Germany During The Reign Of Maximilian I


Maximilian I. as Man and Emperor. --The Diet of 1495, at Worms. --The

Perpetual Peace declared. --The Imperial Court. --Marriage of

Philip of Hapsburg to Joanna of Spain. --War with Switzerland.

--March to Italy. --League against Venice. --The "Holy League"

against France. --The Diet of 1512. --The Empire divided into Ten

Districts. --Revolts of the Peasants. --The "Bond-
hoe" and "Poor

Konrad." --Change in Military Service. --Character of Maximilian's

Reign. --The Cities of Germany. --Their Wealth and Architecture.

--The Order of the "Holy Vehm." --Other Changes under Maximilian.

--Last Years of his Reign. --His Death.

[Sidenote: 1493.]

As Maximilian had been elected in 1486, he began to exercise the full

Imperial power, without any further formalities, after his father's

death. For the first time since the death of Henry VII. in 1313, the

Germans had a popular Emperor. They were at last weary of the prevailing

disorder and insecurity, and partly conscious that the power of the

Empire had declined, while that of France, Spain, and even Poland, had

greatly increased. Therefore they brought themselves to submit to the

authority of an Emperor who was in every respect stronger than any of

the Electors by whom he had been chosen.

Maximilian had all the qualities of a great ruler, except prudence and

foresight. He was tall, finely-formed, with remarkably handsome

features, clear blue eyes, and blonde hair falling in ringlets upon his

shoulders; he possessed great muscular strength, his body was developed

by constant exercise, and he was one of the boldest, bravest and most

skilful knights of his day. While his bearing was stately and dignified,

his habits were simple: he often marched on foot, carrying his lance, at

the head of his troops, and was able to forge his armor and temper his

sword, as well as wear them. Yet he was also well-educated, possessed a

taste for literature and the arts, and became something of a poet in

his later years. Unlike his avaricious predecessors, he was generous

even to prodigality; but, inheriting his father's eccentricity of

character, he was whimsical, liable to act from impulse instead of

reflection, headstrong and impatient. If he had been as wise as he was

honest and well-meaning, he might have regenerated Germany.


The commencement of his reign was signalized by two threatening events.

The Turks were renewing their invasions, and boldly advancing into

Carinthia, between Vienna and the Adriatic; Charles VIII. of France had

made himself master of Naples, and was apparently bent on conquering and

annexing all of Italy. Maximilian had just married Blanca Maria Sforza,

niece of the reigning Duke of Milan, which city, with others in

Lombardy, and even the Pope--forgetting their old enmity to the German

Empire--demanded his assistance. He called a Diet, which met at Worms in

1495; but many of the princes, both spiritual and temporal, had learned

a little wisdom, and they were unwilling to interfere in matters outside

of the Empire until something had been done to remedy its internal

condition. Berthold, Archbishop of Mayence, Frederick the Wise of

Saxony, John Cicero of Brandenburg, and Eberhard of the Beard, first

Duke of Wuertemberg, with many of the free cities, insisted so strongly

on the restoration of order, security, and the establishment of laws

which should guarantee peace, that the Emperor was forced to comply. For

fourteen weeks the question was discussed with the greatest earnestness:

the opposition of many princes and nearly the whole class of nobles was

overcome, and a Perpetual National Peace was proclaimed. By this

measure, the right to use force was prohibited to all; the feuds which

had desolated the land for a thousand years were ordered to be

suppressed; and all disputes were referred to an Imperial Court,

permanently established at Frankfort, and composed of sixteen

Councillors. It was also agreed that the Diet should meet annually, and

remain in session for one month, in order to insure the uninterrupted

enforcement of its decrees. A proposition to appoint an Imperial Council

of State (equivalent to a modern "Ministry"), of twenty members, which

should have power, in certain cases, to act in the Emperor's name, was

rejected by Maximilian, as an assault upon his personal rights.

[Sidenote: 1496.]

Although the decree of Perpetual Peace could not be carried into effect

immediately, it was not a dead letter, as all former decrees of the kind

had been. Maximilian bound himself, in the most solemn manner, to

respect the new arrangements, and there were now several honest and

intelligent princes to assist him. One difficulty was the collection of

a government tax, called "the common penny," to support the expenses of

the Imperial Court. Such a tax had been for the first time imposed

during the war with the Hussites, but very little of it was then paid.

