30 October 2020

Monarch Profile: Emperor Henry VII

A look at Emperor Henry VII, a Ruler caught midst the struggles between the Welfs and the Waiblingens.

From The Mad Monarchist (19 February 2016)

Emperor Henry VII of the Holy Roman Empire (First German Reich) is often overlooked amongst the famous German monarchs of the Dark to Middle Ages. The devoted Otto the Great, fierce Frederick Barbarossa or flamboyant Frederick II certainly receive more attention but Henry VII certainly had an impact in his time and inspired one of the most famous literary works of the period. Probably more known in Italy than Germany, he was able, inadvertently or not, to inspire people and represented something for many people that was far greater than he ever could have been himself. He was born in or around 1275 in Valenciennes in northern France, the son of Count Henry VI of Luxembourg. Although his native land was in France, it was also within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire which, while centered on Germany and consisting mostly of Germans (hence, “Holy Roman Empire of the German People”), it also included bits of other surrounding nations depending on the political situation. In his youth, the future Henry VII was well acquainted with how precarious that political situation was.

Voltaire famously quipped that, “…the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” and he was not entirely wrong. Holiness, well, that could come and go, and times it really tried and at other times it certainly fell short. It certainly was not truly “Roman” as the Pope ruled Rome and would become quite peevish if any German Emperors got ideas to take it from him. As for being an “empire”, however, that too was changeable. As a patchwork of minor states and cities, it was often not much of a player on the world stage but, under men like the aforementioned Otto or Frederick, it could rise to truly imperial status if the emperor was tough enough, smart enough and ambitious enough to make it so. In the time of young Henry of Luxembourg, this was not the case and the empire of the Germans was in rather bad shape. As Count of Luxembourg, Henry was constantly being harassed by neighboring German petty rulers and was forced to look beyond the imperial borders for help. He kept his people safe and, by all accounts, ruled his lands wisely but did have to avail himself of the protection of King Philip the Fair of France (perhaps known as Philip the Unfair if you were Jewish or a Knight Templar).

Things were going fine for Henry until King Albert I of Germany (a Hapsburg) was assassinated and a power-struggle ensued with King Philip the Fair of France hoping to carry out a French takeover of the Germans by having himself elected Emperor. He spent huge sums of money trying to bribe the German Prince-Electors but ultimately it was to no avail. Everyone feared that France would be too powerful if Philip were to be elected. However, King Philip could also be counted on to oppose any of the German candidates the electors would normally have turned to. As it happened though, the Count of Luxembourg was energetically putting his own candidacy forward, winning over many powerful people and making a pretty good case for himself. He was eligible, seemed to be a good ruler and while within the empire was also a vassal of the King of France so Philip would likely not object much to his election. The issue was decided and the Count of Luxembourg was elected King of the Romans in 1308 and crowned at Aachen the following year. Pope Clement V, in Avignon, confirmed his election and announced that he would crown him emperor at Candlemas in 1312. This would be important as it would lend prestige to his position, since some people did not take Luxembourg very seriously, and Henry VII knew that there were some Germans none too thrilled with his election and that the French king still coveted his position for himself.

Also, because of this situation, Emperor Henry VII felt he needed a powerbase. The French were a threat and the Germans were, he thought, not sufficiently reliable in their loyalty so he needed something to act as a counter-balance to these forces. That powerbase, he determined, was Italy. His first thought was to manage this by a dynastic alliance between his daughter and the son of the King of Naples. This, he hoped, would strengthen his own position by giving him influence in southern Italy and, since King Robert of Naples was the champion of the pro-papal, anti-imperial Guelph faction (opposed to the Ghibellines who supported the German Emperor) would also strengthen the imperial cause in general throughout Italy. Unfortunately for him, the King of France learned of this and supported the King of Naples in basically refusing the marriage alliance. With that effort having failed, Emperor Henry VII decided to invade Italy and secure his new powerbase by conquest.

One of the many people who were attracted to the idea behind this expedition was the famous Italian writer Dante Alighieri who had originally been part of the Guelph faction but who had been soured by this bitter divisions and feuding in Italy and seized on the ambition of Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg to restore the power and unity of the Holy Roman Empire as being the solution to the problems he found with society. He wanted to see Italy strong and united and identified Henry VII as the monarch who could accomplish this. So it was that the Emperor inspired Dante to write his famous work ‘De Monarchia’ which called for a universal monarchy with the Pope and the Emperor limiting themselves to their own field, spiritual and secular, and both receiving their authority from God. This, of course, did not go over well with the Pope but given the idealism of Emperor Henry VII, it is easy to see how he could have inspired such high hopes in people. Unfortunately for the Emperor, his idealism revealed a certain naiveté about how deep and bitter were the divisions in Italy between the Guelph and Ghibelline camps. He met with both sides, showed no favoritism and hoped to win over all to cause by his magnanimity. He called on the Italian states to basically put the past behind them, welcome everyone home (because, as happened to Dante, when one side took a city the members of the opposing faction were usually exiled) and to reconcile. Not everyone was prepared to do this.

