Kingdom of Italy (medieval)


Kingdom of Italy (medieval)

The Kingdom of Italy ("Regnum Italiae" or "Regnum Italicum") was a creation of the Lombards who invaded the Italian peninsula, following the destruction of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, in 568. The Lombard kingdom proved to be more stable than its Ostrogothic predecessor, but in 774, on the pretext of defending the Papacy, the Franks, led by Charlemagne, conquered the Lombard kingdom. They kept the Italo-Lombard realm separate from their own, but the kingdom shared in all the partitions, divisions, civil wars, and succession crises of the Carolingian Empire of which it became a part until, by the end of the ninth century, the Italian kingdom was an independent, but highly decentralised, state. In 951 the Italian throne was claimed by Otto the Great, already King of Germany. The two thrones together under one crown formed a basis for the Holy Roman Empire. Central government in Italy disappeared rapidly in the High Middle Ages, but the idea of the kingdom carried on. By the Renaissance it was little more than a legal fiction and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) did away with most of it even in law, but it may have lasted as a titulature until the dissolution of the Empire in 1806, by which time Napoleon Bonaparte had established his own "Regno d'Italia" with no regard for the medieval ghost.

Lombard kingdom, 568–774

Constituent of the Carolingian Empire, 774–962

The death of the Emperor Lothar in 855 led to his realm of Middle Francia being split among his three sons. The eldest, Louis II, inherited the Carolingian lands in Italy, which were now for the first time (save the brief rule of Charlemagne's son Pepin in the first decade of the century), ruled as a distinct unit. The kingdom included all of Italy as far south as Rome and Spoleto, but the rest of Italy to the south was under the rule of the Lombard Principality of Benevento or of the Byzantine Empire.

Following Louis II's death without heirs, there were several decades of confusion. The Imperial crown was initially disputed among the Carolingian rulers of Western Francia (France) and Eastern Francia (Germany), with first the western king (Charles the Bald) and then the eastern (Charles the Fat) attaining the prize. Following the deposition of the latter, local nobles — Guy of Spoleto and Berengar of Friuli — disputed over the crown, and outside intervention did not cease, with Arnulf of Eastern Francia and Louis the Blind of Provence both claiming the Imperial throne for a time. The kingdom was also beset by Arab raiding parties from Sicily and North Africa, and central authority was minimal at best.

In the 10th century the situation hardly improved, as various Burgundian and local noblemen continued to dispute over the crown. Order was only imposed from outside, when the German king Otto I invaded Italy and seized both the Imperial and Italian thrones for himself in 962.

Constituent of the Holy Roman Empire, 962–c. 1500

After 962, the Kings of Italy were always also Kings of Germany, and Italy thus became a constituent kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire, along with Germany and (after 1032) Burgundy. The German king would be crowned by the Archbishop of Milan with the Iron Crown of Lombardy in Pavia as a prelude to the visit to Rome to be crowned Emperor by the Pope.

In general, the fact that the monarch was generally an absentee, spending most of his time in Germany, left the Kingdom of Italy with little central authority. There was also a lack of powerful landed magnates — the only notable one being the Margraviate of Tuscany, which had wide lands in Tuscany, Lombardy, and the Emilia, but which failed due to lack of heirs after the death of Matilda of Canossa in 1115. This left a power vacuum which was increasingly filled by the Pope and the increasingly wealthy cities, which gradually came to dominate the surrounding countryside.

The increasing power of the cities was first demonstrated during the reign of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152–90), whose attempts to restore imperial authority in the peninsula led to a series of wars with the Lombard League, a league of northern Italian cities, and ultimate to a decisive victory for the Lombard League at the Battle of Legnano in 1176, which forced Frederick to recognize the autonomy of the Italian cities.

Frederick's son Henry VI actually managed to extend Hohenstaufen authority in Italy by his conquest of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, which comprised Sicily and all of Southern Italy. Henry's son, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, the first emperor since the 9th century to actually base himself in Italy, attempted to return to his father's task of restoring imperial authority in the northern Italian Kingdom, which led to fierce opposition not only from a reformed Lombard League, but also from the Popes, who were increasingly jealous of their temporal realm in central Italy (theoretically a part of the Empire), and concerned about the universal ambitions of the Hohenstaufen emperors.

