Skip to main content
Select Source:

Holy Roman Empire


HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE. The Holy Roman Empire was a feudal monarchy that encompassed present-day Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, as well as parts of eastern France, northern Italy, Slovenia, and western Poland at the start of the early modern centuries. It was created by the coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as Roman emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800, thus restoring in their eyes the western Roman Empire that had been leaderless since 476. Charlemagne's Frankish successor emperors faltered under political and military challenges, and his inheritance was permanently divided in 887. After 924 the western empire was again without an emperor until the coronation of Otto I, duke of Saxony, on 2 February 962. This coronation was seen to transfer the Roman imperial office to the heirs of the East Franks, the Germans. The position of emperor remained among the Germans until the Holy Roman Empire was abolished in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1806.

In 1512 the name "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" (Heiliges römisches Reich deutscher Nation) became the official title of the empire, which spanned central Europe between the kingdom of France to the west and the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland to the east. In the north it was bounded by the Baltic and North Seas and by the Danish kingdom; in the south, it reached to the Alps. At no time in its long history did the empire possess clearly defined boundaries; its people, perhaps fifteen million in 1500, spoke a variety of languages and dialects. German predominated, but the advice of the Golden Bull of 1356 that future princes of the empire should learn the "German, Italian, and Slavic tongues" remained apposite. The multilingual empire stood at the crossroads of Europe and its emerging national cultures; it also included significant Jewish communities in the south and west. European trade and communication moved along the mighty rivers within the empirethe Rhine, the Main, the Danube, and the Elbe. On these rivers stood some of its most important cities: Cologne, the largest in the empire with about thirty thousand inhabitants, as well as Frankfurt, Vienna, and Hamburg. By 1500 there were about a dozen big cities with over ten thousand inhabitants each, and about twenty with between two and ten thousand people. Visitors to the empire from Italy, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, noted the size and wealth of these great German cities.

The history of the term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" illustrates several key developments on the path to the early modern empire. The medieval "Roman Empire," ambiguously created through the imperial coronation of Charlemagne, was first given the adjective "holy" (sacrum imperium Romanum) by the Imperial Chancellery of Frederick I Barbarossa (ruled 11521190) in 1157. The term "Holy Roman Empire," used regularly from 1184, challenged the monopoly on the sacred presented by the papacy of the "Holy Roman Church" (sancta Romana Ecclesia) and presented the empire as an equal heir to the legacy of Rome. The first official use of the full term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" in 1474 acknowledged that the empire had been for some time a German political unit in all practical terms. At the same time, the term also underscored a sense that it was the unique destiny of the Germans to rule the universal sacred empire of Christendom. In this way the term limited claims to the empire from ambitious French rulers such as Francis I (ruled 15151547), who campaigned for election to the imperial throne in 1519, only to be defeated by the Habsburg Charles of Ghent, Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556).

The Holy Roman Empire developed a complex legal and political structure. Its central figure was the emperor, whose position combined ancient Roman pretensions of universal, divinely sanctioned rule with the Germanic tradition of elected kingship, overlaid with efforts to define the emperor as a feudal overlord and his leading princes as his vassals. The position of emperor was elected, a characteristic the empire shared with other European monarchies such as the papacy. Just as the cardinals, princes of the church, chose each new pope, so the leading princes of the empire, called electors, chose their emperor. Technically, each emperor was first chosen "king of the Romans," signifying his popular claim to the Roman Empire, by the leading nobles of the empire. The right of these princes to choose their king was precisely codified in 1356 by a proclamation of Emperor Charles IV (ruled 13461378) called the "Golden Bull." This bull, the fundamental law of the empire, limited the right to elect the king of the Romans to seven leading princes: three ecclesiastical electors, the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne; and four lay electors, the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the count Palatinate of the Rhine. Originally, the king of the Romans received the title of emperor only through coronation by the pope. This tradition was set aside by Maximilian I (ruled 14931519), who assumed the title "Elected Roman Emperor." His successor Charles V was the last emperor to be crowned in Italy; subsequent emperors were still elected and crowned king of the Romans by the electors and simply assumed the title of emperor without a separate coronation. Only males were allowed to hold the imperial office.

In 1438 Albert II of Habsburg was elected to the imperial throne; he was succeeded by his cousin Frederick III (ruled 14401493). From their base of power in Austria, the House of Habsburg outmaneuvered other leading families of the empire to secure their election to the imperial throne again and again; from the reign of Albert in 1438 forward, a Habsburg was always elected (except for a brief interlude from 1742 to 1745 when the Wittelsbach Prince Charles Albert of Bavaria was elected as Emperor Charles VII), and the office of the emperor became quasi-hereditary. This is less surprising when one realizes that by the mid-fifteenth century only a leading prince of the empire could benefit from the imperial title, as the prestige of the emperor's position far surpassed its actual power. In legal terms the emperor was "administrator of the empire" rather than "lord of the empire." The empire was divided into a patchwork of principalities, some large and powerful like Wittelsbach Bavaria, others small but independent, like the imperial abbeys in the southwest. In each of these principalities rulers exercised many of the functions associated by early modern and modern political theorists with sovereignty. In the first instance the princes of the empirerather than the emperorcollected taxes, administered justice, minted coins, and claimed responsibility for the material and spiritual salvation of their subjects. Many of the principalities of the empire had their own parliamentary bodies representing the estates of the territory.

