Holy Roman Empire

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HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE. The Holy Roman Empire was a feudal monarchy that encompassed present-day Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, as well as parts of eastern France, northern Italy, Slovenia, and western Poland at the start of the early modern centuries. It was created by the coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as Roman emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800, thus restoring in their eyes the western Roman Empire that had been leaderless since 476. Charlemagne's Frankish successor emperors faltered under political and military challenges, and his inheritance was permanently divided in 887. After 924 the western empire was again without an emperor until the coronation of Otto I, duke of Saxony, on 2 February 962. This coronation was seen to transfer the Roman imperial office to the heirs of the East Franks, the Germans. The position of emperor remained among the Germans until the Holy Roman Empire was abolished in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1806.

In 1512 the name "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" (Heiliges römisches Reich deutscher Nation) became the official title of the empire, which spanned central Europe between the kingdom of France to the west and the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland to the east. In the north it was bounded by the Baltic and North Seas and by the Danish kingdom; in the south, it reached to the Alps. At no time in its long history did the empire possess clearly defined boundaries; its people, perhaps fifteen million in 1500, spoke a variety of languages and dialects. German predominated, but the advice of the Golden Bull of 1356 that future princes of the empire should learn the "German, Italian, and Slavic tongues" remained apposite. The multilingual empire stood at the crossroads of Europe and its emerging national cultures; it also included significant Jewish communities in the south and west. European trade and communication moved along the mighty rivers within the empirethe Rhine, the Main, the Danube, and the Elbe. On these rivers stood some of its most important cities: Cologne, the largest in the empire with about thirty thousand inhabitants, as well as Frankfurt, Vienna, and Hamburg. By 1500 there were about a dozen big cities with over ten thousand inhabitants each, and about twenty with between two and ten thousand people. Visitors to the empire from Italy, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, noted the size and wealth of these great German cities.

The history of the term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" illustrates several key developments on the path to the early modern empire. The medieval "Roman Empire," ambiguously created through the imperial coronation of Charlemagne, was first given the adjective "holy" (sacrum imperium Romanum) by the Imperial Chancellery of Frederick I Barbarossa (ruled 11521190) in 1157. The term "Holy Roman Empire," used regularly from 1184, challenged the monopoly on the sacred presented by the papacy of the "Holy Roman Church" (sancta Romana Ecclesia) and presented the empire as an equal heir to the legacy of Rome. The first official use of the full term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" in 1474 acknowledged that the empire had been for some time a German political unit in all practical terms. At the same time, the term also underscored a sense that it was the unique destiny of the Germans to rule the universal sacred empire of Christendom. In this way the term limited claims to the empire from ambitious French rulers such as Francis I (ruled 15151547), who campaigned for election to the imperial throne in 1519, only to be defeated by the Habsburg Charles of Ghent, Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556).

The Holy Roman Empire developed a complex legal and political structure. Its central figure was the emperor, whose position combined ancient Roman pretensions of universal, divinely sanctioned rule with the Germanic tradition of elected kingship, overlaid with efforts to define the emperor as a feudal overlord and his leading princes as his vassals. The position of emperor was elected, a characteristic the empire shared with other European monarchies such as the papacy. Just as the cardinals, princes of the church, chose each new pope, so the leading princes of the empire, called electors, chose their emperor. Technically, each emperor was first chosen "king of the Romans," signifying his popular claim to the Roman Empire, by the leading nobles of the empire. The right of these princes to choose their king was precisely codified in 1356 by a proclamation of Emperor Charles IV (ruled 13461378) called the "Golden Bull." This bull, the fundamental law of the empire, limited the right to elect the king of the Romans to seven leading princes: three ecclesiastical electors, the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne; and four lay electors, the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the count Palatinate of the Rhine. Originally, the king of the Romans received the title of emperor only through coronation by the pope. This tradition was set aside by Maximilian I (ruled 14931519), who assumed the title "Elected Roman Emperor." His successor Charles V was the last emperor to be crowned in Italy; subsequent emperors were still elected and crowned king of the Romans by the electors and simply assumed the title of emperor without a separate coronation. Only males were allowed to hold the imperial office.

In 1438 Albert II of Habsburg was elected to the imperial throne; he was succeeded by his cousin Frederick III (ruled 14401493). From their base of power in Austria, the House of Habsburg outmaneuvered other leading families of the empire to secure their election to the imperial throne again and again; from the reign of Albert in 1438 forward, a Habsburg was always elected (except for a brief interlude from 1742 to 1745 when the Wittelsbach Prince Charles Albert of Bavaria was elected as Emperor Charles VII), and the office of the emperor became quasi-hereditary. This is less surprising when one realizes that by the mid-fifteenth century only a leading prince of the empire could benefit from the imperial title, as the prestige of the emperor's position far surpassed its actual power. In legal terms the emperor was "administrator of the empire" rather than "lord of the empire." The empire was divided into a patchwork of principalities, some large and powerful like Wittelsbach Bavaria, others small but independent, like the imperial abbeys in the southwest. In each of these principalities rulers exercised many of the functions associated by early modern and modern political theorists with sovereignty. In the first instance the princes of the empirerather than the emperorcollected taxes, administered justice, minted coins, and claimed responsibility for the material and spiritual salvation of their subjects. Many of the principalities of the empire had their own parliamentary bodies representing the estates of the territory.

The territorial ambitions of the princes, alongside their predilection for partible inheritance, created a patchwork of German principalities that grew bewilderingly complex. By 1450 the empire contained the seven electoral principalities; twenty-five major secular principalities, such as the duchies of Austria, Bavaria, and Brunswick; about ninety archbishoprics, bishoprics, and imperial abbeys; over one hundred independent counties of very unequal importance; and seventy free imperial cities such as Cologne, Bremen, Lübeck, and Hamburg in the north; Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Ulm, and Augsburg in the south; and Frankfurt and Mühlhausen in central Germany. These cities were subject to no one but the emperor, which made them effectively independent. In his pathbreaking analysis of the empire's constitution in 1667, Samuel Pufendorf explained the fragmentation of political authority in the empire: "in the course of time, through the negligent complaisance of the emperors, the ambition of the princes, and the scheming of the clergy" the empire had developed from "an ordered monarchy" to "a kind of state so disharmonious" that it stood somewhere between a limited monarchy and a federation of sovereign principalities. Scholars today would explain the development in different terms but agree that the imperial monarchy had traded away considerable power and authority to the princes and the church during the medieval period.

Few European political units seem as remote and confusing as the Holy Roman Empire. At the start of the early modern period, the supranational, multiethnic structure of this feudal state made perfect sense, of course, to the people who lived in it and shaped its development. Indeed, in the period from 1450 to 1555 the Holy Roman Empire was a dynamic political unit of crucial importance to the growth of the Habsburg empire and the Protestant Reformation. It survived the chaos of the Thirty Years' War (16181648) to emerge as a guarantor of peace, if not progress, in central Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, Europeans saw the Holy Roman Empire in a very different light. In a Europe of centralized, hereditary monarchies consolidating their nation-states, its polycentric, supranational structure, elected emperor, and ponderous parliament had become ever more difficult to understand and explain. When it ceased to exist in 1806, few understood its significance.


