The various states that made up the Holy Roman Empire entered the fourteenth century in chaos. There had been little continuity in Imperial government, and the electoral process of choosing an emperor produced confusion and turmoil. Since the end of the reign of Frederick II in 1250, there was rarely a smooth transfer of power from one ruler to the next. Nor did military success guarantee hereditary succession, as it had earlier in the Middle Ages. Ego and jealousy determined far more than did competence. So, although Rudolf of Habsburg, in his wars in Bohemia, had done much to add to the Empire and to increase the security of its borders—which earlier would have ensured patrilineal succession—when he died in 1291, the electors did not choose his son, Rudolf, but crowned Adolf of Nassau in his stead. Civil war ensued until 1298 when Albert I of Habsburg, one of Rudolf’s sons, defeated and killed Adolf at the battle of Göllheim. But as many of the Imperial electors and nobles continued to reject his rule, Albert’s reign was anything but peaceful, and at his death in 1308 the electors passed over his son, also named Albert, to choose Henry of Luxembourg, who reigned until 1313. Thus, the two most important families for the later history of the Holy Roman Empire gained power and although it transferred back and forth between them, they did not lose it until 1918.
But it was an insecure beginning. Once again, in 1313, there was no smooth election. John of Bohemia, Henry of Luxembourg’s son, was challenged by Frederick of Habsburg and Louis of Bavaria. As had been done so many times before in these situations, armies were mustered and a civil war was fought. Louis, who had too little power to be elected emperor in his own right, quickly supported John of Bohemia’s claim, and when the two sides finally met in battle, at Mühldorf in 1322, it was they who won, capturing Frederick in the encounter. A shaky agreement for co-emperorship between the three claimants was bought with the victory, but after Louis declared himself sole emperor in 1328, being crowned as such in Rome, and the death of Frederick in 1330, the Holy Roman Empire was once more embroiled in civil war. This was given even more significance when Pope John XXII excommunicated Louis for his presumptive actions, and John of Bohemia responded by declaring that this war had become a crusade.
By 1346 nothing had been decided by military means, so when John died, the German princes, refusing to recognize the excommunicated Louis, chose John’s son, Charles of Bohemia, a man who had Pope Clement VI’s blessing and who they hoped would be able to restore peace to the Empire. After Louis died the following year there was no further opposition to Emperor Charles IV’s rule and, until 1378, there was peace for the most part in the Holy Roman Empire. Charles even had the confidence to regulate the process of electing new rulers by proclaiming the Golden Bull in 1356. From then on there would be a college of no more than seven electors who would elect a new emperor, hopefully instilling peace to a process that had seen little since its initiation.
This might have worked, too, if Charles’s successors had been anything like him. His son, Wenceslas II of Bohemia, spent his reign (1378–1400) for the most part in a drunken and incompetent stupor. Rupert III of the Palatinate (also known as Rupert of Wittelsbach) deposed Wenceslas in 1400, and, when he died in 1410, another of Charles’ sons, Sigismund of Luxembourg, king of Hungary, was elected, For the rest of the fifteenth century—in 1438 Sigismund was succeeded for a year by his son-in-law, Albert of Austria, and then by Frederick III of Habsburg until 1493—Germany remained free from civil war, but had little peace on its borders, as her neighbors preyed on what they perceived as weak government and disunity among the various princes to gain land and sovereignty.