History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Frederick III

The Electors chose Frederick of Austria, the son of Ernst the Lion, to succeed to Albert II. He reigned longer than any other German Emperor, and never was there a more lazy and unkingly ruler.

He cared nothing for the Empire, and he did nothing for it. "He was a useless Emperor," said an old writer, "and the people, during his long reign, forgot that they had a King." He cared so little about his people that he would fall asleep in Parliament, and once when something very important was being discussed, he got up and went away to look after some plants, and see that they were protected from the frost. For Frederick was a very keen gardener, and cared more about his garden than his Empire. He was also fond of astrology and alchemy, and spent much time trying to find a way to turn common metals into gold.

But although Frederick was a slothful Emperor, he was a great believer in the greatness of the House of Austria. And he took for his motto the letters A.E.LO.U., which stand for the Latin words, Austriae Vest imperare orbi universo, meaning, "The whole earth is subject to Austria."

Amidst all his shiftlessness and idleness, Frederick thought he would try to win back Switzerland, which by this time had almost become free. But he had neither money nor soldiers enough, so he made friends with Charles VII of France and asked him for help.

Charles gave the help for which he was asked, and sent Frederick some troops called the Armagnacs, They were so called from their leader the Count Armagnac. This French army was little more than a mob of hungry adventurers, eager for plunder, and drawn from the very lowest of the people. The Germans called them not Armagnacs, but "Arme Gecken," which means "poor fools."

The Dauphin of France led this rabble army, and a terrible fight took place between a few of the Swiss and the whole French force at St. Jacob, not far from Basle.

The Swiss were far outnumbered by the foe, but from early morning till six in the evening they fought like heroes. They fought on foot, the French on horseback, and there were four Frenchmen to one Swiss.

Man after man the Swiss fell. As the day wore on fewer and fewer were left, and they at length took refuge in the Monastery of St. Jacob. The French at once set fire to the building, and of all the fifteen hundred who took part in the fight only one escaped alive.

But the French too had lost many men, and the Dauphin had no mind to fight such a desperate foe a second time. So he marched into Germany, his wild soldiers wasting the land and slaughtering the people by the way. This was by no means to the liking of the Germans, and at length, by bribes and threats, these dangerous friends were forced once more across the border.

Although the Swiss lost the battle of St. Jacob, it was such a noble defeat that it counted to them almost more than a victory. For them it was one more step towards liberty. But thirty years later Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, having made friends with the Emperor Frederick, thought to conquer them. Like one man they rose against him, and he was defeated in two great battles, one at Granson, and one at Morat. The following year Charles himself was killed in a battle near Nancy.

After this the Swiss were really free. So that is something at least to remember in the reign of this slothful Emperor.

From this time Switzerland can no longer be looked upon as forming a part of the Empire. But it was not until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that it was really acknowledged by law to be a free country.

Meantime a far greater danger than the loss of Switzerland was threatening the Empire. For many years, as you have read, the Turks had been growing a greater and greater danger to the Empire and to Europe. Albert II had fought against them with but ill success. And although up to this time they had no real foothold in Europe, they had begun to grow more and more bold. At length, in 1453, they took Constantinople.

This was a great blow to the whole Christian world, for Constantinople had been, for many hundreds of years, the Christian barrier against the Turks. Now it had fallen, and the Turks spread unhindered westward. They attacked Hungary, they attacked Poland. At length they crossed the borders of Austria and threatened, not only the Empire, but the Emperor's own land.

But still Frederick did nothing. Parliament after Parliament was called, and the Emperor did not even appear at them. He contented himself with ordering a bell to be rung at midday throughout all the kingdom, which for long was called the Turk's bell.

The great nobles were fighting among themselves, and had grown to care for little but their own interests, and so it was left to the Hungarians and the Poles to protect themselves and the rest of Christian Europe from the infidel Turks as best they could.

Frederick's slothfulness was so great that he was often in danger of being chased from the throne by the angry Electors. He was, indeed, hunted out of his own land of Austria. And for long years the man who was in name the most powerful ruler in the world wandered about poor and helpless, glad to accept charity from any who would give it.

In the end, however, he recovered all his possessions. From beggary he returned to the splendour of his palaces. But he was as idle as ever, and during the last years of his life he left everything to his son Maximilian. He himself lived shut up in his castle of Linz, star-gazing, dreaming, and trying to make gold.

He died at length in August 1493. He was an old man, and ill, it is true, but he caused his death, it was said, by eating eight melons and drinking a lot of cold water one fast day.

Frederick III was the last Emperor to go to Rome to be crowned. He had reigned, if reigning it could be called, for fifty-three years.