At the end of the fifteenth century the empire entered a period of institutional growth and increased political importance. The focus of the empire had shifted to its German-speaking lands, especially the wealthy southern area known as Upper Germany, which saw the birth and growth of effective imperial institutions. Foremost was its parliament, the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). The diet emerged from medieval political struggles that obligated the emperor to consult with his leading princes (in feudal terms, the holders of imperial fiefs) on decisions affecting the empire. These leading princes, including the seven electors, dukes and counts, bishops and abbots, and autonomous cities became known collectively as the "imperial estates" (Reichsstände) and their assembly as the Imperial Diet. The diet became the most important site of communication, conflict, and negotiation between the emperor and the estates.

The emperor did not rule as an autocrat but was bound by the resolutions of the Imperial Diet. As was typical of early modern statecraft, the diets often passed resolutions that could not be enforced (the Edict of Worms of 1521 is the most famous example), but its organization helped define the empire through its estates. From 1489 on, the diet met in three colleges, similar to the houses of the English Parliament: the college of the imperial electors, in which the three ecclesiastical and four lay electors each had a vote; the college of the imperial princes; and the college of the imperial free cities. The diet was summoned by the emperor only when needed; sessions were held in the leading imperial cities of the south, usually Augsburg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, or Speyer. When the diet met, the emperor presided, flanked by six of the electors, with the archbishop of Trier seated directly in front of the imperial throne. Along the sides of the hall sat the representatives of the college of imperial princes, and facing the emperor at the back of the hall were the representatives of the imperial free cities. Each college deliberated separately, voted within the college, and then cast one vote in the assembled diet. After 1663 the diet transformed itself into a body of representatives sitting permanently in Regensburg.

Frustration during the long reign of the neglectful Emperor Frederick III led to calls for imperial reform, and Emperor Maximilian I was willing to work with the estates to modernize the empire's institutions. The Imperial Diet in Worms in 1495 marked a turning point. Led by the archbishop-elector of Mainz, Berthold von Henneberg (14841504), the diet outlawed all private wars and noble feuding and established the Imperial Cameral Court (Reichskammergericht) to replace violence with arbitration. The imperial estates gathered in Worms in 1495 also voted to establish a new form of direct imperial taxation, the "Common Penny" (gemeiner Pfennig), to fund the Imperial Cameral Court. The tax was collected from all male inhabitants, regardless of status, for a period of four years and was renewed in 1512 and in 1542 to pay for the defense of the empire. The division of the empire into administrative districts called Imperial Circles (Kreise) was another innovation of the reign of Maximilian. Initially these districts served to enforce the imperial peace, but later their competence was extended to include imperial taxation and defense. From 1512, the empire was divided into ten Imperial Circles: the Austrian and Burgundian regions; the circle of the Rhenish electors; the Upper Saxon, Franconian, Bavarian, and Swabian circles; and the Upper Rhenish, Lower Rhenish-Westphalian, and Lower Saxon circles. The territories of the Bohemian crown, the Swiss Confederation, and the Italian imperial fiefs were not included in this plan.

These Circles and the Imperial Diet came to define the empire by the early sixteenth century and can help us distinguish between two conceptions of the empire. The greater empire was based on theoretical claims of universal dominion and historical claims of rule over Italy, Burgundy, and Germany. This greater empire encompassed all of Italy north of the Papal States (except Venice) as fiefs of the empire and included the kingdom of Bohemia, the Swiss Confederation, and the Habsburg Netherlands. Within these broad claims based on medieval precedent, feudal law, and dynastic connections, a second, more concentrated empire ("Reichstags-Deutschland") actually participated in the growth of imperial institutions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This empire, culturally German, found its political and institutional base in the southwest of the empire and in the electoral principalities. The diet was largely ignored by the Swiss Confederation, the Netherlands, and the kingdom of Bohemia (despite its king's position as an elector). The treaties of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 confirmed the independence of the Netherlands and Switzerland from the empire; Bohemia, on the other hand, where the Thirty Years' War had begun, was firmly integrated into the dominion of its Austrian Habsburg rulers.

The threat to the empire posed by the dynamic Ottoman Empire stood on the agenda of almost every Imperial Diet during the reigns of Maximilian I and Charles V. Habsburg Austria was constantly threatened by Turkish invasion, and the Habsburg emperors called the estates together to request aid. The threat was especially clear when the Ottoman Turks conquered most of Hungary in 1526: Austria would be next. Vienna was besieged by an army led by Suleiman the Magnificent (ruled 15201566) in 1529. The dependence of the Habsburg emperors on the support of the imperial estates in their struggle against Turkish expansion deeply affected their response to the next great challenge of imperial politics, the Reformation.


The Protestant Reformation did not cause the division of Germany into dozens of independent territories; in fact, the reverse is true. The extraordinarily diverse and divided political landscape of the empire in the early sixteenth century was the single most important factor in the spread of evangelical ideas and the adoption of church reforms. As it became clear to Martin Luther that the Church of Rome would not accept his theological and pastoral reforms (referred to as "evangelical"), he turned "to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" (the title of his important treatise of 1520, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation ) and exhorted them to take up their responsibility to reform the church. Their response was varied. Luther's own territorial ruler, Elector Frederick III the Wise of Saxony (ruled 14861525), was willing to allow the ideas of his unruly theologian to circulate in Saxony and in the empire; other princes and free imperial cities eagerly read, creatively interpreted, and put into practice the ideas coming out of Wittenberg. Emperor Charles V, like most of the German princes, appreciated Luther's criticism of the papacy and the Roman curia but wanted no part of Luther's fundamental theological challenge to the authority of the Church of Rome. Charles stated clearly that he would not "deny the religion of all his ancestors for the false teachings of a solitary monk."

The young emperor and the rebellious theologian met at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther's refusal to recant his teachings prompted the Edict of Worms, which threatened his supporters with the imperial ban and outlawry and prohibited his writings. Protected from arrest and trial for heresy by his prince, Frederick the Wise, and frightened by the disorder unleashed by the spread of evangelical ideas, Luther looked to the leading secular authorities of the empire to implement his ideas. This they did, taking advantage of the fragmentation of imperial and territorial authority across the empire. Individual principalities and city-states became "laboratories" for church reform and religious innovation. Because the builders of the first Protestant institutions were leaders among the estates of the empire, the conflict over reform and Reformation was played out in the institutions of the empire, above all in the Imperial Diets. It was at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 that the a group of princes including the elector of Saxony and the landgrave of Hesse and fourteen imperial free cities submitted an official protest against the suppression of the evangelical movement. The name "Protestant" arose from their action. The next Imperial Diet at Augsburg in 1530 produced a definitive Protestant statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession of Philipp Melanchthon, and a reinforcement of the Edict of Worms. Tensions rose and in 1531 the empire's leading Protestant princes and free cities formed a defensive alliance, the Schmalkaldic League. This alliance was not formally directed against the empire or its Catholic ruling house of Habsburg, but its confessional politics held an immense potential to disrupt the institutions of the empire.


