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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter XIV: The Germanic Constitution: The Seven Electors.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901

Page Fourteen

Chapter XIV: The Germanic Constitution: The Seven Electors.

The reign of Frederick the Second was not less fatal to the domestic
power of the German king than to the European supremacy of the Emperor. His
two Pragmatic Sanctions had conferred rights that made the feudal aristocracy
almost independent, and the long anarchy of the Interregnum had enabled them
not only to use but to extend and fortify their power. Rudolf of Hapsburg had
striven, not wholly in vain, to coerce their insolence, but the contest
between his son Albert and Adolf of Nassau which followed his death, the short
and troubled reign of Albert himself, the absence of Henry the Seventh in
Italy, the civil war of Lewis of Bavaria and Frederick duke of Austria, rival
claimants of the imperial throne, the difficulties in which Lewis, the
successful competitor, found himself involved with the Pope - all these
circumstances tended more and more to narrow the influence of the crown and
complete the emancipation of the turbulent nobles. They now became virtually
supreme in their own domains, enjoying full jurisdiction, certain appeals
excepted, the right of legislation, privileges of coining money, of levying
tolls and taxes: some were without even a feudal bond to remind them of their
allegiance. The numbers of the immediate nobility - those who held directly
of the crown - had increased prodigiously by the extinction of the dukedoms of
Saxony, Franconia, and Swabia: along the Rhine the lord of a single tower was
usually a sovereign prince. The petty tyrants whose boast it was that they
owed fealty only to God and the Emperor showed themselves in practice equally
regardless of both powers. Preeminent were the three great houses of Austria,
Bavaria, and Luxemburg, this last having acquired Bohemia, A.D. 1309; next
came the electors, already considered collectively more important than the
Emperor, and forming for themselves the first considerable principalities.
Brandenburg and the Rhenish Palatinate are strong independent states before
the end of this period; Bohemia and the three archbishoprics almost from its

The chief object of the magnates was to keep the monarch in his present
state of helplessness. Till the expenses which the crown entailed were found
ruinous to its wearer, their practice was to confer it on some petty prince,
such as were Rudolf and Adolf of Nassau and Gunther of Schwartzburg, seeking
when they could to keep it from settling in one family. They bound the newly
elected to respect all their present immunities, including those which they
had just extorted as the price of their votes; they checked all his attempts
to recover lost lands or rights: they ventured at last to depose their
anointed head, Wenzel of Bohemia. Thus fettered, the Emperor sought only to
make the most of his short tenure, using his position to aggrandize his family
and raise money by the sale of crown estates and privileges. His individual
action and personal relation to the subject was replaced by a merely legal and
formal one: he represented order and legitimate ownership, and so far was
still necessary to the political system. But progresses through the country
were abandoned: unlike his predecessors, who had resigned their patrimony when
they assumed the sceptre, he lived mostly in his own states, often without the
Empire's bounds.

