58 Reading: The Holy Roman Empire

Rise of the Holy Roman Empire

The formation of the Holy Roman Empire was initiated by Charlemagne’s coronation as “Emperor of the Romans” in 800, and consolidated by Otto I when he was crowned emperor in 962 by Pope John XII.


Describe the rise of the Holy Roman Empire


Key Points

  • In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, reviving the title in Western Europe after more than three centuries, thus creating the Carolingian Empire, whose territory came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire.
  • After the dissolution of the Carolingian Dynasty and the breakup of the empire into conflicting territories, Otto I became king of Francia and worked to unify all the German tribes into a single kingdom and greatly expand his powers.
  • The title of Emperor was again revived in 962 when Otto I was crowned by Pope John XII, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne and thus establishing the Holy Roman Empire.

Key Terms

  • Charlemagne: The first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier, known for unifying Francia and ushering in a period of cultural renaissance and reform.
  • Otto I: German king from 936 and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 962 until his death in 973; his reign began a continuous existence of the Holy Roman Empire for over eight centuries.


The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was Eastern Francia, though it also came to include the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.

In 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, reviving the title in Western Europe after more than three centuries. The title continued in the Carolingian family until 888, and from 896 to 899, after which it was contested by the rulers of Italy in a series of civil wars until the death of the last Italian claimant, Berengar, in 924. The title was revived again in 962 when Otto I was crowned emperor, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne and beginning a continuous existence of the empire for over eight centuries. Some historians refer to the coronation of Charlemagne as the origin of the empire, while others prefer the coronation of Otto I as its beginning. Scholars generally concur, however, in relating an evolution of the institutions and principles constituting the empire, describing a gradual assumption of the imperial title and role.

The Rise of the Empire

After Charlemagne died in 814, the imperial crown was disputed among the Carolingian rulers of Western Francia and Eastern Francia, with first the western king (Charles the Bald) and then the eastern (Charles the Fat) attaining the prize. After the death of Charles the Fat in 888, however, the Carolingian Empire broke apart, and was never restored. According to Regino of Prüm, the parts of the realm “spewed forth kinglets,” and each part elected a kinglet “from its own bowels.” After the death of Charles the Fat, those crowned emperor by the pope controlled only territories in Italy. The last such emperor was Berengar I of Italy, who died in 924.

A few decade earlier, around 900, autonomous stem duchies (Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony, and Lotharingia) reemerged in East Francia. After the Carolingian king Louis the Child died without issue in 911, East Francia did not turn to the Carolingian ruler of West Francia to take over the realm, but instead elected one of the dukes, Conrad of Franconia, as Rex Francorum Orientalium. On his deathbed, Conrad yielded the crown to his main rival, Henry the Fowler of Saxony, who was elected king at the Diet of Fritzlar in 919. Henry reached a truce with the raiding Magyars, and in 933 he won a first victory against them in the Battle of Riade.

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor

Henry the Fowler died in 936, but his descendants, the Liudolfing (or Ottonian) dynasty, would continue to rule the eastern kingdom for roughly a century. Upon Henry’s death, Otto I, his son and designated successor, was elected King in Aachen in 936. Otto continued his father’s work of unifying all German tribes into a single kingdom and greatly expanded the king’s powers at the expense of the aristocracy. Through strategic marriages and personal appointments, Otto installed members of his family in the kingdom’s most important duchies. This reduced the various dukes, who had previously been co-equals with the king, to royal subjects under his authority. Otto transformed the Roman Catholic Church in Germany to strengthen the royal office and subjected its clergy to his personal control.

