With the battle for the US presidency nearing its climax, it is perhaps an appropriate moment to mention the election that created the modern world’s first superpower. This was the 1519 election of the Holy Roman Emperor which made one man the simultaneous ruler of Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Low Countries and the New World.

By the 16th Century, the Holy Roman Empire consisted of 1,800 semi-independent states spread across Central Europe and Northern Italy. In a nod to the ancient Germanic tradition of electing kings, the medieval emperors of this sprawling patchwork of disparate territories were also elected but, in 1356, it had been decided to fix the number of voters in the imperial electoral college at just seven. These ‘prince-electors’ were:

  • the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, 
  • the Duke of Saxony, 
  • the Margrave of Brandenburg 
  • the Count of the Palatinate
  • the king of Bohemia-Hungary

On the 28th June 1519 these princes met in Frankfurt to choose between three candidates for the imperial throne: Francis I King of France, Henry VIII King of England and Charles King of Spain.

As a scion of the Hispano-Austro-German Hapsburg dynasty, Charles was the clear front runner; he was the grandson of the previous emperor Maximilian and from his father, Philip of Hapsburg, he’d inherited the wealthy dukedoms of Austria and Burgundy. Charles also ruled Spain on behalf his mother ‘Joanna the Mad’ (daughter of the same Ferdinand & Isabella who’d financed Columbus’ voyages to the Americas) but the prospect of Charles’ election greatly alarmed the King of France.

If Charles was elected, he’d unite the Spanish Empire, which also encompassed Sicily and Southern Italy as well as the New World, with the Holy Roman Empire. France would therefore be encircled by Hapsburg territories so the French king felt he had no choice but to stand as a rival candidate. Francis certainly had powerful supporters, the Elector of Trier, partly thanks to a massive bribe, joined the pro-French party and Francis’ candidacy had the blessing of Pope Leo X.

Henry VIII’s reasons for putting his name forward are less clear. His marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who was Charles’ maternal aunt, placed England’s king firmly in the Hapsburg camp, it is therefore likely that Henry was intended to be a ‘stalking horse’ who would split the anti-Hapsburg vote.

The precise details of the election were never revealed but letters written by Richard Pace, Cardinal Wolsey’s envoy to the electoral conclave, give us a fascinating insight into the shameless conduct of both sides. Of the Imperial party Pace writes that Charles had also resorted to bribes:

"...The four Electors who, at the insistence of the late Emperor [Maximilian], had consented to elect the King of Castile [Charles], were induced to keep their promise by an offer from the said King of 50,000 gold ducats each on his election..."

Pace also records that several imperial knights broke into the lodgings of the pro-French papal legate and threatened to beat him up unless he ceased campaigning for Charles’ rival but the English envoy is equally critical of the French party:

"...The French king's practises go from bad to worse. Infamous songs are daily written here, in Latin and German, against the French..."

All this skulduggery notwithstanding, Pace is certain that Charles will reach the simple majority needed to win the election because he will resort to violence if necessary:

"...All the late Emperor's friends are on the king of Castile's side, and they have here now 40,000 foot and 6,000 horse ready for his defence; which army is daily increased, for all the earls having dominion about the Rhine are ready to take his part, and will punish the four Electors if they do not perform their promise to the late Emperor. Besides, there are 25,000 Swiss ready to act against the French king if he make any attempt by force of arms…"

In the end, Charles' judicious mix of bribery and threats was successful and he was elected unanimously but this did not bring peace to Europe. Besides the strategic threat to his kingdom, Francis regarded Charles’ election as an affront to his personal honour so he launched a series of increasingly bloody wars to restore his good name and break the Hapsburg ring of steel around France.

The wars between Francis and Charles form the background to The Devil’s Band - Book 1 of The Devilstone Chronicles. For more information please take a look at my website

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