Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-11-1962


Emperor Frederick III has been traditionally portrayed as the incompetent ruler who was responsible for the widespread disorder in fifteenth century religion and politics. Such a concept was the result of limiting historical investigation to the political aspects of his reign, a field entirely unsuited to Frederick's disposition and temperament. This study was motivated by the desire to achieve a more accurate evaluation of the Emperor by an examination of his activities in an area compatible with his character, that of imperial-papal relations. In attaining this end, it was deemed essential to relate Frederick's position, both as Duke of Austria and as Emperor, to the age in which he lived. The Emperor's relations with the Roman Curia were both developmental and regressive in nature. They followed an erratic course which was usually conditioned by current political pressures as well as the governing philosophy of a given pontificate. Frederick's attitude toward the ecclesiastical problems which faced him at the beginning of his rule revealed an intelligent grasp of the basic issues at stake. Convinced of the necessity of secular neutrality until the convocation of a general Council, the young ruler set about to bring religious peace to his realm. His enthusiasm was soon dampened by the electoral opposition which manifested itself at the Diet of Mainz held in 1441. The intensification of this trend, especially at the Diet of Nuremberg (1444), forced the Emperor to initiate a fundamental change in his religious policy. This reversal saw the abandonment of internationalism in favor of particularism, and the recognition of the pope at Rome as the legal head of the Church. By affixing his signature to the Concordat of Vienna Frederick acknowledged the failure of his previous ecclesiastical policy, and revealed the futility of stemming the contemporary institutional dismemberment by international arbitration. During the remainder of his reign Frederick intentionally withdrew from the current religious scene, and made no real effort to solve the dilemma of the Church. Although sympathetic towards the crusade advocated by Pope Nicholas V, the Emperor never really made it a part of his imperial policy. Since Pope Calixtus III made all his decisions without consulting Vienna, there was little contact between the two institutions at this time. A substantial improvement in imperial-papal relations occurred when Frederick's former secretary, Aeneas Sylvius, ascended to the Apostolic Chair as Pius II. There was no reversal of underlying principles, however, since both parties continued to act in the interests of their respective policies. Cooperation remained dependent on mutual need. Daring the last three decades of Frederick's reign, expediency and self-interest typified the bond between the traditional heads of Christendom. Pope Paul II chose not to rely on imperial goodwill and support, while Sixtus IV preferred to function as an Italian prince rather than as a leader of Christendom. Frederick's contacts with the Curia depended solely on the presence of a common interest, and political rather than ecclesiastical issues constituted the basis of diplomatic intercourse between the two institutions. In his relations with the Papacy Frederick revealed himself as an energetic, intelligent ruler and a accomplished diplomat. In his attempt to successfully bridge the multiple cross currents of his era, he preferred arbitration to the use of force, survival rather than momentary glory. Possessed by a fanatic belief in the destiny of his dynasty, he endured humiliation and insult to ensure its continued existence. By nature kind and conciliatory, he was not above the weakness of an age in which deeit and misrepresentation dominated the relations between nations.