The Protestant princes and free cities of the empire created their own territorial churches by seizing the lands of monasteries and churches, severing all links with Rome, and overseeing the doctrine and morals of their subjects. Scholars have labeled this process "confessionalization," and it is the defining characteristic of the empire in the period from the 1530s through the end of the seventeenth century. Confessionalization meant the doctrinal and organizational consolidation of the diverging Christian Reformations into established churches with mutually exclusive creeds, constitutions, and forms of piety. The power and authority of the princes was naturally reinforced by this new level of spiritual administration.

In the confessional era the line between insider and outsider became much sharper. Subjects and rulers together deployed the new scope of territorial authority to accuse, try, and burn witches; expel Jews and Christians of other confessions; and police the poor and the criminal. The cruel work of the great European witch persecutions reached its peak in the years between 1580 and 1660, and about half of the forty to fifty thousand executions took place in the empire. The promulgation of countless church and police ordinances allowed territorial rulers to envision (though not create) a land of godly, orderly, and obedient subjects. Geographically and politically, these territories resembled modern sovereign states, and this gain in power and authority by the individual estates of the empire proved irreversible.

The first evidence that power had shifted came in the aftermath of the Schmalkaldic War (15461547). Despite the military victory of Charles V over the Protestant princes, he was unable to roll back the progress of the Reformation before shifting alliances forced him to flee Germany in 1552. Exhausted by the struggle to return the German princes to the Catholic faith, Charles handed all responsibility for German affairs over to his brother, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (ruled as emperor 15581564), who negotiated the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This agreement established the legal equality of the Evangelical and Catholic churches and the right of princes of the empire to choose either of these confessions for their territories. With the Religious Peace of Augsburg, the empire was divided among two mutually hostile Christian confessions: Roman Catholic and Evangelical (Lutheran). After 1563, Reformed (Calvinist) churches were also established. These divisions strained the imperial institutions described above, but they continued to function. The right of reform granted by the Peace of Augsburg strengthened the estates but also secured peace in the empire just as the Netherlands and France were engulfed in wars of religion.

The Peace of Augsburg lasted for sixty-three years, and the devastating Thirty Years' War (16181648) that followed was not an inevitable result of the political and confessional division of the empire. The weakness of the Habsburg emperors Rudolf II (ruled 15761612) and Matthias (ruled 16121619) paralyzed the very imperial institutions that had served to prevent war within the empire since 1555. The initial goals of Emperor Ferdinand II (ruled 16191637) were territorial rather than imperial; following the disorganization of his two predecessors, he sought to reimpose Habsburg authority in their hereditary lands, especially Bohemia, touching off the Bohemian revolt of 1618. This regional conflict rapidly spread as both Ferdinand and his opponents sought support (based on religion or reason of state) from within the empire and abroad. This raised a set of constitutional questions about the emperor's power to invite external (in this case, Spanish) forces into the empire, and the rights of the estates to resist the emperor. Some scholars have argued that these fundamental constitutional questions, as much as confessional hatred and international intervention, made the war so protracted and difficult to conclude.

Despite their successes in the Thirty Years' War, the Habsburgs did not shift the distribution of power in the empire from the princes to the emperor. Like Charles V before them, Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III (ruled 16371657) could not develop an imperial monarchy. The Westphalian treaties of 1648 that ended the war left the empire in the form established in 1555, "a monarchy caged by constituted aristocratic liberties," in the words of Thomas A. Brady, Jr. The Peace of Westphalia legitimized the Reformed confession in the empire and restored the territorial and confessional status of the empire to the year 1624, the "normal year" of the treaties.

The Westphalian settlement tied the longstanding balance between emperor and estates to an international agreement designed to bring lasting peace to Europe. France and Sweden stood as guarantors of the treaty's terms, and their purpose was to hold the empire as a whole passive in European affairs. The peace confirmed the broader European trend toward a system of fully sovereign, independent states but left the empire, with its fragmented sovereignty, and the imperial estates, with their lesser, territorial sovereignty within the empire, as exceptions that proved the rule.

Given the consolidation of the power and authority of the individual estates by the Peace of Westphalia, was the Holy Roman Empire a state after 1648? Historians of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, focused on the modern nation-state, answered in the negative, and critically. The origins of the modern state in Germany were seen in the larger territories of the empire, especially Brandenburg-Prussia. The apotheosis of the nation-state meant the condemnation of the Old Empire, which was denied any significant contribution to the modern state. Early modern political theorists offer a different perspective. Samuel Pufendorf described the empire as "resembling a monster" in his 1667 treatise on the empire's constitution, but Pufendorf, like most of his contemporaries, did not deny that the empire was a statealbeit a state with a complex and irregular constitution that did not fit with any classical model or modern system.


In the century after the Peace of Westphalia, the fundamental acceptance of the existence of the empire by the other European powers led to a period of relative peace and prosperity. During this period German art, music, and learned culture once again flourished. Eighteenth-century observers lamented the empire's lack of a capital city that could serve as a cultural center, but the polycentric structure of the empire had its benefits for the cross-pollination of ideas and cultures. As noted above, the spread of Reformation ideas and their implementation benefited from the variety of religious orders, universities, independent city-states, and centers of printing in the empire. From the mid-seventeenth century, the polycentric empire offered an array of careers, patrons, and stimuli for the arts, especially architecture and music. The flowering of German baroque architecture after 1700 can be seen in the works of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt in the Habsburg lands, Balthasar Neumann in Würzburg, Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann in Saxony, and Andreas Schlüter in Berlin. These baroque palaces and churches, each testifying to the glory of a prince of the empire, rang with the music of the age, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in Saxony, George Frideric Handel in Hanover and London, and Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna. The careers of these men were shaped by the variety of courts and confessions unique to the empire.


The revival of the Habsburgs' military power and imperial authority began during the reign of Emperor Leopold I (ruled 16581705), as the empire was threatened by French and Turkish aggression. These threats resulted in the loss of imperial cities like Strasbourg to France (1681) and the Ottoman siege of Vienna (1683), but without imperial leadership the damage could have been much worse. This demonstrated to even the most powerful princes of the empire that its central institutions, including the emperor, were indispensable to the defense and organization of the empire and its constituent territories. By 1700 the estates focused on strengthening the Imperial Circles and the Imperial Army and supported legislation such as the Imperial Trades Edict of 1731, which regulated the craft guilds of the empire. The two highest courts of the empire, the Imperial Cameral Court and the Imperial Aulic Court (Reichshofrat) also grew more effective. These courts settled several major interterritorial disputes through peaceful arbitration in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They also resolved disputes within territories between princes and their estates. In a case cited by Peter H. Wilson, Duke William Hyacinth, ruler of Nassau-Siegen, was exiled from his tiny principality in 1707 by soldiers from Cologne acting on the instructions of the Imperial Aulic Court, which had ruled that he had forfeited his throne through his autocratic and irrational policies. In the free imperial city of Hamburg, a century-long dispute between the city council and the citizenry was settled in 1712 through an imperial commission. In 1719 the estates of Mecklenburg obtained a verdict and military intervention to prevent their prince's use of his standing army against his own subjects, and in 1764 the Württemberg estates secured an injunction against their duke's attempt to collect new taxes by force. At least a quarter of all cases heard by the Imperial Aulic Court in the period 16481806 were brought by subjects against their rulers, a clear sign of the relevance of imperial institutions to subjects and princes in the last 150 years of the empire.

