(1368 –1437)




“His grand feat in life, the wonder of his generation, was this same Council of Constance, ... the illustrious Kaiser,—red as a flamingo, ‘with scarlet mantle and crown of gold,’—a treat to the eyes of simple mankind, . . . Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire, and so much else: is not Sigismund now a great man?”

Such is Carlyle’s peremptory question. With the sure eye of an artist he has seized the outstanding inci­dent in the Emperor’s career and has painted it with greater skill than even an Ulrich von Reichentha, could command. But he has done more: he has shown the historian of Sigismund where his task lies. It is not too much to say that, for him, all matters of moment centre in the drama of Constance, whether or not it be “one of the largest wind-eggs ever dropped with noise and travail in this world.” The Middle Ages were the battlefield of two great powers. The Holy Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Church vied with each other for supremacy, and Christendom throbbed with the conflict. The champions of the one could look back with satisfaction upon a Canossa, but could little brook the humiliating thought of an Anagni. The rivals had fought many a fight, and now they were pitted against each other for the last time on the shores of Lake Constance. Never more did the whole of Latin Chris­tendom meet to deliberate and act as a single commonwealth with its temporal head in the full glory of his international functions. Was Sigismund, then, the knight errant of a dying cause? the wayward Paladin of an Empire’s waning splendour? Or was he the prophet of a new dispensation, heralding the dawn of an epoch that would gladden the heart of a Dante?

It is no mere fanciful question. Constance was the meeting-place of two worlds. There the ideals of the Middle Ages trembled in the balance and the theories of the modern era struggled for realisation. It is this fact which makes the career of Sigismund, no less than the beginning of the 15th century, so full of interest and significance. Had this Council of Constance delivered judgment against the old regime with no uncertain voice, then it would have been easier to gauge the value of the Emperor’s high-flown pretensions. But the time was not ripe, and the Holy Roman Empire had yet to witness the neglect of an indolent Frederick III and the exploits of a chivalrous Albert Achilles. In truth, the Imperial ideal possessed wonderful vitality. Its roots struck deep in the hearts of men, and it is a curious irony that no poet could outsing the praise which Gunther Ligurinus, Barbarossa’s enthusiastic bard, lavished upon the results of Charlemagne’s conquest. Men could ill part with their cherished belief in a united Christendom with its temporal head; and even when their ideal seemed but a name of the past, it still exerted influence as a dream of the future. After each onslaught upon the claims of Hildebrand, the Roman Empire emerged more shrunken in territory and feeble in resources. But with Boniface VIII fell the mediaeval Papacy, and men began anew to publish the gospel of temporal sovereignty.

The Holy Roman Church had aspired to a world monarchy. In the words of Matthew of Vendome—

"Papa regit reges, dominos dominatur, acerbis Principibus stabili jure jubere jubet”;

and S. Thomas Aquinas quickened this conception of Papal power by his “De Regimine Principum” which pictured the relationship between spiritual and temporal sovereignty in a manner quite satisfactory to the former. But a reaction took place. Though the Popes were excellently fitted for the lofty position which they claimed not only by their sacred office and by the dread weapons at their command but by their “exemption from the narrowing influence of place, or blood, or personal interest,” yet they had been tried and found wanting. Avignon cast an ugly blot upon their escutcheon, and Christendom turned with longing eye to the Empire. Here was a power which might soothe a cruel disappointment and champion a growing hatred of priestly claims. Such a feeling had found expression in Dante’s “De Monarchia”—the dream of a pure spirit who yearned after unity, peace, and order; the vision of no “exiled Ghibeline but a patriot whose fervid imagination saw a nation rise regenerate at the touch of its rightful lord.” Distracted by incessant strife, by shameless tyranny, by hollow priestcraft, Dante passionately bewailed the sorry plight of his country and welcomed Henry VII, stranger and barbarian though he was, as a God-given messenger of freedom and order. Within a few years the champion of the Franciscans, Michael of Cesena, joined issue with the Papacy by a strenuous maintenance of the principles upon which his order was founded; and William of Occam, “the Invincible Doctor” of the University of Paris, lent his erudite and ready pen to the growing outcry against Papal claims. From the political side the attack was still stronger. Marsiglio of Padua, and John of Jandun with boldness only equalled by acuteness, marshalled argument upon argument against Avignon autocracy and paved the way for a Constance and a Basel. Had the “Defensor Pacis” been the inspiration of an abler leader than the vacillating Bavarian, the Reformation might have had for its head a Louis IV rather than a Luther.

But as it was, the Papacy had a vitality even more wonderful than that of the Empire. After the Captivity her youth was renewed like the eagle’s, and the literary attack was soon no more than an academic tirade. The ancient glory of her rival had departed, and the comforting comparison of Gregory VII was verified. Yet the weakness of Empire was its strength. The pretensions which even the Hohenstaufen had failed to support, could never now be made good; but with the growing sentiment of nationality so manifest in the early 15th century there still seemed a future for the head of Christendom. Could he be the arbiter of nations? The Roman Empire was fast losing the very characteristics which now distinguished the Papacy. It was now “a power which acted from a distance and rested chiefly upon opinion,” and “all visible manifestation of sovereignty fell to the share of the princes.” Feudal rights were hardly now enforcible, and direct contact with his subjects was no longer the Emperor’s prerogative. He occupied an ideal position little affected by circum­stances of birth or dynasty. He was still first of earthly potentates in dignity and rank, though he had no direct royal domain such as gave wealth to a King of England or of France, and in resources would ill compare with many a vassal. Christendom, however, looked to him— such was the tenacity of its faith in the Imperial ideal—as the type of spiritual unity, as the preserver of peace, and as the fountain of law and justice.

All eyes were turned upon Sigismund when in Con­stance he had his great opportunity. Could he typify spiritual unity? Could he preserve peace? Could he uphold law and justice? If ever Christendom’s ideal Emperor were needed, it was at Constance, and if ever the Imperial idea were to be revived it would be by one with a Sigismund’s chance. There was that “monstrous parody of a Trinity in Heaven”—three Popes; there was fever of rebellion in Bohemia; there was an Italy of lawless and adventurous politics.

Christendom, however, had to suffer many a rude shock. The proud “King of the Romans” whom it went out to see proved little more than a reed shaken by the wind. But for Constance he would have been almost unknown to us, and his good fortune only emphasised his conspicuous failure. The grim and petulant humour of Baldassare Cossa extorted by the snow-clad pass of Constance might well have been even more pointed. It would be unfair to deny to Sigismund some measure of success. His many “wise plans and good intentions” did not all miscarry. It was no mean achievement to heal the Schism, though he hardly counted the cost of his peace­making. But it is not unfair to say that, judged by the standard which he too glibly set for himself, Sigismund certainly failed. He is the self-sentenced Belshazzar of the Middle Ages.

Such an estimate of Sigismund’s fitful career can be made good at every point, difficult as it is to thread one’s way through the wondrous mazes of that career. In 1411, the eager and energetic Don Quixote of Em­perors, quivering with Utopian ideas and fantastic plans, hastened to win his spurs in the lists of Church and Empire. The perplexities of the Conciliar movement, the perils of a Hussite Bohemia, and the intricacies of Imperial reform soon taxed his strength and tried his prowess. Each, however, presented greater difficulties than Sigismund’s mettle could overcome. Each pro­claimed his signal failure, though there was not wanting the glittering tinsel of hollow success. Yet the years preceding 1411 are worthy of careful review by the critic of the Emperor’s reign, since he must look to that period for the “genesis” and “revelation” of Sigismund’s restless energy, lofty aims, and unscrupulous vacillation.