Even now, when the object of it was of such importance to the whole

people, several years elapsed before the Court could be permanently

established. The annual sessions of the Diet, also, were much less

effective than had been anticipated: princes, priests and cities were so

accustomed to a selfish independence, that they could not yet work

together for the general good.

Before the Diet at Worms adjourned, it agreed to furnish the Emperor

with 9,000 men, to be employed in Italy against the French, and

afterwards against the Turks on the Austrian frontier. Charles VIII.

retreated from Italy on hearing of this measure, yet not rapidly enough

to avoid being defeated, near Parma, by the combined Germans and

Milanese. In 1496 Sigismund of Tyrol died, and all the Hapsburg lands

came into Maximilian's possession. The same year, he married his son

Philip, then eighteen years old and accepted as Regent by the

Netherlands, to Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of

Castile. The other heirs to the Spanish throne died soon afterwards, and

when Isabella followed them, in 1504, she appointed Philip and Joanna

her successors. The pride and influence of the house of Hapsburg were

greatly increased by this marriage, but its consequences were most

disastrous to Germany, for Philip's son was Charles V.

The next years of Maximilian's reign were disturbed, and, on the whole,

unfortunate for the Empire. An attempt to apply the decrees of the Diet

of Worms to Switzerland brought on a war, which, after occasioning the

destruction of 2,000 villages and castles, and the loss of 20,000 lives,

resulted in the Emperor formally acknowledging the independence of

Switzerland in a treaty concluded at Basel in 1499. Then Louis XII. of

France captured Milan, interfered secretly in a war concerning the

succession, which broke out in Bavaria, and bribed various German

princes to act in his interest, when Maximilian called upon the Diet to

assist him in making war upon France. After having with much difficulty

obtained 12,000 men, the Emperor marched to Italy, intending to replace

the Sforza family in Milan and then be crowned by Pope Julius II. in

Rome. But the Venetians stopped him at the outset of the expedition, and

he was forced to return ingloriously to Germany.


Maximilian's next step was another example of his want of judgment in

political matters. In order to revenge himself upon Venice, he gave up

his hostility to France, and in 1508 became a party to the League of

Cambray, uniting with France, Spain and the Pope in a determined effort

to destroy the Venetian Republic. The war, which was bloody and

barbarous, even for those times, lasted three years. Venice lost, at the

outset, Trieste, Verona, Padua and the Romagna, and seemed on the verge

of ruin, when Maximilian suddenly left Italy with his army, offended, it

was said, at the refusal of the French knights, to fight side by side

with his German troops. The Venetians then recovered so much of their

lost ground that they purchased the alliance of the Pope, and finally of

Spain. A new alliance, called "the Holy League," was formed against

France; and Maximilian, after continuing to support Louis XII. a while

longer, finally united with Henry VII. of England in joining it. But

Louis XII., who was a far better diplomatist than any of his enemies,

succeeded, after he had suffered many inevitable losses, in dissolving

this powerful combination. He married the sister of Henry of England,

yielded Navarre and Naples to Spain, promised money to the Swiss, and

held out to Maximilian the prospect of a marriage which would give Milan

to the Hapsburgs.

Thus the greater part of Europe was for years convulsed with war chiefly

because instead of a prudent and intelligent national power in

Germany, there was an unsteady and excitable family leader, whose

first interest was the advantage of his house. After such sacrifices of

blood and treasure, such disturbance to the development of industry, art

and knowledge among the people, the same confusion prevailed as before.

[Sidenote: 1512.]

Before the war came to an end, another general Diet met at Cologne, in

1512, to complete the organization commenced in 1495. Private feuds and

acts of retaliation had not yet been suppressed, and the Imperial

Council was working under great disadvantages, both from the want of

money and the difficulty of enforcing obedience to its decisions. The

Emperor demanded the creation of a permanent military force, which

should be at the service of the Empire; but this was almost unanimously

refused. In other respects, the Diet showed itself both willing and

earnest to complete the work of peace and order. The whole Empire was

divided into ten Districts, each of which was placed under the

jurisdiction of a Judicial Chief and Board of Councillors, whose duty it

was to see that the decrees of the Diet and the judgments of the

Imperial Court were obeyed.

