outer frontiers by distinguishing those lordships and towns embedded within the status hierarchy more clearly from those under the suzerainty of other European monarchs.

These processes of convergence and distinction proceeded unevenly across the Empire’s three principal kingdoms, Germany, Italy and Burgundy. Crucially, they coincided with the new form of imperial rule perfected by the Habsburgs, which relied on an expanded territorial base under the emperor’s direct control. Territorialization was significantly boosted by the Habsburgs’ desire to insulate their possessions from the new common institutions being created by the parallel process of imperial reform (see pp. 396–408).

The developments around 1490 have largely been interpreted in national terms as the secession of Italy, Burgundy and Switzerland from the Empire, reducing it to a ‘German Reich’.69 Austria has also often been regarded at this time as distinct, either by those seeking to trace that country’s ‘origins’ or by nineteenth-century critics accusing the Habsburgs of pursuing their own interests to the detriment of alleged common ‘German’ ones. Prussia’s rise as a second German great power from the mid-eighteenth century appears to confirm this perspective. However, it would be wrong to reduce the Empire’s later history to that of ‘Reichstag Germany’: the mass of smaller principalities and imperial cities with little or no chance of a separate existence in a Europe now more obviously composed of independent national states. Rather than seeing early modernity solely as the origins of later nations, it is better to interpret it as a significant reordering of how the Empire’s different components interacted.

Imperial reform greatly strengthened the coherence of what had been the kingdom of Germany. Increasingly, this was now called ‘the Empire’, especially by outsiders who indeed viewed the Italian and Burgundian lands as separate Habsburg personal possessions. A major factor in this shift was the absence of German coronations after 1486, removing the separate significance of the German royal title since whoever was elected automatically became emperor (see pp. 69–70 and 301–7). The institutions created through imperial reform were primarily intended to regulate how the German kingdom was governed, not the wider Empire, since the Burgundian and Italian lords had already been excluded from the process of choosing the German king by the mid-fourteenth century. Thus, constitutional change combined with the distribution and management of Habsburg possessions to sharpen the distinctions between Germany, Italy and Burgundy.

The reforms delineated the extent of what had been the German kingdom by identifying which imperial fiefs enjoyed the status of imperial Estate, allowing them to participate in common institutions, notably the Reichstag, whilst also requiring them to contribute men and money through now more formalized systems for distributing shared burdens. A new intermediary layer of authority was interposed from 1500 to 1512 between territories and central institutions by grouping the imperial Estates on a regional basis in tenKreise (imperial circles) to improve peace-keeping, law enforcement and defence coordination (Map 7).70 Habsburg possessions were deliberately separated as the Austrian and Burgundian Kreise, while Bohemia (which only became a Habsburg possession in 1526) was excluded as still suspect after the Hussite insurrection. The Swiss also opted out, though still remaining within some aspects of imperial jurisdiction. The new structures were consolidated through the package of constitutional measures passed by the Reichstag meeting in Augsburg in 1555. As we have seen (pp. 115–28), this also adjusted the ecclesiastical structure within the former German kingdom, determining the future size and character of the imperial church and confirming which ecclesiastical territories survived as imperial Estates.

The North

These changes had their greatest impact in northern Germany, which had largely been ‘distant from the king’ since the Ottonians. Few northern territories played significant roles in late medieval imperial politics in contrast to those on the Middle and Upper Rhine and, from the fourteenth century, also Bavaria, Austria and Bohemia. Identification as imperial Estates and inclusion within the Kreis structure now integrated northern territories like Holstein, Mecklenburg and Pomerania fully within the Empire. Conversely, the exclusion of the former Teutonic lands of Prussia and Livonia from these structures placed them clearly outside the Empire.