The first forty-three years of Sigismund’s life were by no means auspicious. He plunged into the billows of adventure and hardly surmounted one adverse wave before he had to face another. Such a haphazard career told its tale upon his future. When the tide of fortune turned in his favour he found it well-nigh impossible to cast off that shifty indecision, that incessant bustle, that ignoble caprice and triviality which grew upon him as second nature.

His father, the Emperor Charles IV and King of Bohemia, has fared badly at the hands of historians, yet he was the most illustrious scion of the House of Luxemburg, that House which acquired such sudden but short-lived eminence. Probably he was the greatest ruler of the fourteenth century. “Step-father of the Empire” and “Kaiser on false terms” notwithstanding, his strong sense of political responsibility, and his thorough business capacity, marked “the transition to modern ideals and methods of government.” Were it only for the foundation of the University of Prague in 1348, a school of learning which could vie with that of Paris upon which it was modelled, and which promised to make Prague the unrivalled centre of Germany—were it only for that beneficence Charles’ renown was assured. But he did more. He encouraged trade—the “Cheap Purchase” against which Carlyle rails; he anticipated the Council of Basel in his attempted union of the Latin and Greek Churches; and by his Golden Bull of 1356 he regulated the principles of election to the Imperial throne and provided a check upon growing disunion in Germany. Charles IV was convinced, as his son Sigismund never was, that in pursuit of the “glittering toy” of Empire the might of Germany was being brought to nought; and he strove to keep abreast with the rapid growth of territorialism. His intention was to nurse the strength of the House of Luxemburg so wisely that he would secure to his successors that pre­dominance in the electoral college which would enable them to govern Germany, and that overwhelming power which would make good a hereditary claim upon the waning Roman Empire. If he failed to establish the Luxemburgs, he laid the foundations of Habsburg success, for his mantle fell on the shoulders of a Maximilian.

Charles had three sons, Wenzel, Sigismund, and John of Gorlitz; and it was his weakness for them which ruined his own wise schemes. Sigismund was born on 28th June, 1368. His mother, Elizabeth, was Charles’ fourth and last wife, and gave this name to her son (so the gossipy Balbinus tells us) as a grateful token , of her veneration for S. Sigismund the Martyr. The Emperor betrothed him, while yet a boy, to Mary, the infant daughter of Louis the Great, King of Hungary and Poland, hoping, in due time, to enlarge the possessions of the Luxemburg family by the addition of these states. Fortune smiled upon the ambitious Charles, for, in the following year, 1373, Brandenburg fell to his lot. Three years later, in spite alike of solemn promise and the provisions of the Golden Bull, he transferred this latest province to Sigismund. Even the third son, John of Gorlitz, was not to be without his share of worldly spoil. For him, Charles formed a duchy in Lausitz. But all such planning left the Emperor’s most cherished desire unrealised so long as hereditary succession was denied to him. Accordingly, lie set himself to procure the election of his eldest son, Wenzel, to the Imperial throne, and after two years’ unwearied diplomacy the Golden Bull was set at nought and his labours crowned with hollow success. At Aachen, on 6th July, 1376, his seventeen-year old son donned the robes of Empire. It was his last triumph, achieved but five months before his death, and it sealed the fate of the Luxemburgs.

Whilst the hapless, self-indulgent Wenzel, King of Bohemia and lord of the Holy Roman Empire, was struggling in the meshes of rampant Leagues and Papal Schism, Sigismund’s opportunity came with the death of Louis the Great in 1382, and “like an imponderous rag of conspicuous colour” he was soon “riding and tossing upon the loud whirlwind of things.” His ten years’ betrothal now promised him an exciting share in kingly politics. Louis left a widow, Elizabeth, and two daughters, Maria and Hedwig; and had persuaded his subjects to recognise the claims of his children to the succession. Maria was accepted by the Hungarians; but the grasping Sigismund was eager to gain both crowns with the hand of his future wife, and determined to make a bid for Poland. The Poles, however, had other ambitions, and would have neither connection with Hungary nor a German ruler. They passed over the prospective bride and elected her sister Hedwig, for whom, in their zeal, they chose a husband after their own heart, Jagello, Duke of Lithuania. This favoured prince afterwards founded a powerful Slav state in N.E. Germany, and, as he had no scruples against the tenets of Christianity, cheated the Teutonic knights out of a crusade. Disappointed in Poland, Sigismund’s whole energies were devoted to Hungary, but the “sublime Hungarian legacy” proved small comfort to him. “Delusive fortune,” as Carlyle says, “threw her golden apples at Sigismund, and he had to play strange pranks in the wide high world.” Elizabeth, widow of Louis the Great, was no Anne of Beaujeu. The sweets of power made her loth to surrender authority to a raw youth, and she did her best to alienate her daughter, Maria, from Sigismund, in the parental hope that, ulti­mately, she might have the reins of government in her own hands. Her decided preference, however, for Nicolas Gara, a minister of the late king, was a tactical blunder which ruined her ambitions. The Hungarian barons, stung to the quick with jealousy, ignored Louis’ daughters, and turned for aid to Charles of Durazzo, the nearest male heir. Charles had won his way to the throne of Naples in spite of Louis of Anjou, and might well have rested content, but “the fabulous golden fleece” of Hungary charmed more than a Luxemburg prince. The temptation to head a revolt overcame alike the promises to a Louis the Great and the entreaties of a Margaret. Even the flight from Nocera was turned to advantage, and hardly had the unhappy Urban VI set foot on the Genoese galleys when Charles, with a few followers, hurried off to Hungary, and landed in Dalmatia (1318). His first role was that of guide, philosopher, and friend to the fickle Hungarians, and he rapidly gathered around him a strong party; but he soon assumed such kingly power that Elizabeth pre­ferred discretion to valour. In her sorry plight she appealed for assistance to the youth whom she once despised. Aware of his danger and fearful lest Hungary should prove another Poland, Sigismund acted with vigour, and no longer delayed his marriage with Maria (October, 1385). The bridegroom had cast his die and his face was now turned to Hungary—“that remote fabulous golden fleece, which you have to go and conquer, and which is worth little when conquered.” Young as he was he had not been without a romance, but’ it was not a Burggraf’s daughter who was to share with him the glories and vexations of royal power. His first task was to raise money and troops for the defence of his wife’s crown, and this he achieved by the doubtful expedient of “pawning” Brandenburg to his cousin, Jobst of Moravia. While on this mission a crisis occurred in Hungarian politics. The silent tomb of the great Louis spoke, and in the moment of Charles’ pomp men remembered the good deeds of a king whose wife and daughter they had disloyally forsaken. Elizabeth took cruel advantage of the reaction, and successfully plotted the death of the newly crowned king in February, 1386. Her treachery cost her dearly, for the nobles of Croatia avenged the dead Charles by imprisoning her and Maria in the Castle of Novigrad, and when that fortress was besieged they put Elizabeth to death. Maria almost shared the same fate, but her husband, to whom the Hungarian nobles then turned, and who was crowned in 1387, soon afterwards procured her release. His troubles, however, were far from ended, and had Eberhard Windecke been a Shakespeare he might have brightened his gossipy pages with the adage, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The king quarrelled with his wife no less than his subjects; and Hungarian patriots sighed for happier times, when the Venetians seized Dalmatia and the Poles Red Russia, and when the Turks overran Servia, Wallachia, and Bosnia. Yet Sigismund could not be accused of inactivity, and he made a bold bid for the recovery of these provinces. In 1392, the year in which his wife died, he conducted a campaign against the waywodes of Wallachia, but it was most disastrous in its consequences, for it indirectly involved him in war with the Turks. Four years later, though aided by John of Nevers and a band of French nobles, Sigismund suffered a terrible defeat at Nicopolis. On his return there were disturbances in Hungary, and he was imprisoned for five months by the turbulent barons, who, once again, sought a prince from the House of Durazzo. But Ladislas was too busily en­gaged defending his Neapolitan dominions against Louis of Anjou, to emulate his father’s exploits; and on Sigismund’s release there was a temporary truce.

