There is a universal law which states: every time someone mentions the Holy Roman Empire, some smart alec will raise a finger and say, with a look of bottomless smugness, that “Actually, the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”. Every time this happens, somewhere, a historian cries. In reality, the Holy Roman Empire was all three. Here, we’ll look at its broad sweep through three Emperors, starting with Charlemagne, from the Early Medieval period to the High-Middle Ages, to get to the heart of this bogglingly complex Empire.
In Defence of the “Holy Roman Empire”
Although its claim to be the Roman successor state in Western Europe is a little more fragmentary than that of the Byzantine Empire in the East (which was a more-or-less unbroken continuation from the Eastern Roman Empire), the Holy Roman Empire consciously sought to ape Roman-style rule throughout the Medieval era. Its history was characterized by a constant interface with the Roman Catholic Church. Much of the Holy Roman Empire’s history was intimately concerned with the struggle over Papal authority and legitimacy — such as the Investiture Crisis of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Every Holy Roman Emperor until Maximilian I (r. 1508-1519) was crowned in Rome by the Pope, and Maximilian was only prevented from the same by the very temporal threat of capture by his enemies in Italy. Maximilian was nevertheless instead proclaimed Emperor Elect in absentia with Papal consent.
As to its “imperial” status, there can be no doubt that the Holy Roman Empire fulfilled every qualification of an empire. Its territories were widespread, being easily one of the largest states in Europe for its entire existence, and they united a diverse range of peoples under the Imperial Crown. At various times, these peoples included Franks and Saxons, as well as Slavs, Magyars, Lombards, and numerous smaller ethnic groups.
So, when the smart alec pipes up with their ever-so-clever meme, you need to be prepared. Let’s have a look at three of the most significant leaders of the Holy Roman Empire who most strongly prove that it was indeed Holy, Roman, and an Empire.
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We can chart the genesis of the Holy Roman Empire from the coronation of Charlemagne (c. 475 – 814 CE) as Imperator Romanorum in 800 CE. Known in his own time as Charles (Latinized to KAROLUS), the Europe of Charlemagne’s birth was mostly a fragmented network of fiefs that were only just beginning to coalesce into larger unified states. After the withdrawal of the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of West Francia had emerged more-or-less whole from the former Roman province of Gaul in about 500 CE under Clovis I. His Merovingian dynasty, named after Clovis’ mythical ancestor King Merovech, ruled Frankia until 751 and corresponded roughly to part of Western Germany and most of Eastern France.
Charlemagne’s family traced their ancestry back to Charles Martel, who was the de facto ruler of Francia, and who defeated the Umayyad invasion of Western Europe at Tours in 732 CE. Charlemagne’s father Pepin seized the throne in 751, founding the Carolingian dynasty as King of the Franks, and bequeathing the throne to his son in 768 CE.
Charlemagne began a spectacular new phase of Frankish expansionism, uniting more and more lands with the Frankish state, reaching in all directions. These included Lombardy in Northern Italy, Saxony in Northern Germany, Gascony in southern France, and parts of northern Spain. When Charlemagne accepted the Holy Roman crown from the Pope in 800 CE, he stood at the heart of an enormous central European empire whose diplomatic scope now stretched across the Mediterranean.
The Roman Paradox
Even though the Franks were a Germanic people, we shouldn’t fall into the Victorian trap of thinking of them as mucky barbarians living in mud huts. Whilst they distrusted the Roman legacy, they were not stupid — they knew that the Roman way of life, with a strong civil bureaucracy, a unified Latin civic language, and Roman imperial titles and dress, were powerful tools for effective statecraft.
The Western Roman Empire had been without an Emperor since Odoacer overthrew Romulus Augustus in 476 CE, taking instead the title of King of Italy rather than Emperor of the Roman Empire. But this did not mean that Roman customs simply vanished overnight, and we might think of the Franks as a ‘Romanized’ people, even if they defined themselves in opposition to it. Charlemagne and his successors did not consider themselves “Holy Roman Emperors”: their title was merely Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”), exactly as it had been since Caesar.
A Surprise Crown?
Charlemagne’s acceptance of the Imperial crown has divided historians. Charlemagne’s contemporaries describe how he was entirely surprised by the Pope’s offer of imperium. The court scholar Einhard says in his contemporary biography of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli, that the Emperor ‘at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that [the titles] were conferred… if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope’.
Some see this event as a power-play by the Pope, who, by conferring the crown upon Charlemagne, implicitly set the Church up as the supreme authority in whose gift the title of Roman Emperor was. Regardless, in the years after his coronation, Charlemagne conducted diplomatic negotiations on a European scale, concluding the Pax Nicephori (“Peace of Niceophorus”) which restored the ancient division of the Roman Empire between Rome (and the Pope’s selected Roman Emperor) in the West, and the Byzantines in Constantinople in the East. In all of this, we can see that, even from the resurrection of the title in the 9th century, the Holy Roman Empire was all three!
Where Charlemagne represented the resurrection of the title of Emperor of the Romans, Otto I represented the beginning of the unbroken line of Holy Roman Emperors which stretched from his coronation in 962 CE, to the abdication of Francis II in 1806 — a run of 844 years, making it easily one of the longest-lived political entities in Western Europe.
In the years since the reign of Charlemagne, much had changed. Whilst Charlemagne’s successors in Francia continued to receive the title of Roman Emperor from the Pope, the Carolingian Empire had fragmented. His grandsons had partitioned the Empire into thirds (which would become France, the Low Countries, and Germany), and the role of Roman Emperor was retained at the prerogative of the Papacy and was eventually bestowed by the Pope on whichever Italian king was most able to protect him in Rome. It later sputtered out in the early 10th century, as Italy became more fragmented and anarchic.