While this clarified the northern frontiers, it did not exclude all external influence. German princes could still hold land outside the Empire, as exemplified by the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns in Prussia after 1618. Foreign rulers could also become imperial princes through the possession of imperial fiefs. Such interconnections already existed during the Middle Ages, but assumed a different character with the Empire’s constitutional reform and the new definition of sovereignty and conceptions of Europe as composed of independent states. The Empire remained defined by fragmented sovereignty where the emperor shared power with the semi-sovereign imperial Estates, whereas sovereignty was increasingly regarded as indivisible in other European states. The anomalous position is exemplified by the way George III and Frederick William III each felt obliged to send two letters of congratulations on Francis II’s adoption of a hereditary Austrian imperial title in 1804: one in their character as sovereign monarchs of Britain and Prussia, the other in their capacity as imperial Estates in Hanover and Brandenburg.71

Other such personal unions existed. The oldest began in 1448 when the count of Holstein secured the election of his nephew Christian of Oldenburg as Danish king, establishing a dynasty still ruling today. Christian inherited Holstein on the extinction of its counts in 1459, but Emperor Frederick III raised it to a duchy in 1474 to ensure it remained an imperial fief within the Empire. The Oldenburgs were thus imperial princes in Holstein and kings in Denmark (and Norway, linked to Denmark from 1387 to 1814). They accepted their dual status, because it brought influence in the Empire and assisted long-standing Danish ambitions to control the entire Elbe estuary. The connections affected political behaviour, since Danish policy adopted the methods customarily employed elsewhere in the Empire to achieve objections. Although force was occasionally employed, Denmark generally used its influence in imperial institutions as it tried to acquire additional imperial fiefs along the Elbe. Repeated failure did not cause it to change its tactics or disengage from the Empire.72

The duchies of Holstein and Oldenburg remained convenient accommodation for junior branches of the main Oldenburg family, but further subdivisions created rival branches by the seventeenth century that tried to escape Danish tutelage. The most important of these were the Holstein-Gottorps, who forged their own connections to Swedish and Russian royalty. Duke Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp briefly and disastrously ruled Russia as Tsar Peter III in 1762. Tensions were eased by an agreement in 1773 whereby Denmark assigned Oldenburg to the junior Holstein line (surviving there until 1918), while Russia relinquished claims to Holstein to the Danes. Such dynastic swops were no longer acceptable with the rise of more virulent nationalism during the nineteenth century. Two wars (1848–51, 1864) eventually obliged Denmark to cede both Holstein and Schleswig to Prussia.73 Meanwhile, the former Frisian lordship of Jever (330 square kilometres) inherited from Oldenburg by Anhalt-Zerbst in 1667 passed to Russia at the death of Catherine II in 1796. Resembling a miniature version of modern-day Kaliningrad, this remained a Russian enclave until Tsar Alexander I gave it to his Oldenburg relations in 1818.

Sweden acquired western Pomerania, Bremen and other parts of northern Germany as spoils from the Thirty Years War (1618–48). Like Denmark, Sweden accepted the formal status as imperial vassal on behalf of these possessions, despite the rest of its lands constituting a sovereign kingdom. Denmark’s and Sweden’s German possessions remained imperial fiefs subject to imperial law. Both Scandinavian monarchies generally honoured their obligations to assist the Empire in later seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century wars. Sweden’s monarchy was also closely related to German princely families. Following the abdication of Queen Christina (herself half-German) in 1654, Sweden was ruled by her Zweibrücken relations until 1720, thereafter by the landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, followed between 1751 and 1818 by a branch of the Holstein-Gottorps.74 As in Denmark’s case, this succession of ‘German’ rulers did not forge a direct union, since the German possessions remained governed by relations throughout, in contrast to Hanover’s personal union with Britain between 1714 and 1837 where the succession of four Georges and a William were simultaneously electors and kings.

The East

Connections across the Empire’s eastern frontiers were also direct personal unions similar to that with Hungary under Sigismund between 1410 and 1437. Neither he nor the Habsburgs tried to integrate their other kingdoms within the Empire as the Staufers had attempted with Sicily after 1194. The Habsburgs acquired Bohemia and Hungary in 1526 after several decades of relying on their own possessions to sustain their control of the Empire. They had no incentive to include Bohemia or Hungary in the framework created since the 1490s, because this would have exposed them to interference from the other imperial Estates. Instead, they developed their own institutions to manage what was, effectively, a parallel dynastic-territorial empire and which gave them an overwhelming superiority of resources, in turn allowing them to retain an almost unbroken grip on the imperial title over the next three centuries.