After putting down a brief civil war among the rebellious duchies, Otto defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, thus ending the Hungarian invasions of Western Europe. The victory against the pagan Magyars earned Otto a reputation as a savior of Christendom and secured his hold over the kingdom. In 951, Otto came to the aid of Adelaide, the widowed queen of Italy, defeating her enemies, marrying her, and taking control of Italy. By 961, Otto had conquered the Kingdom of Italy and extended his realm’s borders to the north, east, and south. Following the example of Charlemagne’s coronation as “Emperor of the Romans” in 800, Otto was crowned emperor in 962 by Pope John XII in Rome, thus intertwining the affairs of the German kingdom with those of Italy and the papacy. Otto’s coronation as emperor marked the German kings as successors to the empire of Charlemagne, which through the concept of translatio imperii also made them consider themselves successors to Ancient Rome.

Otto’s later years were marked by conflicts with the papacy and struggles to stabilize his rule over Italy. Reigning from Rome, Otto sought to improve relations with the Byzantine Empire, which opposed his claim to emperorship and his realm’s further expansion to the south. To resolve this conflict, the Byzantine princess Theophanu married Otto’s son, Otto II, in April 972. Otto finally returned to Germany in August 972 and died at Memleben in 973. Otto II succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor.


Otto I: Replica of the Magdeburger Reiter, equestrian monument traditionally regarded as portrait of Otto I (Magdeburg, original c. 1240).

Administration of the Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots, and other rulers, collectively known as princes, who governed their land independently from the emperor, whose power was severely restricted by these various local leaders.


Explain the relationship between the Holy Roman Emperor and the other German nobles


Key Points

  • The Holy Roman Empire was made up of many small principalities that were governed by local rulers who had authority over their land that mostly superseded the power of the emperor.
  • The emperor could not simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the empire; his power was severely restricted by the various local leaders.
  • The power of the emperor declined over time until the individual territories operated almost like de facto sovereign states.
  • The Imperial Diet was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire and theoretically superior to the emperor himself; it included positions called prince-electors who elected the prospective emperor.
  • After being elected, the King of the Romans could claim the title of “Emperor” only after being crowned by the Pope.

Key Terms

  • Reichsstand: An imperial estate in the Holy Roman Empire.
  • Peace of Westphalia: A series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire.
  • Imperial Diet: The general assembly of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire that emerged from the earlier informal assemblies, and  the legislative body of the empire.


The Holy Roman Empire was not a highly centralized state like most countries today. Instead, it was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots, and other rulers, collectively known as princes. There were also some areas ruled directly by the emperor. At no time could the emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders.

From the High Middle Ages onwards, the Holy Roman Empire was marked by an uneasy coexistence with the princes of the local territories who were struggling to take power away from it. To a greater extent than in other medieval kingdoms such as France and England, the Roman emperors were unable to gain much control over the lands that they formally owned. Instead, to secure their own position from the threat of being deposed, emperors were forced to grant more and more autonomy to local rulers, both nobles and bishops. This process began in the 11th century with the Investiture Controversy and was more or less concluded with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Several emperors attempted to reverse this steady dissemination of their authority, but were thwarted both by the papacy and by the princes of the empire.

The Emperor’s Loss of Centralized Authority

After the reign of Otto I, the centralized power of the emperor began to fade and local rulers, as well as the Catholic Church, gained more and more power in relation to the emperor. Eventually, the emperor held little authority over the empire and the territories began to function more like modern nation-states. The Hohenstaufen dynasty, which started in 1125, and especially Emperor Frederick I, represented both a final attempt at unified power and the beginning of the dissolution of that power.

Despite his imperial claims, Frederick’s rule was a major turning point towards the disintegration of central rule in the Holy Roman Empire. While concentrated on establishing a modern, centralized state in Sicily, he was mostly absent from Germany and issued far-reaching privileges to Germany’s secular and ecclesiastical princes. In the 1220 Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis, Frederick gave up a number of regalia in favor of the bishops, among them tariffs, coining, and fortification. The 1232 Statutum in favorem principum mostly extended these privileges to secular territories. Although many of these privileges had existed earlier, they were now granted globally, and once and for all, to allow the German princes to maintain order north of the Alps while Frederick concentrated on Italy. The 1232 document marked the first time that the German dukes were called domini terræ, owners of their lands, a remarkable change in terminology as well.