How thoroughly the national character of the office was gone is shewn by
the repeated attempts to bestow it on foreign potentates, who could not fill
the place of a German king of the good old vigorous type. Not to speak of
Richard and Alfonso, Charles of Valois was proposed against Henry VII, Edward
III of England actually elected against Charles IV (his parliament forbade him
to accept), George Podiebrad, king of Bohemia, against Frederick III.
Sigismund was virtually a Hungarian king. The Emperor's only hope would have
been in the support of the cities. During the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries they had increased wonderfully in population, wealth, and boldness:
the Hanseatic confederacy was the mightiest power of the North, and cowed the
Scandinavian kings: the towns of Swabia and the Rhine formed great commercial
leagues, maintained regular was against the counter-associations of the
nobility, and seemed at one time, by an alliance with the Swiss, on the point
of turning West Germany into a federation of free municipalities. Feudalism,
however, was still too strong; the cavalry of the nobles was irresistible in
the field, and the thoughtless Wenzel let slip a golden opportunity of
repairing the losses of two centuries. After all, the Empire was perhaps past
redemption, for one fatal ailment paralyzed all its efforts. The Empire was
poor. The crown lands, which had suffered heavily under Frederick II, were
further usurped during the confusion that followed; till at last, through the
reckless prodigality of sovereigns who sought only their immediate interest,
little was left of the vast and fertile domains along the Rhine from which the
Saxon and Franconian Emperors had drawn the chief part of their revenue.
Regalian rights, the second fiscal resource, had fared no better-tolls,
customs, mines, rights of coining, of harbouring Jews, and so forth, were
either seized or granted away: even the advowsons of churches had been sold or
mortgaged; and the imperial treasury depended mainly on an inglorious traffic
in honours and exemptions. Things were so bad under Rudolf that the electors
refused to make his son Albert king of the Romans, declaring that, while
Rudolf lived, the public revenue which with difficulty supported one monarch,
could much less maintain two at the same time ^1. Sigismund told his Diet,
'Nihil esse imperio spoliatius, nihil egentius, adeo ut qui sibi ex Germaniae
principibus successurus esset, qui praeter patrimonium nihil aliud habuerit,
apud eum non imperium sed potius servitium sit futurum ^2.' Patritius, the
secretary of Frederick III, declared that the revenues of the Empire scarcely
covered the expenses of its ambassadors ^3. Poverty such as these expressions
point to, a poverty which became greater after each election, not only
involved the failure of the attempts which were sometimes made to recover
usurped rights ^4, but put every project of reform within or war without at
the mercy of a jealous Diet. The three orders of which that Diet consisted,
electors, princes, and cities, were mutually hostile, and by consequence
selfish; their niggardly grants did no more than keep the Empire from dying of

[Footnote 1: Quoted by Moser, Romiscbe Kayser, from Cbron. Hirsaug.: 'Regni
vires temporum iniuria nimium contritae vix uni alendo regi sufficerent,
tantum abesse ut sumptus in nutriendos duos reges ferre queant.']

[Footnote 2: At Rupert's death, under whom the mischief had increased greatly,
there were, we are told, many bishops better off than the Emperor.]

[Footnote 3: Proventus Imperii ita minimi sunt ut legationibus vix suppetant.'
- Quoted by Moser. In 1495, Maximilian told his Diet 'Das romische Reich sei
jetziger Zeit ein grosser Last und falle davon kleiner Beth;' and Granvella,
Charles V's minister, said at the Diet of Speyer: 'The Emperor has, for the
support of his dignity, not a hazelnut's worth of profit from the Empire.']

[Footnote 4: Albert I tried in vain to wrest the tolls of the Rhine from the
grasp of the Rhenish electors.]

The changes thus briefly described were in progress when Charles the
Fourth, king of Bohemia, son of that blind king John of Bohemia who fell at
Cressy, and grandson of the Emperor Henry VII, was chosen to ascend the
throne. His skilful and consistent policy aimed at settling what he perhaps
despaired of reforming, and the famous instrument which, under the name of the
Golden Bull, became the corner-stone of the Germanic constitution, confessed
and legalized the independence of the electors and the powerlessness of the
crown. The most conspicuous defect of the existing system was the uncertainty
of the elections, followed as they usually were by a civil war. It was this
which Charles set himself to redress.

The kingdoms founded on the ruins of the Roman Empire by the Teutonic
invaders presented in their original form a rude combination of the elective
with the hereditary principle. One family in each tribe had, as the offspring
of the gods, an indefeasible claim to rule, but from among the members of such
a family the warriors were free to choose the bravest or the most popular as
king ^1. That the German crown came to be purely elective, while in France,
Castile, Aragon, England, and most other European states, the principle of
strict hereditary succession established itself, was due to the failure of
heirs male in three successive dynasties; to the restless ambition of the
nobles, who, since they were not, like the French, strong enough to disregard
the royal power, did their best to weaken it; to the intrigues of the
churchmen, zealous for a method of appointment prescribed by their own law and
observed in capitular elections; to the wish of the Popes to gain an opening
for their own influence and make effective the veto which they claimed; above
all, to the conception of the imperial office as one too holy to be, in the
same manner as the regal, transmissible by blood. Had the German, like other
feudal kingdoms, remained merely local, feudal, and national, it would without
doubt have ended by becoming a hereditary monarchy. Transformed as it was by
the Roman Empire, this could not be. The headship of the human race being,
like the Papacy, the common inheritance of all mankind, could not be confined
to any family, nor pass like a private estate by the ordinary rules of

[Footnote 1: The Aethelings of the line of Cerdic, among the West Saxons, the
Swedish Ynglings, the Bavarian Agilolfings, may thus be compared with the
Achaemenids of Persia or the heroic houses of early Greece.]

