The Holy Roman Empire was an Empire that existed in central Europe from the 9th century to the 19th century. The foundations of the Empire were laid in the reign of Frankish ruler Charlemagne and firmly established when Otto I was proclaimed the Holy Roman Emperor in 962.
During the early centuries of its existence, the key entities that comprised the territories of the Empire included the Kingdom of Germany, the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy and other minor regions. The Empire was initially headed by an autocratic Emperor but in later period, the Emperor was increasingly dependent on the election of the Prince-electors.
Rise of the Holy Roman Empire
Charlemagne became the ruler of the Franks in 768. He went on to add the territories of Saxonia, Bavaria and Italy to Franconia and was first crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. The title was truly revived in the reign of Otto the Great.
Otto was originally a German king who decisively defeated the influx of pagan Magyars into Western Europe, successfully became the King of Italy and was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 962. During Otto’s reign, the Emperor reigned supreme while the Papacy essentially didn’t hold power over him.
Empire during High Middle Ages
The Empire’s vast and highly diverse territorial extent seriously limited the Emperor’s powers. By the 11th century, the Emperor came to be elected by a group of notable barons and dukes who were called the Prince-electors. Papacy also came to exert greater influence in opposition to the political rulers of the Empire. This all came to a head in late 11th century when Emperor Henry V was excommunicated by the Pope and had to make the famous Walk to Canossa.
He also had to face several rebellions by the barons. By the 12th century, the Pope and the Prince-elections were both very powerful entities in determining the political course of the Empire. This pitted Emperors such as Frederick I and Frederick II against these two pillars of the Empire. By 13th century, German princes were becoming highly autonomous within their territories.
Empire in Late Middle Ages
During the Late Middle Ages, the Empire was increasingly a political system reliant on the Prince-electors. The election at the hands of the Prince-electors was formalised in 1356. During this period, the Prince-electors rose further in power and their titles became hereditary. In contrast, the Emperor no longer had direct control of vast territories and had to rely rather on Imperial cities and limited portions of lands.
The Imperial Cities, directly patronised by the Emperor, began to flourish in commerce and trade. By the end of the 15th century, a formal Imperial Diet had been established where Prince-electors as well as other dukes and representatives of Imperial Cities were to advise the Emperor.
Decline and Fall
In the 16th century, Martin Luther launched the Reformation movement in Germany. This profoundly affected the social and political outlook of the Empire. The Empire dangerously fragmented into Catholic and Protestant regions. At the same time, this led to a flurry of cultural and literary activity in the Empire.
In the last few centuries of its existence, the Empire became an increasingly unsustainable and decentralised entity. French, Turks and the Prussians would threaten its frontiers. It finally came to an end when the Empire suffered defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806 and was dissolved.