The Holy Roman Empire, officially the Sacrum Imperium Romanum, was famously described by Voltaire in 1756 as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” It is hard to disagree with him.
The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) at the time of its establishment in the 10th century officially ruled all of Italy north of Naples, all of modern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and much of the modern states of France, Czechia, Poland, Croatia, Slovenia, Netherlands, and Belgium. In short, it was vast. By the time of its dissolution at the hands of Napoleon in 1806, it barely covered modern Germany and Austria.
Throughout its existence, its Emperors unsuccessfully battled controversies, revolts, and infringements on their rule, including a string of excommunications by the pope, the loss of authority over Northern Italy (including Rome!), and the inability to reign in the wildfire spread of Protestantism through the officially Catholic Imperial lands.
Despite this, it left a lasting cultural impact on Europe as a whole, and was a dominant concern in European politics for the entirety of its existence.
Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor
The Empire began more or less by surprise, if contemporary accounts are to be believed.
The Frankish Kingdom
A map of Europe around the year 800, after the bulk of Charlemagne’s conquests were complete. This is, in my opinion, the point at which the future of Europe was more or less set. The Muslim expansion had been checked, Feudalism and Christianity had been cemented in place across France and Germany, and all of Northern Italy had been brought firmly into the Western European sphere.
Charles I Carolingian was descended from a series of very successful Frankish leaders. The Franks were a Germanic tribe that, over time, displaced the Gauls in what is now France. They were among the first European tribes to adopt Christianity, and through the successful leadership of Charles I’s father and grandfather, they consolidated control over France and stopped the Umayyad invasion of Europe from progressing out of Spain.
Charles I took the reigns of the powerful Frankish Kingdom and conquered most of Europe in relatively short order. He spent most of his long life on campaign, fighting enemies on every border: Spain, Germany, Italy, the Balkans, even what is now Poland. His prodigious conquests earned him the title Charles Magnus, Charles the Great, typically written as Charlemagne.
On Christmas day of the year 800, Charlemagne was in Rome, praying in St Peter’s Basilica. At this point he had repeatedly enforced his conquest of the Saxons, had secured the allegiance of the southern Slavic peoples, and was in strong control of North Italy. In short, he ruled modern France, Germany, and northern Italy.
When Charlemagne knelt to pray, Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Romans. Just like that, with no prior warning.
This caused a bit of a stir, to say the least.
The Church before the Schism
It’s important to understand that at this point, the Pope was one of 5 heads of the Christian church, the Patriarch of Rome. There were Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem as well, and all of these were of theoretically equal rank. That rank, importantly, was not the highest in the Church.
The person with authority over the Patriarchs, funnily enough, was the Emperor of the Romans. The title which Pope Leo III just granted. Did he have the authority to do so? Absolutely not, and especially not without having consulted the other Patriarchs, and especially not considering that he had been repeatedly accused (likely falsely, but it still hurt his image) of an array of impious behaviour.
Not only that, but someone already held the title of Emperor of the Romans at the time: Empress Irene, in Constantinople. The Empress of the actual Roman Empire, which very much still existed at the time, albeit a bit battered and missing most of the Western half.
A life-size bust of Charlemagne in gold, silver, and precious gems. You know you’ve made it in life when people are making statues of you like this 500 years after your death. Image courtesy of Beckstet under CC BY-SA 3.0
Charlemagne, for his part, appeared to mostly regard himself as no more than the King of the Franks for the rest of his reign, and expressed reticence at times about the title that the Pope had granted him. His realm did not remain unified on his death, and by the time of his grandsons, the borders of modern Europe had largely emerged.
The Holy Roman Empire (distinguished from the Roman Empire) came to refer to a vast Empire stretching from Rome in the south to the Baltic sea in the North, and bordered in the west by France and in the east by various unchristianised tribes – these would go on to become the Poles, Balts, and Russians.
The feudal structure of the Holy Roman Empire
I recommend reading this post on feudalism before continuing.
The Holy Roman Empire at its greatest extent around 1250. While not technically part of the Empire, the Kingdom of Sicily (or Naples) did belong to its Emperor at this point, giving him theoretical control of a wide strip of Europe running north from the bottom of Sicily to the the Baltic. This control was not practically enforceable though.