The right to choose the war-chief belonged, in the earliest ages, to the
whole body of freemen. Their suffrage, which must have been very irregularly
exercised, became by degrees vested in their leaders, but the assent of the
multitude, although ensured already, was needed to complete the ceremony. It
was thus that Henry the Fowler, and St. Henry, and Conrad the Franconian duke
were chosen ^1. Though even tradition might have commemorated what extant
records place beyond a doubt, it was commonly believed, till the end of the
sixteenth century, that the elective constitution had been established, and
the privilege of voting confined to seven persons, by a decree of Gregory V
and Otto III, which a famous jurist describes as 'lex a pontifice de
imperatorum comitiis lata, ne ius eligendi penes populum Romanum in posterum
esset ^2.' St. Thomas says, 'Election ceased from the times of Charles the
Great to those of Otto III, when Pope Gregory V established that of the seven
princes, which will last as long as the holy Roman Church, who ranks above all
other powers, shall have judged expedient for Christ's faithful people ^3.'
Since it tended to exalt the papal power, this fiction was accepted, no doubt
honestly accepted, and spread abroad by the clergy. And indeed, like so many
other fictions, it had a sort of foundation in fact. The death of Otto III,
the fourth of a line of monarchs among whom son had regularly succeeded to
father, threw back the crown into the gift of the nation, and was no doubt one
of the chief causes why it did not in the end become hereditary ^4.

[Footnote 1: Wippo, describing the election of Conrad the Franconian, says,
'Inter confinia Moguntiae et Wormatiae convenerunt cuncti primates et, ut ita
dicam, vires et viscera regni.' So Bruno says that Henry IV was elected by the
'populus.' So Amandus, secretary of Frederick Barbarossa, in describing his
election, says, 'Multi illustres heroes ex Lombardia, Tuscia, Ianuensi et
aliis Italiae dominiis, ac maior et potior pars principum ex Transalpino
regno.' - Quoted by Mur. Antiq. Diss. iii. And see many other authorities to
the same effect, collected by Pfeffinger, Vitriarius illustratus.]

[Footnote 2: Alciatus, De Formula Romani Imperii. He adds that the Gauls and
Italians were incensed at the preference shown to Germany. So too Landolfo

[Footnote 3: Quoted by Gewoldus, De Septemviratu Sacri Imperii Romani, himself
a violent advocate of Gregory's decree, though living as late as the days of
Ferdinand II. As late as A.D. 1648 we find Pope Innocent X maintaining that
the sacred number Seven of the electors was 'apostolica auctoritate olim
praefinitus.' - Bull Zelo Domus in Bullar. Rom.]

[Footnote 4: Sometimes we hear of a decree made by Pope Sergius IV and his
cardinals (of course equally fabulous with Otto's). So John Villani, iv. 2.]

Thus, under the Saxon and Franconian sovereigns, the throne was
theoretically elective, the assent of the chiefs and their followers being
required, though little more likely to be refused than it was to an English or
a French king; practically hereditary, since both of these dynasties succeeded
in occupying it for four generations, the father procuring the son's election
during his own lifetime. And so it might well have continued, had the right
of choice been retained by the whole body of the aristocracy. But at the
election of Lothar II, A.D. 1125, we find a certain small number of magnates
exercising the so-called right of praetaxation; that is to say, choosing alone
the future monarch, and then submitting him to the rest for their approval. A
supreme electoral college, once formed, had both the will and the power to
retain the crown in their own gift, and still further exclude their inferiors
from participation. So before the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, two great
changes had passed upon the ancient constitution. It had become a fundamental
doctrine that the Germanic throne, unlike the thrones of other countries, was
purely elective ^1: nor could the influence and the liberal offers of Henry VI
prevail on the princes to abandon what they rightly judged the keystone of
their powers. And at the same time the right of praetaxation had ripened into
an exclusive privilege of election, vested in a small body ^2: the assent of
the rest of the nobility being at first assumed, finally altogether dispensed
with. On the double choice of Richard and Alfonso, A.D. 1257, the only
question was as to the majority of votes in the electoral college: neither
then nor afterwards was there a word of the rights of the other princes,
counts and barons, important as their voices had been two centuries earlier.