The territorial ambitions of the princes, alongside their predilection for partible inheritance, created a patchwork of German principalities that grew bewilderingly complex. By 1450 the empire contained the seven electoral principalities; twenty-five major secular principalities, such as the duchies of Austria, Bavaria, and Brunswick; about ninety archbishoprics, bishoprics, and imperial abbeys; over one hundred independent counties of very unequal importance; and seventy free imperial cities such as Cologne, Bremen, Lübeck, and Hamburg in the north; Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Ulm, and Augsburg in the south; and Frankfurt and Mühlhausen in central Germany. These cities were subject to no one but the emperor, which made them effectively independent. In his pathbreaking analysis of the empire's constitution in 1667, Samuel Pufendorf explained the fragmentation of political authority in the empire: "in the course of time, through the negligent complaisance of the emperors, the ambition of the princes, and the scheming of the clergy" the empire had developed from "an ordered monarchy" to "a kind of state so disharmonious" that it stood somewhere between a limited monarchy and a federation of sovereign principalities. Scholars today would explain the development in different terms but agree that the imperial monarchy had traded away considerable power and authority to the princes and the church during the medieval period.

Few European political units seem as remote and confusing as the Holy Roman Empire. At the start of the early modern period, the supranational, multiethnic structure of this feudal state made perfect sense, of course, to the people who lived in it and shaped its development. Indeed, in the period from 1450 to 1555 the Holy Roman Empire was a dynamic political unit of crucial importance to the growth of the Habsburg empire and the Protestant Reformation. It survived the chaos of the Thirty Years' War (16181648) to emerge as a guarantor of peace, if not progress, in central Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, Europeans saw the Holy Roman Empire in a very different light. In a Europe of centralized, hereditary monarchies consolidating their nation-states, its polycentric, supranational structure, elected emperor, and ponderous parliament had become ever more difficult to understand and explain. When it ceased to exist in 1806, few understood its significance.


At the end of the fifteenth century the empire entered a period of institutional growth and increased political importance. The focus of the empire had shifted to its German-speaking lands, especially the wealthy southern area known as Upper Germany, which saw the birth and growth of effective imperial institutions. Foremost was its parliament, the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). The diet emerged from medieval political struggles that obligated the emperor to consult with his leading princes (in feudal terms, the holders of imperial fiefs) on decisions affecting the empire. These leading princes, including the seven electors, dukes and counts, bishops and abbots, and autonomous cities became known collectively as the "imperial estates" (Reichsstände) and their assembly as the Imperial Diet. The diet became the most important site of communication, conflict, and negotiation between the emperor and the estates.

The emperor did not rule as an autocrat but was bound by the resolutions of the Imperial Diet. As was typical of early modern statecraft, the diets often passed resolutions that could not be enforced (the Edict of Worms of 1521 is the most famous example), but its organization helped define the empire through its estates. From 1489 on, the diet met in three colleges, similar to the houses of the English Parliament: the college of the imperial electors, in which the three ecclesiastical and four lay electors each had a vote; the college of the imperial princes; and the college of the imperial free cities. The diet was summoned by the emperor only when needed; sessions were held in the leading imperial cities of the south, usually Augsburg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, or Speyer. When the diet met, the emperor presided, flanked by six of the electors, with the archbishop of Trier seated directly in front of the imperial throne. Along the sides of the hall sat the representatives of the college of imperial princes, and facing the emperor at the back of the hall were the representatives of the imperial free cities. Each college deliberated separately, voted within the college, and then cast one vote in the assembled diet. After 1663 the diet transformed itself into a body of representatives sitting permanently in Regensburg.

Frustration during the long reign of the neglectful Emperor Frederick III led to calls for imperial reform, and Emperor Maximilian I was willing to work with the estates to modernize the empire's institutions. The Imperial Diet in Worms in 1495 marked a turning point. Led by the archbishop-elector of Mainz, Berthold von Henneberg (14841504), the diet outlawed all private wars and noble feuding and established the Imperial Cameral Court (Reichskammergericht) to replace violence with arbitration. The imperial estates gathered in Worms in 1495 also voted to establish a new form of direct imperial taxation, the "Common Penny" (gemeiner Pfennig), to fund the Imperial Cameral Court. The tax was collected from all male inhabitants, regardless of status, for a period of four years and was renewed in 1512 and in 1542 to pay for the defense of the empire. The division of the empire into administrative districts called Imperial Circles (Kreise) was another innovation of the reign of Maximilian. Initially these districts served to enforce the imperial peace, but later their competence was extended to include imperial taxation and defense. From 1512, the empire was divided into ten Imperial Circles: the Austrian and Burgundian regions; the circle of the Rhenish electors; the Upper Saxon, Franconian, Bavarian, and Swabian circles; and the Upper Rhenish, Lower Rhenish-Westphalian, and Lower Saxon circles. The territories of the Bohemian crown, the Swiss Confederation, and the Italian imperial fiefs were not included in this plan.

