Early State Formation

Powerful national monarchies

While we will discuss the emerging powerful monarchies, this can only be stated in hindsight. In the 15th century none of this was obviously to the people in Europe, at that stage there were still  some 200 major states, not counting perhaps a similar number of lesser states, some not larger than a city (Northern Italy), some run by farmers (Switzerland and Austria), others by bishops.

The notion of being a European didn’t occur before the 16th century, the people foremost saw themselves as Christians.

Towards the end of the 12th century France had become the most powerful country in Europe under King Philip August. He had annexed parts of Flanders and forced England to cede parts of Normandy and lands along the Loire. This became a threat to the other powers in Europe.  A coalition was formed under the leadership of the German Emperor Otto IV with King John of England,  Duke Henry I of Brabant, Countess Johanna of Flanders, Count Willem I of Holland a arrange of smaller regional powers. The English suffered an early defeat when they landed in Flanders and King Philip used that opportunity to attack the coalition forces. The armies met at Bouvines in southern Flanders. The French won. As a consequence Otto lost his emperor’s crown, King John Lackland of England was forced to sign the Magna Carta and Flanders was now firmly under the control of France.

This decisive battle resulted in much stronger defined countries and powers of influence.  Interestingly – at least internally – this also led to an emphasis on peace rather than on war. The Church was also a great supporter of this developments and the ‘Peace of God’ slowly changed into the ‘Peace of the King’. While this did occur within the borders of the countries but the push for internal peace also led to the suppression of internal conflicts (heretics, witch hunts, Inquisition) and the suppression of differences in opinion. This would later on boil over into the Reformation.

King’s Peace, Peace of God

Already in pre-historic times there existed the concept of the King’s Peace. When this was proclaimed no one was allowed to take up arms. Under this ancient law the leader (king) secured protection for particular people or places.

A good example is the processions representing the travels of the God Nerthus. During these celebrations: No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. 

Also during Merovingian and Carolingian times we see this concept as ‘King’s Peace’ continued especially during market days and for travelling merchants.

The concept saw a revival in the 11th century. After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, the Normans invaded north Western Europe and without central power the local Lords had to fend for themselves. During this period of anarchy in the 10th and early 11th century this led to a situation that the whole of north western Europe was carved up by the local Lords, some at distances of only 5 kms of each other. In order to increase and protect their wealth they were in constant war with each other. This happened through their mini armies of knights, whose only profession was war.

This period also coincided with Medieval Warm period which led to an increase in agriculture production and an increase in population. This was a time before there were cities in this part of the world and the rural population was in constant fear of being killed and robbed by these Lords.

At the same time the Catholic Church regained more central control again. They were the ones who brought the concept back this time under the name the ‘Peace of God’, aimed at protecting the local people. This is the period of the infallible medieval belief and the way that the Church was able to force this peace upon the warring knights was not dissimilar to who the pagans had done that before them, use religious symbols, threats and punishments.

Especially Saints and their relics started to play a key role. They were used to successfully frighten off these knights. Their relics were brought out and paraded around the city and any one who would interfere with them would be severely punished by these Saints in the most horrible and painful way and would be doomed to Hell.

Once the kings started to regain greater control over their lands they took control over law and order and slowly it was back to the Peace of the King again.

By 1300 the possibility of military expansion by the many local warlords, which were so prominent in the 10th and 11th century, was more or less over, military action became more and more a national activity. However, most of these activities were driven by political particularism and this often became the stumbling block in the integration of the many small independent states.

However, internal conflict remained a problem in Germany and Italy, while England, France and Burgundy showed much greater cohesion. While France since 1200 focussed its efforts mostly on its internal affairs, Germany focussed on extending its powers in for example Italy, all the way to Sicily  and  through its ’Drang nach Osten’ on expansions to the east. The power of the Holy Roman Emperor was closely linked to the authority of the pope, with the decline of that authority also the Holy Roman Empire started a period of decline. Lack of powerful central control led to the splintering of over 300 small German states within the state, this situation lasted until the 19th century. Italy followed a similar cause of internal fragmentation, which also lasted until that time.However, that same fragmentation also led to competition between rival lords and rival city states and especially in Italy led to a cultural revival in art, literary, science and philosophy. These developments were so important that they eventually will mark the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

But back to the Middle Ages, France and England remained far more internally cohesive with strong centralised royal control. It were also these two countries who led the change to the abolishment of the feudal systems, as early as the 14th century, but as mentioned before, some of my forebears in German didn’t become fully free until the 1850s.

Another element important in state formation was the level of professionalism and specialisation. Until the 15th century all of the ‘state building’ was either done or controlled by the nobility. It was until the 16th century that enough university-trained bureaucrats, jurists and other specialists that a professionally enough system could be developed that would allow for proper state building. Furthermore these people were trained on a humanist basis which opened the way for a more broader view on the world and the tasks involved.

Another sign of the emergence of controlled entities within a certain space was the use of passports from the 16th century onwards. This showed that travelling people stood directly under the control of the ruler of a particular territory.