This Habsburg monarchy (see pp. 427–39) remained closely entwined with the Empire, even if some important elements were also sovereign states. Habsburg imperial rule depended on holding these additional extensive lands as independent sources of wealth and prestige. There were also extensive economic links, such as those along the Danube: Hungary, for instance, sent 100,000 cattle annually upriver into the Empire during the sixteenth century.75 In the early 1520s the Reichstag hesitated to vote aid for Hungary’s King Louis II, because it regarded him as a foreign prince. This changed once Hungary passed to the Habsburgs on Louis’ death in battle in 1526 and the main objective of imperial taxation across the next 90 years was to subsidize the cost of defending the Hungarian frontier against the Ottomans. The bulk of the weaponry and other military materiel was supplied by firms based in the Empire and financed by German banks. The same is true of the troops who eventually evicted the Ottomans from Hungary between 1683 and 1699.

The imperial law code of 1532 was used in parts of Hungary until the mid-seventeenth century, but otherwise Hungary had its own legal system and did not import Austrian ones. Hungarian nobles resisted the use of Germanic titles like Graf for count until 1606, and very few acquired the personal status of imperial prince. However, the Habsburgs were often accompanied by Hungarians at imperial ceremonies, reminiscent of the Saracen bodyguard escorting Frederick II to Germany in 1235. Elements of imperial court ceremonial were imported into that used for Hungarian kings, while acceptance of imperial princely titles spread as the Habsburgs used their imperial prerogatives to reward loyal followers and to integrate them within a common system centred on their court in Vienna.76

Ferdinand I’s accession in Bohemia in 1526 was not universally popular and he faced a serious revolt in 1547. Conscious of the earlier difficulties with the Hussites, the imperial Estates refused to assist him, on the grounds that Bohemia was a separate kingdom.77 In response, he and his Habsburg successors rejected repeated calls that Bohemia should contribute to imperial taxes. The exercise of Bohemian electoral rights remained controversial, not least because Habsburg possession after 1526 meant they could vote for themselves. Although the vote was suspended in 1648, it was readmitted 60 years later.78 Bohemia remained connected to the Empire through the arch-office associated with its electoral status. Ferdinand I initiated the practice of ensuring the family’s chosen successor was crowned Bohemian and Hungarian king to give him royal status ahead of election as king of the Romans or emperor. Joseph I’s unexpectedly early death in 1711 necessitated his younger brother Charles VI assuming the responsibility of becoming emperor. Charles’s daughter Maria Theresa ruled as queen of Bohemia and Hungary whilst consort of Emperor Francis I. Thereafter, the Bohemian and Hungarian titles were assumed by the last three emperors after their imperial coronations. Throughout, the imperial title remained important to the Habsburgs’ management of their own kingdoms, since its traditional universal associations elevated the dynasty above all components of their personal, territorial empire.

Like Hungarians, Bohemian lords were reluctant to accept imperial aristocratic titles, regarding themselves as vassals of their own king, not the emperor. As in Hungary, this crumbled in the face of the Habsburgs’ Counter-Reformation policy of restricting employment to loyal Catholics. Bohemia’s already multilingual nobility became even more cosmopolitan following the influx of Austrian, German, Italian and Burgundian families who received lands confiscated from rebels during the Thirty Years War. Restrictions on imperial prerogatives in 1654 meant that most imperial princely titles granted after that date remained purely personal, since they were not associated with land qualifying the beneficiary as an imperial Estate (see pp. 409–14).

