Holy Roman Empire


The Holy Roman Empire (abbreviated to SER) was a now defunct political grouping of lands in western, central and southern Europe, founded in the Middle Ages and ruled by a ruler with the title “Emperor of the Romans. It considered itself, from its foundation in the tenth century until its suppression in the early nineteenth century by Napoleon, as the continuator of the Western Empire of the Carolingians and, beyond, of the Roman Empire. The adjective Saint was added during the reign of Frederick Barbarossa (attested in 1157) to legitimize power in a divine manner.

It was also called, from the 16th to the 18th century, Holy Roman Empire of the Teutonic Nation (in Latin: Sacrum Romanum Imperium Nationis Teutonicae) or Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation (in German: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation), tending to identify it with Germany. After its abolition, in 20th century French history books, it was called Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But the Germanic reference is not present in the history books of other countries: it is called in English Holy Roman Empire, in Latin Sacrum Imperium Romanum, in German Heiliges Römisches Reich, in Italian Sacro Romano Impero, in Dutch Heilige Roomse Rijk; and is also sometimes called First Reich or Old Empire, to differentiate it from the German Empire.

It was under the Ottonian dynasty, in the tenth century, that the Empire was formed from the former Carolingian East Francia. The designation Sacrum Imperium is first attested in 1157, and the title Sacrum Romanum Imperium appears around 1184, to be used definitively from 1254. The complement Deutscher Nation (in Latin Nationis Teutonicae, in French “de Nation teutonique”) was added in the 15th century. The extent and borders of the Holy Roman Empire have changed considerably over the centuries. At the time of its greatest expansion, the Empire included almost the entire territory of present-day Central Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and parts of France and Italy. Its history and civilization are therefore a heritage shared by many present-day European states.

The modern era marks the structural impossibility for the Empire to wage offensive wars, to extend its power and its territory. From then on, its main missions were the defense of the law and the preservation of peace. The Empire had to ensure political stability and the peaceful resolution of conflicts by containing the dynamics of power: it offered protection to subjects against the arbitrariness of the lords, and to the lesser orders against any infringement of the law committed by the more important orders and by the Empire itself. From 1648 onwards, neighboring states were constitutionally integrated as imperial states; the Empire then also fulfilled this function of peace in the constellation of European powers.

From the middle of the 18th century, the Empire could no longer protect its members from the expansionist policies of internal and external powers. This was one of the causes of its collapse. The Napoleonic conquests and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine demonstrated the weakness of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire disappeared on August 6, 1806 when Emperor Francis II laid down his crown to become only Emperor of Austria and, as Ferdinand Lot writes, August 6, 1806, the date of Francis II”s abandonment of his status as Emperor of the Romans, can be considered as the legal death certificate of the Roman Empire.

Because of its pre-national foundation and its supranational character, the Holy Roman Empire never led to the formation of a modern nation-state, unlike France or the United Kingdom. The Holy Roman Empire remained a monarchical and corporate entity, ruled by an emperor and the imperial states, with very few imperial institutions to speak of.

The Holy Roman Empire is defined above all by negations:

However, the empire has characteristics of all these state forms.

As an “umbrella organization”, the empire enveloped many territories and served as a legal framework for the cohabitation of the various lords. These princes and dukes were almost autonomous but not sovereign. They recognize the emperor as the ruler of the empire and submit to the laws, jurisdictions and decisions of the Diet of the Empire, but they take an active part in imperial politics and influence it, starting with the election of the emperor and participating in diets and other corporate representations. Unlike in other countries, the inhabitants were not direct subjects of the emperor. Each immediate territory has its own lord, and each free city of the Empire has its mayor.

The Holy Roman Empire finally tends to be defined as a “complementary state”, a notion introduced in 1999 by Georg Schmidt (de).

The history of the Holy Roman Empire is marked by the struggle over its nature. Unable to break the regional stubbornness of the territories, it ended up fragmenting into a shapeless confederation. This is the Kleinstaaterei.

By its name, the Holy Roman Empire claims directly from the ancient Roman Empire and claims, just like the Byzantine Empire, to the idea of a universal domination. It is in the eleventh century that this idea of universality makes its appearance in the Holy Empire. At the same time, the prophecies of Daniel, who had predicted that there would be four empires that would lead to the arrival of the Antichrist and therefore the Apocalypse on Earth, were feared. This is why the Roman Empire was not to collapse.

The term “saint” underlines the divine right of the emperor and legitimizes his power. By accepting to be crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in the year 800, Charlemagne founded his empire in the continuity of the Roman Empire, we speak of translatio imperii, although the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantine, was also placed in a continuity and this in a more ancient way. The Byzantines considered the Western Roman Empire as self-appointed and illegitimate. Voltaire remarked that “this body which was called and which is still called the Holy Roman Empire was in no way either holy, Roman or empire”.

When the empire was founded in the middle of the tenth century, it did not yet bear the label of saint. The first emperor, Otto I, and his successors saw themselves and were seen as God”s representatives on earth and therefore as the first protectors of the Catholic Church. It is therefore not necessary to emphasize the sanctity of the empire which continues to be called Regnum Francorum orientalium or Regnum Francorum. In the imperial title of the Ottonians, however, we find the components that apply thereafter. On the acts of Otto II dated 982 during his Italian campaign, we can read the title Romanorum imperator augustus (Augustan Emperor of the Romans), a title reserved for the Basilian of Byzantium. His successor Otto III elevated his title above all temporal and spiritual powers by granting himself, like the Pope, the titles “Servant of Jesus Christ” and even later “Servant of the Apostles”.

Sacrum imperium

The sacred influence of the empire was undermined and then suppressed by the pope during the Quarrel of the Investitures from 1075 to 1122. The Latin formula sacrum imperium was born under Frederick Barbarossa when the popes tried to subject the empire to the priesthood. It is attested in 1157, in the early days of the chancellorship of Renaud de Dassel: its first known occurrence appears in a document dated the last week of March. The empire was declared independent from the papacy. It is founded in the continuity of the holy history. It is perhaps a question of consciously integrating itself into the ancient Roman tradition. However, historical research questions this thesis, since it could also be a specifically Staufian concept, especially since in ancient times it was not the Roman Empire that was holy, but the person of the emperor.

Sacrum Romanum imperium

The Latin formula sacrum Romanum imperium appeared under Frederick Barbarossa. It is attested as early as 1180: its first known occurrence – the genitive “sacri romani imperii” – appears in a diploma dated June 14, the original of which, coming from the collection of the Roman church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, is kept in the Vatican Apostolic Library. During the interregnum from 1250 to 1273, when none of the three elected kings managed to prevail over the others, the Empire claimed to be the Roman Empire with the qualifier “holy”. From 1254 onwards, the Latin name Sacrum Romanum Imperium (in German Heiliges Römisches Reich) was used. It was not until the reign of Charles IV that it was used in German-language documents. It was precisely during the period without an emperor in the middle of the thirteenth century that the desire for universal power became most pronounced – although this situation changed little afterwards.

Teutonicae nationis

In 1441, the future emperor Frederick III added to the name of the empire “Teutonicae nationis”. The Empire then extended for the most part over German-speaking territory, and despite this, the Germans, disunited, were threatened with having to share imperial power with the Burgundians in the West and the Czechs in the East, which led them to assert that the Empire was their own. In 1486, elected and crowned emperor, Frederick III used the definitive title, Heiliges Römisches Reich deutscher Nation. It was officially adopted in 1512 in the preamble to the acts of the Diet of Cologne. Emperor Maximilian I had convened the imperial states to “maintain the Holy Roman Empire”. Until 1806, Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation) was the official name of the Empire, often abbreviated to SRI for Sacrum Romanum Imperium or H. Röm. Reich in German. A copy of the German Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation, the Latin phrase sacrum Romanum imperium Germanicae nationis is attested in 1556.

Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, the term Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation or Holy Roman Empire had fallen out of official use. In contradiction to the traditional view of this designation, historian Hermann Weisert has argued in a study of imperial titulation that, despite the claims of many textbooks, the name Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation never had official status and points out that documents were thirty times more likely to omit the national suffix than to include it during the history of the Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire was named the German Empire in the Treaty of Basel of April 5, 1795, and then in the Treaty of Lunéville of February 9, 1801. The last two legal acts promulgated by the Holy Roman Empire – the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss of 1803, which reorganized the empire, and the capitulation of Emperor Franz II – used the formula deutsches Reich (German Empire). There is no longer any question of holiness or universal power.

Birth of the Empire

Before Charlemagne”s death in 814, the Carolingian Empire, founded in 800 by Charlemagne, underwent several divisions and reunifications among its children in 806. Such divisions between the sons of a ruler were provided for by Frankish law and did not mean the end of the unity of the Empire, since a common policy as well as a future reunification in the different parts was possible.

In particular, it was foreseen that if one of the children died without descendants, his part would go to one of his brothers. Charlemagne”s inheritance thus went entirely to Louis the Pious when Charles and Pepin died.

The treaty of Verdun in 843 settled a new division between the grandsons of Charlemagne: Charles the Bald received the western part of Gallo-Roman impregnation which extended to the Meuse, Louis the Germanic received the eastern part of Germanic impregnation and finally Lothaire I, emperor of the West since 840, received the median Frankish part from the North Sea to Rome.

Although the future map of European nations is recognizable, the next fifty years brought – mostly as a result of wars – their share of divisions and reunifications. When Charles the Fat, emperor of the West from 881 onwards, was deposed in 887 by a diet of the great dignitaries of East Francia, among other things because of his inability to repel the Normans who were ravaging the kingdom, no leader from any of the different parts of the former Carolingian Empire was chosen as emperor.

The territories choose their own kings and the latter, for a part of them, no longer belong to the Carolingian dynasty. The distance and division of the parts of the Empire are obvious. The wars for power between Carolingians plunged the Empire into civil war, which became unable to protect itself against external attacks. The lack of dynastic cohesion caused the Empire to break up into multiple small counties, duchies and other territories under a territorial power that most often only formally recognized the regional kings as overlords.

In 888, the middle part of the Empire thus broke up into many small independent kingdoms such as Upper Burgundy and Transjuran Burgundy, Italy (while Lorraine was annexed to the eastern part as a subordinate kingdom). The kings of these kingdoms imposed themselves against the Carolingian pretenders thanks to the support of the local nobles. In the eastern part, the local nobles chose dukes. With the death in 911 of Louis the Child, the last Carolingian on the throne of East Francia disappeared. The latter could have broken up as Middle Francia had done if Conrad I had not been chosen by the great men of the kingdom. Conrad did not belong to the Carolingian dynasty, but he was a Frank of the Conradian branch. In 919 in Fritzlar, the Saxon duke Henry the Oisealer was the first to be elected king of East Francia without being of Frankish lineage. From this date onwards, it was no longer a single dynasty that held the reins of the Empire, but rather the great ones, the nobles and the dukes, who decided on the ruler.

In November 921, Henry I, king of East Francia, and Charles the Simple, king of West Francia, made an act of mutual recognition by the treaty of Bonn. From then on, Henry I could bear the title of rex francorum orientalium (King of the East Franks). Thus, Francia became an independent and viable state in spite of the disintegration of the unity of the Empire and the unification of the Germanic peoples, who did not speak Romanized Latin like the West Franks, but rather Tudesk.

Anxious to achieve the unity of the kingdom by bringing together its various political components, Henry I obtained from all the great electors that his son Otto be designated as his successor.

The accession to the throne of Otto I reveals a royal family full of confidence. Otto was crowned on the supposed throne of Charlemagne in Aachen on August 7, 936 and sought to make his power sacred. The new king had himself anointed and vowed to protect the Church. After fighting some of his relatives and some Lorraine dukes, Otto managed to confirm and secure his power thanks to his victory over the Hungarians in 955 at the battle of Lechfeld near Augsburg. As did the Roman legionaries, the army saluted him on the battlefield as Imperator.

This victory over the Hungarians allowed Pope John XII to call Otto to Rome and offer him the crown of emperor to affirm his position as protector of the Church. At this time, the pope, who was threatened by the Italian regional kings, hoped to attract Otto”s good graces. With this proposal, the ancient “barbarians” became the bearers of Roman culture, and the Eastern regnum the legitimate successor of Charlemagne. Otto accepted the pope”s offer and went to Rome. He then attracted the wrath of Byzantium and the Romans.

The coronation of Otto I as emperor on February 2, 962 is considered by most historians as the founding date of the Holy Roman Empire, even though Otto”s idea was not to found a new empire, but to restore it (renovatio imperii). The Carolingian Empire as it existed was, on the other hand, definitively dead: the process of division between East Francia and Middle Francia of West Francia was completed. However, Otto wanted to continue it. With the coronation of Otto, the Holy Roman Empire obtained a temporal legitimation, but also a sacred legitimation as a new Imperium Romanum.

Middle Ages

Under the Merovingians, the dukes were royal officials responsible for military affairs in the territories conquered by the Franks. They then formed an intermediate power with a certain degree of autonomy. When the Merovingian central power declined as a result of the various territorial divisions, ethnic duchies (Stammesherzogtümer) such as those of the Alamanni or the Bavarii gained in independence. Under the Carolingians, these duchies were dissolved and replaced by duchies that derived their power from the emperor (Amtsherzöge). However, the ethnic duchies were reborn around 900 when the Carolingian power was weakened: the duchy of Saxony, the duchy of Franconia, the duchy of Bavaria, the duchy of Swabia and the duchy of Lotharingia. In 911, the power of the ethnic dukes was so strong that they chose a king of their own for East Francia, going against the right of blood of the Carolingians of West Francia. When the Ottonians in the person of Henry I came to power in 919, they recognized these dukes. Until the eleventh century, the duchies were more or less independent of the central royal power. But the old ethnic duchies gradually lose their importance. The Duchy of Francia was already extinguished in 936. The duchy of Lorraine was divided in 959 into Lower and Upper Lotharingia. The duchy of Carinthia was born from the division of the duchy of Bavaria in 976.