The Districts were as follows: 1.--THE AUSTRIAN, embracing all the lands

governed by the Hapsburgs, from the Danube to the Adriatic, with the

Tyrol, and some territory on the Upper Rhine: Bohemia, Silesia and

Hungary were not included. 2.--THE BAVARIAN, comprising the divisions on

both sides of the Danube, and the bishopric of Salzburg. 3.--THE

SUABIAN, made up of no less than 90 spiritual and temporal

principalities, including Wuertemberg, Baden, Hohenzollern, and the

bishoprics of Augsburg and Constance. 4.--THE FRANCONIAN, embracing the

Brandenburg possessions, Ansbach and Baireuth, with Nuremberg and the

bishoprics of Bamberg, Wuerzburg, &c. 5.--THE UPPER-RHENISH, comprising

the Palatinate, Hesse, Nassau, the bishoprics of Basel, Strasburg,

Speyer, Worms, &c., the free cities of the Rhine as far as Frankfort,

and a number of petty States. 6.--THE ELECTORAL-RHENISH, with the

Archbishoprics of the Palatinate, Mayence, Treves, Cologne, and the

principality of Amberg. 7.--THE BURGUNDIAN, made up of 21 States, four

of them dukedoms and eight countships. 8.--THE WESTPHALIAN, with the

dukedoms of Juelich, Cleves and Berg, Oldenburg, part of Friesland, and 7

bishoprics. 9.--THE LOWER SAXON, embracing the dukedoms of

Brunswick-Lueneburg, Saxe-Lauenburg, Holstein and Mecklenburg, the

Archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Luebeck, the free cities of Bremen,

Hamburg and Luebeck, and a number of smaller States. 10.--THE UPPER

SAXON, including the Electorates of Saxony and Brandenburg, the dukedom

of Pomerania, the smaller States of Anhalt, Schwarzburg, Mansfeld,

Reuss, and many others of less importance.

[Sidenote: 1512. MILITARY CHANGES.]

This division of Germany into districts had the external appearance of

an orderly political arrangement; but the States, great and little, had

been too long accustomed to having their own way. The fact that an

independent baron, like Franz von Sickingen, could still disturb a large

extent of territory for a number of years, shows the weakness of the new

national power. Moreover, nothing seems to have been done, or even

attempted, by the Diet, to protect the agricultural population from the

absolute despotism of the landed nobility. In Alsatia, as early as 1493,

there was a general revolt of the peasants (called by them the

Bond-shoe), which was not suppressed until much blood had been shed.

It excited a spirit of resistance throughout all Southern Germany. In

1514, Duke Ulric of Wuertemberg undertook to replenish his treasury by

using false weights and measures, and provoked the common people to rise

against him. They formed a society, to which they gave the name of "Poor

Konrad," which became so threatening that, although it was finally

crushed by violence, it compelled the reform of many flagrant evils and

showed even the most arrogant rulers that there were bounds to tyranny.

But, although the feudal system was still in force, the obligation to

render military service, formerly belonging to it, was nearly at an end.

The use of cannon, and of a rude kind of musket, had become general in

war: heavy armor for man and horse was becoming not only useless, but

dangerous; and the courage of the soldier, not his bodily strength or

his knightly accomplishments, constituted his value in the field. The

Swiss had set the example of furnishing good troops to whoever would pay

for them, and a similar class, calling themselves Landsknechte

(Servants of the Country), arose in Germany. The robber-knights, by this

time, were nearly extinct: when Frederick of Hohenzollern began to use

artillery against their castles, it was evident that their days of

plunder were over. The reign of Maximilian, therefore, marks an

important turning-point in German history. It is, at the same time, the

end of the stormy and struggling life of the Middle Ages, and the

beginning of a new and fiercer struggle between men and their

oppressors. Maximilian, in fact, is called in Germany "the Last of the


[Sidenote: 1512.]

The strength of Germany lay chiefly in the cities, which, in spite of

their narrow policy towards the country, and their jealousy of each

other, had at least kept alive and encouraged all forms of art and

industry, and created a class of learned men outside of the Church.

While the knighthood of the Hohenstaufen period had sunk into corruption

and semi-barbarism, and the people had grown more dangerous through

their ignorance and subjection, the cities had gradually become centres

of wealth and intelligence. They were adorned with splendid works of

architecture; they supported the early poets, painters and sculptors;

and, when compelled to act in concert against the usurpations of the

Emperor or the inferior rulers, whatever privileges they maintained or

received were in favor of the middle-class, and therefore an indirect

gain to the whole people.