About this time, too, Sigismund became involved in Bohemian affairs. Wenzel had not proved a worthy son of Charles IV. He might have been forgiven his neglect of the Empire, but he could not be pardoned his Bohemian misrule. Carlyle imagines that his talents for “opera-singing” and drinking Prague beer were noto­riously in advance of his genius for monarchy. His reckless passion, his ill-treatment of the clergy, his un­worthy favouritism, were responsible for a series of Bohemian revolts beginning in 1387. Jobst of Moravia, “full of plans, plausibilities, and pretensions,” a John the Baptist to the Sforzas of Italy, used every means to gain the crown by discrediting Wenzel, and even seized his person. John of Gorlitz came to his brother’s aid, but his loyalty earned Wenzel’s ingratitude, if not death by poison (1396). The scandals in Bohemia alienated the Rhenish Electors from Wenzel, who had given them fresh offence by pandering to the ambitions of Giovanni Galeazzo. The luckless king had also fared badly in his spasmodic attempts to heal the Schism, and secured the goodwill neither of a cautious Boniface nor a stubborn Benedict. At last steps were taken for his depo­sition. Four of the seven Electors met at Lahnstein in 1400 and elected one of their number, the Pfalzgraf Rupert, to be King of the Romans. The decree of deposition, read by Wenzel’s opponent, John, Archbishop of Mainz, declared that he had not striven to end the schism, that he had not established peace or order in Germany, that he had abandoned Imperial rights in Italy. But there were deeper reasons. Wenzel’s fate was really due to a Teutonic reaction against the French sympathies of the Luxemburg House, which had been so manifest since 1347; to a reaction of the princes against the liberties of the cities which the Emperor had allowed; and to the rise of that jealous oligarchical electorate which afterwards fought a Maximilian for constitutional control.

Rupert was, in all points, a contrast to Wenzel. He was a just, upright, devout man, he had “a strong heart and a strong head”; but was “short of means” and, above all, had no military capacity. He invaded Bohemia, and was aided by Jobst, but withdrew after a slight reverse. Sigismund came to Wenzel’s rescue when he saw hope of gaining another crown, and so managed affairs that he and not his incompetent brother was real master of Bohemia. Meanwhile Rupert at­tempted to gain prestige by striking a blow against the power of the Milanese Visconti—“perched so high on money paid to Wenzel”—and by meriting the Imperial crown from a grateful Boniface IX, but he was easily defeated under the walls of Brescia (1401). Sigismund turned this failure to advantage and had it not been for Gian Galeazzo’s sudden death in 1402, would have emu­lated Rupert’s Italian schemes with much more chance of success. Boniface, now thoroughly committed to the cause of the Pfalzgraf, made a counter-move by inciting Ladislas of Naples against Sigismund, and actually proclaimed him king of Hungary. But Sigismund acted with great vigour. By way of retaliation he forbade both in Bohemia and Hungary the payment of money to the Papal treasury, prohibited the publication of any Bulls, Papal letters, or ordinances, and strengthened this high-handed position by defeating Ladislas at Raab. He showed more than his usual wisdom, too, in his kind treatment of the Hungarian rebels, and, once again, maintained his kingly authority.

In 1408, Sigismund married his second wife, Bar­bara, the daughter of the Count of Cilly. Some of the older historians, delighting in details of domestic gossip, tell us that when Sigismund was imprisoned in Siclos (1399) by the sons of Nicholas Gara he obtained his release by promising their mother he would marry one of the daughters of Hermann, Count of Cilly, and so establish their position by kinship. Sigismund, how­ever, was not happy in his choice of wives. Barbara fell far short of the ideal woman, and would have justified the cynicism of a Solomon. The ready pen of Aeneas Sylvius, himself no mean judge of such matters, has described her failings in pointed language. No contemporary has written so gracefully or so frankly about the romantic side of court life as this Lord Chesterfield of the 15th century, a letter writer who could rival Erasmus.

The year 1410 was, in many respects, the greatest year of Sigismund’s life, for in it one obstacle after another was removed from his path. On May 18 Rupert “Klemm” died. Though a “highly respectable Kaiser” he had been quite unable to overcome the difficulties which his position involved. That jealous oligarchical electorate which had done so much to elect him as a protest against Wenzel, had been too strong for him—to use their words “they fell to plucking the feathers from the eagle.” With little congruity between profession and practice, they themselves had neglected Empire as the luckless Wenzel had never done. Burgundy rapidly swelled her dominions at Imperial expense. The process by which Brabant, Limburg and Luxemburg were acquired by Philip the Good, 1430 and 1462, was begun in 1406; all Netherlands, except Gueldres, Utrecht and Liege, were his; and Franche Comté was to lead the way into Alsace, Switzerland and Lorraine. The Electors, too, had left the Teutonic Knights unaided against Poland; and denied to Rupert help against Milan. Indeed, Rupert had not been really acknowledged between Rhenish and South Western Germany.

At his death, the Papal “parody of the Trinity” was like to be matched by an equally bewildering parody in the Holy Roman Empire. Three scions of the Luxem­burg family claimed the Imperial power; and Gregory XII, Benedict XIII, and John XXIII, had their counterparts in a Sigismund, a Wenzel, and a Jobst. The Schism was all the more distressful and dangerous as the claimants of Empire recognised different Popes, and this diversity of allegiance was shared by the Electors. Sigismund’s was the patriotic and reform party, headed by Frederick Burggraf of Nurnberg who had saved his life at Nicopolis and was now his chief friend and adviser. The aged Archbishop of Trier and the youthful Louis, Elector of Palatine, adhered to this party. They looked to Sigismund to uphold Imperial traditions. His rule in Hungary, after an inauspicious beginning, had been very successful. He had compelled Bosnia and Servia to submit to his rule, and had reduced the greater part of Dalmatia. Thus he could best aid Germany against the growing power of the Turks with whom, indeed, he had already crossed swords. He was heir to Wenzel of Bohemia and had the support of Bavaria, the great Wittelsbach House, through his alli­ance with the Palatinate. He was, again, bound to German ideas for support against the Magyars and Czechs. He was a man of culture, of energy, of lofty schemes, and seemed the only prince with the power and will to do the needed work in Empire. His faults of cruelty and sensuality, of shiftiness and vanity, were not yet so apparent and perhaps not much known be­yond Hungary. Sigismund appeared the right man to lead Christendom and preserve its glorious traditions.