As the Empire was born as an instrument of the dukes, it was no longer divided between the sons of the ruler but remained an elected monarchy. The non-division of the inheritance between the king”s sons is contrary to Frankish law. Henry I had power over the ethnic duchies (Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Franconia) only as a suzerain, so he could only have shared Saxony or a suzerainty over the duchies with his sons. Consequently, Henry I defined in his regulation that only one of the sons should succeed him on the throne. One can already see that two concepts are linked – that of inheritance and elected monarchy – which will permeate the Empire until the end of the Franconian dynasty. After several military campaigns in Italy, Otto I managed to conquer the northern and middle parts of the peninsula and to integrate the Lombard Kingdom into the Empire. However, the complete integration of imperial Italy never really came to fruition.

It was under Otto II that the last ties with West Francia disappeared. From then on, there were only kinship relations between the leaders of the territories. When Otto II made his cousin Charles duke of Lower Lotharingia in 977, Charles” brother, the king of the Franks, Lothaire, began to claim this territory, which he invaded in 978, even going so far as to seize Aachen. Otto went on a campaign against Lothar and reached Paris. The situation calmed down in 980. The consequences of this definitive break between the successors of the Carolingian Empire would not be seen until later. However, due to the emergence of a French consciousness of belonging, the French kingdom was considered independent of the emperor.

The concept of the imperial clientele is important for understanding the systems of power within the Holy Roman Empire that were based on feudalism. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, those who had the most powerful clientele ruled. The princes therefore maintain an entourage of warriors who become their vassals. The maintenance of this clientele required substantial financial resources. Before the reintroduction of the silver denarius by the Carolingians, the only wealth was land. This is why the first Carolingians conquered all of Europe in order to redistribute land to an ever-increasing number of clients. This is how they became more and more powerful. But in the ninth century, the lands to be given became scarce and the vassals had more and more desire for independence, so the sons of Louis the Pious were outbidding each other to acquire as many loyalties as possible and grant themselves the Empire: they granted lands not as life annuities – Charlemagne recovered the lands given to the beneficiary at his death and could therefore redistribute them – but as permanent titles, the land was then transmitted hereditarily. From then on, the Empire dissolved and the sovereigns resulting from the Verdun partition had very little power.

The Ottonians changed the situation by building up a clientele of bishops, to whom they distributed offices for life. They soon had the largest clientele in Europe and became its masters in the 10th century. Otto I entrusted the tutelage of his nephews Lothaire and Hugues Capet, respectively future king and duke of the Franks, still minors, to his brother Brunon. By controlling Italy and Germania, they controlled the north-south commercial axis of Europe and received the proceeds of the tonlieu (tax on tolls and markets). They also developed markets and roads in a West in full economic growth. They could also count on the silver mines of Goslar, which allowed them to mint money and boost trade even more. Finally, until Henry III, the emperors were clearly allies of the Church and the monastic reform. By fighting against simony, they recovered bishoprics and abbeys that the other Germanic princes had taken control of in order to expand their own clientele and entrusted them to reforming abbots or bishops close to them.

Under the Carolingians, the gradual establishment of hereditary offices had greatly contributed to the weakening of their authority. To avoid a similar drift, the Ottonians, who knew they could not rely too much on the loyalty of family relationships, relied on the Germanic Church, which they showered with benefits but which they subjugated. Historians have given the system they set up the name Reichskirchensystem. It must be said that the Church had kept the idea of Empire alive. It had supported the imperial ambitions of Otto I.

The bishops and abbots formed the backbone of the Ottonian administration. The emperor ensured the appointment of all members of the high clergy of the empire. Once appointed, they received from the sovereign the investiture symbolized by the insignia of their office, the crosier and the ring. In addition to their spiritual mission, they had to fulfill temporal tasks delegated to them by the emperor. Thus, the imperial authority was relayed by competent and devoted men. This Church of the Empire, or Reichskirche, ensured the solidity of a state with few resources of its own. It counterbalanced the power of the great feudal lords (dukes of Bavaria, Swabia, Franconia, Lotharingia). The bishopric of Utrecht constituted, until around 1100, the most powerful entity in the Northern Netherlands, Liège and Cambrai those of the Southern Netherlands. The royal chapel became a nursery for the high clergy. The imperial power chooses its high dignitaries preferably from its close or extended family. This one benefits from the highest episcopal or monastic charges. The best example is Otto”s own brother Brunon, bishop of Cologne, who adopted the rule of the abbey of Gorze for the monasteries of his diocese. We can also mention Thierry I, first cousin of Otto, bishop of Metz from 965 to 984; a close relative of Otto, the Margrave of Saxony Gero, who founded the abbey of Gernrode around 960-961, in Saxony; Gerberge, niece of the emperor, abbess of Our Lady of Gandersheim. In each diocese, one can thus find a member of the royal entourage because Otto took care to withdraw from the dukes the right to appoint bishops, including in the dioceses located in their own duchies.

It was under Henry II that the integration of the Church into the power of the Empire, begun by the first three Ottonians, was crowned. The Reichskirchensystem was one of the major components of the Empire until its demise. Henry was very pious and demanded that the ecclesiastics obey him and implement his decisions. Henry II perfected the temporal power over the Church of the Empire that he ruled. Henry II did not only rule the Church, he ruled the Empire through it by appointing bishops to important positions such as chancellor. Temporal and religious affairs were not differentiated and were discussed in synods in the same way. This approach was not only the result of a desire to provide a loyal counterweight to the king against the pressure of the duchies, which in accordance with the German-Franco tradition aspired to greater autonomy. Henry considered the Empire as the “house of God” which he had to supervise as a servant of God. Henry II also set out to put East Francia back on its feet, giving less importance to Italy than his predecessors had done.

With the generalization of the silver denarius by the Carolingians, an economic revolution was underway: agricultural surpluses became marketable and we witnessed an increase in productivity and trade throughout the West. By uniting Italy and Germania in the same empire, Otto I controlled the main trade routes between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Commercial traffic with Byzantium and the East transited through the Mediterranean towards southern Italy and especially the Po basin and joined the Rhine via the Roman roads crossing the Alpine passes. This route was used more often than the traditional Rhine route, especially since the Adriatic was safer than the western Mediterranean where Saracen pirates were rampant. Otto knew how to keep control of the tolls and develop the markets necessary to increase traffic. Thus, contrary to what was happening in Francia, Otto kept the monopoly on coinage and had silver mines opened near Goslar. However, the creation of a monetary workshop in a city or an abbey led to the creation of a market where the tonlieu could be collected. This commercial power allowed him to extend his influence to the periphery of the empire: Italian and English merchants needed his support, and the Slavs adopted the silver denarius.

In 968, Otto I granted the bishop of Bergamo the revenues of the fair attended by merchants from Venice, Comacchio and Ferrara. The aim was to help this city, which had been devastated by the Hungarians. The documentation is very rich on merchants in Germany: it indicates that there are many merchants in Worms, Mainz, Passau, Magdeburg, Hamburg and Merseburg. Many Jewish merchants traded in German cities.

The other way to fill the coffers was to create courts of justice. These were sources of financial income in the form of fines: the wergeld. Like the currency, they allowed the imperial authority to be represented throughout the Empire. Thus Otto III established a court in Ravenna composed of a rich archiepiscopate that governed all of northern Italy and traded with Venice and Pavia. These various financial entries are essential to constitute a faithful clientele.

Among the Ottonians, the transmission of power was not easy. When Otto II died in December 983, he was only 28 years old. He had crowned his son Otto, the future Otto III, in Aachen in May 983. But because of the young age of the latter (he was only three years old), it was his mother Theophano, then at her death in 991, his grandmother Adelaide of Burgundy who exercised the regency. With the support of Archbishop Willigis of Mainz, they managed to prevent the Empire from collapsing. The imperial power is indeed seriously threatened by the big feudal ones led by the duke of Bavaria Henri II the Querelleur. This one controls the bishoprics of the south of Germania and thus a powerful clientele which enables him to compete with the imperial power. Otto III therefore sought to weaken this competition by forcing the secular aristocracy to return the property of the Church which it had seized. He took advantage of the monastic reform movement underway, promoted by Cluny or the Lotharingian monasteries such as Gorze. The latter fought against simony and wished to answer only to the pontifical authority. The emperor was all the more in favor of this as he had been educated by scholars close to this reform movement. This is why he issued diplomas to bishoprics and abbeys, freeing them from the authority of the great feudal lords.

The regent Theophano and then the emperor himself worked to create powerful ecclesiastical principalities by granting bishoprics reinforced by counties and abbeys to the faithful. The most convincing examples are Notger who was granted a real principality in Liege (by adding to the bishopric the counties of Huy and Brunengeruz), or Gerbert of Aurillac who received the archbishopric of Ravenna on which fifteen bishoprics depended. He then controlled all of northern Italy. In fact, it is the imperial authority that he strengthens: it is under the reign of Otto III that the grip of the emperor on the Holy See is the greatest because he appoints the popes without even referring to the Romans. Thus, he appointed his cousin Brunon as pope, who crowned him in 996. He moved his capital to Rome, wanting to create a unified Christian world but at the same time considerably weakening the Empire.

He went beyond the control of the Church of his grandfather Otto I, in that he was no longer content to accept the outcome of a vote, but imposed his own candidate on the Roman Curia. Moreover, the pope appointed at will and foreign (Gregory V was German and Sylvester II was Frankish) had little support in Rome and depended all the more on the support of the emperor. Otto obtained this power through military pressure by going down to Italy in 996 to support John XV, who had been driven out by the Romans. Rather than enter into conflict with the emperor, the Romans preferred to entrust him with the choice of the successor to the deceased Pope John XV. This practice was to continue with his successors who regularly went down to Italy with the imperial Ost to bring order and influence the choice of the pope. However, this state of affairs was not well accepted by the Roman nobility, who never ceased to intrigue in order to regain their prerogatives as soon as the emperor and his army were away from the Italian peninsula.

Henry II was the last Ottonian. With Conrad II, the Salian dynasty came to power. Under his reign, the Kingdom of Burgundy was attached to the Empire. This process had begun under Henry II. Rudolf III of Burgundy had no descendants, chose his nephew Henry to succeed him and put himself under the protection of the Empire, even handing over his crown and sceptre to Henry in 1018. Conrad”s reign is characterized by the idea that the Empire and power exist independently of the ruler and develop a force of law, which is proven by his claim to Burgundy – for Henry was to inherit Burgundy, not the Empire – and by the famous boat metaphor Conrad employed when the envoys from Pavia told him that they no longer had to be loyal since Emperor Henry II was dead: “I know that you did not destroy your king”s house because at the time you did not have one. But you cannot deny having destroyed a king”s palace. If the king dies, the Empire remains, just as a ship whose helmsman has fallen remains.

The ministers began to form their own order within the lower nobility. His attempts to replace ordination with the use of Roman law in the northern part of the Empire represented an important advance for law in the Empire. Conrad continued the religious policy of his predecessor, but he did not do so with the same vehemence. For him, the important thing was what the Church could do for the Empire and he saw it in this utilitarian light. Most of the bishops and abbots he appointed were distinguished by their intelligence and spirituality. The pope did not play an important role in these appointments. On the whole, Conrad”s reign was a prosperous one, which was also due to the fact that he ruled at a time when a kind of revival was taking place, which would lead to the end of the eleventh century with the important role of the Order of Cluny.

When Henry III succeeded his father Conrad in 1039, he found a solid Empire and, unlike his two predecessors, he did not have to conquer its power. Despite warlike campaigns in Poland and Hungary, Henry III attached great importance to the preservation of peace within the Empire. The idea of a general peace, a Peace of God, had been born in the south of France and had spread since the middle of the 11th century throughout the Christian West. Thus, the law of retaliation and the vendetta that weighed on the functioning of the Empire had to disappear. Cluniac monasticism was the initiator of this movement. Weapons were to be silenced and the Peace of God was to reign at least on the great Christian holidays and the days sacred to the Passion of Christ, that is to say from Wednesday evening to Monday morning.

In order for the great men of the Empire to accept the election of his son, the future Henry IV, Henry III had to accept a condition in 1053, a condition that was unknown until then. Submission to the new king was only possible if Henry IV proved to be a just ruler. Even if the power of the emperor over the Church had reached its peak under Henry III – he controlled the appointment of the pope and did not hesitate to depose him – the balance sheet of his reign is seen rather negatively. Hungary was emancipated from the Empire, whereas it had previously been a fiefdom, and several conspiracies against the emperor showed the reluctance of the great men of the Empire to submit to a powerful kingdom.

Upon the death of his father Henry III, his son ascended the throne as Henry IV. Given his young age in 1065 – he was six years old – his mother Agnes of Poitiers exercised the regency. This period of regency was marked by a loss of power, as Agnes did not know how to govern. In Rome, the opinion of the future emperor on the choice of the next pope no longer interests anyone. The chronicler of the abbey of Niederaltaich summarizes the situation as follows: “but those present at the court are only concerned with their own interests and no one instructs the king on what is right and just, so that disorder has settled in the kingdom.

While monastic reform was the best support of the Empire, things changed under Henry III. From Leo IX onwards, the pontiffs, inspired by Hidebrant, their eminence grise (the future Gregory VII), made the fight against simony one of their main battle horses. Taking advantage of the regency of Agnes of Poitou, they succeeded in having the pope elected by the college of cardinals and no longer designated by the emperor. Once that acquired, they intend to fight against the investiture of the Germanic bishops by the emperor. But as we have seen, the bishops were the keystone of imperial power. The stake is clear: should the West become a theocracy? When Henry tried to impose his candidate for the bishopric of Milan in June 1075, Pope Gregory VII reacted immediately. In December 1075, Henry was banished and all his subjects were released from their oath of loyalty. The princes of the Empire then urged Henry to have the excommunication lifted by February 1077 at the latest, otherwise they would no longer recognize him. Henry IV had to bend to the will of the princes and went three times in penitent”s robes before the pope who lifted the excommunication on January 28, 1077. It is the Penitence of Canossa. The powers had been reversed in the Empire. In 1046, Henry III had commanded three popes, now a pope commands the king.

With the help of Pope Paschal II, the future Henry V obtained from his father that he abdicate in his favor in 1105. However, the new king was not recognized by all until after the death of Henry IV. When Henry V was sure of this recognition, he rose up against the pope and continued the policy against the pope that his father had put in place. First of all, he pursued the Quarrel of the Investitures against Rome and obtained a conciliation with Pope Calixtus II at the Concordat of Worms in 1122. Henry V, who invested the bishops with the ring and the crosier, accepted that this right of investiture should return to the Church.