Slowly from the 14th century onwards we see that towns, cities and private houses started to see themselves emotionally linked to a larger entity ruled by a powerful regional duke , count or king.

Holy Roman Empire

While the Roman Empire had collapsed the idea of it survived and the modern European Union can bee seen as its current incarnation. Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Constantine, so the Roman Empire was since 325 governed from here. When the Vandals took Rome in 476 it was not seen as the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was simply another battle in another war, so the Roman Empire simply continued, sometimes part of territories lost were regained, other times further losses occurred. Most of those who controlled conquered parts such as the Franks and the Goths accepted – at least in name – the Emperor as their overlord and there are plenty of examples of exchanges of gifts that  supports this. However with a weakening empire, the validity of the Roman Empire as the one ruled from Constantinople became more and more challenged.  The last Emperor to visit Rome was Constans II in 663. When the Empire started too loose many of its former territories around the  Mediterranean to the Arab invaders, it started to loose its legitimacy as the “Roman Empire”, despite the fact that the rulers from Constantinople still kept using that title.

Slowly but surely we start seeing others claiming to be the inheritors of the Roman Empire one the one side this was the Pope in Rome and on the other side the western  secular rulers who now occupied the largest parts of the former Empire (the Arabs never claimed that title). The idea can as such be split in a secular idea and a spiritual one.

The Pope no longer received the military assistance from the Emperor and he turned to the emerging power to the north of him, the Franks. It was the Pope who took the lead to force an official break with Constantinople when he crowned Charlemagne in 800 as the Emperor of the Romans – reviving the idea of the Roman Empire (renovatio Romanorum imperii).  However, by crowning him, the pope, claimed power over the emperor, this battle would eventually  lead to the investiture conflict.

After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire there was also a breakdown of the papacy. During these tumultuous years the inheritors  of the various  Carolingian territories bribed, robbed or claimed the crown. It was not  until Otto the Great established East Francia (Germany) as the leading European power that more stability arrived.  Under his leadership the tribes East of the Elbe were subdues, what became Hungary was brought under his control as well as Lotharingia and Italy, he also was more or less in control of the Kingdom of Burgundy. He was crowned Emperor  in 962 and for the next millennium it would be his successors that were able to maintain the claim on the crown.

The Empire was not united, like the Imperium Romanum or the British or Spanish Empires, it was  a collection of independent territories. It had been largely brought together through war and inheritance. There was no united constitution and there was little interest from these territories in the other parts of the Empire, to the contrary they often warred among themselves. Most of these individual entities had a more developed political system the the Empire as a whole. The element that did unite the Empire the most was the network of the royal children, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces which were dispatched over the Empire to rule the various elements. While it didn’t unite the Empire itself, this network  did create a very significant international force. The fact that it lasted for such a long time was because all players did see value in it, mainly through the prestige that it brought with it. The Emperor was a king among other kings and for all of them the dynastic interest were more important than the national interests. Dynastic interests basically means money and the whole system of Emperors, kings and other nobles evolved around bribes, corruption, taxes, favours, credit facilitation, mediation and incomes from feudal services.

It was only under Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190) that the term ‘Holy’ (sacrum) was used.

Frederick II inherited Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples and he resided in Palermo. He tried to unite Italy and neglected the core of his empire, he handed over many privileges to the local rulers (German bishops and princes) and they were able to built up their own powers and they obtained a level of independence that  they were able to maintain, until the final unification of Germany in the 19th century.

The resources on Italy were totally wasted as Frederick II and his successors – similar to his predecessors – were unable to bring the various parts of Italy under their permanent control.

After the death of Frederick II in 1250, the German kingdom was divided between his son Conrad IV (died 1254) and the anti-king, William of Holland (died 1256). Conrad’s death was followed by the Interregnum, during which no king could achieve universal recognition and the princes managed to consolidate their holdings and became even more independent rulers. After 1257, the crown was contested between Richard of Cornwall, who was supported by the Guelph party, and Alfonso X of Castile, who was recognised by the Hohenstaufen party but never set foot on German soil. After Richard’s death in 1273, the Interregnum ended with unanimous election of Rudolph I of Habsburg, a minor pro-Staufen count.

However, it was not until 1312 when Henry VII, from the House of Luxembourg entered the stage that a king  was crowned as  Holy Roman Emperor again.

Nevertheless, the imperial network was able to cover many elements of society, trade, commerce, finance, travel, culture, architecture and construction, arts and science. There was free flow of these activities throughout the Empire. In the Golden Bull of 1356  seven Kurfürsten or prince-electors were explicitly named who were to choose the King of the Romans, who would then usually be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope later. Until that time the Emperor was only allowed to carry the title after he was crowned by the Pope. The Electors held an proportional level of power greater than that their own territory warranted.

There were three  prelates, they were the archchancellors of Germany (Mainz), Gaul and Burgundy (Trier), and Italy (Cologne) and four secular ones the Bohemia cupbearer, the Palsgrave seneschal, Saxony marshal, and Brandenburg chamberlain.