By the mid-eighteenth century the creation of standing armies divided the empire into "armed" and "unarmed" territories. Brandenburg-Prussia led the way with a standing army established by Frederick William I, the Great Elector (ruled 16401688). The Hohenzollern electors of Brandenburg, who were also the dukes of Prussia (which lay outside the empire), acquired the title of "king in Prussia" in 1701an elevation sanctioned by Emperor Leopold I in return for military support from Brandenburg-Prussia. By the reign of Frederick II the Great (ruled 17401786), Brandenburg-Prussia had joined the great powers of Europe and pursued its own foreign policy. For Brandenburg-Prussia, as for Austria, the empire was now only one political factor among many.

Historians speak of the "centrifugal forces" that pulled the empire apart in the late eighteenth century. Its two largest principalities, Habsburg Austria and Hohenzollern Brandenburg-Prussia, expanded eastward in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, each tapping sources of authority and power outside the empire; the rulers of Saxony and Hanover did the same by accepting crowns in Poland and Great Britain. The lesser territories of the empire, the so-called "Third Germany," focused more attention on the empire, but competition between Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia, the rigidity of the treaties of Westphalia, and the ponderous pace of imperial institutions combined to leave the empire politically impotent. A series of reforms in 1803 came too late to restore political relevance to the empire and could not prevent its elimination, through the abdication of Emperor Francis II (ruled 17921806), at the instigation of Napoleon. The tradition of the empire died, and its revival was not seriously discussed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

See also Augsburg, Religious Peace of (1555) ; Austro-Ottoman Wars ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Charles VI (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand III (Holy Roman Empire) ; Francis II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Frederick III (Holy Roman Empire) ; Free and Imperial Cities ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Habsburg Territories ; Joseph I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Joseph II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Matthias (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maximilian I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maximilian II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Peasants' War, German ; Reformation, Protestant ; Representative Institutions ; Schmalkaldic War (15461547) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) .


Primary Sources

Lindberg, Carter, ed. The European Reformations Source-book. Oxford and Malden, Mass., 2000. Good documentation of the Protestant Reformation in the empire.

Macartney, C. A., ed. The Habsburg and Hohenzollern Dynasties in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York, 1970.

Pufendorf, Samuel. Die Verfassung des deutschen Reiches. Translated and edited by Horst Denzer. Frankfurt am Main, 1994. Translation of De statu imperii Germanici (1667).

Scott, Tom, and Robert W. Scribner, eds. and trans. The German Peasants' War: A History in Documents. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1991. Hundreds of documents never before translated into English on the largest rebellion in the history of the empire.

Secondary Sources

Aretin, Karl Otmar, Freiherr von. Das alte Reich, 16481806. 4 vols. Stuttgart, 19932000. Fundamental to any discussion of the empire after the Peace of Westphalia.

Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 16181648. Basingstoke, U.K., 1997.

Blickle, Peter. Obedient Germans? A Rebuttal: A New View of German History. Translated by Thomas A. Brady, Jr. Charlottesville, Va., 1997.

Brady, Thomas A., Jr. "Settlements: The Holy Roman Empire." In Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. 2 vols. Edited by Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy. Leiden and New York, 19941995.

. Turning Swiss: Cities and Empire, 14501550. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Carsten, F. L. Princes and Parliaments in Germany, from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford, 1959. Still valuable for its detail and comparative breadth.

Evans, R. J. W. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History, 15761612. Oxford, 1973. Reprint, Oxford, 1994.

Fichtner, Paula S. The Habsburg Monarchy, 14901848: Attributes of Empire. New York, 2003.

Gagliardo, John G. Germany under the Old Regime, 1600 1790. London and New York, 1991.

Heer, Friedrich. The Holy Roman Empire. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. New York, 1968. Reprint, New York, 2002. Well-illustrated.

Hsia, R. Po-chia. Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe, 15501750. London and New York, 1989.

Hughes, Michael. Early Modern Germany, 14771806. Basingstoke, U.K., 1992.

Mann, Golo. Wallenstein: His Life Narrated. Translated by Charles Kessler. New York, 1976. Classic biography of one of the central figures of the Thirty Years' War.

Moeller, Bernd. Imperial Cities and the Reformation: Three Essays. Edited and translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. Durham, N.C., 1982.

Press, Volker. "The Habsburg Lands: The Holy Roman Empire, 14001555." In Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Edited by Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy. 2 vols. Leiden and New York, 19941995.

Schindling, Anton, and Walter Ziegler, eds. Die Territorien des Reichs im Zeitalter der Reformation und Konfessionalisierung: Land und Konfession, 15001650. Katholisches Leben und Kirchenreform im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, 49. 7 vols. Münster, 19891997. An invaluable reference work, especially for the smaller territories of the empire.

Scribner, Robert W., and Sheilagh C. Ogilvie, eds. Germany: A New Social and Economic History. 2 vols. London and New York, 1996. Vol. 1, 14501630, is edited by Robert W. Scribner; vol. 2, 16301800, by Sheilagh Ogilvie.

Vierhaus, Rudolf. Germany in the Age of Absolutism. Translated by Jonathan B. Knudsen. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 16481871. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971.

Wilson, Peter H. The Holy Roman Empire, 14951806. New York, 1999. A concise and effective summary of the history and institutions of the early modern empire in light of current revisionist scholarship.

Zophy, Jonathan W., ed. The Holy Roman Empire: A Dictionary Handbook. Westport, Conn., 1980.

Craig Koslofsky

Holy Roman Empire

views updated May 14 2018


The term "Holy Roman Empire" has been used to distinguish the Medieval German Empire from the Ancient Roman Empire and the Greek Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the East. The line of emperors in the Western provinces of the Roman Empire came to an end with the death of Romulus Augustulus in a.d. 476. An Eastern line of Roman emperors continued to rule in Greek Constantinople, and these emperors carried on the traditions of ancient Rome until the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. They called themselves "Roman," and they were Christian. Like the ancient Romans, they never called their empire "Holy." There was a long interregnum in the West from the death of Romulus Augustulus until Pope Leo III crowned Charles the Great (charle magne) emperor in Rome on Dec. 25, 800. Charles was the king of a Germanic tribe, the franks. Although his new title may have been Roman, his lordship, customs, and concepts of kingship were thoroughly Germanic. In Roman terms he was emperor in name only. The best example of the new empire's Germanic roots is its inheritance laws. Following Germanic customary law, Charles and his successors conceived of their realm as their private, not public, property. When they died, they divided it among their male heirs. They could not imagine that an empire or a kingdom should be an inalienable, unified territory. This practice led to political instability and civil war and, in a short time, a fragmented empire.

