The Holy Roman Empire: According to History

An important part of Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by a single emperor, yet by the end, it was completely dominated by Austria. Its tale begins with Charlemagne, yet the backdrop for his rise to power begins with the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The seeds were planted for another major European power with the divide of the Roman Empire. After it became too big to manage, the empire was divided into two parts, the East and the West. The Eastern Empire renamed itself to Byzantium, like its capital, which was later renamed Constantinople. It went on to take over almost all of the Roman Empire’s Southern possessions, but was later overrun by Muslim Turks. The Western Empire remained weak, a mere shadow of its former glory. It faced assault after assault from Germanic tribes, which eventually sacked Rome and deposed the last emperor in the 5th century. The Western Empire broke apart, and Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages. Barbarians looted cities, and people faced increasingly brutal winters. Norse Pagans also rose to power during these times, beginning to assemble the tribes that would later terrorize much of Europe and colonize Iceland, Russia, and Greenland.

Rise of the Karlings

A map depicting the conquests of the Merovingian and eventually the Carolingian Empire from 481 until the death of Charlemagne in 814.
A map depicting the conquests of the Merovingian and eventually the Carolingian Empire from 481 until the death of Charlemagne in 814.

Around the late 8th century, the Karling family rose to power in France. Pepin the Short took over the crown from the last King of the Merovingian dynasty, a line of Christian Franks that first united France. Pepin died soon after taking over the crown, leaving his kingdom to be ruled by both his sons, Carloman and Charles. By now the Carloningian Empire was stretching from France to part of Northern Spain. The two Karling brothers were not very close and quickly became rivals as each strove to control the other’s portion of the empire. War almost broke out, but three years after rising to power in 768, Carloman was found dead under suspicious circumstances. Thus Charles was left the sole ruler of the Carolingian Empire, and he would rule until his death in 814.

Charlemagne

Charles began his rule with only France as his, yet by the time his conquests were completed he ruled almost all of Western Europe. He took over the German tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire, and from there he built his imperial capital, Aachen. He brought his Frankish customs with him, and only when the Carolingian Empire would break up would the distinct cultures of France, Germany, and Italy truly refine into what they are today. He instituted many reforms, bringing education to the masses with public schools. His conquests earned him the name Charlemagne, or Charles the Great in France.

Charlemagne Coronation
The coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III as the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, by Raphael.

In 799, the Pope, Leo III was still residing in Rome. However, the Roman citizens were very displeased with him, and had beaten him nearly to death. Panicked, he fled to the court of Charlemagne, begging him for his aid. Charles agreed, and he marched into Rome to hold a meeting with the agitated populace. He stabilized the region, and Pope Leo III was restored to power. Thankful, he granted the king his blessing, and the title emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Naturally, this antagonized the Byzantine Empire, as they were truly the continuation of the Roman Empire. This caused an intense rivalry between the Papacy and the Byzantines that would eventually lead to the Great Schism.

Charlemagne had finally united Western Europe like the Romans had hundreds of years ago. However, at the age of seventy-two on January 28th, 814. His empire went entirely to his son, Louis.

The Carolingian Empire

After Charlemagne’s death, his only son inherited it. However, when he died, his children inherited the Empire, dividing it and weakening it. The kingdoms of Western Francia and Aquitaine divided France between them, Italy was created to rule Northern Italy, the Lombard region, and East Francia, Lotharingia, and Bavaria ruled in Germany and the Eastern Empire. Wars frequently broke out between the kingdoms, and as such the Empire did not expand much in this nearly 100 years of rule. Eventually, Aquitaine and West Francia were united to form France, while the Eastern part of the Empire completely broke apart, forming many singular counties and duchies. It remained this way until these regions began to elect emperors, forming the Holy Roman Empire once again.

The Holy Roman Empire

As the Holy Roman Empire grew stronger and stronger, their Emperors sought to keep the crown within their families. This caused several disputes, but the Salian dynasty of the beginning of the 11th century to the end of the 13th was largely successful in this endeavor. Emperors were elected from across the Empire by the constituent counties and duchies, and upon the emperor’s death the elections would decide who would be next. As the Holy Roman Empire grew stronger, the emperors also tried to keep the popes away from their affairs, resulting in several excommunications of Holy Roman emperors, notably Henry IV. Eventually, the Holy Roman Empire became entirely independent of the Papacy, which had helped to create it. Wars frequently broke out between the Holy Roman Empire and its neighbors, France, Hungary, and Denmark. Wars were also fought within the Empire, as rulers were allowed to fight one another within the larger nation. The Byzantines were also a major opponent of the Holy Roman Empire, but they faded away by the fifteenth century.

The Fall of the Holy Roman Empire

As the rest of the world began to industrialize and people became more and more nationalized, the Holy Roman Empire began to fall behind. Internal squabble had weakened the nation, and Austria had taken over much of the South-East Empire, ruling as its emperor. By the 1700’s, Another state within had taken over a large portion of the Empire, Brandenburg. They eventually broke away from the Empire, forming Prussia, which would eventually take over the German portion, and the emperor at the time, Francis II, dissolved the Empire in 1806 after losing to Napoleon. Prussia would eventually form Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire would be forgotten as the world turned to the colonial nations.

 

The Holy Roman Empire was an integral part of Medieval Europe, setting the foundation for modern nations, cultures, and customs.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

-Charlemagne

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