These Circles and the Imperial Diet came to define the empire by the early sixteenth century and can help us distinguish between two conceptions of the empire. The greater empire was based on theoretical claims of universal dominion and historical claims of rule over Italy, Burgundy, and Germany. This greater empire encompassed all of Italy north of the Papal States (except Venice) as fiefs of the empire and included the kingdom of Bohemia, the Swiss Confederation, and the Habsburg Netherlands. Within these broad claims based on medieval precedent, feudal law, and dynastic connections, a second, more concentrated empire ("Reichstags-Deutschland") actually participated in the growth of imperial institutions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This empire, culturally German, found its political and institutional base in the southwest of the empire and in the electoral principalities. The diet was largely ignored by the Swiss Confederation, the Netherlands, and the kingdom of Bohemia (despite its king's position as an elector). The treaties of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 confirmed the independence of the Netherlands and Switzerland from the empire; Bohemia, on the other hand, where the Thirty Years' War had begun, was firmly integrated into the dominion of its Austrian Habsburg rulers.

The threat to the empire posed by the dynamic Ottoman Empire stood on the agenda of almost every Imperial Diet during the reigns of Maximilian I and Charles V. Habsburg Austria was constantly threatened by Turkish invasion, and the Habsburg emperors called the estates together to request aid. The threat was especially clear when the Ottoman Turks conquered most of Hungary in 1526: Austria would be next. Vienna was besieged by an army led by Suleiman the Magnificent (ruled 15201566) in 1529. The dependence of the Habsburg emperors on the support of the imperial estates in their struggle against Turkish expansion deeply affected their response to the next great challenge of imperial politics, the Reformation.


The Protestant Reformation did not cause the division of Germany into dozens of independent territories; in fact, the reverse is true. The extraordinarily diverse and divided political landscape of the empire in the early sixteenth century was the single most important factor in the spread of evangelical ideas and the adoption of church reforms. As it became clear to Martin Luther that the Church of Rome would not accept his theological and pastoral reforms (referred to as "evangelical"), he turned "to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" (the title of his important treatise of 1520, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation ) and exhorted them to take up their responsibility to reform the church. Their response was varied. Luther's own territorial ruler, Elector Frederick III the Wise of Saxony (ruled 14861525), was willing to allow the ideas of his unruly theologian to circulate in Saxony and in the empire; other princes and free imperial cities eagerly read, creatively interpreted, and put into practice the ideas coming out of Wittenberg. Emperor Charles V, like most of the German princes, appreciated Luther's criticism of the papacy and the Roman curia but wanted no part of Luther's fundamental theological challenge to the authority of the Church of Rome. Charles stated clearly that he would not "deny the religion of all his ancestors for the false teachings of a solitary monk."

The young emperor and the rebellious theologian met at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther's refusal to recant his teachings prompted the Edict of Worms, which threatened his supporters with the imperial ban and outlawry and prohibited his writings. Protected from arrest and trial for heresy by his prince, Frederick the Wise, and frightened by the disorder unleashed by the spread of evangelical ideas, Luther looked to the leading secular authorities of the empire to implement his ideas. This they did, taking advantage of the fragmentation of imperial and territorial authority across the empire. Individual principalities and city-states became "laboratories" for church reform and religious innovation. Because the builders of the first Protestant institutions were leaders among the estates of the empire, the conflict over reform and Reformation was played out in the institutions of the empire, above all in the Imperial Diets. It was at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 that the a group of princes including the elector of Saxony and the landgrave of Hesse and fourteen imperial free cities submitted an official protest against the suppression of the evangelical movement. The name "Protestant" arose from their action. The next Imperial Diet at Augsburg in 1530 produced a definitive Protestant statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession of Philipp Melanchthon, and a reinforcement of the Edict of Worms. Tensions rose and in 1531 the empire's leading Protestant princes and free cities formed a defensive alliance, the Schmalkaldic League. This alliance was not formally directed against the empire or its Catholic ruling house of Habsburg, but its confessional politics held an immense potential to disrupt the institutions of the empire.


The Protestant princes and free cities of the empire created their own territorial churches by seizing the lands of monasteries and churches, severing all links with Rome, and overseeing the doctrine and morals of their subjects. Scholars have labeled this process "confessionalization," and it is the defining characteristic of the empire in the period from the 1530s through the end of the seventeenth century. Confessionalization meant the doctrinal and organizational consolidation of the diverging Christian Reformations into established churches with mutually exclusive creeds, constitutions, and forms of piety. The power and authority of the princes was naturally reinforced by this new level of spiritual administration.