The solution found was simple and radical. In order to comply with the demand of the Church reformers to separate the spiritual duties of the bishops from the temporal ones, the bishops had to renounce the rights and privileges granted by the emperor, or rather by the king, during the last centuries. On the one hand, the duties of the bishops towards the Empire disappear. On the other hand, the king”s right to influence the bishops” assumption of office also disappeared. Since the bishops did not want to give up their temporal regalia, Henry forced the pope to compromise. The choice of German bishops and abbots had to take place in the presence of imperial deputies, but the sceptre, the symbol of the bishops” temporal power, was given by the emperor after his election and before his coronation. The existence of the Imperial Church was thus saved, but the influence of the emperor over it was considerably weakened.

After the death of Henry V in 1125, Lothaire III was elected king, a choice against which there was strong resistance. The Hohenstaufen who had helped Henry V rightly hoped to accede to royal power, but it was the Welfs in the person of Lothaire of Supplinbourg who acceded. The conflict between the pope and the emperor had ended in the emperor”s disadvantage and he gave up important rights. Lothaire was devoted to the pope and when he died in 1137, it was the Hohenstaufens in the person of Conrad III who came to power. Two Italian political clans were then opposed in Italy: the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. The first ones support the Empire while the second ones support the papacy. The conflict lasted until the end of the 15th century and tore the Italian cities apart.

When Conrad III died in 1152, his nephew Frederick Barbarossa, the Duke of Swabia, was elected king. Frederick Barbarossa”s policy was focused on Italy. He wanted to recover the imperial rights over this territory and undertook six campaigns in Italy to regain the imperial honor. In 1155, he was crowned emperor. However, tensions arose with the papacy during a campaign against the Normans in southern Italy. Diplomatic relations also deteriorated with Byzantium. When Barbarossa tried to strengthen the administration of the Empire in Italy at the Reichstag of Roncaglia, the city-states of northern Italy, especially the rich and powerful Milan, resisted him. Relations were so bad that the Lombard League was created, asserting itself militarily against the Hohenstaufen. The election of the new pope Alexander III caused controversy, Barbarossa refused to recognize him at first. It was only after having noted that a military victory was not to be hoped for – the imperial army was decimated by an epidemic in front of Rome in 1167 then it was beaten in 1176 at the battle of Legnano – that the peace of Venice was signed in 1177 between the pope and the emperor. Even the cities of Northern Italy were reconciled with the emperor who could not carry out his Italian projects for a long time.

While they were reconciled, the emperor fell out with his cousin Henry the Lion, the powerful duke of Saxony and Bavaria of the house of Welfs. While Henry set conditions for his participation in a campaign in Italy, Frederick Barbarossa took the opportunity to depose him. In 1180, Henry was put on trial, the duchy of Saxony was dismantled and Bavaria was reduced. However, it is not the emperor who will benefit but the territorial lords of the Empire.

Barbarossa died in June 1190 during the third crusade. His second son succeeded him as Henry VI. As early as 1186, his father had conferred on him the title of Caesar and he was already considered the designated heir. In 1191, the year of his imperial coronation, Henry tried to take possession of Sicily and the Norman kingdom in lower Italy. Since he was married to a Norman princess, Constance of Hauteville, and the house from which his wife descended had died out for lack of male descendants, Henry VI was able to assert his claims without being able to do so. It was only in 1194 that he managed to conquer lower Italy, sometimes resorting to extreme brutality against his opponents. Joseph Rovan wrote that “Henry VI was the most powerful ruler since Otto I, if not Charlemagne. In Germany, Henry had to fight the resistance of the Welfs. His plan to give the kingship a hereditary character, the Erbreichsplan, failed, just as it had failed under Otto I. Henry VI also set up an ambitious but unsuccessful Mediterranean policy, the aim of which was probably to conquer the Holy Land at the end of a German crusade, or possibly even to launch an offensive against Byzantium.

The premature death of Henry VI in 1197 caused the last attempt to create a strong central power in the Empire to fail. After the double election of 1198, in which Philip of Swabia was elected in March in Mühlhausen and Otto IV in June in Cologne, two kings faced each other in the Empire. The son of Henry VI, Frederick II, had already been elected king at the age of two in 1196, but his rights to the kingship were quickly swept away. The election is interesting in that everyone tries to put forward precedents in order to prove their own legitimacy. Many of the arguments and principles formulated at this time would be taken up in subsequent royal elections. This development reached its peak in the middle of the 14th century after the experience of the Great Interregnum in the Golden Bull. Philip of Swabia had imposed himself considerably but he died assassinated in June 1208. Otto IV was crowned emperor in 1209 but was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III the following year. Innocent III supports Frederick II to whom all rally.

By traveling to Germany in 1212 to impose his rights, Frederick II gave the princes more freedom of action. Thanks to two acts – the Statutum in favorem principum for the temporal princes and the Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis for the ecclesiastics – Frederick II guarantees them important rights to ensure their support. He wanted his son Henry to be elected and recognized as his successor. The privileges granted form the legal principles on which they can now build their power independently. These privileges were also the beginning of the formation of states on the scale of imperial territories in the latter part of the Middle Ages. The highly educated Frederick II, who increasingly centralized the administration of the kingdom of Sicily following the Byzantine model, had entered into open conflict with the pope and the cities of northern Italy. The pope even made him look like the Antichrist. In the end, Frederick II seemed to dominate militarily. It is there that he dies, on December 13, 1250. The pope had declared him deposed in 1245.

Since Saint Louis, the modernization of the legal system has drawn many bordering regions into the French cultural sphere. In particular in the lands of the Empire, the cities of the Dauphiné of Viennois or the county of Burgundy (future Franche-Comté) resort since Saint Louis to the royal justice to settle disputes. For example, the king sent the bailiff of Mâcon, who intervened in Lyon to settle disputes, just as the seneschal of Beaucaire intervened in Viviers or in Valence. Thus, the court of King Philip VI was largely cosmopolitan: many lords such as the Constable of Brienne had possessions that straddled several kingdoms. The kings of France widened the cultural influence of the kingdom by attracting to their court the nobility of these regions by allocating rents to them and by engaging in a skilful matrimonial policy. Thus, the counts of Savoy paid tribute to the king of France in exchange for pensions. This is not without consequences on the Holy Empire. The kings of France or their immediate entourage will take foot in the Empire: Charles V receives the Dauphiné of Viennois, his younger brother Louis d”Anjou inherits Provence and the youngest Philip the Bold carves out a principality straddling the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire (he enters into possession of the French duchy of Burgundy, the imperial county of Burgundy known as “Franche-Comté”, the French counties of Artois and Flanders, the imperial county of Aalst known as “imperial Flanders”, while his descendants acquired the imperial duchy of Brabant and the imperial counties of Hainaut and Holland) On the other hand, the annexation of Champagne by Saint Louis in 1261 and the restrictive tax system that he instituted led to the decline of the Champagne fairs, which were the hub of European trade, to the benefit of the old commercial axis linking the basins of the Po (connected to the Mediterranean) and those of the Rhine and the Meuse (connected to the North Sea) via the Alpine passes. This led to a strengthening of the power and autonomy of the Lombard and Rhine cities or the Swiss cantons. In the 14th century, this process was accelerated by the Hundred Years War.

With the decline of the Hohenstaufens and the interregnum that followed until the reign of Rudolf I, the central power weakened, while the power of the prince-electors increased. The French expansion to the west of the Empire resulted in a total loss of influence over the former kingdom of Burgundy. This loss of influence also affected imperial Italy (mainly in Lombardy and Tuscany). It is only with the Italian campaign of Henry VII between 1310 and 1313 that the Italian policy of the Empire is revived. After Frederick II, Henry was the first king of Germania to be able to obtain the imperial crown. The Italian policy of the late medieval rulers was, however, implemented within smaller borders than those of their predecessors. The influence of the Empire also diminished in Switzerland. Rudolf I tried to re-establish Habsburg authority over Switzerland, which had been granted imperial immediacy by Emperor Frederick II in 1240. Rudolf I failed. On his death, the notables of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden met and signed a pact of alliance and defense in August 1291. Thus was born the Confederation of the III cantons, the first step towards the Swiss Confederation, which became independent of the Holy Roman Empire in 1499 with the Treaty of Basel.

The transfer of the papacy to Avignon in 1309, allows it to escape from Italian influences and to benefit from the protection of the kingdoms of Naples and France against the threat of an imperial military intervention, which revives the theocratic will of the Holy See. The old conflict between the papacy and the empire for pre-eminence over Christendom was rekindled during the reign of Louis IV. At the death of Emperor Henry VII in 1313, the princes having divided into two factions, Pope John XXII, enterprising and authoritarian, believed he could take advantage of it: he refused to choose between the two chosen. He declared the Empire vacant and appointed the king of Naples Robert the Wise as vicar for Italy on March 14, 1314. This conflict raises a question of principle: the pope claims to be the vicar of the empire in Italy during the vacancy of the imperial throne. However, in his eyes the throne is vacant since the designation of Louis of Bavaria did not obtain the pontifical approval. Political-theoretical debates are engaged, for example by William of Ockham or Marsile of Padua. In 1338, Louis IV, seeing the negotiations drag on and feeling that the papacy was becoming unpopular in the country, changed his tone and launched the manifesto Fidem catholicam on May 17. He proclaimed that the emperor had a rank as high as that of the pope, that his mandate came from his electors and that he did not need papal approval to fulfill his mission; finally, he maintained that a true council representing the universal Church was superior to the assemblies that the pope could make or break at his will. Obviously the prince-electors support this text which increases their elective power since it is not subjected any more to papal approval and on July 16, gathered with Rhense they carry out a gesture of a considerable range: for the first time, they act in body, not to elect or deposit a sovereign, but to preserve the interests of the Empire, of which they consider themselves the representatives.

The kings of the late Middle Ages concentrated more on the German territory of the Empire and relied even more strongly than ever on their respective fiefs. Emperor Charles IV was a role model. He succeeded in restoring the balance with the papacy. To avoid the conflicts that almost always followed the election of the emperor and were extremely damaging to the Holy Roman Empire, he promulgated the Golden Bull in Metz on January 10, 1356. This definitively fixed the rules of election so that its result could no longer be contested: only the seven prince-electors voted and their rights were increased to the detriment of the cities. Above all, the number of electors being fixed, this removes all power of arbitration from the pope, and thus all power to choose between the candidates. The Golden Bull also attests to the now resolutely Germanic identity of the Holy Roman Empire and its renunciation of its universal and even Italian claims. It remained in force until the dissolution of the Empire. However, the increase in the power of the prince-electors increased the vulnerability of an emperor who did not have a sufficient clientele. Charles IV strove to avoid the conflicts that were tearing Europe apart (in particular the Hundred Years” War) and negotiated with Venice and the Hanseatic League to increase the flow of trade between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. The great commercial alliance that was the Hanseatic League reached its peak and became a great power in the northern European sphere. Founded in 1241, the Hanseatic League comprised more than 300 cities, including Hamburg, Lübeck, Riga and Novgorod. At that time, the Hanseatic League was a major political player, even going so far as to intervene militarily in Denmark. In the same way, worried by the growing power of the princes, the Swabian cities federated, which created a powerful alliance: the Swabian League. Swabia was the crossroads of all European land trade, where the Rhine and Danube basins met and were connected to the Po valley via the Alpine passes. It was also during the reign of Charles IV that the Black Death broke out. In addition, the West, which has experienced sustained population growth since the tenth century, has difficulties to feed its population, because of a climatic cooling; the famines, which had almost disappeared since the eleventh century, are again appearing in the most industrialized areas. However, the climatic cooling, making agriculture less profitable in the north of Europe, will accelerate the economic mutation, with a specialization of these regions in the trade and industry, increasing the exchanges and the urban concentration facilitates the propagation of the epidemics, more especially as the denuded organisms are more vulnerable to the infections. The population was decimated by half; pogroms against the Jews multiplied. Some accused them of having poisoned the wells and thus of having spread the epidemic. The West was going through a period of major economic, demographic and health crisis. It had to readapt to this new situation, and this crisis resulted in a strong current of political and spiritual reform throughout the West, with the cities claiming a more important role in society, and the emergence of dissenting currents within the Church, leading to the Great Schism and the flourishing of the ideas of the precursors of the Reformation, such as John Wyclif or John Huss (Jan Hus).

With the death of Charles IV in 1378, the power of the House of Luxembourg collapsed. The son of the sovereign, Wenceslas, was even deposed by a group of prince-electors on August 20, 1400, due to his notorious incapacity. In his place, the Count Palatine of the Rhine Robert was elected king. However, his power and resources were too weak to implement an effective policy. This was all the more true because the House of Luxembourg did not accept the loss of royal dignity. After Robert”s death in 1410, the last representative of the House of Luxembourg, Sigismund, took the throne. Political and religious problems had arisen, such as the Great Western Schism in 1378. It was only under Sigismund that the crisis was defused. The international action of Sigismund, whom Francis Rapp called “pilgrim of peace”, was aimed at preserving or regaining peace. With his death in 1437, the House of Luxembourg died out. The royal dignity passed into the hands of the Habsburgs: and this so to speak until the end of the Empire.

Modern era and the arrival of the Habsburgs

During the reign of the Habsburg emperors Frederick III, Maximilian I and Charles V, the Empire was reborn and once again recognized. The office of emperor was linked to the new organization of the Empire. In accordance with the reform movement begun under Frederick III, Maximilian I initiated a general reform of the Empire in 1495. The reform included the introduction of a general tax, the Gemeiner Pfennig (common penny), as well as a perpetual peace (Ewiger Landfrieden), which was one of the most important projects of the reformers. These reforms were not completely successful, because only the Imperial Circles and the Reichskammergericht remained from the resulting institutions. However, the reform was the foundation of the Empire in the modern age. It obtained a more precise system of rules and an institutional structure. The cooperation between the emperor and the imperial states was to play a decisive role in the future. The Diet of the Empire, which was formed at that time, was to remain the central forum for the political life of the Empire.

The first half of the sixteenth century was again marked by a judicialization and a densification of the Empire. Police edicts were promulgated in 1530 and 1548. The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina was established in 1532, providing a penal framework for the Empire. On the other hand, the Protestant Reformation caused a division of faith that had a disintegrating effect on the Empire. The fact that regions and territories were turning away from the old Roman Church put the Empire, which claimed to be holy, to the test.

