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William Robertson

A View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (1769)

Section III (pp. 140-166)

Note editoriali

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[140] fraternities, was solicitous to wrest it out of their hands, and to vest it in the crown. His measures for accomplishing this were wisely planned, and executed with vigour (30) [1476 and 1493]. By address, by promises, and b y threats, he prevailed on the knights of each order to place Isabella and him at the head of it. Innocent VIII. and Alexander VI. gave this election the sanction of papal authority (31); and subsequent pontiffs rendered the annexation of these mastership to the crown perpetual.

While Ferdinand, by this measure, diminished the power and influence of the nobility, and added new lustre or authority to the crown, he was tasking other important steps with a view to the same object. The sovereign jurisdiction, which the feudal barons exercised within their own territories, was the pride and distinction of their order. To have invaded openly a privilege which they prized so highly, and in defence of which they would hare run so eagerly to arms, was a measure too daring for a prince of Ferdinand’s cautious temper. He took advantage, however, of an opportunity which the state of his kingdoms and the spirit of his people presented him, in order to undermine what he durst not assault. The incessant depredations of the Moors, the want of discipline among the troops which were employed to oppose them, the frequent civil wars between the crown and the nobility, as well as the undiscerning rage with which the barons carried on their private wars with each other, filled all the provinces of Spain with disorder. Rapine, outrage, and murder, became so common, as not only to interrupt commerce, but in a great measure to suspend all intercourse between one place and another. That security and protection, which men expect from entering into civil society, ceased in a great degree. Internal order and police, while the feudal institutions remained in vigour, were so [141] little objects of attention, and the administration of justice was so extremely feeble, that it would have been vain to have expected relief from the established laws or the ordinary judges. But the evil became so intolerable, and the inhabitants of cities, who were the chief sufferers, grew so impatient of this anarchy, that self-preservation forced them to have recourse to an extraordinary remedy. About the middle of the thirteenth century [ 1260], the cities in the kingdom of Aragon, and, after their example, those in Castile, formed themselves into an association, distinguished by the name of the Holy Brotherhood. They exacted a certain contribution from each of the associated towns; they levied a considerable body of troops, in order to protect travellers, and to pursue criminals; they appointed judges, who opened their courts in various parts of the kingdom. Whoever was guilty of murder, robbery, or of any act that violated the public peace, and was seized by the troops of the brotherhood, was carried before judges of their nomination, who, without paying any regard to the exclusive and sovereign jurisdiction which the lord of the place might claim, tried and condemned the criminals. By the establishment of this fraternity, the prompt and impartial administration of justice was restored; and, together with it, internal tranquillity and order began to return. The nobles alone murmured at this salutary institution. They complained of it as an encroachment on one of their most valuable privileges. They remonstrated against it in a high tone; and, on some occasion, refused to grant any aid to the crown, unless it were abolished. Ferdinand, however, was sensible not only of the good effects of the Holy Brotherhood with respect to the police of his kingdoms, but perceived its tendency to abridge, and at length to annihilate, the territorial jurisdiction of the nobility. He countenanced it on every occasion. He supported it with the whole force of royal authority; and, besides the expedients employed by him in common with the other monarchs of Europe, he availed himself of this institution, [142] which was peculiar to his kingdom, in order to limit and abolish that independent jurisdiction of the nobility, which was no less inconsistent with the authority of the prince, than with the order of society [NN].

But though Ferdinand by these measures considerably enlarged the boundaries of his prerogative, and acquired a degree of influence and power far beyond what any of his predecessors had enjoyed, yet the limitations of the royal authority, as well as the barriers against its encroachments, continued to be many and strong. The spirit of liberty was vigorous among the people of Spain; the spirit of independence was high among the nobility; and though the love of glory, peculiar to the Spaniards in every period of their history, prompted them to support Ferdinand with zeal in his foreign operations, and to afford him such aid as enabled him not only to undertake but to execute great enterprises, he reigned over his subjects with a jurisdiction less extensive than that of any of the great monarchs in Europe. It will appear from many passages in the following history, that, during a considerable part of the reign of his successor Charles V, the prerogative of the Spanish crown was equally circumscribed.

The ancient government and laws in France so nearly resembled those of the other feudal kingdoms, that such a detail with respect to them as was necessary, in order to convey some idea of the nature and effects of the peculiar institutions which took place in Spain, would be superfluous. In the view which I have exhibited of the means by which the French monarchs acquired such a full command of the national force of their kingdom, as enabled them to engage in extensive schemes of foreign operation, I have already pointed out the great steps by which they advanced towards a more ample possession of political power, and a more uncontrolled exercise of their royal prerogative. All that now remains is to take notice of such particulars in the constitution of France as serve [143] either to distinguish it from that of other countries, or tend to throw any light on the transactions of that period, to which the following History extends.

Under the French monarchs of the first race, the royal prerogative was very inconsiderable. The general assemblies of the nation which met annually at stated seasons, extended their authority to every department of government. The power of electing kings, of enacting laws, of redressing grievances, of conferring donations on the prince, of passing judgment in the last resort, with respect to every person, and to every cause, resided in this great convention of the nation. Under the second race of kings, notwithstanding the power and splendour which the conquests of Charlemagne added to the crown, the general assemblies of the nation continued to possess extensive authority. The right of determining which of the royal family should be placed on the throne, was vested in them. The princes, elevated to that dignity by their suffrage, were accustomed regularly to call and to consult them with respect to every affair of importance to the state, and without their consent no law passed, and no new tax was levied.

