After the death of Conrad IV in 1254, Germany saw a most unhappy and unsettled time. It was known as the Interregnum—the time between one reign and another—because between 1254 and 1273 there was no proper ruler in the land. One king or another was set up for a time, but each was merely a shadow of a monarch and held no power. In the meantime the great nobles fought out old quarrels, a hundred petty wars raged between rival towns, or between towns and princes who wished to master them, and everywhere the strong robbed the weak, for there seemed neither law nor authority in the country. The robber barons saw this confusion with delight: they swooped from their castles and fortresses and returned from a raid with crowds of prisoners to thrust into their dungeons, and with vast stores of rich goods to fill their treasure chambers.
Nearly twenty years passed in violence and disorder, and then all ranks of the people called for a king who could restore peace to the troubled state. It was resolved that in future the choice of a monarch should be left to seven great men who were called Electors. Three were to be princes of the Church, the Archbishops of Cologne, Mayence, and Treves, four were to be princes of the State, the Dukes of Bavaria, Suabia, Franconia, and Lorraine.
The Electors chose Rudolf of Hapsburg, who reigned from 1273 to 1291, a sensible king, who, instead of spending his time in Italy, gave all his strength to the welfare of Germany. He restored order in the land, and broke the power of the robber barons. Castle after castle was seized by his troops, and every robber knight who fell into his hands was at once put to death. He never went to Rome to be crowned and gave up all idea of maintaining German authority south of the Alps. When Rudolf died in 1291, Adolf of Nassau reigned for seven years. The latter was killed in battle with Rudolf's son, Albrecht, in 1298, and Albrecht was elected to the throne. He ruled for ten years, and was murdered in Switzerland by his nephew John in 1308. Tradition says that William Tell lived during his reign, and it was then that the famous incident occurred of the great archer shooting the apple from the head of his own son.
Upon the death of Albrecht many princes sought the German throne, and the Electors chose the Count of Luxemburg, who became Henry VII (1308-1313). This ruler attempted to restore the Imperial power in Italy, but the Pope, the Italian princes, and the Italian towns combined to offer a fierce opposition, and he had done little when he died of fever in 1313.
After a war between rival candidates of the Houses of Luxemburg and Hapsburg, Louis of Hapsburg became Emperor. He had to struggle hard against the Pope, and now there came about a most important change in the relations between Germany and the Pope. The Germans were tired of their rulers being set up or cast down by order of the Pope, and the Electors decreed that for the future any one whom they might choose to fill the throne should be the lawful ruler even if the Pope refused to recognise him. The next step they took was to declare the Pope's ban and interdict should be of no weight in their country.
These decrees were passed at a time when the Popes were not living at Rome. From March 1309 to September 1376 the Papacy had its seat at Avignon, in the south of France, under the protection of the French kings, and from that time its influence began to wane.
When Louis died in 1347, Charles of Bohemia was chosen as the German king. Charles made friends with the Pope, and was crowned in Italy, as former emperors had been. He is to be remembered as the founder of the first German university. This was set up at Prague in 1348. He also issued decrees which provided for the election of the sovereign, and which fixed the rank of the Electors.
In 1378 he was followed by a careless, drunken son, Wenceslaus, whom the people called "Lazy Wenzel." This king ruled so badly that in 1400 he was turned from the throne, and Rupert of the Palatinate was chosen for the vacant place. Rupert was an able man, but he had a very uneasy time of it, for Wenzel was not willing to be deposed, and gathered his friends to support him. Rupert had thus to fight Wenzel, to try to restore order in Germany, and to hold his own in Italy. He died in 1410, and now three emperors appeared in the land: Wenzel still maintained his claim, while the Electors failed to agree and set up two other rulers, Sigismund, brother of Wenzel, and Jost of Moravia. Of these three Jost died and Wenzel gave way, leaving Sigismund to fill the throne from 1410 to 1437.
The reign of Sigismund is of great importance, for now we see the first signs of that vast movement that was to shake Germany to its centre: the Reformation. The Church of Rome had amassed great riches. With riches came luxury and a love of ease. Instead of living lives of self-denial, instead of preaching and teaching and helping the poor, the great Churchmen spent their days in hunting, feasting, and all kinds of riotous excess. Their example was copied by the lesser clergy until the whole Church had become corrupt. Many earnest men were troubled at this state of affairs and did their utmost to bring about a change for the better: they were called the Reformers, and they were very active in Bohemia, where they were led by a good and able man named John Huss. Huss was excommunicated by the Pope because of his attacks on the abuses of the Church of Rome, but he continued his work as a Reformer.
The Emperor Sigismund saw that there were great quarrels and differences in the Church, and he resolved to call a great council in order that vexed questions might be argued out and matters put straight. In 1414 a great crowd of cardinals, bishops, and priests from many countries gathered at the famous Council of Constance, and the Council sat for four years, till 1418. At the head of the gathering was Pope John XXIII, a man whose evil life had been stained by many crimes.
The Emperor asked John Huss to appear before the Council to answer for himself, and promised that Huss should come and go in safety. Huss trusted the Emperor's word and went to Constance. He was at once taken prisoner by order of the Pope, and, after a time, was placed upon trial as a heretic. He refused to deny the opinions he had taught, and was condemned to die by fire. Sigismund, in spite of his plighted word, did not interfere to save Huss from this dreadful death, and in July 1415 the Reformer was burned at the stake. This was the first step of the Reformation, though a hundred years were to pass before the great movement should rise to its height.
When the death of Huss was known in Bohemia, his followers were filled with fury and flew to arms. They were led by John Ziska, who made his name dreaded for the merciless cruelty of his ravages. For fifteen years the wars of the Hussites went on and reduced many parts of the country to a desert. Sigismund led armies of mail-clad knights and trained men-at-arms against Ziska's hordes of ill-armed peasantry, but the latter won the day again and again. Filled with hatred of the Germans, and careless of their own lives, the Hussites fought with such desperate fury that none could stand before them. Nor, in the end, were they conquered. Sigismund was forced to make peace with them, upon terms honourable to the Hussites.
Another point to be noted in the reign of Sigismund is the rise of the Hohenzollern family. In 1411 the Emperor appointed Frederick, Count of Hohenzollern, to be Margrave of Brandenburg and an Elector. The new Elector had only small possessions, but his family grew in power and influence until it gave kings to Prussia, and to-day its head is the Emperor of the great German Empire.