Sigismund (1368-1437) was king of Hungary from 1385 to 1437, Holy Roman emperor from 1411 to 1437, and king of Bohemia from 1420 to 1437.
Born on Feb. 15, 1368, Sigismund was the second son of the emperor Charles IV and the brother of the emperor Wenceslaus. His reign as king of Hungary and Holy Roman emperor witnessed three of the most crucial events in later medieval history: the Turkish invasion of Hungary and the defeat of the ill-fated Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396; the burning of John Hus as a heretic and the subsequent revolution of the Hussites in Bohemia; and the important Council of Constance (1415-1417), over which Sigismund presided and which ended the Great Schism in the Roman Catholic Church (1378-1415) but which alienated Sigismund from the Czechs and deprived him of the Bohemian resources of the imperial house of Luxemburg, of which he was the last member.
King of Hungary
Sigismund's debut in the political life of eastern Europe occurred at the age of 17, when the death of Louis the Great of Hungary left the crown of Hungary to Louis's daughter Mary (reigned 1382-1395) and to Sigismund, her fiancé. After invading Hungary, Sigismund was recognized as king in 1387 but at the cost of losing Poland to the Jagiellon dynasty of Lithuania and, after 1389, of losing large portions of southern and eastern Hungarian territory to the Ottoman Turks, who established their footing in continental Europe with a shattering victory over Sigismund's crusading army at Nicopolis in 1396.
After Sigismund became king of Hungary, his lavish scale of living—as well as his military expenses and the cost of his later candidacy for the imperial crown—rapidly depleted the resources of the Hungarian royal treasury. Sigismund's fiscal policies crushed the Hungarian peasantry with unbearable burdens of taxation and alienated the restive Hungarian aristocracy. Although Sigismund's prestige in Hungary was somewhat enhanced by his position as Holy Roman emperor after 1411 and by his nominal kingship of Bohemia after 1420, neither of these titles aided Hungary, and Sigismund's reign was a failure.
Holy Roman Emperor
Having spent much of his youth in Hungary, Sigismund was unknown in the West when he was elected emperor in 1411. He was a brave fighter, as his conduct at Nicopolis and elsewhere testified. Sigismund was reasonably well educated, he was a good Latinist, and he remained a patron of learning. In addition to these attributes, however, Sigismund had less attractive ones. He had many amorous adventures; he was subject to fits of extreme cruelty; and his limitless ambition to make his imperial title a reality in the western parts of the empire ill suited his limited financial resources.
The political conditions of the German part of the empire had steadily deteriorated under Sigismund's two immediate predecessors, Wenceslaus (reigned 1376-1400) and Rupert of the Palatinate (reigned 1400-1410). The lack of a uniform law code; the rivalry among electors, lesser nobles, and the city-leagues; and the empire's diversified territories in Germany, Italy, Bohemia, and Hungary—all required the hand of a great ruler with infinite financial and administrative resources. In addition, Sigismund's diplomatic connections distracted his attention far to the east and north, where he established the Hohenzollern house in Brandenburg and negotiated with the Teutonic Knights in their struggle with newly Christianized Lithuania.
Council of Constance
Sigismund's greatest imperial project was the calling of the Council of Constance in 1415. Since 1378 two popes had claimed legitimacy, and since 1409 three had simultaneously claimed St. Peter's chair. Christendom was politically and ecclesiastically fragmented along the lines of loyalty to one or the other of the three popes, and Sigismund saw an opportunity to fulfill his duties as protector of the Church and to enhance his own status. The council settled the papal schism, but it also violated the safe-conduct that the Emperor had issued to the Bohemian reformer John Hus. The council ordered Hus burned at the stake as a heretic. His death aroused great indignation among the Czechs and inaugurated a bloody social war that lasted for 2 decades. Sigismund's prestige in Bohemia was greatly diminished. Sigismund's other imperial reform activities during the period 1415-1417 met equally disastrous results.
Sigismund's last years were spent in diplomatic activities on the borders of his wide territories. Problems in Poland, the Bohemian revolt, the Turks in Hungary, and political factionalism in Germany wore the Emperor down. His own limited resources and resistance on the part of his subjects and rivals in the kingdoms over which he ruled made all his attempts at reform fruitless. The settlement that he had greatly helped the Church to achieve was threatened at the Council of Basel, which lasted from 1431 until after Sigismund's death. Only the compromise in Bohemia, which brought the Hussite wars to an end in 1436, brightened the Emperor's last years. He was finally crowned emperor by the Pope in 1433, and the pacification of Bohemia was his last effective act. At his death on Dec. 9, 1437, Sigismund was once again planning to intervene between Pope and council.
Further Reading on Sigismund
The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by J. B. Bury (8 vols., 1913-1936), gives a good account of Sigismund's reign. William Stubbs, Germany in the Later Middle Ages, 1200-1500, edited by Arthur Hassall (1908), contains a chapter on Sigismund, and its conclusions can be checked with those of Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (1946; 2d rev. ed. 1957). Standard histories of the Hussite movement, such as Frederick G. Heymann, John Zizka and the Hussite Revolution (1955), and of the Council of Constance also contain detailed information on Sigismund.