Monarch Profile: Emperor Henry VII
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.