The Imperial and directly held Hohenstaufen land covered portions of modern-day central Germany.

The Holy Roman Empire, 12th century: The Hohenstaufen-ruled Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Sicily. Imperial and directly held Hohenstaufen land in the empire is shown in bright yellow. This map shows the patchwork of relatively autonomous principalities that made up the Holy Roman Empire.

The shift in power away from the emperor is revealed in the way the post-Hohenstaufen kings attempted to sustain their power. Earlier, the empire’s strength (and finances) greatly relied on the empire’s own lands, the so-called Reichsgut, which always belonged to the king of the day and included many imperial cities. After the 13th century, the relevance of the Reichsgut faded, even though some parts of it did remain until the empire’s end in 1806. The Reichsgut was increasingly pawned to local dukes, sometimes to raise money for the empire, but more frequently to reward faithful duty or as an attempt to establish control over the dukes. The direct governance of the Reichsgut no longer matched the needs of either the king or the dukes.

The “constitution” of the empire still remained largely unsettled at the beginning of the 15th century. Although some procedures and institutions had been fixed, for example by the Golden Bull of 1356, the rules of how the king, the electors, and the other dukes should cooperate in the empire much depended on the personality of the respective king. It therefore proved somewhat damaging that Sigismund of Luxemburg (king 1410, emperor 1433–1437) and Frederick III of Habsburg (king 1440, emperor 1452–1493) neglected the old core lands of the empire and mostly resided in their own lands. Without the presence of the king, the old institution of the Hoftag, the assembly of the realm’s leading men, deteriorated. The Imperial Diet as a legislative organ of the empire did not exist at that time. The dukes often conducted feuds against each other—feuds that, more often than not, escalated into local wars. The medieval idea of unifying all Christendom into a single political entity, with the church and the empire as its leading institutions, began to decline.

Imperial Diet

The Imperial Diet (Reichstag) was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire and theoretically superior to the emperor himself. It was divided into three classes. The first class, the Council of Electors, consisted of the electors, or the princes who could vote for King of the Romans. The second class, the Council of Princes, consisted of the other princes, and was divided into two “benches,” one for secular rulers and one for ecclesiastical ones. Higher-ranking princes had individual votes, while lower-ranking princes were grouped into “colleges” by geography. Each college had one vote. The precise role and function of the Imperial Diet changed over the centuries, as did the empire itself, in that the estates and separate territories gained more and more control of their own affairs at the expense of imperial power.

King of the Romans

Another check on the emperor’s power was the fact that he was elected. A prospective emperor first had to be elected King of the Romans by the prince-electors, the highest office of the Imperial Diet. German kings had been elected since the 9th century; at that point they were chosen by the leaders of the five most important tribes (the Salian Franks of Lorraine, Ripuarian Franks of Franconia, Saxons, Bavarians, and Swabians). In the Holy Roman Empire, the main dukes and bishops of the kingdom elected the King of the Romans. In 1356, Emperor Charles IV issued the Golden Bull, which limited the electors to seven: the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Duke of Bavaria and the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg were given the right to vote as the eighth and ninth electors, respectively. Additionally, the Napoleonic Wars resulted in several electorates being reallocated, but these new electors never voted before the empire’s dissolution. A candidate for election would be expected to offer concessions of land or money to the electors in order to secure their vote.

After being elected, the King of the Romans could theoretically claim the title of “Emperor” only after being crowned by the pope. In many cases, this took several years while the king was held up by other tasks; frequently he first had to resolve conflicts in rebellious northern Italy, or was quarreling with the pope himself.


Pen-and-ink miniature of the seven prince-electors: The prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as “King of the Romans,” and he would later be crowned emperor by the pope.

Imperial Estates

The number of territories in the empire was considerable, rising to about 300 at the time of the Peace of Westphalia. Many of these Kleinstaaten (“little states”) covered no more than a few square miles, and/or included several non-contiguous pieces, so the empire was often called a Flickenteppich (“patchwork carpet”).

