The 7 Prince-electors.
A mostly Germanic empire, but at times including also parts of northern Italy, Bohemia, Flanders, the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, and some Swiss cantons. It was established in 962 C.E. by Otto I, ‘‘the Great’’ (912–973). It was self-consciously modeled on the empire of Charlemagne, which also maintained the fiction that it was the linear successor to the Roman Empire in the West. Otto succeeded in uniting most of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy into a medieval empire of overlapping vassalge. From the beginning the Empire was at odds with France: Otto invaded France, then ruled by Louis IV, in 942 and again in 948. For centuries emperors competed with the popes for primacy within Latin Christendom while also cooperating with the papacy to prevent the rise of challengers to either from among the barony and minor kings of Germany. Emperors were crowned by popes and claimed supreme temporal authority over all Christians in greater Germany. During this period the defenses of the Empire, which was still a frontier state facing multiple barbarian threats, were organized into eight military districts known as Marches. These were, north to south: Billungs, Nordmark, Lusatia, Misnia, Ostmark (Austria), Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola. The main military activity was fending off Slavic raiders, along with larger campaigns over the Alps into Italy called the ‘‘expeditio ultra Alpes.’’
In the 11th century, papal–imperial relations were rent by the ‘‘Investiture Controversy’’ over whether popes or secular rulers should appoint local bishops. This was crucial since several sees hosted Imperial electors who chose the emperors. Investiture itself was a feudal ceremony that granted a fief or clerical office to a vassal, and few fiefs in Europe were as valuable as bishoprics and abbeys which were held by lords both temporal and religious. The emperors had long asserted a right of ‘‘lay investiture,’’ and as the Church entered one of its cyclical convulsions of reform enthusiasm, those seeking to eliminate corrupt practices focused on lay investiture. In 1075, Pope Gregory VII forbade the practice, but Emperor Henry IV (r.1084–1105) refused to accept papal appointees. For this ‘‘disobedience’’ he was excommunicated in 1076. In theory, that dissolved all bonds of vassalage binding barons, dukes, and princes of the Empire to the emperor. This was a radical papal challenge to Imperial power and it launched the ‘‘Wars of Investiture’’ (1077–1122). The excommunication initially proved a near fatal blow to the emperor’s perceived legitimacy, forcing Henry IV to ‘‘go to Canossa’’ in 1077 to perform public penance before Gregory. He groveled and gained absolution and lifting of the interdict on Church services and sacraments that accompanied the excommunication. War came anyway, during which Henry—who did not regain Gregory’s favor but did recover enough legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects that he saved his crown—organized a conclave to elect a more friendly pope, Clement III. In 1084, Henry took Rome and installed Clement. However, Clement was chased from Rome by Norman knights from southern Italy, rough allies of Pope Gregory who reinstated him after sacking his city. The sack of Rome left the populace so opposed to Gregory that it quickly became prudent for him to withdraw. Henry was then forced to abdicate (1105) by relatives and other members of the Imperial party who feared a long-term breach with the papacy would undermine the dynasty’s claim to the throne. Thus began a battle between popes and emperors that would last several centuries. Ultimately, the Investiture controversy severely undermined the temporal and spiritual authority of popes and emperors, in time helping to clear the way for the rise of local monarchs across Europe.
In 1156 the dukes of Austria were granted the ‘‘Privilegium minus,’’ which excused them from long-distance military expeditions. In 1212, Bohemia was dispensed from its military obligations by payment of a lump sum of silver. These territories remained part of the Empire in name, but grew more distant and independent in fact. An imperial succession crisis from 1250 to 1273, ‘‘The Great Interregnum,’’ reduced parts of the Empire to military anarchy after 1250. At its close Count Rudolf of Habsburg was elected ‘‘King of the Romans.’’ Thereafter, secure control of the Holy Roman Empire was the central preoccupation of the Habsburgs, who brought mystical imagery and belief in a Catholic mission to their reign in Germany. The affairs of central Europe and the Balkans were another Habsburg concern, as myriad German speakers migrated into once Slavic lands as far east as the Vistula, led by a powerful but fractious nobility and warrior monks such as the Sword Brothers and Teutonic Knights. The murder of Albert I in 1308 led to ascension of a Luxemburg dynasty to the Imperial throne, causing high tension between Habsburg designs in Germany and Luxemburg dependence on Bohemia for electoral support. In 1356 the ‘‘Golden Bull’’ was forced on Emperor Charles IV. This recognized local rights and established election procedures by which seven ‘‘Kurfūrsten’’ (‘‘Elector Princes’’), three bishops, and four territorial princes chose the emperor. These electors were autonomous rulers acting through representatives who met in the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) at Ratisbon, with representation also for hundreds of large and petty dukedoms, bishoprics, baronies, fiefdoms, and free cities. To many, the Empire seemed to be in terminal decline at the start of the 15th century. However, in 1438 the Habsburgs united the Austrian, Hungarian, Bohemian, and German crowns through a series of dynastic marriages. From 1504 to 1508, Emperor Maximilian I instituted modernizing military reforms, including setting up a royal foundry in Innsbruck and lesser foundries elsewhere. These cast iron and bronze cannon of various quality and caliber, from great bombards known as ‘‘Hauptstuke’’ to small ‘‘falconettes’’ and other early field artillery which could be pulled by just one horse.