After Charlemagne revived the title of emperor in the West, the title "Holy Roman Empire" evolved slowly. Charles had styled himself simply "emperor." In 982 Emperor otto ii began to use the title "emperor Augustus of the Romans." The expansion of the title had political consequences. To validate their assumption of the title "Emperor of the Romans," the Ottonian emperors tried to extend their authority into Italy. They also created even more elevated titles for themselves. Otto III (9831002) adopted Byzantine practices of calling himself "servant of Jesus Christ" and "servant of the apostles." This last title imitated the pope's "servant of the servants of God." Sacral kingship was a widespread notion in the early Middle Ages. Kings and emperors received the unction of consecrated oil at their coronations. It gave them a special liturgical and canonical status. No emperor could received major clerical orders, but he occupied a position above other laymen. The emperor was the Advocate and Defender of the Roman church (advocatus et defensor romanae ecclesiae ) and was also responsible for establishing the City of God on earth and ruling it as the Son of the Church (filius ecclesiae. ). The emperor was consequently the lord of Christendom, universal and omnicompetent, the terrestrial agent of the divine Emperor, God, to whom every faithful Christian (fidelis ) owed obedience and faith (fides ). It is not surprising then that the term "Holy Empire" was used in the letters of Emperor frederick barbarossa (ca. 1157) to describe the territory over which he ruled. If he were the divinely appointed ruler over all Christians, his realm could be justifiably described as holy. Finally, the entire title "Holy Roman Empire" was used for the first time in 1254. Ironically this title was not adopted until after the empire had begun its long decline in the later Middle Ages. When the eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire declared that the Holy Roman Empire was "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire" his epigram had more than a grain of historical truth.

Sacred imagery characterized the rhetoric of the Germanic empire and permeated the language of its documents. The chancellery of Frederick Barbarossa added "holy" to the title of his empire to signify that the empire was divinely ordained and worthy of sharing power and authority with the Roman Catholic Church in the Christian world. The emperor was God's representative on earth. Frederick also asserted that he was the "Lord of the world" (Dominus mundi ) and held a higher office than all other kings. From the early Middle Ages, the Church had been called the "Holy Roman Church." Its title indicated that it represented in the divine order. Kingdoms were not normally labeled "holy." The use of the term "Holy Empire" is an important signpost for understanding the most significant conflict between Church and State in the Middle Ages.

During the high Middle Ages the Germanic empire and the Roman Catholic Church both claimed universal authority over Christendom. Each represented a model of rulership that mirrored the heavenly monarchy. Each represented the unity of Christendom. In the period from 900 to 1250, the "Holy Empire" vied with the "Holy Roman Church" to be the embodiment of Christian universal authority. In the beginning the empire and the Church were not equals. From the time of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, until the middle of the eleventh century, the emperors exercised considerable authority and power over bishops and their clergy. The Germanic emperors who succeeded Charlemagne and other secular princes appointed bishops, abbots, and clergy to ecclesiastical offices. They employed bishops as officials in the imperial courts. Occasionally they even deposed popes and selected their successors. The eleventh century, however, marked a fundamental change in the relationship between the Church and the Empire. Reformers within and outside the Church began to realize that secular lay princes should not exercise authority in ecclesiastical affairs. Pope nicholas ii (10581061) promulgated a decree that forbade the emperor from participating in the election of the pope in 1059, and Pope gregory vii (10731085) issued several decrees that forbade the emperor and lay princes from investing bishops with the symbols of their offices. Gregory made Libertas ecclesiae, Freedom of the Church, a principle of canon law and a maxim of ecclesiastical rhetoric. Gregory VII attacked the emperor's sacral, almost clerical, status and his position as the head of Christendom. By forbidding the emperor's investiture of bishops Gregory undermined imperial control of bishops. A long series of events marked the bitter conflict between the Roman church and the Germanic empire. Gregory excommunicated and then deposed Emperor Henry IV (10561106) in an unprecedented action. Henry retaliated by supporting an anti-pope, Clement III (10801100) militarily. Emperor Henry V (11061125) finally acknowledged the autonomy of the Church in the Concordat of worms (September 1122), but that treaty with the papacy did not establish a completely independent Church. The empire was, however, considerably weakened. The emperor gave up his right to bestow the ring and episcopal staff (crozier) that were the symbols of spiritual authority in the Concordat. This was a significant step in recognizing the Church as a separate institution that was completely independent of imperial and lay control. The Concordat was binding only within the empire. It was a compromise that did not ultimately solve the problem of how the Church and the Empire would coexist in Christendom.

During the twelfth century the popes attempted to establish Libertas ecclesiae, which they interpreted as complete freedom from lay interference and control, as a fundamental principle of ecclesiastical government. The emperors, especially Frederick Barbarossa, refused to accept a Church that claimed superiority over them. Consequently, with the emperor's support there were many papal schisms within the Latin church. The emperors opposed papal claims of authority by supporting pro-imperial factions within the Church who elected anti-popes. These anti-popes recognized imperial prerogatives. The emperors ' ecclesiastical policies put enormous strain on the stability of the Church. The twelfth-century emperors supported ten anti-popes. These "popes" reigned for a total of 41 years. Pope Alexander III's (10591081) agreement with the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in 1177 brought this long line of "imperial anti-popes" to an end and began a short period of reconciliation between the pope and the empire.

Pope Innocent III's (11981216) policies posed a new challenge to the relationship of the Sacerdotium (Church) and Regnum (State) that had been established in the twelfth century. Innocent had a high and exalted view of papal power. He claimed that the pope "has his authority because he does not exercise the office of man, but of the true God on earth." He also compared imperial power to the moon and papal power to the sun. The dignity of the empire came from the light that it received from the sun. Innocent clearly wished to place the office of the pope above the emperor's. The most difficult task Innocent faced in his first years as pope was the struggle between Otto of Brunswick and Philip of Hohenstaufen for the office of the emperor after the death of the Emperor Henry VI (11901197). The German princes had divided their votes between these two candidates for the imperial throne. Innocent had moved quickly to assert his authority to choose between them. This was an unprecedented exercise of papal jurisdiction over an imperial election. He established the right of the pope to choose one of the candidates as emperor in a decretal letter, Venerabilem, which quickly became part of canon law of the Church. Innocent promulgated a number of decrees that in which he claimed papal authority over a number of secular matters. Papal claims of secular authority and power over the Papal States in Central Italy led to further conflicts with the Emperor frederick ii (12121250) during the thirteenth century. Innocent's successors, popes Gregory IX (12271241) and Innocent IV (12431254), carried on Innocent's campaign to establish the papacy as the highest tribunal of Christendom. Gregory and Innocent excommunicated Frederick II when he threatened papal authority and lordship in Italy. Finally Innocent IV convened a general council in the city of Lyon (1245). He summoned Frederick II to stand trial and charged Frederick with a variety of crimes. When the emperor refused to submit to the Council, Innocent excommunicated him and called upon the king of France to launch a crusade against him. Frederick died a few years later.