But by the time that Hugh Capet, the father of the third race of kings, took possession of the throne of France, such changes had happened in the political state of the kingdom, as considerably affected the power and jurisdiction of the general assembly of the nation. The royal authority, in the hands of the degenerate posterity of Charlemagne, had dwindled into insignificance and contempt. Every considerable proprietor of land had formed his territory into a barony, almost independent of the sovereign. The dukes or governors of provinces, the counts or governors of towns and small districts, and the great officers of the crown, had rendered these dignities, which originally were granted only during pleasure or for life, hereditary in their families. Each of these had usurped [144] all the rights which hitherto had been deemed the distinctions of royalty, particularly the privileges of dispensing justice within their own domains, of coining money, and of waging war. Every district was governed by local customs, acknowledged a distinct lord, and pursued a separate interest. The formality of doing homage to their sovereign, was almost the only act of subjection which those haughty barons would perform, and that bound them no farther than they were willing to acknowledge its obligation [OO].

In a kingdom broken into so many independent baronies, hardly any common principle of union remained; and the general assembly, in its deliberations, could scarcely consider the nation as forming one body, or establish common regulations to be of equal force in every part. Within the immediate domains of the crown, the king might publish laws, and they were obeyed, because there he was acknowleged as the only lord. But if he had aimed at rendering these laws general, that would have alarmed the barons as an encroachment upon the independence of their jurisdiction. The barons, when met in the great national convention, avoided, with no less care, the enacting of general laws to be observed in every part of the kingdom, because the execution of them must have been vested in the king, and would have enlarged that paramount power which was the object of their jealousy. Thus, under the descendants of Hugh Capet, the states-general (for that was the name by which the supreme assembly of the French nation came then to be distinguished) lost their legislative authority, or at least entirely relinquished the exercise of it. From that period, the jurisdiction of the states-general extended no farther than to the imposition of new taxes, the determination of question with respect to the right of succession to the crown, the settling of the regency when the preceding monarch had not fixed it by his will, and the presenting remonstrances enumerating [145] the grievances of which the nation wished to obtain redress.

As, during several centuries, the monarchs of Europe seldom demanded extraordinary subsidies of their subjects, and the other events which required the interposition of the states rarely occurred, their meetings in France were not frequent. They were summoned occasionally by their kings, when compelled by their wants or by their fears to have recourse to the great convention of their people; but they did not, like the diet in Germany, the cortes in Spain, or the parliament in England, form an essential member of the constitution, the regular exertion of whose powers was requisite to give vigour and order to government.

When the states of France ceased to exercise legislative authority, the kings began to assume it. They ventured at first on acts of legislation with great reserve, and after taking every precaution that could prevent their subjects from being alarmed at the exercise of a new power. They did not at once issue their ordinances in a tone of authority and command. They treated with their subjects; they pointed out what was best; and allured them to comply with it. By degrees, however, as the prerogative of the crown extended, and as the supreme jurisdiction of the royal courts came to be established, the kings of France assumed more openly the style and authority of lawgivers; and, before the beginning of the fifteenth century, the complete legislative power was vested in the crown [PP].

Having secured this important acquisition, the steps which led to the right of imposing taxes were rendered few and easy. The people, accustomed to see their sovereign issue ordinances, by their sole authority, which regulated points of the greatest consequence with respect to the property of their subjects, were not alarmed when they were required, by the royal edicts, to contribute certain sums towards supplying the exigencies of government, and carrying forward the measures of the nation. When Charles VII and Louis XI first [146] ventured to exercise this new power, in the manner in which I have already described, the gradual increase of the royal authority had so imperceptibly prepared the minds of the people of France for this innovation, that it excited no commotion in the kingdom, and seems scarcely to have given rise to any murmur or complaint.

When the kings of France had thus engrossed every power which can be exerted in government; when the right of making laws, of levying money, of keeping an army of mercenaries in constant pay, of declaring war, and of concluding peace, centred in the crown, the constitution of the kingdom, which, under the first race of kings was nearly democratical; which, under the second race, became an aristocracy; terminated, under the third race, in a pure monarchy. Everything that tended to preserve the appearance, or revive the memory, of the ancient mixed government, seems from that period to have been industriously avoided. During the long active reign of Francis I., the variety as well as extent of whose operations obliged him to lay many heavy impositions on his subjects, the states-general of France were not once assembled, nor were the people once allowed to exert the power of taxing themselves, which, according to the original ideas of feudal government, was a right essential to every freeman.