Feudalism, while effective for its time and place in history, definitely had major drawbacks. One of the important ones for the HRE was the tendency for individuals to amass large territories within a given country. Because of the opportunism and randomness caused by inheritances, as well as the fact that war was widely viewed as a legitimate means to gain territory, even when both participants are subjects of the same lord, strange things often happened in feudal Europe.
While England, France, Spain, Italy, and Russia consolidated power in the hands of the King, progressively integrating the lower nobles into the central government, and so eventually preventing such strangeness; the Holy Roman Empire did not succeed in pushing for that sort of centralisation. If anything, the Holy Roman Empire became less centralised and more feudal as time went on.
As a result, the internal borders were an incredible mess of enclaves, exclaves, and divided territories, and the constituent countries acted like players on the stage of Europe in their own right, all while experiencing varying levels of internal division based on feudal politics.
This lack of centralisation is the justification of the “nor an Empire” component of Voltaire’s remark. It has been a hallmark of Empires before and since, even Feudal ones, to unify the lands over which they rule, one way or another.
The Holy Roman Empire is the exception; its disunity meant that it was surprisingly weak in its external dealings. Despite technically ruling exceptionally vast, wealthy, and fertile lands, the Holy Roman Emperor could rarely count on mustering an army able to defeat the French or the Poles, let alone the Turks.
The role of the Church in the Greater HRE
As you might expect, the Papacy, having given itself the right to grant the title of Emperor, wielded tremendous influence within the Holy Roman Empire, at least to begin with. However, over time, the Empire gained an institutional momentum of its own.
A romantic painting of the Coronation of Charlemagne. While this image conflicts somewhat with the contemporary accounts mentioned earlier, keep in mind that this is a much later painting modeled on the coronations of its own time. Kaulbach, late 1800s
Initially, the Emperors were crowned by the Pope as a rule, and were of the Carolingian dynasty of Charlemagne. However, in the years after his death in 814, Carolingian control over Charlemagne’s vast realm fractured and slipped. Initially it was split between his sons and grandsons as co-rulers of various Francias (West, East, Middle), but eventually control of central Europe collapsed, and there was a period of chaos in Germany.
From this chaos emerged a Holy Roman Empire that was separate from the then-ongoing Carolingian rule of West Francia (eventually France).The process of selecting the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire was, at this point, almost entirely divorced from the Papacy, with coronation by the Pope being, to some degree, a formality.
Indeed, the Holy Roman Emperor was excommunicated by the Pope on several separate occasions, including one Henry IV who was excommunicated, forgiven, and then excommunicated again.
While the Church wielded enormous power in Europe, and most treaties were only valid insofar as God’s representative on Earth approved of them, it did not have any permanent, direct power over the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire.
The question of investiture, i.e. who gets to choose bishops (discussed in the post on Feudalism mentioned earlier), led to huge controversy in the Holy Roman Empire. The Investiture Controversy, in fact.
After approximately two centuries (the 11th and 12th centuries A.D.) of papal attempts to undercut the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, and a consequent five decades of civil war in Germany, an agreement was reached whereby the Papacy chooses Bishops, while the Bishops swear allegiance to the Emperor.
This led rather squarely to the situation at the start of the Reformation: uncontested Papal domination of Central European Christianity leading to ever increasing decadence and unscrupulous practices. Once the Empire and the Papacy reached this somewhat comfortable agreement, there was little incentive for either side to spark the sort of large scale conflict required to root out large scale corruption in either institution.
Nonetheless, the Church performed a host of indisputably useful governmental functions on behalf of the Emperor and the Empire, which carried through to the later Protestant churches and eventually to the secularised institutions of modern Europe.
These were primarily to do with keeping public order, taking census of the population, collecting taxes, and ensuring that the Emperor was seen as the legitimate highest law of the land. This was not always entirely successful, however.
The intermittent chaos of post-Carolingian central Europe saw the Papally-approved Holy Roman Emperor ruling only Northern Italy in practice, and not much else. From this chaos, the Duchies of Germany re-emerged: Saxony, Bavaria, Franconia, Swabia, and Lotharingia.