For the emperor to be elected basically was a money matter, the votes of the Electors were depending on the money and privileges that would be provided to them. For example the election of Charles V had cost him a million gold Guldens of which half were bribes to the Electors. This was mainly financed by Fugger bankers. [3. The Emperor Charles V, Karl Brandi, 1939, p106]. This situation resulted in an ongoing increase of the powers of the local Electors and an increased weakening of the power of the emperor. Because of this it was impossible for the Emperor to built a similar national cohesion as started to happen in France and England. There was never a true imperial bureaucracy with any serious power that could lead to the formation of a state. While the Reichstag  brought in some cohesion it remained largely ceremonial.

The Bull also prescribed the election procedures in great detail as well as  the decision to hold the elections in Frankfurt (video clip) – reflecting a traditional feeling dating from East Frankish days that both election and coronation ought to take place on Frankish soil,  the coronation should take place in Aachen, and Nuremberg was ordered to be the place where the first diet of a reign should be held.

Interestingly while the rest of Europe abandoned the ceremony of coronation, this is still retained in Westminster Abbey, England (video link).

Throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond) there remained a strong belief in the empire. The emperor was seen as the protector of Christianity and played a key role in fighting the Turks, Mongols as well as internal heresy. Protecting the Papacy was another key function. In 1414 Emperor Sigismund called for the Council of Konstanz with the aim to unite the Latin-Christian world to fight against heresy. He was also the only one who could raise rulers to kings and found universities.

However, the strong national German focus on the emperor also limited its recognition  as the global ruler outside that territory and in particular Italy, where – after Frederick II –  there was a constant undermining of his powers. France, already at an early stage had taken the position that his reign was limited to his territory and while recognising its domination, never saw itself part of this.

The Holy Roman Empire came to an end in 1806. It didn’t survive the Napoleonic Wars. It left Prussia to fight for supremacy in the German world with Austria and Russia.

The Swiss Confederation

Under the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire, the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden had gained the Reichsfreiheit, the first two because the emperors wanted to place the strategically important pass of the St. Gotthard under their direct control, the latter because most of its territory belonged to reichsfrei monasteries. The cities of Berne and Zürich had also become reichsfrei when the dynasty of their patrons, the Zähringer, had died out.

During one of the many power struggles among the Habsburgers and their allies, anti-Habsburg insurgences sprung in 1291 in which Zürich had participated. Emperor. Albert I besieged the city, which had to accept him as its patron.

This time of turmoil prompted the Waldstätten to cooperate more closely, trying to preserve or regain their Reichsfreiheit. On August 1, 1291 an Everlasting League was made between the Waldstätten for mutual defense against a common enemy. . During the Battle of Morgarten in 1315, a Swiss Confederation force of 1,500 infantry archers ambushed a group of Austrian soldiers near the Morgarten Pass. The Swiss thoroughly defeated the Austrians, who were under the command of Duke Leopold I of Austria.

While the Empire kept a grip on the Swiss cantons, they couldn’t yield any real power and more or less from 1291 they were able to maintain their independence. The Everlasting League became the first democratic ‘state’ in Europe.


The arrival of the Capet dynasty in the late 10th century  saw ushered the start of what became France. It that time it was limited to area of Paris known as  Île-de-France, it would take several centuries before we are seeing France slowly emerging into a more cohesive and larger entity.

However, it wasn’t until Louis VI before France slowly started to emerge as a European power. In 1124 the king was able to gather his nobles around him and combined they were able to warded off  a planned invasion of France by England and Germany. Louis had also founded the foundation of the feudal system that strengthened royal authority. However, France at that stage was still not much more than Paris-Orléans  and its direct surroundings. TheCounty of Anjou(including Normandy, Maine and Touraine) as well as theDuchy of Aquitaine(including Gascony and Poitou) were significantly larger in size.

The Duchy passed to France in 1137 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII of France. However, in 1152, Aquitaine became an English possession when she married for the 2nd time and now with Henry II King of England. In 1214 France defeated the English and the Hohenstaufen armies. This secured him most of France north of the Loire. This was a critical time from France as its domains (in what is now France) were now smaller than those owned by the King of England.

At the start of the 14th century France was the strongest power in Europe, it had gone through a century of peace. The King of France had the support of the Pope – who he more or less controlled as the Pope since 1309  resided in Avignon. Both the King of France and the Pope were not keen in seeing England becoming too powerful on the continent. This assisted the kings of France on increasing moral powers that led to an increase in his prestige. France was the center of new technological and (new Gothic) cultural developments; of which the many  cathedrals are still a lasting monument. European trade was also dominated by France, which at that time had a population of 21 million, 5 times that of England.