Two things, however, remained, which moderated the exercise of the regal prerogative, and restrained it within such bounds as preserved the constitution of France from degenerating into mere despotism. The rights and privileges claimed by the nobility, must be considered as one barrier against the absolute dominion of the crown. Though the nobles of France had lost that political power which was vested in their order as a body, they still retained the personal rights and pre-eminence which they derived from their rank. They preserved a consciousness of elevation above other classes of citizens; an exemption from burdens to which persons of inferior condition were subjct; a [147] contempt of the occupations in which they were engaged; the privilege of assuming ensigns that indicated their own dignity; a right to be treated with a certain degree of deference during peace; and a claim to various distinctions when in the field. Many of these pretensions were not founded on the words of statutes, or derived from positive laws; they were defined and ascertained by the maxims of honour, a title more delicate, but no less sacred. These rights, established and protected by a principle equally vigilant in guarding, and intrepid in defending them, are the sovereign himself objects of respect and veneration. Wherever they stand in its way, the royal prerogative is bounded. The violence of a despot may exterminate such an order of men; but as long as it subsists, and its ideas of personal distinction remain entire, the power of the prince has limits (32).

As in France the body of nobility was very numerous, and the individuals of which it was composed retained a high sense of their own pre-eminence, to this we may ascribe, in a great measure, the mode of exercising the royal prerogative which peculiarly distinguishes the government of that kingdom. An intermediate order was placed between the monarch and his other subjects, and in every act of authority it became necessary to attend to its privileges, and not only to guard against any real violation of them, but to avoid any suspicion of supposing it to be possible that they might be violated. Thus a species of government was established in France, unknown in the ancient world, that of a monarchy, in which the power of the sovereign, though unconfined by any legal or constitutional restraint, has certain bounds set to it by the ideas which one class of his subjects entertain concerning their own dignity.

The jurisdiction of the parliaments in France, particularly [148] that of Paris, was the other barrier which served to confine the exercise of the royal prerogative within certain limits. The parliament of Paris was originally the court of the kings of France, to which they committed the supreme administration of justice within their own domains, as well as the power of deciding with respect to all cases brought before it by appeals from the courts of the barons. When, in consequence of events and regulations which have been mentioned formerly, the time and place of its meeting were fixed; when not only the form of its procedure, but the principles on which it decided, were rendered regular and consistent; when every clause of importance was finally determined there; and when the people became accustomed to resort thither as to the supreme temple of justice; the parliament of Paris rose to high estimation in the kingdom, its members acquired dignity, and its decrees were submitted to with deference. Nor was this the only source of the power and influence which the parliament obtained. The kings of France, when they first began to assume the legislative power, in order to reconcile the minds of their people to this new exertion of prerogative, produced their edicts and ordinances in the parliament of Paris, that they might be approved of and registered there, before they were published and declared to be of authority in the kingdom. During the intervals between the meetings of the states-general of the kingdom, or during those reigns in which the states-general were not assembled, the monarchs of France were accustomed to consult the parliament of Paris with respect to the most arduous affairs of government, and frequently regulated their conduct by its advice, in declaring war, in concluding peace, and in other transactions of public concern. Thus there was erected in the kingdom a tribunal which became the great depository of the laws, and, by the uniform tenor of its decrees, established principles of justice and forms of proceeding which were considered as so sacred, that even the sovereign [149] power of the monarch durst not venture to disregard or to violate them. The members of this illustrious body, though they neither possess legislative authority, nor can be considered as the representatives of the people, have availed themselves of the reputation and influence which they had acquired among their countrymen in order to make a stand, to the utmost of their ability, against every unprecedented and exorbitant exertion of the prerogative. In every period of the French history, they have merited the praise of being the virtuous but feeble guardians of the rights and privileges of the nation [QQ].

After taking this view of the political state of France, I proceed to consider that of the German empire, from which Charles V derived his title of highest dignity. In explaining the constitution of this great and complex body at the beginning of the sixteenth century, I shall avoid entering into such a detail as would involve my readers in that inextricable labyrinth, which is formed by the multiplicity of its tribunals, the number of its members, their interfering rights, and by the endless discussions or refinements of the public lawyers of Germany, with respect to all these.

The empire of Charlemagne was a structure erected in so short a time that it could not be permanent. Under his immediate successor it began to totter, and soon after fell to piece. The crown of Germany was separated from that of France, and the descendants of Charlemagne established two great monarchies, so situated as to give rise to a perpetual rivalship and enmity between them. But the princes of the race of Charlemagne who were placed on the imperial throne, were not altogether so degenerate as those of the same family who reigned in France. In the hands of the former. the royal authority retained some vigour, and the nobles of Germany, though possessed of extensive privileges as well as ample territories, did not so early attain independence. The great offices of the crown continued to be [150] at the disposal of the sovereign, and during a long period, fiefs remained in their original state, without becoming hereditary and perpetual in the families of the persons to whom they had been granted.

At length the German branch of the family of Charlemagne became extinct, and his feeble descendants who reigned in France had sunk into such contempt that the Germans, without looking towards them, exercised the right inherent in a free people; and in the general assembly of the nation elected Conrad, count of Franconia, emperor (911). After him Henry of Saxony, and his descendants, the three Othos, were placed, in succession, on the imperial throne, by the suffrages of their countrymen. The extensive territories of the Saxon emperors, their eminent abilities and enterprising genius, not only added new vigour to the imperial dignity, but raised it to higher power and pre-eminence (952). Otho the Great marched at the head of a numerous army into Italy, and, after the example of Charlemagne, gave law to that country. Every power there recognised his authority. He created popes, and deposed them, by his sovereign mandate. He annexed the kingdom of Italy to the German empire. Elated with his success, he assumed the title of Cćsar Augustus (33). A prince born in the heart of Germany pretended to be the successor of the emperors of ancient Rome, and claimed a right to the same power and prerogative.