In the confessional era the line between insider and outsider became much sharper. Subjects and rulers together deployed the new scope of territorial authority to accuse, try, and burn witches; expel Jews and Christians of other confessions; and police the poor and the criminal. The cruel work of the great European witch persecutions reached its peak in the years between 1580 and 1660, and about half of the forty to fifty thousand executions took place in the empire. The promulgation of countless church and police ordinances allowed territorial rulers to envision (though not create) a land of godly, orderly, and obedient subjects. Geographically and politically, these territories resembled modern sovereign states, and this gain in power and authority by the individual estates of the empire proved irreversible.

The first evidence that power had shifted came in the aftermath of the Schmalkaldic War (15461547). Despite the military victory of Charles V over the Protestant princes, he was unable to roll back the progress of the Reformation before shifting alliances forced him to flee Germany in 1552. Exhausted by the struggle to return the German princes to the Catholic faith, Charles handed all responsibility for German affairs over to his brother, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (ruled as emperor 15581564), who negotiated the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This agreement established the legal equality of the Evangelical and Catholic churches and the right of princes of the empire to choose either of these confessions for their territories. With the Religious Peace of Augsburg, the empire was divided among two mutually hostile Christian confessions: Roman Catholic and Evangelical (Lutheran). After 1563, Reformed (Calvinist) churches were also established. These divisions strained the imperial institutions described above, but they continued to function. The right of reform granted by the Peace of Augsburg strengthened the estates but also secured peace in the empire just as the Netherlands and France were engulfed in wars of religion.

The Peace of Augsburg lasted for sixty-three years, and the devastating Thirty Years' War (16181648) that followed was not an inevitable result of the political and confessional division of the empire. The weakness of the Habsburg emperors Rudolf II (ruled 15761612) and Matthias (ruled 16121619) paralyzed the very imperial institutions that had served to prevent war within the empire since 1555. The initial goals of Emperor Ferdinand II (ruled 16191637) were territorial rather than imperial; following the disorganization of his two predecessors, he sought to reimpose Habsburg authority in their hereditary lands, especially Bohemia, touching off the Bohemian revolt of 1618. This regional conflict rapidly spread as both Ferdinand and his opponents sought support (based on religion or reason of state) from within the empire and abroad. This raised a set of constitutional questions about the emperor's power to invite external (in this case, Spanish) forces into the empire, and the rights of the estates to resist the emperor. Some scholars have argued that these fundamental constitutional questions, as much as confessional hatred and international intervention, made the war so protracted and difficult to conclude.

Despite their successes in the Thirty Years' War, the Habsburgs did not shift the distribution of power in the empire from the princes to the emperor. Like Charles V before them, Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III (ruled 16371657) could not develop an imperial monarchy. The Westphalian treaties of 1648 that ended the war left the empire in the form established in 1555, "a monarchy caged by constituted aristocratic liberties," in the words of Thomas A. Brady, Jr. The Peace of Westphalia legitimized the Reformed confession in the empire and restored the territorial and confessional status of the empire to the year 1624, the "normal year" of the treaties.

The Westphalian settlement tied the longstanding balance between emperor and estates to an international agreement designed to bring lasting peace to Europe. France and Sweden stood as guarantors of the treaty's terms, and their purpose was to hold the empire as a whole passive in European affairs. The peace confirmed the broader European trend toward a system of fully sovereign, independent states but left the empire, with its fragmented sovereignty, and the imperial estates, with their lesser, territorial sovereignty within the empire, as exceptions that proved the rule.

Given the consolidation of the power and authority of the individual estates by the Peace of Westphalia, was the Holy Roman Empire a state after 1648? Historians of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, focused on the modern nation-state, answered in the negative, and critically. The origins of the modern state in Germany were seen in the larger territories of the empire, especially Brandenburg-Prussia. The apotheosis of the nation-state meant the condemnation of the Old Empire, which was denied any significant contribution to the modern state. Early modern political theorists offer a different perspective. Samuel Pufendorf described the empire as "resembling a monster" in his 1667 treatise on the empire's constitution, but Pufendorf, like most of his contemporaries, did not deny that the empire was a statealbeit a state with a complex and irregular constitution that did not fit with any classical model or modern system.


In the century after the Peace of Westphalia, the fundamental acceptance of the existence of the empire by the other European powers led to a period of relative peace and prosperity. During this period German art, music, and learned culture once again flourished. Eighteenth-century observers lamented the empire's lack of a capital city that could serve as a cultural center, but the polycentric structure of the empire had its benefits for the cross-pollination of ideas and cultures. As noted above, the spread of Reformation ideas and their implementation benefited from the variety of religious orders, universities, independent city-states, and centers of printing in the empire. From the mid-seventeenth century, the polycentric empire offered an array of careers, patrons, and stimuli for the arts, especially architecture and music. The flowering of German baroque architecture after 1700 can be seen in the works of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt in the Habsburg lands, Balthasar Neumann in Würzburg, Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann in Saxony, and Andreas Schlüter in Berlin. These baroque palaces and churches, each testifying to the glory of a prince of the empire, rang with the music of the age, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in Saxony, George Frideric Handel in Hanover and London, and Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna. The careers of these men were shaped by the variety of courts and confessions unique to the empire.


