During the Renaissance the ruling families of Europe competed for power and territory. Princes* viewed each other as rivals in building alliances, trading networks, and overseas empires. Although rulers did not try to eliminate other dynasties, they watched the activities of rivals closely and took steps to protect their own interests. Sometimes competition over power or land triggered conflicts that continued from one generation to the next.
Territorial Claims and Disputes. The race for wealth and influence was one factor in dynastic rivalry during the Renaissance. Even more important, though, were disputes over land and succession*. These often affected numerous states and contributed to continuing instability in Europe. Many of the conflicts involved the Habsburg dynasty, a family that controlled the Holy Roman Empire* and various other kingdoms for centuries.
Questions about succession arose when rulers lacked a suitable heir to assume power after their death. In such situations, the prince often drew up an agreement naming a successor from another ruling family. However, these agreements were difficult to enforce. In some cases the local nobility challenged the agreement and refused to recognize the new leader. In others, distant relatives of the deceased suddenly appeared to claim the title and land. To make matters worse, princes frequently signed succession agreements with more than one family, increasing the likelihood of conflicting claims. Although marriages between ruling families were designed to strengthen dynastic relationships, they frequently created problems, such as disagreement over the transfer of land called for in a marriage contract.
Dynastic disputes resulted in bitter struggles between powerful families. Many princes viewed the loss of land or title as personal insults and defended their rights as a point of honor. Some spared no expense in pursuing their claims. In the early 1500s, for example, the Habsburgs and the Valois dynasty of France were engaged in a fierce rivalry. Eventually the military costs of defending their claims caused serious financial problems on both sides, and the competition came to a temporary halt.
Extinction of Houses. The possibility that a ruling family would become extinct always increased the likelihood of conflict. In fact, between the 1300s and early 1600s, a large number of the ruling families of Europe did die out. Other families rushed in to try to gain control of the unoccupied seats of power.
A rivalry based on the end of a dynasty led to the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between France and England. Economic and political differences had long been a source of disagreement between the two countries. However, when the last male heir to the French royal house of Capet died in 1328, competing French and English claims to the throne led to a full-scale war.
Another succession rivalry involving the duchy* of Burgundy pitted the Valois dynasty of France against the Habsburgs. After the death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in 1477, the Valois king tried to incorporate parts of Burgundy into France. His campaign angered the Habsburgs, who also laid claim to the duchy.
Central Europe lost all its royal families in the 1300s and 1400s. The end of the Piast dynasty of Poland in 1370 set the stage for a contest between the king of Hungary and the prince of Lithuania for control of Poland. The Jagellonians, a Lithuanian family, took over. Then the Jagellonian dynasty died out in 1572, leading to competition between the Habsburgs, the Valois, and other royal families.
Armed Conflicts. In western Europe, dynastic conflicts sometimes led to war. One of the major power struggles of the Renaissance occurred in the early 1500s between the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family and the French Valois. The dispute revolved mainly around the Italian cities of Naples and Milan, which had succession problems. In 1499 the French seized Milan. When the Habsburg ruler Charles V became king of Spain in 1516, he challenged the French for the right to Milan, and the Spanish eventually won control of it.
Seeking to hold back Habsburg advances, the Valois kings of France allied themselves with German Protestant princes and the Ottoman Empire. By the late 1500s, however, both Spain and France became preoccupied with internal affairs. The rivalry cooled, only to resurface in later conflicts, including the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).
(See alsoAristocracy; Borgia, House of; Bourbon Family and Dynasty; City-States; Este, House of; Farnese, House of; Gonzaga, House of; Guise-Lorraine Family; Medici, House of; Monarchy; Montefeltro Family; Montmorency Family; Princes and Princedoms; Stuart Dynasty. )
- * prince
Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state
- * succession
determination of person who will inherit the throne
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * duchy
territory ruled by a duke or duchess