To re-establish orderly rule after the death of the last Carolingian king of East Francia (Most of modern Germany), they convened in a Diet (which, more than just an exercise in self-denial, is how medieval Germany referred to conferences of the nobility) and elected a new Emperor from among their rulers. That Emperor of course died eventually, and while he nominated a successor, it was only once the Dukes convened in another Diet and “elected” that successor that he was able to rule properly.
This elective system was not as odd then as it might seem to us now. Bear in mind that Christian Europe was actually a collection of Christianised, Romanised tribes, that adopted feudalism as they converted. Many of those tribes had a partially democratic power structure, where on the death of the chief, a new chief would be elected from among his sons or other worthy candidates, and that carried over into some early feudal systems.
The Franks, for instance, whose kingdom under Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Empire, had a somewhat elective monarchy. So having the greatest landholders within the Empire vote for its next Emperor was already considered a fairly legitimate practice.
And of course, if you were one of those landholders, would you not take the opportunity to ensure your next overlord would be someone you approved of?
Much like the Popes never forgot their self-appointed right to crown the Emperor of the Romans, the Dukes never forgot that they had the power to choose the next Emperor. This de facto arrangement whereby the strongest princes formed an electoral college became increasingly codified over time (within the Holy Roman Empire, “prince” roughly meant any land holder whose direct feudal lord was the Emperor).
The Imperial coat of arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, surrounded by the coats of arms of the seven Electors. Clockwise from top right: the Archbishopric of Mainz, the Archbishopric of Trier, the County Palatine of the Rhine, the Duchy of Saxony, the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Archbishopric of Cologne. This image is from a roll of arms printed in Frankfurt in 1545.
While in the early history of the HRE it’s not always clear who the electors were, it quickly became the case that the title of “Elector” was a feudal title much like “Count” or “Duke” and as such was passed around from person to person according to the individual inheritance laws of the various Electorates.
It became a sort of add-on for other feudal titles, such that you got Prince-Electors, Elector Counts, Archbishop-Electors, and so on.
Of course, more than a mere honorific, being an Elector was an extremely big deal. There were typically around seven Electors at a given point in time, and ensuring that their votes were in favour of his chosen heir was a matter of primary concern for any Emperor.
From de facto to de jure
From 1356 onwards, the status of the electors was codified. Up until this point, it was theoretically necessary to consult with the lower nobles of the realm, and the Pope could theoretically choose someone else as the Emperor.
Much like in the contemporary Eastern Roman Empire, the lack of a thoroughly defined and well-respected succession process was a source of instability. In 1356, to prevent papal meddling in elections, remove the lower nobles from the process, and enhance the legitimacy of the elected Emperors, Emperor Charles IV “promulgated a Golden Bull” (which is basically historian-speak for “produced an important document.” Golden Bull refers to the literal golden seal placed on the document) which was thoroughly negotiated with, and agreed to by, the nobles and Electors of the realm (giving it de facto legitimacy).
The Bull specified seven Electors with the right to choose the King of the Romans between them. The King of the Romans had, theoretically, all the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, but he didn’t have the title. The full title would only be conferred when the Pope crowns the elected King.
Thus, the Pope’s role was reduced to the coronation of the Emperor; which while important and giving him something of a veto against the Electors, meant that he could no longer legitimately support a separate claimant.
Eventually, in 1508, the Pope recognised officially that his coronation was not a necessary part of the process, and so the elections of the Holy Roman Empire took place entirely within the Holy Roman Empire… mostly. Foreign powers often had some degree of influence over an Elector or two. Or, in the case of Great Britain near the end, were Electors.
How did the choosing work?
A contemporary engraving of the election process of yet another Habsburg Emperor in 1612.
Election was by a simple majority among the Electors on the death of the previous Emperor, and theoretically anyone could be elected, although the realistically viable candidates were extremely limited.
In any given election the heir designated by the Emperor was most likely to win, and only a handful of families ever ruled the Empire. Which brings us, inevitably, to the Habsburgs.
