Encyclopedia > Holy Roman Empire

  Article Content

Holy Roman Empire

This article is part of the
History of Germany series.
Holy Roman Empire
German Confederation
German Empire
Weimar Republic
Nazi Germany
Germany since 1945
The Holy Roman Empire (in German: Heiliges Römisches Reich) was a political conglomeration of lands in western and central Europe in the Middle Ages. Emerging from the eastern part of the Frankish realm after its division in the Treaty of Verdun (843), it formally lasted almost a millenium until its dissolution in 1806.

The term Roman Empire was used in 1034 to denote the lands under Conrad II, and Holy Empire in 1157. The use of the term Roman Emperor to refer to Northern European rulers started earlier with Otto II (Emperor 973 - 983). Emperors from Charlemagne (died 814) to Otto I the Great (Emperor 962 - 973) had simply used the phrase 'Imperator Augustus' ("August Emperor"). The precise term Holy Roman Empire dates from 1254; the full expression Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (in German: Heiliges Römisches Reich deutscher Nation) appears in 1512, after several variations in the late 15th century.

Table of contents

Character of the Reich

The Holy Roman Empire is an institution unique in world history that is difficult to grasp. To understand what it was, it might be helpful to assess first what it was not.

  • It was never a nation state. Despite the German ethnicity of most of its rulers and subjects, from the very beginning many ethnicities comprised the Holy Roman Empire. Many of its most important noble families and appointed officials came from outside the German-speaking communities. At the height of the empire it contained most of the territory of today's Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, as well as eastern France, northern Italy and western Poland. Its languages thus comprised not only German and its many dialects and derivatives, but many Slavic languages, and the languages which became modern French and Italian as well.

  • However, during most of its time, it was more than a mere confederation. The concept of the Reich not only included the government of a specific territory, but had strong religious connotations (hence the holy prefix). Until 1508, the German Kings were not considered Emperors of the Reich until the Pope in Rome had formally crowned them as such.

The Reich can thus best be described as a crossbreed between a state and a confederation on religious grounds -- except for the latter, not being unlike the European Union of today.


Contemporaries did not quite know how to describe this figure either. In his famous 1667 description De statu imperii Germanici, published under the alias Severinus de Monzambano, Samuel Pufendorf wrote: "Nihil ergo aliud restat, quam ut dicamus Germaniam esse irregulare aliquod corpus et monstro simile ..." ("We are therefore left with calling Germany a body that conforms to no rule and resembles a monster").

Voltaire later described it as "neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire".

In Faust I, in a scene written in 1775, the German writer Goethe has one of the drinkers in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig ask "Our Holy Roman Empire, lads, What holds it still together?" Goethe also has a longer, not very favorable essay about his personal experiences as a trainee at the Reichskammergericht[?] in his autobiographical work Dichtung und Wahrheit[?].

Composition; institutions

From the High Middle Ages[?] on, the Reich was stamped by a most peculiar coexistance of the Empire and the struggle of the dukes of the local territories to take power away from it. As opposed to the rulers of the West Frankish lands, which later became France, the emperor never managed to gain much control over the lands that he formally owned. Instead, from that time on, the emperor was forced to grant more and more powers to the individual dukes in their respective territories. This process began in the 12th century and was more or less concluded with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Several attempts were made to reverse this degradation of the Reichs former glory, but failed.

Formally, the Reich was comprised of the king, to be crowned emperor by the pope (until 1508), on the one side, and the Reichsstände (imperial estates) on the other side.

German King. The pope's crowning of Charlemagne as emperor in 800 formed the example that later kings would follow: it was the result of Charlemagne having defended the pope against the rebellious inhabitants of Rome, which initiated the notion of the Reich being the protector of the church.

Becoming emperor required becoming king of the Germans first. German kings had been elected since time immemorial; in the 9th century by the leaders of the five most important tribes (the Franks, Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians and Thuringians[?]), later by the main lay and clerical dukes of the kingdom, finally only by the so-called Kurfürsten (electing dukes). This collegiate was formally established by a 1356 decree known as the Golden Bull. Initially, there were seven electors; this number varied slightly over the following centuries (see Holy Roman Empire elector for details).

Until 1508, the newly elected king then traveled to Rome to be crowned emperor by the pope. In many cases, this took several years when the king was held up by other tasks: frequently he first had to resolve conflicts in rebellious northern Italy or was in quarrel with the pope himself.

