History of the Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empirewas the medieval state that embraced most of central Europe andItaly under the rule of the German kings from 962 to 1806. It wasconsidered to be a restoration and continuation of the ancientRoman Empire, although in fact it had little in common with itspredecessor. Earlier, the Frankish king Charlemagne had revivedthe same name. His Roman Empire lasted from 800 to 925. In 962,Otto I of Germany and Pope John XII cooperated in a secondrevival. Threatened in his possession of the Papal States byBerengar II, king of Italy, John begged Otto to come to his aid.Otto did so, and the Pope solemnly crowned him Emperor of theRomans as a reward. From this time, the German kings claimed theright to rule the empire.
TheTheory of the Empire
In theory, the HolyRoman Empire (the word "Holy" was added during the 12thcentury) reflected two important medieval values: the unity ofall Christians, or at least all Western Christians, in a singlestate as the civil counterpart to the One Holy Catholic Church;and a concept of hierarchical political organisation that calledfor one ultimate head over all existing states. In practice, theempire never fully conformed to either ideal. France and England, forexample, never acknowledged any real subordination to the emperor,although they recognised a vague supremacy in him. The empire's aims varied according tothe program and philosophy of the many emperors and popes whocontrolled its destiny. The German kings - who called themselves kings ofthe Romans, not kings of Germany, as soon as they were elected by the Germanprinces - considered themselves entitled to become Roman emperor assoon as they could arrange the imperial coronation, which wassupposed to take place in Rome at the hands of the Pope. (By laterconvention, they are called kings of Germany, however, and many ofthem never secured imperial coronation.) From the ruler's point ofview, the imperial title established his right to control Italy andBurgundy as well as Germany and was thus a potential source ofpower, wealth, and prestige. The Empire's vast size and thedisparity of its peoples, however, were serious obstacles toeffective rule and good government.
The churchmen whocrowned the emperors, and thus actually sustained the Empire,considered it to be the church's secular arm, sharingresponsibility for the welfare and spread of the Christian faithand duty-bound to protect the Papacy.This view of therelationship between church and state, which dated from the reignof Roman emperor Constantine I, was generally accepted by bothemperors and Popes. In practice, however, this partnership seldomworked smoothly, as one of the partners inevitably tried todominate the other.Frequent fluctuations in the actual power and vitality of eachindividual as well as changes in the prevailing political andtheological theories gave a fluid, dynamic quality to theempire's history.
The history of the HolyRoman Empire can be divided into four periods: the age ofemperors, the age of princes, the early Habsburg period, and thefinal phase.
(I)Age of the Emperors
The first age, from 962to 1250, was dominated by the strong emperors of the Saxon,Salian (or Franconian), and Hohenstaufen dynasties. Theseemperors made serious efforts to control Italy, which inpractical political terms was the most important part of theempire. Their power, however, depended on their German resources,which were never great. Italy consisted of the Lombard area, withits wealthy towns; the Papal States; scattered regions stillclaimed by the Byzantine Empire; and the Norman kingdom of Naplesand Sicily. The emperors generally tried to govern throughexisting officials such as counts and bishops rather than bycreating a direct administrative system. The papacy, weak anddisturbed by the Roman aristocracy, needed the emperors, who,during the Saxon and early Salian generations, thought of theBishop of Rome as subject to the same kind of control that theyexercised over their own German bishops. Henry III, for example,deposed unsatisfactory Popes and nominated new ones as he deemedfit.
During the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V in the late 11th andearly 12th centuries, the papacy was influenced by a powerfulreform movement that demanded an end to lay domination. PopesGregory VII and Urban II insisted on independence for the papacyand for the church in general during the Investiture Controversy.Later Popes continued jealously to guard their freedom, and thisproduced conflict with the Hohenstaufen emperors Frederick I andFrederick II, both of whom wanted to exercise control over all ofItaly. The later Hohenstaufen emperors gained control of the Normankingdom in southern Italy and declared it a fief of the popes, whonevertheless worried about their independence and often supportedthe emperors' Lombard foes. In the 13th century, Popes InnocentIII, Gregory IX, and Innocent IV restricted the authority of OttoIV and Frederick II in many bitter disputes.