[Footnote 1: In 1152 we read, 'Id iuris Romani Imperii apex habere dicitur ut
non per sanguinis propaginem sed per principum electionem reges creentur.' -
Otto of Freysing. Gulielmus Brito, writing not much later, says (quoted by
Freher), -

'Est etenim talis dynastia Theutonicorum
Ut nullus regnet super illos, ni prius illum
Eligat unanimis cleri populique voluntas.']

[Footnote 2: Innocent III, during the contest between Philip and Otto IV,
speaks of 'principes ad quos principaliter spectat regis Romani electio.']

The origin of that college is a matter somewhat intricate and obscure. It
is mentioned A.D. 1152, and in somewhat clearer terms in 1198, as a distinct
body; but without anything to shew who composed it. First in A.D. 1263 does a
letter of Pope Urban IV say that by immemorial custom the right of choosing
the Roman king belonged to seven persons, the seven who had just divided their
votes on Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso of Castile. Of these seven, three,
the archbishops of Mentz, Treves, and Cologne, pastors of the richest
Transalpine sees, represented the German church: the other four ought,
according to the ancient constitution, to have been the dukes of the four
nations, Franks, Swabians, Saxons, Bavarians, to whom had also belonged the
four great offices of the imperial household. But of these dukedoms the two
first named were now extinct, and their place and power in the state, as well
as the household offices they had held, had descended upon two principalities
of more recent origin, those, namely, of the Palatinate of the Rhine and the
Margraviate of Brandenburg. The Saxon duke, though with greatly narrowed
dominions, retained his vote and office of arch-marshal, and the claim of his
Bavarian compeer would have been equally indisputable had it not so happened
that both he and the Palsgrave of the Rhine were members of the great house of
Wittelsbach. This house had acquired the dukedom of Bavaria in 1180 and the
Palatinate, which represented the vote of the extinct dukedom of Lorraine, in
1214; but as both dignities were united in one person, no difficulty arose
until the death of duke Otto the Illustrious in 1253. When his sons shared
his dominions, Lewis becoming Palsgrave, and Henry duke of Bavaria, nothing
was settled as to the vote and other rights of an elector, and before long
both sons claimed these, and both with apparently reasonable grounds. The
number seven had now, however, become recognized as sacred: the king of
Bohemia ^1 would not relinquish the place which he laid claim to as cupbearer;
and the other electors were unwilling to see two votes enjoyed by one family.
Thus a contest, which more than once nearly led to war, arose between the
rival lines of Wittelsbach, and between the Bavarian line (whose title was
thought the weaker of the two) and the king of Bohemia. Rudolf, who in 1289
pronounced in favour of Bohemia, and Lewis IV, who directed that the vote
should be exercised by the two lines alternately, in vain attempted to settle
it, nor was it laid to rest until the issuing and confirming, at the Diet of
Nurnberg and Metz in 1356, of Charles IV's Golden Bull. This instrument,
thenceforth regarded as a fundamental law of the Empire, after finally
assigning the disputed vote and office of cupbearer to Bohemia (of which
Charles was then king) proceeds to lay down a variety of rules for the conduct
of imperial elections. Frankfort is fixed as the place of election; the
archbishop of Mentz named convener of the electoral college; to Bohemia is
given the first, to the Count Palatine the second place among the secular
electors. A majority of votes was in all cases to be decisive. As to each
electorate there was attached a great office, it was supposed that this was
the title by which the vote was possessed; though it was in truth rather an
effect than a cause. The three prelates were archchancellors of Germany, Gaul
and Burgundy, and Italy respectively: Bohemia cupbearer, the Palsgrave
seneschal, Saxony marshal, and Brandenburg chamberlain ^2.