At no time could the emperor simply decree rulings and govern autonomously over the Empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders; after the late 15th century, the Reichstag established itself as the legislative body of the Empire, a complicated assembly that convened irregularly at the request of the emperor at varying locations. Only after 1663 would the Reichstag become a permanent assembly; see Reichstag (institution) for details.

Imperial Estates. An entity was considered Reichsstand (imperial estate) if, according to feudal law[?], it had no authority above it besides the king himself. Only these later had seats at the Reichstag and included, with great variance over the centuries:

  • worldly territories governed by a prince or duke, in some cases (such as Prussia later) even a king;

  • clerical territories led by a bishop or Prince-Bishop; in that case, the territory was frequently identical in acreage with a bishopric, giving the bishop both worldly and churchly powers (an example, among many others, would be Osnabrück);

The number of territories was amazingly large, rising to several hundreds at the time of the Peace of Westphalia. Many of these were comprised of no more than a few square miles. The Empire is thus aptly described as a "patchwork carpet" (Flickenteppich) by many. For a list as of 1792, refer to List of Reichstag participants (1792).

External link: Map of Central Europe, ca. 1477 (http://www.uoregon.edu/~dluebke/Reformations441/central_europe_1477.jpg)

Imperial Courts. The Reich also had two courts: the Reichshofrat at the court of the king/emperor (that is, later in Vienna), and the Reichskammergericht[?] (Imperial Chamber Court), established with the Imperial Reform of 1495.


From the East Franks to the Investiture Controversy

The Empire is usually considered to have been founded in 962 by Otto I the Great, at the latest.

Although some date the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire from the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans in 800, Charlemagne himself more typically used the title king of the Franks. This title also makes clearer that the Frankish Kingdom covered an area that included modern-day France and Germany and was thus the kernel of both countries.

Most historians therefore consider the establishment of the Empire to be a process that started with the split of the Frankish realm in the Treaty of Verdun in 843, continuing the Carolingian dynasty independently in all three sections. The eastern part fell to Louis the German, who was followed by several leaders until the death of Louis IV, called "the Child", the last Carolingian in the eastern part.

The leaders of Alamannia, Bavaria, Frankia and Saxonia elected Conrad I[?] of the Franks, not a Carolingian, as their leader in 911. His successor, Henry I the Fowler (r. 919-936), a Saxon, achieved the acceptance of a separate Eastern Empire by the West Frankish (still ruled by the Carolingians) in 921, calling himself rex Francorum orientalum (king of the East Franks).

Heinrich designated his son Otto to be his successor, who was elected king in Aachen in 936. His later crowning as Emperor Otto I (later called "the Great") in 962 would mark an important step, since from then on the Empire -- and not the West-Frankish kingdom that was the other remainder of the Frankish kingdoms -- would have the blessing of the pope. Otto had gained much of his power earlier, when, in 955, the Magyars were defeated in the Battle of Lechfeld.

In contemporary and later writings, the crowning would be referred to as translatio imperii, transfer of the Empire. The mythical background was that there could ever be only one Empire, and there only ever was one. It was considered to have started with Alexander the Great, having been turned over to the Romans, then to the Franks, and finally to the Holy Roman Empire (and this explains the Roman component of the Empire's name). The German emperors thus thought of themselves as being in direct succession of those of the Roman empire; this is why they initially called themselves Augustus. Still, they did not call themselves "Roman" emperors at first, probably in order not to provoke conflict with the Roman emperor who still existed in Constantinople. The term imperator Romanorum only became common under Conrad II later.

At this time, the eastern kingdom was not so much "German" as rather a "confederation" of the old Germanic tribes of the Bavarians, Alamanns, Franks and Saxons. The Empire as a political union probably only survived because of the strong personal influence of King Henry the Saxon and his son, Otto. Although formally elected by the leaders of the Germanic tribes, they were actually able to designate their successors.

This changed after Henry II died in 1024 without any children. Conrad II, first of the Salian Dynasty, was then elected king in 1024 only after some debate. How exactly the king was chosen thus seems to be a complicated conglomeration of personal influence, tribal quarrels, inheritance, and acclamation by those leaders that would eventually become the collegiate of Electors.