The Habsburgs made serious efforts to secure election as kings of Poland in 1572, 1573 and 1586–8. Although these failed, they established dynastic ties to the Catholic branch of Sweden’s Vasa family, which ruled Poland from 1587 to 1668.79 The Habsburgs backed the royal ambitions of the Saxon elector, Friedrich August, who was elected Polish king in 1697 establishing another personal union lasting until 1763. The Saxon-Polish union did not create the common institutions that had developed to sustain the Habsburg union of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary, but was nonetheless closer than those between various German principalities and the Scandinavian monarchies.

The political relationship in the Saxon-Polish and Hanoverian-British unions was the reverse of that in the Habsburg union, since in both cases the ruler’s new royal status outranked his position as an electoral prince of the Empire. Both Poland and Britain were larger and richer than the electorates and their own internal politics and international interests soon became their new rulers’ primary concern. The Saxon union was extinguished in the political realignment following the Seven Years War, but the Hanoverian-British one continued until 1837. Neither union was popular amongst its inhabitants. Most Britons regarded Hanover as a strategic liability, while Poles suspected the Saxons of pursuing separate interests. Britons and Poles travelled to Germany on grand tours and to study at the numerous German universities in the eighteenth century. Most professed a dislike of the Empire’s society as hierarchical and exclusive in contrast to their own (idealized) inclusive participatory culture and distinctive liberties. Britain and Hanover developed important scientific, artistic and cultural links during the eighteenth century, but Hanoverians did not feel ‘British’, nor vice versa. Hanover’s economy remained agrarian and failed to benefit from Britain’s industrial take-off in the nineteenth century.

The South

Italy is often assumed to have ‘played no active or meaningful role in the early modern Reich’.80 Habsburg intervention south of the Alps is presented as selfish manipulation of residual imperial prerogatives to advance purely dynastic territorial goals.81Important connections were certainly severed by 1530: there were no more imperial coronation journeys to Rome, while the title of ‘king of Italy’ was dropped during the sixteenth century, though emperors continued to list royal titles for Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia and (after 1700) Spain. The Habsburgs certainly used every opportunity to strengthen their own territorial possessions in Italy and this periodically caused disquiet amongst the imperial Estates north of the Alps who felt they were being dragged into unwanted conflicts. As we have seen (pp. 194), except for Savoy, Italian territories were excluded from most of the new institutions created by imperial reform around 1490.

The sense of separation is reinforced by the standard interpretation of Italian history from the Renaissance to the nineteenth-century process of national unification known as the Risorgimento. Like its German equivalent, this historiography presents a story of national fragmentation into separate states like Milan, Savoy-Piedmont, Tuscany and Venice. Fragmentation is likewise blamed for social and cultural stagnation and the aristocratization of urban life, the retreat of the popolo (middling burghers) from civic government, and the debilitating effects of factionalism – something already noted by outsiders, exemplified by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. While German historians blamed German disunity on the Empire, Italians attributed theirs to foreign domination, beginning in the Italian Wars of 1494–1559. Any remaining connections to the Empire are subsumed within this narrative as manifestations of notionally alien, self-serving Austrian and Spanish Habsburg rule.

Later writers generally interpreted fragmentation in dynastic terms, seeing hereditary possession as the prime determinant of political order. In fact, imperial Italy remained a land of fiefs like Germany. In this sense, the Empire really did represent a barrier to the kind of national unification desired by many Italians after 1815. This explains their celebration of Napoleon, who might otherwise have been condemned as a foreign oppressor yet laid the preconditions for later unity by sweeping away the old imperial order.82

Late fifteenth-century Italy possessed two feudal networks that had grown with the Empire. The oldest contained the ‘Latin fiefs’ (feuda Latina) across northern and central Italy and defined the limits of imperial Italy. There were six large crown fiefs, of which five (Milan, Mantua, Savoy-Piedmont, Genoa and Tuscany) were products of the Luxembourgs’ recognition of urban oligarchs as imperial princes during the fourteenth century. Charles V reasserted imperial jurisdiction over Tuscany in 1530, retrieving it from the pope, who had generally held it since the death of Matilda of Canossa in 1115. Parma-Piacenza was a product of the Italian Wars, only established in 1545 for a branch of the Farnese family. There were another 200 to 250 lesser fiefs (feuda minora) in four thick belts around Genoa: Liguria, Langhe, Lunigiana and Valle di Pregola. These were held by 50 to 70 families, including the Gonzaga, Carretto, Malaspina, Scarampi, Pico, Pallavicino, Doria and Spinola, whose names read like a roll call of some of the Habsburgs’ most important courtiers.83