An entity was considered a Reichsstand (imperial estate) if, according to feudal law, it had no authority above it except the Holy Roman Emperor himself. The imperial estates comprised:

  • Territories ruled by a hereditary nobleman, such as a prince, archduke, duke, or count.
  • Territories in which secular authority was held by a clerical dignitary, such as an archbishop, bishop, or abbot. Such a cleric was a prince of the church. In the common case of a prince-bishop, this temporal territory (called a prince-bishopric) frequently overlapped with his often-larger ecclesiastical diocese, giving the bishop both civil and clerical powers. Examples are the prince-archbishoprics of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz.
  • Free imperial cities, which were subject only to the jurisdiction of the emperor.

The Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy, on the surface a conflict about the appointments of religious offices, was a powerful struggle for control over who held ultimate authority, the Holy Roman Emperor or the pope.


Analyze the events of the Investiture Controversy


Key Points

  • When the Holy Roman Empire developed as a force during the 10th century, it was the first real non-barbarian challenge to the authority of the church.
  • A dispute between the secular and ecclesiastical powers known as the Investiture Controversy emerged beginning in the mid-11th century.
  • The Investiture Controversy was resolved with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which gave the church power over investiture, along with other reforms.
  • By undercutting the imperial power established by previous emperors, the controversy led to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany, and the triumph of the great dukes and abbots.
  • The papacy grew stronger in its power and authority from the controversy.

Key Terms

  • Concordat of Worms: An agreement between Pope Calixtus II and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V on September 23, 1122, that found a resolution to the Investiture Controversy.
  • simony: The sale of church offices to a successor.
  • investiture: The authority to appoint local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries.


The Investiture Controversy was the most significant conflict between church and state in medieval Europe, specifically the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, a series of popes challenged the authority of European monarchies. At issue was who, the pope or monarchs, had the authority to appoint (invest) local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries. The conflict ended in 1122, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms. It differentiated between the royal and spiritual powers and gave the emperors a limited role in selecting bishops. The outcome seemed mostly a victory for the pope and his claim that he was God’s chief representative in the world. However, the emperor did retain considerable power over the church.

The Investiture Controversy began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1072–1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (1056–1106). A brief but significant struggle over investiture also occurred between Henry I of England and Pope Paschal II in the years 1103–1107, and the issue also played a minor role in the struggles between church and state in France.

By undercutting the imperial power established by previous emperors, the controversy led to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany, and the triumph of the great dukes and abbots. Imperial power was finally re-established under the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Historian Norman Cantor writes of its significance:

The age of the investiture controversy may rightly be regarded as the turning-point in medieval civilization. It was the fulfillment of the early Middle Ages because in it the acceptance of the Christian religion by the Germanic peoples reached its final and decisive stage…The greater part of the religious and political system of the high Middle Ages emerged out of the events and ideas of the investiture controversy.


Investiture: A woodcut by Philip Van Ness (1905), A medieval king investing a bishop with the symbols of office.


After the decline of the Roman Empire and prior to the Investiture Controversy, investiture, while theoretically a task of the church, was in practice performed by members of the religious nobility. Many bishops and abbots were themselves part of the ruling nobility. Since an eldest son would inherit the title of the father, siblings often found careers in the church. This was particularly true where the family may have established a proprietary church or abbey on their estate. Since Otto I (936-972) the bishops had been princes of the empire, had secured many privileges, and had become to a great extent feudal lords over great districts of the imperial territory. The control of these great units of economic and military power was for the king a question of primary importance, as it affected the imperial authority. It was essential for a ruler or nobleman to appoint (or sell the office to) someone who would remain loyal.

Since a substantial amount of wealth and land was usually associated with the office of a bishop or abbot, the sale of church offices (a practice known as simony ) was an important source of income for leaders among the nobility, who themselves owned the land and by charity allowed the building of churches.