The revival of the Habsburgs' military power and imperial authority began during the reign of Emperor Leopold I (ruled 16581705), as the empire was threatened by French and Turkish aggression. These threats resulted in the loss of imperial cities like Strasbourg to France (1681) and the Ottoman siege of Vienna (1683), but without imperial leadership the damage could have been much worse. This demonstrated to even the most powerful princes of the empire that its central institutions, including the emperor, were indispensable to the defense and organization of the empire and its constituent territories. By 1700 the estates focused on strengthening the Imperial Circles and the Imperial Army and supported legislation such as the Imperial Trades Edict of 1731, which regulated the craft guilds of the empire. The two highest courts of the empire, the Imperial Cameral Court and the Imperial Aulic Court (Reichshofrat) also grew more effective. These courts settled several major interterritorial disputes through peaceful arbitration in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They also resolved disputes within territories between princes and their estates. In a case cited by Peter H. Wilson, Duke William Hyacinth, ruler of Nassau-Siegen, was exiled from his tiny principality in 1707 by soldiers from Cologne acting on the instructions of the Imperial Aulic Court, which had ruled that he had forfeited his throne through his autocratic and irrational policies. In the free imperial city of Hamburg, a century-long dispute between the city council and the citizenry was settled in 1712 through an imperial commission. In 1719 the estates of Mecklenburg obtained a verdict and military intervention to prevent their prince's use of his standing army against his own subjects, and in 1764 the Württemberg estates secured an injunction against their duke's attempt to collect new taxes by force. At least a quarter of all cases heard by the Imperial Aulic Court in the period 16481806 were brought by subjects against their rulers, a clear sign of the relevance of imperial institutions to subjects and princes in the last 150 years of the empire.

By the mid-eighteenth century the creation of standing armies divided the empire into "armed" and "unarmed" territories. Brandenburg-Prussia led the way with a standing army established by Frederick William I, the Great Elector (ruled 16401688). The Hohenzollern electors of Brandenburg, who were also the dukes of Prussia (which lay outside the empire), acquired the title of "king in Prussia" in 1701an elevation sanctioned by Emperor Leopold I in return for military support from Brandenburg-Prussia. By the reign of Frederick II the Great (ruled 17401786), Brandenburg-Prussia had joined the great powers of Europe and pursued its own foreign policy. For Brandenburg-Prussia, as for Austria, the empire was now only one political factor among many.

Historians speak of the "centrifugal forces" that pulled the empire apart in the late eighteenth century. Its two largest principalities, Habsburg Austria and Hohenzollern Brandenburg-Prussia, expanded eastward in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, each tapping sources of authority and power outside the empire; the rulers of Saxony and Hanover did the same by accepting crowns in Poland and Great Britain. The lesser territories of the empire, the so-called "Third Germany," focused more attention on the empire, but competition between Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia, the rigidity of the treaties of Westphalia, and the ponderous pace of imperial institutions combined to leave the empire politically impotent. A series of reforms in 1803 came too late to restore political relevance to the empire and could not prevent its elimination, through the abdication of Emperor Francis II (ruled 17921806), at the instigation of Napoleon. The tradition of the empire died, and its revival was not seriously discussed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

See also Augsburg, Religious Peace of (1555) ; Austro-Ottoman Wars ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Charles VI (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand III (Holy Roman Empire) ; Francis II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Frederick III (Holy Roman Empire) ; Free and Imperial Cities ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Habsburg Territories ; Joseph I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Joseph II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Matthias (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maximilian I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maximilian II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Peasants' War, German ; Reformation, Protestant ; Representative Institutions ; Schmalkaldic War (15461547) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) .


Primary Sources

Lindberg, Carter, ed. The European Reformations Source-book. Oxford and Malden, Mass., 2000. Good documentation of the Protestant Reformation in the empire.

Macartney, C. A., ed. The Habsburg and Hohenzollern Dynasties in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York, 1970.

Pufendorf, Samuel. Die Verfassung des deutschen Reiches. Translated and edited by Horst Denzer. Frankfurt am Main, 1994. Translation of De statu imperii Germanici (1667).

Scott, Tom, and Robert W. Scribner, eds. and trans. The German Peasants' War: A History in Documents. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1991. Hundreds of documents never before translated into English on the largest rebellion in the history of the empire.

Secondary Sources

Aretin, Karl Otmar, Freiherr von. Das alte Reich, 16481806. 4 vols. Stuttgart, 19932000. Fundamental to any discussion of the empire after the Peace of Westphalia.

Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 16181648. Basingstoke, U.K., 1997.

Blickle, Peter. Obedient Germans? A Rebuttal: A New View of German History. Translated by Thomas A. Brady, Jr. Charlottesville, Va., 1997.

Brady, Thomas A., Jr. "Settlements: The Holy Roman Empire." In Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. 2 vols. Edited by Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy. Leiden and New York, 19941995.

. Turning Swiss: Cities and Empire, 14501550. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Carsten, F. L. Princes and Parliaments in Germany, from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford, 1959. Still valuable for its detail and comparative breadth.