The cities, moreover, exercised an influence over the country population

by their markets, fairs, and festivals. The most of them were as largely

and as handsomely built as at present, but in times of peace the life

within their walls was much gayer and more brilliant. Pope Pius II.,

when he was secretary to Frederick III. as AEneas Sylvius, wrote of them

as follows: "One may veritably say that no people in Europe live in

cleaner or more cheerful cities than the Germans; their appearance is as

new as if they had only been built yesterday. By their commerce they

amass great wealth: there is no banquet at which they do not drink from

silver cups, no dame who does not wear golden ornaments. Moreover, the

citizens are also soldiers, and each one has a sort of arsenal in his

own house. The boys in this country can ride before they can talk, and

sit firmly in the saddle when the horses are at full speed: the men move

in their armor without feeling its weight. Verily, you Germans might be

masters of the world, as formerly, but for your multitude of rulers,

which every wise man has always considered an evil!"

During the fifteenth century a remarkable institution, called "the

Vehm"--or, by the people, "the Holy Vehm"--exercised a great authority

throughout Northern Germany. Its members claimed that it was founded by

Charlemagne, to assist in establishing Christianity among the Saxons;

but it is not mentioned before the twelfth century, and the probability

is that it sprang up from the effort of the people to preserve their old

democratic organization, in a secret form, after it had been overthrown

by the reigning princes. The object of the Vehm was to enforce impartial

justice among all classes, and for this purpose it held open courts for

the settlement of quarrels and minor offences, while graver crimes were

tried at night, in places known only to the members. The latter were

sworn to secrecy, and also to implicit obedience to the judgments of the

courts or the orders of the chiefs, who were called "Free Counts." The

head-quarters of the Vehm were in Westphalia, but its branches spread

over a great part of Germany, and it became so powerful during the reign

of Frederick III. that it even dared to cite him to appear before its



In all probability the dread of the power of the Vehm was one of the

causes which induced both Maximilian and the princes to reorganize the

Empire. In proportion as order and justice began to prevail in Germany,

the need of such a secret institution grew less; but about another

century elapsed before its courts ceased to be held. After that, it

continued to exist in Westphalia as an order for mutual assistance,

something like that of the Freemasons. In this form it lingered until

1838, when the last "Free Count" died.

Among the other changes introduced during Maximilian's reign were the

establishment of a police system, and the invention of a postal system

by Franz of Taxis. The latter obtained a monopoly of the post routes

throughout Germany, and his family, which afterwards became that of

Thurn and Taxis, received an enormous revenue from this source, from

that time down to the present day. Maximilian himself devoted a great

deal of time and study to the improvement of artillery, and many new

forms of cannon, which were designed by him, are still preserved in


Although the people of Germany did not share to any great extent in the

passion for travel and adventure which followed the discovery of America

in 1492 and the circumnavigation of Africa in 1498, they were directly

affected by the changes which took place in the commerce of the world.

The supremacy of Venice in the South and of the Hanseatic League in the

North of Europe, began slowly to decline, while the powers which

undertook to colonize the new lands--England, Spain and Portugal--rose

in commercial importance.

[Sidenote: 1518.]

The last years of Maximilian promised new splendors to the house of

Hapsburg. In 1515 his younger grandson, Ferdinand, married the daughter

of Ladislas, king of Bohemia and Hungary, whose only son died shortly

afterwards, leaving Ferdinand heir to the double crown. In 1516, the

Emperor's elder grandson, Karl, became king of Spain, Sicily and Naples,

in addition to Burgundy and Flanders, which he held as the

great-grandson of Charles the Bold. At a Diet held at Augsburg, in 1518,

Maximilian made great exertions to have Karl elected his successor, but

failed on account of the opposition of Pope Leo X. and Francis I. of

France, whose agents were present with heavy bribes in their pockets.

Disappointed and depressed, the Emperor left Augsburg, and went to

Innsbruck, but the latter city refused to entertain him until some money

which he had borrowed of it should be refunded. His strength had been

failing for years before, and he always travelled with a coffin among

his baggage. He now felt his end approaching, took up his abode in the

little town of Wels, and devoted his remaining days to religious

exercises. There he died, on the 11th of January, 1519, in the sixtieth

year of his age.