Much of the history of the Holy Roman Empire was one of conflict and intrigue: among emperors and popes, emperors and nobles, and nobles themselves. Periods shaped by forces that fostered centralization of power in the hands of strong and capable emperors were eclipsed by developments that threatened to tear apart the Empire due to personal weaknesses or military miscalculations by the holders of the imperial title. Several generations of extraordinarily wise and astute rulers were inevitably followed by the collapse of dynasties and periods of political turmoil and social misery.
The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. led to the formation of various Germanic kingdoms throughout the former territory. The Visigoths and other invaders attempted to carry on the Roman civilization, but lacked the administrative capabilities, technological know-how, and economic wherewithal to do so. They, in turn, also collapsed within a few generations. For the inhabitants of the former Roman domain, there was continuing danger from Germanic tribes, other marauders that are said to have been successors to the Huns, and, beginning in the 7th century, Arab raiders and armies. The Byzantine emperor’s control over those lands was nominal. The Roman Catholic Church was organizationally weak and doctrinally disorganized.
In the 8th century, the situation improved. A new line of kings had been elected by the nobles of a Germanic people, the Franks. The most prominent was a warrior-king, Charles. He defeated other German tribes and pushed against the Muslims in Spain whose advance into Frankish territory had been stopped by his grandfather, Charles the Hammer. Pope Leo III, eager to distance himself from the political and religious influences of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, and hoping to spread the influence of the Catholic Church through the physical security offered by the Franks, crowned Charles emperor on Christmas Day, 800 A.D. Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne, as he came to be known, was proclaimed the successor to the Roman Empire in the west. Indeed, from the imperial capital at Aachen, in the current Germany, he governed, as “Emperor of the Romans,” an area of Europe larger than anything seen since that empire.
Three decades after his death, Charlemagne’s realm was divided among his grandsons. Several centuries later, the western portion became the kingdom of France. The eastern portion became the German dominions. The end of the Carolingian dynasty in 911 resulted in the fracturing of the eastern portion. There were strong tribal loyalties within the various ancestral German domains, centered on several dukedoms and on the holdings of other, less powerful local strongmen.
In 936, Otto, the duke of the Saxons, a particularly warlike people who had been barely Christianized through force by Charlemagne a century earlier, was elected King of the Germans by the other nobles. A successful military campaigner who extended the eastern Frankish realm, Otto was given the imperial title in 962, after the Pope had appealed to him for military help. Referred to as Otto the Great, he established a new dynasty of emperors. His grandson, Otto III, revived the imperial seal of Charlemagne which had the motto, in Latin, that stood for “Renewal of the Roman Empire.” He understood this to be a clearly Christian empire, not only a political unit as imperium romanum, as reflected in his designation of the realm as imperium christianum. The successors of Otto III were weak and saw themselves as primarily German kings who happened to have holdings in Italy, not as rulers of a multicultural and transcendent Christian empire.
Once political conditions in western Europe became relatively settled by the end of the 10th century, the era of the warrior-king was succeeded by the era of the great landholding magnates. High feudalism emerged as the dominant social and political structure. Wealth, social standing, and power were based on land ownership and formalized through personal obligations between lords and vassals. On the continent more so than in England, local great men were independent of the emperor, who was addressed at times as “King of Germany” or the “German Roman Emperor.” These nobles retained their ancestral privileges and often claimed new ones.
Nevertheless, the idea of Empire remained alive. This political tension of a universal empire, yet of a German people, led externally to frequent, and not always enthusiastic or well-received, involvement of the Germans in the affairs of Italian communities. Internally, it resulted in the strange federal structure of what formally became known in the 13th century as the Holy Roman Empire. The interactions between emperors and popes further underscored the claims to universality. Papal coronation bestowed God’s recognition of the emperors’ legitimacy as secular rulers in Christendom. Refusal by a pope to grant that legitimacy, or removing it later by issuing a ban on the emperor, endangered the emperor’s rule by absolving the people, particularly the nobility, of loyalty to their earthly lord and excused them from fealty to any oath sworn to that lord. In a society vastly more religious than ours, within a feudal structure fundamentally based on mutual personal loyalties and obligations, such a development could prove fatal to the ruler.
After the end of the Saxon Ottonian line in 1024 and of its successors, the Frankish Salians, control over the Holy Roman Empire shifted in 1127 to a family from another part of the realm, the Hohenstaufen line from the Duchy of Swabia in southwest Germany. Under their best-known ruler, the charismatic and militarily and politically astute Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (“Red beard”) from 1155 to 1190, the Empire achieved its greatest geographical expanse. Shortly after the rule of his similarly powerful grandson, Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen line ended, and the Great Interregnum brought considerable turmoil to the Empire and contests among various noble families for the imperial title. Rival emperors from different houses were chosen, and a general decline of the Empire’s territory and influence occurred. Not until the 16th century did the Empire regain a prominent position in Europe.
The struggle between emperor and nobles ebbed and flowed, depending significantly on the dynamism and capabilities of the emperors. These contests were endemic, with a parallel for several centuries in the conflict between the emperors and the popes. An example of the latter was the Investiture Controversy over the right to name local church leaders which led to a half-century of civil strife in Germany in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and ended with the emperor’s powers reduced as against popes and local nobles. Even as strong an emperor as Frederick II out of political expediency had to confirm, in statutes of 1220 and 1232, previously only customary privileges to the nobles, such as over tolls, coinage, and fortifications.