With the ascension to the throne of Charles V in 1519 it seemed to many that a great military and imperial revival might be underway centered on events in the Holy Roman Empire. At that moment, Europe was sundered by the first soundings of the Protestant Reformation. In Germany this led to confessional division and then warfare between the emperor and some territorial princes, culminating in war with the Schmalkaldic League from 1546 to 1547. A general truce was achieved on the religious issue in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which instituted partial religious toleration for Lutherans. Charles left the Imperial stage that year, dividing his vast inheritances between Austrian and Spanish branches of the Habsburg dynasty. In Germany, Augsburg helped avoid war over the religious question for 60 years. Under Maximilian II and even the erratic and actively anti-Protestant Rudolf II, Germany was relatively peaceful into the early 17th century. This was the case even though France descended into religious civil war and Habsburg cousins in Spain, Philip II and Philip III, conducted a protracted Catholic crusade against Protestantism in northern Europe. However, beneath the surface peace debate over the emperor’s constitutional position was unresolved and had become fixed to permanent religious conflict. Protestant princes were deeply loyal to the Empire, but felt the tug of reform subjects who demanded defense of their religious and legal rights against emperors and courts increasingly devoted to the Counter-Reformation. The stage was thus set for a great struggle, and eventually a great war, to reinterpret constitutional meanings in an ancient empire newly split by tri-confessionalism. Perhaps only war could resolve the attendant question of whether Germany’s territorial princes, Catholic and Protestant alike, were merely Estates of a larger and far more powerful monarchy, or themselves sovereign, joined in a voluntary confederation of over 1,000 polities, which in 1600 contained 20 million souls. Of the Empire’s component polities, eight large and populous principalities were key: Bavaria, Bohemia, Brandenburg, Hesse, the Palatinate, Saxony, Trier, and Wūrttemberg. None could dominate the Empire, but neither could the Habsburgs of Austria. And all efforts to establish a joint standing army were frustrated by refusal of the Imperial Diet to vote the necessary funds.
The great crisis of 1618–1648 had roots in the paralysis of Imperial institutions (the Imperial Diet, Hofkriegsrat, Reichskreis, Chancery, Aulic Council, and Imperial Tribunal). Erosion of the great religious and constitutional compromise of the Peace of Augsburg accelerated as all Europe headed toward war. Institutions and principles alike fell into disuse and disdain without being fundamentally challenged on grounds of legitimacy. Instead, they unraveled from the 1580s as Rudolf II supported the Counter-Reformation and the Chamber Court of the Empire repeatedly ruled to restore secularized estates and benefices to the Catholic Church. In 1588, Catholic bishops in the Court refused to sit the Protestant bishop of Magdeburg. In 1600, Protestant princes paralyzed the ‘‘Deputationstag,’’ a subunit of the Diet, by abstaining from its deliberations. The first overt military move was Imperial occupation of the free city of Donauwörth in 1607, in behalf of a Catholic minority at war with the Protestant majority and town council. This violated the traditional right of each of the Reichskreis to maintain internal peace, and that provoked the founding of the Protestant Union in 1608. Bavaria and southern Catholics responded by founding of the Catholic League in 1609. Both steps further divided the Empire on confessional lines and moved it closer to war.
From 1609 to 1614 inability to resolve a succession crisis in Jūlich-Kleve demonstrated the Empire’s precipitous fall from real authority on the ground, and dangerous connections between German princes and external allies and interests. Within four more years these would propel Germany into the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). That great conflict began with a crisis over who would succeed as king of Bohemia, and thus exercise the deciding vote for the new emperor as an Imperial elector. An awful war was extended and widened by the fanatic Catholicism of Ferdinand II, whose overreach united the princes against him, prolonged the war, and ensured that outside powers intervened in German affairs. The primary beneficiary of the effective demise of the Holy Roman Empire by 1648 was France, which emerged as first among equals among the Great Powers of the European state system as ratified by the Peace of Westphalia. Lacking any standing army, permanent corps of state officials, or central organs of government—at a time when other monarchies in Europe were beginning to build centralized nation-states—the Holy Roman Empire was thereafter a mere constitutional shell. It was kept in place by component members because this appeared to protect their freedoms from the larger powers which surrounded Germany, but it also allowed external powers to control parts of Germany, keeping it divided and weak as they added bits of its latent strength to theirs.
Suggested Reading: James Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (1892; 1978); John R. Hale et al., Europe in the Late Middle Ages (1965); Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (1968); R. E. Herzstein, ed., The Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages (1966).