Frederick II's efforts to bring all of Italy under his control were as unavailing as those of his grandfather, and his death in 1250 marked the effective end of the Kingdom of Italy as a genuine political unit. There continued to be conflict between Ghibellines (Imperial supporters) and Guelfs (Papal supporters) in the Italian cities, but these conflicts bore less and less relation to the origins of the parties in question.

The Kingdom was not wholly meaningless, however. Successive emperors in the 14th and 15th centuries returned to Rome to be crowned, and none forgot their theoretical claims to dominion as Kings of Italy. Nor were the claims of the Emperors to universal dominion forgotten in Italy itself, where writers like Dante and Marsilius of Padua expressed their commitment both to the principal of universal monarchy, and to the actual pretensions of Emperors Henry VII and Louis IV, respectively.

The Imperial claims to dominion in Italy mostly manifested themselves, however, in the granting of titles to the various strong men who had begun to establish their control over the formerly republican cities. Most notably, the Emperors gave their backing to the Visconti of Milan, and King Wenceslaus created Gian Galeazzo Visconti Duke of Milan in 1395. Other families to receive new titles from the emperors included the Gonzaga of Mantua, and the Este of Ferrara and Modena.

hadow kingdom, c. 1500–1806

By the beginning of the early modern period, the Kingdom of Italy still existed, but was a mere shadow. Its territory had been significantly limited — the conquests of the Republic of Venice, which considered itself independent of the Empire, in the “domini di Terraferma” had taken most of northeastern Italy outside the jurisdiction of the Empire, while the Popes claimed full sovereignty and independence in the Papal States in Central Italy. Nevertheless, the Emperor Charles V, owing more to his inheritance of Spain and Naples than to his position as Emperor, was able to establish his dominance in Italy to a greater extent than any Emperor since Frederick II. He drove the French from Milan, prevented an attempt by the Italian princes, with French aid, to reassert their independence in the League of Cognac, sacked Rome and brought the Medici' pope Clement VII to submission, conquered Florence where he reinstalled the Medici' as Dukes of Florence (and later, Grand Dukes of Tuscany), and, upon the extinction of the Sforza line in Milan, claimed the territory as an imperial fief and installed his son Philip as the new Duke.

This new Imperial dominance, however, did not remain with the Empire, in which Charles was succeeded by his brother Ferdinand, but rather was transferred by Charles to his son, who became King of Spain.

Nevertheless, the Imperial claims to suzerainty remained, and were actually called forth in the early 17th century when the Duchy of Mantua fell vacant in 1627. Emperor Ferdinand II used his rights as feudal overlord to prevent the heir, the French Duke of Nevers, from taking over the Duchy, leading to the War of the Mantuan Succession, a part of the much larger Thirty Years War. In the early 18th century, during the War of the Spanish Succession, imperial claims to suzerainty were used again to seize Mantua in 1708, which was now attached by the Austrian Habsburgs to the newly conquered Duchy of Milan.

This was the last notable usage of Imperial power, as such, in Italy. The Austrians retained control of Milan, and intermittently, other territories (notably Tuscany after 1737), but the claims to feudal overlordship had become practically meaningless. The imperial claims to Italy remained only in the secondary title of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne to be "Arch-Chancellor of Italy". During the French Revolutionary Wars, the Austrians were driven from Italy by Napoleon, who set up republics throughout northern Italy, and the imperial reorganization carried out in 1799–1803 left no room for Imperial claims to Italy — even the Archbishop of Cologne was gone, secularized along with the other ecclesiastical princes. In 1805, while the Empire was still in existence, Napoleon, by now Emperor Napoleon I, claimed the crown of Italy for himself, putting the Iron Crown on his head at Milan. The Empire itself was abolished the next year, ending the even theoretical existence of the Kingdom of Italy.

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