But while the emperors, by means of these new titles and new dominions, gradually acquired additional authority and splendour, the nobility of Germany had gone on at the same time extending their privileges and jurisdiction. The situation of affairs was favourable to their attempts. The vigour which Charlemagne had given to government quickly relaxed. The incapacity of some of his successors was such as would have encouraged vassals less enterprising than the nobles of that age, to have claimed new right, and to have [151] assumed new powers. The civil wars in which other emperors were engaged, obliged them to pay perpetual court to their subjects, on whose support they depended, and not only to connive at their usurpations, but to permit, and even to authorize them. Fiefs gradually became hereditary. They were transmitted not only in the direct, but also into the collateral line. The investiture of them was demanded not only by male but by female heirs. Every baron began to exercise sovereign jurisdiction within his own domains; and the dukes and counts of Germany took wide steps towards rendering their territories distinct and independent states (34). The Saxon emperors observed their progress, and were aware of its tendency. But as they could not hope to humble vassals already grown too potent, unless they had turned their whole force as well as attention to that enterprise, and as they were extremely intent on their expeditions into Italy, which they could not undertake without the concurrence of their nobles, they were solicitous not to alarm them by any direct attack on their privileges and jurisdictions. They aimed, however, at undermining their power. With this view, they inconsiderately bestowed additional territories, and accumulated new honours on the clergy, in hopes that this order might serve as a counterpoise to that of the nobility in any future struggle (35).

The unhappy effects of this fatal error in policy were quickly felt. Under the emperors of the Franconian and Swabian lines, whom the Germans, by their voluntary election, placed on the imperial throne, a new face of things appeared, and a scene was exhibited in Germany, which astonished all Christendom at that time, and in the present age appears almost incredible. The popes, hitherto dependent on the emperors, and indebted for power as well as dignity to their beneficence and protection, began to claim a superior jurisdiction; and, in virtue of authority which [152] they pretended to derive from heaven, tried, condemned, excommunicated, and deposed, their former masters. Noris this to be considered merely as a frantic sally of passion in a pontiff intoxicated with high ideas concerning the extent of priestly domination, and the plenitude of papal authority. Gregory VII was able as well as daring. His presumption and violence were accompanied with political discernment and sagacity. He had observed that the princes and nobles of Germany had acquired such considerable territories and such extensive jurisdiction, as rendered them not only formidable to the emperors, but disposed them to favour any attempt to circumscribe their power. He foresaw that the ecclesiastics of Germany, raised almost to a level with its princes, were ready to support any person who would stand forth as the protector of their privileges and independence. With both of these Gregory negotiated, and had secured many devoted adherents among them before he ventured to enter the lists against the head of the empire.

He began his rupture with Henry IV upon a pretext that was popular and plausible. He complained of the venality and corruption with which the emperor had granted the investiture of benefices to ecclesiastics. He contended that this right belonged to him as the head of the church; he required Henry to confine himself within the bounds of his civil jurisdiction, and to abstain for the future such sacrilegious encroachments on the spiritual dominion. All the censures of the church were denounced against Henry, because he refused to relinquish those powers which his predecessors had uniformly exercised. The most considerable of the German princes and ecclesiastic were excited to take arms against him. His mother, his wife, his sons, were wrought upon to disregard all the ties of blood as well as of duty, and to join the party of his enemies (36). Such were the successful arts with which the court of Rome [153] inflamed the superstitious zeal, and conducted the factious spirit of the Germans and Italians, that an emperor, distinguished not only for many virtues, but possessed of considerable talents, was at length obliged to appear as a supplicant at the gate of the castle in which the pope resided, and to stand there days, barefooted, in the depth of winter, imploring a pardon, which at length he obtained with difficulty [1077 ] [RR].

This act of humiliation degraded the imperial dignity. Nor was depression momentary only. The contest between Gregory and Henry gave rise to the two great factions of the Guelphs and Ghibellines; the former of which supporting the pretensions of the popes, and the latter defending the rights of the emperor, kept Germany and Italy in perpetual agitation during three centuries. A regular system for humbling the emperors and circumscribing their power was formed, and adhered to uniformly throughout that period. The popes, the free states in Italy, the nobility, and ecclesiastics of Germany, were all interested in its success; and notwithstanding the return of some short intervals of vigour, under the administration of a few able emperors, the imperial authority continued to decline. During the anarchy of the long interregnum subsequent to the death of William of Holland [1256], it dwindled down almost to nothing. Rodulph of Hapsburg, the founder of the house of Austria, and who first opened the way to its future grandeur, was at length elected emperor [1273], not that he might re-establish and extend the imperial authority, but because his territories and influence were so inconsiderable as to excite no jealousy in the German princes, who were willing to preserve the forms of a constitution, the power and vigour of which they had destroyed. Several of his successors were placed on the imperial throne from the same motive; and almost every remaining prerogative was wrested out of the hands of feeble princes unable to exercise or to defend them.

