The Holy Roman Empire

excerpted from Sovereigns, Dynasties, & Nobility, Daniel v. Coberly v. Reichenberg, Italian Heritage Press. 2014.

Main Page | Electors & Officers | Imperial Aulic Council | HRE Nobility

THE Holy Roman Empire, in various iterations, lasted nearly 1,000 years. So, it is no small wonder that the HRE helped shape our modern world. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (1st Reich) was founded in the year 800 by Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards, who received the August Imperial Title of Emperor in the West at the hand of the Roman Pontiff. The original Empire had more or less been in a state of dormancy since the abdication of the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus (476). On Christmas Day, 800, at St. Peters in Rome, His Holiness, Pope Leo III, dusted off the dormant title and crown and proclaimed Charlemange the first Roman Emperor in more than 300 years. He also therefore became the first "Holy Roman Emperor," although he never used that specific title himself. The name "Holy Roman Empire" was used first in 1157. Before that it was simply known as the "Roman Empire," while Emperors were known as Holy Roman Emperors. The name "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" was used first in 1474; it did not become the official name of the Empire until 1512 via the Diet of Cologne.

The new version of the Roman Empire supported by the Catholic Church covered most of central Europe. For centuries, the HRE has intricately interwoven its history with the whole of Europe. Ghosts of the old HRE order emerge today in the essence of 21st century European institutions. Our modern ideals, factional political divisions, and struggles remind us of the legacy that still lives on, birthed in Rome and former nations within the old Empire.

After the death of the last Carolingian Emperor, Arnulf, in 899, various rulers bore the Imperial title, yet exercised only limited authority. That changed when Otto was crowned Emperor in Rome by Pope John XII. From that point forward, the Imperial office was based on the German kingship. The German King, elected by German Princes, automatically and instinctively sought Imperial Coronation by the Pope. The Papacy was recognized as the sole steward of spiritual Sovereignty, embodied in the person of the Roman Pontiff, who crowned the "divine" temporal Emperors, and thus sustained the Empire.

The Pope considered the Roman-German Kings and Emperors to be the Church's secular arm, sharing responsibility for the welfare and spread of the Christian faith. Royals were thus duty-bound to protect the Papacy. That traditional view of the relationship between Church and State dates from the reign of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. The duty was generally accepted and perpetuated by Emperors and Popes. Changes in prevailing political and theological theories gave a fluid quality to the Empire's history, and conflicts naturally arose from time to time. Yet there was little or no public perception of a separation between Church and State.

After 1014, a German King not yet Crowned Emperor in Rome was known as King of the Romans, a title that asserted his right to the Imperial Throne and implied that he was the Emperor-designee. Thus, he was also the Emperor-Elect until his coronation; however that term was not used until 1508. Thereafter, it was no longer required to be crowned by the Pope. Holy Roman Emperors assumed the title immediately upon election. Prior to that time few German Kings were crowned emperor by the Pope because the Popes retained, and withheld, the Pontifical prerogative of actual Imperial coronation. That was an important supreme Papal power when elections to the Kingships were disputed. Periodic conflicts between the Papacy and the Empire naturally resulted.

Both the German Kingship and the commonly-affiliated Imperial office were technically elective, following ancient Germanic customs. In reality, they tended to become hereditary. However, Electors sometimes exercised real authority in approving the succession to the German Kingship. And, of course, Papal confirmation was a necessity for actual accession to the Imperial throne for a very long time into the history of the Empire; specifically until 1508.

At the Diet of Frankfurt in 1338, German Princes proclaimed that Electors possessed the right of Imperial selection without intervention by the Pope. The Golden Bull of 1356 issued by Emperor Charles IV reaffirmed that right and for the first time regulated the Election procedure via written rules.

The Golden Bull effectively meant that Electors and the Emperor-designees they elected would have to act without the advice and consent of the Roman Pontiff. They had to satisfy themselves only with the title and style of King of the Romans and King in Germany; and accept that the Imperial Crown would be withheld until it was conferred formally in Rome (at least until after 1508, when that requirement was abolished). The Empire felt justified in their claim that: "...just as the Pope was the Vicar of God on earth in spiritual matters, so too the Emperor was God's temporal Vicar and hence the supreme Temporal Ruler of Christendom."

The territorial limits of the Empire varied, keeping cartogra-phers busy. Boundaries generally included Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia, parts of Northern and Central Italy, and Belgium. The Netherlands and Switzerland were also part of the Empire until 1648.

