Holy Roman Empire

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The Holy Roman Empire originated in the division of Charlemagne's empire, after his death. The western half evolving into the Kingdom of the Franks, later France, the eastern falling eventually to Otto who in 962CE obtained from the Pope the Imperial title which had, by then, lost all but peripheral prestige, being conferred on minor Italians and French. It was, however, not until the time of Frederick Barbarossa, in the mid-12th century, that the term 'Roman empire' was frequently used, as well as 'holy empire'. In 1254 the titles cojoined, and although shorter formulae were used, this full title never fell out of use.

Certain cyncial historians have pointed out that "Holy Roman Empire" is a misnomer, as this kingdom was too insular to be an Empire, too far north to be Roman, and not particularly Holy in any way.

The Empire, as it evolved, became an elective monarchy, headed by an Emperor, whose power was limited by a body, the Imperial Diet or Reichstag, which gathered together representatives of the Empire's constituent States. For this reason, the States, and their feudal rulers, had broad independence, so long as they ruled themselves and their affairs according to the extant law.
To be Emperor, one had to be a worthy man, aged 18 or over, and of noble birth. No law required he be a Catholic, although some Imperial laws assumed he would be, nor did he have to be German. He did, however, have to reside within the Empire, or hold lands there, and it is for this reason that various noble houses retained appenages within the Empire, when they had no real connection with it, in order to keep their potential candidacy alive.
In theory the candidate was first elected King of the Germans, and then went to Rome for the Pope to confer the Imperial title. This journey could be delayed by years if domestic tensions intervened, and was abandoned in 1508. In some instances, popes (attempting to claim a prerogative over the Empire) withheld their sanction; in others the German princes declared their right to choose without Papl intervention. Part of the real meat of this argument lay in rights of investiture of bishops (and the revenues to be amassed from the exercise (or non-exercise) of such rights), with each side seeking to argue their superiority. Despite this Papal link, several popes found no difficulty in excommunicating Emperors, either for cause, or as a political tactic.
The title King of the Romans identified an elected successor during the Emperor's lifetime, and this practice predominated in the Empire, with the exception of three hundred years between the mid 13th and 16th centuries (although to that was one exception, Wenceslas (not the saint), elected in 1376).
In the absence of an elected successor, on the Emperor's death power passed to two Imperial Vicars, the Electors of Saxony and of the Palatine, who each exercised authority over half the Empire, depending on whether the local law was Franconian or Saxon.
The Electors were seven in number, set by the Golden Bull of 1356 -- the bishops of Mainz, of Trier, and of Koln, for the church, and for the laity, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine, the Elector of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. Among them the Bishop of Mainz was first in precedence.

  • It was never a nation-state, but at its height, territorially, it extended across most of modern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, BeNeLux, and the Czech republic, as well as parts of Eastern France, northern Italy and western Poland. It also governed some territories (eg Hungary) which lay outside the Empire's houndaries.
  • Its territories included princedoms and duchies, and its subjects could, on occasions, be kings themselves, although not within the Empire. It also included clerical territories, headed by Bishops or Prince-Bishops.
  • By 1648 it encompassed several hundred states, even if some amounted to little more than the size of a good manor.

The Empire formally ended in the Napoleonic Era, with the decision, in 1804, of Francis II to take the title Francis I, emperor of Austria, and two years later to renounce the Holy Roman title. In doing so Francis extinguished what was, perhaps, the oldest political institution in his world, descending from the chaos of Rome after the battle of Actium, and preserving a title from which all meaning had long evaporated -- history as it ought to have been.

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