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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 11, Slice 8 "Germany" to "Gibson, William"

The head of the Wittelsbach family


Charles IV. becomes king.

In January 1349 the friends of the late emperor elected Gunther, count of Schwarzburg, as their king, but before this occurrence Charles of Moravia, by a liberal use of gifts and promises, had won over many of his enemies, prominent among whom were the cities. In a few months Gunther himself abandoned the struggle, dying shortly afterwards, and about the same time his victorious rival was recognized by Louis of Brandenburg, the head of the Wittelsbach family. As king of Bohemia Charles was an enlightened and capable ruler, but he was indifferent towards Germany, although this country never stood in more urgent need of a strong and beneficent sovereign. In the early years of the reign the people, especially in the south and west, attacked and plundered the Jews; and the consequent disorder was greatly increased by the ravages of the Black Death and by the practices and preaching of the Flagellants, both events serving to spur the maddened populace to renewed outrages on the Jews. In dealing with this outburst of fanaticism many of the princes, both spiritual and secular, displayed vigour and humanity, but Charles saw only in the sufferings of this people an excuse for robbing them of their wealth.

The Golden Bull.

Charles's most famous achievement was the issue of the Golden Bull (q.v.). Although the principle of election had long been admitted and practised with regard to the German crown, yet it was surrounded by many practical difficulties. For instance, if the territory belonging to an electoral family were divided, as was often the case, it had never been settled whether all the ruling princes were to vote, or, if one only were entitled to this privilege, by what principle the choice was to be made. Over these and other similar points many disputes had arisen, and, having been crowned emperor at Rome in April 1355, Charles decided to set these doubts at rest. The Golden Bull, promulgated in January 1356 and again after some tedious negotiations in December of the same year, fixed the number of electors at seven, Saxe-Wittenberg and not Saxe-Lauenburg obtaining the Saxon vote, and the vote of the Wittelsbachs being given to the ruler of the Rhenish Palatinate and not to the duke of Bavaria. The votes of a majority of the electors were held to make an election valid. In order that there might be no possibility of dispute between the princes of a single house, the countries ruled by the four secular electors--Bohemia, the Rhenish Palatinate, Saxony and Brandenburg--were declared to be indivisible and to be heritable only by the accepted rules of primogeniture. The electors were granted full sovereign rights over their lands, and their subjects were allowed to appeal to the royal or the imperial tribunals only in case they could not obtain justice elsewhere. A blow was struck at the cities, which were forbidden to form leagues or to receive _Pfahlburger_.

Fehmic Courts.

If the Golden Bull be excepted, the true interest of this reign is in the movements beyond the range of the emperor's influence. It is significant that at this time the _Femgerichte_, or Fehmic Courts (q.v.), vastly extended the sphere of their activities, and that in the absence of a strong central authority they were respected as a check upon the lawlessness of the princes. The cities, notwithstanding every kind of discouragement, formed new associations for mutual defence or strengthened those which already existed. The Hanseatic League carried on war with Valdemar V., king of Denmark, and his ally, the king of Norway, seventy-seven towns declaring war on these monarchs in 1367, and emerged victorious from the struggle, while its commerce extended to nearly all parts of the known world. In 1376 some Swabian towns formed a league which, in spite of the imperial prohibition, soon became powerful in south-west Germany and defeated the forces of the count of Wurttemberg at Reutlingen in May 1377. The emperor, meanwhile, was occupied in numerous intrigues to strengthen his personal position and to increase the power of his house. In these he was very fortunate, managing far more than his predecessors to avoid conflicts with the Papacy and the princes. The result was that when he died in November 1378 he wore the crowns of the Empire, of Germany, of Bohemia, of Lombardy and of Burgundy; he had added Lower Lusatia and parts of Silesia to Bohemia; he had secured the mark of Brandenburg for his son Wenceslaus in 1373; and he had bought part of the Upper Palatinate and territories in all parts of Germany.


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