[Footnote 1: The claim of the King of Bohemia seems to have been made
technically in respect of his office of cup-bearer, practically because he was
the equal in power and rank of any of the other electors. It was disputed
partly on the ground that his kingdom was not properly German. 'Rex Bohemiae
qui pincerna est non eligit quia non est Teutonicus' (Albert. Stad. A.D. 1240.
So the Sachsenspiegel, 'Die schenke des rikes die koning von behemen, die ne
heuet nenen kore, umme dat he nicht dudesch nis.']

[Footnote 2: The names and offices of the seven are concisely given in these
lines, which appear in the treatise of Marsilius of Padua, De Imperio Romano:

'Moguntinensis, Trevirensis, Coloniensis,
Quilibet imperii sit Cancellarius horum;
Et Palatinus dapifer, Dux portitor ensis,
Marchio praepositus camerae, pincerna Bohemus,
Hi statuunt dominum cunctis per saecula summum.'

It is worth while to place beside this the first stanza of Schiller's
ballad, Der Graf von Hapsburg, in which the coronation feast of Rudolf is

'Zu Aachen in seiner Kaiserpracht
Im alterthumlichen Saale,
Sass Konig Rudolphs heilige Macht
Beim festlichen Kronungsmahle.
Die Speisen trug der Pfalzgraf des Rheins,
Es schenkte der Bohme des perlenden Weins,
Und alle die Wahler, die sieben,
Wie der Sterne Chor um die Sonne sich stellt,
Umstanden geschaftig den Herrscher der Welt,
Die Wurde des Amtes zu uben.'

It is a poetical licence, however (as Schiller himself admits), to bring the
Bohemian there, for King Ottocar was far away at home, mortified at his won
rejection, and already meditating war.]

These arrangements, under which disputed elections became far less
frequent, remained undisturbed till the breaking out of the Thirty Year's War,
when the Emperor Ferdinand II by an unwarranted stretch of prerogative
deprived (in 1621) the Palsgrave Frederick (king of Bohemia and husband of
Elizabeth, the daughter of James I of England) of his electoral vote, and
transferred it (1623) to his own partisan, Maximilian of Bavaria. At the
peace of Westphalia the Palsgrave was reinstated as eighth elector, Bavaria
retaining her vote and rank, but with a provision that if the Bavarian branch
of the house of Wittelsbach should come to an end, the Palsgrave should step
into its place, which accordingly happened on the extinction of the Bavarian
line in 1777. The sacred number having been once broken through, less scruple
was felt in making further changes. In A.D.1692, the Emperor Leopold I
conferred a ninth electorate on the house of Brunswick-Luneburg which was then
in possession of the duchy of Hanover, and succeeded to the throne of Great
Britain in 1714; and in A.D. 1708, the assent of the Diet thereto was
obtained. It was in this way that English kings came to vote at the election
of a Roman Emperor.

It is not a little curious that the only potentate who continued down to
our own days actually to entitle himself Elector ^1 should be one who never
joined in electing an Emperor, having been under the arrangements of the old
Empire a simple Landgrave. In A.D. 1803, Napoleon, among other sweeping
changes in the Germanic constitution, procured the extinction of the
electorates of Cologne and Treves, annexing their territories to France, and
gave the title of Elector, as the highest after that of king, of the Duke of
Wurtemberg, the Margrave of Baden, the Landgrave of Hessen-Cassel, and the
archbishop of Salzburg ^2. Three years afterwards the Empire itself ended,
and the title became meaningless.

[Footnote 1: The electoral prince (Kurfurst) of Hessen-Cassel. His retention
of the title had this advantage, that it enabled the Germans readily to
distinguish electoral Hesse (Kur-Hes-sen) from the Grand Duchy
(Hessen-Darmstadt) and the land-graviate (Hessen-Homburg.) This last relic of
the electoral system passed away in 1866, when the elector of Hessen was
dethroned, and his territories (to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants,
whom he had worried by a long course of petty tyrannies) annexed to the
Prussian kingdom, along with Hanover, Nassau, and the free city of Frankfort.]