Louis VII’s  successor, Philip II Augustus, was able to extend the territorial boundaries.  Philip II and his successor Louis the Saint were able to develop a just legal system that obtained the trust in royal jurisdiction. Philip IV (the Handsome) extended this further into the Parliament of Paris  – the first meeting of the Etats-Généraux took place in 1302 – wit had specialised offices in particular in relation to finance, with paid expert staff. However, his military successes  IV were rather poor and in particular the Battle of the Golden Spur in 1302, was a serious defeat. He also tried to invaded Aquitaine (now called Guyenne) but also her he was not successful. All of this was an enormous drain on his finances and this led to more participation of the nobility. Philip died in 1312 and his third son Charles too the throne.

When Charles IV died childless in 1328, the crown went from the Capetians to the Valois and Philip, Count of Valois, Anjou and Maine became King Philip VI of France.  The English king Edward II claimed the French crown for the House of Plantagenet – trough his marriage with Isabel the sister of Charles IV. However, this was reacted by the Paris Parliament. The resulting conflict would become the start of the Hundred Years’ War.

Under Charles V a civil war broke out between the two families vying for the power of France the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. This allowed England to seize the opportunity and again invade France the won the famous battle of Argincourt in 1417 and through its slash and burn tactics(chevauchée) terrorised the country in excepting his rule. English rule ended abruptly, when France got their act together, while throughout this period they had lost most of the battles, in the end they did win the war in 1453.


In England we saw the beginning of the institutionalisation of the Common Law, a process which already had been started here by the invading Anglo-Saxons.This was further strengthened by the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. He turned the island into a Norman colony and was able to unite the country under one monarch and established a national feudal system, this allowed the developments of a  strong monarch into a national entity. The power of England increased significantly when his grandson Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine. Their daughter Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou and this led to the establishment of the House of Plantagenet, with significant British territories now on mainland Europe (France).

England also rapidly saw the development of a sophisticated bureaucratic system also here staring with finance ((Exchequer) .

However,  the next kings,  the two sons and one grandson of Henry and Eleanor all had more interest in warfare than governing and at the battle of Bouvines (1214) England lost most of its territories in France. Like elsewhere it were such dire situations that strengthened the other nobles and in 1215 King John had to sign the Magna Carta. In general the English Parliament had greater influence that the French Parliament.

London, at that time had 12,000 inhabitants, a century later that number had doubled and London was bigger than all other cities in Britain combined. It was by far the most importance trading center, dominated by foreign traders who controlled 67% of the properties in the city. In order to maintain  its trading position it relied on its surroundings for produce, its reach by ship was 80kms and its reach by wagons 40kms, a much larger country side that most other European cities.

During the Hundred Years War there were roughly 50 leading families in England, they were the military leaders  and were also the large landowners. They were also the nobles who made up the Parliament. They increased their influence by binding the lower nobility (gentry) through a system of patronage to their interests. Slowly the court changed from a travelling one to one that became concentrated in one or two towns. In 1337 Edward III concentrated its civil services in one place: Westminster. This led to the lower nobility and the representatives of the cities met in the House of Commons, while the higher nobility as well as the ecclesiastical representatives structured themselves around the House of Lords. These Houses also started to employ their own judges and administrative staff and became more and more professional.

Edward III  had strong ties with the continent he was married to the daughter of the Count of Holland and Hainault and many of his children married within the European nobility. This also brought him important support during the Hundred Year War with France.

The power of the Parliament became obvious in 1399 when they impeded King Richard II and appointed his uncle John of Gaunt as King Henry IV. His son Henry V lost the Hundred Years’ War,  left the country near bankrupt and suffered from mental illness, this allowed the Parliamant to further increase its powers. This resulted between 1455 and 1485 in the Wars of Roses between rival Houses of the Plantagenets  (The House of York –  with a white rose in their coats of arms, against the House of Lancaster – who carried a red rose) for the right of succession to the English throne. In the end it was a remote relative of the  House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor Henry VII) , who came out on top. He defeated the last Yorkist king Richard III and married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two houses. The House of Tudor subsequently ruled England and Wales for 117 years.  The most famous member of this House is Henry VIII who reigned from 1509-1547. He ruled at the same time of Emperor Charles V and shared with him the turbulent starting years of the Reformation. The Tudor era was the Renaissance period of  England.

The States of Burgundy

For his brave behaviour Philip, the fourth son of the French King John II – the Good (born in 1342), received his nickname ‘the bold’ in the Hundred Years’ War during the battle of Poitier, which France lost, but the 14 year old prince had shown great courage during this battle and as a reward received in 1360 the fiefdom of the duchy of Touraine (Loire Valley).

With the sudden death of the last Capetian duke, Philip of Rouvres of Burgundy in 1361, that title had become vacant and the King of France with sovereign powers over this dukedom therefore could appoint a new duke. He arranged for his youngest son Philip to swap Touraine for the more prestigious Burgundy. Philip also received the title ‘pair du royaume’ which put him at the top of the feudal elite of the kingdom and required more or less his permanent presence in Paris.

King Charles V (the French not the Hapsburg Charles V)  re-arrange the marriage of the only surviving child of Louis II de Male Count of Flanders, Margaretha the 11 year old widow of Philip of Rouves. The wedding took place on June 19, 1369 in Gent and was one of the most spectacular weddings ever seen in Europe. As a gift King Charles ceded Walloon to Flanders.