In terms of diplomatic protocol, Emperors were accorded precedence over other Sovereign Rulers. Their Suzerainty spread to France, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, England, Sweden, and Spain. Depending on the specific territory, sometimes their power and control were very real. Sometimes, however, it was never more than nominal since the daily rule of the Christian Kingdoms was held by each respective Royal, Princely, Ducal, or Comital Sovereign. In other words, not everyone cooperated due to their own interests, much as is the case within modern governments and the United Nations of today.

Some countries such as Hungary were ruled at times by the Emperor , yet were technically outside the Empire. Others (Flanders, Pomerania, Schleswig, and Holstein) were part of the Imperial territory, yet were ruled, at least at times, by foreign Princes. The foreign Princes held their lands from the Emperor and also took part in the Imperial Diet. During the reign of Otto I, the Empire included various German Duchies; Lorraine, Italy, and Burgundy were formally annexed into the Empire in 1033.

Conflicts over the relationship between the Papacy and the Imperial Throne resulted in an investiture controversy during the reign of Henry IV (1084-1106). The problem arose when Henry appointed Bishops to three Sees already under the direction of Papal appointees. The Papacy was victorious. The issue was laid to rest with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, confirmed the following year with the First Lateran Council. Emperors then ceased to seriously interfere with Papal affairs, except during the Great Schism of the 15th century and in the Italian Wars of the 16th century.

Petty rivalries of the time often created lapses in leadership and prolonged conflict (see: An Ancient and Modern History of Etruria). For example, Frederick I failed to suppress the Lombard League, which had Papal support. Frederick II, after inheriting Naples and Sicily, was primarily interested in Italian affairs. His conflict with the Papacy produced a feud between Guelphs (loyal to the Pope) and Ghibellines (loyal to the Empire) throughout Italy. The death of Conrad IV (1254) was followed by a lapse in continuity (an interregnum) of nineteen years. Opposing claimants to the Imperial Crown were unable to exercise authority and the power of the Emperor declined. Election of the Emperor Rudolf I in 1273 restored some rule of order until his death, when rival claimants renewed their strife.

Negative effects of continued warfare combined with weak monarchs merely increased the power of the German Princes, particularly within the the great Duchies of Bavaria, Saxony, Swabia, Franconia, Thuringia, and Upper and Lower Lorraine. Due to the Golden Bull of 1356, Princes of the Empire had virtually unfettered control of their own territories as long as they did not violate Imperial law. The Bull had granted the Princes' effective dominance over the Imperial monarchy in terms of their respective authority in their own domains. Emperors did manage to maintain some general authority over the Nobility with the support of the various towns and the great Ecclesiastical Princes (the Archbishop-Electors of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier), whom were Imperial appointees.

As German towns grew in wealth and power to become cities, they entered into "City Leagues" for defense against the higher nobles. Noble Companies formed and banded together to aid defense, a probable forerunner of later Orders of Chivalry formed by knights. Because Leagues acted as a counterbalance to the powers of Nobility, and because Noble Companies were few, Leagues often gained favors among Emperors. Some cities were thus made "free Imperial cities" by the Emperor, with a voice in the Diet. Select Imperial Cities effectively became tax free zones, encouraging commerce and growth of the merchant class. Despite that alliance, the true power of the Emperors depended largely on hereditary domains. The larger and wealthier the domains, the more actual power an Emperor would have.

Due to the limitations on Imperial power, an Emperor became dependent not only upon the economic status of his hereditary territories, but also on military alliances. During the Thirty Years War (1618-48), the Emperor allied with Spain to oppose the Protestant Princes. At that time, Spain was ruled by a branch of the Austrian Habsburg family. Protestant Princes, in turn, were allied chiefly with Sweden and France. That struggle ended with decentralization of the Empire via the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a treaty that recognized the Sovereignty of all the Imperial States. The key limitation required that the Princes could not make alliances directed against the Empire or the Emperor.

The Golden Bull and the Peace of Westphalia rendered the Imperial title largely honorific, yet it remained important. For, the Imperial office still carried great prestige and respect, even if it had little effective operative authority over the Empire as a whole. The outward image of the Empire was retained, as it presented to the rest of the world a picture of a territory that was strong and unified rather than a collection of smaller, independent states. Even within the Empire, Emperors with hereditary lands, of course, remained powerful.