[Footnote 2: France having annexed the whole left bank of the Rhine, the
archiepiscopal chair of Mentz was transferred to Regensburg. It was now the
only spiritual electorate, for the archbishopric of Salzburg had been
secularized for the archduke Ferdinand of Austria, in order to compensate him
for the loss of Tuscany.]

As the Germanic Empire is the most conspicuous example of a monarchy not
hereditary that the world has ever seen, it may not be amiss to consider for a
moment what light its history throws upon the character of elective monarchy
in general, a contrivance which has always had, and will probably always
continue to have, seductions for a certain class of political theorists.

First of all then it deserves to be noticed how difficult, one might
almost say impossible, it was found to maintain in practice the elective
principle. In point of law, the imperial throne was from the tenth century to
the nineteenth absolutely open to any orthodox Christian candidate. But as a
matter of fact, the competition was confined to a few very powerful families,
and there was always a strong tendency for the crown to become hereditary in
some one of these. Thus the Franconian Emperors held it from A.D. 1024 till
1125, the Hohenstaufen, themselves the heirs of the Franconians, for a century
or more; the house of Luxemburg (kings of Bohemia) enjoyed it through three
successive reigns, and when in the fifteenth century it fell into the
tenacious grasp of the Hapsburgs, they managed to retain it thenceforth (with
but one trifling interruption) till it vanished out of nature altogether.
Therefore the chief benefit which the scheme of elective sovereignty seems to
promise, that of putting the fittest man in the highest place, was but seldom
attained, and attained even then rather by good fortune than design.

No such objection can be brought against the second ground on which an
elective system has sometimes been advocated, its operation in moderating the
power of the crown, for this was attained in the fullest and most ruinous
measure. We are reminded of the man in the fable, who opened a sluice to
water his garden, and saw his house swept away by the furious torrent. The
power of the crown was not moderated but destroyed. Each successful candidate
was forced to purchase his title by the sacrifice of rights which had belonged
to his predecessors, and must repeat the same shameful policy later in his
reign to procure the election of his son. Feeling at the same time that his
family could not make sure of keeping the throne, he treated it as a
life-tenant is apt to treat his estate, seeking only to make out of it the
largest present profit. And the electors, aware of the strength of their
position, presumed upon it and abused it to assert an independence such as the
nobles of other countries could never have aspired to.

Modern political speculation supposes the method of appointing a ruler by
the votes of his subjects, as opposed to the system of hereditary succession,
to be an assertion by the people of their own will as the ultimate fountain of
authority, an acknowledgment by the prince that he is no more than their
minister and deputy. To the theory of the Holy Empire nothing could be more
repugnant. This will best appear when the aspect of the system of election at
different epochs in its history is compared with the corresponding changes in
the composition of the electoral body which have been described as in progress
from the ninth to the fourteenth century. In very early times, the tribe
chose a war chief, who was, even if he belonged to the most noble family, no
more than the first among his peers, with a power circumscribed by the will of
his subjects. Several ages later, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the
right of choice had passed into the hands of the magnates, and the people were
only asked to assent. In the same measure had the relation of prince and
subject taken a new aspect. We must not expect to find, in such rude times,
any very clear apprehension of the technical quality of the process, and the
throne had indeed become for a season so nearly hereditary that the election
was often a mere matter of form. But it seems to have been regarded, not as a
delegation of authority by the nobles and people, with a power of resumption
implied, but rather as their subjection of themselves to the monarch who
enjoys, as of his own right, a wide and ill-defined prerogative. In yet later
times, when, as has been shewn above, the assembly of the chieftains and the
applauding shout of the host had been superseded by the secret conclave of the
seven electoral princes, the strict legal view of election became fully
established, and no one was supposed to have any title to the crown except
what a majority of votes might confer upon him. Meantime, however, the
conception of the imperial office itself had been thoroughly penetrated by
religious ideas, and the fact that the sovereign did not, like other princes,
reign by hereditary right, but by the choice of certain persons, was supposed
to be an enhancement and consecration of his dignity. The electors, to draw
what may seem a subtle, but is nevertheless a very real distinction, selected,
but did not create. They only named the person who was to receive what it was
not theirs to give. God, say the mediaeval writers, not deigning to interfere
visibly in the affairs of this world, has willed that these seven princes of
Germany should discharge the function which once belonged to the senate and
people of Rome, that of choosing his earthly viceroy in matters temporal. But
it is immediately from Himself that the authority of this viceroy comes, and
men can have no relation towards him except that of obedience. It was in this
period, therefore, when the Emperor was in practice the mere nominee of the
electors, that the belief in his divine right stood highest, to the complete
exclusion of the mutual responsibility of feudalism, and still more of any
notion of a devolution of authority from the sovereign people.