The original Habsburg Fortress, from which the famous Habsburg Dynasty takes its name. This is only a small part of the original structure, the rest of which is in ruins. Image courtesy of Freaktalius under CC BY-SA 4.0
The pre-eminence of the Habsburgs in European politics is a long, patchy, and convoluted story. The Habsburg dynasty takes its name from a castle built in the 11th century AD in what is now Switzerland.
Otto II, grandson of the count who built the fortress, became the first official member of the dynasty over half a century later when he adopted the title “Graf von Habsburg,” meaning “Count of Habsburg.” His descendants would style themselves “von Habsburg.” Now, Count is not the most lofty of titles. But the Habsburgs would not remain tied to a single fortress and its surrounding lands, or even Switzerland.
First Habsburgs on the throne
A stained glass portrait in Saint Jerome’s chapel, Olomouc, depicting the first Habsburg to be elected King of the Romans – Rudolf I. Image courtesy of Michal Maňas under CC BY-SA 3.0
The Habsburg dynasty first won the Imperial throne in 1273, six generations after Otto, with Rudolf I of Germany (who was technically the fourth Habsburg to be named Rudolf, but the first to achieve a title greater than Count).
While his predecessors had invested in, enriched, and moderately expanded the Habsburg lands, Rudolf I rocketed the family into a powerful position in European politics even before his ascendance to the title of Emperor.
Germany at the time was in a state of relative chaos due to a long period without an Emperor, as its last Emperor (Frederick II Hohenstaufen) had died in 1250 and had no convincing successor since. Rudolf I, as Count, took full advantage of the general disorder to greatly expand his initially modest realm – conquering, buying, and forcefully inheriting significant territories.
Before being elected King of the Romans, he was considered the most powerful man in Southwest Germany, and he secured his election by a well-constructed combination of strategic alliances and bribery.
As King, his main legacy was his successful competition with King Ottokar II of Bohemia (also a subject of the Holy Roman Empire, and an Elector to boot). Ottokar had also taken advantage of the disorder to dramatically increase his domain, taking control of a wide strip of territory stretching south from Bohemia proper to the Adriatic near Venice. Importantly, this included the Duchy of Austria.
Ottokar was subjected to the Imperial Ban – essentially a declaration that his rule was lawless, at least in part. A campaign was fought against Ottokar, ending with his death in battle against Rudolf’s forces.
The result was that his territory was divided amongst Rudolf and his allies. Rudolf’s son gained Austria, which soon became the seat of the Habsburg dynasty.
Despite this success, and successful campaigns against the robber barons, Rudolf was not able to reign in the internal strife in the HRE, nor was he able to secure the succession for his son Albert I.
However, Albert managed to secure his own election some years later, in 1298, after a combination of serious wangling and military action resulting in the death of the previously elected King of the Romans.
He had 10 years of what is widely considered good and just rule, before being murdered by his nephew; whom he had deprived of any inheritance.
Frederick the Handsome
A flattering portrait of Frederick the Fair, also known as Frederick the Handsome. Classically good-looking. Anton Boys, late 1500s
Albert’s son, Frederick the Handsome, came very close to the throne as well. While he wasn’t elected on his father’s death, he was in the running a few years later when the elected Emperor, having been crowned by the Pope (the first papal coronation in 92 years) died after a single year as Emperor.
He was actually elected by a narrow margin, but the election was hotly contested and the following day a re-election was held where his childhood-friend-turned-rival, Louis IV Wittelsbach, won by a narrow margin. This, naturally, resulted in years of bloody war between the rival would-be emperors (during which time the Swiss were successfully fighting against Frederick for their independence).
Eventually, Frederick was captured by Louis, and held prisoner for three years while his allies, particularly his brother, continued fighting fiercely on his behalf. Eventually, an agreement was reached where Frederick recognised Louis as the rightful ruler and received a host of concessions in return, but he had to convince his brother to stop fighting. Otherwise, he was obligated to return to captivity. Ja, right.
So he got released and he went to try to convince his brother to stop fighting. He failed at this, and so, despite the Pope himself declaring the oath null, he actually honoured his word and voluntarily returned to captivity.
