What the Heck’s a Holy Roman Empire?

This strange entity known as the Holy Roman Empire never fails to confuse students.

Let’s start with what it isn’t:

  • It’s not the Roman Empire.
  • It’s not the Eastern or Western Roman Empires, into which the Roman Empire split in the fourth century C.E. (Western Roman Empire falls in 476 CE.)
  • It’s not the Byzantine Empire, which is really just the Eastern Roman Empire with another name, which lasted until 1453.

It also isn’t ruled from Rome, which one might guess would be a requirement for something called a Roman Empire. (To be fair, the Eastern Roman Empire wasn’t ruled from Rome either, but from Constantinople.)

So what the heck’s the Holy Roman Empire?

Pope Leo III and Empress Irene

It started with a pope, Leo III, with an axe to grind with the Eastern Roman Empire in the late eighth century. Since the fifth century, the bishops of Rome (i.e. the popes) claimed to have authority over all other bishops. The bishops of Constantinople disagreed, and there wasn’t a lot Rome could do about it directly.

But then history gave Leo an interesting in: a woman was ruling the Eastern Roman Empire. Empress Irene had married into the ruling family and was widowed young. She ruled as regent for her son, Constantine VI, but as he approached the age of majority, they struggled for power. Eventually, Constantine was captured and blinded, and she was declared Empress in her own right.

Except that no version of the Roman Empire recognized female monarchs. Power always progressed from one man to another, most commonly from father to son. As far as Leo was concerned, the position of emperor was vacant; Irene simply could not legitimately count, no matter what she or her supporters said.

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Charlemagne

Meanwhile, Leo has been drumming up a friendship with the Frankish king, Charlemagne. The Franks had long given protection to the popes, and Charlemagne was well known for his religious zeal, forcing large numbers of pagans to convert at sword-point.

Charlemagne had also personally come to Leo’s aid in the past. After Leo became pope, the relatives of the previous pope attacked him, attempting cut out his tongue and gouge out his eyes (what’s with the eyes, people?). He survived and took shelter with Charlemagne, who eventually had the attackers exiled.

What better way of bringing east and west churches, Rome and Constantinople, together than through a united Roman Empire? And who better to give that honor to than Charlemagne? As the story goes, Charlemagne went to church on Christmas of 800 CE and was completely taken aback by the pope’s sudden offer to crown him as the Roman Emperor, but we suspect there might be a tad bit of false humility there.

Coin of Charlemagne

Coin bearing Charlemagne’s likeness, trying very hard to look like a Roman emperor.

The Eastern Roman Empire ignored him. To the people of the east, Charlemagne was a backwater hick.  The Eastern Romans were engineering great stone structures while, in the west, no one was building much of anything.  Charlemagne and his nobles didn’t even know how to read.   At no point did Charlemagne have the slightest bit of actual power over the east. However, he had conquered vast amounts of territories in the west, and that became known as the Holy Roman Empire.

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Almost.

The Franks and the French

Charlemagne was a Frank, and the name France comes from Frank. But the Holy Roman Empire and France are two different countries. How did that happen?

In the time of Charlemagne, France didn’t exist, and that territory was part of his empire. However, primogeniture (having the eldest son inherit everything) was not yet practice.  When Charlemagne’s only son died, the Holy Roman Empire was divided among his three heirs, and the boundaries continued to fluctuate as territories further divided or came together through marriages. By the time borders start solidifying, France had become its own sovereign kingdom, and only the Germanic territories to France’s east were known as the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne's Empire divided into thirds

The three-part division of Charlemagne’s empire after his death.

Holy Roman Empire in 1250

The relatively stable borders of the Holy Roman Empire, 1250 CE. France is to the west.

Elected Emperors and Fractured Territories

An empire, by definition, is made up of multiple groups of people. England and France were kingdoms. Everyone within them considered themselves English or French. But people within the Holy Roman Empire considered themselves Bohemians or Germans or Moravians or whatever according to where they came from within the empire. And these people may or may not listen much to the emperor, depending on circumstances.

On top of which, the emperor became an elected figure. A handful of nobles got to be electors, and every time an emperor died, they got together and voted on a new emperor. That means no one is ever sure who the heir is; it might not be the previous emperor’s kid. That doesn’t help with stability.

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And the territories continued to fracture. By the 18th century, there were over 400 separate territories within the Holy Roman Empire, and that’s not counting the ones that had already gained independence such as Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Eventually so many pieces broke away the Empire ceased to exist.

Holy Roman Empire map in 1789

As an Aside:  The crown displayed at the top of the article was used to crown the Holy Roman Emperors from the 10th or 11th century all they way up to the empire’s end in the early 19th century.  Imagine *that* sitting on your head.

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