Peace and order appeared to be promoted by the institutions of Charles
IV, which removed one fruitful cause of civil war. But these seven electoral
princes acquired, with their extended privileges, a marked and dangerous
predominance in Germany. They had once already in their famous meeting at
Rhense ^1 in 1338, acted as an independent body, repudiating in the name of
the nation the extravagant claims of the Pope, and declaring that it was by
their election alone that the Emperor acquired his rights. The position which
they had then assumed in a heartily patriotic spirit, was now legalized and
made permanent. They were to enjoy full regalian rights in their territories
^2; causes were not to be evoked from their courts, save when justice should
have been denied: their consent was necessary to all public acts of
consequence. Their persons were held to be sacred, and the seven mystic
luminaries of the Holy Empire, typified by the seven lamps of the Apocalypse,
soon gained much of the Emperor's hold on popular reverence, as well as that
actual power which he lacked. To Charles, who viewed the German Empire much
as Rudolf had viewed the Roman, this result came not unforeseen. He saw in his
office a means of serving personal ends, and to them, while appearing to exalt
by elaborate ceremonies its ideal dignity, he deliberately sacrificed what
real strength was left. The object which he sought steadily through life was
the prosperity of the Bohemian kingdom, and the advancement of his own house.
In the Golden Bull, whose seal bears the legend, -

'Roma caput mundi regit orbis frena rotundi ^3,'

there is not a word of Rome or of Italy. To Germany he was indirectly a
benefactor, by the foundation of the University of Prague, the mother of all
her schools: otherwise her bane. He legalized anarchy, and called it a
constitution. The sums expended in obtaining the ratification of the Golden
Bull, in procuring the election of his son Wenzel, in aggrandizing Bohemia at
the expense of Germany, had been amassed by keeping a market in which honours
and exemptions, with what lands the crown retained, were put up openly to be
bid for. In Italy the Ghibelines saw, with shame and rage, their chief hasten
to Rome with a scanty retinue, and return from it as swiftly, at the mandate
of an Avignonese Pope, halting on his route only to traffic away the last
rights of his Empire. The Guelf might cease to hate a power he could now

[Footnote 1: Rhense is a hamlet on the left bank of the Rhine, some four or
five miles above Coblentz. A little way north of it, and on the very shore,
between the stream and the railway, stands, half hidden by walnut-trees, the
so-called Konigsstuhl, a modern restoration of the building erected by Charles
IV in 1376 for the meetings of the electors, who from long time past had been
wont to assemble here. It was the point where the territories of the four
Rhenish electors touched one another. Here several imperial elections were
made: the last, Rupert's, in 1400.]

[Footnote 2: Goethe, whose imagination was wonderfully attracted by the
splendours of the old Empire, has given in the second part of Faust a sort of
fancy sketch of the origin of the great offices and the territorial
independence of the German princes. Two lines express concisely the fiscal
rights granted by the Emperor to the electors: -

'Dann Steuer Zins und Beed', Lehn und Geleit und Zoll,
Berg- Salz- und Munz-regal euch angehoren soll.'

Maximilian said of Charles IV: 'Carolo quarto pestilentior pestis nunquam
alias contigit Germaniae.']

[Footnote 3: This line is said to be as old as the time of Otto III.]

Thus, alike at home and abroad, the German king had become practically
powerless by the loss of his feudal privileges, and saw the authority that had
once been his parcelled out among a crowd of greedy and tyrannical nobles.
Meantime how had it fared with the rights which he claimed by virtue of the
Imperial crown?