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Swabian and Rhenish Nobility

As Swabia and Rhenish Germany were divided in the middle ages, and so far indeed as the 18th century, into innumerable states, the nobility could never form one compact and formidable body. Moreover, it had here more than elsewhere to fear from insubordination and insurrections of the peasants, and therefore found it often expedient to make common cause with, instead of opposing, the sovereign. The Suabian nobles were miserably impoverished during the Thirty Years' War. Baden and Wurtemberg were both overrun, and repeatedly ravaged by the Spaniards; many nobles emigrated, and those who remained were reduced to actual want.

The provisions of the peace of Westphalia were so favorable to monarchical power, that the nobility, had it been disposed, would have found it difficult to play its former independent part. But the force of circumstances had already reduced it to obscurity, when diplomacy came to exclude it from a share in the government. Thus the north-west of Germany presented, as far as the nobility was concerned, a very different picture from the south-east. In Swabia and on the Rhine generally, no diet dared to refuse supplies to its sovereign, even if they were demanded for purposes of extravagance, and when remonstrance was made, it came only from the deputies of towns. On the whole the Rhenish nobles were quite contented to be subservient to the sovereign, provided that he granted and secured to them certain privileges. They were also devoted to the maintenance of the Romish tenets. When Gebhard, the prince-elector of Cologne, become a convert to the reformed religion, and endeavored to establish it in his territories, he met with the most violent opposition, and was finally banished by his nobles.

The nobility of Juliers, Cleves, Mark, Berg, and Ravensberg, distinguished itself from its southern neighbors by more warlike propensities. At the peace of Westphalia, it was with great difficulty that its members could be made to desist from frequently resorting to club-law, and from embroiling themselves in bloody feuds on the most frivolous pretexts. In 1521, John III. of Cleves was obliged publicly to execute several of the robber-knights (Raub-ritter), notwithstanding that they belonged to some of the highest families in his duchy. In 1590, his son and successor, William, continued the work of reform. He abrogated the supremacy of the feudal courts of justice (Patrimonial-Gerichte), and decreed, that, under pain of forfeiting all his rights and privileges, no nobleman should proceed, himself, against his peasants for refusing to work, for cutting down fruit-trees, for mischievous idleness, or for running into debt, but should bring them before a regular court of justice.

But it was only a resolute and able sovereign who could enforce these regulations, and the son of Duke William was totally unequal to the task of keeping a nobility in check, which had been irritated by the measures of his father. On his demanding supplies from the diet for paying off the public debt, only eight thousand dollars were granted to him, and a sum to pay the garrisons of his fortresses was flatly refused. Moreover, his whole nobility besieged him with complaints. The duchess, more capable than her imbecile husband of causing the sovereign dignity to be respected, was first imprisoned and then strangled. After this the nobles abandoned all reserve, assumed the reins of government, seized and wasted the revenue, and, in order to silence the legitimate menaces of the heirs to the crown, married the unfortunate duke to a princess of Lorraine. The former died in 1609, when the neighbouring powers invaded and divided his territories, and soon reduced the nobles to their former submission.

In the lesser German states, down even to a late period, feuds were not at all uncommon between the noble and his sovereign. In the sixteenth century, for instance, some members of the noble family of Salder conceived themselves insulted by their liege lord, the bishop of Hildesheim. To revenge themselves, they entered into a league with the dukes of Brunswick and with other noblemen of Hildesheim. The bishop on his part was not behind-hand in forming alliances and preparing for war. The adverse armies met at Soltau (1520), where, after a sanguinary contest, the party of the nobles was completely defeated.

A similar but more important feud took place about the same time in the bishopric of Wurzburg. Some noblemen, incited by one of their chiefs, Von Grumbach, murdered the bishop. The cathedral chapter instantly denounced Grumbach to the emperor; but before it could proceed further, he took possession of Wurzburg, made prisoners of all the priests, compelled them to swear that they would revoke their denunciation, and exacted from them a large sum of money. Nevertheless, he was put under the bann of the empire, and, after a protracted defence, finally brought to justice. Singular as it may appear, this marauding chief had managed to enlist several ruling powers in his cause, among others John Frederick, duke of Saxony, who was included in his outlawry, taken prisoner at his defeat, and carried to Vienna, where he was exposed in a straw hat to the scorn of the public, and where he died after a confinement of eight and twenty years.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:20 ZULU