Adolph of Nassau had arguably one of the more unique careers among members of the Nassau family. An otherwise unremarkable issue expected to inherit title and position, he was eventually elected to the position of King of the Romans. While he was never officially styled Holy Roman Emperor, he held the powers of this position and enacted changes that enlarged the political side of the role but also put his title at risk and ultimately led to his downfall.
Adolph of Nassau was born around 1255, the heir to Walram II and his wife Adelheid of Katzenelnbogen. Adolph was well educated, even for his time, as he was fluent in three languages: German, French, and Latin. This was a rarity in the 13th century, and gave him an extra degree of respect and worldliness.
In 1270, Adolph was married to Imagina von Isenburg-Limburg, and the couple would have eight children together. Among their children, Gerlach would become Gerlach I, Count of Nassau-Wiesbaden, and Walram (III) of Nassau-Wiesbaden. Additionally, their son Robert was engaged (but never married) to the daughter of King Wenceslas II of Bohemia, Agnes. In the case of Robert, Adolph's political downfall played a role in creating problems with this alliance.
In 1276 or 1277, Adolph became Count of Nassau. The lands he inherited included Wiesbaden, Idstein, and the Vogtship of Weilburg, which fell under the Bishop of Worms. Additionally, he would share with other Nassau family members in the ownership of two castles: Nassau and Laurenberg. Under Rudolph I of Hapbsurg, King of the Romans from 1273 to 1291, Adolph received the Burghauptmannamt, or Castle Lordship, of Kalsmunt Castle in Wetzlar, and later of Gutenfels Castle at Kaub.
After the death of Rudolph I, the election hung in the air for a time. The Electors opposed Rudolph's son Albrecht. Several members of the clergy raised the idea that the King of the Romans should not be an inherited role, but rather an elected one from among the College of Electors. In response to this, Adolph of Nassau was suggested and duly elected in 1292. This election came with stipulations: he must follow a list of acknowledgements of possessions, pledges of imperial cities and castles, and supply 25,000 marks of silver. Additional promises included aid against specific enemies and the assurance that no enemy of Siegfried II of Westerburg would enter his council.
In other words, becoming King of the Romans required a clearly specified give and take. Adolph was, from the first, intended to be a weak ruler. He was given limited power and was only selected because of the Electors' desire to install a powerless king who would accede to specific demands. As it turned out, however, Adolph was not willing to continue along this vein permanently. After 1288, he turned his back on many of the Electors' demands and made agreements with clearly stipulated opponents.
At the same time, he managed to handle many issues with careful diplomacy, not unimpressive for a man who was still in his mid-30s. One feature that set him apart were his diplomatic skills and his ability to go against the requirements of his election, however, without entailing legal obligations for it. In other words, he knew how to break his initial promises without breaching the contracts he had signed.
Adolph's court as King of the Romans was considered a stable place in the maelstrom of fighting regional landlords. Adolph also instituted a heightened payment system, known as Lehnsware that greatly rankled the princes but made for a fascinating method of raising funds. Most princes relied on regalian rights, or the rights to take income from the estates of bishops or abbots, if there was no bishop or abbot in place. Adolph insisted on an initial – and quite costly – payment to hold regalian rights, something that historians still dispute as to whether or not was simony or just a clever money-making tactic.
Adolph formed an alliance, in 1294, with King Edward I of England – against King Philippe IV of France – which also placed 60,000 pounds (or 90,000 gold marks) in his possession. Even at the time, this decision was viewed as having financial expediency, more than political necessity, and Adolph found himself in a political mess. He declared war against the angered King of France, and it was only Pope Boniface VIII's threat of excommunication for going to war that brought hostilities to a halt.
Thuringia, however, was a bigger problem. Albert the Degenerate (Albert II, Margrave of Meissen and Landgrave of Thuringia) was battling against his sons Frederick and Theodoric IV of Lusatia. Adolph purchased Albert's right to the Landgraviate from him and then seized the Margraviate of Meissen, which had been informally held by one of Albert's sons. Neither action was illegal but both raised hackles. This movement extended imperial territory and made neighboring regions uncomfortable. Additionally, Adolph's quick action in this case made it virtually impossible for the Electors to derive their own profits from the strife.
It had not taken long for the Electors to regret their choice of Adolph, but it took until 1297 for them to take action against him. The Duke of Saxony, the Elector of Brandenburg, the King of Bohemia, and the Elector of Cologne created an informal alliance to depose Adolph. For his part, Adolph was not initially concerned until Albrecht of Habsburg and King Wenceslas II got involved: the two were famously opposed to one another, and their decision to set political disagreements aside to join forces against Adolph was a bellwether. Attempts were made to mediate the issues through meetings, but they came to nothing. Eventually, several political and religious leaders prepared a lawsuit against Adolph, and he was deposed in 1298.
What might be more unusual about the situation is the role that the pope did, or did not, play. Adolph's original election had followed with the assumption that he was duly selected by God. Therefore, deposing him successfully required a measure of manipulating the facts to demonstrate that he had defied God, instead of merely angering the regional leaders. Claims about desecration were required to justify the decision. What is more, the terms of the election suggested strongly that, given Adolph's spiritual role, only the pope could depose him (as Pope Innocent IV had deposed Frederick II in 1227). The deposition in this case followed only from the right to vote among electors. The pope, in fact, did not get involved, and despite being deposed Adolph was never excommunicated.
Adolph did not take his deposition lightly. He took up arms against his successor, Albrecht I of Habsburg, and, in July of 1298, the two met in the Battle of Göllheim near Worms. Adolph was killed in the battle, and Albrecht and his armies fled, questionable victors in a questionable conflict.
Adolph was initially buried at Rosenthal Abbey, instead of the imperial Speyer Cathedral, to avoid giving the impression of approval for Adolph's mistakes. Albrecht's successor Heinrich VII, however, moved Adolph's remains from Rosenthal to Speyer in 1309, and they continue to rest there until today.
The Military and Civil Order of Merit was established in 1858 and named for Adolph, King of the Germans. The order would continue when Nassau was annexed by Prussia (1866) and today remains an important order within the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.