This was a very astute move from the French King, together with some of the mini states in Italy, Flanders was one of the richest places in Europe with important trading cities such as Ghent, Brugge, Antwerp and Mechelen. However, the richness of these cities also made them very powerful and the Count of Flanders had to continuously negotiate taxes and privileges in order to get the cooperation of these cities. These cities looked after their own affairs – as mini states. The Duke was seen as the natural ruler of the land and for that reason as well for military protection against foreign rulers, taxes and levies were paid to him.

After the death of Louis de Male in 1384, Philip the Bold became the ruler of both Flanders and Burgundy, Margaretha furthermore brought in territories of Artois, Compté and Nevers, all bordering the main county. This became the foundation of one of the richest and politically most powerful lands in Europe. Situated between France, England and the Holy Roman Empire it was able to profit from that position but at the same time this position also became its downfall a century later.

In his book “De Hertog en zijn Staten”, author Robert Stein provides a compelling chapter showing how Burgundy expanded using the decline of the regional states in the Low Countries.

While the finances of the various courts were always a problem, until the late 14th century they could most of the time be solved by through extra appeals (bedes) whereby the cities most of the time agreed to pay these taxes. While debts for court activities but especially warfare should be covered by the normal taxation income, this more than often was not the case.

Cities and the States often had to be guarantors for the debts of the rulers and if debts were not paid merchants and their ware would often be confiscated and non-payment could severely undermine the economies of the cities. Furthermore the cities used their contributions to also obtain extra privileges. So in general this is how the courts muddled through with their finances throughout the 13th and most of the 14th century. However, towards the end of this period debts had so gone out of hand that creditors, using their rights of confiscation, caused significant economic problems for example in Brabant. Trade in Holland was equally effected when the creditors of the Count of Holland such as the cities of Ghent and Bruges started to arrest and imprison  merchants from Holland.

Another popular solution was to mortgage estates and other properties as well as income from privileges and offices. However, as a result also the income decreased. This also had enormous effects on future generations, most counts in this period started their reign was enormous debts – however, this seldom stopped from partying as if there was no tomorrow.

While the domains of the rulers, officially remained in their hands they were often not much more than guardians,  this  assisted in the process of more of  these domains becoming public goods, with the States increasingly taking control over the financial arrangements surrounding these domains in an attempt to avoid political fragmentation of the county/duchy.

However, at the end of this period the debts had grown to such extend that these ‘bedes’ were no longer enough to cover them. This also undermined their authority and as a result these rulers were no longer capable of maintaining order, securing justice or providing welfare and economic prosperity to their people.

Flanders became the first to falter and in 1385 soon after Count Louis de Male died his son-in-law the Burgundian Philip the Bold appointed a commission to audit the books and to make recommendations for structural reforms. Mismanagement had led to a depletion of income, partly because lack of proper administrative systems and partly due to corruption from those responsible.

The financial situation of the small county of Namen suffered from similar mismanagement as early as the mid 14th century. Subsequent conflicts with the much larger neighbouring Bishopric of Liege that dragged on for many years helped depleting the treasury. In 1421 the count had to sell his county of the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good.

Financial management in Brabant had never been a highlight of its counts and that situation became catastrophic during the reign of Duchess Johanna. Apart from mismanagement her reign was also marked by the many wars with Gelre, which were mostly not her making, but yet she had to react to the situation, which costed her dearly.

On top of that Johanna’s husband Wenceslas as well as her three successors (Antoon, Jan IV and Philip St Pol) were big spenders on feats, banquettes and tournaments. The States complained bitterly but nor the duchess or the dukes paid any attention to that and eventually Burgundy had to bail out Brabant, which as a consequence became part of the Burgundian State.

The situation in the combined county of Holland, Zeeland and Hainault was not much different. Also here corruption, often petty wars as well as more serious conflicts led to a similar situation. In 1433 Countess Jacoba van Beieren had to admit publicly that her county was totally and utterly broke and that for this reason she had the hand it over to Philip the Good Burgundy.

The Duchy of Luxembourg and its appendage the County of Chiny followed 20 year later. The lustful but poor Countess Elizabeth van Görlitz. In 1441 Philip the Good bought the bankrupt estate.

The last one to go was Gelre. The debt of the counts defeats imagination. With the exception of 4 years all annual accounts between 1388 and 1465 show deficits, some times six times the income. Debts were often simply not paid and they dragged on for years. In 1472 the country was finally pawned to Burgundy.

Amazingly Burgundy was there at the right time and the right place. As mentioned it obtained Flanders through marriage and this county had the strongest economy of Western Europe and as such formed the platform from where other territories could be added.

France at that time had the most advanced administrative, financial and juridical systems of Europe, complete with auditing and other control systems. The Burgundian rulers and their senior bureaucrats took this with them and introduced this in and later enforced this onto the other states.

