During his father's lifetime Maximilian had already been chosen King of the Romans, and he now succeeded to the Empire without any trouble. Long before this, in 1477, he had married Mary, the beautiful Duchess of Burgundy. She was the daughter of that turbulent Duke of Burgundy who had been defeated by the Swiss, and she had married Maximilian to free herself from the greedy clutches of Louis XI of France.
Mary brought to her husband fair and broad lands, both in the Netherlands and in Burgundy. But she did not live long, and when she died Maximilian had great trouble with both these provinces, for the peoples refused to acknowledge him as their ruler. And when he became Emperor he was glad to give up the government of the Netherlands to his son Philip.
This Philip married Joanna, the daughter of the King of Spain, and thus the Netherlands and Spain were united. It is rather important to remember this, for later on we will hear a great deal about the sons of Philip and Joanna.
Maximilian I was, in his own time, one of the best-loved of all the German Emperors. Yet he never did one thing for the Empire. He was gallant and brave and daring to rashness. He loved knightly sports and games, and he has been called the last of all the Knights. He would often take part in tournaments, sometime in disguise. And when, having defeated all those knights who came against him, he raised his visor, he would be greeted with thunders of applause.
But even more than tournaments Maximilian loved hunting, and many stories are told of his daring and skill. Once when attacked by a she-bear he choked her with his bare hands. Another time when attacked by a wild boar, which bit his horse's leg in two, Maximilian sprang from his horse, and with his hunting spear he pierced the boar through the body, running great risk of himself being killed.
He loved all sorts of sport. But best of all he loved to hunt the chamois, and he would follow his game high upon the Alps, among the ice and snow, fearlessly jumping over wide clefts, and scrambling among boulders. Once, it is told, he followed a chamois from rock to rock, higher and higher, in the heat and eagerness of the chase caring little where he went. But at length he found himself in a spot from which he could neither go forward nor back. Beneath him was a sheer precipice, before him a great rock jutted out.
Far below in the valley his people watched. But none knew how to reach him. For two days they tried in vain. They could not even succeed in throwing him a rope. All thought the King was lost, and headed by the village priest they marched around the church in solemn procession, praying for his safety. And Maximilian, having eaten all the food that he had with him, resigned himself to die of hunger.
Then suddenly, as he lay waiting for death, he heard something rustle beside him. Turning his head cautiously he saw a peasant huntsman not far off upon the mountain side. "Hallo!" cried the peasant in astonishment, "What are you doing there?"
"I am waiting," replied Maximilian quietly,—waiting for death, he meant.
At once the peasant began to creep slowly towards the Emperor. Hardly daring to hope that help had really come to him, he lay still and watched the peasant creeping slowly and cautiously along. At length he reached the spot where the Emperor lay. Quickly he bound climbing irons to his hands and feet, and at length Maximilian was able to climb down from that giddy height where he had lain for two long days.
Some people say that the peasant vanished as soon as the King was in safety, and that he was no mortal man, but an angel sent to his aid. Others say that he was a chamois hunter named Oswald Zips, and that as a reward Maximilian made him a noble.
Once when attacked by a she-bear he choked her with his bare hands.
But although Maximilian loved jousting and hunting, he was also a learned man and a lover of art. He could speak several languages, he himself wrote several books, and he loved poetry and painting and music. He was, indeed, called "The father of the learned," and one of the greatest of German painters, Albert Dürer, was his friend.
Yet much as he loved all peaceful arts, Maximilian was almost constantly at war. And in spite of his bravery and fearlessness he was nearly always defeated. He fought against the Swiss and against the Turks; he fought in Bavaria, he fought in the Netherlands. But his chief wars were in Italy, and against the French. Long before Maximilian became Emperor, his little daughter Margaret had been betrothed to the Dauphin of France, and as she was only a tiny child she had been sent to live at the French Court until she should be old enough to be married. But when the Dauphin became King, instead of marrying Margaret he sent her home to her father, and married the Duchess Anne of Brittany.