His party had a great advantage, too, in the prevailing contempt felt for Wenzel and Jobst, “the great liar”— as a contemporary called him—“who seemed great, and there was nothing great about him but his beard.” Yet Jobst had numbers on his side. His was the old selfish electoral party headed by “the hungry wolf,” John, Archbishop of Mainz, and counted on the votes of the Archbishop of Koln, the Duke of Saxony, and the King of Bohemia, for Wenzel had never forgiven Sigismund his share in the deposition of 1400. On September 1, 1410, Sigismund by a diplomatic stroke for which his opponents were unprepared procured his election according to the strict letter of the Golden Bull. But Jobst was not to be outdone. He saw no reason why Wenzel should object to promotion, and planned that his cousin should be recognised as Roman Emperor, whilst his own services should be rewarded by his election as King of the Romans. Accordingly, in October, Frankfort saw a new election and a third Luxemburg prince raised to Imperial authority. A doggerel rhyme concerning the three chief actors at this Frankfort election made much noise at the time and was hardly flattering either to the Archbishop of Trier or the Elector Palatine—

“ Zu Frankfort hinterm Chor

Haben gewelt einen Konig ein Chind und ein Thor.”

Such a situation boded ill for the sway of cherished ideals. Europe in the 15th century had outgrown the swaddling clothes of the Middle Ages. But the glamour of Empire held Christendom in its grasp and its princes shut their eyes to the change of the old order. Sigismund was far from surrendering his claim without a struggle and was preparing to attack his cousin when Jobst suddenly died (Jan. 12, 1411). His task now was to reconcile his differences with the Electors, and this offered few difficulties to a man of his scruples. Wenzel was won to his side by recognition of his superior claim to the Imperial dignity, whilst the ecclesiastical con­science of Archbishop John was kept inviolate by ad­hesion to Pope John XXIII. Sigismund made matters secure by a third election at Frankfort in July. He recovered the fief of Brandenburg and showed his grati­tude to Frederick of Nurnberg, who had been his faithful henchman during the troublous Frankfort elections, by entrusting to him its administration. Moravia was permanently annexed to the Bohemian crown.

Sigismund’s Imperial apprenticeship was complete and the summit of his ambitions attained. These forty-three years of discipline are perhaps not the most interesting in his career, but they are the most momentous. Historians, no doubt, judge him by his share in the Council of Constance, “the Sanhedrim of the universe,” as Carlyle has called it, by his inglorious Bohemian policy, by his feeble attempts to anticipate a Maximilian of Imperial reformation; and probably these are fairly correct standards of judgment. But after 1411 Sigismund adopted no new role. His every action had its history. No more than any other mortal could he quite put off “the old man” and put on “the new.” He learned from experience, doubtless, but the experience which taught, just as certainly moulded, him. The French bishops at Constance were loud in theirr complaints against Sigismund’s unscrupulous tactics, but would these complaints have surprised a Jobst? The leal-hearted John of Chlum could see the Emperor blush with shame at the mention of his futile safe­conduct, but was the brother of a Wenzel much nobler than a Ferdinand of Aragon? Could one expect more from the shifty adventurer in statecraft than the feeble half-hearted reforms of 1427 and 1430? A modern writer has aptly called Aeneas Sylvius a “pupil of circumstance,” but the witty and learned Pius II had many fellow-scholars, and Sigismund was one. The ever-changing and troublous politics of his early years found their counterpart in his restless energy and airy diplomacy of after life. He was ever active, ever needy, and ever dreaming. The Joseph of Emperors, he had already seen his relatives make obeisance to him and now saw in vision the sun, moon, and stars proclaim him “lord of all the world.” Sigismund was the better for his dreams; they lifted him at times above the petty politics of his day. It was his misfortune that they were so fantastic.

Thus an account of his early years has much more than a chronological value. No sooner was he elected King of the Romans than he startled Christendom by the audacity of his prolific plans. He made his debut by attacking the Venetians who had encroached upon Dalmatia, where Sigismund would brook no interference. After two years’ tedious war a truce was arranged in 1413, and the ever restless King of the Romans seized the opportunity for striking a blow at the power of the Visconti. But he was not much more successful than the ill-fated Rupert, for Filippo Maria had strengthened his position after the assassination of his two brothers. Indeed, there was such “ludicrous incongruity between his pretensions and resources,” that Sigismund was at once the most scheming and least successful of princes.

Fortune, however, was kinder to him than he deserved. Pope John XXIII, warrior though he was, was sore beset on every side by Ladislas of Naples, the ambitious tyrant whom Boniface IX had used so skilfully as a thorn in the side of the Luxemburg prince. But the Pope’s extremity was Sigismund’s opportunity. With characteristic zest, as newborn as it was suspicious, he championed the cause of Christendom and extorted from the helpless John the promise of a general council. The Holy Roman Empire was once more to lift its head and under Sigismund to assert the claims of an Otto the Great or a Henry III. The son of Charles IV bade fair to justify the optimism of a disappointed Petrarch. Germany, and not France, was to be the “restorer of the Church and the arbiter of the Papacy.”



How did Sigismund use the favour of fortune? Did he realise the expectations of Christendom and revive the ancient glories of Empire? At first he had serious diffi­culties to overcome. The Council had been called by a schismatic Pope and a dubious uncrowned Emperor. Despite the efforts of Gerson and d’Ailly the Council at Pisa had been, on the whole, a failure. Apparently the times had not been ripe for the general withdrawal from the obedience of the rival Popes and there had been such perplexity of political motive that the position of the conciliar Pope was far from secure. Again, John XXIII had previously summoned a council to be held in Rome in 1412, but no one appeared to heed him. Sigismund, too, might remember how Rupert III had been treated at Pisa. Yet on Christmas Day, 1415, the Council was a success. Amid unexampled pomp which must have satiated his craving for pageantry the Emperor, with a following of a thousand persons, made his first public appearance. Frederick of Nurnberg as Elector of Brandenburg carried the royal sceptre; the Elector of Saxony as Marshal of the Empire bore the naked sword; and the Count of Cilly, the golden apple of Empire. Sigismund attended early mass and, as deacon, read the Gospel—“There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus”—with befitting majesty and pardonable pride. After mass the Pope handed him a sword with which he was commanded to defend the Church. The Emperor made a solemn promise and as L’Enfant grimly says “il l’exécutera bientôt contre le Pape lui-même, indirectement dans le personne de Frederic, Archiduc d’Autriche, son Protecteur.” Sigismund had achieved a notable success. The Council of Pisa had been a synod of ambitious prelates, but the Council of Constance was the “Sanhedrim of nations.”

The historian can account for this remarkable difference. The latter Council represented a far deeper movement than that which sought expression almost six years before. It was an aristocratic revolt against the Papacy from within and much more than the ill-concerted disaffection of jealous Cardinals. The Papacy itself had become hateful. Its ungodly Schism and the rampant abuses which that Schism fostered, loudly cried for reform; and a Dietrich of Niem or a Nicholas de Clemanges were but the spokesmen of Christendom. Had William Durandus, nephew of the “Resolute Doctor,” been a prophet, he would have had infinite satisfaction in the motto of the 15th century conciliar movement. His words to Clement V became the watchword of reform. The Church was to be purified “in head and members.” If one desires to know how the Papacy was regarded by contemporaries one has only to read the impassioned utterances of the French or German reforming party. Dietrich Vrie, a German monk whose name appears among the wise men of Constance, penned a Latin poem on the Church’s lost estate, and his historic reference to Simon Magus sufficiently indicates its scathing character. The “De Ruina Ecclesiae” probably written by Nicholas de Clemanges, Secretary of Benedict XIII, rivals Hebrew prophecy in the fierceness of denunciation, and its sarcastic similes are the weapons of an Ezekiel. The clergy are false shepherds; they care not one tittle for their flocks; they would regard with greater equanimity the loss of ten thousand souls than ten thousand shillings. Bishops, monks, and friars are worldly, dissolute, and shameless. This tract represented without exaggeration the attitude of the French reforming party. Dietrich of Niem spoke for the Germans. In his “De Modis Uniendi ac Reformandi Ecclesiam in Concilio Universali,” he denounced the errors of the Church, but he also advanced a scheme of reform. The power of the Papacy was to be limited, one true Pope was to be elected, the ancient privileges of the Church were to be restored and all abuses removed. The utterances of these men—and their testimony could be equalled by many others—indicated a powerful, moral movement of regeneration in Church and State when both seemed on the verge of destruction. The rise of a Wyclif and a Hus, the revolt of the Albigenses, the spread of the Cathari—all pointed to a “wonderful stirring and uprising in the mind of Europe,” and the Council of Constance was an outlet to the pent up feelings of Christendom.

