Peashooter’s Basic Guide to the Holy Roman Empire (800 - 1806)
Note: I did this completely off the top of my head only using a reference to look up exact dates.
Perhaps one of the most confusing and contradictory empires in world history would be the Holy Roman Empire. Everyone knows of the Roman Empire, which dominated Ancient Europe. Most people know that the Roman Empire split into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. Many people even know that when the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire, aka Byzantine Empire, kept ticking until the Fall of Constantinople in 1458. However, many have probably seen me use the term “Holy Roman Empire” or “Holy Roman Emperor” several times throughout this blog. I’m sure some of you may be confused as to what the Holy Roman Empire is, confusing it with the ancient Roman Empire. I will start by saying this; the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy, not Roman, and nor was it an empire.
The Formation of the Empire; Charlemagne and the Carolingians.
After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Europe was carved up into various independent Germanic kingdoms. While the Western Roman Empire was dead, there was always an urge among Europeans to restore the glory of Rome and bring back the ancient institutions of the Roman Empire. After all, Europe was unified under the Romans for hundreds of years stretching back into antiquity. In the year 800 a Frankish (French) king named Charlemagne, who belonged to a family called the Carolingians, conquered a large empire that included France, Italy, Germany, Austria, as well as parts of Spain and Eastern Europe.
For once in over 300 years Europe was once again united under one powerful realm. On Christmas day in the year 800 Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans”, and declared Charlemagne to be a continuation of the Roman Emperors. To further his image of a Roman Emperor who ruled over a Roman Empire, Charlemagne kicked off what would be later called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Renaissance was a period in the early Middle Ages characterized by a revival of Roman law and classical art, architecture, and learning. Charlemagne even had coins struck depicting him wearing a toga and olive wreath, with the Latin inscription Karolus Imperator Augustus (Carol Emperor Augustus).
It seemed that Charlemagne and his Carolingians were well on their way to reviving the Roman Empire. The empire was holy because its emperor was personally crowned by the Pope. The empire was Roman because it had Rome in it (even though the capitol was Aachen, Germany) and revived ancient Roman institutions. Thus the new empire would take the name, “The Holy Roman Empire”.
The Empire Ceases to be Roman… or Holy
By 900 the Carolingian Dynasty had come to an end, and with it so too did the unified Roman Empire. The kingdoms and realms that made up the empire realized they had other interests to pursue rather than pretending to be Romans. France and most of Italy dropped out, leaving the Roman mantle on Germany. After a while, the empire ceased to be Roman and became more German. Furthermore the Holy Roman Emperors became more and more independent from the Pope. In 1155 Frederick I Barbarossa was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In a quest for legitimacy Frederick I sought to make his empire more Roman.
Like Charlemagne before him, Frederick commissioned a revival of Roman law and institutions. More importantly Frederick sought to conquer Italy. The purpose of this was to show the Pope that he was master of Europe and did not have to take orders from him. Also, how can one call himself a Roman Emperor without controlling Rome? Frederick came close, conquering much of Northern Italy, however he only briefly controlled Rome and his conquests in Italy ended there. On the 10th of June 1190, he was leading an army on crusade to the Holy Land (penance for ticking off the Pope) when he fell into a river and drowned because of his heavy armor. Ironically during WWII Barbarossa became the code name for the German Operation to invade and conquer Russia, which ended in failure, a fitting tribute to Frederick’s legacy.
The Empire Ceases to be an Empire
In 1395 a council of German nobles brokered a deal with the Emperor in which a council representing the nobles, called a Diet, would have to approve of a new emperor through election. Furthermore everything the Emperor did had to be approved by the Diet. The Emperor could still make laws but needed consent of the Diet. This weakened the power of the Emperor and placed more control in the hands of local governments. In 1495 the Diet of Worms convened and passed a law which revolutionized the empire. While a Diet of Worms may sound nasty, its not what you think. The Diet was held in the city of Worms, Germany, thus the Diet of Worms. Anyway the Diet created a slew of laws dealing with currency, trade, and banned blood feuding. While mundane the fact that the law was created in the first place was incredible. Never before had the Diet ever created a law on its own, that’s what the Emperor did. The result of the Diet of Worms in 1495 was a sidelining of the Emperors power. The Emperor became a ceremonial or symbolic figure much like the kings and queens of the United Kingdom today. The Holy Roman Empire broke down into an entity composed of a dozen small, independent kingdoms. While the realm still retained the name “Holy Roman Empire”, it was more like a loose confederacy. Each realm was very different, and the differences became greater with the Protestant Revolution and the introduction of Lutheranism and Calvinism. Generally the kingdoms minded their own business, only uniting to deal with emergencies, make war, and repel invaders. With the exception of when Germany became a part of Spanish Empire in the 1500’s (the Hapsburg Empire), power remained decentralized until the end of the empire.
The Empire Ceases to be
In its beginning in 800 AD the Holy Roman Empire was built by a Frenchman who styled himself a Roman Emperor (Charlemagne). Ironically the empire would be destroyed by another Frenchman who styled himself a Roman Emperor.
In the early 1800’s the French general, soon to be emperor Napoleon Bonaparte easily trampled the German kingdoms with his massive Grande Armee. By then the empire consisted of dozens of small kingdoms, dukedoms, fiefs, and city states.
The Holy Roman Empire could offer little resistance. In 1806 the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated his throne. Napoleon reorganized the empire into a puppet state called the German Confederation. In wouldn’t be until 1870 that Germany would be unified into a modern nation state.