Tag Archives: Louis IV the Bavarian

The Holy Roman Empire


The Holy Roman Empire must have seemed very remote from England in the fourteenth century. It was centred around the many German states and would not normally have been expected to be interested in anything affecting England. This situation changed in the 1330s.

The empire lasted from 962 until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806, although many consider Charlemagne (crowned in 800) to be the first emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was considered to be a Christian extension of the Roman empire. The term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ dates only from the thirteenth century, however.

Geographically, the empire covered kingdoms and duchies in modern Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, parts of eastern France, parts of western Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia and northern Italy. The borders changed almost constantly, however, and not all of this territory was included all the time.The empire had reached its maximum size in the thirteenth century and territory was lost during the fourteenth century.

Emperors were elected and the first three Hanoverian kings of Great Britain, George I, George II and George III were electors, which meant they had a vote in the election of the emperor. Although the emperor was elected, in practice a small number of royal houses dominated the line of emperors and most emperors were descendants of earlier emperors.

The chances are that you’ve only ever heard of one emperor: Charles V, the nephew of Katherine of Aragon. In 1527, when Henry VIII was trying to divorce Katherine, her nephew captured the pope and would not allow him to grant the divorce. Charles’ son, Philip II, married Henry’s daughter Mary.

The empire did not have a capital as such, but was administered from the beginning of the fourteenth century from Aachen, which had been Charlemagne’s capital. From 1328 to 1347 it was administered from Munich and, from 1355 from Prague.

It was not unusual for the emperor to be at odds with the pope, in fact it was unusual if he was not. There was an almost constant power struggle between the popes and the emperors. Their powers were meant in some ways to be complementary, but in others to act as a balance between the temporal and the spiritual. This was rarely the case in reality. It was not until the eleventh century that the popes achieved some kind of equality. In 1077 Pope Gregory VII made the excommunicated emperor, Henry IV, wait outside the castle walls of Canossa for three days. Henry had come barefoot to ask the pope’s forgiveness. What should have been a formality, since the emperor had already humbled himself, became a battle of wills, which the pope won. The balance did not last long, however, as successive popes tried to gain more secular power and were increasingly resisted by kings and emperors. This came to a head during the ‘Babylonian Exile’ when the papacy had its capital in Avignon and came under the sway of the kings of France. Other kings (particularly Edward III) found it difficult to trust the pope when he was not impartial.

In the thirteenth century Italy was riven by division following interference in Italy by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his successors in the first half of the century. The Italian city states were either Guelphs (pro-papal) or Ghibellines (pro-imperial) and they continued to go to war with one another on this basis long after the political divisions meant anything.

Because the emperors could only be crowned by the pope and they were usually quarrelling with the pope, or even excommunicated, there was often a delay between their election and their coronation.

There were three emperors in the fourteenth century: Henry VII – elected 1308 (crowned 1312)-1313; Louis IV (Louis of Bavaria) – elected 1314 (crowned 1348) – 1347 and Charles IV – elected 1346 and 1349 (crowned 1355) – 1378. None of them was terribly effective as emperor.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century Philip IV of France wanted his brother to be made emperor, but the electors felt that the French king already had too much influence and Henry of Luxembourg was elected. Like his predecessors, Henry meddled in Italian affairs without really understanding them. Henry died of malaria, as did so many from northern Europe who took their armies into Italy.

Louis was allied with Italian enemies of the pope, of whom there were many after the papacy moved to Avignon and the popes became little more than puppets of the French kings. In theory the emperor could do nothing until his election had been confirmed by the pope, but Louis acted without papal authority. He gave shelter to scholars who spoke out against John XXII. In 1328 he invaded Italy and had himself crowned (not by the pope). He also installed an anti-pope in Rome. John XXII excommunicated both Louis and his pope, declaring that there was no emperor. For many years before the outbreak of the Hundred Years War the French had been encroaching on the westernmost territory of the empire and it was not a surprise that, in 1337, Edward III found a willing ally in Louis in his war against the French. Edward III was made a Vicar of the Empire, with powers to act on the emperor’s behalf.

Charles was elected while his predecessor was still alive. This is not surprising, as Louis was considered a heretic and was an excommunicate. Charles was primarily king of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. For most of his reign he did what he could to benefit his kingdom and neglected the German states.




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Pope, Antipopes and Avignon: Part Four

Benedict XII

Benedict XII

This week’s Avignon pope was born Jacques Fournier in the 1280s. He was the son of a baker and he became pope in 1334.