[154] During this period of turbulence and confusion, the constitution of the Germanic body underwent a total change. The ancient names of courts and magistrates, together with the original forms and appearance of policy, were preserved; but such new privileges and jurisdiction were assumed, and so many various rights established, that the same species of government no longer subsisted. The princes, the great nobility, the dignified ecclesiastics, the free cities, had taken advantage of the interregnum which I have mentioned, to establish or to extend their usurpations. They claimed and exercised the right of governing their respective territories with full sovereignty. They acknowledged no superior with respect to any point relative to the interior administration and police of their domains. They enacted laws, imposed taxes, coined money, declared war, concluded peace, and exerted every prerogative peculiar to independent states. The ideas of order and political union, which had originally formed the various provinces of Germany into one body, were almost entirely lost; and the society must have dissolved, if the forms of feudal subordination had not preserved such an appearance of connexion or dependence among the various members of the community, as preserved it from falling to pieces.

This bond of union, however, was extremely feeble; and hardly any principle remained in the German constitution of sufficient force to maintain public order, or even to ascertain personal security. From the accession of Rudolph of Hapsburg to the reign of Maximilian, the immediate predecessor of Charles V., the empire felt every calamity which a state must endure when the authority of government is so much relaxed as to have lost its proper degree of vigour. The cause of dissension among that vast number of members which composed the Germanic body, were infinite and unavoidable. These gave rise to perpetual private wars, which were carried on with all the violence that usually accompanies resentment, when unrestrained by [155] superior authority. Rapine, outrage, exactions, became universal. Commerce was interrupted; industry suspended; and every part of Germany resembled a country which an enemy had plundered and left desolate (37). The variety of expedients employed with a view to restore order and tranquillity, prove that the grievances occasioned by this state of anarchy had grown intolerable. Arbiters were appointed to terminate the differences among the several states. The cities united in a league, the object of which was to check the rapine and extortions of the nobility. The nobility formed confederacies, on purpose to maintain tranquillity among their own order. Germany was divided into several circles, in each of which a provincial and partial jurisdiction was established, to supply the place of a public and common tribunal (38).

But all these remedies were so ineffectual, that they served only to demonstrate the violence of that anarchy which prevailed, and the insufficiency of the means employed to correct it. At length Maximilian re-established public order in the empire, by instituting the Imperial Chamber [1495], a tribunal composed of judges named partly by emperor, partly by several states, and vested with authority to decide finally concerning all differences among the members of the Germanic body. A few years after [1512], by giving a new form to the Aulic Council, which takes cognisance of all feudal causes, and such as belong to the emperor’s immediate jurisdiction, he restored some degree of vigour to the imperial authority.

But notwithstanding the salutary effects of these regulations and improvements, the political constitution of the German empire, at the commencement of the period of which I propose to write the history, was of a species so peculiar, as not to resemble perfectly any form of government [156] known either in the ancient or modern world. It was a complex body, formed by the association of several states, each of which possessed sovereign and independent jurisdiction within its own territories. Of all the members which composed this united body, the emperor was the head. In his name all decrees and regulations with respect to points of common concern were issued, and to him the power of carrying them into execution was committed. But this appearance of monarchical power in the emperor was more than counterbalanced by the influence of the princes and states of the empire in every act of administration. No law extending to the whole body could pass, no resolution that affected the general interest could be taken, without the approbation of the diet of the empire. In this assembly every sovereign prince and state of the Germanic body had a right to be present, to deliberate, and to vote. The decrees or recesses of the diet were the laws of the empire, which the emperor was bound to ratify and enforce.

Under this aspect the constitution of the empire appears a regular confederacy, similar to the Achćan league in ancient Greece, or to that of the United Provinces, and of the Swiss Cantons, in modern times. But if viewed in another light, striking peculiarities in its political state present themselves. The Germanic body was not formed by the union of members altogether distinct and independent. All the princes and states joined in this association were originally subject to the emperors, and acknowledged them as sovereigns. Besides this, they originally held their lands as imperial fiefs, and in consequence of this tenure owed the emperor all those services which feudal vassals are bound to perform to their liege lord. But though this political subjection was entirely at an end, and the influence of the feudal relation much diminished, the ancient forms and institutions, introduced while the emperors governed Germany with authority not inferior to that which the [157] other monarchs of Europe possessed, still remained. Thus an opposition was established between the genius of the government and the forms of administration in the German empire. The former considered the emperor only as the head of a confederacy, the members of which, by their voluntary choice, have raised him to that dignity; the latter seemed to imply that he is really invested with sovereign power. By this circumstance, such principles of hostility and discord were interwoven into the frame of the Germanic body as affected each of its members, rendering their interior union incomplete, and their external efforts feeble and irregular. The pernicious influence of this defect inherent in the constitution of the empire is so considerable, that, without attending to it, we cannot fully comprehend many transactions in the reign of Charles V, or form just ideas concerning the genius of the German government.