Until the murder of John the Fearless in 1419, the Burgundian rulers also played a key role in French politics and at certain times were here the dominant power. This allowed them to siphon off significant amounts of money from the French Treasury for their own benefits (in all an estimated 2 million pounds), which they used to increase their influence the other States

In wealth Burgundy was on par with France, England and Spain and this prestigious helped them to not just buy other states but also in general win over the population without any bloodshed. Not that there were no grumblings, opposition and in Luxembourg even is minor revolt but in the end these takeovers never led to war. They mainly managed their expansion through pacification.

This shows that the unification was not just good for the Burgundian dukes but also for the cities, for the merchants as well as for a large number of the nobility, however obviously in relation the this group there were as many winners as losers in this process.


Many of the old Roman civitates who survived the collapse of the empire and the barbarian invasions, continued to play a key role during the Middle Ages. Their leading families provided bishops as well as many of the administrative officials linked to the new rulers such as the Ostrogoths, Langobards, Franks and Germans and of course to the many ecclesiastic rulers including the popes. These new rulers were also supported by their own militiae (capitanei, seniores, valvassores). Many of the large property owners around the civitates also had their own manor-like properties within the neighbouring towns and also happily played their role in the new power struggles.

After a range of failed attempts the Holy Roman Emperor was finally able to end the unruly situation in and around Rome, known as the pornocracy. However, despite some early successes of Frederick II the emperor was unable to permanently include Italy in the empire. The ongoing power struggle between the Pope and the Emperor resulted in two fractions the Guelphs and Ghibellines respectively supporting the Pope and the Emperor.

During the 10th century cities along the Amalfi coast became the dominant traders along the Mediterranean coast. However, the center of Mediterranean trade eventually moved to Genoa. This led to a shift in power from central Italy to north Italy. Far away from Rome these cities were able to largely develop independently from the rulers in Rome.

The lack of central power and the power of the north Italian cities created a rather different ruling society than in the rest of the territory of the old Carolingian Empire (East and West Francia).

In particular Genoa played a key role in the early development of the cities, they had to expand further west as Venice increasingly started to dominate the east-Mediterranean trade.

At their height of their trading power, around 1300, 13 cities in Italy had more than 50,000 inhabitant. With the exception of Palermo all the other cities were in north Italy. Venice, Milan and Florence each had more tan 100,000 inhabitants. Trade required a good hinterland the fertile Po flats provides much of the needed produce, this created wealth and that attracted others to dominate the trade not just to the sea ports but also across the few trading routes via the Alps between north and south Europe. This with only possible through the deployment of the city militiae as mentioned above. This was a bit different from the situation above the Alps were the nobility developed its own unique feudal systems of vassals linked to military obligations. The cavalry however, also in Italy, was expensive and only those who could afford to supply horses and cavalrymen could participate, this led to the term’ cavaliere nobile’ and for a while membership of this group also became hereditary. This situation started to change when the city states were ruled by dictators as mentioned below.

Of course the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope as well as other European leaders from France, Aragon and Anjou all  tried hard to obtain (feudal)  control over these wealthy cities and the fractional divisions linked to these feudal powers were also very apparent in the emerging city states , allegiances could easily change depending on who was needed to advance the cause of the independence of the city. The Guelphs and Ghibellines feuds further splintered these cities with many supporting either party. Rather remarkable is that throughout this period they all vied for the formal recognition of the Pope or the Emperor for their legitimacy.

The city rulers started to turn into dictatorships, assisted by their militiae strengthened with mercenaries and paid cavalrymen they took over local power and gave themselves titles such as Duce (Duke) and Marquis. They formed formidable dynasties such as the Visconti’s in Milan, Scaligeri in Verone, Maltestas in Rimini, Medici in Florence and the Montefeltros in Urbino. They were able to extend their powers beyond their cities and as such created small principalities.

Milan became the largest in the Po Valley, however towards the end of the Middle Ages Venice became a strong power here as well – they needed a strong hinterland – a terra firma – and dominated the regions around Verona and Padua, without giving up its dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. Florence became the dominant force in Toscana, they received strong resistance from Pisa and Sienna.

In the south the Normans had conquered Sicily and the southern part of Italy with Naples as its capital. Since 1282 (Sicilian Vespers) the two parts were split again into two independent kingdoms, the one in Sicily in a personal union with Aragon. These two monarchies had well established centralised bureaucracies and were among the most professional in Europe.

The ongoing feuds within the cities however, severely undermined the power of the unit and in turn the European powers and the Papacy were able to gain greater control over the cities. The plague in the 1350s assisted the decline of the cities even further, with some of the cities loosing close to 50% of their population. Only Milan and Florence could maintain their central functions and they largely did so by conquering the regions around them and in particularly the conquest of Pisa by Florence secured its ongoing importance. However, the region never regained the leading position it held until that time.

