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Throughout the late Middle Ages, the once-distinguished Imperial knights were in sharp decline. The knights lost power and prominence due to the developments in military machinery, the augmented force of the nobility, and the downfall of feudalism. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church demanded a tithe of 10%, meaning the Imperial knights no longer enjoyed the wealth they once did.
The diminishment in the power of the Imperial knights led knights Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten to take a stand. The men wanted to take advantage of the Protestant Reformation to drive the Church of Rome out of Germany and restore the Imperial knights to their former glory. What became known as the Knights' Revolt took place between 27 August 1522 and 6 May 1523. While this short-lived revolt ultimately failed, it had enduring consequences, inspiring the cataclysmic German Peasants' War of 1524-1526.
The Imperial Knights were a group of free lords and noblemen who answered to the Holy Roman Emperor.
Feudalism was a medieval system of ruling whereby the King or Emperor would give land to nobles in return for soldiers and taxes.
A tithe was a medieval practice whereby citizens would be taxed one-tenth of their income by the Church.
Firstly, here is a table outlining the essential facts of the Knights' Revolt:
|What?||The Knights' Revolt.|
|When?||27 August 1522 to 6 May 1523|
|Why?||A bid by the Imperial knights to restore their financial power, status, and prestige by overthrowing the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.|
|Who?||Led by Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten against the Holy Roman Empire.|
|Result?||The revolt failed.|
Here is a brief timeline outlining the origins, key events, and consequences of the Knights' Revolt:
|1495||The Eternal Peace of 1495.|
|1503||Battle of Cerignola.|
|1521||The Heavy arquebus/musket was created, further limiting the Imperial knights' purpose.|
|1522||Siege of Trier.|
|1523||Siege of Nanstein Castle. Franz von Sickingen died.|
|1524 - 1525||German Peasants War.|
Arquebuses were first used during the Battle of Cerignola in 1503. An arquebus was a form of early firearm that rendered the Imperial knights ineffective.
Let's examine the background to the Knights' Revolt by reviewing the Imperial knights' situation in the 1500s. Germanic territories were part of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages. As such, they maintained the customary social structure:
|Middle Ages Social Hierarchy|
|Holy Roman Emperor|
|Peers and Higher nobility|
|Clergy and Priests|
The nobles were at the top of the pecking order and expected those below them to serve. The nobles justified this hierarchical structure with Ephesians 6:
Servants, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
- Ephesians 6
While holding some power, the Imperial knights, part of the lower nobility, were not granted Imperial Estates. Such dwellings were reserved for peers and higher nobles. This meant that the Imperial knights had no representation in the Imperial Diet: the assembly that dictated the laws and policy of the land.
The primary way Imperial knights earned money was by attacking and ransoming cities. In 1495, however, The Eternal Peace of 1495 removed this means of income.
The Eternal Peace of 1495
This doctrine banned private warfare and curbed the prestige of the Imperial Knights. It also removed a significant source of their income.
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses in Wittenberg. This piece of work criticised the corruption and immorality of the Roman Catholic Church. It gained widespread support throughout the Holy Roman Empire. For the Imperial knights, such cries for reform presented an unprecedented opportunity. The breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire would allow the knights to capture Catholic lands and assets and restore the once distinguished order to its former glory.
Such an opportunity appealed to several Imperial knights, notably Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten.
Born on 2 March 1481, Franz von Sickingen inherited Ebernburg Castle from his father, Schweickhardt von Sickingen. Like his father, Franz von Sickingen became a knight, fighting for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I at Venice in 1508. This service led to him receiving lands on the Rhine river and Nanstein Castle.
Sickingen ignored The Eternal Peace of 1495, continuing to take land, towns, and hostages for financial gain. When Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I died, Sickengen even took bribes from France to support Charles V's bid to become Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1517, Ulrich von Hutten appealed to the Swabian League – a military alliance between Imperial cities – regarding the murder of his relative. Hutten was a poet, writer, and highly educated. He had learned Latin from a young age at a Benedictine monastery, travelled in Cologne, and studied law in Italy. During his travels, Hutten developed a contempt for the pope, Catholicism, and the Holy Roman Empire. Sickengen, understanding the potential financial gains of helping such a highly educated man, acquainted himself with Hutton.
Now we have the background to the Knights' Revolt, let's look at what actually happened!