The second network was that of the papacy, which emerged during the twelfth century in competition to the imperial system: Habsburg officials claimed in 1709 that two-thirds of the pope’s 296 fiefs had been usurped from the Empire. Most indeed originated in the jurisdictions established by the Carolingians and Ottonians. Concentrated in central Italy, most were small with a total population of only 223,000 in about 1700.84 In addition, the pope claimed feudal jurisdiction over Naples and Sicily since his recognition of the Normans in 1054, confirmed when Sicily-Naples was elevated as a kingdom in 1130. Spain accepted these arrangements when it acquired Naples during the Italian Wars, continuing the tradition of presenting a white horse to the pope each year as a sign of submission.85

The partition of the Habsburg lands in 1558 created a third, Spanish, network by assigning Milan to Spain. King Wenzel had already granted Milan superiority over several surrounding fiefs in 1396. Spain exploited this to secure the supply route known as the Spanish Road linking Iberia by sea to Genoa and thence through Lombardy, across the Alps and down the Rhine to its battlefront in the Netherlands against the Dutch rebels after 1566.86

The persistence of the imperial feudal network ensured that Italian lords remained the emperor’s vassals, even though they were excluded from the Reichstag, the Kreise and other institutions emerging around 1500. They were, however, subordinate to the Reichshofrat, the new supreme court established to safeguard imperial prerogatives. A special Italian section was created once the court became fully operational after 1559. The 1,500 cases from Italy were only a fraction of the 140,000 handled between then and 1806, but the number of Italian applicants nonetheless rose across this period.87 Many cases involved jurisdictional disputes, but others involved a wide range of issues and allowed the Reichshofrat to check local abuses of power.

The transition to Habsburg imperial rule did not change the practice of naming local lords as imperial vicars to safeguard the emperor’s interests and enforce court verdicts. Maximilian II reluctantly empowered his cousin Philip II of Spain as duke of Milan to implement Reichshofrat decisions across imperial Italy. Philip took this responsibility seriously, for he still regarded himself as an imperial prince, but his son Philip III was more concerned with purely Spanish interests and abused his position as commissioner in a long-running case involving abuses in Finale, Liguria, by the marquis of Carretto. Concerned to protect the Spanish Road, Philip III occupied Finale in 1602 and was eventually enfeoffed with it by Emperor Matthias in 1617. However, Spain was not prepared to challenge imperial jurisdiction openly, because it legitimated its own superior position in Lombardy. A decade later, Ferdinand II ignored Spanish interests in order to uphold his prerogative as feudal overlord in the disputed Mantuan Succession (1627–31).88

In 1545 Italian vassals were removed from the register developed during imperial reform to distribute fiscal and military obligations. However, this simply reflected their general exclusion from the German kingdom’s new institutions, not from the wider imperial framework. They were disadvantaged relative to the Germans in lacking an assembly through which they could debate and possibly control assistance. Instead, each vassal was directly required to assist when summoned by the emperor. Italian vassals provided substantial support in all of Austria’s conflicts until 1797, notably the Long Turkish War of 1593–1606 when Mantua’s contingent included Claudio Monteverdi.89 Such assistance is generally ignored when assessing the Empire, because it bypassed the Reichstag and other institutions and went directly to the Habsburg army and treasury. Yet its legal basis rested on the network of imperial fiefs and it was additional to the recruits and taxes sent by the Habsburgs’ own Italian territories.

