Of all the great and powerfully misunderstood political entities in history, few are as confusing as the political monstrosity now known as the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, many who know little about European History have heard of this strange empire, sometimes wondering when and where it was, why it was Holy and Roman, and if it was even an empire. Well it has been long in coming but let us explore what was, for a while, one of the most powerful empires in the western world.
The Frankish Empire
Let us begin with the FIRST Holy Roman Empire, or at least the original empire that would become, through twists and turns, that empire. The original empire was much larger, actually, than the one that reached its height around the year 1600 in the modern state of Germany. Historians now call the earlier empire the Frankish Empire, or the Carolingian Empire. Neither are really correct, though, since it was not always ruled by Franks nor by Carolingians. Nonetheless, the coronation on December 25th, 800 as Roman Emperor of Charles the Great, Roman Emperor Charles I, Charlemagne, heralded a new age for Europe. Starting from this date, the Holy Roman Empire claimed a 1006 year heritage from its founding in 800 until its demise in 1806 under the overwhelming occupation of Napoleon I Bonaparte of France. It established the precedent of the Germanic emperors being "Roman Emperors" for, indeed, the Carolingian emperors from whence the empire claims its foundation was built upon control over Rome and the defeat of the Lombards by Charlemagne in 774. Thus the Holy Roman Empire was indeed based upon a true empire that included Rome.
In addition, Pope Leo III who crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor did not feel that he was stealing the title. Rather, he felt he had a legitimate right to place such a title upon Charles' head. First and foremost, he did not recognize the legitimate Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Constantine VI, the legitimate emperor, had been overthrown in 797 by his mother, Irene, who claimed the title Roman Empress, the first female to ever hold the imperial throne. Since there was no precedent for such a title, Leo III felt the throne had become vacant and, as the senior patriarch of the Christian church, took the initiative and crowned his savior, Charles, as an anti-emperor to Irene. Despite Irene's death in 802, Byzantium's replacements proved unworthy and the papacy continued to support its own line of Roman Emperors. Secondly, the Lombards who had controlled Rome were defeated and their Iron Crown captured by Charles. Charles was already, then, King of the Lombards and thereby King of Rome, and so he was the only logical candidate for the imperial title.
What happened next is why the Holy Roman Empire is considered separate from the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne. Charles' grandsons divided up the empire with the eldest son taking the title of Roman Emperor. But, in exchange, the eldest son was also placed in the worse condition, being ruler of a narrow strip of lands stretching from the Netherlands south through Burgundy to Tuscany and Italy. His younger brothers controlled the more centralized lands of Francia and the more warmongering lands of Germania. Quickly, the imperial title was abandoned and minor rulers in Italy fought for it. Berengar I was the last such emperor and died in 824. The Frankish Empire was dead.
The Early Roman Empire of the Germans
The Holy Roman Empire formed out of the ruins of the Germanic Eastern Empire of the Franks. The Carolingian line had died and Germany had pieced itself apart into small duchies. Bavaria and Saxony became the biggest rivals. Henry of Saxony was elected the first king of Germany in 919. He was a warrior who defeated the Magyars (Hungarians) to the east. His son, Otto, continued that war and achieved fame and renown. In 951, Otto campaigned in Italy where he aided then married the widowed queen of Italy and, as a reward, was crowned Emperor of Rome by the pope in 962. Thus Otto became the first Roman Emperor of Germany. Otto's son, Otto II, elevated his title to match that of his eastern counterpart, angering the Byzantine Empire even more. But to counter his presumption, he wed a Byzantine princess. The early Holy Roman Emperors were constantly split between loyalty to Italy, whence their titles come, and loyalty to Germany, where their hereditary lands and people resided. Thus while it can certainly be said that Holy Roman Emperors were Roman, it perhaps would have been better if they had also been German. In these early days, the empire was still hereditary in the line of Henry. That would all change when Henry II died.
The First Election and the "Holy" Empire
In 1024, Henry II of the Ottonian dynasty died leaving no heirs. The dukes and high nobles of the land, therefore, chose his successor: Conrad II of the Salian dynasty. While the line remained in the Salian dynasty for quite some time, a precedent had been unknowingly set. The fate of the empire had passed from hereditary right, as had been with the Carolingian emperors, to election by peers. And though the pope had the power to crown the emperor, the peers had the power to select the king of Germany who would be eligible for the imperial crown. Thus, a change in tides was coming though it was still long off.
Meanwhile, Pope Gregory VII was establishing a different kind of precedent. For many centuries, the Roman Emperors had been in charge of appointing their own bishops and choosing which clergy would assist them in their day-to-day tasks. In 1075, Gregory and Henry IV excommunicated eachother, leading to a bitter struggle to determine the place of the church in government. For Henry it was a disaster. He walked to Canossa in 1077 and prostrated himself before the pope. In Germany, he had lost such face that some dukes elected a new king, Rudolf of Swabia. Henry's son, Henry V, finally resolved the conflict through the Concordat of Worms in 1122. It held the empire in check and removed the pope from it.