Evans, R. J. W. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History, 15761612. Oxford, 1973. Reprint, Oxford, 1994.

Fichtner, Paula S. The Habsburg Monarchy, 14901848: Attributes of Empire. New York, 2003.

Gagliardo, John G. Germany under the Old Regime, 1600 1790. London and New York, 1991.

Heer, Friedrich. The Holy Roman Empire. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. New York, 1968. Reprint, New York, 2002. Well-illustrated.

Hsia, R. Po-chia. Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe, 15501750. London and New York, 1989.

Hughes, Michael. Early Modern Germany, 14771806. Basingstoke, U.K., 1992.

Mann, Golo. Wallenstein: His Life Narrated. Translated by Charles Kessler. New York, 1976. Classic biography of one of the central figures of the Thirty Years' War.

Moeller, Bernd. Imperial Cities and the Reformation: Three Essays. Edited and translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. Durham, N.C., 1982.

Press, Volker. "The Habsburg Lands: The Holy Roman Empire, 14001555." In Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Edited by Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy. 2 vols. Leiden and New York, 19941995.

Schindling, Anton, and Walter Ziegler, eds. Die Territorien des Reichs im Zeitalter der Reformation und Konfessionalisierung: Land und Konfession, 15001650. Katholisches Leben und Kirchenreform im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, 49. 7 vols. Münster, 19891997. An invaluable reference work, especially for the smaller territories of the empire.

Scribner, Robert W., and Sheilagh C. Ogilvie, eds. Germany: A New Social and Economic History. 2 vols. London and New York, 1996. Vol. 1, 14501630, is edited by Robert W. Scribner; vol. 2, 16301800, by Sheilagh Ogilvie.

Vierhaus, Rudolf. Germany in the Age of Absolutism. Translated by Jonathan B. Knudsen. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 16481871. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971.

Wilson, Peter H. The Holy Roman Empire, 14951806. New York, 1999. A concise and effective summary of the history and institutions of the early modern empire in light of current revisionist scholarship.

Zophy, Jonathan W., ed. The Holy Roman Empire: A Dictionary Handbook. Westport, Conn., 1980.

Craig Koslofsky

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Holy Roman Empire." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Holy Roman Empire." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 16, 2017).

"Holy Roman Empire." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire, designation for the political entity that originated at the coronation as emperor (962) of the German king Otto I and endured until the renunciation (1806) of the imperial title by Francis II. The term itself did not come into usage until several centuries after Otto's accession.

For a list of all emperors from Otto I to Francis II and the dates they reigned, see the table entitled Holy Roman Emperors.


The Holy Roman Empire was a successor state to the empire founded in 800 by Charlemagne (see also Carolingians), who revived the title of Roman emperor in the West. According to Carolingian theory, the Roman Empire had merely been suspended, not ended, by the abdication of the last Roman emperor in 476. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Roman emperor, probably perceived more as a personal title than as a reference to a particular territorial rule. From the death of Arnulf (899), the last Carolingian to hold the imperial title, until Otto's coronation in Rome by Pope John XII, various rulers bore the imperial title but exercised no authority; among them were Louis III, king of Provence, and Berengar I, king of Italy.

Nature of the Empire

From the time of Otto's reign the imperial office was based on the German kingship. The German king, elected by the German princes, automatically sought imperial coronation by the pope. After 1045 a king who was not yet crowned emperor was known as king of the Romans, a title that asserted his right to the imperial throne and implied that he was emperor-designate. Not every German king became emperor, however, because the popes, especially when elections to the kingships were disputed, often claimed that the selection of the emperor was their prerogative. Despite the fact that the German kingship and the imperial office were technically elective, they tended to become hereditary.

At times the electors, the German princes who approved the succession to the German kingship, exercised real authority in choosing the king, although papal confirmation was still necessary for accession to the imperial throne. In 1338 at the diets of Rhense and Frankfurt the German princes proclaimed the electors' right to choose the emperor without papal intervention. The Golden Bull of 1356 issued by Charles IV reaffirmed this and regulated the election procedure. Emperors continued to be crowned by the pope until after the coronation (1530) of Charles V. Thereafter, following the precedent (1508) of Maximilian I, they were crowned at Frankfurt. Several early emperors were also crowned king of Italy with the iron crown of the Lombards. After 1438 the imperial office was held, with one exception, by the house of Hapsburg.

The empire was justified by the claim that, just as the pope was the vicar of God on earth in spiritual matters, so the emperor was God's temporal vicar; hence he claimed to be the supreme temporal ruler of Christendom. Actually, the power of the emperor never equaled his pretensions. Although the emperors were accorded diplomatic precedence over other rulers, their suzerainty early ceased over France, S Italy, Denmark, Poland, and Hungary; and their control over England, Sweden, and Spain was never more than nominal. The authority of the emperors in Italy and Germany was sometimes nonexistent, sometimes real.

The territorial limits of the empire varied, but it generally included Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia, parts of N Italy, present-day Belgium, and, until 1648, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Some countries (e.g., Hungary) were ruled by the emperor or imperial prince but were outside the empire, while others (e.g., Flanders, Pomerania, Schleswig, and Holstein) were part of the empire but were ruled by foreign princes who held their lands in fief from the emperor and took part in the imperial diet.