This last sorry spectacle was the final battle in the war to establish a single, universal authority in Christendom. The Holy Roman Church triumphed over the Holy Roman Empire. After the death of Frederick II and after the long interregnum that followed, the Holy Roman Empire was little more than one medieval kingdom among many. The interregnum was ended in 1273 by the election of Rudolph I of Hapsburg, and under his successors the Medieval Roman Empire grew even more limited in power and territory. The kings of the national monarchies adopted many imperial prerogatives formerly reserved for emperors. In the later Middle Ages some of these kings attempted to exercise lordship over the Church that had similarities to the authority claimed by the Germanic emperors before the Investiture Controversy. From 1438 the Holy Roman Empire came to be the virtual possession of the house of Hapsburg and so lingered on as a mere relic of its medieval greatness, until its final dissolution in 1806.

Bibliography: j. b. bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (New York 1919). j. w. thompson, Feudal Germany (Chicago 1928). g. barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (2d ed. Oxford 1957; pa. New York 1963). k. hampe, Deutsche Kaisergeschichte in der Zeit der Salier und Staufer, ed. f. baethgen (10th ed. Heidelberg 1949). f. kempf, Papsttum und Kaisertum bei Innocenz III.: Die geistigen und rechlichen Grundlagen seiner Thronstriet politik (Miscellanea Historiae Pontificiae 58; Rome 1954). w. goez, Translatio imperii (Tübingen 1958). g. tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, tr. r. f. bennett (Oxford 1959). t. e. mommsen and k. f. morrison, trs., Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century (New York 1962). b. tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 10501300 (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1964, reprint Toronto 1994). r. mckitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751987 (London-New York 1983). t. reuter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 8001056 (Longman History of Germany; London-New York 1991). h. fuhrmann, Germany in the High Middle Ages c. 10501200, trans. t. reuter (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks; Cambridge 1986). a. haverkamp, Medieval Germany 10561273, trans. h. braun and r. mortimer (2nd ed. Oxford 1988). d. abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (London 1992). k. pennington, The Prince and the Law: Sovereignty and Rights in the Western Legal Tradition (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1993).

[k. pennington]

Holy Roman Empire

views updated May 18 2018

Holy Roman Empire

Type of Government

The Holy Roman Empire was a federation of kingdoms and principalities whose boundaries radiated out from what is present-day Germany. At its peak it included most of northern Italy, Switzerland, the Burgundy region of France, Adriatic Sea coastal territories, and a large section of eastern Europe. Its vast landscape, however, made it difficult to rule, and its emperors lost increasing amounts of power to local princes and nobles in the millennium after its founding in 800. It featured a system of elective monarchy, with a ruler chosen from among the group of electors who met upon the death of an emperor. These were the princes, prince-bishops, hereditary nobles, and representatives of the “free cities” who held power in their respective areas.


The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) famously asserted that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Those three descriptive terms were taken up by successive emperors to add authority to their title as they styled themselves heirs to the Roman Empire of antiquity and challenged the power of the papacy in Rome. In western Europe the last true Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus (fifth century), was forced to abdicate in 476 by the Germanic tribes that overran the Italian peninsula. More than three hundred years later, in 800, Charlemagne (742–814), the king of the Franks—the most successful of the Germanic tribes—was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III (d. 816) after a four-decade-long war of conquest to subdue the remnants of the Roman Empire. This event, which took place in Rome on Christmas Day, is considered the founding date of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne’s son Louis I (778–840) inherited the throne, but when Louis died in 840, he divided it between his three sons, and they warred with one another until the Treaty of Verdun settled the conflict in 843. The three separate divisions they agreed to effectively created France, Lorraine, and Germany. Charlemagne’s grandson, Louis II (c. 804–876), reigned over what was the German part, known as East Francia. One of his heirs was Otto I (912–973), who was crowned by Pope John XII (937?–964) in 962.

Government Structure

Otto began a series of reforms that strengthened his rule. He appointed bishops of the church and granted them rights as feudal landholders. This ensured their loyalty in an era before the pope in Rome gained firm control of the far-flung clergy. Otto’s heirs were initially elected to the title “King of the Romans” by the nobles in the realm, a holdover from the councils of Germanic tribal chiefs that chose their kings; the second title, “Holy Roman Emperor,” came after a journey to Rome to be crowned by the reigning pope. The group of nobles increased in authority over the years and evolved into the College of Electors, a term first recorded in 1152. Two centuries later, a fixed membership of seven for the college was set by Emperor Charles IV (1316–1378) in the Golden Bull (decree) of 1356. From this point forward, the seven electors of the Holy Roman emperor would be the three archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, and the four secular princes of Bohemia, Palatine, Brandenburg, and Saxony. It also gave the electors firm authority over their respective territories.

The borders of the Holy Roman Empire shifted almost constantly over the millennium of its existence, and complete control over the imperial estates, as they were called, was impossible. Instead, they were ruled as feudal territories and kingdoms by kings, princes, dukes, and other nobles. By 1300 several “free cities” had emerged, too, which were usually governed by a council of nobles and enjoyed special privileges, including an tax-exempt status and release from any obligation to muster troops for wars elsewhere in the empire.

The emperor ruled with the advice of his nobles, who were summoned intermittently at imperial diets (deliberative assemblies). Here, they weighed in on military matters, foreign policy, and internal issues. In 1495 they became a regular body after a series of reforms were enacted that vastly reshaped the governing structure of the federation. This was done to strengthen the realm, which had by then disintegrated precipitously after several centuries of war. The Imperial Reform, as it was known, affirmed several points: a Perpetual Public Peace was declared, barring the imperial estates from making war on one another; a court was created as the supreme judicial authority for the empire; six Imperial Circles were defined, each to have its own regional police and military as well as territorial diets; and an imperial standing army was established. The army was to be financed by a general property tax known as the Common Penny, but it was an unpopular measure that proved nearly impossible to collect and was soon abandoned.

The overall administration of the empire was overseen by three bodies: the imperial chancellery of the emperor, the imperial chancellery at Mainz, and the imperial diet. The six Imperial Circles of the post-1495 era consisted of Bavaria, Swabia, Upper Rhenish lands, Westphalia, Franconia, and Lower Saxony. A few years later, four more were added to bring the total to ten. These were Burgundia, Austria, Upper Saxony, and the Electoral Rhenish circle. Each circle had authority over its administrative, fiscal, police, and military matters, and was supervised by the hereditary princes or councils elected by landowners within it.

Subsequent reforms brought about the creation of the Perpetual Diet in 1663, a permanent parliamentary body based in the city of Regensburg. Its members were envoys selected from each of the estates and cities of the realm. It consisted of three deliberative councils: the formal electors of the emperor, called the Council of Electors; the Council of Princes, which numbered about fifty; and the Ecclesiastical Bench, whose members were important abbots and representatives of the knightly orders. There was also the Council of Imperial Cities, which did not enjoy equal footing but was included on some votes. Its members were representatives from the fifty-five free cities of the realm.