The emperors of Germany, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, were distinguished by the most pompous titles, and by such ensigns of dignity, as intimated their authority to be superior to that of all other monarchs. The greatest princes of the empire attended and served them, on some occasions, as the officers of their household. They exercised prerogatives which no other sovereign ever claimed. They retained pretensions to all the extensive powers which their predecessors had enjoyed in any former age. But, at the same time, instead of possessing that ample domain which had belonged to the ancient emperors of Germany, and which stretched from Basil to Cologne, along both banks of the Rhine (39), they were stripped of all territorial property, and had not a single city, a single castle, a single foot of land, that belonged to them as heads of the empire. As their domain was alienated, their stated revenues were reduced almost to nothing; and the extraordinary aids which on a few occasions they obtained, were granted sparingly and paid with reluctance. The princes [158] and states of the empire, though they seemed to recognise the imperial authority, were subjects only in name, each of them possessing a complete municipal jurisdiction within the precincts of his own territories.

From this ill-compacted frame of government, effects that were unavoidable resulted. The emperors, dazzled with the splendour of their titles and the external signs of vast authority, were apt to image themselves to be the real sovereigns of Germany, and were led to aim continually at recovering the exercise of those powers which the forms of constitution seemed to vest in them, and which their predecessors, Charlemagne and the Othos, had actually enjoyed. The princes and states, aware of the nature as well as the extent of these pretensions, were perpetually on their guard, in order to watch all the motions of the imperial court, and to circumscribe its power within limits still more narrow. The emperors, in support of their claims, appealed to ancient forms and institutions, which the states held to be obsolete. The states founded their rights on recent practice and modern privileges, which the emperors considered as usurpations.

This jealousy of the imperial authority, together with the opposition between it and the rights of the states, increased considerably from the time that the emperors were elected, not by the collective body of German nobles, but by a few princes of chief dignity. During a long period, all the members of the Germanic body had a right to assemble, and to make choice of the person whom they appointed to be their head. But amidst the violence and anarchy which prevailed for several centuries in the empire, seven princes who possessed the most extensive territories, and who had obtained an hereditary title to the great offices of the state, acquired the exclusive privilege of nominating the emperor. This right was confirmed to them by the Golden Bull; the mode of exercising it was ascertained, and they were dignified with the appellation of electors. The nobility and free [159] cities being thus stripped of a privilege which they had once enjoyed, were less connected with a prince, towards whose elevation they had not contributed by their suffrages, and came to be more apprehensive of his authority. The electors, by their extensive power, and the distinguishing privileges which they possessed, became formidable to the emperors, with whom they were placed almost on a level in several acts of jurisdiction. Thus the introduction of the electoral college into the empire, and the authority which it acquired, instead of diminishing, contributed to strengthen, the principles of hostility and discord in the Germanic constitution.

These were farther augmented by the various and repugnant forms of civil policy in the several states which composed the Germanic body. It is no easy matter to render the union of independent states perfect and entire, even when genius and forms of their respective governments happen to be altogether similar. But in the German empire, which was a confederacy of princes, of ecclesiastics, and of free cities, it was impossible that they could incorporate thoroughly. The free cities were small republics, in which the maxims and spirit peculiar to that species of government prevailed. The princes and nobles, to whom supreme jurisdiction belonged, possessed a sort of monarchical power within their own territories, and the forms of their interior administration nearly resembled those of the great feudal kingdoms. The interests, the ideas, the objects of states so differently constituted, cannot be the same. Nor could their common deliberations be carried on with the same spirit, while the love of liberty, and attention to commerce, were the reigning principles in the cities, while the desire of power, and ardour for military glory, were the governing passions of the princes and nobility.

The secular and ecclesiastical members of the empire were as little fitted for union as the free cities and the [160] nobility. Considerable territories had been granted to several of the German bishoprics and abbeys, and some of the highest offices in the empire having been annexed to them inalienably, were held by the ecclesiastics raised to these dignities. The younger sons of noblemen of the second order, who had devoted themselves to the church, were commonly promoted to these stations of eminence and power; and it was no small mortification to the princes and great nobility, to see persons raised from an inferior rank to the same level with themselves, or even exalted to superior dignity. The education of these churchmen, the genius of their profession, and their connexion with the court of Rome, rendered their character as well as their interest different from those of the other members of the Germanic body, with whom they were called to act in concert. Thus another source of jealousy and variance was opened, which ought not to be overlooked when we are searching into the nature of the German constitution.

To all these causes of dissension may be added one more, arising from the unequal distribution of power and wealth among the states of the empire. The electors, and other nobles of the highest rank, not only possessed sovereign jurisdiction, but governed such extensive, populous, and rich countries, as rendered them great princes. Many of the other members, though they enjoyed all the rights of sovereignty, ruled over such petty domains, that their real power bore no proportion to this high prerogative. A well-compacted and vigorous confederacy could not be formed of such dissimilar states. The weaker were jealous, timid, and unable either to assert or to defend their just privileges. The more powerful were apt to assume and to become oppressive. The electors and emperors, by turns, endeavoured to extend their authority, by encroaching on those feeble members of the Germanic body, who sometimes defended their rights with much spirit, but more frequently, being overawed or corrupted, they tamely [161] surrendered their privileges, or meanly favoured the designs formed against them [SS].