When faced with such resistance, Henry VII resorted to force and he came with 5,000 knights and men-at-arms to back him up. He reached Turin in November of 1310 and later proceeded to Milan where he was crowned King of Italy with the sacred Iron Crown of Lombardy in 1311. He continued his policy of reconciliation by recalling the deposed Visconti family but the Guelphs were preparing for war to stop him. It was, however, insufficient and Henry VII defeated the Guelphs and made Matteo Visconti his Imperial Vicar in Milan, appointing his brother-in-law, Count Amedeus V of Savoy, Vicar-General of Lombardy. All of this sparked widespread rebellion on the part of the Guelphs but Henry VII managed, by force of arms, to secure his control over most of northern Italy with some areas, such as Parma, Verona and Padua, accepting his rule more willingly. As he fought his way south, toward Rome, more popular opinion began to turn against him and Guelph cities united to oppose him. They did this militarily as well as with a medieval propaganda campaign that proved somewhat effective at ruining the reputation of the man so many had at first hailed as the harbinger of a new era of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, in France, King Philip also put what pressure he could on Pope Clement to turn the Pontiff against the Emperor-elect and the Pope began to give signs that Henry of Luxembourg was falling out of favor with him.

After many hard-fought battles and long, arduous sieges of fortified Italian cities, Henry VII finally made his way to Genoa and more heartbreak. It was there that his wife, Margaret of Brabant, passed away and that he learned that King Robert of Naples, who he had first hoped to make an ally, was preparing to march against him and oppose his effort to dominate Italy. Several important cities, including Florence, pledged their support to the King of Naples against Henry VII. His Italian powerbase seemed to be turning into a quagmire as Florence instigated a rebellion against him in Lombardy and Robert of Naples moved into the Romagna at the end of 1311 and beginning of 1312. He gratefully accepted an offer of friendship from Venice, took some cities himself but there always seemed to be bad news for every bit of good news for the imperial cause.

The Emperor officially informed Florence that they were on his ‘naughty list’ and sailed to Pisa where he was warmly received and then began taking action to thwart the King of Naples by allying himself with his regional rival King Frederick III of Sicily (son of Pedro III of Aragon). He had just set out for Rome for his imperial coronation, something which would hopefully strengthen his position, only to be informed that Clement V did not plan to crown him in the Eternal City itself. Still, Henry and his German troops pressed on only to be confronted with more civil war in Rome between the Colonna family that supported his cause and the Orsini family that rose up on behalf of Robert of Naples. Henry, his German troops and their Italian allies fought their way into Rome but failed to take St Peter’s but Henry VII was going to have his coronation, Pope or no Pope. So, instead, he was crowned by two supportive cardinals in the Lateran Basilica. He then declared himself master of all Italy, whether the Guelphs or Robert of Naples liked it or not, and then fought his way back out of Rome and headed for Tuscany.

Once there he effectively declared war on Robert of Naples and Pope Clement V more openly declared himself the enemy of Emperor Henry. The Pope had his own arrangements with the local princes and city republics and popes traditionally opposed any German emperor gaining power over Italy. For Clement V, there was also the King of France who could make life very unpleasant for the Pontiff if he were to take the side of his enemy. Meanwhile, in September of 1312, Emperor Henry VII besieged the city of Florence whose forces were initially weaker than his own but which was receiving support from other city-states that also opposed the imperial forces. Ultimately, the forces under siege were far more numerous than the forces Henry had available to besiege them and the siege proved to be little more than an inconvenience. After about six weeks the Emperor gave up in frustration but that frustration was boiling over. The man who had entered Italy with a policy of peace and reconciliation, of treating both sides fairly and playing no favorites, had finally found his limit. In a fury he ordered all areas under his command to arrest all Guelphs or whatever enemies of his they could find and execute them all for treason.

This, needless to say, caused a stir and cost him the support of many of his Italian allies, fearful of the consequences of such actions. For his part, Henry VII received more German troops to reinforce his army at Pisa and in August of 1313 began his campaign to take on Robert of Naples once and for all. His first target was the city of Sienna but, unfortunately for the Emperor, his campaign would be ended not long after it began. No doubt weakened by his many battles, arduous journeys and infuriating political problems, Henry VII of Luxembourg contracted malaria and died on August 24, 1313 in Buonconvento at the age of only 39. His campaign had ended in failure and, to a large extent, the dream many shared that rested on his shoulders had died with him. Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria succeeded him and tried to finish what he had started but that expedition also ended in failure. Much of the goodwill he had at the beginning of his adventure had been lost before it was all over but at least some still thought well of him and continued to revere the ideal which he fought for, or at least, which he was able to embody for others. Such was the reason, we can safely assume, that in his later writings, Dante gave Emperor Henry VII an exalted place in Heaven.

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