Already at this time the dualism between the "territories", then those of the old tribes rooted in the Frankish lands, and the king/emperor, became apparent. Each king preferred to spend most time in his own homelands; the Saxons, for example, spent much time in palatinates around the Harz mountains, among them Goslar. This practice had only changed under Otto III (king 983, emperor 996-1002), who began to utilize bishopries all over the Empire as temporary seats of government. Also, his successors, Henry II, Conrad II, and Henry III, apparently managed to appoint the dukes of the territories. It is thus no coincidence that at this time, the terminology changes and the first occurrences of a regnum Teutonicum are found.

The glory of the Empire almost collapsed in the Investiture Controversy, in which Pope Gregory VII declared a ban on King Henry IV (king 1056, emperor 1084-1106). Although this was taken back after the 1077 Walk to Canossa[?], the ban had wide-reaching consequences. Meanwhile, the German dukes had elected a second king, Rudolf of Swabia[?], whom Henry IV could only defeat after a three-year war in 1080. The mythical roots of the Empire were permanently damaged; the German king was humiliated. Most importantly though, the church became an independent player in the political system of the Empire.

The "Roman" Empire under the Staufen

Conrad III came to the throne in 1138, being the first of the Staufen[?] dynasty, which was about to restore the glory of the Empire even under the new conditions of the 1122 Concordat of Worms. It was Frederick I "Barbarossa" (king 1152, emperor 1155-1190) who first called the Empire "holy", with which he intended to address mainly law and legislation.

Also, under Barbarossa, the idea of the "Romanness" of the Empire culminated again, which seemed to be a attempt to justify the emperor's power independently of the (now strenghened) pope. An imperial assembly at the fields of Roncaglia in 1158 explicitly reclaimed imperial rights at the advice of quattuor doctores of the emerging judicial facility of the University of Bologna, citing phrases such as princeps legibus solutus ("the leader is not bound by law") from the Digestae of the Corpus Juris Civilis. That the Roman laws were created for an entirely different system and didn't fit the structure of the Empire was obviously secondary; the point here was that the court of the Emperor made an attempt to establish a legal constitution.

Imperial rights had been referred to as regalia since the Investiture Controversy, but were enumerated for the first time at Roncaglia as well. This comprehensive list included public roads, tariffs, coining, collecting punitive fees, and the investiture, the seating and unseating of office holders. These rights were now explicitly rooted in Roman Law, a far-reaching constitutional act; north of the Alps, the system was also now connected to feudal law[?], a change most visible in the withdrawal of the feuds of Henry the Lion in 1180 which lead to his public banning. Barbarossa thus managed for a time to more closely bind the stubborn Germanic dukes to the Empire as a whole.

Another important constitutional move at Roncaglia was the establishment of a new peace (Landfrieden) for all of the Empire, an attempt to (on the one hand) abolish private vendettas not only between the many local dukes, but on the other hand a means to tie the Emperor's subordinates to a legal system of jurisdiction and public persecution of criminal acts -- a predecessor concept of "rule of law", in modern terms, that was, at this time, not yet universally accepted.

In order to solve the problem that the emperor was (after the Investiture Controversy) no longer as able to use the church as a mechanism to maintain power, the Stauffers increasingly lended land to ministerialia, formerly unfree service men, which Frederick hoped would be more reliable than local dukes. Initially used mainly for war services, this new class of people would form the basis for the later knights, another basis of imperial power.

Another new concept of the time was the systematic foundation of new cities, both by the emperor and the local dukes. These were partly due to the explosion in population, but also to concentrate economic power at strategic locations, while formerly cities only existed in the shape of either old Roman foundations or older bishoprics. Cities that were founded in the 12th century include Freiburg, possibly the economic model for many later cities, and Munich.

The later reign of the last Staufer, Frederick II, was in many ways different from that of earlier Emperors. Still a child, he first reigned in Sicily, while in Germany, Barbarossa's son Philip of Swabia and Otto IV competed with him for the title of King of the Germans. After finally having been crowned emperor in 1220, he risked conflict with the pope when he claimed power over Rome; astonishingly to many, he managed to claim Jerusalem in a Crusade in 1228 while still under the pope's ban.