Following the earlier tradition, a new dynasty arose through election, the Hohenstaufens, and they used their political power to increase the "Romanness" of Italy and Germany. At every turn, they tried to fight against papal power but ultimately failed in their attempt. The pope kept the rulers in constant check by including blackmail in their elevations to emperor. Only if a king were "holy" would the pope crown them emperor over his domain. Thus the "Holy Roman" aspect of the empire became a dependent clause — if the empire wanted to be Roman, it had to be holy since the pope controlled Rome. And if it wanted to be holy, it had to be Roman since the pope lived in Rome. Thus the Holy Roman Empire, during its pre-Habsburg years, was constantly Holy and Roman, even though it was often only reluctantly both.
This problem reached its apex during the reign of Frederick II. Already many Crusades had gone out, generally with the enthusiastic support of the Holy Roman Emperors. These campaigns in the Middle East helped strengthen the claim that the empire was "Holy". But in Italy, Frederick and the papacy fought constantly. Frederick supported multiple anti-popes while Pope Innocent III long supported rival kings to Frederick II. Frederick's reign also saw the end of centralized rule in Germany. Whereas before Germany was a rather centralized Empire, it became after Frederick a decentralized empire. Frederick spent most of his efforts in Italy, specifically Sicily, giving wide-reaching freedoms to his dukes in Germany. Thus when Frederick died in 1250, the German empire literally crumbled into the confusions of history.
The "Holy" "Roman" "Empire"
Where most of the confusion comes concerning the terminology of the HRE derives from the period from 1250 through 1806. During this time, Germany lost its control over Rome, lost its direct election by the pope, and lost the centralization required to truly be called an empire. Thus, while the HRE was at one point all three of those things, by the time history books catch up to it in 1806, it was none of those things.
The empire dissolved after 1250. A 23-year interregnum ended with the election of Rudolf I of Habsburg as the new king and emperor-elect. The College of Electors was firmly in place by this time, having been created out of the power vacuum of the past two decades. The college became the elective body that chose the next German king. It met to discuss imperial law and was comprised of the chief dukes and archbishops of the state. In state affairs, the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne met with the margrave of Brandenburg, count palatine of the Rhine, and the duke of Saxony. In imperial elections, the King of Bohemia, a seventh party, presided and acted as the swing-vote. In 1621, the duke of Bavaria became the eighth electorate, though it would later inherit the Palatinate. In 1692, a ninth elector was chosen—the duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover). These people were deemed overlords of the empire under the ruling emperor, but each region was autonomous in all things save inter-territorial disputes.
The Decline of the German Empire
The decline of the empire happened gradually and over much time. Most of the post-1250 emperors were not crowned by the pope in Rome, but rather held the title "emperor-elect", which sometimes had the blessing of the pope. The emperors ruled their own lands and presided over the imperial courts. The majority of imperial funds came from their own lands except for a small tax imposed on all the other lords, which often went unpaid. Yet even as the empire dissolved into hundreds of petty states separated by rival dynasties and cadet branches, the government began to bureaucratize. Institutions sprang up, especially throughout the Renaissance after the Black Death. In 1512, the empire received its first legal name: The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The concept of a centralized German state had reappeared, but centralization was but a pipe dream. The Habsburgs became the founders of a nearly-unbroken line in 1452. Charles V would be their banner-boy but he could not hold his massive empire that spanned from the New World, Spain, and Italy together. Religious strife appeared with the teachings of Martin Luther in the heart of Germany, and with it came the many wars of religion that would prove the death of a central German state until 1871.
One-by-one, the Holy Roman Empire fell to pieces. The Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648 granted near-complete sovereignty to hundreds of the German states. The Dutch Netherlands rebelled from the empire while Switzerland achieved independence in 1499. Control of the empire shifted from a united entity to rival major states vying for control of the petty states. Of these, Brandenburg-Prussia, Austria-Hungary-Bohemia, Bavaria-Palatinate and Saxony became the biggest competitors. The balance of power, however, rested solely in Austria and Prussia, the two largest states in Germany.
Only outside chaos could have ended the stalemate of the Holy Roman Empire. The French Revolution turned Prussia against many of its neighbors while Austria retreated to its heartland. In addition, the majority of the smaller states were forcibly annexed by their neighbors via French mediation. Ultimately, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II voluntarily dissolved the empire on August 6th, 1806. Napoleon took the remaining imperial lands and created the Confederacy of the Rhine, while the Austrian Habsburgs declared themselves Emperors of Austria and survived for another 112 years until their ultimate defeat in World War I. Germany reorganized into the German Confederation after Napoleon was defeated in 1815, and became the North German Confederation in 1866 when Prussia took control of Germany. The Hohenzollern king of Prussia, in 1871, declared himself King of Germany and dissolved the confederation after that, and the German Empire lasted for another 47 years before it, too, was ended in World War I.
So ends the tragic tale of the rise and fall of the First Reich of the German Empire. It rose in splendor and glory, passed through times of trial and success, and fell to lows unforeseen and unrepairable. Thus the Holy Roman Empire became, through feats of piety and subservience, Holy, through feats of strength, Roman, and through expansion and allegiance, an Empire, only to lose all three through greed and disorganization. The Holy Roman Empire's last remnant in Europe lies in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, two petty states of the great empire that somehow survived through it all.