Holy Roman Empire

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The Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy of Alexander VI

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The Holy Roman Empire a decade after the papacy of Alexander VI

The Holy Roman Empire

Small Gold FlourishOfficially the successor of the ancient Roman empire, the Holy Roman Empire (described with some justification by the French writer Voltaire as 'neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire') was a loose confederation of states mainly situated in and around what is now Germany. The states included free cities, dukedoms, lordships and bishoprics, over which the Emperor was the lord, at least nominally. In practice, the constituent parts had considerable freedom of action, and the Emperor's powers were limited. He was elected by seven hereditary electors - the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. the Count of the Rhine, and the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. Being elected was a costly business - the electors expected to be bribed handsomely in return for their votes. The prospective Emperor was first elected King of the Romans, and was not officially Emperor until crowned by the Pope. In practice, however, most Emperors were not so crowned but simply took the title.

Frederick the Third (reigned 1452 to 1493) re-established the Habsburg dynasty of emperors, and thereafter, only members of the family were elected. The Habsburgs' own lands were centred on Austria and the Tyrol. Frederick made a costly journey to Rome in 1453 in order to be crowned by Pope Nicholas V. He took very little part in the politics of Italy, however, and spent much of his reign at war with his brother Albert. He was successful in marrying his son Maximilian to the great heiress Mary, Duchess of Burgundy

Maximilian I (1459 - 1519), de facto Emperor from 1493, and his first wife Mary of Burgundy (1457 - 1482)

Emperor Maximilian I (Albrecht Durer)
Maximilian was painted and drawn by the great German artist Albrecht Dürer on several occasions. Modern studies have shown that the artist flattered the Emperor by reducing the size of his prominent nose and chin, although both remain unusually large. Maximilian was intelligent, brave, charming and energetic. He was devoted to the cult of chivalry and loved to be called 'the last knight'. However, he was also erratic, profligate, eccentric and inconsistent. The contemporary Italian historian Guicciardini described him as 'unconstant and fitful by nature'. One modern historian, Garrett Mattingly, said that 'he was always dropping a small but solid advantage to grasp at a dazzling, chimerical one'. This made him an unpredictable opponent and a nightmare as an ally. The letters in the Calendars of State Papers by his daughter Margaret and cousin Ferdinand of Aragon are full of exasperation at Maximilian's irrational behaviour and constant changes of policy.
Portrait of mary of Burgundy (unknown Flemish master)
Mary, who became Duchess of Burgundy in her own right when her father Charles the Bold was killed in battle in 1477, was an intelligent and strong-willed lady. She chose Maximilian as her husband in the teeth of opposition from France, and they became devoted to one another.

Mary and Maximilian were forced to battle France for her inheritance, and were often undermined by their own lords. Mary helped to confirm Burgundy's status as a leader of fashion, and had a taste for extravagant dresses and hats, to judge by this and other portraits.

They had two children - Philip (1478 - 1506), Duke of Burgundy, who married Joanna of Castile and was the father of the Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand I - and Margaret (1480 - 1530), who was childless from her marriages to John of Castile and Philibert of Savoy, and became Regent of Burgundy after her brother's death. Margaret was an accomplished politician and a noted artistic patron.

Mary was tragically killed in a riding accident in 1482 at the age of 25. She is buried in Bruges Cathedral.

Small Gold FlourishDuring the years after his wife's death, Maximilian spent most his time battling France and the pro-French Burgundian lords. He was forced to make peace with France and to send his young daughter Margaret to France as the fiancee of the young King Charles VIII. He attempted to marry Anne of Brittany, but was thwarted when Charles married her instead, jilting the Archduchess Margaret.

Following his father's death in 1493, Maximilian turned his attention to Italy. He was the surezain (overlord) of some territory in northern Italy, and in 1493, he made an agreement with Ludovico (il Moro) of Milan whereby he would marry the latter's niece, Bianca Maria in return for a large dowry and his recognition of Ludovico as Duke of Milan.

