The English ‘King of the Romans’

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In September 1843, on a hill by the small town of Laasphe, in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany, 34 coins were found. Under the inscription of ‘RICHARD REX’ (King Richard) was the image of a man, enthroned and crowned, holding in his left hand an orb of state. It was quickly deduced that the man in question was Richard of Cornwall, a 13th century English Prince who had made history as the only Englishman to be crowned ‘King of the Romans’ (rex Romanorum) – effectively King of the Germanic territories.

Richard was born in January 1209 as the second son to King John of England and Isabella, Countess of Angoulême. His elder brother, later to be Henry III of England, is probably far better known, but perhaps not as historically significant. For much of his early life, Richard relied upon his aristocratic connections – his titles Earl of Cornwall and Count of Poitou – were awarded for his bloodline, not for merit. In 1240, though, he made his first significant mark on the world by responding to Pope Gregory IX’s call for a crusade.

The Prince led a coterie of Knights and Barons to the Holy Land on the so-called ‘Barons’ Crusade’ in order to secure Christian control over Jerusalem. Just over a decade earlier, Frederick II’s Sixth Crusade had established a ten year peace agreement with the Ayyubid dynasty; soon, therefore, the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem may again be under threat.

Richard landed in Acre in October 1240 without opposition. His band entered into negotiations with the Ayyubid leaders, agreeing terms that would bolster the territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to its greatest extent since 1187. In addition, having restarted reconstruction of the Ascalon castle, destroyed by Saladin 50 years prior, he passed control of the project over to the agent of Frederick II – the Holy Roman Emperor – in Jerusalem.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was known to despise Frederick’s rule and would have much preferred self-agency rather than become an vassal of Frederick’s. Additionally, Frederick II and the Papacy were then embroiled in a decades-long struggle for power so bitter that the Holy Roman Emperor was excommunicated on three separate occasions.

Tensions peaked in 1245 when Pope Innocent IV ceremoniously deposed the Emperor, denouncing him as an Antichrist and beginning a 67-year ‘Interregnum’, in which the Holy Roman Empire had no de jure ruler. The King of the Romans, however, held almost identical powers and domains, the sole difference being that he was not officially recognised by the Pope as the holder of the imperial crown. It was this aberration that made Richard’s ascendancy vastly more likely. The specifics of the Interregnum significantly narrowed the pool of aristocrats from which the King of the Romans was likely to be chosen to only the most elite.

Richard was firmly among this elite. He was known as one of the richest princes in Europe, to the extent that Pope Innocent IV offered him the crown of Sicily, a title Richard declined. Nonetheless, he continued to be involved with Europe’s greatest powers. Richard had nominally been Count of Poitou up until 1243, when he was forced to concede the territory after a military disaster instigated by the betrayal of his stepfather. Similarly, he was involved in the attempted political reconciliation of Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX. Thus, by the time of William of Holland’s death in 1256, Richard – this crusading Prince – was a prominent figure in European circles.

After Frederick II died in 1250, leaving behind a power vacuum, both Conrad IV – Frederick’s son – and William of Holland – claimed the imperial throne. By 1256, however, both were dead, leaving the position of King of the Germans vacant. Still, it would require significant effort and funds to secure the crown; it was certainly not a light undertaking. Richard, however, was not purely interested in the Empire as a means to acquire further power and influence; rather, Richard, or at least his brother, had another motive: an ambition termed the ‘Sicilian Business’.

When Conrad IV had died in 1254, the crown of Sicily was left empty; Henry III, though, wished to secure it for his son, Edmund. As a result, two years later, when the search for a new Emperor began, Henry III needed someone to achieve this goal, even sending a request to Pope Alexander for a papal legate to ensure that this would be the case. The request was poorly received, and so an envoy of Richard and Henry set off to Germany, believing that an English prince in command of the Empire would greatly increase the likelihood of success in Sicily.

The Holy Roman Emperor was decided by a rather straightforward process: seven prince-electors – three Archbishops and four senior nobles – would vote for a candidate and the candidate who carried a majority would assume the German crown. Up until 1508, when it was decided that election alone was sufficient, the candidate then had to be recognised by the Pope to be deemed the Holy Roman Emperor. Without the blessing, the successful candidate was merely King of the Romans.