Sigismund’s diplomacy, too, ensured the success of the Council. The theologians of Paris had no small opinion of themselves or their country. Gerson could declare the French King the leader of civilisation and superior to all earthly monarchs. The nation which produced in Francis I a candidate for the Imperial throne was not likely to bow the knee to a king of Hungary. But Sigismund, for once, had the wisdom of the serpent. In his invitation to the French he did not flaunt the “potentia imperatoria” but contented himself with the “potentia regalis.” He was the “advocatus ecclesiae,” not her supreme arbiter. When France was still chary of official representation at Constance, the Emperor in 1414 allied himself with the Orleanists against the Burgundians.

Then Sigismund’s friendly relations with England stood him in good stead. John Forester was a connecting link between the chivalrous Henry V and the Emperor. Henry’s father had sent an embassy to Sigismund in 1411, and English envoys had been promi­nent at the Aachen coronation. If the University of Paris had a Jean Gerson, Oxford had a Richard Ullerston. Accordingly Sigismund received much sympathy from England. He allied himself with Henry V at Coblenz in 1414, and the lofty schemes of the English King led him to support the Council. In 1417, his zeal was so great that he could soundly rate his representa­tives, and encourage the Emperor to “finish the council and never mind me.”

Italy, France, Germany, and England, the four great nations, were thus represented, and the success of the Council assured. Sigismund had taken the tide in his affairs at the flood, and everything pointed to fortune. On November 11, 1417, Oddo Colonna was elected Pope and the dark days of strife were ended. After forty years’ wandering in the dreary wilderness of Schism the Holy Roman Church had reached her promised land. The Emperor, however, had not been without the fiery trials of a Moses. Before he was “lord of the world indeed” he had thrice to run the gauntlet. The first crisis in the history of the Council had reference to the deposition of Pope John XXIII, whose fate had been sealed by Robert Hallam’s rearrangement of the method of voting. The unhappy Pope refused to ap­point proctors to carry out his abdication, and managed to enlist the sympathy of the French against the insistence of the more vigorous German party. Peter d’Ailly, the Aeneas Sylvius of Constance, did all in his power to embitter the French against the English and Germans, and would have excited open revolt but for the timely message of the French king. The seeds of mistrust and jealousy were soon to bear much fruit, and when Henry V set out against Harfleur (1415), the French finally abandoned the reform party for that of the Italians.

A curious illustration of these mutual jealousies is to be found in the inspired protest of the representatives from Aragon. Shortly after they arrived they were incited by the French, who smarted under the German “treachery,” to cast doubt upon the position of the English as a nation. The latter indignantly defended themselves in a document bristling with quaint statistics. Their monarch, they declared, ruled over eight kingdoms, his northern lands were as large as France itself, his country counted one hundred and ten dioceses and fifty-two thousand parishes (though the French could boast of but six thousand), and his subjects had Joseph of Arimathea for their father. Their suggestion that France and Spain should represent Western Christen­dom is as quaint as it is spiteful.

There was a second and graver crisis in the summer of 1417, when even the English deserted the Germans. The latter had consistently championed ecclesiastical reform, insisting that the “causa reformationis” should be prior to Papal election; and they had been consistently supported by Robert Hallam and his henchmen. Sigismund and Henry V had, up till now, been at one in their policy and their ability to enforce it upon their representatives. Though the French had quarrelled with both nations since 1415, they, too, had pledged themselves to put Church reform in the forefront, and even as late as November of the following year d’Ailly’s voice was raised on its behalf. But France had no Henry V to mould her policy, and her delegates had already shown such disaffection as made them an easy prey to the Cardinals. The petty jealousies of a Jean Petit squabble had ruined the influence of Gerson, and the glamour of the Curia had laid hold of d’Ailly. The galling suspicion that Sigismund and the hero of Agincourt were using the Council to further their vaulting ambition, was but another weapon in the hands of the astute Italians. Confident of a majority in nations the Car­dinals protested against the Emperor’s stubbornness in delaying the Papal election, and their victory seemed certain when his English allies deserted him. To Sigis­mund the red hats of martyrdom were as nothing to this shameless defection. He did not consent, however, to the new election until October, and before that time events happened which make it extremely doubtful whether, even then, he was defeated. His ally, Henry V, was also a man of lofty schemes, and the prospect of mediating between Church and Empire had many charms for him, more especially since he was as little interested in the reform of Papal abuses as he was aided by the Treaty of Canterbury. Accordingly, he despatched his uncle, Henry Beaufort, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by way of Constance, and the sweet counsel of a Bishop of Winchester atoned for the bitter defection of a Bishop of Lichfield. Henry V felt that it would be a calamity were the Council to break up without a Pope, and he knew that the Germans would submit to such a solution rather than surrender their position. Henry Beaufort explained his nephew’s wishes and won Sigismund to his side.

The third crisis in the history of the Council con­cerned the method of voting in the Conclave. The election of d’Ailly would have been a blow both to the Emperor and Henry V, and they did all in their power to frustrate the schemes of his supporters. The French Cardinal, however, seemed a likely candidate. The friend of John XXIII as well as Benedict XIII, and the leader of the Council, he could almost reckon on the necessary two-thirds majority in the two Colleges of twenty-three Cardinals and thirty deputies. But again the pilgrim bound for Palestine came to the rescue. He broke up the Curial party and set Rome against France. Sigismund and Henry had won their Pope. They had gained an adherent when they might have crowned a foe. It was no wonder that the Emperor threw dignity to the winds and humbly kissed the feet of Martin V. In a cooler moment he might have hankered after Imperial confirmation, but now he was overjoyed and vented his feelings by telling Henry V how “the sun, the stars, the elements shout for joy.”

Yet Sigismund failed at Constance. He had gained reunion under one Pope, but for this he had paid a great price. Oddo Colonna and not the Emperor had cause for thanksgiving. The Conciliar principle was maimed for ever and the Papacy entered on a new lease of life. The democratic revolt of a Basel Council would have no terrors for her champions. The Holy Roman Church had escaped from the meshes of Council, Cardinal, and Emperor. Sigismund had signally failed to maintain his lofty position as arbiter, and two facts accounted for his failure. Constance was a nest of national jealousy, and the venom of national jealousy infected ecclesiastical dissension. It was a sign of the times that Church and State were so interlocked in unfriendly embrace that Conciliar solutions were all abortive. Sigismund had been powerless to check the patriotic hatreds of French and English. His well-meant expedition of peace had ended in a Treaty of Canterbury, and he abandoned a friendship with France which his grandfather had sealed with his life-blood on the battlefield of Crecy. The Emperor had set his heart on Papal reformation, but he was too keenly alert to his own interests to forgive French designs upon Alsace, Lorraine and Flanders. John Forester can tell us what happened on Sigismund’s return to Constance from the “Paradise” of England. He shook hands with her envoys publicly, he constantly wore the Order of the Garter, and he entertained the English at a magnificent banquet. It was characteristic of the Emperor that he busied himself in preparing for war against his new foes. He induced the German Diet to ratify his treaty (1417), he mustered men from Hungary, he solemnly pledged himself to invade France on S. John’s Day, somewhat later he renewed his pledge and vowed he would lose his kingdom and his life for it, he even started shipbuilding on the shores of Lake Con­stance. The effect of this change of policy is not surprising; it sealed the fate of the Council. One can forgive the shiftiness of a d’Ailly after the treachery of a Sigismund.