After contemplating all these principles of disunion and opposition in the constitution of the German empire, it will be easy to account for the want of concord and uniformity, conspicuous in its councils and proceedings. That slow, dilatory, distrustful, and irresolute spirit. which characterises all its deliberations, will appear natural in a body, the junction of whose members, was so incomplete, the different parts of which were held together by such feeble ties, and set at variance by such powerful motives. But the empire of Germany, nevertheless, comprehended countries of such great extent, and was inhabited by such a martial and hardy race of men, that when the abilities of an emperor, or zeal of any common cause, could rouse this unwieldy body to put forth its strength, it acted with almost irresistible force. In the following history we shall find, that as the measures on which Charles V was most intent were often thwarted or rendered abortive by the spirit of jealousy and division peculiar to the Germanic constitution; so it was by the influence which he acquired over the princes of the empire, and by engaging them to cooperate with him, that he was enabled to make some of the greatest efforts which distinguish his reign.

The Turkish history is so blended, during the reign of Charles V, with that of the great nations in Europe, and the Ottoman Porte interposed so often, and with such decisive influence, in the wars and negotiations of the Christian princes, that some previous account of the state of government in that great empire, is no less necessary for the information of my readers than those views of the constitution of other kingdoms which I have already exhibited to them.

It has been the fate of the southern and more fertile parts of Asia, at different periods, to be conquered by that warlike and hardy race of men who inhabit the vast country [162] known to the ancients by the name of Scythia, and among the moderns by that of Tartary. One tribe of these people, called Turks or Turcomans, extended its conquests, under various leaders, and during several centuries, from the shore of the Caspian Sea to the Strait of the Dardanelles. Towards the middle of the fifteenth century, these formidable conquerors took Constantinople by storm, and established the seat of their government in that imperial city. Greece, Moldavia, Wallachia, and the other provinces of the ancient kingdoms of Thrace and Macedonia, together with part of Hungary, were subjected to their power.

But though the seat of the Turkish government was fixed in Europe, and the sultans obtained possession of such extensive dominions in that quarter of the globe, the genius of their policy continued to be purely Asiatic, and may be properly termed a despotism, in contradistinction to those monarchical and republican forms of government which we have been hitherto contemplating. The supreme power was vested in sultans of the Ottoman race, that blood being deemed so sacred, that no other was thought worthy of the throne. From this elevation, these sovereigns could look down and behold all their subjects reduced to the same level before them. The maxims of Turkish policy do not authorize any of those institutions which, in other countries, limit the exercise or moderate the rigour of monarchical power: they admit neither of any great court with constitutional and permanent jurisdiction to interpose, both in enacting laws, and in superintending the execution of them; nor of a body of hereditary nobles, whose sense of their own pre-eminence, whose consciousness of what is due to their rank and character, whose jealousy of their privileges, circumscribe the authority of the prince, and serve not only as a barrier against the excesses of his caprice, but stand as an intermediate order between him and the people. Under the Turkish government, the political condition of every subject is equal. To be [163] employed in the service of the sultan is the only circumstance that confers distinction. Even this distinction is rather official than personal, and so closely annexed to the station in which any individual serves, that it is scarcely communicated to the persons of those who are placed in them. The highest dignity in the empire does not give any rank or pre-eminence to the family of him who enjoys it. As every man, before he is raised to any station of authority, must go through the preparatory discipline of a long and servile obedience (40), the moment he is deprived of power, he and his posterity return to the same condition with other subjects, and sink back into obscurity. It is the distinguishing and odious characteristic of eastern despotism, that it annihilates all other ranks of men, in order to exalt the monarch; that it leaves nothing to the former, while it gives everything to the latter; that it endeavours to fix in the minds of those who are subject to it, the idea of no relation between men but that of a master and of a slave; the former destined to command and to punish, the latter formed to tremble and obey [TT].

But as there are circumstances which frequently obstruct or defeat the salutary effects of the best-regulated government, there are others which contribute to mitigate the evils of the most defective forms of policy. There can, indeed, be no constitutional restraints upon the will of a prince in a despotic government; but there may be such as are accidental. Absolute as the Turkish sultans are, they feel themselves circumscribed both by religion, the principle on which their authority is founded (41), and by the army, the instrument which they must employ in order to maintain it. Wherever religion interposes, the will of the sovereign must submit to its decrees. When the Koran hath prescribed any religious rite, hath enjoined any moral duty, or hath confirmed, by its sanction, any political maxim, the command of the sultan cannot overturn [164] that which a higher authority hath established. The chief restrictions, however, on the will of the sultans is imposed by the military power. An armed force must surround the throne of every despot, to maintain his authority, and to execute his commands. As the Turks extended their empire over nations which they did not exterminate but reduce to subjection, they found it necessary to render their military establishment numerous and formidable. Amruth, their third sultan, in order to form a body of troops devoted to his will, that might serve as the immediate guards of his person and dignity, commanded his officers to seize annually, as the imperial property, the fifth part of the youth taken in war. These, after being instructed in the Mahometan religion, inured to obedience by severe discipline, and trained to warlike exercises, were formed into a body, distinguished by the name of janizaries, or new soldiers. Every sentiment which enthusiasm can inspire, every mark of distinction that the favour of the prince could confer, were employed in order to animate this body with martial ardour, and with a consciousness of its own pre-eminence (42). The janizaries soon became the chief strength and pride of the Ottoman armies; and, by their number as well as reputation, were distinguished above all the troops, whose duty it was to attend on the person of the sultans [UU].