(II)Age of the Princes
During the age of theprinces, from 1250 to 1438, the emperors were much weaker. Theyexercised minimal authority in Italy, and many of them were nevercrowned emperor by the pope. Even in Germany their power wasreduced, for Frederick II had dissipated royal prerogatives andresources in his northern lands while struggling to dominateItaly. The emperors were unable to restrain the German nobles orto resist French encroachments on the western frontiers of theempire, and the Slavic rulers in the east rejected all imperialoverlordship. The Guelphs, or anti-imperialists in Italy (seeGuelfs and Ghibellines), spoke of ending the empire or transferringit to the French kings. Political theorists such as Engelbert ofAdmont (1250-1331), Alexander of Roes (fl. late 13th century), andeven Dante, however, insisted that the German emperors were needed.Marsilius of Padua, in his Defensor pacis, argued for theend of all papal influence on the empire.
At this time the practice of electing the German king, oremperor, was given formal definition by the Golden Bull (1356) ofEmperor Charles IV. This document, which defined the status of theseven German princely electors, made it clear that the emperor heldoffice by election rather than hereditary right. The electorsusually chose insignificant rulers who could not interfere with theelectors' privileges, but such rulers could neither governeffectively nor maintain imperial rights. Their power was largelylimited to strengthening their own families. The empireconsequently began to disintegrate into nearly independentterritories or self-governing groups such as the HanseaticLeague.
(III)Early Habsburg Period
After 1438 the electorsalmost always chose a member of the Habsburg dynasty of Austriaas king; the one exception was the election (1742) of theBavarian Charles VII. The Habsburg Frederick III wasthe last emperor to be crowned in Rome; his great-grandsonCharles V was the last to be crowned by a pope.
By this timea few of the more farsighted princes saw the need to strengthenthe empire's central government. From 1485 to 1555 thesereformers strove to create a federal system. The diet, originallya loose assembly of princes, had been organised into threestrata-electors, princes, and representatives of the imperialcities-by the Golden Bull and came to resemble a legislature. In1500 it was proposed that an executive committee (Reichsregiment)appointed by the diet be given administrative authority. A systemof imperial courts was created, and permanent institutions toprovide for defence and taxation were also discussed. The variousstates were organised into ten districts or circles.
These reform efforts seldom worked, however, because the princeswould not relinquish their jurisdiction. The situation was furthercomplicated by the advent of the Reformation, which fosteredreligious conflicts that divided the principalities against oneanother. In addition, the princes became alarmed at the sudden growthof power of the Habsburgs when that dynasty acquired Spain. Under theguise of the Counter-Reformation, Ferdinand II and Ferdinand IIItried to concentrate power in their hands, but defeat in the ThirtyYears' War undid their efforts and proved that the empire could notreform itself.
After the Treaty ofWestphalia (1648) the Holy Roman Empire was little more than aloose confederation of about 300 independent principalities and1,500 or more semi-sovereign bodies or individuals. Threats fromthe Ottoman Empire or from Louis XIV of France occasionallystimulated imperial cooperation, but usually each stateconsidered only its own welfare. The Austrian-Prussian wars,Hanover's acquisition of the English throne, and Saxony's holdingof the Polish crown exemplify the particularism that prevailed.
Napoleon I finally destroyed the empire. After defeating Austriaand its imperial allies in 1797 and 1801, he annexed some Germanland and suggested that the larger territories compensate themselvesby confiscating the free cities and ecclesiastical states. By theDiet's Recess (1803), 112 small states were thus seized by theirneighbours. Three years later Napoleon compelled 16 German statesto form the Confederation of the Rhine and to secede from theempire. On March 6, 1806, Francis II, who had previously assumed the titleof Emperor of Austria, abdicated as Holy Roman Emperor and declaredthe old empire dissolved.