The acquisition of Milan from the disputed Spanish succession in 1714 eliminated the irritant of the separate Spanish feudal jurisdiction and led to the appointment of a new commissioner based in Milan to uphold the emperor’s prerogatives throughout imperial Italy. The absence of an Italian equivalent to the Reichstag gave the emperor greater scope to use his prerogatives to suit himself. Charles VI retained Tuscany as a Habsburg possession at the extinction of the Medici dynasty in 1737. Titles and even small fiefs were traded or sold to obtain political and military support, with Torriglia in Liguria being raised as an additional crown fief in 1761.90

In one of history’s lesser known ironies, Savoy, champion of Italian unification, in fact emerged from the kingdom of Burgundy and between 1361 and 1797 was formally part of Germany. This, of course, did not prevent its ruling family, the Humbertines, from pursuing territorial ambitions south of the Alps. Later national perspectives make little sense given that Savoy also encroached on what is now Switzerland, held land that is now part of France, and claimed royal status through tenuous links to Cyprus.91 The Savoyard use of the slogan ‘Liberty of Italy’ was similar to calls for ‘German freedom’ in that it was anti-Habsburg rather than directly anti-imperial. Savoy used its position as imperial vicar in Italy since the late sixteenth century to create its own suzerainty over surrounding minor lordships, similar to Spain’s exploitation of Milan’s superior jurisdiction. The need to prevent Savoy defecting to France during the Nine Years War (1688–97) obliged Leopold I to confer the semi-regal status of grand duke in 1696. The House of Savoy became full royalty in the settlement ending the War of the Spanish Succession, which awarded it Sicily in 1713. Subsequent Austrian pressure forced the Humbertines to trade this for Sardinia in 1720, placing them in a position roughly equivalent to the Hohenzollerns in holding land within the Empire but also a sovereign kingdom beyond it.

Savoy’s position within the former German kingdom was not entirely meaningless, since it sustained influence within the Empire. Cooperation with Charles V was instrumental in Duke Emanuel Filiberto’s recovery of his possessions in 1559 after 23 years of French occupation. Savoy’s dukes either attended in person or sent a representative to every Reichstag between 1541 and 1714, and they accepted jurisdiction of the Empire’s other supreme court, the Reichskammergericht, over themselves as imperial Estates. Even after their elevation as sovereign kings, Savoy’s rulers continued to pay feudal dues on behalf of their imperial fiefs. They remained interested in imperial politics. Duke Charles Emanuel I was a serious candidate for the Bohemian crown in 1619, while the family pushed after 1788 to receive a new electoral title, securing Prussian backing for this ambition. The overall situation of imperial Italy and Savoy thus remained relatively stable until the shock of the French Revolutionary Wars saw both severed from the Empire in 1797. Now styled the House of Savoy, the Humbertines were restored in 1814 and eventually became monarchs of united Italy between 1861 and 1946.92

The West

The Empire’s western frontier lacks a single national story to give it coherence, as no modern state chose to claim the old Lotharingian-Burgundian heritage. As with Italy, ties between this area and the Empire are generally written from the perspective of Habsburg rather than imperial history. This is understandable since the Habsburgs secured the bulk of ducal Burgundy by 1493 and appropriated elements of its culture, notably the heraldic Order of the Golden Fleece. Unlike the acquisition of Hungary, the Burgundian inheritance expanded the Empire, because Frederick III enfeoffed his son Maximilian with all the Burgundian lands in 1478, including those recently acquired like Flanders and Artois, which were formerly French fiefs. Charles V, himself born in Ghent, continued Burgundy’s expansion by adding seven Lower Rhenish and Frisian fiefs, creating a complex of 17 provinces by 1536 stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland.

