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Holy Roman Empire, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The Holy Roman Empire was a large empire throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and into the early Nineteenth Century. Its borders changed considerably throughout its history, but at times it spanned most of modern day Central Europe, with borders that covered modern day Germany, France, Austria, The Low Countries, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Northern Italy, and more. The empire also included areas of Southeastern Europe such as Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary. It was never an empire in the truest of senses, with power always being less centralized than in traditional empires. Eventually, the power structure changed until it was truly just a loose federation of principalities before dissolving entirely. However, before that, it covered a vast amount of territory for almost an entire millennium, necessarily meaning the empire had a large influence on the history of the Western World.

The beginning of the Holy Roman Empire is not clear, but it was usually traced back to crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in 800. Charlemagne was previously King of The Franks, a group of Germanic tribes in modern day France. His crowning was a response to the Roman Empire’s capital having moved eastward and becoming the Byzantine Empire in approximately the fourth century. Charlemagne’s coronation was supposed to shift the power in Europe back to the West centuries after the power of the Roman Empire shifted east to Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. This would also have the affect of giving the Catholic Church influence back, as the Byzantine Empire’s primary religion was that of Eastern Orthodoxy. For these reasons, the church had interest in reestablishing the Roman Empire with a western epicenter. In fact, the early name of the Holy Roman Empire was simply the Roman Empire as it was supposed to be seen as the continuation of the original. After the death of Charlemagne, his succession was disputed for generations until the Holy Roman Empire definitively formed.  Otto I, a German who took control in 936, consolidated power of the region through a series of battle victories and by marrying Adelaide, the Queen of Italy. In 962, he was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope in exchange for protecting the Papal States. With this, the Holy Roman Empire had truly formed .

The structure of the Holy Roman Empire varied greatly over the vast reign of its existence. In fact, any organization that lasts one thousand years will change too much over time to have any system last for long enough to be referred to be seen as its definitive structure. However, it consistently featured great deals of input from lower rulers, resisting centralized power. In fact, during the interregnum between Charlemagne and Otto I the rulers of the empire were elected. This election process continued although many elections served only to elect the emperor’s son as an heir. However, in other cases this voting system made the establishing of long term dynasties significantly difficult. The empire was made up of hundreds of smaller regions controlled by dukes, princes, and kings from whom the emperor derived power. The areas they ruled were referred to as Imperial States.

By the end of the Holy Roman Empire, the power had become even less centralized. In 1486, the emperor Frederick III needed money for a war. The only way he could get this was by agreeing to cede some power to an imperial court. At first the imperial court’s votes only served to advise the emperor, but within a century their votes were binding, giving the court more power than the emperor himself passed. Through further disintegration of the central nature of power, the emperor came to have even less control. By the end of the empire, it had been subdivided into smaller groups each with their own parliament and the title of emperor had become almost entirely symbolic.

While the main struggle for power during the Holy Roman Empire was between the emperor and the localized powers, there was another. Especially in the earliest years of the Empire the emperors and popes struggled for control over the region. The original intention for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire was to increase papal power over European affairs. As emperors were crowned by the pope in Rome, the popes thought they would have some sort of control over the actions of the empire. However, early rules like Otto and his immediate successors used their roles to control popes, even replacing those popes that they disagreed with too strongly. This meant that the empire was reducing papal influence, not increasing it as had been initially intended. Later popes would respond to the emperor’s power grabs with reforms that were aimed at reducing the influence of the emperor, including ruling that only select cardinals could become pope.

In perhaps the biggest reform in this struggle between papal and imperial powers, Pope Gregory in the late eleventh century changed the selection process for bishops and abbots, granting the power only to church members. Due to the great deal of power contained in these local church offices, this was greatly challenged. Emperor Henry IV was excommunicated for challenging these new rules, ultimately leading to him invading Rome and naming his own pope. This controversy was ended in 1122, by the Concordat of Worms. This agreement between the Vatican and empire stated that both would have some control over bishops and abbots. Their spiritual obligations still lie with the church, but in their secular duties they would respond to local rulers. With this, both entities were given a level of influence into these paramount offices that they were able to find acceptable.