Republic of Venice

Its marshland made an attractive refuge for neighbouring populations during the invasions first of the Huns and the Goths and later the Lombards. It became a semi-independent entity under Byzantine rule; it had its own duke (doge).  It received significant privileges in the Golden Bull of 1092. With Byzantine power decreasing Venice became more and more powerful. The declining nature of its overlord also allowed for an increase in its participation in the east-Mediterranean sea trade, they also built its own navy. Between the 10th and 12th centuries it became as the Republic of Venice – a powerful thalassocracy (maritime nation) with extended territories along the Adriatic (including Istria, Dalmatia –Ragussa/ Dubrovnik) and on the islands of Crete and Cyprus. It also started to dominate large areas of the Po Vally.  During the crusades they became an important ally to the Franks both in relation to logistics as well as military. Despite its autocratic nature, governance in the Republic was relative enlightened, this level of freedom contributed significantly to its prosperity. After the crusaders conquest of Constantinople, a significant part of the booty ended up in Venice and it was also able to further expand  its territory. Now Independence it became the Duchy of  the Archipelago. By the late 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe. At the peak of its power and wealth, it had 36,000 sailors operating 3,300 ships, dominating Mediterranean commerce.

The city was governed by the Great Council, which was made up of members of its noble families. The Great Council appointed all public officials and elected a Senate of 200 to 300 individuals. However,it was the Council of Ten (also called the Ducal Council or the Signoria) who controlled much of the administration. One member of the Great Council was elected “Doge”,  the ceremonial head of the city, who normally held the title until his death.

By 1482 Venice was the printing capital of the world, and the leading printer was Aldus Manutius, who invented the concept of paperback books that could be carried in a saddlebag. The decline of Venice started when Portugal became its main maritime competitor and was further undermined by the Turkish-Venice confrontations that started to occur after the fall of Constantinople. This led to a sharp decline in Adriatic trade.

Continuation of the history of Holy Roman Empire and its conflicts in Italy (Investiture Conflict, Guelphs and Ghibellines).


Spain and Portugal

After the  invasion of the Muslim Moors was stopped by Charlemagne he established three marches on the boarder of Spain: Mach of Gascony, March of Toulouse and the March of Gothia.  In 801 a fourth March was established that of Hispanica, centred around the County of Barcelona and covering the central and eastern Pyrenees, this march had no less than 16 counties, each with their own military leader. While it would take over 200 years, from here finally the reconquesta took hold.

As the Frankish power stared to wane, the various military leaders in the marches were able to assert their freedom. One of the early leaders was Sancho El Mayor of Navarra (1005-1035) who had been able to extend his powers from his stronghold in Pamplona to both sides of the Pyrenees. However, it was his bastard son Ramiro who became – against significant odds – the next leader in the north as the first King of Aragon.

The Portuguese Reconquista culminated in 1249 with the conquest of the Algarve by Afonso III. This country had come into existence  as a result of the reconquista, land gained during a battle in 1128 became the start of this new country.

It was until 1492 until finally the Sultanate of Granada fell. However, it only was able to survive that longs because it was prepared to pay tribute to Castille.  The latter was the strongest of the four kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula:

  • Castille, the largest of the four
  • Aragon and  Catalonia, they  merged into one kingdom in 1258
  • Portugal, which remained independent after they won the strategic battle of Aljubarrota in 1385

Castille evolved along the lines of the other European states. In the other two states however, the feudal powers were significantly larger which hampered a more centralised approach the king had significantly less influence here. The involvement of Castille in the Hundred Years ‘ War and the subsequent involvement of England and France in its internal affairs, weakened the position of the king and allowed the nobility to increase its power in the Cortes. A separate Audiencia (high court) was established in 1371. A separate Council was established that represented all the estates as well as the financial and administrative office as they had developed elsewhere in Europe.

During the course of the 14th century, Castille was also able to establish a successive navy that earned them a strong (but not dominant)position in the western Mediterranean. This severely started to undermine the position of Aragon, who had been able to control the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Naples and for a short time even parts of Greece. Its major city Barcelona became isolated and missed the strong communications and trading links with the rest of Europe. Political conflicts within Aragon also hampered the developments of strong political, financial and administrative institutions.

The dynastic familial union in 1469 of the Crown of Aragon with the Crown of Castile by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castille (the maternal grandparents of Emperor Charles V) , created what contemporaries referred to as “the Spains” this in turn led to what would become the Kingdom of Spain.

PopeAlexander VI (di Borgia) and Los Reyes Cathólicos

The name “Los Reyes Cathólicos “ was given to them by Pope Alexander VI as in 1492 after they had subjected their joined kingdoms to the Santa Hermandad or Holy Brotherhood, a system of extra-judicial political and religious police, expelled the Jews and conquered the Moors. Interestingly Alexander was perhaps the most unholy pope in history. He came from the Borja family a rather obscure Argonese family from the name of the same place in the province of Zaragoza, who were merchants in Valencia. One of its members Alfonse de Borja became a brilliant diplomat and ended up as Cardinal di Borgia (the later pope Callistus III). He brought many Argonese to the papal court including two of his nephews, who became notorious for their corruption and nepotism. One of them Roderic fathered a range of bastards whose marriages and interests he promoted at all cost. In 1492 – through corruption – he arranged for his own election as pope. One of his son’s Cesare Borgia was said to be the model for Machiavelli’s Prince. His daughter Lucrezia and her reputation is still the source of ongoing colourful tales.