The death of Charles VI (1740) ended the male Habsburg line (sometimes spelled Hapsburg in English). His death precipitated further conflict when the Elector of Bavaria was chosen Emperor as Charles VII (1742). Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI, defended her Habsburg inheritance against the claims of Bavaria, Prussia, and Saxony. She married Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who was then made Grand Duke of Tuscany, establishing the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. In 1763, the Peace of Hubertusburg recognized Francis Stephen as Emperor Francis I. By that time, it was Prussia, under King Frederick II, who had become the leading power within the German states. The situation perhaps foreshadowed the future separate German Empire (Second Reich) and the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire that would eventually develop after the illegal dissolution of the First Reich of the Holy Roman Empire.

Francis I was succeeded by Joseph II, sometimes known as the "Musical Emperor" due to his patronage of the arts and artists, including Mozart and many others. He believed in the principles of the Enlightenment, despite being an absolutist. Thus his political philosophy was known as Enlighted Absolutism. During his reign, Joseph attempted to exercise and strengthen the Imperial powers over the Empire. His effort failed due to resistance by various Princes of the Empire, especially Frederick II of Prussia. Joseph also suffered personal turmoil because his sister, Marie Antoinette, was hounded by the Revolutionary forces in France, where she was Queen Consort. Fortunately for Joseph, he died three years before his sister was executed in the Revolution.

The French Revolutionary Wars saw the deposition and murder of the French King and Queen and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. A few years before he crowned himself Emperor, conflicts with Napoleon resulted in the Holy Roman Empire being reorganized by the Treaty of Lunéville (1801) and by action of the Diet held in 1803. As the Holy Roman Empire was dissolving under pressure from Napoleon in the early 19th century, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II took the Imperial Title Francis I, Emperor of Austria. In 1804, Napoleon became Emperor of the French. By 1806, Napoleon I conquered the countyside and established the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon thus forced Francis to renounce his Imperial Title as Holy Roman Emperor, effectively laying it aside. On August 6, 1806, under severe threat, Francis II thus declared his "presumptive Abdication and Renunciation of the Imperial Title and Crown, for himself, his Heirs and Descendants, laid the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the Imperial Title, Crown, and Throne dormant under the Stewardship and protection of the Holy See as Spiritual Vicar." Lawyers agree that every sovereign ruler has a right to abdicate in favor of another. However, they, like Francis have no inherent legal authority to dissolve an Empire, a situation that has been debated ever since Francis abdicated. Emperor Napoleon imposed the French Eagle on the territory of the old empire, swiftly creating a new one. His first acts created newly crowned heads within the former HRE territory.

Napoleon's reign did not last long. Political realities of the Continent were fluid; dissolution of the 1st Empire followed by years of so-called Napoleonic abuses left a vacuum wherein no attempt was made to restore to the status quo ante. That left the 1st Imperial Reich, with a suspension of the throne and the interregnum that followed open to many legal claims. The Habsburgs had "moved on" to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The House of Hohenzollern eventually established a "Second Reich" in the form of the German Empire, with many of the Napoloeonic appointments mediatized in the so-called 'new order.' This continued until the "abdication" (acknowledged as an illegal deposition) of the Emperor Wilhem after the First World War, closely followed by the illegal deposition of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. A state of dormancy and a de facto interregnum continued until September 1999, when in London, Karl Freidrich , Duke of Swabia, collateral heir via Wettin lines as pretender for the 1st Reich, issued a "Statutory Proclamation in the form of Legal Deed of Patent Claim by the Instrument of Universal Public Proclamation open with certain Dimensions," by which he formally advanced his personal claim to full resumption of "...the incorporeal, intellectual, and legal rights of the Empire, its Imperial Patrimony, Sovereign Rights, Prerogatives, Pretensions, Institutions, etc."

To gain clarity on the complicated issue, one has only to study the ebb and flow of national powers reflected in the chronology of maps of Europe over time. The Haus Rissen seminars in Germany presented to NATO allies offers a keen perspective, using overlays of historical maps. In that manner, anyone can quickly grasp the effects of changing national territorial boundaries, coupled with the demise and creation of nations and their national names rarely remembered today. For practical reasons, such as the complexity of legal claims to actual former territory now in the hands of modern governments, the effect on a "de jure" King or Emperor appears to be a tititular presence and a landless exile. Yet it is more than that.



