Common section

Chapter 8. The Rise and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire

In This Chapter

What exactly is the Holy Roman Empire?

The union of church and state

It’s good to be a Habsburg, most of the time

• The Thirty Years’ War

The end of an empire, sort of

Just as the sixteenth century in western Europe proved to be a time of both political and religious turmoil, the seventeenth century proved to be equally tumultuous for central Europe. And, just like in England, France, and the Netherlands in the century before, the disputes over religion in central Europe in the seventeenth century usually served as thinly veiled disguises for political issues, territorial disputes, and concerns over land and boundaries.

As nations jockeyed for political power and the title of “Europe’s Premier State,” monarchs did whatever was necessary to improve their position, expand their borders, and further their interests. Some monarchs sided with traditional enemies for their own gain and some even supported other religions to get what they wanted for themselves and their nations. One of the major players in the drama that unfolded during the seventeenth century was not a state per se but was an empire, sort of.

The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire, that centuries-old entity that played such a pivotal role in so many political and religious affairs throughout European history, once again found itself in the thick of things during the seventeenth century. The Holy Roman Empire, although a political and religious force, didn’t really qualify as a European nation. It had no real geographic boundaries, no official census records for its population. Historians have debated when the Empire began and what its true nature was; there have been debates on the nature and responsibilities of the Emperor and the extent of his political powers. In short, the Holy Roman Empire and the position of Holy Roman Emperor were as much theoretical as practical.

The origins of the Empire trace back to the year 800 or a few years before. When Pope Leo III (d.816) became pope in 795, quite a few opponents, especially among the nobility, worked to have him removed and finally deposed him. Pope Leo III appealed to Charlemagne (c.742-814), or Charles the Great, who was the King of the Franks and the undisputed greatest secular power in Europe.

Charlemagne’s advisors suggested that no men could question the authority of the pope, and Charlemagne agreed. He traveled to Rome and put down the rebellion against Leo. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum, or Emperor of the Romans. Legend says that Charlemagne never would have entered the church where Leo crowned him had he known that Leo was going to give him such a crown and title.

Historians disagree over the nature of the title; some argue that the title was meant as an honorary title with no real power, while others maintain that the pope created a new secular arm of Rome with the title. Either way, the first Imperator Romanorum since the fall of Rome in 476 was back in action. Interestingly, though, Charlemagne never referred to himself as “Holy Roman Emperor” or even as “Emperor of the Romans.” Rather, Charlemagne considered himself Imperator Romanorum gubernans Imperium, or Emperor Ruling the Roman Empire.

Whether the Holy Roman Empire actually began in 800 could be debated, but the foundation had at least been laid. Several Frankish kings after Charlemagne used the title but exercised little “imperial” authority. Then, after the assassination of an emperor in 924, the title remained unused for about 40 years. Probably the actual and practical beginning of the Holy Roman Empire came in 962 when Pope John XII (c.937-964) crowned the German king Otto I (912-973) as emperor.

Would You Believe?

Though Pope John XII gave the crown to Otto “the Great," John changed his mind later and actually tried to get rid of Otto. As it turned out, Otto returned to Italy and deposed the very pope that crowned him emperor.

Like Charlemagne, Otto traveled to Italy to save the pope and Rome from political unrest and instability. The pope crowned Otto emperor, then signed the Diploma Ottonianum which made the emperor the protector of the Papal States, one of the independent states in Italy. With title and power in hand, Otto saved the Papal States from its would-be conquerors.

Neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire

The eighteenth-century philosopher Voltaire (see Chapter 12) once commented that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an empire. In many ways, Voltaire couldn’t have been more right. Dating back to the earliest days of the empire, the right to rule had nothing to do with holiness, piety, religious devotion, or anything of the sort.

Beginning with Otto, the right to rule as emperor was a perk of being the German king. Germany was not yet a nation but rather a kingdom comprised of smaller principalities. The German princes occasionally exercised the power to choose a king, but more often than not they merely approved the succession of the next in line. Regardless, once on the throne, the German kings also staked their claim as the next emperor. Most German kings ultimately were crowned emperor, though popes occasionally chose not to crown a German king emperor because of disputes regarding a king’s ascension. The designation of both the emperor and the empire as “holy” had nothing to do with the spiritual nature of the emperors themselves; it simply implied an alliance with the Church and the fact that the emperors were to be defenders of the faith and the Church.

In 1338, the German electors declared that they and they alone had the right to choose the emperor—without the input of the pope; the pope did still perform the coronation of the emperor, though. This system prevailed until the coronation of Charles V in 1530, after which all such coronations took place in Germany rather than in Italy. While that might seem to finally make the use of the term “Roman Empire” somewhat problematic, the “Roman” part of the title had never had anything to do with the German kings being chosen by or crowned in Rome. Beginning with Charlemagne’s family, or the Carolingian dynasty, as it was known, the kings maintained that the Roman Empire had not ceased to exist in 476 when Augustus Romulus abdicated to barbarian invaders. Rather, the Carolingians argued, the Empire had simply been suspended for several hundred years. Although that reasoning made the Holy Roman Empire “Roman” in their minds, the Empire actually was not Roman per se.

