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Charles IV

Charles IV, 1316–78, Holy Roman emperor (1355–78), German king (1347–78), and king of Bohemia (1346–78). The son of John of Luxemburg, Charles was educated at the French court and fought the English at Crécy, where his father's heroic death made him king of Bohemia. Pope Clement VI, to whom he had promised far-reaching concessions, helped secure his election (1346) by the imperial electors as antiking to Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV. Louis's death (1347), the popular desire for peace, which was fostered by the ravages of the Black Death (bubonic plague), and the absence of a strong leader to unite the opposition enabled Charles to make good his claim to the crown by 1349.

In 1355 he journeyed to Rome, where, on Easter Sunday, he was crowned emperor by the papal legate (the pope was then residing at Avignon). His coronation with papal approval ended years of conflict between popes and emperors, during which time the imperial rulers had tried to regain control of Italy and the papacy. Although the emperors continued to be crowned at Rome, they were excluded from Italian affairs. At the same time, Charles's Golden Bull of 1356 ended papal interference in the Holy Roman Empire by eliminating the need for papal approval and confirmation of emperors. Although he had virtually renounced imperial pretensions in Italy through his treaty with Clement VI, Charles supported the plans of Urban V to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome.

Charles's major concern was to strengthen his dynasty. Through skillful diplomacy he acquired Brandenburg (1373) and added to his territories in Silesia and Lusatia. He ensured the succession of his son Wenceslaus by bribing the electors to name him German king (1376). To raise the money for the bribes, he imposed even higher taxes on the cities. This led to a revolt by a league of Swabian cities. Charles obtained peace (1378) by granting concessions.

During Charles's reign Bohemia flourished. His imperial capital was at Prague, where he founded (1348) Charles Univ. (the oldest in Central Europe) and rebuilt the Cathedral of St. Vitus. By introducing new agricultural methods and by expanding industries, he fostered economic life. He drew up a code of laws, the Maiestas Carolina (1350)—which, however, was rejected by the diet—and he protected the lower classes by giving them courts in which to sue their overlords. Through Charles's efforts as margrave of Moravia, Prague was elevated (1344) to an archbishopric, thus gaining ecclesiastic independence. By the Golden Bull, which strengthened the electors at the expense of the emperor, he confirmed Bohemia's internal autonomy. As Holy Roman emperor, his reputation rests mainly on the Golden Bull, which, although it confirmed the weakness of the imperial power, provided a stable constitutional foundation for its exercise.

See biographies by G. G. Walsh (1924) and B. Jarett (with a translation of Charles's autobiography, 1935).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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