Holy Roman Empire: power politics papacy

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Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, famously said that ‘the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire’. Taken at face value this is probably right. If we dig a little deeper, however, we may discover how and why, this entity came to be so named.

The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire is traditionally dated from the coronation of Otto the Great in AD 962. However, the reign of Charles I, otherwise known as ‘the Great’ or Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day AD 800, is usually considered to be the first Emperor of the Empire.


The coronation of Charles was a key event in European history because it marked the revival of empire in Western Europe following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. Charles the Great was seen as the direct successor to Caesar Augustus and the Carolingian Empire successor to the Ancient Roman Empire. As such, Charles, and each successive Emperor, expected to rule with the same power and authority, as had the Emperors of ancient Rome. This relationship with ancient Rome was central to the self-understanding of all Emperors from Charlemagne to Francis II in the nineteenth century and it also affected the on-going relationship between the Emperor and the Pope.

When Charles I was crowned in AD 800, the Pope anointed him as both Defender and Propagator of the Christian Faith. Crucially he was being crowned Emperor of a Christian Empire, otherwise known as Christendom. Following the European Reformation in the 16th century, all later Emperors, down to Francis II, who capitulated to Napoleon in AD 1806, viewed themselves as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy.

The Holy Roman Empire is difficult to define; it was not an empire in the territorial sense, but was more a confederation of kingdoms and principalities of all sizes; from a single castle with its estates, to a vast kingdom. It lasted almost a thousand years from AD 962 until AD 1806 but had no capital city or clear boundaries. Its influence spread across most of Europe and for a short time under Charles V in the 16th century, parts of South America also came under its sovereignty.

In theory the emperors were elected, but very often the title was passed on to a son thereby establishing dynasties, for example the House of Hohenstaufen between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries and the later Habsburgs who ruled almost continuously from the middle of the 15th century onwards.

The early emperors chose their own capital: for Charles the Great it was Aachen, Otto the Great it was Magdeburg, Otto III it was Bamberg. The later Habsburgs settled in Vienna. For much of its history the power lay not with the Emperor but with the great nobles and magnates of central Europe who made up the Electoral College. It was an Empire riddled with complex politics and the relationship between the Emperor and the Papacy was extremely volatile, ranging from one of an intense suspicion to open hostility.

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