While Frederick brought the mythical idea of the Empire to a last highpoint, he was also the one to initiate the major steps that lead to its disintegration. On the one hand, he concentrated on establishing a -- for the times -- extraordinarily modern state in Sicily, with public services, finances, and jurisdiction. On the other hand, Frederick was the emperor who granted major powers to the German dukes in two far-reaching privileges that would never be reclaimed by the central power. In the 1220 Confoederatio cum princibus ecclesiasticis, Frederick basically gave up a number of regalia in favor of the bishops, among them tariffs, coining, and fortification. The 1232 Statutem in favorem principum mostly extended these privileges to the other (non-clerical) territories. Although many of these privileges had existed earlier, they were now granted globally, and once and for all, to allow the German dukes to maintain order north of the Alps while Frederick wanted to concentrate on his homelands in Italy. The 1232 document marked the first time that the German dukes were called domini terrae, owners of their lands, a remarkable change in terminology as well.

The rise of the territories after the Stauffen

After the death of Frederick II in 1250, none of the dynasties worthy of producing the king proved able to do so, and the leading dukes elected several competing kings. The time from 1247 (beginning with the election of William of Holland) from 1273, where Rudolph I of Habsburg was elected king, is commonly referred to as the Interregnum[?].

The difficulties in electing the king eventually led to the emergence of a fixed collegiate of electors, the Kurfürsten, whose composition and procedures were fixed in the Golden Bull of 1356. This development maybe symbolizes best the emerging duality between Kaiser und Reich, emperor and realm, who were no longer considered identical. This is also revealed in the way the post-Stauffen kings attempted to sustain their power. While earlier, the Empire's strength (and finances) greatly relied on the Empire's own lands, the so-called Reichsgut, which always belonged to the respective king (and included many Imperial Cities), its relevance faded after the 13th century (even though some fractions of it did remain until the Empire's end in 1806). Instead, the Reichsgut was increasingly pawned to lokal dukes, sometimes to raise money for the Empire, but more frequently as a reward for faithful duty or in an attempt to civilize stubborn dukes. It seems that the direct governance of the Reichsgut no longer matched the needs of either the king or the dukes.

Instead, the kings, beginning with Rudolph I of Habsburg, increasingly relied on the lands of their respective dynasties to support their power. As opposed to the Reichsgut, which was mostly scattered and difficult to administrate, the territories were comparably compact and thus easier to control. In 1282, Rudolph I thus lended his own Austria and the Steiermark to his own sons; Louis IV of Wittelsbach (king 1314, emperor 1328-1347) relied on his lands in Bavaria; Charles IV of Luxembourg drew strength from his own lands in Bohemia. Interestingly, it was thus increasingly in the king's own interest to strenghen the power of the territories, since the king profited from such a benefit in his own lands as well.

The 13th century also saw a general structural change in how land was administered. Instead of personal duties, money increasingly became the common means to represent economic value in agriculture. Peasants were increasingly committed to pay tributes for their lands; the concept of "property" more and more replaced more ancient forms of jurisdiction, although the two were still very much tied. In the territories (not at the level of the Empire), power became increasingly bundled: who owned the land had jurisdiction, from which other powers were derived. (It is important to note however that jurisdiction, at this time, was not assumed to include legislation, which practically did not exist until well into the 15th century. Court practice heavily relied on traditional customs or rules described as such.)

It is during this time also that the territories began to transform themselves into predecessors of modern states. The process varied greatly among the various lands and was most advanced in those territories that were most identical to the lands of the old Germanic tribes, such as in Bavaria; it was slower in those scattered parts that were founded through imperial privileges.

Imperial Reform

The "constitution" of the Empire was still largely unsettled at the beginning of the 15th century. Although some procedures and institutions had been fixed, for example by the Golden Bull of 1356, the rules of how the king, the electors, and the other dukes should cooperate in the Empire much depended on the personality of the respective king. It therefore proved somewhat fatal that Sigismund of Luxemburg (king 1410, emperor 1433-1437) and Frederick III (king 1440, emperor 1452-1493) neglected the old core lands of the empire and mostly resided in their own lands. Without the presence of the king, the old institution of the Hoftag, the assembly of the realm's leading men, deteriorated. The Reichstag as a legislative organ of the Empire did not exist yet. Even worse, dukes often went into feuds against each other that, more often than not, escalated into local wars.

At the same time, the church was in crisis too. The conflict between several competing popes was only resolved at the Council of Constance (1414-1418); after 1419, much energy was spent on fighting the heresy of the Hussites.

With these drastic changes, much discussion emerged in the 15th century about the Empire itself. Rules from the past no longer adequately described the structure of the time, and a reinforcement of earlier Landfrieden was urgently called for. During this time, the concept of "reform" emerges, in the original sense of the latin verb re-formare, to regain an earlier shape that had been lost.

