Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

Supreme but no Power: Monarchy in the Holy Roman Empire.

Many things have been said about EuropeanMedieval civilizations. A traditional notion describes the downfall of European civilization when the Romans left and northern Europe slipped down in a dark age. The dark times of competing warlords and looting barbarians were seen asdestroying all Roman progress,setting most of Europe back nearly one thousand years.

The medieval times, however, were not static. Political experimenting and theorizing did take place and the ancient tradition was never forgotten. The accessible Roman knowledge was combined with profound religious devotion made to fit the current political atmosphere of Europe. These are the origins of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Organizational_Structure_of_the_Empire_of_the_Holy_Roman_Empire_(CLXXXIIIv-CLXXXIIIIr) (wikimedia commons)The very idea of the Roman Empire was never rejected. The medieval theory of the ‘TranslatioEmpirii’ was to be regarded as the proof that there could only be one supreme emperor to govern material power. Indeed, the Holy Roman Emperor was to be regarded as the direct successor of the Roman emperors and his power was regarded as greater than all of the other European kings combined. He was only equal to the Pope in Rome, ruler of ecclesiastic matters, and only humble to God.

Charlemagne was the first of such emperors. His title was allocated by the Pope, thereby immediately launching a struggle for the highest power. This struggle would persist until the end of the Middle-Ages. Despite the efforts to revive Roman greatness, the Carolingian empire disappeared. The empire was split and the non-hereditary imperial throne got many different claimants, but none of them could leave their mark on the imperial title for any length of time.

It took several generations before the imperial title was appointed again. It was Otto the Great who, after providing military assistance to the pope, revived the imperial title in 962.This time, the imperial title was lasting; Otto managed to make the title hereditary.

Several generations of Ottonian emperors followed, but new conflicts arose. Subsequently, it was realised that an institutionalised means of election was needed to grant power, in order to avoid further conflict.

At this time, the Holy Roman Empire slowly began to take the shape of the German territories in central Europe. In the 13th century, it was decided that the mightiest of the rulers of imperial lands should be granted the power to elect the Roman king.

This exclusive papal power was dropped in the 16th century by the Habsburg emperor Charles V. From then on,electors directly grantedrulership to the emperor. In the centuries that followed, seven major lords had a vote in electing an emperor that was to rule over 2500 minor authorities, mostly imperial knights.

These apparent inequalities of Holy Roman power distribution were, however, not as large as they may seem. The emperor only formally exercised supreme power. In practice, he only acted as arbiter in the Imperial Diet, the highest juridical power in the empire.This Diet consisted of three councils: the council of seven Elector-princes, the council of Princes (consisting of many ecclesial and secular lords), and a council of Cities(in which several Imperial Cities had a voice).

These three organs hadto control jurisdiction, maintain order and grant resources to the emperor’s military campaigns. The Diet, in which the first council was the mightiest, controlled the emperor more that the emperor could control his appointed empire. Like the power of the emperor, the power of the Diet was not to be exaggerated.  Supreme power over German territories diminished over the years.

During the later years of the Empire, chaos and religious wars were to tear apart all unity. Decreasing power of the highest nobility made the Imperial borders only symbolic, and autonomous cities made the title of ‘Emperor’ an empty but powerful symbol. The system of elective emperorship became more and more vulnerable for corruption.

It is this emptiness that made Voltaire describe the empire as ‘Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire’. Indeed, despite the title remaining the most powerful in the house of Habsburg, the empire had disappeared long before 1806. Ironically, it was only high corruption that kept it alive, as the buyable title of emperor ensures easy prestige.

This is also why the empire dissolved when Napoleon threatened to become too influential in the German lands. With his most prestigious title in danger, rather than give it up to Napoleon, Francis II dissolved the title. He ended the empire in 1806, but not before creating an imperial title of his own – Francis I of the Austrian Empire.

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