Following a period of regional development, the Counts of Luxembourg were in a strong position within the Roman Empire. In 1308, Henry VII was elected Emperor of the Holy Empire, an honour borne by two other counts of the House of Luxembourg after him. However, this era was short-lived: in the mid 15th century, the Duchy of Luxembourg was in great debt, subject to a struggle between France and the Holy Empire, resulting in its collapse.
Luxembourgers holding the reins of the Holy Empire
In the early 14th century, Luxembourg was one of most the influential dynasties in Europe. The Counts of Luxembourg reigned over a key territory located between the Holy Empire and France, which was much further away than the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg's current borders. They were skilful negotiators and pursued a policy of alliances and regional expansion.
In 1308, Count Henry VII was elected King of the Romans by the prince-electors at the instigation of his brother Baudouin, archbishop of Trier, and by Pierre d’Aspelt, archbishop of Mayence, also of Luxembourg origin. A papal legate crowned him Emperor of the Holy Empire in Rome in 1312. Yet he never came back from this Italian excursion. He died of malaria in 1313 and was buried in Pisa.
After Henry VII, two other members of the dynasty of Luxembourg bore the imperial crown:
- Charles IV (1316-1378), who was the Count of Luxembourg, the King of Bohemia, the King of the Romans and the Emperor of the Holy Empire. In 1354, he elevated the County of Luxembourg to the rank of Duchy. It achieved its greatest expansion with the acquisition of the County of Chiny in 1364.
- Sigismond (1368-1437), the last Emperor of the House of Luxembourg.
The last knight of Europe
The most symbolic member of the dynasty was John, the son of Henry VII.
Blind towards the end of his life, Jean of Bohemia, called 'the Blind' (1296-1346) was an inspiring individual of his times. He was an iconic figure of the Middle Ages and had sworn allegiance to both the Holy Roman Emperor and the French King. He was in some ways a proto-European; he took part in all the great campaigns and battles of his era. He embodied chivalrous ideals more than any other contemporary figure: he travelled throughout Europe on horseback, from Paris to Prague, from Lithuania to Italy, to achieve his idea of political order in Europe.
He was also a virtuoso of the exchange rate and financial market. He succeeded in enlarging the territory significantly through a system of pledging and bargaining of seigneurial rights.
Losing his sight did not affect his ambitions. And when his allegiance sworn to the French King resulted in his being called to take up arms against the English, he did not back down. Despite his handicap, he set out to battle at Crecy in 1346. He was guided by his knights, but was fatally wounded in the midst of the fray.
Legend has it that Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales - the Black Prince - came across John's body after the battle and, impressed by the man's commitment and to honour his dead adversary, adopted his crest and his motto Ich dien (I serve), which to this day forms part of the coat of arms of the heir to the British throne (currently Prince William).
In Luxembourg, Jean the Blind is also well known for having signed the founding deed to the Schueberfouer, in 1340. This trade fair became a funfair in the 19th century, one of the largest and most visited in Europe. Taking place every year during three weeks at the end of summer, it attracts some 2 million visitors. The original document fir Jean the Blind's seal can be seen at the Lëtzebuerg City Museum.
Luxembourg in ruins
But he left behind a precarious financial situation which led the country to bankruptcy.
In fact, Elisabeth of Goerlitz (1390-1451), the last Duchess of Luxembourg, was but a dowager Duchess. In 1441, living in opulence and grappling with debt, she sold Luxembourg against the will of her people to Philip II the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Consequently, Luxembourg City only gave up after it was captured and ransacked by Philip II's troops in 1443. Until the 19th century, the territory was occupied by the various European powers.