The formative years

Holy Roman Emperor: AD 800

In 799, for the third time in half a century, a pope is in need of help from the Frankish king. After being physically attacked by his enemies in the streets of Rome (their stated intention is to blind him and cut out his tongue, to make him incapable of office), Leo III makes his way through the Alps to visit Charlemagne at Paderborn.

It is not known what is agreed, but Charlemagne travels to Rome in 800 to support the pope. In a ceremony in St Peter's, on Christmas Day, Leo is due to anoint Charlemagne's son as his heir. But unexpectedly (it is maintained), as Charlemagne rises from prayer, the pope places a crown on his head and acclaims him emperor.

Charlemagne expresses displeasure but accepts the honour. The displeasure is probably diplomatic, for the legal emperor is undoubtedly the one in Constantinople. Nevertheless this public alliance between the pope and the ruler of a confederation of Germanic tribes now reflects the reality of political power in the west. And it launches the concept of the new Holy Roman Empire which will play an important role throughout the Middle Ages.

The Holy Roman Empire only becomes formally established in the next century. But it is implicit in the title adopted by Charlemagne in 800: 'Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.'

Emperors and popes: AD 962-1250

The imperial role accorded by the pope to Charlemagne in 800 is handed on in increasingly desultory fashion during the 9th century. From 924 it falls into abeyance. But in 962 a pope once again needs help against his Italian enemies. Again he appeals to a strong German ruler.

The coronation of Otto I by pope John XII in 962 marks a revival of the concept of a Christian emperor in the west. It is also the beginning of an unbroken line of Holy Roman emperors lasting for more than eight centuries. Otto I does not call himself Roman emperor, but his son Otto II uses the title - as a clear statement of western and papal independence from the other Christian emperor in Constantinople.

Otto and his son and grandson (Otto II and Otto III) regard the imperial crown as a mandate to control the papacy. They dismiss popes at their will and instal replacements more to their liking (sometimes even changing their mind and repeating the process). This power, together with territories covering much of central Europe, gives the German empire and the imperial title great prestige in the late 10th century.

But subservience was not the papal intention in reinstating the Holy Roman Empire. A clash is inevitable.

Otto and his son and grandson (Otto II and Otto III) regard the imperial crown as a mandate to control the papacy. They dismiss popes at their will and instal replacements more to their liking (sometimes even changing their mind and repeating the process).

This power, together with territories covering much of central Europe, gives the German empire and the imperial title great prestige from the late 10th century. This high status is unaffected by a minor change of dynasty in the early 11th century.

In 1024 the male line of descent from Otto i dies out. The princes elect the duke of Franconia, descended from Otto in the female line, as the German king Conrad II. His dynasty is known either as Franconian (from the province of the Franks) or Salian (from the Salii, one of the main tribal groups of the Franks).

Conrad's son, Henry III, is crowned emperor in Rome in 1046. Before his coronation he deposes three rival claimants to the papacy and selects a candidate of his own - the German bishop of Bamberg - who carries out the coronation in St Peter's. This renewed intervention in Rome's affairs launches two centuries of conflict between German Emperors and the papacy.

Papal decline and recovery: AD 1046-1061

The struggle for dominance between emperor and pope comes to a head in two successive reigns, of the emperors Henry III and Henry IV, in the 11th century. The imperial side has a clear win in the first round.

In 1046 Henry III deposes three rival popes. Over the next ten years he personally selects four of the next five pontiffs. But after his death, in 1056, these abuses of the system bring a rapid reaction. Pope Nicholas II, elected in 1058, initiates a process of reform which exposes the underlying tension between empire and papacy.

In 1059, at a synod in Rome, Nicholas condemns various abuses within the church. These include simony (the selling of clerical posts), the marriage of clergy and, more controversially, corrupt practices in papal elections. Nicholas now restricts the choice of a new pope to a conclave of cardinals, thus ruling out any direct lay influence. Imperial influence is his clear target.

In 1061 the assembled bishops of Germany - the emperor's own faction - declare all the decrees of this pope null and void. Battle is joined. But meanwhile the pope has been enlisting new allies.

In 1059 Nicholas II takes two political steps of a kind, unusual at this period, which will later be commonplace for the medieval papacy. He grants land, already occupied, to recipients of his own choice; and he involves those recipients in a Feudal relationship with the papacy, or the Holy See, as the Feudal lord.

This time the beneficiaries are the Normans, who are granted territorial rights in southern Italy and Sicily in return for Feudal obligations to Rome. The pope, in an overtly political struggle against the German emperor, is playing a strong hand. The issue will be brought to a head within a few years by another pope, Gregory VII.

