Fundament to world history, shaping nations, politics and religion for one thousand years, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) is one of the most recurrent topics in schools all around the world. Despite its undiscussed importance though – what in the world was the Holy Roman Empire? If you ever happened to lie about »obviously knowing« what the HRE is all about, this story might be for you.
Are you a historian? Well, forgive me.
When I realized that this story is as important as confusing, I decided to sit down, oversimplify history and break down the basics of the HRE. So, where should we start from? Well, from the beginning. Let’s start from the Romans (please, don’t run away, I’ll keep it short!).
In 395 AD the Roman Emperor Theodosius I split the Roman territory into the Western and Eastern Roman Empire and assigned each of his two sons a half to rule. The Empire was not formally split though, as it continued to be seen as one entity with Rome as spiritual capital. Over the next 100 years, both parts of the Empire were constantly endangered by invasions of Barbaric tribes from the North and East, and in this time of crisis, instead of working together, both the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire simply minded their own business. After losing most of its territories, the Western Roman Empire fell in the year 476 AD.
The Eastern Roman Empire remained stable at first, while the territories in the West were taken over by mostly Franks and Germanic people in the following centuries. In the attempt to take full control on the former Western Roman regions, the Franks succeeded in a series of conquests and at the end of the 8th century, the King of all Francia Charlemagne managed to raise the most powerful nation in Europe. While Charlemagne was growing popular, Pope Leo III in Rome was fighting rebellions against his authority. And so, the two of them found each other: Charlemagne defeated the rebellion in Rome, and the Pope, instead of sending a nice thank you card, crowned him as Roman Emperor on Christmas Day of the year 800 AD.
Hold on, what about the Eastern Roman Empire?
That’s a great question! The Eastern Roman Empire not only still existed, but it even had a crowned Roman Empress called Irene, based in Constantinople as legitimate ruler. So how did Charlemagne and Leo III get around this?
The Pope assured the legitimacy of the Emperor in return for any future military aid. The Papacy eventually stated that the title of Roman Emperor originated from nobody else but God, whose will would act through the Pope and consequently be given to the Emperor. As it had been decided that the title could only be given by God himself to a man, Empress Irene’s title was not recognised.
A couple of decades later, with the Treaty of Verdun, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided this massive nation into 3 parts: Western Francia (France), Eastern Francia (Germany) and last but not least Middle Francia (the Netherlands and Italy), which ended up being subject to a never-ending dispute between France and Germany.
What follows next, is an almost unbearable series of plots, plot twists, civil wars, co-Emperors, counter-Popes and a huge number of names, which resulted with the Kingdom of Germany taking over the Empire with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa I in 1157. The Roman Empire, which was seen as a continuation of the Ancient Empire, was renamed to »Holy Roman Empire« by Barbarossa himself, as a reflection of his ambition to dominate the Papacy.
How did the Empire work?
Over the centuries, the Empire slowly became a lose collection of territories such as counties, duchies, free cities. At its greatest extent, the HRE covered modern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, eastern France, western Poland and northern Italy.
There was no capital city, as the HRE was ruled from where the Emperor was at the moment. In order to be able to control the huge territory, the HRE was organized in administrative areas called Imperial Circles. While the rulers of single states promised their loyalty to the Emperor, those promises were worth absolute zero, as treason was daily occurrence. The states were not all equal as part of a strict hierarchy. Their status also changed constantly, as rulers inherited, divided or mortgaged lands in exchange for money.
The lack of central power also meant that the HRE looked just like Game of Thrones season 4: poisonings, betrayals and trials by combats, as everyone wanted more and tried to siege other regions. Officially though, the power was divided between the Emperor and the Diet, through which the administrators of the single territories (such as Dukes, Princes, Bishops, Counts) had a say in government’s matters. The Imperial Diet was divided in three colleges: Electors, who had the job of electing the Emperors; Princes, men from the nobility who tried to make themselves more important than what they were; cities, with representatives of the free cities of the Empire, which had very little power.
From 1356 on, Emperors were officially chosen by 7 Electors, even though at the end of the day most rulers came from the same Houses. The Habsburg, for instance, ruled the HRE from the 15th to the 19th century, with only a brief interruption in 1742. In case you are still following and wondering, how the Habsburg managed to stay in power for so long, well that’s easy enough to explain. You see, the Electors not only voted for the Emperor himself, but they also chose the next Emperor to be (who usually was nobody else but the Emperor’s son) and officially agreed to him in an electoral capitulation. By doing this, they pretty much guaranteed the rights of succession to an entire House.
What goes around comes around
Remember about the Kingdom of Francia losing against the Kingdom of Germany in the fight for the Empire? Well, France surely got its revenge by the end of the 18th century, as a gentleman called Napoleon Bonaparte took control over France after the Revolution and proclaimed himself King of the French. He managed to invade pretty much the entire HRE with the blink of an eye and even sieged Vienna twice.
In front of Napoleon’s power, not even a resolute Habsburg had a say. And so it happened that a very stubborn Emperor called Francis II, declared that he’d rather quit his job than watch Napoleon take his crown. Before the shocked eyes of Europe, cold hearted Francis II declared the Holy Roman Empire for dissolved in 1806. As you can imagine, the dissolution of the HRE deserves a chapter of its own, reason why I will finally come to a conclusion to this story and may pick it up again at a different time.
What have we learned from it? Ideally, we have more clarity on what the Holy Roman Empire was all about, practically though, I must admit that the story can be summed up as one thousand years of pure memes. Or as Voltaire once said, the Holy Roman Empire »was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.«
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