Bianca Maria Sforza (Ambrogio de Predis, 1493)

Bianca Maria Sforza, 1472 - 1510, Maximilian's second wife
Maximilian I and His Family (Bernhard Strigel)

This painting shows Maximilian, his first wife Mary, his son Phillip, grandsons Ferdinand and Charles, and his ward Louis of Hungary.

It is an unusual painting in that both Mary and Phillip were dead by the time it was painted by Bernard Strigel in about 1510. Ferdinand was in Spain, where he was raised by his other grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon. The artist only saw Maximilian and Louis - presumably, he relied on previous portraits or on his imagination to paint the other four.

Maximilian and Bianca

Small Gold FlourishThe marriage of Maximilian and Bianca was not a success, either politically or personally. Her uncle Ludovico was expelled from his duchy by the French and imprisoned. With some justification, Maximilian regarded Bianca as empty-headed and extravagent, and he compared her unfavourably to his first wife. They frequently quarrelled over money: Maximilian was always short of cash and he narrowly avoided bankrupcy on several occasions, and Bianca loved spending and shopping. On one occasion, Maximilian rather ungallantly left Bianca behind in Innsbruck when he fled to escape his creditors. The couple often lived apart and marriage was childless.

Maximilian and Italy

Small Gold FlourishFollowing his marriage, Maximilian played a greater part in Italian affairs. He joined the Holy League in 1495 to expel the French from Naples. In 1496, he agreed to invade the north of the country to aid Ludovico of Milan, but his army was very small and he left after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Livorno, 'having demonstrated his weakness to all Italy' (Guicciardini). He also contracted syphilis from one of the local prostitutes.

Generally anti-French in policy, Maximilian reluctantly agreed to confirm France's ally Cesare Borgia as lord of Pisa, Siena and Lucca in 1503 in return for some much-needed cash from Alexander VI.

Maximilian was party to the League of Cambrai in 1508, along with Pope Julius II, Ferdinand of Spain and Louis of France. Although its ostensible purpose was to oppose the Turk, the real aim was to defeat Venice. He aimed to conquer significant portions of Venetian territory which bordered his own Tyrolean lands, but his gains were characteristically short-lived. He also wanted to travel to Rome to be crowned by Pope Julius, but failed and was forced to merely declare himself Emperor, much to Julius's relief. Maximilian was defeated by a Venetian army and returned to Germany.

Crown of the Holy Roman Emperors

The Crown of the Holy Roman Emperors

After Bianca's death, Maximilian formed the fantastic aim of becoming Pope. On 15th September 1511, he wrote to his daughter Margaret:

'I am sending tomorrow to Rome to find a way for the Pope to make me his partner so that, after his death, I can be sure of the Papacy and of becoming a priest and later a Saint. You will then have to worship me after I am dead, which will be delightful'

Small Gold FlourishAlthough this may sound like a joke, Maximilian was serious enough to attempt to borrow a large sum of money against the Imperial crown and jewels from his bankers, the Fuggers, in order to bribe the Pope and cardinals. The reaction of Pope Julius to the idea is not recorded, but he may well have given vent to some very unpapal language. Luckily for Italy and the Papacy, the Fuggers had grave doubts about the scheme and refused the loan.

Generally, his campaigns in Italy were an expensive disaster, but Maximilian was more successful in reorganising the German empire and was highly successful in arranging profitable marriages for his family. His grandson Charles V inherited his maternal grandparents' Spanish and Italian kingdoms as well as Maximilian and Mary's lands. His grandson Ferdinand married Anna of Hungary and Bohemia and took over her lands after the death of her brother Louis. Both Charles and Ferdinand became Holy Roman Emperor in turn.

Sources and Further Reading:
Calendars of State Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Spanish and Venetian
The History of Italy, Francesco Guicciardini
The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli

Maximilian I, Gerhard Benecke
The Holy Roman Empire, James Bryce
Renaissance Diplomacy, Garrett Mattingly
The Hapsburgs, Andrew Wheatcroft

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