Conflict with the Pope and the Italians

When Otto I became emperor, he renewed the traditions of the Carolingian empire that had been eroding for decades before Arnulf's death. Otto's empire comprised the German duchies, Lorraine (or Lotharingia), Italy, and Burgundy, which had its own nominal king. Burgundy (see Arles, kingdom of) was formally annexed in 1033.

The imperial position, however, was precarious from the start. A conflict over the relationship between the papacy and the imperial throne resulted in the investiture controversy during the reign of Henry IV (1084–1105), who appointed bishops to three sees already under the direction of papal appointees. He was also suspected of tolerating simony and other practices that the pope was trying to curb. In 1076, Henry IV withdrew his obedience to Pope Gregory VII and was excommunicated. Subsequent struggles between the popes Alexander III, Gregory IX, and Innocent IV and the emperors Frederick I and Frederick II concerned papal sovereignty in Italy. The papacy was victorious, and the emperors ceased to interfere seriously with papal affairs except during the Great Schism (see Schism, Great) of the 15th cent. and in the Italian Wars of the 16th cent.

Also untenable was the dual position of the emperors as rulers of Germany and of Italy; geography as well as cultural and political conditions separated the two countries. The defense of the empire against foreign attack was made more difficult by the repeated attempts of the emperors to maintain their authority in Italy against the opposition of the city-states (see commune), the papacy, and the petty princes. Frederick I failed to suppress the Lombard League, which had papal support. Frederick II, after inheriting Naples and Sicily, was primarily interested in Italian affairs; his conflict with the papacy produced the feud between Guelphs and Ghibellines throughout Italy and ruined the imperial authority there.

Conflict in Germany

The death (1254) of Conrad IV, the last ruling Hohenstaufen, was followed by an interregnum of 19 years. Opposing claimants to the imperial crown were unable to exercise authority during this period, and the power of the emperor declined considerably. The election (1273) of Rudolf I as the first Hapsburg German king restored some order, but after his death rival claimants renewed the strife. The effect of continued warfare and weak monarchs increased the power of the German princes, particularly the dukes of the great duchies of Bavaria, Saxony, Swabia, Franconia, Thuringia, and Upper and Lower Lorraine. The Golden Bull of 1356 conceded the princes' dominance over the monarchy.

The emperors maintained some authority against the nobles with the support of the towns and of the great ecclesiastical princes (e.g., the archbishop-electors of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier), who were imperial appointees. As the German towns grew in wealth and power, they entered leagues for defense against the nobles. Since they acted as a counterbalance to the nobility, they were generally favored by the emperors, who made them free imperial cities with a voice in the diet. The power of the emperors, however, had come to depend largely on the size and wealth of the emperors' hereditary domains. Thus, the Luxemburg emperors (Henry VII, Charles IV, Wenceslaus, and Sigismund) and the Hapsburg emperors concerned themselves with their own lands to the detriment of the unity of the empire.

During the reign of Maximilian I (1493–1519) the conflict between the dynastic policy of the Hapsburg emperors and the interests of the German empire (then known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) became pronounced. The princes attempted to remove the administration of the empire from the emperor and put it in the hands of an imperial council; the council would control all external and internal affairs of the empire. Under pressure Maximilian I created (1500) a council (see Reichsregiment) and an imperial court of justice. However, these were only temporary measures, since the Hapsburgs had no intention of pursuing German policy, which would conflict with their dynastic interests, particularly in Austria.

Dissolution of the Empire

In the 16th cent., under Charles V and Ferdinand I, imperial and Austrian affairs were practically identical. This identity was furthered by the Reformation, which generally aligned the German Protestant princes against the emperors, who championed Roman Catholicism. In the Thirty Years War (1618–48; see Ferdinand II; Ferdinand III; Wallenstein; Protestant Union) the emperor, allied with Spain, opposed the Protestant princes, who were allied chiefly with Sweden and France. The struggle ended with the virtual dissolution of the empire in the Peace of Westphalia (1648; see Westphalia, Peace of), which recognized the sovereignty of all the states of the empire; the only limitation was that the princes could not make alliances directed against the empire or the emperor.

Although the imperial title became largely honorific, the outward forms of the empire were retained; the emperors, with their hereditary lands, remained powerful monarchs. While the peace generally legalized the situation that had existed in the empire since the Reformation, it also advanced the growth of particularism and absolutism in the German states. The emperors suffered further loss of prestige in their wars against Louis XIV (see Dutch Wars3; Grand Alliance, War of the; Spanish Succession, War of the).

The death (1740) of Charles VI ended the male Hapsburg line, precipitating further conflict (see Austrian Succession, War of the; Seven Years War). While the elector of Bavaria was chosen (1742) emperor as Charles VII, Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI, defended her Hapsburg inheritance against the claims of Bavaria, Prussia, and Saxony. By the peace of Hubertusburg (1763), Francis I, husband of Maria Theresa, was recognized as emperor; however, Prussia, under King Frederick II, had emerged as the leading German power. Joseph II, successor of Francis I, adhered to the principles of the Enlightenment; he attempted to rationalize the administration of the imperial government but failed in the face of resistance by the particularist princes, especially Frederick II of Prussia.