In theory, the Holy Roman Emperor ruled an empire comprised of all western Christians. This wasn’t too much of a stretch, initially, because Charlemagne had his Franks organized into a kingdom, the only organized state in Europe. Only after he centralized the government in Germany did other modern states form across the continent. These states were far more cohesive than any empire perceived by the Emperor or the pope, and the monarchs weren’t always excited about recognizing someone else’s authority over their lands. The loyalties of these peoples did not lie with the emperors unless the nobles were granted titles within the empire.

As the centuries passed, the Holy Roman Emperors found themselves granting more and more land, titles, and rights to nobility all over the continent. As the emperors gave away these things, the strength of the empire decreased. A true empire the Holy Roman Empire was not.

Church and State

In theory, the relationship between the emperor and the pope seemed mutually beneficial. By stroking the ego of a German king and bestowing a title, the pope gained a powerful ally with an army committed to defending the Church, the papacy, and the Papal States. Furthermore, the pope had a far-reaching political arm with which he could enforce all things papal throughout Christendom.

The emperor, in exchange for a vow of loyalty and a commitment to be the defender of the faith, received a nifty crown, a great title, and secular authority over all of Christendom, even in places where he wasn’t the actual hereditary king. Additionally, the emperor received not only funding but also papal authority for the use of his armies. In reality, though, the emperor’s influence remained limited largely to Germany and the surrounding areas—in other words, to his own kingdom.

In theory, the pope handled all spiritual matters that affected Christendom while the emperors handled all things secular or political. The cooperation, though not exactly the union, of Church and state seemed very promising for both parties. However, the line between political and secular issues frequently blurred or disappeared altogether. Popes often failed to see eye to eye with the emperors. Emperors occasionally appointed Church officials in a practice known as investiture (see Chapter 3) and that never went over well with the papacy. Disputes over secular authority in Italy caused concerns. German emperors often found themselves in conflicts of interest when trying to balance ruling Germany as king and ruling Christendom as emperor.

Would You Believe?

On more than one occasion, the conflict between pope and Emperor intensified to the point that the pope actually excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor.

To say that the relationship between Church and state was tenuous at times would be an understatement. On the other hand, imperial and papal interests occasionally fell neatly in line, particularly during the Reformation and the Catholic or Counter Reformation.

Europe's Most Powerful Family

The Habsburgs may not have won any popularity contests during their day but they certainly had everyone’s attention. Though they began with a relatively small sphere of influence (see Chapter 7), the Habsburgs grew into perhaps the most influential family in all of Europe outside of the Medici family of Italy. The power of the Habsburg family culminated with Charles, son of Philip Habsburg and maternal grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Continental Quotes

Born in Madrid but not truly having a place to call home, Charles V once said, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."

Charles was arguably the first true king of Spain, since previously Spain had actually consisted of the smaller states of Aragon and Castile. Charles went on to become Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. While Charles V was a Habsburg by birth, he wasn’t German.

In fact, it’s hard to say what nationality Charles was. Regardless, Charles put the Habsburg family in a position to be powerful in Spain and Germany and claim the title of Europe’s Most Powerful Family.

Most family trees of European ruling families after the Middle Ages were intertwined with those of other ruling families, and the Habsburgs were no exception. Ruling families often arranged marriages between their children, creating political and economic unions that, in theory, would be beneficial for both families. A family who ruled one country often had children, grandchildren, and cousins permanently linked to other countries all over the continent. The Habsburg family tree epitomized the family tree linked to other families and other countries.

Both Charles V and his brother, Ferdinand, who later became Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, were grandsons of Ferdinand and Isabella, who sponsored Columbus. When Charles, who was old and tired, abdicated, he gave his brother Ferdinand the empire and he gave Spain to his son Philip. Ferdinand’s son, Maximilian II, as well as two of Maximilian’s sons, Rudolf and Matthias, upheld the family tradition and went on to become Holy Roman Emperor, too. Literally everything stayed in the family as Maximilian II married Maria, a daughter of his uncle Charles V. After Maximilian’s two sons became emperor, his third son, Maximilian III, helped another Habsburg, the intensely Catholic Ferdinand of Styria, become Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. The son of Ferdinand II also ascended to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire and became Ferdinand III. One of the daughters of Maximilian II married Philip III of Spain, grandson of Charles V and son of Philip II. Later, Philip IV of Spain married the daughter of King Henry IV of France (see Chapter 7).

As a Matter of Fact

One of the individuals found in the Habsburg family tree, Philip IV of Spain, made an amazing discovery shortly after the beginning of the Thirty Years' War. In 1622, a young painter named Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez painted a portrait in Madrid that caught the attention of Philip's chief minister. In 1623, Velazquez painted a portrait of Philip and impressed Philip so much that Velazquez became the only artist allowed to paint the king, a status Velazquez maintained his entire life; the current whereabouts of the painting are unknown. A master of the Spanish Baroque period, Velazquez's greatest work was Las Meninas, a beautiful painting that in 1985 was named the world's greatest painting.

In the grand scheme of European history, the lives of some of these people were of little importance historically, while others had great historical impact. However, the family tree with many far-reaching branches illustrates how complex and how interconnected the lives of the individuals and families of this era were. In the case of the Habsburgs, their importance can hardly be overstated. The family collectively controlled Spain, Spanish holdings in the New World, and parts of Italy and the Netherlands, along with Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and more in central and western Europe. Furthermore, the Habsburgs had ties to other countries through marriage and through Catholicism. If an international incident occurred in Europe after the Middle Ages, the Habsburgs more than likely were involved either directly or indirectly.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!