The Holy Roman Empire was potentially Europe’s greatest state. However, by 1600 the Holy Roman Empire was a mere shadow of its former glory. The heart of the Holy Roman Empire had been Germany. But by 1600, a better term for the area would have been "Germanies" as the heart of the Holy Roman Empire had become split into a mass of princes and states who since the time of Luther had done what they could to extend their independence and power at the expense of the emperor. The real power within Germany lay with 30 secular and 50 ecclesiastical princes.
The most important states belonged to the seven Electors - men who selected the future Holy Roman Emperor. These were the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the King of Bavaria, the Count Palatine of the Rhine and the three archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. The seven Electors were referred to as the First Estate. The Second Estate was the non-Electoral princes and the Third Estate contained the leaders of the 80 Imperial Free cities. All three Estates jealously guarded their privileges - all at the expense of the emperor. In theory, all the princes in the Holy Roman Empire were subservient to the emperor. But this was simply in theory. In practice the German princes could do what they liked free from Imperial interference and had done so for nearly 75 years since the time of Luther.
The emperor was a territorial magnate in his own right. The emperor owned land in Inner, Upper, Lower and Further Austria. The emperor also controlled Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia. The most valued area was considered to be Bohemia. When Rudolf II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1576, he made Prague - the capital of Bohemia - his base.
Rudolf II was a curious man. He had frequent bouts of insanity which allowed the structure of his government to be undermined. More and more of the Holy Roman Empire’s work was taken on by Matthias, the third brother of Rudolf, though he had not been given permission to do this by Rudolf. By 1600, the Habsburg Court seemed to be on the verge of breaking up under the strain of having an emperor who could not govern combined with a man who did not have a remit to rule.
The German princes tried to take advantage of this problem but in 1600 rather than combine their efforts, they were split amongst themselves. The most important German princes were :
The Elector of the Palatinate : he was considered the most important Elector of the seven. He owned the Lower Palatine - a rich wine growing area - and the Upper Palatine - a relatively poor area between the Danube and Bohemia. In 1600 the Elector was Frederick. He was a Calvinist. His state was well run and he was a firm upholder of Protestantism and did he utmost to stop the spread of the Counter-Reformation. He could have been an important leader of the German princes except that he was distrusted by them. However, Frederick was keen to build up foreign support especially from the United Provinces, England, Bohemia and Austria. He also courted support from anti-Habsburg powers such as France, Savoy and Venice. Any regional crisis involving Frederick was bound to attract international concerns.
Elector John of Saxony : John was a Lutheran. He was frequently drunk and far from cultured. His main priority was the maintenance of peace in Germany though few were clear about the methods he wanted to use. He was a strong believer in German liberty and saw the Habsburgs belief in absolute authority as a clear threat to this. He classed Calvinists and Catholics as his enemies and it was difficult to assess whose side he was actually on. John had the potential to be a destabilising factor in Germany.
Maximilian of Bavaria : he was one of the most able of German princes. His long years in power had enabled him to become an able administrator and Bavaria had a stable, solvent and modern government. He designed the Catholic League to serve his purposes but he also suggested that it could join with the Protestant Evangelical Union to preserve German princely independence against the Habsburgs. To the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, though a Catholic, appeared to be a rival.
The Elector of Brandenburg, John Sigismund : he owned the largest possessions in Germany but they were also the poorest. In 1618, John acquired Prussia which gave him an outlet to the sea via Konigsberg. Most of his subjects were Lutheran but John was a Calvinist. He feared a Habsburg invasion of his territories and did his best not to upset them. However, he also tended to follow the lead of the maverick John of Saxony. His territories were fragmented and future Electors were wise enough to modernise the state’s internal communications.
The divisions among the princes and the Holy Roman Emperor created an unstable situation in central Europe. Spain, in particular, wanted a strong Habsburg presence in central Europe. A number of apparently minor crises occurred which needed prompt action by the Habsburgs to ensure that their authority was maintained. Spain was drawn into a central European issue because of her family ties with Austria. However, any Spanish involvement in central Europe was bound to be provocative; in particular, countries like France would have viewed any such moves with great concern once again resurrecting her fears of Habsburgs encirclement.
One of Germany’s main problems was that the northern states were still divided over religion, though, ironically, it was division among the Protestant states. After the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), Protestant states had split along two different lines. There were those states that wanted a flexible approach to Protestantism - known as the Phillipists. These states saw value in some of the ideas of Calvin and Zwingli and saw no harm in adopting a combination of Protestant beliefs. Opposed to these states were the hard line Lutheran states. In 1577 these states produced the "Formula of Accord" which clearly stated their position and the Phillipist states responded to this by switching openly to Calvin. Therefore, there was an obvious spilt amongst the Protestant world in Germany and there was a failure to create a common front against the Catholic Church.
This allowed the Catholic Church some gains in Germany. In the 1580’s, the Archbishop of Cologne wanted to secularise his land in Cologne. This would have been very lucrative for him but it also broke the terms of the Imperial Reservation in the 1555 Augsburg Settlement which forbade such a move. He was removed from his position by the Holy Roman Emperor who sent Spanish troops to enforce his authority. This was a perfectly legal move by the emperor. A ‘true’ Catholic replacement was found. But Spanish troops so near to the western French border was not well received in Paris.
The Protestant Evangelical Union was founded in response to this. It was a defensive alliance of 9 princes and 17 Imperial cities. It was lead by the Elector Palatine and its general was Christian of Anhalt. This union was predominantly Calvinist and many Lutheran leaders stayed away from it as they felt that its existence could lead to anarchy.
In response to this Union, Maximilian of Bavaria founded the Catholic League in 1609. Ironically, he did not ask the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs to join it - a symbol of just how far the status of the Habsburg’s had fallen. Phillip III of Spain sent financial aid to maintain some Habsburg involvement but his involvement in a central European issue was bound to provoke the French.
A major crisis did occur over some very minor German states - a sign of just how fragile the peace of central Europe was. The crisis involved the five states of Julich, Cleves, Mark, Berg and Ravensberg. All five were owned by just one family. The five states were a rich mixture of religions with Julich and Berg being Catholic; Mark and Ravensberg were Lutheran and Cleves was Calvinist.
In 1609, the Duke of Julich-Cleves died without an heir. By law, the Holy Roman Emperor could appoint a temporary head of state until an enquiry worked out who would be the next legitimate head of state. Rudolf II appointed his nephew Leopold as Imperial Commissary to take full possession of the five states until a proper heir could be decided on. What Rudolf II did was appropriate and correct according to Imperial law.
Two relatives of the dead duke’s sister took matters into their own hands when they announced that they would occupy the states. This contravened accepted Imperial law and Leopold seized Julich in Rudolf’s name.
Not wishing to see an extension of Imperial authority so far north-west in the Germany (the general rule of thumb was that the further away a state was from Vienna, the less it was loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor) France and Holland gave their support to the two relatives. Maurice of Orange lead a Dutch force to capture Julich and he installed a Dutch garrison there.
Europe looked on the verge of war but the assassination of Henry IV of France took the sting out of the situation and calmed down the situation. The tension was further reduced in 1612 when Rudolf II died. The Julich-Cleves Affair was solved in 1614 by the handing out of the states to the two relatives who had challenged Rudolf’s authority in 1609.
Some state leaders were concerned that seemingly trivial issues were pushing Europe to the verge of war. Some, such as the chief advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor, Cardinal Khlesl and the Archbishop of Mainz tried to defuse the situation. Their chances were slim. It only needed one incident to spark off a major war. That was to occur in Bohemia.