The imperial title survived. It went to Rudolf of Habsburg (r. 1273-1291), whose estates lay mostly in Switzerland. Rudolf wanted to establish a hereditary monarchy for his family and make this monarchy as rich and as powerful as possible. He added Austria to the family holdings, and his descendants ruled at Vienna until 1918. Rudolf made concessions to the French in the west to get their support for the new Habsburg monarchy.
After 1270, consequently, the French moved into imperial territories that had once belonged to the old Carolingian middle kingdom. The German princes, however, opposed the Habsburg policy of appeasing the French.
Thus, during the century following the Interregnum two parties developed in Germany. The Habsburg party, eastern-based and pro-French, favored a strong hereditary monarchy. The opposition party, western-based, and anti- French, was against a strong hereditary monarchy.
Toward the middle of the fourteenth century, the princes as a class secured a great victory, which was embodied in the Golden Bull of 1356, issued by the emperor Charles IV. It affirmed that imperial majesty derived from God, that the German electoral princes chose the emperor, and that the choice of the majority of the electors needed no confirmation by the pope.
The electors were to number seven: three ecclesiastical princes—the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne— and four secular princes—the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the king of Bohemia. The rights of the four secular electors were to pass to their eldest sons, and their territories could never be divided. Each of the seven electors was to be all but sovereign in his own territory.
Throughout the fourteenth century, the German princes faced the threat of new political fragmentation, especially from their administrative officials, the ministeriales. To levy taxes, the princes had to obtain the consent of the nobles and knights, along with that of the other two estates—the clergy and the towns. The estates regularly won privileges from the princes in exchange for money. This period also saw the rise of the Hansa (league of merchants) of North German commercial towns and the increasing prominence of sovereign “free cities,” such as Hamburg and Frankfurt, all over Germany.
After about 1400 the princes who were not electors gradually adopted for their own principalities the rules of primogeniture (inheritance by the firstborn) and indivisibility that the Golden Bull had prescribed for the electoral principalities. The princes were assisted in their assertion of authority by the spread of Roman law, which helped them make good their claims to absolute control of public rights and offices. Gradually, in dozens of petty states, orderly finance, indivisible princely domains, and taxation granted by the estates became typical.
With numerous sovereign princes firmly established and of free cities enjoying virtual independence, the empire had become almost meaningless. It had lost control not only over the western lands taken by France but also over other frontier areas, notably Switzerland. By the early sixteenth century the Swiss, backed by France, had checked both Burgundian and German attempts to subjugate them. The Swiss Confederation, though nominally still subject to the empire, was in fact an independent entity. Thus, another national state was emerging, though one without a strong central authority.
In 1438 the Holy Roman emperorship, though still elective, passed permanently to the house of Habsburg. Fifty-five years later Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519) became emperor without being crowned by the pope. He had acquired great riches by marrying Mary of Burgundy. Maximilian reestablished firm Habsburg power in Austria and its dependencies. He also arranged marriages for his children and grandchildren that promised to add vast new territories to the family possessions and that would make his grandson, Charles V, ruler of half of Europe.