A Lasting Empire
Otto I, King of East Francia (the easternmost part of Charlemagne’s empire, consisting of modern western Germany) laid claim to the imperial ambitions of Charlemagne. During the early part of his reign, Otto undertook a critical set of reforms, known as the “Imperial church system”. This involved appointing Catholic Church officials to positions in the Imperial bureaucracy. Since churchmen could not marry, they could never form their own rival dynasties — and, since Otto had significant influence over who got appointed to the bishoprics and monasteries, they would be loyal to him.
In 951, like his predecessor, he crossed the Alps and drew parts of Italy back into the Frankish Empire, re-creating Charlemagne’s multi-ethnic empire. Soon after, he declared himself Emperor of the Franks after his victory over the Hungarians in 955 CE, adding vast tracts of Slavic territory. Pope John XII offered Otto the imperium of Rome in 962 — again, this was motivated by the Pope’s immediate need for protection from rival Italian nobles and the ever-present threat of reconquest by the Byzantine Empire.
(Dis)Orderly Transition of Power
Otto saw this as a fantastic opportunity to expand his Imperial church system to the highest level: the Papacy itself. While this would become the dominant framework of the Holy Roman Empire for a long time, it marked a significant shift in power between the Emperor and the Pope — and it led to significant conflict when Otto deposed Pope John XII (!) for conspiring with Otto’s enemies, and then replaced him with a pope of his choosing.
This temporal power struggle over holy authority would set the scene for a century of conflict. Otto’s son, future Otto II, was crowned co-Emperor in 967 CE, and by the time of Otto I’s death in 973, an orderly transition of power was guaranteed. But the following century would be marked by a see-sawing of power between the Papacy and the Kings of Germany, dependent on their relative fortunes.
Frederick I Barbarossa
The pendulum of the Holy Roman Empire’s power dynamic eventually swung back towards the Papacy. With the Investiture Crisis of the late 11th century, the Papacy had successfully reasserted itself. In an epochal struggle between reformist Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, Henry was forced to do penance barefoot in the snow before the walls of Canossa Castle. Both of their successors would remain at loggerheads until the Concordat of Worms in 1122, but a new form of legitimacy had now emerged over the preceding century: election.
We can’t think of these as democratic elections involving universal suffrage and secret ballots. Instead, the electoral college was made up of the “electors”: kings, dukes, and prince-bishops from a dizzying array of states which now made up the Empire, and they largely elected the Emperor through a mix of political horse-trading, cajolery, and outright bribery. But this did mean that any would-be Emperor now had to consider the interests of powerful nobles at home, as well as relying upon confirmation by the Pope. This placed the Emperor at the heart of a number of often-conflicting political impulses — not an enviable job.
The rise of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (likely known by contemporaries as the Staufer dynasty) was the high-water mark for the Holy Roman Empire as a holy, Roman, imperial state in the High Middle Ages. Originating from the German region of Swabia, by the mid-12th century they were major power players in the network of German micro-states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire and they were perfectly placed to take advantage of the failure of the Salian dynasty with Henry V’s childless death in 1125.
In 1152, Frederick I, the scion of the Hohenstaufens, was elected as “King of the Romans” (the honorific now attached to the Emperor before his confirmation by the Pope). By all accounts, Freddie had a big ginger beard and hence was known as “red-beard”, or Barbarossa in Italian.
Due to the Papal ascendancy after the Investiture Crisis (and especially after Henry V’s heirless death), the position had become thoroughly devalued: it carried little land, little wealth, and no real weight beyond ceremony. But, they say you should always play the hand that you wish you had. Unlike previous Emperors, who often went as supplicants to Rome for coronation, Frederick simply sent word to the Pope that had been elected and got on with securing himself a real Empire.
The Italian Job
Frederick realigned the Empire’s foreign policy, breaking an old diplomatic alliance with Byzantium and skilfully bringing the Papacy to heel by promising to defend them against the now-united Norman Kingdom of Sicily. As well, he finally sought to end the chaotic nature of the northern Italian kingdoms, by turning them into a rationalized series of states, which would have turned the Kings of the Romans into permanent defenders of the Papacy (and thus, perpetual Holy Roman Emperors).
The fiercely independent Italian city-states, though, saw this as a huge infringement on their rights. Frederick managed to get himself excommunicated in 1160 by the new Pope Alexander III, who feared his Italian plans as much as the city-states did. In response, Frederick set upon a course of setting the Pope aside entirely: his lawyers declared that “he who is chosen by the election of the princes alone is the true emperor, even before he has been confirmed by the pope”. In a series of campaigns, Frederick failed to decisively defeat the Lombard League (the Pope plus some small city-states), but managed to reach a tentative peace.
In 1188, Frederick joined the Third Crusade to the Holy Land. But disaster was to ensue. The precise nature of Frederick’s death has been the subject of much scholarly debate, but all accounts agree: he drowned whilst crossing the Saleph river in 1190 CE.
The Holy Roman Empire. Yes, All Three
Under Frederick I, for the first time, this mass of states was consciously referred to as the Holy (sacrum) Roman Empire in Imperial documents; a Holy Empire with power independent of the Pope. Frederick also came to view himself very much as a Roman Emperor, reviving the Justinian Code in the West as the foundation for earthly law (not least as a counterweight to the Pope’s universal claims based on divine revelation). And he ruled over an Empire consisting of Germans, Franks, Italians, and Slavs — whose feudal rights gave them a say in the election of their Emperor.
So, next time you see a smart alec open their mouth on this topic, you’ll be able to save that historian from crying.