The Holy Roman Empire was a successor state to the empire founded in 800 by Charlemagne, who revived the title of Roman emperor in the West. According to Carolingian theory, the Roman Empire had merely been suspended, not ended, by the abdication of the last Roman emperor in 476. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Roman emperor, probably perceived more as a personal title than as a reference to a particular territorial rule. From the death of Arnulf (899), the last Carolingian to hold the imperial title, until Otto’s coronation in Rome by Pope John XII, various rulers bore the imperial title but exercised no authority; among them were Louis III, king of Provence, and Berengar I, king of Italy

Nature of the Empire

From the time of Otto’s reign the imperial office was based on the German kingship. The German king, elected by the German princes, automatically sought imperial coronation by the pope. After 1045 a king who was not yet crowned emperor was known as king of the Romans, a title that asserted his right to the imperial throne and implied that he was emperor-designate.

Not every German king became emperor, however, because the popes, especially when elections to the kingships were disputed, often claimed that the selection of the emperor was their prerogative. Despite the fact that the German kingship and the imperial office were technically elective, they tended to become hereditary. The empire was justified by the claim that, just as the pope was the vicar of God on earth in spiritual matters, so the emperor was God’s temporal vicar; hence he claimed to be the supreme temporal ruler of Christendom. Actually, the power of the emperor never equaled his pretensions. Although the emperors were accorded diplomatic precedence over other rulers, their suzerainty early ceased over France, S Italy, Denmark, Poland, and Hungary; and their control over England, Sweden, and Spain was never more than nominal. The authority of the emperors in Italy and Germany was sometimes nonexistent, sometimes real.

The territorial limits of the empire varied, but it generally included Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia, parts of N.Italy, present-day Belgium, and until 1648, Holland and Switzerland. Some countries (e.g., hungary) were ruled by the emperor or imperial prince but were outside the empire, while others (e.g., Flanders, Pomerania, Schleswig and Holstein) were part of the empire but were ruled by foreign princes who held their lands in fief from the emperor and took part in the imperial diet.

A bitter power-struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy raged for centuries. At its height Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), excommunicated and deposed Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106). Gregory condemned the practice of investiture by which newly appointed bishops and abbots were invested with symbols of spiritual office by the emperor, rather than by the pope. At Canossa in 1077 Henry stood three days barefoot in the snow in the dress of a penitent to win the lifting of his excommunication, a powerful display of papal authority.

The unification of the kingdom of Germany with those of Italy (951) and Burgundy (1033) created a potentially powerful unit. The first Hohenstaufen Emperor, Conrad III (1138-52), was succeeded by his nephew Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-90). He was a vigorous ruler, but his position was affected by the growing power of many of the leading aristocratic families, especially the Guelphs in Saxony. Henry the proud, the head of the Guelphs, had resisted Conrad III, and his son, Henry the Lion, was a crucial figure in Barbarossa’s reign. The commitment of Frederick to maintaining and expanding Imperial power in Italy weakened his position in Germany, although the extent of the territorial power there of his family remained considerable.In northern Italy the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was defeated by the Lombard league of cities at Legnano. (1176) Fredericks son Conrad IV continued the struggle with the papacy, bustrategyt the position of his son Conradin was usurped by Fredericks second son Manfred, allowing the pope to declare the throne forfeit and to offer it to Louis IX of France who passed it to his brother, Charles of Anjou.

As part of a crusade Charles defeated Manfred in 1266 and Conradin at Tagliacozza (1268), ending the Hohenstaufen state in southern Italy and transferring the kingdom of Sicily to the Angevins. Northern Italy owed nominal allegiance to the Empire, the cities of the region had for a long time had considerable rights of self-government and in some this had led to the development of Republican communes. Other cities had fallen under the control of the Seignori families. Milan became dominated by Visconte and Verona by della Scala.

The history of the Holy Roman Empire can be divided into four periods: the age of emperors, the age of princes, the early Habsburg period, and the final phase.

tw_screen002The age of the emperors lasted from 962 to 1250 and was dominated by the strong emperors of the Saxon. The emperors of this time spent most of their time trying to control Italy. Their power, however, depended on their German resources, which were never great. The age of the princes lasted from 1250 to 1438. The emperors were much weaker. They exercised only minimal authority in Italy. The early Habsburg period lasted from 1485 to 1555. This period strove to create a feudal system. The final phase lasted until Napoleon I finally destroyed the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.