The judiciary of the Holy Roman Empire consisted of the Imperial Aulic Council and the Imperial Chamber Court, both formalized with the 1495 Imperial Reform. The Aulic Council was not a permanent body, but its members were chosen by the emperor. It consisted of three executives and eighteen councilors and had jurisdiction over all feudal claims and criminal offenses. The Chamber Court dealt with civil matters, such as property disputes, and became notorious in the annals of European legal history for the length of its deliberations—some cases took decades to resolve. Its judges were appointed by the emperor as well.

Political Parties and Factions

Charlemagne’s heirs made up the first line of the Holy Roman emperors, called the Carolingian dynasty. The Ottonian dynasty began with Otto I in 962 and eventually passed over to another German princely family, the Salian dynasty, in 1024. Frederick I (c. 1123–1190) was the first among the Hohenstaufen dynasty to become emperor. Over time, various royal houses competed to win the election, and bribes to the electors were not uncommon. Frederick III (1415–1493) became emperor in 1452, beginning a long line of Habsburg rulers that endured until the empire came to an end in 1806.

In the history of the Holy Roman Empire and its authority, the role that the Roman Catholic Church played was enormous. A series of divisive ideological conflicts and then outright wars defined the empire and the papacy, and those conflicts shaped European history and the boundaries of nations. This competition stretched all the way back to one of the original Roman emperors, Constantine I (d. 337), who converted to Christianity and outlawed the persecution of Christians in the realm. His conversion essentially overlaid a state religion over the lands conquered by Roman armies, and served to give the rulers that followed a powerful moral authority over the people. This influence, however, also pitted them against a papacy that, in the later medieval era, also sought to exert its rights. In the next seven hundred years, Constantine’s successors and the post-Charlemagne rulers who took the title “Emperors of the West”—the west European arm of Christianity, separate from the Eastern Church in Constantinople—exercised power over bishops of the church. In time, they and their local princes even appointed the bishops themselves, often choosing family members or others whom they knew would be loyal.

Popes could excommunicate Holy Roman emperors, a drastic measure that barred them from the Christian community and imperiled their secular power until they offered formal repentance. One of them was Henry IV (1050–1106), who famously crossed the Alps wearing the hair shirt of the penitent—and, by some accounts, shoeless as well—in the winter of 1076–1077 to seek absolution from Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020–1085) at Canossa, a fortress in Italy. Later emperors sought to exert their power further south on the Italian peninsula in lands known as the Papal States, which prompted another series of costly conflicts.

Major Events

The millennium-long history of the Holy Roman Empire is marked by several dates notable as turning points in European history. Charlemagne’s crowning on Christmas Day of 800 is one, as is the Treaty of Verdun agreed to by his heirs in 843; its boundaries essentially created France, Germany, and the area between the two powers, Lorraine. In 962 Otto I invaded northern Italy and added its city-states to his realm; these were lost in 1167 when Frederick I conceded victory to the Lombard League. Various emperors, armies, and individual territories of the empire also played a crucial role in the Crusades, including Frederick I, who died in Turkey in 1190 during the Third Crusade (1189–1192).

In 1273 Rudolf I (1218–1291) was elected emperor, and he allied with King László IV (1262–1290) of Hungary to lead an army into Bohemia; this kernel of territory, and the granting of the city of Vienna special rights, formed the basis of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, another seat of Habsburg power. By 1347 the Black Death was decimating large portions of the Holy Roman Empire, and the population loss led to economic shifts that paved the way for the end of feudal dominance as well as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In 1454 in the Holy Roman Empire archbishopric of Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg (1390–c. 1468), perfected the movable type and the first printing press in the known world. The Peace of Augsburg, concluded in 1555, ended devastating religious wars in Germany and gave the local authorities the right to decree one of three state religions: Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia firmly established sovereign states within the Holy Roman Empire, a development that eventually helped bring about its dissolution in 1806, when the last Holy Roman emperor, Francis II (1768–1835), abdicated during the Napoléonic Wars.


Historians cite the Peace of Westphalia as the starting point for European history’s modern era, when the concept of sovereign states came fully into being. The phrase “Westphalian system” came to refer to some basic tenets of Western democracy, including equal standing among nations and respect for religious freedoms. These principles were disputed by the rise of Adolf Hitler’s (1889–1945) Third Reich in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Nazi Party ideology glorified the idea of a vast empire of German-speaking lands, similar to a theoretical “first reich” that began under Charlemagne, and was resurrected in the nineteenth century as imperial Germany under the kaisers.

Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bryce, James. The Holy Roman Empire. New York: AMS Press, 1978.

Wilson, Peter H. The Holy Roman Empire 1495–1806. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Holy Roman Empire

views updated Jun 27 2018

Holy Roman Empire


The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire is usually dated to the decision of Charlemagne (742814), king of the Franks, to assume an imperial title on Christmas Day, 800. The exact reasons for this remain a matter of dispute, but were clearly related to Charlemagnes personal mission to establish Christian rule in western and central Europe. The original empire was partitioned in 843, with the eastern portion retaining the association with the Christian imperial mission. This assumed greater ideological significance with the coronation of Otto I (r. 936973) in Rome in 962 as he consciously invoked not only continuity with Charlemagnes empire, but that of ancient Rome. The concept of imperial translation claimed that the empire was a direct continuation of that of ancient Rome in its final, Christian configuration, and so was the last of the four world monarchies prophesied in the Bible to rule over the earth before the Day of Judgment. Such ideas buttressed the emperors claim to be the supreme overlord of all other Christian rulers and thus the secular arm of a single, universal Christendom, leading to a prolonged dispute with the papacy.

The Christianizing mission combined with internal population growth to push the empire across the river Elbe early in the twelfth century, making it the largest polity in Europe until the growth of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. This expansion was assisted by the relative continuity of three successive imperial dynasties: the Ottonians (9191024), the Salians (10241125), and the Staufers (11381254). However, the growth of more distinct kingdoms in western Europe restricted the emperors practical authority to the lands east of the Rhine and north of the Alps. Moreover, the emperor only ruled a small portion of the vast area directly, relying on a host of secular and spiritual lords, as well as autonomous cities to manage local and regional affairs. These lords (increasingly called princes) and cities evolved as the imperial estates (Reichsstände ) between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, each controlling a distinct territory within the empire, with their own subordinate clergy, nobility, towns, and rural communes.

The absence of a single imperial dynasty after 1254 assisted this process and led to an elective imperial title that became entrenched in Germany and could be assumed without papal participation. Following the demise of the Luxembourg dynasty (13471437), the title passed by election to the Habsburgs, who retained it with only a single break (17401745) until the end of the empire in 1806. The onset of prolonged warfare with France and the Ottomans coincided with the confessional strife of the Reformation, and social and economic change. These pressures forced constitutional change from the late fifteenth century, creating an elaborate web of written and customary rights intended to preserve the autonomy of the imperial estates and the corporate structure of central European society within a hierarchical political framework under the emperors overall authority, but not his direct rule. The growth of Austria and Prussia as distinct European great powers undermined this structure from within and led to its collapse during the Napoleonic Wars when the last emperor abdicated in 1806.

SEE ALSO Church, The


Arnold, Benjamin. 1997. Medieval Germany, 5001300: A Political Interpretation. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.