The Edict of Worms of 1521 banished Martin Luther from the Empire. The Edict still offered no possibility for a Reformation-friendly policy, even though it was not observed throughout the Empire, was postponed on March 6, 1523, and subsequent decisions of the Diet of the Empire deviated from it. Most of the compromises of the Diet were unclear and ambiguous and led to new legal disputes. For example, the Diet of Nuremberg declared in 1524 that everyone should follow the Edict of Worms “as far as possible”. However, no definitive peace solution could be found, and a compromise was reached while waiting for the next one.

This situation is not satisfactory for either side. The Protestant side had no legal security and lived in fear of a religious war. The Catholic camp, especially Emperor Charles V, did not want a lasting religious division. Charles V, who at first did not take Luther”s case seriously and did not perceive its significance, did not want to accept the situation, since he considered himself, like the medieval rulers, to be the guarantor of the true church. The universal Empire needed a universal Church.

The period was also marked by two events. First, the peasant uprising that raged in southern Germany between 1524 and 1526, with 1525 marking the peak of the movement. The peasants had several demands, including the abolition of drudgery and the election of priests. Luther then exhorted the peasants to peace and advocated submission to authority. The second event was the Ottoman invasion. Sigismund as king of Hungary had been severely defeated at the battle of Nicopolis in 1396. Suleiman the Magnificent, once he had conquered the East, began to conquer Europe. He first attacked Hungary and won the battle of Mohács in 1526. The Ottoman Empire then extended to Vienna, Hungary being divided into three parts: one administered by the Ottomans, one by the Holy Roman Empire and the last by the local princes. In 1529, Vienna was besieged. Charles V will continue to fight the Ottomans in order to preserve peace in his Empire. His task was made all the more difficult by the fact that France, in the person of King Francis I, supported the Ottomans. The Habsburgs multiplied their contacts with the Sefevids, the Shiite dynasty that reigned over Persia at the time, to counter the Sunni Turks, their common enemies. It was not until the truce of Crépy-en-Laonnois in 1544 that the rivalry between the two rulers came to an end. This rivalry had been all the greater because Francis I had been the rival of Charles V during the imperial election. Three years later, Charles V signed a peace with Soliman in 1547. He must then confront the religious problems which tear the Empire.

After a long hesitation, Charles V banished the leaders of the League of Smalkalde, a group of rebellious Protestant princes, from the Empire and deployed the army of the Holy Roman Empire to punish the rebels, the Reichsexecution (literally execution of the Empire). This confrontation of 1546-1547 will go down in history as the Smalkalde War. After the emperor”s victory, the Protestant princes had to accept a religious compromise, the Augsburg Interim, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1548. The pastors could continue to marry and the Protestants who were not members of the clergy could continue to receive communion under both species. This really favorable outcome of the war for the imperial Protestant states was due to the fact that Charles V pursued constitutional projects in parallel with his politico-religious goals. These constitutional plans should lead to the disappearance of the constitution by order and its replacement by a central government. The religious conflicts in the empire were – in Charles V”s idea of a vast Habsburg empire – connected with a monarchia universalis, which was to encompass Spain, the hereditary territories of the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. However, he did not succeed in making the office of emperor hereditary or in exchanging the imperial crown between the Austrian and Spanish lines of the Habsburgs. The uprising of the princes against Charles V under the leadership of Elector Maurice of Saxony and the resulting Peace of Passau signed in 1552 between the princes and the future Ferdinand I were the first steps towards a lasting religious peace, since the treaty guaranteed freedom of worship for Protestants. The result was the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.

The Peace of Augsburg was not only important as a religious peace, it also had a major political-constitutional role in setting many milestones in constitutional politics. For example, it provides for the Reichsexekutionsordnung, the last attempt to preserve the perpetual peace made necessary by the Second Margraves” War led by Albert II Alcibiade of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, which raged from 1552 to 1554. Albert II extorted money and even territory from the various Franconian regions. Emperor Charles V did not condemn Albert II, he even took him into his service and thus legitimized the breaking of the Perpetual Peace. Since the territories concerned refused to support the theft confirmed by the emperor, Albert II ravaged them. In the north of the Empire, troops under the leadership of Maurice of Saxony were formed to fight Albert. It is a prince of empire and not the emperor who takes military measures against those who break the peace. On July 9, 1553 the bloodiest battle of the Reformation took place, the Battle of Sievershausen, in which Maurice of Saxony was killed.

The Reichsexekutionsordnung of the Augsburg Diet in 1555 led to a weakening of the imperial power and to the anchoring of the principle of the imperial states. In addition to their usual duties, the local imperial circles and states were also given the power to enforce the judgments of the Reichskammergericht and the appointment of the assessors who sat in it. In addition, they had the right to mint coins and to exercise other powers previously reserved for the emperor. Since the emperor had proved incapable of fulfilling one of his main tasks, namely that of preserving the peace, his role was now assumed by the states of the imperial circles.

The religious peace proclaimed on September 25, 1555, was as important as the Exekutionsordnung; it abandoned the idea of an empire united in religion. The territorial lords obtained the right to decide on the confession of their subjects, which is summarized in the formula cujus regio, ejus religio. In the Protestant territories, religious jurisdiction passed to the lords who then became the spiritual leaders of their territories. All the rules enacted certainly led to a peaceful solution of the religious problems, but they made the growing division of the Empire even more visible and led in the medium term to a blockage of the imperial institutions. In September 1556, Emperor Charles V abdicated in favor of his brother Ferdinand, king of the Romans since 1531. The domestic and foreign policies of Charles V had definitely failed. Ferdinand then decided to restrict his policy to Germany and succeeded in attaching the imperial states to the emperor in favor of the latter.

Until the beginning of the 1580s, there was a phase in the Empire without significant military conflict. The religious peace was a “simple truce”. It was at this time that confessionalization was achieved, that is, a consolidation and demarcation between the three confessions of Lutheranism, Calvinism and Catholicism. The state forms that appeared in the territories on this occasion posed a constitutional problem for the Empire. Tensions increased because the Empire and its institutions could no longer fulfill their function as mediator. The tolerant emperor Maximilian II died in 1576, and his son Rudolf II appointed a majority of Catholics to the Aulic Council and the Imperial Chamber of Justice, breaking with his father”s policy. By the end of the sixteenth century, these institutions were blocked – already in 1588, the Imperial Chamber of Justice was no longer functioning.

Since from the beginning of the 17th century the Protestant states no longer recognized the aulic council led exclusively by the Catholic emperor, the situation continued to worsen. At the same time, the colleges of electors and imperial circles were grouped according to denomination. An imperial deputation in 1601 failed because of the oppositions between the two sides. The same thing happened in 1608 with the Diet in Regensburg, which was closed without issuing a resolution. The Calvinist Count Palatine and other participants left the assembly because the emperor refused to recognize their confession.

Realizing that the imperial system and peace were threatened, six Protestant princes founded the Protestant Union on May 14, 1608 around Frederick IV. Other princes and cities of the Empire joined the Union later on. The Elector of Saxony and the northern princes refused to participate at first, but later the Elector of Saxony joined. In reaction, the Catholic princes founded the Catholic League on July 10, 1609 around Maximilian of Bavaria. The League wanted to maintain the existing system and preserve the Catholic predominance in the Empire. The institutions and the Empire were blocked, announcing an inevitable conflict.

The Defenestration of Prague was the trigger for this war, which the emperor, hoping at first for great military success, tried to use politically in order to establish his power over the imperial states. Thus Ferdinand II, elected emperor by all the prince-electors – even the Protestants – on August 19, 1619 despite the war, banished the prince-elector and king of Bohemia, Frederick V of the Palatinate, from the Empire in 1621 and gave the electoral dignity to Maximilian I of Bavaria.

The promulgation of the Edict of Restitution on March 6, 1629, was the last important act of imperial law. Like the banning of Frederick V, it had its roots in the emperor”s claim to power. This edict called for the adaptation of the Peace of Augsburg from a Catholic point of view. Consequently, all bishoprics, bishoprics and archbishoprics-princes that had been secularized by the Protestant lords since the Peace of Passau were to be returned to the Catholics. These actions would not only have meant the recatholicization of large Protestant territories but also a crucial strengthening of imperial power, since religious-political questions had until then been decided jointly by the emperor, the imperial states and the prince-electors. On the other hand, a confessional coalition of the latter did not accept that the emperor proclaimed such a sharp edict without their agreement.

At their meeting in 1630, the prince-electors, under the leadership of Maximilian I of Bavaria, forced the emperor to dismiss Generalissimo Wallenstein and to grant a revision of the edict. The same year, Sweden entered the war on the side of the Protestants. At the beginning, the Swedish troops were superior to those of the emperor. But in 1632 Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, was killed at the battle of Lützen near Leipzig. A chapel was erected at the place of his death, and an inscription thanked him for having “defended Lutheranism with arms in his hands.” The emperor managed to regain the advantage at the Battle of Nördlingen in 1634. The Peace of Prague signed between the emperor and the Elector of Saxony in 1635 authorized Ferdinand to suspend the Edict of Restitution for 40 years. The emperor was strengthened by this peace since all alliances except those of the prince-electors were dissolved and the emperor obtained the high command of the imperial army, which the Protestants did not accept. Negotiations were held to reverse this clause in the treaty. The religious problem posed by the Edict of Restitution had only been postponed for forty years, since the emperor and most of the imperial states had agreed that unifying the empire politically, pushing foreign powers out of the territory, and ending the war were the most pressing things.

France entered the war in 1635; Richelieu intervened on the side of the Protestants to prevent a strengthening of the power of the Habsburgs in Germany, the situation turned to the disadvantage of the emperor. It was at this point that the war of religion, originally German, became a hegemonic struggle on a European scale. The war thus continues since the confessional and political problems which had been provisionally regulated by the Peace of Prague come in second plan for France and Sweden. Moreover, the Peace of Prague had serious shortcomings, so that the internal conflicts within the Empire continued.

From 1640 onwards, the various parties began to sign separate peace agreements, since in the current state of affairs, made up of confessional solidarity and traditional alliance politics, the Empire was hardly defended at all. It was the Elector of Brandenburg who led the way in May 1641. He signed a peace treaty with Sweden and demobilized his army, which was impossible according to the conventions of Prague because his army belonged to the imperial army. Other imperial states followed the movement. The Elector of Saxony in turn signed a peace with Sweden and the Elector of Mainz signed one with France in 1647. The Empire left the war devastated.

The emperor, Sweden and France agreed in 1641 in Hamburg to conduct peace negotiations while the fighting continued. These negotiations took place in 1642 and 1643 in Osnabrück between the emperor, the Protestant imperial states and Sweden, and in Münster between the emperor, the Catholic imperial states and France. The fact that the emperor did not represent the Empire alone was an important symbol of his defeat. The imperial power was once again called into question. This is why the imperial states see their rights all the more preserved by not being alone in front of the emperor, but by carrying out the negotiations concerning the constitutional problems under the eyes of the foreign powers. France showed all its benevolence there moreover since it absolutely wanted to reduce the power of the Habsburgs by strongly supporting the request of participation of the imperial states in the negotiations. The imperial states were thus admitted to the negotiations against the will of Ferdinand III, emperor since 1637, who wanted to represent the Empire alone at the peace talks in Münster and Osnabrück, to settle European questions during the Westphalia negotiations, to sign a peace agreement with France and Sweden, and to deal with German constitutional problems at the end of a Diet. The latter was to be convened a few years later in 1653. If the emperor ends up agreeing to the participation of the imperial states in the negotiations, he does it not to cut himself definitively from them.

The two cities where the negotiations take place and the roads connecting them are declared demilitarized (this was only fully implemented for Osnabrück). All legations can move freely. Mediation delegations came from the Republic of Venice, Rome and Denmark. Representatives of the other European powers flocked to Westphalia and were involved in the negotiations, except for the Ottoman Empire and Russia. The negotiations in Osnabrück were transformed – in parallel with the negotiations between the Empire and Sweden – into a convention where constitutional and politico-religious problems were dealt with. In Münster, the European framework is established as well as legal changes concerning the seigniorial rights in the Netherlands and Switzerland. A peace between Spain and the United Provinces was also negotiated on January 30, 1648.

Until the end of the 20th century, the Treaties of Westphalia were considered destructive for the Empire. Hartung justified this by arguing that the peace had given the emperor and the imperial states infinite freedom of action, so that the Empire had been dismembered. For Hartung, this was indeed a “national misfortune”. Only the political-religious question had been settled. However, the Empire had become petrified, a petrification that would lead to its downfall. Joseph Rovan speaks of “advanced dissolution”.

In the period directly following the treaties of Westphalia, however, peace was seen in a completely different light. It was welcomed with joy and was seen as a new fundamental law, valid everywhere where the emperor was recognized with his privileges and as a symbol of the unity of the Empire. The peace put the territorial powers and the different confessions on the same legal basis and codified the mechanisms that had arisen after the constitutional crisis of the early 16th century. In addition, it condemned those of the Peace of Prague. Georg Schmidt sums it up as follows: “The peace brought neither the dismemberment of the state nor princely absolutism. Peace has emphasized the freedom of states but has not made them sovereign states.

Even if the imperial states are granted full rights of sovereignty and the right of alliance cancelled by the Peace of Prague is reinstated, it is not the total sovereignty of the territories that is envisaged, since they remain subject to the emperor. The right of alliance – which also goes against a total sovereignty of the territories of the Empire – must not be exercised against the emperor and the Empire, nor against the peace or against the treaty. According to legal scholars of the time, the treaties of Westphalia were a kind of traditional custom of the imperial states, which they merely set down in writing.

In the part concerning religious policy, princes who change their religion can no longer impose it on their subjects. The Peace of Augsburg was confirmed in its entirety and declared untouchable, but the contentious issues were once again settled. The legal and religious situation as of January 1, 1624, was decisive. All imperial states had to tolerate the other two denominations, for example, if they already existed in their territories in 1624. All possessions were to be returned to their former owners and all subsequent decisions of the emperor, the imperial states or the occupying powers declared null and void.