Elected Head of an Empire with Limited Authority

People today may find it odd that there are indeed many legitimate claimants or pretenders to an old Imperial Throne, or that the title and powers of the Emperor evolved into an elected office. Just as we may be unaware of many of the names of countries that no longer exist, our frame of reference about politics experienced in our lifetimes is limited by our lack of knowledge of older political systems and their geography, and the fact that history is written by victors. Today, we can scarcely imagine sovereigns reigning over a vast Empire, or a distinction of Prince Elector, ranked above all others in the Empire simply because of a privilege to elect an Emperor.

Such elections were once quite normal. For example, some early Celtic tribes elected leaders by acclamation, contrary to Hollywood stereotypes that favor hereditary rights, or the biggest bully, or the wealthiest man as chief. Elections in other more formal systems can be traced from the 10th century. As we have seen, electoral processes were not formalized in writing until the constitution of 1338 and the Golden Bull of 1356. The Holy Roman Emperor, once elected and crowned by the Pope, became Emperor of the Romans and anyone residing in his domain. He was also King in Germany; hence the absolute sovereign of the Germans. Although the Emperorship was not hereditary, from 1440 to 1740, the Emperor was continuously elected from among the Austrian House of Habsburg. After a brief span of rule by one Emperor from the House of Wittelsbach, the Emperor was then continuously elected from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine from 1745 until the dissolution of the Empire.

Given the pseudo-hereditary outcome of the Imperial election, there were other checks and balances on power. For imperial matters, the Emperor's power was not altogether absolute because certain actions required assent of the States of the Empire. States used their assembly in the Reichstag or deputation in the Imperial Diet to manage and express their assent or dissent.

In order to be elected during this era, a candidate for the office of Holy Roman Emperor had to be a worthy man, aged 18 or more, a resident in a State within the Empire, and of noble birth (all four grandparents had to be Noble, a criteria used to determine nobility in Spain for many centuries). By the 17th century, it was virtually a requirement that a candidate possessed an estate, or "residence" within the boundaries of the Empire. Hence, the early political concept of "residency" seems to have been first formalized.

Residency motivated French nobles and others to obtain and to retain estates within the Empire to prove their eligibility for higher office. Eligibility is but one of many reasons a Frenchman might hold a German or Austrian landed title, a situation that some Germans today find quite inexplicable. Similarly, an Englishmen may forget how the Norman Conquest influenced popular use of French language in England, resulting in French-sounding titles. In fact, the hereditary peers of today's Britain largely trace their lineage and titles back to the nobility installed by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest. It was also expected that a candidate for Emperor be a noble layman, although that policy was never explicitly stated. Despite the "Holy" affiliation with the Papacy, there was no law requiring the Emperor to be a Catholic.

An Emperor began his reign with a capitulation, a type of contract between himself and the States of the Empire. The Emperor was then crowned by the Pope until that ritual requirement was abolished by Pope Julius II, who stated that the Pope "need merely assent to the coronation." From then on, the Emperor was crowned by the Archbishop of Cologne, assisted by the Archbishops of Mainz and Trier, at the Palatine Chapel at Aachen , or later in Frankfurt as both King in Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor's reign ended by death, abdication, or deposition declared by the Reichstag.

A successor could also be elected during the lifetime of the reigning Emperor, as happened during several periods of the HRE. A successor was styled "King of the Romans," with obvious royal rank that fell immediately after the Emperor in precedence. The King of the Romans could rule when the Emperor was incapacitated, but was otherwise required to abstain from the affairs of the Empire. Since the King of the Romans took the capitulation and was crowned after his election, he immediately succeeded the Emperor without need for further election or coronation.

If there was no immediate successor, the Empire was ruled during the interregnum by two Imperial Vicars. The Vicars were, by law, always the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Saxony. They exercised powers of the Emperor not expressly reserved to the imperial person. The Elector Palatine had special authority over certain areas under Franconian law: Franconia, Swabia, the Rhone, and southern Germany. Similarly, the Elector of Saxony held special authority over areas under Saxon law: Saxony, Westphalia, northern Germany, and Hanover.

Italian regions were under a titiular vicar, the Duke of Savoy. The boundaries between the areas under the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Saxony were disputed, with some regions not recognizing a vicar at all. Eventually, in 1745, an agreement was reached that the principal "vicarship" would alternate between the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Saxony. The agreement was confirmed by the Reichstag in 1752.


