Holy Roman Empire

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Holy Roman Empire

 History 911 - 1024

            The grandsons of Charlesmagne divided his empire into three parts in the Treaty of Verdun of 843.  This division proved to be permanent.  The eastern part became Germany, the western part France, and the middle never coalesced into a single state but was often the battle ground between France and Germany.

            The Carolinian line of rulers died out in the East Frankish kingdom in 911.  Thereupon the dukes of the tribes making up this Eastern Carolingian realm, the future Germany, elected one of their own as king.  Conrad the Franconian was chosen.  Throughout his rule his chief rival was the duke of Saxony.  Perhaps to get even, Conrad helped to select his rival, Henry I,  the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, to be the next king of Germany.  Henry I  ruled from 918 to 935 and was the first of a line of Saxon kings that governed till1024.  Otto I the Great (936 - 973) was the most important of the Saxon kings in that he decisively defeated the Magyars in 955 at the Battle of Lechfield.  Otto extended his influence into northern Italy and came to Rome in 962 where he was crowned Emperor by Pope John XII (955 - 964).  He was granted the title which Charlemagne and the Carolingian rulers had held but which had fallen into disuse after 925.  Since he was crowned emperor in Rome by the pope, the name Holy Roman Empire was applied to the realms which he ruled.  Many date the Holy Roman Empire from this coronation in 962.  Critics have pointed out that this kingdom certainly was not holy, was not Roman (it was essentially a German kingdom), and was not an empire (it was a collection of tribal duchies barely held together by the king and, now, emperor).

            The Saxon kings governed with the aid of the bishops.  Since clergymen should be celibate, they could not leave their bishops’ sees to their sons.  Whenever one bishop died, the king could appoint another loyal follower to replace him.  This system depended on the king appointing the bishops and other high prelates in his kingdom.  During the early Middle Ages, the Church had become thoroughly intertwined with the feudal system.  Bishops controlled sizable territories which they received from the king or other lord as a fief.  They were expected to provide military service.  Even the pope was often appointed by these Holy Roman Emperors.  Obviously, the bishops of this time were greatly lacking in spirituality.  

History Continued 1024 - 1556

            The Catholic Church was in danger of losing its spiritual mission.  But excesses within the Church have often produced reform movements.  The Cluniac Reform movement sought to disentangle the Church from feudalism and secular control.  

            Under the Franconian or Salian line of rulers (1024 - 1125), a great power struggle erupted between the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors.  This power struggle is called the Investiture Struggle, which centered on the question whether the Emperor or the Pope would appoint bishops in Germany.  The climax of this struggle took place between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1056 - 1106) and Pope Gregory VII (1073 - 1085).  The Papacy won this struggle and worked to undermine the power of the German Emperors. 

            The dukes and other powerful lords had chafed under powerful rulers.  They used the Investiture Struggle to further their own powers.  The loss of Church support and without loyal bishops appointed by themselves,  the German kings were unable to control effectively their diverse lands.  The fact that Otto the Great had acquired most of Northern and Central Italy further complicated the job of these rulers.  When they were in Italy, their German vassals rebelled; and when they were in Germany, the reverse was true.

            The Hohenstaufen dynasty centered on Swabia governed the Empire from 1138 to 1254.  It produced two strong rulers, Frederick I Barbarossa (1152 - 1190) and Frederick II (1220 - 1250), who sought to restore the imperial power.   Frederick Barbarossa lost the decisive battle of  Legano in 1176 against an alliance of North Italian cities called the Lombard League, which had Papal support .   That defeat and the following Peace of Constance (1183) forced the Emperor to give up meaningful control over the Lombard cities of northern Italy.   This marked the beginning of the independent  city-states of Italy which would play a decisive role during the Renaissance.

            Frederick II had inherited the Norman kingdom of Sicily through his mother.  He was more concerned about his Italian possessions than in his German title.  He came close to politically uniting all of Italy and breaking the independent power of the Papacy.  He died unexpectedly of illness in 1250 when victory was within his grasp.  The popes never forgot this near defeat.  They called the remaining Hohenstaufen heirs “a brood of vipers” and successfully prevented them from gaining the imperial title. In particular, the popes fought against having the Imperial title based on hereditary rights.  They advocated an electoral system, as had been customary in Germanic tribal practice.  The period from 1250 to 1273 is called the Great Interregnum when there were no recognized Holy Roman Emperors.

            The German monarchy had always contained an elective element but after 1273, it becomes purely an elective.  Emperors could not pass their title to their sons.  Each emperor was elected by a small group of powerful princes.  In 1356, the Golden Bull of Emperor Charles IV delegated this electoral power to seven Imperial Electors.  The feudal lords of Germany made sure that they did not elect the most powerful candidate.  The popes, the free cities, and the feudal lords had triumphed over the Emperors.  While the Holy Roman Empire survived until 1806 when the self-made Emperor Napoleon I of France finally abolishes it, the Empire became a weak confederation of ultimately more than 300 independent little states.  Neither Italy nor Germany was unified until the 1860s.  Just as France and England emerged as powerful monarchical states in the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire went into decline.

            We will discuss the investiture struggle in greater detail below.  Our focus shifts from the perspective of the Empire to the perspective of the Popes and the Church.