The crisis began when a group within the church, members of the Gregorian Reform, decided to rebel against the rule of simony by forcefully taking the power of investiture from the ruling secular power, i.e., the Holy Roman Emperor, and placing that power wholly within control of the church. The Gregorian reformers knew this would not be possible so long as the emperor maintained the ability to appoint the pope, so their first step was to forcibly gain the papacy from the control of the emperor. An opportunity came in 1056 when six-year-old Henry IV became the German king; the reformers took advantage of his young age and inability to react by seizing the papacy by force. In 1059 a church council in Rome declared, with In Nomine Domini, that leaders of the nobility would have no part in the selection of popes, and created the College of Cardinals as a body of electors made up entirely of church officials. Once Rome regained control of the election of the pope, it was ready to attack the practice of investiture and simony on a broad front.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII composed the Dictatus Papae. One clause asserted that the deposal of an emperor was under the sole power of the pope. It declared that the Roman church was founded by God alone—that the papal power was the sole universal power. By this time, Henry IV was no longer a child, and he continued to appoint his own bishops. He reacted to this declaration by sending Gregory VII a letter in which he withdrew his imperial support of Gregory as pope in no uncertain terms.

The situation was made even more dire when Henry IV installed his chaplain, Tedald, a Milanese priest, as Bishop of Milan when another priest of Milan, Atto, had already been chosen by the pope for candidacy. In 1076 the pope responded by excommunicating Henry and deposing him as German king, releasing all Christians from their oath of allegiance to him.

Enforcing these declarations was a different matter, but the advantage gradually came to the side of the pope. German princes and the aristocracy were happy to hear of the king’s deposition. They used religious reasons to continue the rebellion started at the First Battle of Langensalza in 1075, and to seize royal holdings. Aristocrats claimed local lordships over peasants and property, built forts, which had previously been outlawed, and built up localized fiefdoms to secure their autonomy from the empire.

The Investiture Controversy continued for several decades as each succeeding pope tried to diminish imperial power by stirring up revolt in Germany. These revolts were gradually successful. Henry IV was succeeded upon his death in 1106 by his son Henry V, who had rebelled against his father in favor of the papacy, and who had made his father renounce the legality of his antipopes before he died. Nevertheless, Henry V chose one more antipope, Gregory VIII. Later, he renounced some of the rights of investiture with the Concordat of Worms, abandoned Gregory, and was received back into communion and recognized as legitimate emperor as a result.


Henry IV: This illustration shows Henry IV requesting mediation from Matilda of Tuscany and abbot Hugh of Cluny.

The Concordat of Worms and Its Significance

After fifty years of fighting, the Concordat of Worms provided a lasting compromise when it was signed on September 23, 1122. It eliminated lay investiture while leaving secular leaders some room for unofficial but significant influence in the appointment process. The emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration.

The Concordat of Worms brought an end to the first phase of the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman emperors, and has been interpreted as containing within itself the germ of nation-based sovereignty that would one day be confirmed in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). In part this was an unforeseen result of strategic maneuvering between the church and the European sovereigns over political control within their domains.

While the monarchy was embroiled in the dispute with the church, it declined in power and broke apart. Localized rights of lordship over peasants grew. This resulted in multiple effects:

  1. Increased serfdom that reduced human rights for the majority;
  2. Increased taxes and levies that royal coffers declined;
  3. Localized rights of justice where courts did not have to answer to royal authority.

In the long term, the decline of imperial power would divide Germany until the 19th century. Similarly, in Italy, the Investiture Controversy weakened the emperor’s authority and strengthened local separatist forces. However, the papacy grew stronger from the controversy. Assembling for public opinion engaged lay people in religious affairs that increased lay piety, setting the stage for the Crusades and the great religious vitality of the 12th century.

The conflict did not end with the Concordat of Worms. Future disputes between popes and Holy Roman emperors continued until northern Italy was lost to the empire entirely. The church would crusade against the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II.


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