These political interests, again, were at the bottom of the ecclesiastical troubles. The orthodoxy of Jean Petit’s “Apologia” was a struggle of Orleanists against Burgundians, that of Falckenberg’s a struggle of Teu­tonic Knights against the Poles, just as the attack on Hus was a German blow against the Slavs. The Papal election itself saw an encounter of parties striving for S. Peter’s chair.

In truth, the Sigismund who had read the Gospel so proudly at the Council’s first mass, the Sigismund who appointed guards, and granted safe-conducts, such as they were, who determined the order of proceedings, the Sigismund who so astutely turned the Swiss against a recalcitrant Frederick or a fugitive Pope—was not the arbiter but the instrument of the Council. He was “the secular arm” who could do the unpleasant work at Constance and who could be passed over when his work was done.

The reasons which prevented Sigismund at Constance from making good his position as arbiter proved fatal to his claims to pose as reformer. The Council broke up without accomplishing its main object. The Sigismund of 1415, “with scarlet mantle and crown of gold,” hurriedly left Constance, three years later, hopelessly in debt. He had soon found out that Martin V was no tool for German hands and all he could show for reformation was the worthless Concordats, the first-fruits of a Papal revival and the forerunners of the Pragmatic Sanctions of Bourges and Mainz. The failure of the Conciliar movement embittered the German nation and encouraged a Frederick III to make an unholy alliance with the Papacy against reform both of Church and State. Sigismund’s “wise plans and good inten­tions” made the German Reformation a revolution in faith, and the grounds of the Conciliar failure were the grounds of its success.




Sigismund’s failure at Constance haunted him for the rest of his life. His lofty schemes for the restoration of Empire’s prestige were hopelessly ruined. The Pliable of Emperors he set out with brave heart and beating pulse for the celestial city of Imperial glory, but the “slough of Despond” had been too much for him, and he scrambled back to his native land. From the year 1418 he devoted himself to personal and dynastic interests, to defending Hungary against the Turks or enforcing his claim to Bohemian succession; and he preserved the traditions of his family by his neglect of Germany. He even offered to resign the Imperial au­thority. It was an evil day for the “blushing” Sigismund when he handed over John Hus to the tender mercies of the Holy Roman Church. The martyrdom at Constance “kindled Bohemia and kindled rhinoceros Zisca into never-imagined flame of vengeance; brought more disaster, disgrace, and defeat on defeat to Sigismund, and kept his hands full for the rest of his life.” The truth of Carlyle’s words has often been confirmed. “From the flames of the stake of John Hus,” says another writer, “a great fire was set alight which deso­lated Bohemia and Germany, and was only extinguished in the blood of countless victims.” Thus Sigismund’s troubles in Bohemia might well have been treated side by side with the Conciliar movement, but they were so momentous and involved such dynastic interests that they deserve more than passing notice. Their connection with Constance, however, must never be forgotten.

John Hus was but one name in the roll of a great revival which laid hold of Europe at the close of the Middle Ages. There had been many voices crying in the wilderness for spiritual awakening. Men were beginning to feel the yoke of Church authority and political scheming press heavily upon their souls. Gerard Groot, Florentius Radevynzon, Johann Tauler, John Wyclif, all testified in their own way to the needs of the indi­vidual life. Bohemia was not without its witness, and Hus had his precursors in Conrad of Waldhausen, Milicz of Kremsier, Mathias of Janow, and Thomas Stitny. These men attacked the degradation of the Church, the vices of monks and friars, the wealth and worldliness of the clergy in high places; and Hus was not a whit behind them when he preached in the Chapel of Bethlehem. From the year 1398, when he began to teach in the University of Prague, his confession of faith in philosophy and theology became modelled upon the opinions of the Oxford reformer, and though his fame does not rest on his intellectual abilities he seemed alive to the momentous consequences of Wyclif’s teaching. “Oh Wyclif, Wyclif,” he exclaimed, in a remarkable sermon, “you will trouble the heads of many.” His words were the words of a prophet.

For twelve years, however, he was saved by Bohemian unrest. The anger of the slighted Wenzel against Innocent VII and Gregory XII, his temporising Pisan policy, the strong sentiment of Czech patriotism, the unhappy Schism in Church and Empire, all stood Hus in good stead and enabled him to brave the terrors of a Colonna and an Annibaldi. But the politics of the day could not always shelter him, and his Luther-like denunciation of Pope John’s sale of indulgences showed that he could take a bold stand. On the invitation of Sigismund and armed with an Imperial safe-conduct Hus went to Constance in 1414 to give a reason for the faith that was in him. He had friends with him, but he had also foes. The zeal of John of Chlum and Wenzel of Duba was checked by the hatred of Stephen Palecz and Michael de Causis. His case was prejudged. England was tired of a Wyclif, the Papacy was bitter against the Bohemian censor, Paris University was horrified at heresy, and Germany was jealous of Czech nationality. Hus, who came to convince Christendom, was condemned to death. He had taught, so his accusers declared, the necessity of receiving the Eucharist in both kinds, and had attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation; he had made the moral character of the priest a condition of the validity of the sacrament; he had taught erroneous doc­trines respecting the nature of the Church. Sigismund had, indeed, protested vehemently against the violation of his Imperial safe-conduct, but the straits of his position overcame all scruples. He felt that his reputation was staked on the success of the Council, and that too scrupulous a conscience would but yield victory to the wily Pope John. It was the acuteness of Peter d’Ailly that completed his conversion to unseemly casuistry. Sigismund’s desertion of John Hus had a moral which he learned by bitter experience. It showed that he could be forced to do anything rather than ruin the Council; it proved that the Church could make “the secular arm” do its own shameless work; and it led to the Hussite wars, the conspicuous failure of his reign.

Sigismund could never again lift up his head in Bohemia. He was the perjured traitor of their martyr. Hus had many enemies amongst his countrymen; but his earnestness, his piety, his patriotism, his naive trustfulness, and, above all, his life-blood, endeared his memory to the Czechs. Under the leadership of Nicolas of Husinec and John Ziska, a born general, the Hussites soon became a power in the land. “Communion in both kinds” was their doctrinal motto and gave them their name, Utraquists. In 1420 they formulated the demands which became their avowed creed. The “Four Articles of Prague” were (a) entire liberty of preaching; (b) communion in both kinds; (c) exclusion of priests from temporal power; (d) secular discipline of clergy. Had Sigismund been a man of few and well-chosen words he might have been King of Bohemia when Wenzel died; but, as Palacky shows, his unruly tongue cost him a throne. “We must root out Hus’ followers” had been his audacious speech to the Fathers of Constance, and in 1419 John of Chlum and Wenzel of Duba took care it was not forgotten. The Bohemians would have none of Sigismund for their king, and he soon found out how hard it was to “root out” a Ziska or a Prokop. But he was the last man to forego his claims upon a crown without a struggle. Disdaining the wise advice of Frederick of Brandenberg, he hastened his fall by securing the aid of Martin V, who published a crusade against the Hussites (1420). Had Sigismund, late as it was, granted some concessions in matters of religion and avoided Papal interference, he might have created a powerful orthodox party under Cenek of Wartenberg. But even when he pursued a worthy object he invariably chose unworthy means. All that the crusade did was to close the ranks of the Bohemians against him.