The treaties of Westphalia bring to the Empire the peace awaited for thirty years. The Holy Roman Empire lost some territories located in present-day France, the United Provinces and the Republic of Geneva. For the rest, it does not know any other great modification. The power between the emperor and the imperial states was again balanced, without restoring the powers as they had been before the war. Imperial politics was not deconfessionalized, only the relationship to the confessions was regulated again. According to Gotthard, it is one of the most obvious errors of judgement to regard the Treaties of Westphalia as destructive of the Empire and the idea of Empire. The results of the peace negotiations show the absurdity of the war: “After so many human lives have been wasted for so little purpose, men should have understood how utterly futile it is to leave matters of faith to the judgment of the sword.

After the signing of the Treaties of Westphalia, a group of princes demanded radical reforms in the Empire aimed at reducing the power of the prince-electors and extending the privilege of electing the king to other princes of the Empire. But at the Diet of 1653-1654, this princely minority did not succeed. The so-called Last Imperial Diet – this was the last Diet before it took place permanently from 1663 onwards – decided that the subjects had to pay taxes to their lords so that the latter could maintain troops, which often led to the formation of armies in the various larger territories, which were given the name of armed imperial states (in German Armierte Reichsstände).

After 1648, the position of the imperial circles was strengthened and they were given a decisive role in the new imperial military constitution. In 1681 the Diet decided on a new military constitution (Reichskriegsverfassung), as the Empire was again threatened by the Turks. In this new constitution, the contingents of the imperial army were set at 40,000 men. The imperial circles were responsible for their deployment. Since 1658, Emperor Leopold I was in power. His actions were considered mediocre. He was more concerned with the hereditary territories than with the Empire.

The emperor opposed the policy of the Reunions of Louis XIV and tried to get the imperial circles and states to resist the French annexations. He succeeded in binding the smaller and larger imperial states back to the Empire and its constitution through a combination of different instruments. In 1682, the emperor allied himself with various circles such as the Franconian and Upper Rhine circles in the League of Augsburg to protect the Empire. This situation shows that imperial policy had not become part of the Habsburg great power policy as it was to be under the reign of his successors in the 18th century. The marriage policy of Leopold I and the distribution of all kinds of titles, such as the awarding of the ninth dignity of elector to Ernest-Augustus of Hanover in 1692 and the granting of the title of “King in Prussia” to the prince-electors of Brandenburg from 1701 onwards to secure their support, should also be highlighted.

From 1740 onwards, the two largest territorial complexes of the Empire – namely the hereditary possessions of the Habsburgs and Brandenburg-Prussia – became increasingly detached from the Empire. After its victory over the Turks, Austria conquered large territories outside the Empire, which automatically pushed the center of Habsburg politics to the southeast, which will be especially visible during the reign of the successors of Leopold I. The same was true for Brandenburg-Prussia, a large part of whose territory lay outside the Empire. In addition to the growing rivalry, however, there were changes in thinking.

If a title or a position in the hierarchy of the Empire and in the European nobility were important for the prestige of a sovereign before the Thirty Years” War, this situation changes afterwards. Only a royal title is important at the European level. Other factors came into play, such as the size of the territory or the economic and military power. From now on, the power that really counts is the one that can be quantified by these new factors. According to historians, this is a long-term consequence of the Thirty Years” War, during which titles and legal positions hardly played a role anymore, especially for the smaller imperial states. Only warlike imperatives counted.

Brandenburg-Prussia and Austria were no longer part of the Empire, not only because of their territorial size but also because of their constitutionality. Both territories became states. It is difficult, for example, in the case of Austria not to differentiate it from the Holy Roman Empire. Both reformed their countries and broke the influence of the provincial states. The conquered territories had to be administered and protected in a sensible way and an army had to be financed. Smaller territories remained excluded from these reforms. A ruler who wanted to implement reforms of this magnitude would inevitably have come into conflict with the imperial courts, since the latter supported the provincial states whose privileges were attacked by the ruler in question. As the Austrian ruler, the emperor naturally did not have to fear the Aulic Council in the way that other rulers might fear it, since he presided over it. In Berlin, the imperial institutions were virtually unconcerned. The enforcement of judgments would have been effectively impossible. These two ways of reacting to the institutions also contributed to the isolation from the Empire.

The rivalry called Austro-Prussian dualism gave rise to several wars. Prussia won the two Silesian Wars and obtained Silesia while the War of Austrian Succession ended in favor of Austria. It was Charles VII, a member of the Wittelsbach family, who, with the support of France, ascended the throne after this war of succession in 1742. However, he did not succeed in imposing himself and at his death in 1745, the Habsburgs-Lorraine once again ascended the throne in the person of Francis I, the husband of Maria Theresa.

These conflicts, like the Seven Years” War, were disastrous for the Empire. The Habsburgs, frustrated by the alliance of many imperial states with Prussia and by the election of an emperor who was not a Habsburg, relied even more than before on a policy focused on Austria and its power. The institutions of the Empire became the secondary stages of power politics and the constitution of the Empire was far from being in tune with reality. Through the instrumentalization of the Diet of the Empire, Prussia tried to reach the Empire and Austria. Emperor Joseph II then withdrew almost entirely from imperial politics. Joseph II had tried to set up a reform of the institutions of the Empire, in particular of the Imperial Chamber of Justice, but he soon met with resistance from the imperial states, which were breaking away from the Empire. By doing so, they prevented the Chamber from interfering in their internal affairs. Joseph II gives up.

However, it can be emphasized that Joseph II acted in an unfortunate and abrupt manner. The policy of Joseph II, centered on Austria during the War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778 and 1779, and the peace solution of Teschen, launched on the initiative of foreign powers such as Russia, proved to be disastrous for the Empire. Indeed, when the Bavarian line of the Wittelsbachs died out in 1777, Joseph saw the possibility of incorporating Bavaria into the Habsburg territories and thus strengthening his power. Under massive pressure from Vienna, the heir to the Wittelsbach palatine line, Elector Charles Theodore of Bavaria, agreed to a treaty ceding parts of Bavaria. The idea of a future exchange with the Austrian Netherlands was suggested to Charles Theodore, who had accepted the inheritance against his will. Joseph II occupied instead the Bavarian territories in order to put Charles-Théodore in front of the accomplished fact and to arrogate to himself as emperor a territory of Empire. Frederick II opposed it, posing as protector of the Empire and the small imperial states and thus raising himself to the rank of “counter-emperor”. Prussian and Saxon troops marched on Bohemia.

At the time of the treaty of Teschen of May 13, 1779 prepared by Russia, Austria received the Innviertel, a tiny region in the south-east of the Inn, which was promised to it, but the emperor was the loser. For the second time since 1648, an internal German problem was solved with the help of outside powers. It was not the Emperor who brought peace to the Empire, but Russia, which, in addition to its role as guarantor of the Peace of Teschen, had been the guarantor of the Treaties of Westphalia and had thus become one of the protectors of the Empire”s constitution. The Empire had disassembled itself. Even if Frederick II appeared to be the protector of the Empire, his plan was not to protect and consolidate it, but rather to weaken the emperor and through him the structure of the Empire, which he succeeded in doing. The concept of a third Germany, born of the fear of the small and medium-sized imperial states to become the instrument of the larger ones, failed because of the eternal confessional opposition between the different states. A few years later, Napoleon gave the coup de grâce to an Empire that no longer had any resistance.

Disappearance of the Empire

Faced with the French revolutionary troops, the two great German powers allied themselves in the First Coalition. The purpose of this alliance was not to protect the rights of the Empire, but rather to expand its sphere of influence while ensuring that the ally did not win alone. By insisting on expanding Austrian territory – if necessary at the expense of the other members of the Empire – Emperor Franz II, who was elected in a hurry and unanimously on July 5, 1792, wasted the possibility of being supported by the other imperial states. Prussia also wanted to compensate for its war costs by annexing ecclesiastical territories. Therefore, it is impossible to form a united front against the French revolutionary troops and thus to achieve military success.

Disappointed by the lack of success and to better deal with the resistance born around the new partition of Poland, Prussia signed a separate peace in 1795 with France, the Peace of Basel. In 1796, Baden and Württemberg did the same. The agreements thus signed stipulated that the possessions located on the left bank of the Rhine were to be ceded to France. However, the owners were to be compensated by receiving ecclesiastical territories on the right bank, which were then to be secularized. The other imperial states also negotiated armistices or treaties of neutrality.

In 1797, Austria signed the treaty of Campo-Formio. It gave up various possessions such as the Austrian Netherlands and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In compensation, Austria, like Prussia, was to receive territories located on the right bank of the Rhine. The two great powers of the Empire thus compensated themselves at the expense of the smaller members of the Empire. They thus granted France a right of intervention in the future organization of the Empire. By acting as king of Hungary and Bohemia but obliged to guarantee the integrity of the Empire as emperor, Francis II caused irreparable damage to it by dismembering certain other imperial states.

In March 1798, at the Congress of Rastadt, the Empire”s deputation agreed to cede the territories on the left bank of the Rhine and to the secularization of those on the right bank, with the exception of the three ecclesiastical electors. But the Second Coalition put an end to the haggling over the various territories. The treaty of Lunéville signed in 1801 put an end to the war. It was approved by the Diet, but did not provide any clear definition of compensation. The peace negotiations of Basel with Prussia, Campo Formio with Austria and Lunéville with the Empire required compensation that could only be approved by an Imperial law. For this reason, a deputation was convened to settle the situation. In the end, the deputation accepted the Franco-Russian compensation plan of June 3, 1802, without substantially modifying it. On March 24, 1803, the Diet of the Empire definitively accepted the recès d”Empire.

Almost all the cities of the Empire, the smallest temporal territories and almost all the ecclesiastical principalities will be chosen to compensate the injured powers. The composition of the Empire was considerably changed. The bench of princes in the Diet, which had been predominantly Catholic, became Protestant. Two of the three ecclesiastical electorates disappeared. Even the elector of Mainz lost his seat to Regensburg. At the same time, there were only two ecclesiastical grand princes of the Empire: the Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. In all, 110 territories disappeared and 3.16 million people changed rulers.

This new territorial organization of the Empire was to have a long-lasting influence on the European political landscape. The year 1624 was referred to as the Normaljahr, i.e. a year that served as a reference point, and the same applies to the year 1803 with regard to confessional and patrimonial relations in Germany. The re-creation of the Empire created a clear number of middle powers from a multitude of territories. In order to make compensations, secularization and mediatization are carried out. The compensation sometimes exceeded what the power in question should have received in view of its losses. The Margrave of Baden, for example, received nine times as many subjects as he had lost in the cession of the territories on the left bank of the Rhine, and seven times as much territory. One of the reasons is that France wants to create a series of satellite states, large enough to create difficulties for the emperor but small enough not to threaten France”s position.

The Church of the Empire has ceased to exist. It had been so embedded in the imperial system that it disappeared even before the Empire collapsed. The anticlerical positions of France did the rest, especially since the emperor thus lost one of his most important powers. The spirit of the Aufklärung and the absolutist power craze also contributed to the obsolescence of the Imperial Church and to the development of the covetousness of Catholic Imperial princes.

On May 18, 1804, Napoleon became emperor of the French and was crowned on December 2, 1804. This coronation, which strengthened his power, also showed his desire to become the heir of Charlemagne and to legitimize his action by inscribing it in the medieval tradition. This is why he visited the cathedral of Aachen in September 1804 as well as the tomb of Charlemagne. During the diplomatic discussions between France and Austria concerning the title of emperor, Napoleon demanded in a secret note dated August 7, 1804 that his empire be recognized; Francis II would be recognized as hereditary Emperor of Austria. A few days later, the wish became an ultimatum. Two solutions are then offered: the war or the recognition of the French empire. Emperor François II gave in. On August 11, 1804, he added to his title of Holy Roman Emperor that of hereditary Emperor of Austria for himself and his successors. However, this step represented a break in imperial law, since neither the prince-electors were informed nor the Diet of the Empire accepted it. Apart from any legal considerations, many consider this step to be hasty. Friedrich von Gentz wrote to his friend Prince Metternich: “If the German imperial crown remains in the House of Austria – and there is already such a mass of non-politics today where there is no imminent danger clearly visible that one fears the opposite! – all imperial dignity is in vain”.

However, Napoleon lost his patience for good. During the Third Coalition, he had his army march on Vienna. The troops of the Bavarian army and the army of Wurtemberg came to reinforce him. This is how he won the battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805 over the Russians and the Austrians. The Treaty of Presburg that Napoleon dictated to Francis II and Tsar Alexander I sealed the end of the Empire. Napoleon imposed that Bavaria should become a kingdom like Württemberg and Baden, thus becoming equal to Prussia and Austria. It was the structure of the Empire that was once again under attack, since by acquiring full sovereignty, these kingdoms were detached from it. This is what Napoleon underlined to his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Talleyrand: “However, I will have arranged the part of Germany that interests me: there will no longer be a Diet in Regensburg, since Regensburg will belong to Bavaria; there will no longer be a Germanic Empire, and we will leave it at that.

The fact that the Elector of Mainz Charles-Theodore of Dalberg made the great chaplain of the French Empire Joseph Cardinal Fesch his coadjutor, hoping to save the Empire, was a final blow in favor of the abdication of the crown. Dalberg, chancellor of the Empire and therefore head of the Imperial Chancellery, guardian of the imperial court and the imperial archives, appointed a Frenchman who did not speak a word of German and who was also an uncle of Napoleon. In the event of Dalberg”s death or resignation, the French emperor”s uncle would have become Chancellor of the Empire. The Diet of the Empire took note of the situation on May 27, 1806. According to the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Johann Philipp von Stadion, there were only two possible solutions: the disappearance of the Empire or its reorganization under French domination. It is thus that François II decides to protest on June 18, in vain.

On July 12, 1806, by the treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine, the Electorate of Mainz, Bavaria, Württemberg, the Electorate of Baden, the Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt, which became the Grand Duchy of Hesse, the Duchy of Nassau, the Duchy of Berg and Cleves, and other princes founded the Confederation of the Rhine in Paris. Napoleon became their protector and they seceded from the Empire on August 1. In January, the Swedish king had already suspended the participation of the West Pomeranian envoys in the sessions of the Diet, and in reaction to the signing of the acts of the Confederation on June 28, he declared the imperial constitution suspended in the imperial territories under Swedish command and also declared the provincial states and councils dissolved. Instead, he introduced the Swedish constitution in Swedish Pomerania. Thus, the imperial regime in this part of the Empire, which had already practically ceased to exist, came to an end.