Charles’s action integrated the far north-west, a long-standing region ‘distant from the king’, more firmly within the Empire. Moreover, the entire Burgundian lands were included in the institutions created by imperial reform, including coming under Reichskammergericht jurisdiction and inclusion in the Kreis structure by 1512. Accordingly, Burgundians paid imperial taxes and were included in the imperial register of obligations compiled in 1521. Ulterior motives operated throughout, because the Habsburgs were concerned to include their new possessions within the Empire’s new collective security system to defend them against further French attacks. However, they also sought to insulate Burgundy like other direct Habsburg possessions from the imperial Estates’ influence. These policies also pandered to local interests, which the Habsburgs were keen to cultivate to consolidate their authority as Burgundy’s rulers. Burgundians already resented the heavy taxes introduced by their own dukes before 1477 and had little interest in additional obligations towards the Empire.

Charles adjusted Burgundy’s relationship in the Burgundian Treaty agreed on 26 June 1548 as part of the wide-ranging measures passed at his controversial Armoured Reichstag at Augsburg. The treaty was endorsed by the Reichstag and ratified by all 17 Burgundian provinces. It secured Burgundy’s autonomy on Habsburg terms. Kreis boundaries were adjusted to remove the provinces of Utrecht, Overijssel and Drenthe (all acquired after 1524) from Westphalia and include them within the Burgundian Kreis instead, consolidating that region as exclusively Habsburg territory. Nonetheless, Burgundy remained an imperial Estate, but with only three votes in the Reichstag, because the Habsburgs chose not to claim additional votes for all 17 provinces. Burgundy was removed from the Reichskammergericht’s jurisdiction, but Burgundians still had to contribute taxes towards its maintenance. Additionally, Burgundy was assessed for other imperial taxes at three times the rate paid by the electorates. Although sounding impressive, this was actually modest considering Burgundy contained Europe’s richest cities.93

Spain would later claim that the Burgundian Treaty obliged the Empire to defend Burgundy, including against the northern (Dutch) provinces, which rebelled in 1566. The Austrian Habsburgs, however, generally excused themselves by referring to an adjustment in the Empire’s defence structure in 1555 which had made any such assistance dependent on the agreement of the Reichstag: neither Austria nor the other German princes had any enthusiasm for being drawn into Spain’s problems. The German princes were concerned involvement would unpick their own compromise laboriously agreed only a few years before in the Religious Peace of Augsburg. Spanish military efforts stalled by 1579, leading to the secession of the seven northern provinces as a Protestant republic. The Dutch negotiated international alliances and acted like a fully independent state. Renewed efforts to crush their revolt failed after 1621, prompting Spain to recognize Dutch independence as part of the Westphalian peace settlement in 1648. In practice, full separation from the Empire took longer, since Spain simply renounced its authority over the seven Dutch provinces in a separate treaty not signed by either the emperor or the other imperial Estates. The emperor recognized Dutch neutrality in 1653, meaning exemption from any obligation to assist the Empire in future wars. This was ratified by the Reichstag only in 1728. In practice, the Dutch Republic maintained its own garrisons in strategic lower Rhenish towns until 1679. It was also a close ally of Austria for much of the eighteenth century, while its leading political family, the House of Orange, was closely related to German imperial princes, notably in Nassau and Brandenburg-Prussia.94 The truncated Burgundian Kreis remained part of the Empire, passing from Spain to Austria in 1714, which held it under the same terms as agreed in 1548 until it was overrun by revolutionary France in 1794.

The southern section of Burgundy, known as Franche Comté, was conquered by France in 1679 in what was one of the largest territorial losses suffered by the Empire during early modernity. France meanwhile encroached on Lorraine, which lay between Franche Comté and the rest of the Burgundian Netherlands. The three bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun were weakened by the emancipation of their episcopal towns and the loss of imperial patronage following the Staufers’ demise in 1254. Metz already accepted French vassalage in 1296. France assumed protectorate rights over the other two bishoprics during the fourteenth century, annexing them in 1552. As we have seen, Charles was unable to reverse this despite his costly siege of Metz, and the Empire acknowledged their loss in 1648.