When Frederick III needed the dukes to finance war against Hungaria in 1486 and at the same time had his son, later Maximilian I elected king, he was presented with the dukes' united demand to participate in an Imperial Court. For the first time, the assembly of the electors and other dukes was now called Reichstag (to be joined by the Imperial Cities later). While Frederick refused, his more conciliant son finally convoked the Reichstag at Worms in 1495, after his father's death in 1493. Here, the king and the dukes agreed on four bills, commonly referred to as the Reichsreform (Imperial Reform): a set of legal acts to give the disintegrating Empire back some structure. Among others, this act produced the Imperial Circle Estates and the Reichskammergericht[?], (Imperial Chamber Court); structures that would -- to a degree -- persist until the end of the Empire in 1806.

However, it should take a few more decades until the new regulation was universally accepted and the new court began to actually function; only in 1512 would the Imperial Circles be finalized. The king also made sure that his own court, the Reichshofrat, continued to function in parallel to the Reichskammergericht. It is interesting to note that in this year, the Empire also receives its new title, the Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation ("Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation").

Crisis after Reformation

When Martin Luther in 1517 initiated what would later be known as the Reformation, many local dukes saw the chance to oppose the Emperor. After a century of quarrels, this conflict -- among others -- eventually lead to the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), devastating most of Europe.

After the Peace of Westphalia

The actual end of the empire came in several steps. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which gave the territories almost complete sovereignty, even allowing them to form independent alliances with other states; the Empire was only a mere conglomeration of largely independent states. any more.

The implosion of the Empire

(French Revolution, Napoleon overrunning Europe, Rheinbund)

(Secularization, 1803 Reichsdeputationshauptschluss)

The Empire was formally dissolved in 1806 when the last Holy Roman Emperor Francis II (from 1804, Emperor Francis I of Austria) resigned. Francis II's family continued to be called Austrian emperors until 1918.


It has been said that modern history of Germany was primarily predetermined by three factors: the Reich, the Reformation, and the later dualism between Austria and Prussia.[1] Many attempts have been made to explain why the Reich never managed to gain a strong central power over the territories, as opposed to neighboring France. Some reasons include:

  • The Reich had been a very federal body from the beginning: again, as opposed to France, which had mostly been part of the Roman Empire, in the eastern parts of the Frankish kingdom, the Germanic tribes were much more independent and reluctant to cede power to a central authority. All attempts to make the kingdom hereditary failed; instead, the king was always elected. Later, every candidate for the king had to make promises to his electorate, the so-called Wahlkapitulationen (election capitulations), thus granting the territories more and more power over the centuries.

  • Due to its religious connotations, the Reich as an institution was severely damaged by the contest between the pope and the German kings over their respective coronations as Emperor. It was never entirely clear under which conditions the pope would crown the emperor and especially not whether the worldly power of the emperor was dependent on the clerical of the pope. Much debate occurred over this, especially during the 11th century, eventually leading to the Investiture Controversy and the Concordat of Worms in 1122.

  • Whether the feudal system of the Reich, where the King formally was the top of the so-called "feudal pyramid", was a cause for or a symptom of the Empire's weakness, is unclear. In any case, military obedience, which -- according to Germanic tradition -- was closely tied to the giving of land to tributaries, was always a problem: when the Reich had to go to war, decisions were slow and brittle. (todo this needs more explanations)

After the unification of Germany as a nation state in 1871 (see German Empire, the Holy Roman Empire was sometimes known as the First Reich. Nazi Germany then referred to itself as the Third Reich, counting the 1871 Empire as the second, to connect itself with the resurrection of an alledgedly better past.

Related articles


  1. Heinrich August Winkler, Der lange Weg nach Westen, Vol. 1: Deutsche Geschichte vom Ende des Alten Reiches bis zum Ende der Weimarer Republik, ISBN 3-406-46001-1, p. 5.

External link

  • 1570 map of H.R.E. Germany with double-headed eagle flag [1] (http://www.orteliusmaps.com/book/ort56)

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
East Farmingdale, New York

... The racial makeup of the town is 73.33% White, 14.83% African American, 0.15% Native American, 4.09% Asian, 0.09% Pacific Islander, 4.52% from other races, and 2.98% from ...

This page was created in 31.2 ms