The abdication of the imperial crown was anticipated by an ultimatum presented on July 22, 1806 in Paris to the Austrian envoy. If Emperor Franz II did not abdicate by August 10, 1806, French troops would attack Austria. However, for several weeks Johann Aloys Josef von Hügel and Count von Stadion had been busy preparing an expert opinion on the preservation of the Empire. Their rational analysis led them to the conclusion that France would try to dissolve the constitution of the Empire and transform it into a federal state influenced by France. The preservation of the imperial dignity will inevitably lead to a conflict with France, so that the renunciation of the crown is inevitable.

On June 17, 1806, the expertise is presented to the emperor. On August 1, the French envoy La Rochefoucauld entered the Austrian chancellery. Only after La Rochefoucauld had formally attested to von Stadion after heated confrontations that Napoleon would not wear the imperial crown and would respect Austrian independence did the Austrian foreign minister approve the abdication, which was promulgated on August 6.

In his act of abdication, the emperor indicated that he was no longer able to fulfill his duties as head of the Empire and declared: “We therefore hereby declare that We consider the ties that have hitherto attached Us to the body of the German Empire to be dissolved, that We consider the office and dignity of Head of the Empire to be extinguished by the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, and that We consider Ourselves to be released from all duties to this Empire. Francis II not only deposited his crown, but also dissolved the Holy Roman Empire entirely without the approval of the Imperial Diet, proclaiming: “We release at the same time the electors, princes and states, and all the members of the Empire, namely also the members of the supreme courts and other officers of the Empire, from all the duties by which they were bound to Us, as the legal Head of the Empire, by the constitution. He also dissolved the territories of the Empire under his own power and submitted them to the Austrian Empire. Even though the dissolution of the Empire does not follow any legal character, there is no will or power to preserve it.

The fall of the Holy Roman Empire seemed inevitable as soon as Napoleon began to redefine its geopolitical map. Reactions to this disappearance were varied, oscillating between indifference and astonishment, as shown by one of the best known testimonies, that of Goethe”s mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor, who wrote on August 19, 1806, less than a fortnight after the abdication of Francis II: “I am in the same state of mind as when an old friend is very ill. The doctors declare him condemned, one is assured that he is going to die soon and one is certainly upset when the mail arrives announcing us that he is dead “. The indifference in front of the disappearance shows how the Holy Roman Empire had sclerosed and how its institutions did not function any more. The day after the abdication, Goethe wrote in his diary that an argument between a coachman and his valet aroused more passion than the disappearance of the Empire. Others, like in Hamburg, celebrated the end of the Empire.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the German states came together in the German Confederation. Before that, in November 1814, a group of twenty-nine rulers of small and medium-sized states proposed to the committee that was drawing up a plan to build a federal state that imperial dignity be reintroduced in Germany. This was not an expression of patriotic fervor, but rather a fear of the domination of princes who, thanks to Napoleon, had become kings of sovereign territories such as the kings of Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony.

It was also discussed whether a new emperor should be elected. Thus, the proposal to alternate the imperial dignity between the powerful princes of the south and the north of Germany appeared. However, the spokesmen of the Empire pronounce themselves in favour of an imperial dignity taken again by Austria, thus by François II. But this last rejects the proposal because of the weak function which it would take on. The emperor would not obtain the rights which would make him a true head of Empire. Thus, Franz II and his chancellor Metternich considered the imperial office as a burden while not wanting the title of emperor to go to Prussia or any other powerful prince. The Congress of Vienna dissolved without having renewed the Empire. The German Confederation was founded on June 8, 1815 and Austria ruled it until 1866.

The concept of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire is not to be understood in the current legal sense of a comprehensive legal document. It consists essentially of traditions and exercises of legal norms which have been laid down in written basic laws only since the end of the Middle Ages and especially since the modern era. The constitution of the empire, as it has been defined by jurists from the 18th century onwards, is rather a conglomeration of written and unwritten legal foundations concerning the idea, form, construction, competences and action of the empire and its members.

The federal organization, with its large number of interlocking regulations, was already criticized by contemporaries such as Samuel von Pufendorf, who in 1667 wrote his work De statu imperii Germanici under the pseudonym Severinus von Monzambano in support of the Protestant princes, in which he described the empire as “monstro simile.

However, the empire is a state with a leader, the emperor, and its members, the imperial states. The particular character of the empire and its constitution was known to the jurists of the time, who tried to theorize it. According to one of these theories, the empire is governed by two majesties. On the one hand there is the majestas realis exercised by the imperial states and the majestas personalis by the elected emperor. This state of affairs is made visible through the often used formulation emperor and empire (Kaiser und Kaisertum), according to this legal theory the emperor would be a sovereign constitutionally subject to the sovereignty of the states. In reality, with the rise of the Austrian monarchy within the empire, the power of the “empire circles” and the Diet tended to decrease.

One hundred years after Pufendorf, Charles-Theodore of Dalberg, the archbishop of Mainz, defended the organization of the empire with the following words: “a durable gothic building, which is however not built according to the rules of art, but where one lives safely”.

Basic laws

The laws and texts that formed part of the imperial constitution were developed over different centuries, and their recognition as part of the constitution was not general. However, some of them are designated as fundamental laws.

The first convention that can be considered to be of constitutional law is that of the Concordat of Worms of 1122, which put an end to the Investiture dispute. The establishment in writing of the primacy of the appointment of bishops by the emperor before their installation by the pope gave the temporal power a certain independence from the religious power. The concordat was a first step in the stammering emancipation of the state – which could hardly be described as such – from the Church.

Internally, the first milestone was not reached until more than a hundred years later. The originally autonomous ethnic princes became empire princes in the 12th century. Frederick II had to grant them rights at the Diet of Worms in 1231, rights which had previously been reserved for him. With the Statutum in favorem principum, the princes had, for example, the right to mint coins or to set up customs. Frederick II also recognized the right of the princes to legislate.

Alongside the Statutum in favorem principum, the Golden Bull of 1356 is the text considered to be the true foundation of the constitution. For the first time, the principles of electing the king were firmly codified, thus avoiding double elections. The group of elector princes was also defined. The latter were declared indivisible to prevent their number from increasing. In addition, the Golden Bull excluded any papal right on the election of the king and reduced the right to wage private wars.

The concordats of 1447 between Pope Nicholas V and Emperor Frederick III are also considered a fundamental law. The papal rights and freedoms of the church and the bishops in the empire were laid down. This includes the election of bishops, abbots and priors, but also the attribution of religious dignities and questions concerning the succession to land after the death of a religious dignitary. The concordats are a foundation for the role and structure of the church as an empire church for the following centuries.

The reform of the empire promulgated at the Diet of Worms on August 7, 1495 was another major development of the constitution. It established the Perpetual Peace, which forbade all private wars that the nobles could wage at that time and tried to impose the power of the state. All armed conflict and private justice were considered unconstitutional. The courts of the territories, or rather of the empire in the case of imperial states, were to settle disputes. Anyone who breaks the perpetual peace is liable to heavy penalties such as very high fines or banishment from the empire.

This was followed by a series of empire laws that became fundamental laws: the Reichsmatrikel of Worms of 1521, which determined the contingents of troops that all the imperial states had to make available to the imperial army. It also defined the amounts to be paid for the maintenance of the army. In spite of certain modifications, this law is the basis of the Reichsheeresverfassung. In addition to the Matriculation Act, there were other important laws, such as the Peace of Augsburg of September 25, 1555, which extended the perpetual peace to the confessional level and abandoned the idea of a religious unity.

After the Thirty Years” War, the Treaties of Westphalia were declared perpetual basic law in 1654. Along with the territorial changes, the sovereignty of the territories of the empire was recognized. Calvinists were also recognized alongside Catholics and Lutherans. Provisions for religious peace were introduced as well as for denominational parity in imperial institutions. With these various laws, the construction of the empire”s constitution was essentially complete. However, some peace treaties were added to the constitution by different jurists. For example, the Treaty of Nijmegen of 1678 and the Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 changed the borders of some parts of the empire, but there were also certain recès such as the Last Imperial Recès of 1654 and the convention of the Perpetual Diet of Empire of 1663. Some historians today consider the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss to be the last fundamental law, since it creates a completely new basis for the constitution of the empire. However, not all consider it as such, since it signals the end of the empire. According to Anton Schindling, who analyzed the developmental potential of the recès, historical analysis must seriously consider it as a chance for a new basic law for a renewed empire.

Customs and Reichsherkommen

German law, by nature, takes customs into account. Fred E. Schrader summarizes as follows: “What opposes German law to Roman law is its accumulative principle of substantive rights. A code of rules would not be able to understand or replace this system. On the one hand, there are rights and customs that have never been fixed in writing, and on the other hand, rights and customs that have led to the modification of laws and contracts. For example, the Golden Bull was changed with regard to the coronation of the king, which from 1562 onwards took place in Frankfurt and not in Aachen as had been agreed. In order for such an action to become customary law, it had to be repeated without any objections being made. The secularization of the northern German bishoprics by the territorial princes who had become Protestant in the second half of the sixteenth century, for example, never became part of the law afterwards, since the emperor objected to it several times. If unwritten law can have the force of law, the failure to enforce a rule can be sufficient to abolish it.

The Reichsherkommen (translated as “observance”) is a collection of customs governing the affairs of the state. The Reichspublizistik was responsible for compiling them. The jurists of the time defined two groups: the custom itself and the custom defining the way in which the former was to be applied. The first group includes the agreement that since modern times only a German could be elected king, and that since 1519 he had to negotiate a capitulation of election with the electorate, or the practice that the newly elected ruler had to tour his territories. According to the old customary law, the most noble imperial states could add “By the grace of God” to their title. In the same way, religious imperial states are better regarded than temporal imperial states of the same rank. Among other things, the division of the imperial states into three colleges, each with different rights, the conduct of the Diet of the Empire and the administration of the imperial services (Erzämter) fall into the second group.


The imperial rulers of the Middle Ages considered themselves – in connection with the Renovatio imperii, the reconstruction of the Roman Empire under Charlemagne – as the direct successors of the Roman Caesars and the Carolingian emperors. They propagated the idea of Translatio imperii according to which the temporal omnipotence, the Imperium, passed from the Romans to the Germans. For this reason, in addition to the election of the King of the Romans, the king claimed to be crowned emperor by the pope in Rome. For the legal position of the head of the Empire, it is then important that he also becomes the head of the territories linked to the Empire, imperial Italy and the Kingdom of Burgundy.

Originally, the election of the king should, in theory, be decided by all the free people of the Empire, then by the Princes of the Empire and then only by the most important princes of the Empire, usually those who could appear as rivals or who could make the king”s government impossible. The precise circle of these people remained controversial, however, and on several occasions there were double elections, as the princes were unable to agree on a common candidate. It was not until the Golden Bull that the principle of majority and the circle of persons entitled to elect the king were defined.

Since 1508, i.e. since Maximilian I, the newly elected king has been called “God”s chosen Roman Emperor” (in German Erwählter Römischer Kaiser). This title, which was renounced by all but Charles V after his coronation by the pope, shows that the empire did not originate from the coronation by the pope. In colloquial language and in ancient research, one finds the formulation German Emperor (deutscher Kaiser) for the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (Kaiser des Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation). In the 18th century, these designations were used in official documents. Modern historical research, on the other hand, uses the designation of Roman German Emperor to differentiate between the Roman emperors of antiquity and the German emperors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The emperor is the head of the Empire, the supreme judge and protector of the Church. Whenever in the acts of the modern era the emperor is mentioned, it is always the head of the Empire who is designated. A possible king elected king of the Romans during the emperor”s lifetime only designates the successor and future emperor. As long as the emperor was alive, the king could not derive any rights of his own over the Empire from his title. Sometimes the king was granted a right to rule, as in the case of Charles V and his brother, King Ferdinand I of Rome. When the emperor died or abdicated, the king took over the imperial power directly.

Since the beginning of the modern era, the title of emperor implies more power than the emperor actually possesses. He cannot be compared to the Roman Caesars or the emperors of the Middle Ages. The emperor could only conduct an effective policy in cooperation with the imperial states and in particular the elector princes. Eighteenth-century jurisconsults often divided imperial powers into three groups. The first group consists of the comitial rights (iura comitialia) which the Imperial Diet must approve. These include imperial taxes, imperial laws, as well as declarations of war or peace treaties that concern the whole Empire. The second group includes the limited reserved rights of the emperor (iura caesarea reservata limitata) such as the convening of the Imperial Diet, the minting of money or the introduction of customs duties which require the approval of the elector princes. The third group, unlimited reserved rights (iura reservata illimitata or iura reservata), were those rights that the emperor could exercise throughout the empire without any approval from the electorate. The most important of these rights are the right to appoint councillors, to present an agenda to the Imperial Diet, and to ennoble. There are other rights that are less important for imperial politics, such as the right to award academic degrees or to legitimize natural children.

Imperial rights have changed in the modern era to become rights that increasingly require approval. Banishment was originally a reserved right, but later became a comitial right requiring the approval of the Diet of Empire.

Archbishop of Mainz

The Archbishop of Mainz is one of the seven German Prince-Electors who elected the Holy Roman Emperor, whose status was defined by the Golden Bull of 1356. The Elector of Mainz holds a prominent position in the Holy Roman Empire. He presided over the electoral college, i.e. he convened the other six electors to choose the new king in Frankfurt am Main. He is the first in the process of electing the king of the Romans and in the deliberations on the capitulations.

He was also in charge of the coronation and anointing of the new emperor. He is by right the archchancellor and, in terms of protocol, the first counsellor of the Imperial Diet. He has control over the archives of this assembly and holds a special position in the Aulic Council and the Imperial Chamber of Justice. As a prince of the proxy state, he was responsible for the management of the Electoral Circle of the Rhine. However, most of these functions have rather a representative character, and as such give the prince-archbishop above all a political weight.

Imperial States

The concept of imperial states refers to those immediate persons or corporations who can sit and have the right of citizenship in the Imperial Diet. They were not subjects of any lord and paid their taxes to the Empire. It was at the beginning of the 15th century that these states definitely acquired their importance. Among the imperial states we can mention the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Palatine County of the Rhine, the Duchy of Saxony or the March of Brandenburg.

