British Museum blog

The Holy Roman Empire: from Charlemagne to Napoleon


Joachim Whaley, Professor of German History and Thought, University of Cambridge

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

The object labelled Charlemagne’s crown in the British Museum’s exhibition Germany: memories of a nation reminds us of a long history that ended over a century before the Third Reich began, but which nonetheless continues to shape Germany and German-speaking Europe even today. Like the polity which it recalls, the crown has a complex history. The object itself is a replica made in 1913 of the imperial crown which was once kept in Nuremberg and has been in Vienna since 1796. This crown almost certainly originated around AD 960, made by a Lower Rhineland workshop, perhaps in Cologne. Whether Charlemagne himself was actually crowned is unclear and while we know that he crowned his son at Aachen in 813 we do not know what crown was used.

Gold solidus of Emperor Charlemagne. France, AD 768-814

Gold solidus of Emperor Charlemagne. France, AD 768-814

Even so, the crown has come to stand for the Holy Roman Empire which originated in Charlemagne’s Frankish realm, which comprised much of what we know as France and Germany. It was in the eastern part of this kingdom that a German monarchy became established in the 9th and 10th centuries. The legitimacy and special status of this monarchy derived substantially from its presumed descent from Charlemagne and from the inheritance of his role as protector of the papacy and guardian of the Church. This was implicit in the title Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as the German polity formally became known around 1500.

The special nature of the empire was also reflected in its election and coronation procedures. German rulers were elected as kings by their German peers. They were crowned at Aachen and then again at Rome by the pope. The first made them German kings; the second made them Roman emperors. The place of coronation moved to Frankfurt in the sixteenth century and the Roman coronation was discontinued. The German king now assumed the title of ‘elected Roman emperor’ when he was crowned at Frankfurt, which reflected a more distant relationship with the papacy in the early modern period.

From the outset the German monarchy inherited the interest in Italy that Charlemagne had developed by virtue of his protectorate over the papacy. In the time of the Hohenstaufen dynasty from 1138 to 1254 this became an overriding obsession and Frederick II even lived exclusively in Sicily and southern Italy. Thereafter, however, the significance of Italy for the empire declined, though Tuscany, Modena, Parma, Milan and Savoy remained fiefdoms of the emperors until the nineteenth century.

The main territories of the empire were German, and these were the only ones that came to have votes in the assemblies of prince and cities, known as the Reichstag or imperial diet from the fifteenth century. They included bishops and other ecclesiastical dignitaries, secular princes and free cities, all of whom enjoyed significant independence in the regulation of their domestic affairs within the framework of the empire. At first they were subject only to their feudal obligations to the emperor, and later to legislation agreed by them at the diet.
The most important fiefs were those ecclesiastical and secular princes who actually elected the kings and emperors. In 1356 the Golden Bull, which codified the election arrangements in a fundamental law that remained valid until 1806, formally designated seven princes as electors. They enjoyed particular prestige but their rights were otherwise identical to those of the other princes and by the imperial cities.

The elective system and the retention of significant rights by the German princes and towns, often referred to as the ‘old German liberty’, meant that the German polity developed as a vast decentralised federation. Despite having a designated place of coronation, it never had a capital city. The imperial diet came to be held at the free city of Regensburg and other key institutions were located at Wetzlar, Vienna and elsewhere. This ensured the survival of a proliferation of courts and cities which each sponsored culture and the arts; first the visual arts, architecture and literature, then music as well. But in the later Middle Ages it also led to disorder and lawlessness.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I,  wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece over a brocaded mantle, and a fur-trimmed hat with an oval medallion of the Virgin and Child attached to the brim. Woodcut, 1518.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I, wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece over a brocaded mantle, and a fur-trimmed hat with an oval medallion of the Virgin and Child attached to the brim. Woodcut, 1518.

The solution to the inner instability of the empire in the fifteenth century came in the form of a series of agreements reached in the reign of Maximilian I (1493-1519). These set up a supreme court to resolve disputes and a series of regional organisations to implement its decisions. The assemblies of the princes and cities now also formally became the Reichstag (diet), which was designated co-ruler of the empire alongside the emperor.

No sooner established, this system was challenged by the Reformation. The church reform movement which swept through the empire following Luther’s rejection of papal authority in 1517 represented an acute threat to stability. Charles V (1519-1556) wanted to stamp out Lutheranism, but many princes saw this as an infringement of their rights. Indeed many viewed the Lutheran reform movement as a welcome opportunity to reform the church in their lands and to extend their authority over them. Since the Reichstag could not agree, it was decided in 1526 that each prince or city should have the right to determine whether they embraced reform or remained loyal to the Catholic Church. Despite many subsequent disputes, some of them escalating into military conflict, this principle remained fundamental to the empire until 1806.

The last attempt by an emperor – Ferdinand II (1619-37) – to reassert Catholicism in the empire precipitated the Thirty Years War. He failed to achieve his ambition and in 1648 the Peace of Westphalia reaffirmed the rights of the princes and cities and affirmed Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism as the three equally privileged confessions of the empire. It also added safeguards for the rights of subjects who did not share the official faith of the territory in which they lived.