Gregory VII and investiture: AD 1075

Pope Gregory seizes political control by decreeing, in 1075, that no lay ruler may make ecclesiastical appointments. Powerful bishops and abbots are henceforth to be pope's men rather than emperor's men.

The issue becomes known as the investiture controversy, being in essence a dispute over who has the right to invest high clerics with the robes and insignia of office.

The appointment of bishops and abbots is too valuable a right to be easily relinquished by secular rulers. Great feudal wealth and power is attached to these offices. And high clerics, as the best educated members of the medieval community, are important members of any administration.

In subsequent periods compromises are made on both sides, particularly in the Concordat of Worms, in 1122, where a distinction is made between the spiritual and secular element in clerical appointments. But investiture remains a bone of contention between the papacy and lay rulers - not only in the empire, after the first dramatic flare up between Gregory and Henry IV, but also in France and England.

Rome and the struggle for power: AD 1076-1138

The nine-year struggle between pope Gregory VII and the emperor Henry IV provides a vivid glimpse of the political role of the medieval papacy. St Gregory, canonized in the Catholic reformation, is one of the great defenders of papal power. His career involves incessant power-broking and military struggle.

Henry IV, alarmed at the demands being made over investiture, sends a threatening letter to the pope in 1076. The pope responds by excommunicating the emperor. By his public penance at Canossa, Henry has the excommunication lifted. But the truce is short-lived. Henry's enemies, prompted by the pope's action, take a hand.

German princes opposed to Henry IV elect and crown, in 1077, a rival king - Rudolf, the duke of Swabia. Rudolf and Henry engage in a civil war, which Henry wins in 1080. By then the pope has recognized Rudolf as the German king and has again excommunicated Henry.

This time Henry's response is more aggressive. He summons a council which deposes the pope and elects in his place the archbishop of Ravenna (as pope Clement III). Henry marches into Italy, enters Rome and is crowned emperor by this pope of his own creation. Meanwhile the real pope, Gregory, is living in a state of siege in his impregnable Roman fortress, the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Gregory appeals for help to his vassals the Normans, recently invited by the papacy to conquer southern Italy and Sicily. A Norman army reaches Rome in 1084, drives out the Germans and rescues Gregory. But the Norman sack of the city is so violent, and provokes such profound hostility, that Gregory has to flee south with his rescuers. He dies in 1085 in Sicily.

Clement III returns to Rome and reigns there with imperial support as pope (or in historical terms as antipope) for most of the next ten years. Urban II, the pope who preaches the first Crusade in 1095, is not able to enter the holy city for several years after his election. Unrest prevails in Rome, and uncertainty in the empire, until the Hohenstaufen win the German crown in 1138.

In this sequence of events the nature of the medieval papacy is clearly seen. Excommunication of rulers, military campaigns enjoying papal support, rival popes reigning at the same time, the split between pope and emperor as a factor in European politics - all these become familiar themes of the Middle Ages.

The cumulative effect, centuries later, is a papacy of great wealth, vast power, considerable corruption and much reduced spiritual authority. Eventually these characteristics provoke the Reformation. But in the meantime the papacy has its period of greatest power, presiding over Europe's feuding factions and charging handsomely for the service.

Imperial dynasties

Hohenstaufen: AD 1138-1254

The castle of Staufen, in Swabia, lends its name to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick, the builder of the castle, is a faithful follower of the emperor Henry iv. In 1079 he marries the emperor's daughter, Agnes. In 1138, after some years of upheaval and civil war, their son Conrad is elected the German king - as Conrad III.

For more than a century, with one minor interruption, members of the Hohenstaufen family inherit the German kingdom - usually together with the status of Holy Roman emperor. The first Hohenstaufen to make a profound impression on the empire is Conrad's nephew, Frederick I.

In a reign of thirty-eight years Frederick, known also as Frederick Barbarossa, asserts his authority throughout Germany and extends imperial power into Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. But his greatest effort is in Italy, where he tries to recover the empire in the north and to extend it south of the Papal states down to Sicily.

He meets strong opposition in the north from the Italian Communes, who form the Lombard league to resist him. And his attempts in the south are unpopular with the papacy, alarmed at the danger of being surrounded. In the long term Frederick's most significant act, before his death on crusade in 1190, is to marry his son Henry to Constance, heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

The marriage of Henry to Constance brings Sicily and southern Italy into the German empire. Henry VI is crowned emperor in Rome in 1191 and king of Sicily in 1194. But he dies shortly afterwards, in 1197, when his son Frederick is just three years old.

