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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