Bronze medal with portraits of Charlemagne and Napoleon, designed by Bertrand Andrieu, 1806

Bronze medal with portraits of Charlemagne and Napoleon, designed by Bertrand Andrieu, 1806

As a system which both guaranteed the liberties of the princes and cities and secured the rights of their subjects the Holy Roman Empire existed until it was destroyed by Napoleon. It remains the longest lived political system in German history. And it was unquestionably better than many that succeeded it.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.

In the episode Fragments of Power, Neil MacGregor discovers how coins reveal the range and diversity of the Holy Roman Empire, with around 200 different currencies struck in the different territories of Germany.

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The sands of time: ancient Egypt and early film

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film, British Film Institute

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

The British Museum’s new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest imaging technology to help us understand the realities of life and death in ancient Egypt. We have all seen computer-generated images of mummies brought to life in film and TV, for example in The Mummy film franchise that produced 6 films between 1998 and 2012. But if we go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the Museum visitor would have had a similar preparation. When cinema was born in the 1890s, audiences that came to see the latest novelty would already have been thoroughly familiar with images of ancient Egypt after a century of Egyptomania – Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, high profile excavations, public mummy unwrappings and Champollion’s well publicised decipherment of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s.

Illustrations of pyramids and tombs littered the illustrated press, and mummies and other artefacts displayed in museums all meant that the iconography of ancient Egypt was instantly recognisable, just as it is today. Elements such as palm trees, sphinxes, hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, the eye of Horus, feathered fans, camels and papyrus scrolls were endlessly recycled for interior décor and stage and film sets. The imagery is very adaptable and very reducible. A simple backdrop of sand, a pyramid and a palm tree and there you are! In the 1890s, ancient Egypt was a source of fascination across the Western world, but particularly in the United States, which adopted it to represent a continuity between ancient civilisation and the emerging status as a superpower: Egypt was preferable to the iconography of ancient Greece and Rome as it neatly side-stepped the legacy of the later civilisations of Europe; the USA wanted something new and unfamiliar, and so ancient Egypt rather ironically becomes associated with modernism. The Western Electric Company built an Egyptian Temple display, complete with glowing electric lights at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, complete with telephone exchange operated by scantily clad Egyptian maids, and a group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. Ancient Egyptians seem to have been blessed (or cursed) with the power of time travel for hundreds of years. In England, the connection between ancient Egypt and early film is neatly encapsulated in the fact that the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style – the legendary Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (completed 1812, demolished 1905) – was the site of the public showings of some of the earliest films.

Not only a decorative scheme, ancient Egypt was packed full of stories with great potential for literature and the screen: Bible stories about pharaohs and Exodus, but particularly queenly power, such as the figure of Cleopatra incorporating the exotic, the erotic, and a certain level of allowable nudity. Other narratives had a horror element: talented architects (such as Imhotep) who end up walled up inside tombs, over-mighty kings, slaves, obsession with death and the afterlife (reserved for the powerful), mummification and reincarnation. A recurring theme is one of magic and transformation – mummies come alive, they turn into other things, scarabs and jewels of Egyptian princesses are cursed and change people or carry people across time. Cinema’s unique property is the ability to show these transformations and visualise stories of past civilisations as if they were really happening.

As ancient Egypt was discovered through its archaeological remains, so the stories we have are very focused on architecture and particularly the architecture of death, which lends itself well to film adaptation. Film’s ability to revivify scenes lost in time, both past and future, can re-people an environment that is generally speaking one of dessiccation. Ancient Egypt is the furthest great civilisation that 19th-century man could get back to in historical terms – the point where history met myth. The bleak romance of those cold sands of time – in which a man’s footprint makes an impression that is instantly obliterated by the wind – lent a gravitas to stories which could be exploited by popular culture including film echoing the pharaohs themselves, who left no linear history of their civilisation, just an endless succession of repeated histories, each king trying to destroy the past of his immediate predecessor. Only with the supreme effort of an over-mighty ruler with thousands of slaves could some permanent impression on the landscape be made.

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias: ... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Statue of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias:
… My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

That grandeur and melancholy about Egypt that we find in Shelley’s Ozymandias lends a gravitas to films set in Egypt, as it plays on our long-term preoccupation with our origins, the rise and fall of civilisations, and the fear that everything we hold dear will one day be dust. This epic quality is probably only equalled by stories set in the distant future, in space.

The reason that ancient Egypt is endlessly recycled through film, starting from these earliest examples, is that it plays to the strengths of cinema itself; the bringing closer of the real landscape seen in travelogues and newsreel report and cinema’s greatest magic trick, rendering the familiar stories through the instantly recognisable iconography and visualising the romanticised past.


The British Film Institute (BFI) exists to promote greater understanding and appreciation of, and access to, film and moving image culture in the UK.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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