The religious connection and decentralized power of the empire were a great problem when it was met with the sweeping changes brought across Europe by the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther began it in the Holy Roman Empire territory of Saxony in 1517 when he wrote in disagreement of the church practice of selling indulgences. The reformation was extremely influential in Central Europe and many local rulers throughout the empire pledged their support to it. It was not uncommon for Protestant and Catholic rulers to wage war against one another. It wasn’t until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 that each ruler agreed to allow other rulers to choose their own religion. While this produced peace at the time, the empire was already just a loose collection of states under the banner of religion. With each state now free to practice different religions than other states the unity of the empire was severely weakened.

The final blow to the empire was the Peace of Westphalia, agreed to in various parts throughout 1648. This ended the Thirty Years’ War, fought largely between Catholic and Protestants in the empire. It reinforced the terms contained in the previous Peace of Augsburg. Another result was the official removal of Netherlands and Switzerland from the empire. It was also the creation of an idea known as Westphalia sovereignty, in which each territory was provided with the right to rule itself absent external influence. This was clearly a detriment to centralized power within the empire, which at this point had devolved into an almost unconnected group of sovereign states.

After this long period of decline, the Holy Roman Empire finally dissolved fully when Francis II left the throne, choosing to be recognized only as the head of Austria. No one has been known as Holy Roman Emperor since him. The reason for his abdication was likely the ambition of Napoleon to one day claim the throne himself. By ending the very existence of this throne, Francis assured that Napoleon’s goal would not be achieved.

While there were many factors that caused the empire to decline and end when it did, its very nature made its demise inevitable. For one, as a loose federation it was vulnerable to many issues not normally seen by empires. This includes consistent loss of territory and constant battling between individual states within the empire. Its only connection was religion, and once the Protestant Reformation occurred, the homogeneity of the empire’s religion was gone. Once this occurred there was nothing to connect the vast states and it was only a matter of time for the existence of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was joked by Voltaire that the title of Holy Roman Empire was a misnomer. “Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” was his description of it[i]. In fact, this is true. The empire was led by secular men who often worked against the dominant religious institution of the time. It was based mostly out of Germany, with only the initial coronation and support from the Vatican having a connection to Rome. Finally, throughout great deals of its history it was mostly a loose confederation of states that were largely autonomous. Imperial States frequently went to war with one another based on the disagreements amongst their individual rulers. Therefore, it is true that the empire was not holy, Roman, or even truly an empire. Still the Holy Roman Empire was a massive force upon Europe for centuries. However, ultimately, an organization created by the backing of the Catholic Church could not survive the Protestant Reformation that swept through such a large part of its territory.

[i] Quoted from Alan Kors, “Voltaire and the Triumph of Entertainment”. The Great Courses. University of Pennsylvania

Works Cited

Beaudry, Pierre. “The Treaty of Westphalia.” Schiller Institute and Fidelio Online Home Page.   Schiller Institute. Web. 04 Dec. 2011.  <http://www.schillerinstitute.org/strategic/treaty_of_westphalia.html>.

“Concordat of Worms — Infoplease.com.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.   Infoplease.com. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0852750.html>.

Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of the Holy Roman Empire.” History of The Holy Roman Empire. History World. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=aa35>.

Heer, Friedrich. “The Holy Roman Empire.” John Reilly’s Homepage. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://www.johnreilly.info/thre.htm>.

Hughes, Williams, Karl Sprunner Von Merz, and George Phillip. A Popular Atlas of Comparative Geography. New York: G Phillip and Son, 1870. Print.

Kagan, Donald, Steven E. Ozment, and Frank M. Turner. The Western Heritage. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.

Kors, Alan C. “Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment.” The Great Courses. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=452>.

“Martin Luther.” New Advent: Home. Catholic Encyclopedia. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09438b.htm>.

Pagden, Anthony. “Peoples and Empires: a Short History … – Anthony Pagden.” Google Books. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://books.google.com/books?id=Lnq8UMmQWAMC>.

Sainty, Guy S. “The Holy Roman Empire.” Almanach de la Cour. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://www.chivalricorders.org/nobility/holyroman/>.

Wilson, Peter Hamish. “The Holy Roman Empire, 1495-1806 – Peter Hamish Wilson.”Google    Books. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://books.google.com/books?id=lZobUS-Ar0YC>.

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