This was a double insult to Maximilian. Not only had his daughter been insulted, but he himself had been robbed of his own bride. For he was betrothed, and indeed already married by proxy to Anne of Brittany. Maximilian was furiously angry, but after a time he comforted himself for his lost bride by marrying a rich Italian heiress, the grand-daughter of a poor peasant who had risen to fame.
Charles VIII of France had now splendid dreams of conquering Italy, and Maximilian, who hated him and who also was a dreamer, wanted to drive him out. He wanted with one blow to avenge his private hate, and at the same time once more make the power of the Empire supreme in Italy.
But Maximilian was poor. He was always open-handed and careless with money, and he never had enough for his splendid schemes. How poor he was is shown by a letter from his advisers begging him to send money at once. For, say they, "for our gracious lady the Queen and her ladies, we have only enough to last them a few days longer. And if money does not come by that time even our food will be at an end." He was so poor that he actually sold his sword, and fought for pay as many poor nobles did in those days. At the battle of Guinegate he fought on the side of England for 100 marks a day.
So now that Maximilian wanted to go to war against Charles VIII in Italy, he called the princes of the Empire together to ask them to help him with money. But the princes and nobles refused to give him any money, or help him with his foreign wars until peace within the Empire was made sure.
Maximilian stormed and raged. He did not wish to barter and bargain, or give up one jot of his kingly power. He wished to command, and be obeyed. He would not be tied and bound, he declared, he would not be dictated to. Would they force him, he asked, to throw his crown down among their feet and scramble for the pieces?
But all Maximilian's anger was of no avail. The nobles stood firm, so he yielded. Peace within the Empire was proclaimed. It was not to last only for a certain number of years. It was to be for ever, and private warfare between princes within the realm was forbidden. A court called the Imperial Chamber was set up, and to this court nobles were commanded to bring their quarrels to be decided, instead of fighting them out between themselves. A tax called the common penny was also instituted to pay for this court. And although the King was president of this court it took a great deal of power out of his hands.
Maximilian, having at length received help and money, set out for Italy, but he did little good in his wars there. He tried to march to Rome, to be crowned there by the Pope. But the people of Venice refused to let him pass through their land. So he contented himself with naming himself King of Germany and "Emperor Elect." Before this the title of King of Germany had never been used, and after this the Kings of Germany took the title of Emperor without waiting to be crowned by the Pope.
Maximilian was always full of great schemes. He was always beginning things, and never finishing them. He was for ever making plans and unmaking them. "He says one thing at night, and changes his mind before morning," said Charles VIII, and so he never succeeded in doing anything great. He made the wildest, maddest plans. At one time he thought of making himself Pope as well as Emperor. He wrote to his daughter telling her that after his death she would have to look upon him as a saint to be adored, and signing himself, "Your good father the future Pope."
Yet with all his wild schemes, with all his folly and vain-gloriousness, Maximilian loved Germany. He was far more German at heart than many of the Emperors who had gone before him, some of whom were willing to sacrifice all that was German for a little empty glory in Italy. "My honour is German honour," said Maximilian, "and German honour is my honour!"
Maximilian began at length to feel that his life was nearly at an end. For some years, whenever he travelled he carried his coffin with him. In 1518 he held a last Diet in Augsburg. He left it a weary and disappointed man. His son Philip had died, and he had tried to make the Electors choose his grandson Charles, the son of Philip and Joanna of Spain, as his successor. They refused. He had tried to rouse them to go upon a crusade against the Turks. They refused. All his life to crush the Turks had been one of his dearest hopes. But no one would follow him, and to the last Maximilian was doomed to failure and disappointment.
On his way home from this profitless Diet, Maximilian died. "It is time to make your peace with God," said the priest, as he bent over the dying Emperor.
"I have done that long ago," he replied wearily, "else now it would be too late."