Louis was so impressed and moved by the nobility on display that their childhood friendship was rekindled, and their rivalry was set aside. They agreed to a joint rulership, which held until Frederick’s death.
Regrouping for another attempt
With Frederick’s death, the Habsburgs had to wait a long time before gaining Imperial power again. Three generations, to be exact. In the meantime, they were left out of the Golden Bull of 1356 mentioned earlier, meaning no electorship for the Austrians.
To remedy this, Frederick’s nephew (Rudolf IV, the Founder) straight-up forged documents granting Austria’s ruler the fictitious title of “Archduke,” which was very conveniently equivalent in rank to an Elector.
Two generations after him, the title was effectively written in stone (and literally written in stone all over Vienna. Rudolf commissioned many public works, and they almost always bore his name somewhere in the building). If you’ve ever heard of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, this is where the title came from. The Habsburgs were thus in a good position to have a go at the throne again.
Consolidation of Habsburg control
It began in 1438 with the short reign of Albert II Habsburg. By this point, through strategic marriages to powerful heiresses, as well as creative interpretations of other inheritance laws, the head of the Habsburg dynasty ruled not only most of Austria, but Hungary and Bohemia as well (sort of, he held the title but the Bohemians at the time quite strongly disagreed), not counting the sundry other territories controlled by the family to varying degrees.
He was thus a natural choice for King of the Romans, but despite showing promise as a triple-King (Bohemia, Hungary, and “the Romans”) he died before being crowned by the Pope. He designated as his successor, and was successfully succeeded by, his second cousin, Frederick III.
Frederick III Habsburg, in a crop from a portrait of him and his wife, Eleanor of Portugal, whom he is currently looking directly at. Yes, that is the loving gaze that he reserves for the mother of his children. Burgkmair, 1468
Now Frederick was colourfully described in his day. His polite moniker was “the Peaceful.” He was also sometimes referred to, during his reign, as “the Arch-Sleepyhead of the Holy Roman Empire,” and one of his courtiers (who went on to become the Pope) described him as a man that wanted to conquer the world while remaining seated. He was considered slow to make decisions, and he lost a hell of a lot of battles.
Now this sounds bad, and it is, but what’s more important is what he did well, and that’s the extreme form of family management necessary when spats between siblings and cousins and uncles result in actual wars where thousands of men fight and die.
He sought to consolidate the Habsburg lands under his own control, and even though he generally lost any wars to this end, he usually inherited all the land in question anyway by remaining alive when the rival claimant failed to do so.
He also secured for his son and eventual heir the hand of the Duchess of Burgundy, leading to the famed Burgundian Inheritance whereby the Habsburgs took direct control of what is now Belgium, and vast swathes of eastern France.
He was the first Habsburg to be crowned Emperor by the Pope, and after him, they were there to stay. His consolidation of Habsburg power, coupled with an extraordinarily long lifetime and reign during which no major crises hit the Empire, meant that a tradition of Habsburg rulership was firmly established in the Empire, Electors or no.
He ruled the Empire from 1440 to 1493, an incredible 53 years – that’s long enough that multiple generations had come and gone with a single Habsburg in firm control of the Empire.
The magnificent tomb of Frederick III in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna. Image courtesy of Bwag under CC BY-SA 4.0
Elective turned hereditary
He was succeeded as Emperor by his son Maximilian I, and after that nearly every Emperor was a Habsburg. The only exception was a 23 year period in the 18th century, less than a century before the dissolution of the Empire in 1806.
While Habsburgs did not rule it for its entire existence, they defined its structure and doings in the post-medieval period, from the time of the Renaissance till the end of the Empire, and their name is irrevocably associated with the Holy Roman Empire.
A map of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1500s, during the period of the Reformation. Here, titles belonging to the same person are shown in the same colour, hence the massive amount of orange for the territories of the Habsburgs.
While you may be expecting another long, complicated section (and I certainly could write one on this topic), I can make this one quick. How though? The Empire existed in some form for about 1000 years – that’s a lot of ground to cover.
Well, look back at this article. I mentioned many battles, feuds, and wars. Many struggles over power and procedure, usually with much bloodshed involved. Not a single one was fought against a power outside of the Empire.
