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5.8: The Holy Roman Empire

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    In contrast to the growth of relatively centralized states in Spain, England, and France, the German lands of central Europe remained fragmented. The very concept of “Germany” was an abstraction during the Renaissance era. Germany was simply a region, a large part of central Europe in which most, but not all, people spoke various dialects of the German language. It was politically divided between hundreds of independent kingdoms, city-states, church lands, and territories. Its only overarching political identity took the form of that most peculiar of early-modern European states: the Holy Roman Empire.

    The Holy Roman Empire dated back to the year 800 CE, when the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” by the pope. The point of the title was to convey on Charlemagne, and the vast territory he had conquered by the year 800, the historical legacy of the Roman Empire. In other words, it was an attempt to legitimize the greatest king of the time by association with the legacy of the ancient world. Likewise, an explicit link was made between the pope and the emperor as the two most powerful figures in Christendom.

    The Empire itself only stayed united for a short time after Charlemagne’s life; his three grandsons divided it, and it would never again see genuine political unity. Instead, the title and the concept survived, but the position of emperor became nothing more than a kind of exclamation mark at the end of a longer list of titles carried by whoever the emperor happened to be at a given time. The “real” power of any given emperor was determined not by the imperial title, but by the other lands and titles he had inherited through normal dynastic succession.

    In fact, by the early modern period, emperorship was an elected position. That phenomenon began in 1356 when a pragmatic emperor, Charles IV, issued the Golden Bull, which created a system by which future emperors would be chosen by their most powerful subjects. Seven great rulers scattered across the Empire (four princes and three archbishops) had the right to vote on imperial succession. Starting in 1438, the rich and powerful princely Austrian family of Habsburg was able to secure the title and convert it to a virtually-hereditary one by virtue of the fact that they were consistently able offer the largest bribes to the electors. The Habsburgs were also favored for leadership by the electors because their kingdoms bordered the growing Ottoman Turkish empire, and thus they played a vital role in holding the Turks in check. From 1438 to 1806, when the empire finally dissolved when it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, there was only ever one non-Habsburg emperor.

    The Holy Roman Empire featured a parliament, the Imperial Diet, wherein representatives of the member states, free cities, kingdoms, duchies, and church lands met to petition the emperor and to debate political issues of the day. Practically speaking, the Diet had little impact on the laws of the constituent states of the empire. The emperor had the right to issue decrees, but any member state in the Empire could safely ignore those decrees unless the emperor was willing to back them with his own force (meaning, after 1438, the Habsburgs were willing to mobilize their own armies).

    While the Holy Roman Empire was thus a far cry from the increasingly centralized states of Western Europe, the Habsburgs were unquestionably one of the most powerful royal lines, and their own territories stretched from Hungary to the New World by the sixteenth century. The greatest emperor (in terms of the sheer amount of territory he ruled) was Charles V, who ruled from 1519 – 1558. A grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, Charles inherited a gargantuan amount of territory.

    The sheer number and variety of Charles V’s territorial possessions and related titles strikes almost comical levels from a contemporary perspective. He was emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and king of Spain, grand duke of various territories in Poland and Romania, princely count of southern German lands, duke of others, and even claimed sovereignty over Jerusalem (although of course he did not actually control the Holy Land). Most of these titles were not the result of military conquests - they were places he had inherited from his ancestors. The unofficial Habsburg motto was “Let others wage war. You, happy Austria, marry to prosper.” Charles oversaw not only the Habsburg possessions in Europe, but the enormous new (Spanish) empire that had emerged in the New World since the late fifteenth century.

    Map of Europe illustrating the extent of Charles V's empire, from Spain across to Austria and extending throughout parts of central and northern Europe.
    Figure 5.8.1: The European possessions of Charles V. Note how his territories were non-contiguous (i.e. they were not geographically united) because they were primarily the results of lands he inherited from various ancestors.

    Ironically, Charles himself had a terrible time managing anything, despite his personal intelligence and competence. He proved unable to contain the explosion of the Protestant Reformation, he was engaged in ongoing defensive wars against both France and the Turks, and his territories were so far-flung that he spent most of his life traveling between them. He eventually abdicated in 1558, and recognizing that the Habsburg lands were almost ungovernable, he handed power over to his brother Ferdinand I in Austria (Ferdinand also became Holy Roman Emperor) and his son Philip II in Spain and its possessions. Henceforth, the two branches of the Habsburgs were united in their Catholicism and their enmity with France, but little else.

    This page titled 5.8: The Holy Roman Empire is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.