Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/328

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.

Electors as prescribed by the Golden Bull did not become the fashion; but the habit of common deliberation became firmly established, and the carelessness of the Luxemburg Emperors, as to all matters not affecting their hereditary dominions, gave the Electoral College an opportunity of playing a foremost part in national history. The Electors claimed to be the successors of the Roman Senate, if not the representatives of the Roman people as well. The attitude of a Wenceslas, a Sigismund, or a Frederick made possible a real sharing of the functions of government between Emperor and Senate, such as is imagined to have existed in the primitive division of power between Augustus and the Senate of his day. The six Electors deposed the incompetent King Wenceslas in 1399, and formed in 1424 the Electoral Union (Kurfurstenvereiri) of Bingen in which they pledged themselves and their successors to speak with one voice in all imperial affairs. Fourteen years later the same Electoral Union was strong enough to adopt for imperial elections the precedent, already commonly set in ecclesiastical elections, of prescribing the direction of the policy of their nominee. The conditions imposed on Albert II before his election prepared the way for the formal Wahlkapitulation which assumes so great an importance in imperial history with the election of Charles V in 1519. In the same way it was the close understanding between the Electors that made possible the programme of imperial reformation championed by Berthold of Mainz. It was only after grave differences of policy had permanently divided the Electors that Berthold's dream of a united Germany became impossible.

Less constitutional were the extra-legal combinations of those minor Estates whose members found that without corporate union they were powerless to resist their stronger neighbours. Before the end of the fourteenth century the Imperial Knights had formed a number of clubs or unions, each with its captain, and regular assemblies, to which King Sigismund had given a formal legitimation. Of these the most important were the Knights of St George, an organisation of the chivalry of Swabia which took conspicuous part in creating the Swabian League. Even earlier were the associations of the towns. Of the unions of the thirteenth century, the Hanse League alone remained, and this was now steadily on the decline. But the southern and western cities formed local leagues with periodical deliberative assemblies. In course of time other general Diets of town representatives were established. Even after the cities had definitively won their right to a limited representation in the Diets these meetings continued, being held often, for the saving of expense and trouble, side by side with the imperial assemblies. It was well for the princes that the antagonism of knights and cities was as a rule too strong to enable them to work together. The strength of the Swabian League was in no small measure due to the fact that towns and knights had both cooperated with the princes in its formation.