At first it seems unlikely that the boy can inherit both Sicily and the German kingdom, particularly since the prospect displeases the papacy. From 1198 he is recognized only as king of Sicily. But after a period of confusion, with warring candidates, he is also elected king by the German princes in 1211. With some reluctance the pope accepts the situation. He crowns Frederick II emperor in Rome in 1220.

Subsequent popes have cause to regret this coronation. They excommunicate Frederick II twice, and even proclaim a crusade against him, in a prolonged power struggle which eventually weakens his authority in both Sicily and Germany. In spite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieves his own crusade to Jerusalem, Frederick leaves an inheritance which cannot long survive him.

His son, Conrad IV, becomes the last ruler in the Hohenstaufen line. With Conrad's death, in 1254, there is a vacancy on the German throne which is not filled for another nineteen years.

After the Hohenstaufen: AD 1254-1438

The Hohenstaufen period has seen some notably forceful popes (Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) and powerful emperors (Frederick I, Frederick II). It is followed, after the death of the last Hohenstaufen ruler in 1254, by a prolonged time of uncertainty in both Papacy and empire.

The popes abandon Rome in 1309 and spend most of the 14th century in self-imposed exile in Avignon. From 1378 there are two rival popes (a number subsequently rising to three) in the split known as the Great schism.

Meanwhile, for almost twenty years after the death of Conrad IV in 1254, the German princes fail to elect any effective king or emperor. This period is usually known (with a grandiloquence to match the Great schism in the Papacy) as the Great Interregnum.

The interregnum ends with the election of Rudolf I as German king in 1273. The choice subsequently seems of great significance, because he is the first Great schism on the German throne. But the Great schism grip on the succession remains far in the future. During the next century the electors choose kings from several families. Not till the coronation of Charles IV in 1346 is there the start of another dynasty - that of the house of Habsburg.

Charles IV is crowned emperor in Rome in 1355. He makes his capital in Prague (he has inherited Luxembourg as well as Habsburg), bringing the city its first period of glory. The imperial dignity remains in Charles's family until 1438, when it is transferred to the Habsburgs.

At the beginning and end of those eighty years Charles and his son Sigismund take a strong line with the Papacy. Within a year of his coronation, Charles issues the Council of constance of 1356 which excludes the pope from any influence in the choice of emperor. And in 1414 Sigismund is instrumental in bringing together the Bohemia which finally ends the Great schism and restores a single pope to Rome.

The Golden Bull and the electors: AD 1356-1806

The Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356, clarifies the new identity which the Holy Roman empire has been gradually adopting. It ends papal involvement in the election of a German king, by the simple means of denying Rome's right to approve or reject the electors' choice. In return, by a separate agreement with the pope, Charles abandons imperial claims in Italy - apart from a title to the kingdom of Lombardy, inherited from Charlemagne.

The emphasis is clear. This is now to be essentially a German empire, as reflected in a new form of the title adopted in 1452 - sacrum Romanum imperium nationis Germanicae (Holy Roman empire of the German nation).

The Golden Bull also clarifies and formalizes the process of election of a German king. The choice has traditionally been in the hands of seven electors, but their identity has varied.

The group of seven is now established as three archbishops (of Mainz, Cologne and Trier) and four hereditary lay rulers (the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg and the king of Bohemia).

This group of seven electors remains unchanged until the 17th century, when an eighth vote is added (the newcomer to the list is the duke of Bavaria). In 1708 the ruler of Hanover becomes a ninth elector. But by this time the idea of election is as meaningless as in any Rotten borough. The office of Holy Roman Emperor has become a hereditary attachment of one family.

From 1438 to 1806 every Holy Roman Emperor but one is part of the Habsburg dynasty. The reason for the exception, in 1742-5, is that the Habsburg ruler of Austria is a woman, Maria theresa.

An abrupt end: AD 1806

The official Holy Roman empire, based in Vienna, is by the early 19th century little more than a ceremonial shell, brittle with age and dignity. And it is under threat. It is widely assumed that Napoleon's intention, after appointing himself emperor of France, is to claim the greater title by defeating Austria.

The emperor, Francis ii, has no way of ensuring victory on the battlefield, but he finds a simple way of frustrating the ambitions of his French rival. Declaring himself in 1804 the last Holy Roman Emperor, he now uses the title emperor of Austria (henceforth to be known as Francis I, being the first in his new hereditary role). In 1806 Francis formally abolishes the Holy Roman Empire. It has lasted just over 1000 years.
Arrow Arrow
Page 1 of 2
Arrow Arrow