Holy Roman Empire

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The Holy Roman Empire is the traditional English name for the complex of separate states - by the mid-seventeenth century there were about 300 of them, many very small - under the jursidiction of the Frankish or German king who bore the title of Roman Emperor. (The word 'Holy' is first found in official references to the empire in 1157.) The extent of the empire varied over time, but its core consisted of a number of states which fell within what is now the modern state of Germany. At different times, however, the empire also included parts of Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of Poland, parts of France, parts of Italy, and even the island of Sicily.

The first emperor was the Frankish king Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor of the Romans (Augustus Romanorum) by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800. Charlemagne was thus designated the successor of the emperors who had ruled over the western half of the Roman Empire until its collapse in the fifth century CE, and his empire was seen as a revival of the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne's empire, however, disintegrated before the end of the ninth century, and some historians date the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire not to 800 but to 962, when the German king Otto I (Otto the Great), who had invaded and taken control of Italy, was crowned Roman Emperor by Pope John XII. The Holy Roman Empire lasted, though in the final centuries of its existence much weakened, until 1806, when after a military defeat by the French under Napoleon it was dissolved by the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II.

The Holy Roman Emperor was chosen for the position by a small number of the most powerful rulers within the core territory of the empire - a procedure formalised in 1356, when membership of the College of Electors was restricted to four secular rulers (the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg) and three eccelesiatical rulers (the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier). Nonetheless in practice an emperor was often able to secure the election of his son or another close relative to succeed him, and the empire was in fact ruled by the members of a series of dynasties. Otto's descendants (the Ottonian dynasty) ruled until the death of Henry II in 1024, to be succeeded by the Salian dynasty, whose members ruled for a century until 1125. From 1138 until 1250 the emperors came from the Hohenstaufen family - Frederick I (Barbarossa, emperor 1155-1190) and Frederick II (grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, nicknamed stupor mundi ('wonder of the world'), emperor 1220-1250) were both Hohenstaufens. During the next two centuries several emperors came from the House of Luxembourg, and from 1440 until its dissolution in 1806 the empire was ruled almost without interruption by members of the House of Habsburg.

The Emperor ruled with the assistance of a legislative assembly - or Diet - which he summoned from time to time (typically at intervals of four or five years) and which met in various cities of the empire (e.g., Augsburg, Cologne, Aachen, Mainz, Dortmund), though after 1663 always in Regensburg (in western Bavaria), where it acquired a permanent seat. The membership of the Diet consisted of the Electors (i.e., the four secular and three ecclesiastical rulers who could vote in the election of an emperor), other princes and archbishops, and representatives of the imperial cities. Perhaps the best known of these Diets is the Diet of Worms, i.e., the Diet which, meeting in 1521 in the German city of Worms under the Habsburg emperor Charles V, ordered the arrest of Martin Luther as a heretic and banned the reading or possession of his writings.

The Holy Roman Empire was never, strictly speaking, a single state under the sole authority of the emperor: there was always a degree of tension between the emperor's authority and that of the princes, archbishops, and other rulers of its constituent territories, with the balance of power between them varying over time. There was a gradual decline in the power of the emperor from the time of Frederick II (emperor 1220-1250), a process which was accelerated in the seventeenth century by the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which effectively left the emperor as little more than a figurehead. The decline in the emperor's authority over his empire was paralleled by a decline in his status as a significant figure on the European stage. In the earlier centuries of its existence the Holy Roman Empire was a powerful force in European politics; it began to decline in influence in the thirteenth century; and by the second half of the seventeenth century it was an empire in name only.

The French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (François Marie Arouet, 1694-1778) famously - and truly - said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was 'neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire'.