Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Europe: Holy Roman Empire

by Claudia Willetts

In The Concise Guide to Kings and Queens: A Thousand Years of European Monarchy, Peter Gibson summarises the complex history of the Holy Roman Empire, which was a loose confederation of states throughout its thousand-year existence. It was taken to begin appropriately on Christmas Day, 800 AD in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with the Pope’s coronation of Charlemagne for political reasons, making him Charles I, Emperor of Romans. The title was changed to Holy Roman Emperor over a century later on the revival of the empire. From that time, there were fifty-two emperors from throughout Europe mostly Germany, but also at times from Luxemburg, Sicily, Holland, England (the brother of King John), Spain, Bohemia, and Austria. The author explains that in 1806, under pressure from Napoleon, Emperor Francis II of Austria abdicated the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended without a logical successor, having lasted a millennium.

In The Crucible of Europe: The Ninth and Tenth Centuries in European History, Geoffrey Barraclough takes us back to the beginning, by telling us that the original Roman empire was a Mediterranean one, and that Medieval history was the story of the movement of the axis of power to European lands north of the Alps. The empire of Charlemagne started this change by implanting similar institutions in isolated kingdoms throughout Gaul (France), Germany and Italy.

Charlemagne’s empire disintegrated after his death, but was revived in feudal form in the tenth century by Otto II “the Great”, the first of the House of Saxony, as Warren Ault relates in Europe in the Middle Ages. Otto created something new in European history, namely “The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”, indicating that Germany was to remain the dominant factor in the revived Holy Roman Empire.

By the eleventh century, the principle of an hereditary monarchy was accepted for the whole of the Roman Empire of the German Nation, writes Reinhard Bendix in Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule. This referred to the right of the reigning emperor to nominate his son for the succession, though his choice had to be confirmed through an election by the electoral princes. In the year 1000, the Empire extended from the North Sea coast to the Mediterranean Sea, including present-day Germany, Holland, eastern France, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Austria, and most of Italy, but the territory became fragmented from the time of the Saxon emperors until its dissolution in 1806.

In the thirteenth century, though the Holy Roman Empire was an uncertain collection of states ruled by a shadowy power, nevertheless the emperor carried in his person a golden nimbus, writes Dorothy Gies McGuigan in The Habsburgs. A king of kings, he stood at the summit of the feudal world, the Kaiser, the Caesar, heir of Roman greatness. His was the only supranational secular office in the world, and any prince of Christian faith might be a candidate if elected by the traditional seven most powerful German princes.

In Systems of States, Martin Wight extends this analogy while commenting on the roving imperial ambassador Sigismund in the fifteenth century. Wight observes that there may be a resemblance with the office of Secretary-General of the United Nations in our own day, as many see in this body a similar mediatory role beyond relations between individual nations. In the Holy Roman Empire, there was a similar persistent stress on unity rather than the separateness of component nations. Ultimately he says, the existence of a single undivided societas christiana became the framework of all relationships and all conflict.