Although firmly rooted and fairly well developed in the Rhineland, Franconia, Lorraine (the old Lotharingia) and Burgundy, feudalism in its widest sense was never as strong in Germany as in, say, France or England, and true knighthood and the customary granting of fiefs was unknown in Germany until the 12th century; the earliest recorded instance of knighting actually dates to 1146.
During the period under review Germany was basically a confederation of petty states led by princely families of tribal origin, of whom very few held their lands as vassals of the crown. In the first half of this era, therefore, the king (or Emperor) had to depend almost entirely on the goodwill of these autonomous princes and dukes for military support, who recognised Imperial authority only when they deemed it expedient to do so. Their principalities had largely evolved from once – independent territories and sub – kingdoms (principally Saxony, Thuringia, Burgundy Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia) and the princes continued to associate themselves with the ethnic origins of their lands. Without their support the Emperor had practically no army , and therefore no power, at all, and it was as a result of this dependence that the Imperial throne became elective in the second half of the 13th century , the most powerful princes becoming Kürfursten or ‘Electors’ whose one concern was effectively to ensure their own autonomy by the maintenance of a weak monarchy. Some idea of the princes military potential can be got from the fact that at a Diet (parliament) in Mainz in 1235, where they were nearly all present, their personal retinues are recorded to have totalled 12,000 knights. An individual prince might easily raise several hundred knights (mostly ministeriales), the Archbishop of Cologne reputedly fielding 500 in 1161.
Other than for the king expedition to Rome to be crowned (the expeditio italica , after 1135 called the expeditio roma or Romfahrt, later Romzug) only the princes of the church – the abbots, bishops and archbishops – were actually obliged to render him military service, since they alone owed their positions to the crown, having been invested with their various estates and offices by the king; therefore it was on them that he relied predominantly for troops. In 1167, 1174 and 1176, for example, German armies operating in Italy under Frederick I Barbarossa consisted almost entirely of church contingents. However, the obligations of ecclesiastical princes differed from those of feudal vassals; with them it was more a case of administering an Imperial estate and, when necessary, financing contingents of troops from the proceeds. Sometimes such proceeds were inadequate to pay for the requisite troops and it was not uncommon for the church to have to mortgage or pawn property and estates in order to raise men. Most German bishops were therefore soldiers first and churchmen second and many even commanded Imperia armies in the field, despite the fact that for most of this era there was bitter enmity between Empire and papacy. In 1257 Richard of Cornwall wrote to his brother, King Henry III of England, about the ‘mettlesome and warlike archbishops there are in Germany. It would be a fine thing for you if you could create such archbishops in England.’
It was Frederick I (who added the Holy Roman Empire) who first sought to fully reorganise German feudalism on the model of France. Realising the necessity of pulling together the heterogenous elements that made up the Empire, Frederick made a concerted effort to ensure that all princes, both ecclesiastical and lay, were tied to the throne by bonds of vassalage, and by 1180 the structure of the feudal hierarchy had been firmly established; the princes and dukes were now tenants – in – chief (the princes of the church inevitably taking precedence over lay princes), with their vassals obliged to perform military service as knights. Where previously the king had been able to solicit military aid from his nobility chiefly only by cash payments, the late – 12th century saw them serving for a standard period of 6 weeks per year, in addition to which, after an interval, their vassals could be called upon for further service of another 6 weeks at the expense of the tenant – in – chief or crown. Unfortunately after Frederick’s death in 1190 his successors were unable to maintain their hold on the nobility, his grandson Frederick II (1214 – 50 , best known for his Sicilian and Italian exploits) issuing in 1231 the ‘Statute of Favour of the Princes’ which granted lay and ecclesiastical princes alike absolute autonomy within their lands and total freedom from royal interference assorted exemptions from and limitations on obligatory military service followed (Bohemians and Saxons, for instance , could commute their obligation to participate in the Romfahrt by means of a token cash payment. Thereafter the German monarchy was purely elective and royal authority little more than nominal. Rudolf o Habsburg (1273 – 91) appears to have been at least partially successful in forcing the nobility back into submission though he had to put dissidents down by force on a number of occasions and destroyed some 70 or more castles in the process. Nor were his achievements particularly lasting.