Before becoming pope, he was a Cistercian monk and a member of the Inquisition. He was very active against heretics and, in 1321, during his tenure as Bishop of Pamiers, he captured Guillaume Bélibaste, the last Cathar Goodman. The Cathars were a heretical group based mainly in the south of France. Their beliefs included the existence of two deities, one good and one evil. The spiritual world was good and the physical world was carnal and corrupt. The Goodmen (or Parfaits) were the senior members of the sect and were considered pure, as far as it was possible to be whilst inhabiting flesh. The heresy had its last gasp in the village of Montaillou in the early years of the fourteenth century. Montaillou was in Fournier’s diocese and he devoted himself to destroying the Cathars, in which he succeeded. His inquisitional court interviewed many men and women (on the whole without torture) and the records of his activities there were carefully recorded and preserved. Eventually they formed the basis of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book Montaillou which was very popular in the early 80s.

Compared to the time it had taken to elect his predecessor, Benedict’s election was unbelievably fast. It took just sixteen days. It seems his election was accidental, as the first vote in a conclave tended to be a way of sounding out opinion. The man everyone assumed would be elected wanted to return to Rome, which was unpopular with the mainly French cardinals. They were still trying to work out who they should support during the first vote and voted for the candidates least likely to be successful. So many voted for Fournier that he was elected.

Benedict also wanted to return the papacy to Rome and paid for the restoration of the Lateran and St Peter’s. He was, however, persuaded that it was too dangerous to live in Rome and he agreed to stay in Avignon, beginning work on the Palais des Papes, the papal residence, in 1339.

Unlike many of the fourteenth century popes, Benedict despised luxury and nepotism. He occupied himself with creating strict constitutions for the Cistercians, Franciscans and Benedictines and he continued to be obsessed with rooting out heretics. His strengths were his intelligence and his organisational skills. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Edward III to establish the Inquisition in England.

One of his ambitions was to bring the war between England and France that had recently started to a halt so that their respective kings could join in a crusade to the Holy Land, but he failed. The war was to continue on and off for another hundred years and more. He also tried to make peace with Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, in which he was thwarted by Philip VI, King of France. His peace-making also extended to the Franciscans.

He was mostly occupied with theological questions and corresponded with William of Occam, whom we met last week, and Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian who was often accused of heresy.

Although French, Benedict was not an unthinking supporter of Philip VI and relations between them were cool. Despite his intelligence, however, Benedict was not good at politics and Philip frequently outmanoeuvred him.

He died in 1342.


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Popes, Antipopes and Avignon: Part Three


The second Avignon pope was born Jacque Duèse in 1249. After the death of Clement V it took more than two years for a successor to be appointed. As in the previous conclave, the French and Italian cardinals disagreed and could not come to a decision. There was a new French king as well. Philip IV had been succeeded by his son, Louis X (the Stubborn), whose reign lasted less than two years, during which time he abolished slavery and allowed Jews to return to France. Louis’ son was born a few months after his death, but lived only a few days, so Louis was eventually succeeded  by his brother, Philip V (the Tall), who reigned from 1316 to 1322. Philip grew impatient with the cardinals’ inability to elect a new pope and imprisoned them until they came to a decision.

John XXII was very energetic, despite being sixty-seven when he was elected. He is best remembered for changing the direction of the Franciscans. There was a movement within the order to return more completely to the rule of St Francis, living more spiritually with no possessions. John, on the other hand, thought obedience to the pope was more important. When the Franciscans said that Christ and the disciples had owned nothing, he responded with a papal bull declaring such beliefs heretical. He thwarted the efforts of the Franciscans to return to a more spiritual way of life by making them owners of property, thus splitting the order.  Those who could not live with the pope’s decision, including the order’s General, went to the pope’s main enemy, Louis IV the Bavarian (later Holy Roman Emperor). One of the Franciscans who went to Louis was William of Occam. He is best known for the problem solving principle named after him: Occam’s Razor. He was an influential philosopher and theologian. He was also, along with Sherlock Holmes, one of the inspirations for the character of William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

In 1328 Louis set up one of the disgruntled Franciscans as antipope in Rome. There had been a vigorous feud concerning the supremacy of the pope involving theologians from across Europe and Louis believed that, since he was Holy Roman Emperor, the pope should admit that the emperor’s power was supreme. Louis repeatedly called John a heretic and burned a straw effigy of him. Eventually Louis made himself so unpopular in Italy that he could not continue to support the antipope and both emperor and antipope surrendered to John.

Like his predecessor, John maintained close links with the French king, which was becoming a real problem for the other monarchs in Europe. When he was negotiating peace between them, as he often was, it was difficult for them to put aside the idea that he favoured the French king’s position. As he approached death, John’s views became more heretical and he had to withdraw many of the opinions he had expressed in private, making it clear that they were private opinions and not papal declarations.

John hoped to return the papacy to Rome and spent a lot of money on mercenaries in the hope of resolving the wars that still raged in Italy. In order to fill his treasury, he declared that incomes in parishes where there was no priest belonged to the papacy, which was not a popular move. He made the papacy more bureaucratic and centralised its administration. Many of these measures weakened the papacy, as they increased the distrust in which it was held across Europe.


Filed under Fourteenth Century