If imperial states are differentiated in terms of rank, they are also differentiated between temporal and spiritual states. This differentiation is all the more important because ecclesiastical dignitaries of the Holy Roman Empire such as archbishops and bishops can also be overlords. In addition to the diocese, in which the bishop is the head of the church, the bishop often also rules over part of the territory of the diocese as a liege. In his territories, the ecclesiastical dignitary promulgates laws, collects taxes, and grants privileges just as a temporal lord would. In order to show his dual role as spiritual and temporal ruler, the bishop then took the title of prince-bishop. Only this temporal role of the prince-bishops justified their membership in the imperial states.

The prince-electors are a group of princes of the Empire who have the right to elect the Emperor. They are the pillars of the Empire. The college of electors represents the Empire before the emperor and acts as the voice of the Empire. The college of electors is the cardo imperii, the hinge between the emperor and the Empire. The temporal prince-electors held the imperial offices (Erzämter): arch-marshal for Saxony, arch-chambellan for Brandenburg, arch-bishop for Bohemia, arch-bearer for Hanover, arch-treasurer for Bavaria, arch-chancellors for the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier. One of the most important roles is that of the archbishop of Mainz as chancellor. He controlled various offices of the Empire such as the Imperial Chamber of Justice or the Diet.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the college of electors was formed, the number of which was defined as seven by the Golden Bull of 1356. The three prince-archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier (ecclesiastical electors) and the four lay electors, the king of Bohemia, the margrave of Brandenburg, the count palatine of the Rhine and the duke of Saxony, belonged to it. In 1632, Emperor Ferdinand II granted the electoral office of palatine to the Duchy of Bavaria. The treaties of Westphalia reinstated the Palatinate as the eighth electorate (the Palatinate and Bavaria were reunited as a single electorate in 1777). In 1692, the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg became the ninth electorate, but it was not confirmed by the Diet until 1708. The King of Bohemia played a special role, since since the crusades against the Hussites, he only participated in the royal election without taking part in the other activities of the electoral college, a situation that was not changed until 1708.

Thanks to their elective right and their privileged position compared to the other princes of the Empire, the prince-electors had a decisive role in the politics of the Empire, especially until the end of the Thirty Years” War. Until the 1630s, they were responsible for the Empire as a whole. It was from this time onwards that their claim to exclusive power became controversial and questioned. In the 1680s, the role of the Diet was revived and the influence of the college of electors was greatly reduced, although it remained the most important group in the Diet.

The group of princes of the Empire constituted in the middle of the Middle Ages includes all the princes who obtained their fief directly from the emperor. They were immediate vassals. They included old houses such as Hesse, but also other houses that were later elevated to this rank for services rendered, such as the Hohenzollerns. Like the electors, the princes of the Empire were divided into two groups: the temporal princes and the religious princes.

According to the Imperial Matrix of 1521, the four archbishops of Magdeburg, Salzburg, Besançon and Bremen as well as forty-six bishops belonged to the religious princes of the Empire. Until 1792, this number was reduced to thirty-three, including the two archbishops of Salzburg and Besançon and twenty-two bishops. Contrary to the number of religious princes of Empire, which decreased by one third until the fall of the Empire, the number of temporal princes of Empire increased by more than twice. The Worms Empire Matriculation of 1521 counts twenty-four of them. By the end of the 18th century, the number had risen to 61.

At the Diet of Augsburg in 1582, the increase in the number of princes of the Empire was reduced to dynasties. Membership in the imperial states was linked to the territory of the prince, i.e. if a dynasty died out, the new lord of the territory took over this membership. In the case of a division of inheritance, the heirs take it over jointly.

The princes of the Empire form the bench of princes at the Diet of the Empire. It is divided according to the nature of their power, temporal or spiritual. The votes of each prince are linked to the power he has over a territory, the number of votes being defined by the Imperial Matrix. If a temporal or spiritual prince rules over several territories, he has a corresponding number of votes. The greatest of the princes were mostly superior to the prince-bishops in power and territorial size and consequently demanded since the second third of the 17th century a political and ceremonial assimilation of the princes of the Empire with the prince-electors.

Besides the archbishops and bishops who were members of the body of the princes of the Empire, there were the leaders of the abbeys and immediate chapters who formed a special body within the Empire: the prelates of the Empire, among whom were the abbots of the Empire, the priors of the Empire and the abbesses of the Empire. The Matriculation of Empire of 1521 counts 83 prelates of Empire. Their number decreased until 1792 because of mediations, secularizations, cessions to other European states or nominations to the rank of princes to reach 40. The secession of the Helvetic Confederation also contributed to the decrease in the number of prelates of the Empire. St. Gallen, Schaffhausen, Einsiedeln and their corresponding abbeys were no longer part of the Empire.

The territories of the prelates of the Empire are usually very small, sometimes encompassing only a few buildings. This means that they can only with difficulty escape the influence of the surrounding territories. The majority of the Empire”s prelatures are located in the southwest of the Empire. Their geographical proximity gave rise to a cohesion which was realized in 1575 with the foundation of the Schwäbisches Reichsprälatenkollegium (Swabian Prelacy Council), which strengthened their influence. In the Imperial Diet, this college formed a closed group and had a curial voice with the same weight as that of the princes of the Empire. All other imperial prelates formed the Rheinisches Reichsprälatenkollegium, which also had its own vote. However, they did not have the influence of the Swabian prelates because of their greater geographical spread.

This group had the largest number of members among the imperial states and included nobles who had not managed to make a fief out of their territory, since the counts were originally only administrators of imperial properties or rather representatives of the king in certain territories. Integrated into the Empire”s hierarchy in 1521, the counts were between the territorial princes and the knights of the Empire and exercised real seigniorial power as well as an important political role at court.

Nevertheless, the counts, like the great princes, sought to transform their possessions into a territorial state. In fact, the latter were lords since the early Middle Ages and sometimes joined the group of princes of the Empire, such as the county of Württemberg which became a duchy in 1495.

The numerous county territories – the matricule of Empire of 1521 counts indeed 143 counties -, most often small, contribute significantly to the impression of crumbling of the imperial territory. The list of 1792 still shows one hundred counties, which is not due to the numerous mediations or extinctions of families, but rather to the appointment of many counties to the rank of counts of the Empire, but who then no longer had an immediate territory.

The cities of the Empire are a political and legal exception in the sense that membership in the imperial states is not linked to a person but to a city as a whole represented by a council. The cities of the Empire differ from other cities in that they have only the emperor as their ruler. Legally, they are equal to the other territories of the Empire. However, not all of them have the right to sit and vote in the Imperial Diet. Only three quarters of the 86 cities of the Empire mentioned in the Matricule of 1521 had a seat in the Diet. For the others, membership in the imperial states was never granted. Thus, Hamburg was not included in the Diet until 1770, since Denmark contested its status, which it only accepted in 1768 with the Treaty of Gottorp.

The foundations of the cities of the Empire can be found in the foundations of the cities by the emperors in the Middle Ages. These cities, which were later considered to be cities of the Empire, were only subordinated to the emperor. At the end of the Middle Ages, there were also cities that, strengthened by the Quarrel of Investitures, managed to free themselves from the power of the religious lords. These cities, called free cities, unlike the cities of the Empire, did not have to pay taxes or troops to the Emperor. From 1489 onwards, the Empire towns and the free towns formed the college of Empire towns and were grouped together under the term Free and Empire towns (Freie- und Reichsstädte), a designation which over time became Free Empire towns.

In 1792, there were only 51 Empire cities left. After the census of 1803, there were only six: Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Frankfurt, Augsburg and Nuremberg. The role and importance of these cities had only diminished since the Middle Ages, since many of them were small and could only with great difficulty escape the pressure of nearby territories. At the meetings of the Diet of the Empire, the opinions of the imperial cities were usually taken note of only as a matter of form after they had agreed with the electors and princes of the Empire.

Other immediate states

The immediate order of the Imperial Knights (Reichsritter) was not part of the imperial states, so there is no trace of them in the Matriculation of 1521. The Imperial Knights were part of the lower nobility and formed their own state at the end of the Middle Ages. They did not achieve full recognition like the counts of the Empire, but they resisted the hold of the various territorial princes and thus retained their immediacy. The emperor often required the services of the knights of the Empire, who then managed to exert a great deal of influence in the army and the administration of the Empire, but also on the territorial princes.

The knights enjoyed the special protection of the emperor but were excluded from the Diet and from the constitution of the imperial circles. The only Imperial knights present at the Diet were those who were also ecclesiastical princes. Their uprising between 1521 and 1526 against the emperor marked the knights” desire to become part of the imperial states. From the end of the Middle Ages onwards, they gathered in different groups which enabled them to protect their rights and privileges and to fulfill their duties towards the emperor. From the middle of the 16th century onwards, the imperial knighthood was organized into fifteen cantons (Ritterorte), which were in turn grouped into three circles (Ritterkreise): Swabia, Franconia and Am Rhein. From the 17th century onwards, the cantons were formed according to the model of the Helvetic confederation. From 1577 onwards, gatherings of Empire knights called Generalkorrespondenztage took place. However, the circles and the cantons remained very important because of their strong territorial roots.

The Empire villages were recognized by the treaties of Westphalia in 1648 alongside the other imperial states and the Empire knighthood. They were the remnants of the bailliages dissolved in the 15th century. The Empire villages, which were few in number, consisted of communes or tiny pieces of territory located on former crown lands. They were subordinate only to the emperor and had self-government as well as high jurisdiction. Of the original 120 Empire villages, only five were left in 1803, which were attached to large neighboring principalities as a result of the media coverage of the Empire.

Institutions of the Empire

The Imperial Diet (Reichstag) was the most important and lasting result of the imperial reforms of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It developed from the time of Maximilian I, and in particular from 1486 onwards, when the mode of deliberation was divided between the prince-electors and the princes of the empire, to become the supreme constitutional and legal institution, without, however, a founding act or a legal basis. In the struggle between the emperor and the princes of the Empire to make the Empire more centralized on the one hand and more federalist on the other, the Diet proved to be the guarantor of the Empire. The Diet had three benches: that of the prince-electors, that of the princes of the Empire and that of the cities of the Empire.

Until 1653-1654, the Diet met in various imperial cities, and from 1663 onwards, it met as a perpetual Diet in Regensburg. The Diet could only be convened by the emperor, who was obliged from 1519 onwards to obtain the approval of the prince-electors before sending out the various convocations. The emperor also had the right to set the agenda, but without having much influence on the topics discussed. The Diet was led by the Archbishop of Mainz, who played an important political role and could last from several weeks to several months. The decisions of the Diet were recorded in the Reichsabschied. The last of these, the Last Imperial Recès (recessus imperii novissimus), dates from 1653-1654.

The permanence of the Perpetual Diet of the Empire after 1663 was never formally decided but resulted from the circumstances of the deliberations. Because of its permanence, the Perpetual Diet developed very quickly into a simple congress of envoys in which the imperial states very rarely appeared. Since the Perpetual Diet was never formally terminated, its decisions were collected in the form of an Imperial Conclusum (Reichsschluss). The ratification of these conclusions is usually done by the emperor”s representative, the Prinzipalkommissar, in the form of imperial commission decrees (Kaiserlichen Commissions-Decrets).

Laws require the approval of all three groups and the emperor ratifies them. If decisions are made by majority or unanimity in the respective state councils, the results of the consultations are exchanged and an attempt is made to present the emperor with a joint decision of the imperial states. Due to the increasingly difficult process, attempts were also made to facilitate decisions by setting up various commissions. After the Reformation and the Thirty Years” War, the Corpus Evangelicorum and later the Corpus Catholicorum were formed as a result of the confessional division of 1653. These two groups brought together imperial states of both confessions and discussed the affairs of the Empire separately. The Treaties of Westphalia stipulated that religious questions should no longer be settled by majority vote but by consensus.

The imperial circles came into being as a result of the reform of the Empire at the end of the 15th century, or more likely at the beginning of the 16th century with the promulgation of the Perpetual Peace in Worms in 1495. The first six imperial circles were established at the Diet of Augsburg in 1500 at the same time as the creation of the Imperial Government (Reichsregiment). At that time they were designated only by numbers and consisted of groups from all imperial states except the electorate. With the creation of four additional imperial circles in 1517, the Habsburg hereditary territories and electorates were included in the constitution of the circles. The circles were: Austria, Burgundy, the Rhine electorate, Lower Saxony, Upper Saxony, Bavaria, Upper Rhine, Swabia, Franconia and Lower Rhine-Westphalia. Until the fall of the Empire, the electorate and kingdom of Bohemia and the territories linked to it – Silesia, Lusatia and Moravia – remained outside this division into circles, as did the Helvetic confederation, the Imperial knighthood, the fiefs located in Imperial Italy and a few counties and Imperial lordships such as Jever.

Their mission is mainly to preserve and restore national peace by ensuring geographical cohesion between them, with the circles helping each other in case of difficulties. They are also responsible for resolving conflicts that arise, enforcing imperial laws and imposing them if necessary, collecting taxes, and conducting trade, monetary and health policies. The imperial circles had a diet where the various economic, political or military affairs were discussed, making them important political actors, particularly with regard to the Imperial Chamber of Justice. For Jean Schillinger, the circles probably “played an important role in the emergence of a regional consciousness in territories such as Westphalia, Franconia or Swabia.

The Imperial Chamber of Justice was officially created on August 7, 1495, at the same time as the reform of the Empire and the establishment of Perpetual Peace under Emperor Maximilian I, but it had already been established under Sigismund in 1415. It functioned until 1806. Together with the Aulic Council, it was the supreme court of the Empire and its mission was to establish a regulated procedure to avoid private wars or violence. It is a “professionalized and bureaucratized” institution. The Chamber was composed of a judge and sixteen assessors, half of whom were knights of the Empire and half were jurists. The first session took place on October 31, 1495, when the Chamber was sitting in Frankfurt am Main. From 1527 onwards, the Chamber sat in Speyer, after having also sat in Worms, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Speyer and Esslingen. When Speyer was destroyed during the War of the League of Augsburg, the Chamber moved to Wetzlar where it sat from 1689 to 1806.