Wilson, Peter H. 1999. The Holy Roman Empire, 14951806. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.

Peter H. Wilson

Holy Roman Empire

views updated May 14 2018

Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire, a political organization made up of states in central Europe, existed from 962 until 1806. By the late 1400s, the empire covered an area that reached from France in the west to Denmark in the north and to Poland and Hungary in the east. This vast empire was one of the great powers of Europe during the Renaissance.

Origins. During the Middle Ages many viewed the Holy Roman Empire as the successor to the ancient Roman Empire. The pope had granted the title of emperor to Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, in a.d. 800. But the empire only took full shape in 962, when the pope crowned Otto I as emperor. Otto controlled the eastern lands of Charlemagne's old empire. In the 1100s and 1200s, the rulers began to refer to their realm as the Holy Roman Empire. The link between the empire and the Roman Catholic Church made the realm "holy."

The ruler of the Holy Roman Empire also held the title "king of the Romans." However, he received his two titles in different ways. Emperor Charles IV passed a law in 1356 decreeing that seven electors would have responsibility for choosing the king of the Romans. Four of these electors were secular* rulers and the other three were high church officials. This law, called the Golden Bull, laid out the exact procedure for choosing the king, up to and including his coronation.

Originally, the king of the Romans became Holy Roman Emperor when the pope crowned him in a special ceremony in Rome. However, in 1508 Maximilian I assumed the title of "Elected Roman Emperor" without the aid of the pope because he was unable to pass through Italy to Rome. In 1530 Emperor Charles V became the last Holy Roman Emperor crowned in Italy. The emperors that followed were still elected and crowned king of the Romans. However, each took the title of emperor on the death of the old emperor without a separate coronation by the pope. Although the electors could choose any prince* as their emperor, between 1438 and 1740 the title always fell to a member of the Habsburg dynasty.

The Imperial Diet. The Holy Roman Emperor did not hold absolute control over his realm. A legislative body known as the imperial diet had the power to approve or reject his decisions. The members of the diet were princes and representatives from imperial cities—that is, cities that fell directly under the control of the emperor, such as Augsburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, NÜrnberg, Regensburg, Strasbourg, and Ulm. In the early 1500s, the Holy Roman Empire included more than 70 imperial cities.

The members of the diet met only when the emperor summoned them. After 1489 the diet split into three separate groups, known as "colleges." The electors sat in one college, the imperial princes in another, and the representatives of imperial cities in a third. The college of imperial princes had two smaller divisions called "benches," one for secular princes and one for bishops and other church officials.

At the beginning of the session, the emperor presented various proposals for discussion. These often concerned the military, the justice system, or the collection of taxes. Representatives from each college discussed and revised the emperor's proposals. Only when all three colleges had hammered out a version that the emperor approved would the proposal become imperial law. Until the early 1600s, the diet met at irregular intervals. After 1663 it became a permanent governing body located in the imperial city of Regensburg.

Reform and Reformation. In the 1400s and 1500s, Holy Roman Emperors introduced a series of reforms to renew the Holy Roman Empire and give it greater security. For example, the imperial diet of 1495, which met in the city of Worms, proclaimed a permanent peace throughout the empire. This announcement aimed to restrict feuds within the realm.

In the early 1500s, the Protestant Reformation* swept across the Holy Roman Empire. Many imperial princes joined the new movement. In 1530 these Protestant princes presented a new declaration of faith at the imperial diet in Augsburg. From that time onward, disputes between Catholic and Protestant forces became more common in the empire.

Religious disputes interfered with the workings of the Chamber Court of Justice, the empire's highest court, which had been founded in 1495. In many cases, the court used religion as a basis for judging disputes, which led to calls for reform, especially from Protestants. Over time, another institution of justice, the imperial council, gained influence. In 1559 this council began to take over the function of a supreme court.

Protestant princes within the Holy Roman Empire formed an alliance against Catholics, known as the Schmalkaldic League. In 1446 they rose up in the Schmalkaldic War, but Charles V defeated them the following year. However, he could not wipe out the Protestant faith in his realm. In 1555 Protestant and Catholic princes reached a compromise called the Peace of Augsburg, which allowed each prince to choose the religion practiced in his realm. This agreement helped calm the religious aspects of the empire for the next 50 years.

However, religious issues continued to complicate the work of the diet. Members from Protestant areas often refused to discuss new taxes unless the diet also agreed to a debate on religious matters. In 1648 the diet finally settled on a method of treating religious and political issues separately.

Social Unrest. Like the rest of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire experienced a steady growth in population throughout the 1500s. Between 1500 and 1600 the population nearly doubled. This increase led to various problems, such as rising prices, falling wages, and shortages of agricultural products. These problems were most severe in towns, where about 10 percent of the population lived. Poverty increased, and with it came social unrest.

In the countryside, most peasants still lived as serfs*. They depended on their lords and had to provide them with money, crops, or labor. The lords determined how peasants could use their land. They also controlled peasant marriages and had the power to prohibit peasants from moving from one place to another. Throughout the 1500s, lords in the Holy Roman Empire raised peasants' dues, making their living conditions still worse. In 1524 the serfs rose up in the Peasants' War, one of the greatest rural revolts in the history of the empire. Peasants demanded lower dues, an end to serfdom, and other changes. Although the princes crushed the revolt in 1525, local peasant uprisings continued during the 1500s and 1600s.

Despite problems and crises, the Holy Roman Empire was one of the strongest political systems in Europe during the Renaissance. It remained a major European power until the late 1600s. The Holy Roman Empire came to an end in 1806, when the last emperor, Francis II, gave up the imperial crown and the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

(See alsoMiddle Ages. )

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* prince

Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually let to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

Renaissance Emperors

Albert II (1438–1439)
Frederick III (1440–1493)
Maximilian I (1493–1519)
Charles V (1519–1556)
Ferdinand I (1558–1564)
Maximilian II (1564–1576)
Rudolf II (1576–1612)
Matthias (1612–1619)
Ferdinand II (1619–1637)

* serf

peasant who owes service and loyalty to a lord

Holy Roman Empire

views updated May 23 2018

Holy Roman Empire European Empire centred on Germany (10th–19th centuries), which echoed the Empire of ancient Rome. It was founded (962) when the German king Otto I (the Great) was crowned in Rome, although some historians date it from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. The Emperor, elected by the German Princes, claimed to be the temporal sovereign of Christendom, ruling in cooperation with the spiritual sovereign, the Pope. However, the Empire never encompassed all of western Christendom, and relations with the papacy were often difficult. From 1438, the title was virtually hereditary in the Habsburg dynasty. After 1648, the Empire became little more than a loose confederation, containing hundreds of virtually independent states. Napoleon I finally abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

Holy Roman Empire

views updated May 21 2018

Ho·ly Ro·man Em·pire the empire set up in western Europe following the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor in the year 800. It was created by the medieval papacy in an attempt to unite Christendom under one rule. At times the territory of the empire was extensive and included Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Italy and the Netherlands.

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Holy Roman Empire

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