The first stage of the Hussite wars comprised three campaigns, and, in each, Ziska was an easy victor. He had won his battles before Sigismund took the field. Every moment wasted by the dilatory Emperor was gain to the diligent general. The Bohemian, with the eye of genius, grasped the situation and made pre­parations with the utmost care and skill. From a band of raw peasants he created a “model” army, which, for discipline and fearlessness, could vie with any in Europe. John Ziska was the Oliver Cromwell of Bohemia. The blind warrior drilled his Taborites as the Puritan trained his Ironsides, and never once did he taste defeat. Like the Protector he had no delicacy of tactics. Like him he had a grim confidence in his God-given mission, and made religious passion the basis of martial success. In 1420 Sigismund with 80,000 men behind him was driven from Witkow. He fared even worse at his second venture, for, in the following year, he left 400 of his bravest nobles dead in the field of Wyssebrad; and, in 1422, his army of 90,000 men, though led by the renowned Pipo of Florence was routed at Kuttenberg. The flight from Saaz was a poor attempt “to root out Hus’ followers” but it was a happy inspiration for the wit of an Ebendorfer.

Sigismund now had enough of crusades and Bohemia was left in peace until 1427. These five years saw the rise and fall of a Slavonic Utopia. Witold of Lithuania formed a noble scheme of a Czech Empire and Church, and sent Sigismund Korybut, nephew of Ladislas, King of Poland, into Bohemia, where he was regarded as a deliverer. But Pope and Emperor were too strong for the half-hearted Poles, and when Korybut was recalled all hope of a Slav confederacy was at an end. After Ziska’s death Prokop the Great became General of the Hussites, and he was the hero of the fourth and fifth crusades. In 1427 Germany became alarmed at Bohemian aggression and raised an army which laid siege to Mies, but the terror of Prokop and his warriors caused a shameless retreat, which even Cardinal Beau­fort, crucifix in hand, could not stay. The fifth crusade ended in like disaster at Tauss (1431), for Cesarini was no more successful than Beaufort.

All hope of peace now lay in the General Council, which Martin V had summoned to meet at Basel, with Cardinal Cesarini as its president. He, however, be­queathed the difficulties of Conciliar action to his successor, Eugenius IV, who loved the Council no more than did Martin V, and, indeed, attempted to dissolve it when Bohemian delegates were invited. But Sigis­mund’s staunch attitude, and his own quarrel with Filippo Maria Visconti reluctantly forced him to give way. A conference was held to discuss the “Four Articles,” but tedious dialectic and bitter invective were its only outcome, and the delegate departed with a blessing from the generous Cesarini (April, 1433).

But Nicolas of Cusa had given a hint of compromise and there was a further conference at Prague which was more successful (Nov., 1433). The Papal delegates tried hard to incite dissension amongst the Bohemians, and joined the Calix tin nobles; but on a second visit to Prague a compromise was effected. After much labour the “Compactata” were arranged. The Council gave way in the question of the Cup, and both and Moravians were allowed to receive the Eucharist in both kinds; liberty of preaching was nominally granted; discipline of the clergy was vaguely recognised; but the Council insisted upon the right of the Church and her priests to hold property.

The “Compactata” were but a temporary solution of Bohemian difficulties, and were accepted chiefly through the influence of the nobles and moderates who mourned over their country’s distresses, and earnestly desired peace. But peace only came by the sword. The Taborites disdained the compromise and stood to their position on the field of battle. Bohemia, however, was to be conquered by Bohemians, as Sigismund had predicted. Prokop and his veterans were routed by an army schooled in Ziska’s tactics. On the field of Lipan, if not in the Dominican monastery of Basel, the Council won the day. The way was now more open for Sigismund, but the throne of Charles IV was not an easy prize. The Emperor (for, at last, in 1433, he had ac­quired the honour of the title) was still suspected, and patriots who had endured the fire and blood of religious war were chary of trusting him. After negotiations at Regensburg, at Prague, and at Brunn, the “Compactata” were signed at Iglau in July, 1436, and in August Sigis­mund formally entered Prague.

But the reconciliation was hollow, as the fate of John Rokycana clearly showed. A national policy founded upon “illusory promises” was hardly satisfactory. The Emperor, however, was tired of unceasing negotiation. “I was once,” he said, “a prisoner in Hungary, and save then I never was so wearied as I am now.” His scruples did not prevent him from making lofty promises, and he obtained peace only a year before his death.

As a European question the Hussite question was at an end. All danger of a general acceptance of Hus’ doctrine by Christendom had disappeared and a Catholic reaction soon set in—a reaction crowned in 1462 by the Aeneas Sylvius, who made his name at Basel. Politi­cally, the Hussite movement was disappointing. Bo­hemia, indeed, withstood the influence of Germany until a strong Slavonic sentiment was born in her patriots, but the movement ended in a triumph of the nobles, despite its popular and democratic beginnings. “What did remain to Bohemia was a vigorous national vitality, a religious enthusiasm, and an austere morality.” Sigismund’s failure in Bohemia was due to his own inordinate conceit and self-confidence, his inherent shiftiness, and his Macchiavellian diplomacy, even more than to determined religious fanaticism and hardy pat­riotic sentiment.

Had he been a humbler and truer man, he would have won his three crowns long before he did.




Sigismund’s career was an episode of Empire. It was his cherished scheme in 1411 to show that glory had not departed from the heritage of an Otto the Great. Men thought that Christendom was coming to an end in the beginning of the 15th century, but men were to be dis­appointed. Sigismund would show them how he could regain lost laurels and lead Christendom as in bygone days. He made a bold attempt, but he failed. It is hardly conceivable that a Sigismund could have been successful. The times were changed and the task would have been too much for a stronger man than the flighty Luxemburg prince. New interests had sprung up and mediaeval ideals had to give way for modern state-craft.

The remarkable expansion of Burgundy at Imperial expense was but a sign of the times. The era of territorialism had begun. It was significant, too, that the cities had despaired of Empire. Though it was clearly their interest to have a strong ruler, they would support neither a Wenzel nor a Rupert, and even made common cause with the princes. Rupert, indeed, had to allow the baneful practice of armed leagues; and the famous League of Marbach “for protection against everyone, whosoever it be” was only one of many. Had the Knights—and Sigismund had to give formal legitimation to the Imperial Knights—joined with the cities, matters would have been worse, for the Swabian League showed how strong such a combination might become.

The princes, too, had strengthened their position. Aided by the Golden Bull of 1356 they had made them­selves a power to be feared, and the carelessness of the Luxemburgs gave the Electoral College its great opportunity. The Electors claimed to be “the successors of the Roman Senate, if not the representatives of the Roman people as well.” They could depose a Wenzel and form a union at Bingen (1424) which fourteen years later dictated policy to an Albert II. and paved the way for the “Wahlkapitulation” of the 16th century. The dream of a Berthold of Mainz might have been realised, had they shown no dissension. Maximilian felt their power, and Wenzel’s publication of a universal “Land-friede” showed how the Empire was sore beset with war and feud, to which the Speier alliance of 1381 testified, and even the Treaty of Eger, eight years later, could not check.