Under King Henry the Navigator, Portugal became the first European nation to start large scale exploration of new worlds. Portugal by that time had already conquered Ceuta on the West African coast. Under Henry they established a very successful and profitable trade monopoly along the African and Asian coasts. Its success became also its downfall. When Spain rose to power it wasn’t impressed by Portugal’s trade hegemony and King Philip II grabbed the Portugeese crown in 1580 and combined the two kingdoms. While this only lasted 60 years, that was too little too late by that time of the take-over, the Dutch had started to emerge on the scene and rapidly replaced both the Portuguese and the Spanish trade monopolies in most of Asia.


The history of what now is known as Russia, started with the Baltic and Finnic tribes that lived in the most western areas. Later the Slavs joined them in these areas. The Vikings (Rangians) also played a key role in forming the first key cities (fortresses) Novgorod, Kiev and Poltask.  This grew into what became known as Greater Rus, Ukraine and Belarus/Lithuania. Moscow was only founded in 1147 and would remain a rather unimportant city for several centuries.

Foreign invasions in the 13th century of the Teutonic Knights from Germany and the Mongol Horde transformed the region. The Lithuanians became the first to wrestles their interdependence back from the Mongols and started to expand their territory towards the East.

fter the Mongol invasion it took the Russian Principalities several centuries before they started to recover from the devastation. It finally was Ivan III, the Great (1462-1502) who was able to rid Moscow of its Mongol overlords. Interestingly the occupation of nearly 250 years ended with a fissile. In 1476,  Ivan refused to pay the annual tax to the ruler of the time Akhmat Khan. The latter brought an army together to force the issue they set up camp at the river Ugra, the Russians had their camp on the other side. After weeks of stand off and without a fight  the Mongols withdrew and left Russia as they reckoned they didn’t have a strong enough force to combat the Russians.

These were turbulent and critical times for the formation of Russia. Zoe (renamed Sophia) Palaiologina, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI, was taken to Rome after the conquest of Morea by Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire in 1460. In 1469, Pope Paul II offered to marry her to the Russian monarch in order to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The widowed Ivan married her in 1472.

Without any strong Russian culture and with the strong influence of Sophia, he remodelled the Kremlin on the now extinct Byzantium Empire. Through his marriage with her, Ivan proclaimed himself the successor of the Byzantium emperors (and the Roman Empire).  He also took the two headed Byzantine eagle emblem  as his own. Moscow also became the new seat of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church.

Sophia is said to also have played a key role in the steps taken that led to the overthrow of the Mongolians.

Ivan conquered and annexed Novgorod – which had aligned itself with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against the expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. In 1478 he crowned himself Czar.  The other principalities were virtually absorbed, by conquest, purchase or marriage: Yaroslavl in 1463, Rostov was bought in 1474, Tver in 1485, Vyatka 1489.

Ivan and Sophia’s  grandson,  Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) conquered the Mongol Kingdom of Kazan as well as large parts of Siberia. The spectacular eastward conquest continued Russian settlers founded Tomsk (1604) and Irkutsk (1661). In 1636 Russian forces had reached the Sea of Okhotsk on the northern shores of the Pacific.

Rest of Europe

In the rest of Europe the privileges given to internal regions in relation to customary law made it more difficult to centralise legal and administrative procedures. Especially the cities in Flanders as well as the Duchy Gelre resisted this level of centralisation until finally Charles V ended that situation. He strengthen the imperial military and financial systems and basically developed through this an imperial constitution in the direction of autocracy. However, this didn’t last for long as this ongoing demand for independence, only a few decades later, led to the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), which saw the creation of the Dutch Republic.

Before 1555, there was no ‘Netherlands’ . In the centuries following  the collapse of the Carolingian Empire this area consisted of around 20 counties, duchies and bishoprics; together they didn’t have a name but were later on collective known as the Low Countries.

While the Crusades for the first time focused people attention on ‘nationalism’ that ‘nationalism’ was focussed on territories ‘overseas’ namely Palestine. It still would take centuries before the people of Europe started to focus on their own lands, beyond simply the ruling house. Slowly between 1300 and 1500, the European monarchies  were able to strengthen themselves, creating a clearer sense of nationality and racial identity. Not that this sentiment was prevalent at that time. The most successful states at that time where the multi-national conglomerates: the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. France certainly also aspired to expand their reign in particular into the direction of Italy, where it kept it claims on Milan and Naples, in the north they claimed areas such as Flanders and in the south it kept its claims on Navarra. The Scandinavian countries led by Denmark and Sweden has similar aspirations in their region.

Nevertheless it was around these times that people started to identify themselves more and more as a nation, they also started to link that to a common language.


The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)