Each and every single conflict mentioned thus far in this article was fought by a member of the Holy Roman Empire against another member of the Holy Roman Empire. If that doesn’t tell you just how divided the so-called “Empire” was, I don’t know what will.
However, some conflicts within the Empire were so large that it’s good to know about them in general.
The 11th in a series of plates depicting various atrocities committed by soldiers against the citizenry during the 30 Years War. Despite its stark and disturbing imagery, the artists’ intention with this scene is to show justice being served: ‘Finally these infamous and abandoned thieves, hanging from this tree like wretched fruit, show that crime (horrible and black species) is itself the instrument of shame and vengeance, and that it is the fate of corrupt men to experience the justice of heaven sooner or later.’ Callot, 1633
Chief among these is the Reformation, and its various consequences. When Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, he was at the University of Wittenberg, in the county of Mansfeld, a Principality within the Holy Roman Empire. As the Reformation branched out, the greatest conflict was caused when Princes, and particularly Electors, chose to convert.
While the Reformation was very much present elsewhere, it was only within Scandinavia, England, and the Holy Roman Empire (which included the Low Countries, i.e. modern Belgium and the Netherlands) that non-Catholics achieved lasting political power.
The Holy Roman Empire, however, was very much a Roman Catholic institution. This led to the 30 Years War. Which, as the name suggests, lasted an insanely long time, considering the intensity of the combat, and the violence of the soldiers towards the civilian population of their enemies.
Northern Germany, through mass killings, disease, refugee movements, sectarian violence, and plain combat between soldiers, lost as much as 60-90% of its population in most major towns, which is a simply horrific number, nevermind the casualties throughout the rest of Central Europe.
Even after the local combatants had long since run out of men to throw into the conflict, they and their foreign allies and backers hired an endless stream of mercenaries to continue fighting the conflict until all sides were not only out of men, and not only out of money, but also out of credit as well.
The war only ended after most of the HRE was bankrupt, and France, Spain, and parts of Italy were close.
The result was something of a stalemate, with no side being able to continue. A formal peace was declared with the Peace of Westphalia, which granted the Princes the right to choose their faith. It is also often considered the point at which the modern idea of a nation-state with defined, respected borders and full control of its internal affairs came into being.
There were significant territorial changes, and Europe as a whole was reshaped to a large degree.
Frederick the Great of Prussia, the first King of Prussia to directly square off against Austria. He won three successive wars against Austria, cementing Prussia’s place as the rising star of Germany, and Austria’s place as the falling one. Camphausen, 1870
The other conflict that bears mentioning here is the conflict between Austria and the Electorate of Brandenburg, later Brandenburg-Prussia, later Prussia. They’d been on opposite sides of the 30 Years War.
Afterwards, the house of Hohenzollern (the rulers of Brandenburg, then Brandenburg-Prussia, then Prussia) was Protestant, and in control of the dominant military power in shattered North Germany.
They’d performed very well in the war, and secured considerable territory in the peace. As Sweden’s power in North Germany and the Baltic waned (or was shattered), Brandenburg-Prussia took the helm.
They expanded their territory steadily through a long series of successful wars, with a disciplined and effective military. Soon, Prussia was a power to rival Austria. And that they did, fighting on opposite sides in many subsequent conflicts, and vying for control of Germany – real control, not the ineffective Emperorship that Austria always held.
Austria and Prussia is a story for another article though.
The Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire was a vast, disunited, squabbling collection of mostly German feudal states which, while nominally loyal to the Emperor, were in practice near-totally independent.
Despite being essentially created by the Papacy, it ended up completely separate from the Pope’s authority. Despite being an elective monarchy in principle, it ended up completely dominated by the Habsburgs. Despite being called an Empire, no Emperor after Charlemagne was able to exert anything like effective control over the whole thing. Despite bearing the moniker “Holy” in the Catholic sense, its northern lands became the centre of the Reformation and its population became largely Protestant. Despite being named “Roman,” it never held true authority over Rome.
Voltaire was right.
Voltaire looking characteristically smug. de la Tour, c. 1736