During the French Revolutionary Wars the empire was completely reorganized by the treaty of Lunéville (1801) and by action of the diet in 1803. The number of states was greatly reduced, and the remaining states were aggrandized at the expense of the petty princedoms and ecclesiastical estates. In 1804, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II took the title Francis I, emperor of Austria, and after the establishment (1806) of the Confederation of the Rhine under Napoleon I, Francis renounced his title as Holy Roman Emperor. After the fall of Napoleon no attempt was made to restore the empire, but a German Confederation was established that lasted until 1866.


See H. A. L. Fisher, The Medieval Empire (1898, repr. 1969); J. W. Thompson, Feudal Germany (1928, repr. 1962); G. Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (1946, rev. ed. 1947, repr. 1966); B. Tierney, ed., Crisis of Church and State, 1050–1300 (1964); T. F. Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, 918–1273 (8th ed. 1965); J. Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (new ed. 1968); R. Folz, The Coronation of Charlemagne (tr. 1974); H. Wolfram, History of the Goths (1988); see also bibliographies under Middle Ages; Germany.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Holy Roman Empire." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Holy Roman Empire." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 16, 2017).

"Holy Roman Empire." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire


The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire is usually dated to the decision of Charlemagne (742814), king of the Franks, to assume an imperial title on Christmas Day, 800. The exact reasons for this remain a matter of dispute, but were clearly related to Charlemagnes personal mission to establish Christian rule in western and central Europe. The original empire was partitioned in 843, with the eastern portion retaining the association with the Christian imperial mission. This assumed greater ideological significance with the coronation of Otto I (r. 936973) in Rome in 962 as he consciously invoked not only continuity with Charlemagnes empire, but that of ancient Rome. The concept of imperial translation claimed that the empire was a direct continuation of that of ancient Rome in its final, Christian configuration, and so was the last of the four world monarchies prophesied in the Bible to rule over the earth before the Day of Judgment. Such ideas buttressed the emperors claim to be the supreme overlord of all other Christian rulers and thus the secular arm of a single, universal Christendom, leading to a prolonged dispute with the papacy.

The Christianizing mission combined with internal population growth to push the empire across the river Elbe early in the twelfth century, making it the largest polity in Europe until the growth of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. This expansion was assisted by the relative continuity of three successive imperial dynasties: the Ottonians (9191024), the Salians (10241125), and the Staufers (11381254). However, the growth of more distinct kingdoms in western Europe restricted the emperors practical authority to the lands east of the Rhine and north of the Alps. Moreover, the emperor only ruled a small portion of the vast area directly, relying on a host of secular and spiritual lords, as well as autonomous cities to manage local and regional affairs. These lords (increasingly called princes) and cities evolved as the imperial estates (Reichsstände ) between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, each controlling a distinct territory within the empire, with their own subordinate clergy, nobility, towns, and rural communes.

The absence of a single imperial dynasty after 1254 assisted this process and led to an elective imperial title that became entrenched in Germany and could be assumed without papal participation. Following the demise of the Luxembourg dynasty (13471437), the title passed by election to the Habsburgs, who retained it with only a single break (17401745) until the end of the empire in 1806. The onset of prolonged warfare with France and the Ottomans coincided with the confessional strife of the Reformation, and social and economic change. These pressures forced constitutional change from the late fifteenth century, creating an elaborate web of written and customary rights intended to preserve the autonomy of the imperial estates and the corporate structure of central European society within a hierarchical political framework under the emperors overall authority, but not his direct rule. The growth of Austria and Prussia as distinct European great powers undermined this structure from within and led to its collapse during the Napoleonic Wars when the last emperor abdicated in 1806.

SEE ALSO Church, The


Arnold, Benjamin. 1997. Medieval Germany, 5001300: A Political Interpretation. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.

Wilson, Peter H. 1999. The Holy Roman Empire, 14951806. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.

Peter H. Wilson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Holy Roman Empire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Holy Roman Empire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 16, 2017).

"Holy Roman Empire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire European Empire centred on Germany (10th–19th centuries), which echoed the Empire of ancient Rome. It was founded (962) when the German king Otto I (the Great) was crowned in Rome, although some historians date it from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. The Emperor, elected by the German Princes, claimed to be the temporal sovereign of Christendom, ruling in cooperation with the spiritual sovereign, the Pope. However, the Empire never encompassed all of western Christendom, and relations with the papacy were often difficult. From 1438, the title was virtually hereditary in the Habsburg dynasty. After 1648, the Empire became little more than a loose confederation, containing hundreds of virtually independent states. Napoleon I finally abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Holy Roman Empire." World Encyclopedia. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Holy Roman Empire." World Encyclopedia. . (December 16, 2017).

"Holy Roman Empire." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from