The Emperor originally had great powers, yet even those powers were uniquely restricted due to the nature of his rare office. For example, the Emperor might seek war, yet could not levy taxes throughout the Empire without concensus and approval of member states. On the other hand, he could dispense favors by independently appointing Imperial Officers who were not hereditary, perhaps as rewards encouraging a desired behavior. He proposed and approved the laws of the Empire, leaving much of the enforcement roles necessarily delegated to others. The Holy Roman Emperor was the supreme judge in Germany, an extreme power exercised through established courts. He could confer pardons, privileges, and exemptions.

Internationally, his person as Emperor was an early form of "superstar," the imperial representative; the face of the Empire. Clearly, his authority to wage war, maintain or initiate a peace, or forge alliances was very limited without support of the member states. The Emperor could ennoble persons and confer titles of nobility, which he often did. He could found universities, legitimize children, grant arms, and so forth. However, much of the exercise of those imperial rights was delegated to other officials who served at the Emperor's pleasure.


When the French Revolution and subsequent war in Europe broke out (1788-89), havoc was visited upon the Holy Roman Empire. Territories became occupied by Napoleon, leading to many dispossessed "formerly ruling" families. In recognition of their legal claims to nobility, and in order to compensate them, ecclesiastical territories were to be secularized to provide territories.

Napoleon's intent was to create a confederacy or coalition of Germanic states that were free from the influence of Prussia or Austria in order to stand with him against those two states and Russia. He also hoped to provide himself dominion over Germany. Napoleon thus created an alliance with Baden and Württemberg. When Prussia remained neutral, there was a sweeping victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805. Napoleon rewarded his allies with King's crowns. As a result, Austria lost her remaining possessions in Italy.

Everyone loves a winner, so there is no surprise that a number of German states abandoned the Holy Roman Empire in favor of a confederation under the Napoleonic Empire. Thus, the Confederation of the Rhine was founded in the summer of 1806. Originally comprised of only ten member states, the Confederacy included almost all German states except Austria and Prussia by 1808.

A condition of membership in the Confederacy required public announcement of formal separation from the Holy Roman Empire. Candidates thus asserted that the Empire had ceased to exist. Eventually, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, no doubt very lonely and under extreme duress by the military powers of Emperor Napoleon, agreed to abdicate his Imperial office. However, not only did he abdicate; under the conditions imposed, he illegally dissolved the Empire itself. That is an important consideration, because while abdication is within the scope of authority of an Emperor, dissolution of the Empire itself is not. For, an Emperor does not possess an Empire, he merely holds the title considered to have been given to him by God. Furthermore, the dissolution was not declared to the Reichstag following internationally recognized legal procedures.

Some people claimed that dissolution could be justified by the tacit consent of the majority members of the Holy Roman Empire. However, such consent was never formally presented nor voted upon by the member states. It thus appears doubtful as genuine consent as it was quietly tacit and not openly explicit, given under extreme conditions of duress and immediate threat and fear of bodily harm from the French Empire.

The Elector of Hanover was among many who strenuously protested the grab for power by pointing out that the dissolution should have no valid effect under law. He did so to no avail.


Continue to Electors and Officers of the Empire




















This is the official website for TIRH the Grand Prince and Grand Princess of Etruria and TIRH-Em Archfather Rutherford Johnson, Prince of Florence, and HIRH the Princess of Florence. The Legal Disclaimer for the Royal House of Etruria in the Holy Roman Empire. The Royal House of Etruria in the Holy Roman Empire, the Royal House of Johnson-Etruria-di Daniell, and the House of Johnson-Ivrea-Italia-Barcelona are d.b.a.s of a non-profit religious corporation incorporated within the United States of America. This website in its entirety is the Intellectual Property of the Royal House of Etruria. The information, text, photos, documents, and media in any form whatsoever contained in this website is International and United States Copyright and Trademark Protected. No part of this website, may be copied, shared, or transferred without specific, written permission of the Royal House of Etruria or the Patriarchal and Royal Household. The unauthorized use, disclosure, copying, or alteration of this website is Unlawful and Violation is Subject to possible Civil and Criminal Penalties. The Royal House of Etruria, all dbas, and its parent corporation, and its members are not and will not be liable for any direct, special, indirect, or consequential damages arising from alteration of the contents of this website by a third party or as a result of any malicious code transferred to a third party by virtue of visiting this website. Crown, International, and United States Copyright Held © 2008-2020, All Rights Reserved.