Bribery was commonplace, and it was no different in Richard’s case: his seneschal (royal steward) offered the Count Palatine of the Rhineland some 12,000 marks in exchange for support. Similarly, both the Archbishops of Cologne and Mainz were promised 8,000 marks in return for their votes. Thus, with these payments, Richard had secured the support of three of the seven electors.

Further attempts to convert the Princes, however, were unsuccessful; instead, they continued to back Richard’s opponent, Alfonso X of Castile. After some negotiation, however, the King of Bohemia, Ottokar II, agreed to support Richard, and coronation looked vastly more likely. Further politicking from his sister-in-law made Richard’s ascension certain.

Thus, on 17 May 1257, in Aachen, Richard was crowned ‘King of the Romans’ by the Archbishop of Cologne, not the Pope. Over the next 14 years (before he suffered a stroke late in 1271) Richard would visit his kingdom only four times, but he remained involved in the process of running his territories. His reign is sometimes seen as a period of relative lawlessness and decentralisation, but, in truth, Richard had a relatively strong foothold over the Empire.

Indeed, Richard’s first actions were martial: he swiftly deployed troops against the supporters of Alfonso. This method was effective, too: the author of the Annales Wormatienses, for instance, bemoans how miserable life now was for those who backed Alfonso. Other opposition quickly abated: Worms, previously an enclave of hostility, welcomed Richard in July 1258, whilst Speyer did the same in October.

It now seemed that Richard’s support was near-universal. Richard was so confident that he began negotiations in 1258 to become Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was rather responsive, too, sending a letter in which he impelled the Duke of Burgundy to support Richard ‘in imperatorem promovendo’ (being promoted to Emperor).

However, extraneous circumstances forced a change of hand. Through much of the 1260s, Richard was forced to focus on England, leaving behind a series of regents to ensure the stability of his European Empire. Despite this, in 1261, Richard gained yet more European power when he was made Senator of Rome. Pope Alexander had proclaimed support for Richard early in 1259; there were many anglophile cardinals, too, involved in the election process. A letter written in 1262 by Urban IV, acknowledging that John of Toledo was owed money for the senatorial election, also suggests an element of bribery.

Whatever the reason for his election, it was significant: it suggested that his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor was guaranteed, as Richard now had the support of the Pope and the Cardinals. Indeed, Richard was urged to immediately travel to Rome, but decided against it. And so, the opportunity passed, as Pope Urban IV, who came to power in August 1261, stated in April 1262 that he would declare support for neither Richard nor Alfonso.

Even during this period of absence, German Princes still visited him in England, allowing him to continue his Kingly duties. For the most part, he spent his time issuing charters for German subjects and arbitrating settlements, with qualified success. His popularity, in general, did not wane – he retained enough support to put down a revolt led by Conradin, grandson of Frederick II, in 1262. Arguably, he reached the zenith of his power in 1269 when he married Beatrice of Falkenburg, thus solidifying his imperial authority, as well as successfully reforming trading practices along the Rhine.

Critics of Richard’s reign frequently refer to his conduct regarding rights and lands, viewing some of his grants as feeble and deleterious for the kingdom: for instance, he declared that no diets were to be held and no armed men to parade in the city of Cologne. Nonetheless, his judgements were generally well-reasoned and Richard worked hard to correct the errors of previous rulers. For example, William of Holland had tried to pay off debts by handing over imperial land; Richard, on more than one occasion, reversed this by handing over funds to reclaim the territories.

Björn Weiler, in his attempt to dispute many of the criticisms of Richard’s rule, suggests that the events directly following Richard’s death have significantly altered the historical prejudices of subsequent interpretations. When Richard died in 1272, a power struggle emerged between King Ottokar II of Bohemia and Rudolf of Habsburg, the first of the Habsburg kings. In their propaganda campaigns, both sought to portray the world of the Interregnum as one overrun by corruption and incompetence, to act as a background for their own glorious ascendancy; ultimately, they both wanted to seem the only option to secure the restoration of German supremacy.

While it may now seem strange that an Englishman could rule over the Holy Roman Empire – then not much more than loosely assembled Medieval Germanic states – it is just a testament to the English closeness to Europe in this period: there is certainly much truth to F. M. Powicke’s statement that “In the thirteenth century, more than ever before… [England] was a European land.”