Thus, as the supreme power in every society is possessed by those who have arms in their hands, this formidable body of soldiers, destined to be the instruments of enlarging the sultan’s authority, acquired, at the same time, the means of controlling it. The janizaries in Constantinople, like the prćtorian bands in ancient Rome, quickly perceived all the advantages which they derived from being stationed in the capital, from their union under one standard, and from being masters of the person of the prince. The sultans became no less sensible of their influence and importance. [165] The capiculy or soldiery of the Porte, was the only power in the empire that a sultan or his visier had reason to dread. To preserve the fidelity and attachment of the janizaries, was the great art of government, and the principal object of attention in the policy of the ottoman court. Under a monarch, whose abilities and vigour of mind fit him for command, they are obsequious instruments, execute what-ever he enjoins, and render his power irresistible. Under feeble princes, or such as are unfortunate, they become turbulent and mutinous; assume the tone of masters; degrade and exalt sultans at pleasure; and teach those to tremble, on whose nod, at other times, life and death depend.

From Mahomet II, who took Costantinople, to Solyman the Magnificent, who began his reign a few months after Charles V. was placed on the imperial throne of Germany, a succession of illustrious princes ruled over the Turkish empire. By their great abilities, they kept their subjects of every order, military as well as civil, submissive to government, and had the absolute command of whatever force their vast empire was able to exert. Solyman, in particular, who is known to the Christians chiefly as a conqueror, but is celebrated in the Turkish annals as the great lawgiver who established order and police in their empire, governed, during his long reign, with no less authority than wisdom. He divided his dominions into several districts; he appointed the number of soldiers which each should furnish; he appropriated a certain proportion of the land in every province for their maintenance; he regulated, with a minute accuracy, everything relative to their discipline, their arms, and the nature of their service. He put the finances of the empire into an orderly train of administration; and, though the taxes in the Turkish dominions, as well as in the other despotic monarchies of the east, are far from being considerable, he supplied that defect by an attentive and severe economy.

[166] Nor was it only under such sultans as Solyman, whose talents were no less adapted to preserve internal order than to conduct the operation of war, that the Turkish empire engaged with advantage in its contest with the Christian states. The long succession of able princes, which I have mentioned, had given such vigour and firmness to the Ottoman government, that it seems to have attained, during the sixteenth century, the highest degree of perfection of which its constitution was capable; whereas the great monarchies in Christendom were still far from that state which could enable them to act with a full exertion of their force. Besides this, the Turkish troops in that age possessed every advantage which arises from superiority in military discipline. At the time when Solyman began his reign, the janizaries had been embodied nearly a century and a half; and, during that long period, the severity of their military discipline had in no degree relaxed. The other soldiers, drawn from the provinces of the empire, had been kept almost continually under arms, in the various wars which the sultans had carried on, with hardly an interval of peace. Against troops thus trained and accustomed to service, the forces of the Christian powers took the field with great disadvantage. The most intelligent, as well as impartial authors of the sixteenth century, acknowledge and lament the superior attainments of the Turks in the military art [XX]. The success which almost uniformly attended their arms, in all their wars, demonstrates the justness of this observation. The Christian armies did not acquire that superiority over the Turks which they now possess, until the long establishment of standing forces had improved military discipline among the former; and until various causes and events, which it is not in my province to explain, had corrupted or abolished their ancient warlike institutions among the latter.

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(30) Marian. Hist. lib. XXV, c. 5.

(31) Zurita, Annales, tom. V, p. 22. Ćlii Anton. Nebrissensis rerum a Ferdinand. et Elizab. gestarum decades II. apud Schot. Script. Hispan. I, 860.

(32) De l’Esprit des Loix, liv. II, c. 4. Dr. Fergusson’s Essay on the Hist. of Civil Society, part. I, sect. 10.

(33) Annalista Saxo, &c. ap. Struv. Corp. vol. I, p. 246.

(34) Pfeffel, Abrégé, pp. 120, 152. Lib. Feudor. tit. I.

(35) Pfeffel, Abrégé, p. 154.

(36) Annal. German. ap. Struv. I, p. 325.

(37) See above, p. 40, and Note [X] at the end of the Volume. Datt. de Pace Publica Imper. p. 25, no. 53, p. 28, no. 26, p. 35, no. 11.

(38) Datt. passim. Struv. Corp. Hist. I, p. 510, &c.

(39) Pfeffel, Abrégé, &c. p. 241.

(40) State of the Turkish Empire by Rycaut, p. 25.

(41) Ibid. p. 8.

(42) Prince Cantemir’s History of the Othman Empire, p. 87.

References to Proofs and Illustrations





[RR] Note XL

[SS] Note XLI

[TT] Note XLII


[XX] Note XLIV

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