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Bavarian Nobility

The relation which existed in Bavaria during the middle ages between noble and sovereign was of a singular nature. The former had numerous and very important privileges, but had reason to complain of their systematic infraction by the latter. In the fourteenth century we find the nobles accusing their monarch of conferring court-dignities on foreigners, of chicanery towards his own nobility, to whom he was difficult of access, and of depriving them of their ancient rights of hunting. They specify instances, in which members of their body had been seized and carried off by night, and their daughters forcibly married to foreigners. It was not till 1517 that the inferior Bavarian nobles were authorized by the nobles to give their daughters in marriage to those whom they thought fit.

The measures taken by the monarch to limit the power of his nobles mainly owed their success to the divisions among the latter, between the two classes of whom, the lords and the knights, the greatest enmity and jealousy prevailed. Two-thirds of the lords (Herreri), and only one-third of the inferior nobles, were eligible to the diet. Each of these classes was perpetually engaged in combating the ambition of the other, and the consequence was, that, till a comparatively recent period, they were easily kept in check by the sovereign. But divisions of territory which took place in the fifteenth century, encouraged them to postpone for a period their private quarrels to the common pursuit of power.

They now united and presented a formidable front to their royal antagonists, from whom they proceeded to demand that all counsellors and officials should be chosen from their body, and that all the privileges which they had ever usurped should be confirmed. But the members of the ruling family united themselves also, and thus the nobles were obliged to content themselves with a confirmation of their unquestioned privileges, and with the advantages which they were accustomed to take of the embarrassments into which numerous wars and expensive courts necessarily led their rulers. They imposed taxes on the peasant at their own discretion, and it was generally in vain that their monarch attempted to interfere in favour of the latter.

William IV was the first Bavarian prince who, at the head of a mercenary army, victoriously repelled the attacks which the nobles were in the constant habit of making on their sovereign. But the expensive court of his son Albert V. again rendered him dependant on the diet, and if it had not been for the alliance and vicinity of his son-in-law, the Emperor Ferdinand, he would have become its subject instead of its sovereign. As it was, he was obliged to make to them considerable concessions, ai;d amongst others, that of religious toleration. During the latter years of his life, this prince became a mere tool of the Jesuits, whose astute leaders for a long period held the reins of government in Bavaria, and regulated the public expenditure, of course to the advantage of their own body, notwithstanding the frequent opposition and continual discontent of the nobility. The simple hardihood of the latter was no match for the crafty policy of the priests, who braved their open opposition, baffled their secret conspiracies, and reduced them indeed to a state of insignificance from which they did not emerge for several generations.

Instead of being bold and enterprising as formerly, they became inert and apathetic. When Maximilian I., a prince of talent and ardor, ascended the throne, in 1597, he was obliged to declare them unequal to the command of troops, or to the duties of civil offices, and to confer both upon foreigners. Of course they complained bitterly of this preference, but his ready answer was, that the cause of complaint should be removed, as soon as they could supply him with individuals competent to direct or govern. The only privilege which the Bavarian nobility preserved intact at this epoch was its freedom from taxation, and so unimportant was it become as an element of the government, that, from 1512 to 1570 no diet whatever was convoked.

During the Thirty Years' War, its possessions suffered immensely from the plundering armies. In 1669, the sovereign, burdened with debts, threw a great part of them upon the shoulders of the nobility, which now presented a melancholy spectacle. The majority of jts members were impoverished and without credit, uneducated and without prospect of advancement or promotion. In order to preserve the institution from utter ruin, the prince-elector introduced in 1672 the law of primogeniture. But the nobles continued to suffer during the whole of the eighteenth century from the ambition of their rulers, which they were too weak and too divided to check, and which brought upon the country more than once the curse of a foreign invasion. With Maximilian Joseph, a better day seemed to dawn, but the favour again extended to the Jesuits continued to prevent the nobles from capacitating themselves for that sphere of operations which their position in the state destined for them.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:17 ZULU