All three bishoprics had land scattered across Lorraine, allowing France to increase pressure on Lorraine’s dukes to accept vassalage. Charles V and France agreed the Treaty of Nuremberg in August 1542, accepting that Lorraine was ‘free and unincorporated’ in either of their realms. Henceforth, the duchy was exempt from any of the fiscal and military obligations created by imperial reform. However, the treaty also declared it under the Empire’s eternal protection, while the duke remained an imperial vassal through his possession of Pont-à-Mousson, as well as subordinate to the French king on account of the duchy of Bar. Lorraine’s dukes sought prestige and autonomy by engaging in both French and imperial politics since – like Savoy – their possessions were too small for a fully independent existence in an international environment still governed by hierarchical political thinking. The emperor raised the minor fief of Nomeny to a margraviate in 1567 to give the duke of Lorraine a full vote in the Reichstag. Growing French pressure in the 1630s and again after 1679 appeared a far greater threat than the relatively light constraints imposed by membership of the Empire. Lorraine’s dukes accordingly allied themselves primarily with the Habsburgs and sought places for their sons in the imperial church. Lorraine was denied the recognition as royalty accorded Prussia and Savoy at the Utrecht congress ending the War of the Spanish Succession. In response, its dukes merged their family with the Habsburgs through the marriage of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen in 1736, though Austria was then obliged to sacrifice Lorraine itself as part of a wider peace settlement with France in 1738. Lorraine’s formal representation in the Empire was transferred from Nomeny to the tiny lordship of Falkenstein, partly to secure Habsburg influence but also reflecting a wider reluctance within the Empire to accept the consequences of real political changes.95

The process of Swiss independence was even longer than that of the Dutch. Most of what became Switzerland originated in Carolingian Burgundy, but the three future cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (whose alliance of 1291 is usually considered the country’s birthday) initially belonged to the duchy of Swabia. There was never a single Switzerland before the nineteenth century, but instead a multitude of towns, lordships and rural communities bound through a complex web of alliances (see pp. 585–91). Medieval emperors visited fairly frequently on their way between the Empire’s three main kingdoms. Most Swiss communities secured exemption from the Reichskammergericht’s jurisdiction in 1499, but nonetheless remained part of the Empire and were still summoned to the Reichstag during the early sixteenth century. They continued to pay fees for the confirmation of their privileges at the accession of each new emperor. As late as 1644, Bern completed a new city gate adorned with the imperial coat of arms, while the emperor addressed the Swiss as his ‘loyal subjects’. The Swiss were proud of their privileged autonomy, which they did not express in terms of modern sovereignty.

Despite the widespread belief to the contrary, the Peace of Westphalia did not confirm Swiss independence, but merely extended the privileges of 1499 to the city of Basel, which only joined the Confederation in 1501.96 Austria renounced jurisdiction over some Alpine communities in 1652, but retained some rights, as well as over Konstanz, which it had annexed in 1548. Change was gradual and was hindered by the difficulties in deciding whether sovereignty lay with the individual communities, the cantons or the Confederation as a whole. Solothurn stopped requiring its citizens to swear loyalty to the Empire only in 1681. Other symbolic ties like coats of arms were not removed until around 1700. Meanwhile, the incorporation of the French-speaking areas of Fribourg (1454) and Solothurn (1481) diluted Germanness. The spread of French culture, exemplified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, contributed to this in the eighteenth century. Whereas sixteenth-century Swiss had tended to see themselves as one of several German ‘nations’ within the Empire, their descendants two centuries later voiced a more distinct identity around the concept of Helvetica: the ideal of the moral and unpretentious Swiss in contrast to the petty and immoral German princely courts.

The French Revolutionary Wars saw the Confederation reorganized as the French-backed Helvetic Republic in 1798. Nonetheless, it was still considered necessary five years later for France to compel the Empire to acknowledge formally that Switzerland was an independent state.97 The difficulty in identifying an exact date for Swiss independence is typical of the Empire’s relations with what eventually became separate European states. Although conquest had played a significant part in many cases during the early Middle Ages, for most of the Empire’s existence imperial jurisdiction had not meant ‘foreign domination’, but a relatively benign association with what was still regarded as a common political order composed of many communities. It is to the question of identities within that order that we turn in the next chapter.

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