Franz von Sickingen proposed a revolt to remove the Church from Germanic territories and create an independent Germany. He launched a campaign demanding his followers stop paying taxes. Ulrich von Hutten helped by disseminating Sickingen's views through pamphlets and publications.
In 1522, Sickingen left to seek support in Switzerland, convening a Brotherly Convention of Knights. Once elected leader, Sickingen decided that their first target would be the Archbishop of Trier, Richard von Greiffenklau zu Vollrads.
After assembling an army, Sickingen encouraged people to overthrow their archbishop forcibly. Sickingen claimed to be marching on behalf of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. However, the Diet of Nuremberg (est. 1522), acting on behalf of the absent Charles V, disagreed. The Diet hence demanded that Sickingen cease his campaign.
Ignoring the demands of the Diet of Nuremberg, Sickingen marched on to Trier in August 1522. Unfortunately, the peasants of Trier did not mobilise, and Count Louis V of Palatine and Landgrave Philip of Hesse came to Archbishop Richard's aid.
After seven days of siege and five failed assault attempts, Sickingen ran out of gunpowder. During the siege, he was issued a Ban of the Empire and forced to retreat to Nanstein Castle in the winter of 1522.
Ban of the Empire
The Ban of the Empire or Imperial Ban was a punishment for outlawry issued by the Holy Roman Emperor.
After the Siege of Trier, Sickingen retreated to Nanstein Castle, and Hutten went to Switzerland to drum up support.
Archbishop Richard of Trier, Count Louis V of Palatine, and Landgrave Philip of Hesse besieged Nanstein Castle in 1523. Sickingen expected a prolonged siege of some four months, by which time reinforcements would have arrived. However, Sickingen had failed to realise the strength of artillery weaponry. Within a few days, his defences were decimated, and he was seriously injured.
On 7 May 1523, Sickingen surrendered to Archbishop Richard of Trier, Count Louis V of the Palatine, and Landgrave Philip of Hesse; he died of his wounds shortly after. Hutten died from syphilis a matter of months later in Switzerland.
After the attempted revolt, the knights involved had their castles removed. The once prestigious Imperial knights were now bankrupt, homeless, and held no real power.
Despite the revolt appearing to be an apparent failure, the knight's refusal to pay church tithes did have a lasting effect. The following year, in 1524, the German peasants followed the example of the Imperial knights and refused to pay church tithes. This stand-off led to the German Peasants' Revolt, the most significant uprising in Western Europe until the French Revolution.
The Imperial Knights' financial, social, and political power diminished throughout the late Middle Ages.
The Knights' Revolt occurred between 27 August 1522 and 6 May 1523.
It was led by Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten.
The Knights' Revolt sought to bring about the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and create a unified Germany. The two significant events of the Revolt were the Siege of Trier and the Siege of Nanstein Castle.
Despite the apparent failure of the Knights' Revolt, it helped bring about the German Peasants' Revolt of 1524.
There were approximately 350 knightly families in the Holy Roman Empire.
Yes. The Holy Roman Empire had Imperial Knights who were free lords and nobleman answerable only to the Holy Roman Emperor.
Throughout the late middle-ages, the power of the Imperial Knights was in sharp decline. Consequently, they sought to take advantage of the Protestant Reformation and overthrow the Holy Roman Empire in order to restore their power.
Yes. The Imperial Knights were free noblemen who answered to the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Protestant Reformation gave the Imperial Knights' the opportunity to overthrow the Holy Roman Empire and restore the once-distinguished order of knights to their former glory.
What dates did the Knights' Revolt take place?
27 August 1522 and 6 May 1523
Who led the Knights' Revolt?
Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten
What year was The Eternal Peace?
Why was the Battle of Cerignola significant?
It was this battle that first saw the use of the arquebus – a form of early firearm that rendered the imperial knight's ineffective.
Name a reason why the Siege of Trier failed?
1). Lack of mobilisation from the Trier peasants.
2). Count Louis V of Palatine and Landgrave Philip of Hesse came to Archbishop Richard's aid .
After The Siege of Trier, where did Sickingen retreat to?
What was a 'tithe'?
A taxation of 10% on citizens given to the Catholic Church.
What year was the musket created?
What year was the Brotherly Convention of Knights convened?
What was the Ban of the Empire?
A punishment for outlawry issued by the Holy Roman Emperor.
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