From the Diet of the Empire in Constance in 1507 onwards, the prince-electors sent six assessors to the Chamber, as did the imperial circles. The Emperor appointed two assessors for his hereditary territories, and the last two seats were chosen by the counts and lords, making a total of sixteen assessors. Assessors who resign are replaced by the circles. When the number of assessors was increased to 24 in 1550, the role of the imperial circles remained unchanged in view of their importance for the perpetual peace that they had to preserve. From that time on, each circle was entitled to send two representatives: an experienced jurist and a representative of the imperial chivalry. Even after the Treaties of Westphalia, when the number of assessors was again increased to fifty (26 Catholics and 24 Protestants), and after the Last Imperial Reconsideration, half of the assessors were representatives of the imperial circles.

By creating the Imperial Chamber of Justice, the emperor lost his role as absolute judge, leaving the field open to the influence of the imperial states, which were responsible for enforcing legal decisions. This had not been the case since the beginning of the 15th century with the royal court of appeal. The first laws that were promulgated, such as the Perpetual Peace or the tax called the Common Pence, all together show the success of the imperial states against the emperor. This success can also be seen in the location of the court, an imperial city far from the imperial residence. As a Court of Appeal, the Imperial Chamber allows subjects to sue their respective lords.

As the imperial states participate in the establishment and organization of the Chamber, they must also participate in the costs incurred, since the taxes and other levies are insufficient. There is indeed a “financial misery”. In order for the Chamber to function, the provincial states approved a permanent imperial tax (the Kammerzieler) after the Common Pence had been rejected as a general tax by the Diet of Constance in 1507. Despite a fixed amount and a time schedule, the payments were constantly postponed, causing long interruptions in the work of the Chamber. Nevertheless, Jean Schillinger emphasizes that the Chamber did much for the legal unification of the Empire.

Together with the Imperial Chamber of Justice, the Aulic Council in Vienna was the highest judicial body. Its members were appointed by the emperor and formed a group to advise him. The Allied Council originally consisted of twelve to eighteen members, which increased to twenty-four in 1657 and thirty in 1711. Some territories fell under the joint jurisdiction of the two bodies, but some cases could only be dealt with by the Aulic Council, such as questions of fiefs, including imperial Italy, and imperial reserved rights.

Because the Aulic Council does not adhere to legal regulations as does the Imperial House, proceedings before the Aulic Council are generally swift and non-bureaucratic. In addition, it dispatched numerous commissions from neutral imperial states to investigate events on the spot. Protestant plaintiffs often wondered whether the aulic council, which they considered to be biased, was intended for them – the emperor was indeed Catholic.

Imperial Territory

At the time of its foundation, the imperial territory was about 470,000 square kilometers. According to rough estimates, there were about ten inhabitants per square kilometer under Charlemagne. The western part that had belonged to the Roman Empire was more populated than the eastern part. In the middle of the eleventh century, the Empire had 800,000 to 900,000 square kilometers and a population of about eight to ten million. Throughout the early Middle Ages, the population grew to 12-14 million by the end of the 13th century. However, waves of plague and the flight of many Jews to Poland in the 14th century signaled a significant decline. From 1032, the Empire was composed of the Regnum Francorum (East Francia), later called Regnum Teutonicorum, the Regnum Langobardorum or Regnum Italicum corresponding to present-day northern and central Italy, and the Kingdom of Burgundy.

The process of nation-state formation and institutionalization in other European countries such as France and England in the late Middle Ages and early modern period also involves the need for clearly defined external borders within which the state is present. In the Middle Ages, these were, in contrast to the modern boundaries precisely defined on maps, more or less wide border areas with overlaps. From the 16th century onwards, it is possible to recognize a specific territorial area for each empire and each European state.

The Holy Roman Empire, on the other hand, included throughout the modern era territories closely linked to it, areas where the Empire”s presence was reduced, and territories on the bangs that took no part in the Empire”s political system, although they were considered part of it. Membership in the Empire was defined much more by vassalage to the king or emperor and by the legal consequences that followed.

The borders of the Empire in the north are quite clear because of the sea coasts and the Eider River, which separates the Duchy of Holstein, which is part of the Empire, and the Duchy of Schleswig, which is a Danish fief. In the southeast the Habsburg hereditary territories with Austria under the Enns, Styria, Carniola, Tyrol and the Episcopal principality of Trento also clearly mark the borders of the Empire. In the northeast, Pomerania and Brandenburg belonged to the Empire. The territory of the Teutonic Order, on the other hand, is considered by most historians not to be part of the Empire, although it is German in character and was considered an imperial fiefdom in the Golden Bull of Rimini as early as 1226 before its foundation. It had privileges, which would have made no sense if the territory had not belonged to the Empire. The Diet of Augsburg of 1530 declared Livonia a member of the Empire. This same Diet refused for a long time to transform this territory into a Polish duchy.

In general, the Kingdom of Bohemia is shown on maps as part of the Empire. This is all the more correct because Bohemia was an imperial fief and the Bohemian king – a dignity created only under the Hohenstaufens – was an elector. However, in the predominantly Czech-speaking population, the feeling of belonging to the Empire was very weak, and there were even traces of resentment.

In the west and southwest of the Empire, the borders remained blurred. The Netherlands are a good example. The Ten Seventh Provinces, which included what is now Belgium (with the exception of the Principality of Liege), the Netherlands and Luxembourg, were transformed in 1548 by the Treaty of Burgundy into a territory with a weak imperial presence. For example, the territory was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Empire, but it remained a member. After the Thirty Years” War, in 1648, the thirteen Dutch provinces were no longer considered part of the Empire, a fact that no one disputed.

In the 16th century, the bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun were gradually taken by France, as was the city of Strasbourg, annexed in 1681. As for the Helvetic Confederation, it no longer belonged to the Empire from 1648 onwards, but already since the Peace of Basel in 1499, it no longer took part in imperial politics. However, the thesis that the Peace of Basel had meant a de facto secession of the Confederation from the Empire no longer holds true, because the federal territories had continued to consider themselves an integral part of the Empire. The Savoy in the south of Switzerland belonged legally to the Empire until 1801, but its membership had long been unsealed.

The emperor claimed suzerainty over the territories of imperial Italy, i.e., the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the duchies of Milan, Mantua, Modena, Parma and Mirandola. The feeling of being German of these territories is equal to their participation in imperial politics: non-existent. They did not claim the rights that any member of the Empire had, but neither did they submit to the corresponding duties. In general, these territories were not recognized as part of the Empire, but until the end of the 18th century there was a relay of imperial authority in the peninsula: a “Plenipotentiary” of Italy, usually based in Milan. Its head (Plenipotentiarius, commissarius caesareus) and the procurator (Fiscalis imperialis per Italiam) who assisted him were appointed by the Emperor. Even in modern times, imperial rights in Italy have become insignificant. And as in the past, during the time of the Staufen ruling the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, they were “reactivated” on several occasions by the patrimonial implantation of the Habsburgs in the peninsula.

It is by the effect of a ban of the Empire of the princes guilty to have embraced the French party during the war of the Spanish Succession, that the possessions of the Gonzagas (Mantoue and Castiglione) will be transferred to the House of Austria (1707). The subsequent successions of Tuscany (17181737), Parma (17181723) and Modena (1771) were settled on the basis of their status as fiefs of the Empire. The rite of investiture of the Empire remained the rule in most of the “Kingdom of Italy”, at each succession change of the reigning family or at each imperial accession. In 1755, the House of Savoy paid 85,000 florins in feudal taxes to the Viennese chancellery for the investiture of Piedmont and its other possessions, while the four states (Tuscany, Parma, Genoa and Lucca), over which the imperial rights had become the most contentious, nevertheless paid military contributions levied in the name of the Empire in the 18th century. The judicial sovereignty of the Empire did not cease to be exercised in Italy: during the twenty-five years of the reign of Joseph II (1765-1790), some 150 Italian lawsuits were pending before the Aulic Council (“Reichshofrat”). These facts underline the durability within the Holy Roman Empire of this Italy, which historical atlases generally believe can be cut out of the imperial map from the middle of the 17th century.

Population and languages

The ethnic origins of the Empire”s population were manifold; generally they counted less than adherence to the Christian religion. Alongside the German-speaking territories, there were other language groups. The various dialects of the German group (grouped into three subgroups: Low, Middle, and High German) are in the majority among the population of the central and northern parts of the Empire. But these are not the only languages, and the German-speaking territories differ considerably from one another because of different historical conditions. There were also Slavic languages in the east, and various Romance languages with the emergence of the old vehicular French, the ancestor of modern French, which persisted for a long time in the old city-towns of the west of the Empire, and of course the Italian languages and dialects south of the Alps.

At the time of the regnum francorum, Latin was the official language. All legal matters were written in Latin. Latin was the international language of the time and remained the language of diplomacy in the Holy Roman Empire and in Europe at least until the middle of the 17th century. The German language was introduced into the imperial chancellery from the reign of Louis IV.

After the Germanic migrations, the eastern territories of the future part of the German-speaking Empire were still mostly populated by Slavs and the western territories by Germans. The linguistic frontier between Slavs and Germans was already established between the sixth and seventh centuries, with the Slavs making rapid progress towards the west in the eighth century to the detriment of the Germans. The political task of the Frankish and then Saxon elites, locally Slavicized by family or clan incorporation, helped by the missions of the Christian religion, was to constitute marches, which could later favor a medieval colonization of the German language. Most of the eastern territories of the German linguistic sphere were gradually integrated into the Empire. But some territories controlled later by the Germans, such as East Prussia, were never integrated into the Empire. These territories, previously populated by Balts and incidentally Slavs, were Germanized in varying proportions following the Ostsiedlung (eastward expansion), by German-speaking settlers from the western territories. The network of free merchant cities of the Hanseatic League promoted this expansion by controlling the navigation of the entire Baltic Sea. In some territories of Eastern Europe, Baltic, Slavic and Germanic populations mixed over the centuries.

In the western territory, southwest of the former limes of the Roman Empire, although politically dominated by families of Germanic origin or affiliation, there were still some regressive Celtic influences in the countryside in the tenth century, but above all a Romanic cultural and linguistic permanence, just as in the neighboring kingdom of France. On the local level, these influences were initially very disparate. Over time, the different population groups mixed together. Between the ninth and tenth centuries, an ethno-linguistic boundary between the Roman and German-speaking areas of the empire became increasingly clear, independently of political boundaries, but according to the majority origins of the populations on both sides. Where the Germanic migrations had remained in the minority, the Romance dialects were later to become established and widespread. In these parts of the territory, ethnic influences from different regions of the defunct Roman Empire dominated: Italian in the south, and Gallo-Roman in the west. Outside of Francia occidentalis, essentially Gallo-Roman, which became the kingdom of France, the episcopal cities of imperial obedience or “civitates in imperio” of Romance language, and surrounded by Romance-speaking countryside, thus remained numerous. The simplified history of the 19th century, sometimes limiting itself too much to political borders, has tended to erase these cultural particularities, which were for a long time culturally determining for these medieval bishoprics. Let us mention Liege, Metz, Toul, Verdun, Besançon, Geneva, Lausanne, Lyon, Viviers, Vienne (Isère), Grenoble, Arles.

The populations within the Holy Roman Empire also experienced immigrations, emigrations and other population movements within the borders of the Empire. After the Thirty Years” War, a huge and long-lasting politico-religious explosion in the heart of the imperium, a partly targeted migration policy was implemented by the princes without dense populations, for example in Prussia, which led to considerable migration in the territories concerned. For example, the kingdom of Prussia, having gained control of the wheat resource in the 18th century, was able to build a modern state and to let come or attract, in order to ensure its power, disinherited Saxon populations from the south, but also Germanic and Slavic Protestant minorities from the east and south of medieval Europe, as well as British, German or French Protestant refugees…

The imperial eagle

The eagle is the symbol of the imperial power and this since the Roman Empire to which the Holy Roman Empire is attached. It was in the 12th century with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa that the eagle became the coat of arms of the Empire and thus the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Before this date, it is found under various emperors as a symbol of imperial power without being something fixed. It is indeed found under Otto I or Conrad II.

Before 1312, the imperial eagle on the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire was simple. It was only after this date that the eagle became double-headed under the reign of Frederick III. However, the appearance of the double-headed eagle was gradual. It is already found in 1312 on the imperial banner and it is under Charles IV that it is imposed on the banner. The Empire banner also follows the heraldic evolution. Until 1410, it bears a single eagle. It is only after this date that it bears a double-headed eagle.

It was under Sigismund I that the double-headed eagle became the symbol of the emperor on seals, coins, the imperial flag, etc., while the single eagle became the symbol of the king. The use of the eagle is an act of allegiance to the Empire. Many imperial cities adopted the imperial eagle, such as Frankfurt am Main, which had a simple eagle on its coat of arms since the 13th century, Lübeck, which had a double-headed eagle since 1450, and Vienna since 1278. After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, the imperial eagle was adopted by the Reichstag in 1848 as the symbol of the German Empire.

The imperial regalia

The regalia of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichskleinodien) consist of several objects, about 25 of which are collected today in Vienna. Among the most important pieces are the imperial crown made under Otto I, the imperial cross made in Lorraine around 1025, which served as a reliquary for two other regalia: the Holy Lance and a piece of the Holy Cross. The sword, the orb and the scepter are the three other components of the imperial regalia that the emperor has in his possession at his coronation.

Alongside these regalia, there are also various ornaments such as the imperial mantle dating from the 12th century that the emperor puts on at his coronation. The coat is embroidered with 100,000 pearls and weighs eleven kilograms. The ornaments also include gloves embroidered with pearls and precious stones, embroidered shoes and slippers, the alb and the gospel.

Faced with the advance of French troops, the regalia were taken to Regensburg and then to Vienna in 1800. After the collapse of the Empire, the cities of Nuremberg and Aachen fought over the preservation of the regalia. In 1938, they were transported to Nuremberg on Hitler”s orders. In 1945 they were found in a bunker and the following year they were transported back to Vienna. Today, the regalia of the Holy Roman Empire are the most complete medieval treasure.


Fondation Maison des sciences de l”homme, Paris, 2018 (ISBN 2-7351-2395-2) (ISBN 978-2-7351-2395-7)

External links


  1. Saint-Empire romain germanique
  2. Holy Roman Empire