Since the princes were of dubious loyalty, and because the German peasantry were basically forbidden to bear arms by the late – 12th century, it was inevitable that some reliance should be placed on mercenary troops principally Germans), though they were apparently never employed in particularly large numbers. As early as the late – 11th century it had been suggested to Henry IV (by Benzo of Alba) that mercenaries, paid for by a form of scutage, should replace the feudal or semi – feudal muster, and the suggestion was revived following the failure of Henry Vs French campaign of 1124 and again after the decisive defeat of the Imperialists under Otto IV at Bouvines in 1214. Certainly Frederick I had depended on Brabançon mercenaries in Italy in 1166 – 67 (5 – 800 men , or perhaps 1,500 including Flemish mercenaries too) and 1174 – 75 (commanded by the Archbishop of Mainz), where they gained a morale ascendancy over the Italians, who were scared to death of them (or, rather, of their reputation); such Brabanzomen were only actively employed within Germany itself once, in Saxony in 1179 by Archbishop Philip von Heinsberg of Cologne, who fielded as many as 4,000 mercenaries, cavalry and infantry together, of whom the Brabançons constituted the latter. The Emperors themselves tended to rely heavily on mercenaries in their personal retinues to compensate for the indifference of their vassals; for a crusading enterprise of 1196 – 98 Henry VI personally raised a contingent of as many as 6,000 mercenary troops, 1,500 of them knights and a further 1,500 being esquires. Many such troops were paid with money – fiefs. Hungarians too were sometimes employed, about 600 horse – archers being recorded in an army raised in 1158, while as many as 14,000 are supposed to have been present under their king in Rudolf’s army at Marchfeld 120 years later.
Another considerable – and unique – element of the Imperial army (and of the ecclesiastical contingents in particular) was supplied by ministeriales (German Dienstleuten) a class of ‘unfree’ knights. These appeared in the first half of the 10th century but were only first introduced on a large scale by Conrad II (1024 – 39), when they were much used for royal garrisons. They were initially non – noble freemen administering fiefs without actually holding them as vassals, and they could be granted by one lord to another, leased out as mercenaries, or even sold. Many vassals therefore had no need to involve themselves in subinfeudation, since they could utilise ministeriales to satisfy their military obligations without loss of land or revenue, and it was this aspect that made them particularly popular with the church. However, ministeriales often became important Imperial officials so that their status steadily improved. As early as 1126 we find ministeriales being made knights and by the mid – century they had to be paid for service beyond their masters own domains. Many were by this time becoming powerful and wealthy enough to be considered capable of holding lands on their own account, so that their offices were subsequently converted into feudal possessions. Their ability to hold property and thereby have vassals of their own inevitably broke down and blurred the original distinction between the unfree ministerialis and the free knight (to the disgust of the latter), one powerful ministerialis of Frederick s reign, Werner von Bolanden, even being reported as holding 17 castles and allegedly being owed the service of as many as 1,100 men – at – arms. By the mid – 13th century – when, in South German contingents at least, as much as 5 per cent or more of an army could be composed of ministeriales – they were indistinguishable from the nobility, a considerable proportion of the latter by then being of ministerialis origin, including even dukes, counts and bishops.
Some ministeriales appear to have served as infantry but most evidence indicates that they were cavalrymen. The same applies to the Sariants, or sergeants, who first appear in the 12th century. Nether-the-less infantry were an important element of German armies. Many were still supplied by the Heerbann or its equivalent, the traditional Germanic levy of all able – bodied freemen which lasted up until the 13th century, though from the late – 12th century the lower classes were being steadily excluded from military service. It lasted longest in the north and east, in Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria; Saxon and Thuringian infantry were present in strength at Bouvines in 1214 and fought in nearly every important campaign of the 11th and 12th centuries. Other infantry were provided by town militias from the 11th century onwards, these participating in most of the civil wars which racked the reigns of every German king of this era. They were obliged to go to war whenever called upon to do so by their sovereign (ie , the ruling prince, duke, bishop etc of the state in which the town stood, which in the case of Reichsummittelbare towns – those under direct royal control – was the king or Emperor himself) In most cases, however, they were not expected to do much more than defend their own town walls, except in dire circumstances when they might be called upon to serve in the field locally (this obligation frequently being reduced in the 13th century so that service could not be called for further than a half – days march from the militias home town). Hence the reliance on Italian, Brabançon and other indigenous or mercenary infantry when campaigning outside Germany.