Indeed, on all sides the Empire was threatened with dissolution, and though Sigismund could read a moral lesson to Frederick of Austria at Constance—“You know,” he said with boastful pride to the Italian am­bassadors, “what mighty men the Dukes of Austria are; see now what a German King can do,”—he hardly seemed to realise how nearly Frederick had succeeded. The luckless Duke had almost headed an invincible confederacy of Empire’s foes in Italy, Burgundy, and Germany itself. The Swiss had decided the day for the fortunate Sigismund, but their action was ominous for the future; and rarely were the princes united for him in later times.

So far from reviving the pretensions of Empire Sigismund’s policy, a policy which the Habsburgs continued with greater success, was to use Empire as a power outside Germany. He was called not a German king, but “King of the Romans and Hungary.” His lofty schemes, therefore, for the supremacy of Empire signally failed. This was seen at the Diet of Pressburg (1430) when he was bitterly reproached for his neglect of Germany.1 But external as his policy was, he invariably chose the wrong means. His ambition to crush the power of the Turks was a worthy aim, but surely re­quired the help of Venice, whose interests demanded such a crusade. Yet time after time he quarrelled with the Venetians about the possession of Dalmatia. When he should have supported the Hanse against the Danes, he gave fruitless aid to Denmark. He made possible, again, an alliance between Poland and Bohemia by his sale of Newmark to the Teutonic Knights.

Sigismund left the Empire weak and bequeathed a sorry legacy to Frederick III—“astrologer, chemist, botanist, antiquary, collector, everything but ruler.” Frederick’s reign was “a climax of neglect of Imperial duties.” Philippe de Comines could jest about the luckless Emperor, and Aeneas Sylvius could make light of his authority. It seemed, indeed, that the Empire was “not only dead but obsolete and a jest in Italy”; but Frederick had Sigismund to thank for much of his misfortune.

The Imperial ideal, however, was not yet dead. It inspired the exploits of an Albert Achilles and could still rouse Christendom by the memory of past glories. The same Aeneas Sylvius who could ridicule Frederick III could still declare that the Emperor’s “power is eternal ... incapable of injury ... no laws can bind the Emperor ... no court judge him ... he is answerable only to God,” whilst the Emperor himself is “chased from his capital by the Hungarians, wandering from convent to convent, an Imperial beggar; while the princes, whom his subserviency to the Pope had driven into rebellion, are offering the Imperial crown to Podiebrad, the Bohemian king.” As an ideal of the past, if no more, the Empire was still to hold sway.

It is remarkable, however, that notwithstanding the undoubted failure of Sigismund’s Imperial policy, both Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns date their greatness from him. They were in every sense the heirs of the Luxemburg House.

As regards the more constitutional part of Sigis­mund’s policy there is little to be said.

The crushing defeat at Brescia (1401) had shown the weakness of the German arms, and the Hussite victories had conclusively tried both military and political systems in the balance and found them wanting. The old German style of warfare had to give way for several reasons. The Middle Ages could conceive no idea save that of the heavy armed knight, but whatever such a warrior might do in the lists or in deeds of chivalry, he could not hold his own against the lightly-clad Italian mercenary. Then the army of Germany lacked unity; in it were repeated the same traces of territorial rivalry which were destructive of the Empire itself. Gian Galeazzo’s adventurers and Ziska’s fanatics, too, had shown the uselessness of huge undisciplined hosts.

An attempt was made to remedy this state of matters at the Diets of Frankfort. In April, 1427, the wonted method of levying troops was abandoned and it was agreed that one out of every twenty should be chosen by lot. It was thought that by this means territorial jealousies would be overcome. The financial difficulty, always pressing in those times, was to be surmounted by a poll-tax on the Jews and the Papal tithes. But such good enactments did not save Germany from a disastrous flight at Mies.

Again the princes and representatives came to Frankfort (1427) and passed more advanced measures. A paid army was to be had, a general income-tax imposed (one-twentieth on the clergy, one-fourth on the laity, and a poll-tax), a war council was formed of six deputies from the Electors and three from the cities, and preparations were made for an arrangement of “circles” — an anticipation of Maximilian’s constitutional reforms.

Sigismund might have been more successful—for his schemes were but disappointing anticipations of later reform—had he not quarrelled with Frederick of Brandenburg, who saw that drastic reform was necessary and was yet driven into antagonism to the Emperor. This alienation almost provoked a civil war after the Diet of Nrünberg (1422) and the 1424 Union of Electors, and made the reforms of Frankfort take the form of a de­termined opposition to Sigismund. Indeed, one outcome of the Frankfort schemes was to transfer his Imperial authority to the Council of Nine. Yet the Reform movement grew from 1433—1437, for various reasons. Bohemia was at last comparatively settled; the growing disorganisation in Germany demanded some remedy; the Council of Basel was a stimulus to reform in the Empire; the power of the princes was becoming felt by clergy and cities alike; and Sigismund at last understood that Imperial reform would strengthen central power. The pamphlet of Nicolas of Cusa is interesting as showing contemporary feeling. He advocated superior courts of justice, each provided with three assessors chosen from the nobles, clergy, and cities; a paid army; and, above all, yearly Diets.

But Sigismund’s reforming schemes, like his other lofty plans, came to nought. He did not give himself whole-heartedly to reorganisation of the constitution, but played with reform in his dealings with Pope and Council at Basel. The Electors became tired of their Emperor and formed a sullen neutrality which lasted until Sigismund’s death in 1437.

The Emperor loved pomp even in death. He died on December 9 sitting on his throne, “apparelled in magnificent attire.” Himself a schemer all his days he had the satisfaction of defeating the schemes of the Empress on the eve of his death. He was left seated on his throne, grave-clothes over Imperial vesture, for three days, that men might see that the lord of all the world was dead and gone.

“These princes of the House of Luxemburg cannot be called great kings; but they possessed buoyant and elastic characters which never allowed them to be beaten by any stroke of fortune. If one enterprise failed, they were ready with another .... They were a race not without ideas; above all, they were a race full of activity.” Sigismund certainly had ideas, perhaps he had too many ideas; he certainly was active and buoy­ant ; but none of these qualities saved him from failure. They only emphasise the truth that “few men with such wise plans and such good intentions have so conspicuously failed.”

It is easy to laugh at Sigismund’s vanity and preten­sions; he was just the man to provoke laughter. But it was better that he had a soaring ambition and Quixotic schemes and yet failed, than that he should have been a mere time-server and prosaic dabbler in grovelling politics. Sigismund’s failure would never have been so conspicuous, had he not aimed so high, and a man does best who fails to realise his own ideals. The Emperor had a great vision of his mission in life. He could never understand that even he had to begin at the foun­dation of things and laboriously watch each stage in the great architecture of a world’s achievements. “Ego super grammaticam” held good for him in all his undertakings and meant as much as the “L’état, c’est moi” of a Louis XIV. The bitterness of Jean de Montreuil made him a hard judge, and lost much that deserved more sympathy.

Sigismund, perhaps, did not deserve success, he certainly could not command it. His lack of patience and wisdom were fatal to his cherished ideals. Yet there was something about him which attracted men. Eberhard Windecke knew him and many a time had thankless work to do for his master, yet he loved him; and perhaps one may sympathise with his attachment. One may smile at Sigismund, but it is hard to hate him.

“Three crowns, Bohemia, Hungary, and the Reich, in that one year,” says the old Historian; “and then next year he quitted them all, for a fourth and more lasting crown, as is hoped.”