In 1493, Maximilian I from the Habsburg family, became Holy Roman Emperor. From that year, the Habsburg line provided an almost uninterrupted sequence of emperors until the Empire was abolished in 1806. A significant change in outlook under Maximilian was a turn to a more national identity and the stirrings of a nascent nation-state, in part due to the proposed Imperial Reform during the late 15th century supported by the energetic Maximilian. As a consequence, the realm began to be known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
The Imperial Reform of 1495 was an attempt to modernize the administration of the realm and to increase the power of the emperor through more centralized governance. Aside from some success in making aspects of legal administration uniform through the use of Roman Law, the reforms came to naught by being ignored in the local principalities. There, the rulers generally strove to exercise the absolute powers of monarchs in England and France. As to the Empire, these local nobles guarded their privileges. Not to be outdone, the independent imperial “free” German cities, with their rising populations and increasingly powerful commercial bourgeoisie, were no less jealous of their privileges than the landed nobility.
The problem with the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire in the eyes of the framers of the American Constitution of 1787 was the overall weakness of the emperor in relation to the nobles. The Empire was a federal system, but, in their view, an unsuccessful version. The criticism is, overall, a fair one. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing in The Federalist repeatedly identified the sources of weakness. Both emphasized the straightened financial circumstances in which the emperor frequently found himself to fund the costs of imperial government or necessary military actions against foreign countries. That difficulty was due at least in part to the obstructions created by local rulers to the flow of commerce.
Hamilton mentioned in Federalist Number 12 the emperor’s inability to raise funds, despite the “great extent of fertile, cultivated, and populous territory, a large proportion of which is situated in mild and luxuriant climates. In some parts of this territory are to be found the best gold and silver mines in Europe. And yet, from the want of the fostering influence of commerce, that monarch can boast but slender revenues.” Along the same lines, quoting from the Encyclopedia, he wrote in Number 22, “The commerce of the German empire is in continual trammels, from the multiplicity of the duties which the several princes and states enact upon the merchandises passing through their territories; by means of which the fine streams and navigable rivers with which Germany is so happily watered, are rendered almost useless.” In Number 42, Madison seconded Hamiltons’s point, “In Germany, it is a law of the empire, that the princes and states shall not lay tolls or customs on bridges, rivers, or passages, without the consent of the emperor and diet [the parliament]; though it appears from a quotation in an antecedent paper, that the practice in this, as in many other instances in that confederacy, has not followed the law, and has produced there the mischiefs which have been foreseen here.” Both writers painted this bleak picture as an omen of what would occur in the United States under the Article of Confederation. The Constitution would prevent this problem because, there, Congress was given “a superintending authority over the reciprocal trade of [the] confederated states.”
More fundamentally, however, the problem of the Empire and, by analogy, the United States under the Articles of Confederation was in the structure itself, an imperium in imperio, a state exercising sovereignty within another state. In Number 19 of The Federalist, Madison presented a lengthy overview of the Empire’s history. He identified problems with the structure, such as the difficulty to meet military emergencies or collect requisitions. The emperor had no holdings as such, only in his position as a hereditary sovereign in his ancestral lands or those acquired by marriage. Madison dismissed the Empire as a playground of foreign rulers because of the conflicts among the members of the Empire and between the emperor and the nobles large and small. This division allowed foreign rulers to split the allegiances of the nobles and to keep the empire weak. The worst example of this was the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. While there were limitations on the powers of the nobles, and while the emperor had various prerogatives, these were paper powers, not real. Ultimately, the problem was that the empire was a community of sovereigns.
In support of Madison’s critique, one can look at one locus of power, the Reichstag, the name for the Imperial Diet or parliament. The Diet in some form already existed during Charlemagne’s time. Originally intended as a forum for discussions, not as a modern legislative body, by the 11th century it presented a serious counterweight to the emperor and a source of power for the nobles in two ways. First, the Diet participated in the making of law, typically through a collaborative manner with the emperor. Second, certain members of the Diet elected the Emperor.
The Diet during the Middle Ages comprised two “colleges.” That number was eventually raised to three as feudalism gave way to a more commercial modern society, and the growing importance of the bourgeoisie in the cities required representation of their estate. Each member of those colleges in essence represented a sovereignty, and the Diet in that light was a “community of sovereigns.” When the Diet met, the colleges and the emperor attended together. All were seated in a carefully prescribed manner, respecting their rank, with the emperor front and center and raised at least three feet above all others. Voting might be either per individual or per collegium as an estate in a complicated arrangement, depending on the rank of that individual and group.
The most important of these groups was the college of electors, which represented another locus of power in the Empire. Not only did the prince-electors vote individually, rather than as an estate, but they had the important occasional task of electing the emperor, the third institution of power. There was a fourth locus of power in the Empire, that is, the pope. Papal influence precipitated many political crises in medieval Europe, because the emperor was not properly installed until crowned by the pope, a practice discontinued after Charles V in the 16th century. However, papal influence is not crucial to an examination of the Empire’s political constitution as that structure influenced the debates over the American Constitution of 1787.
The election of the emperors was derived from the ancient practice of German tribal councils to elect their leaders for life. The direct male heirs of a deceased ruler generally had the advantage in any succession claim, but heredity was never a guarantee. That practice was extended first to the election of the kings of Germany by the dukes of the largest tribes in the 10th century, and then to the election of the emperors in the 13th century. Initially, the number of electors was somewhat fluid, but eventually there were four set secular and three set ecclesiastical electors. Over time, the membership was increased to nine and, briefly, to ten electors. The ecclesiastic rulers from certain archbishoprics eventually were replaced by secular electors, and, in time, the secular rulers themselves might be replaced by others as power shifted among rulers of various local domains.
A critical moment came with the promulgation of the Golden Bull of 1356 by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg. A “bull” in this usage is derived from the Latin word for a seal attached to a document. Because of such a decree’s significance, the imperial seal attached to this document was made of gold. This particular golden bull was the closest thing to a written constitution of the Empire. It was the result of the political instability caused by contested elections and succession controversies. It specified the number—seven—and identity—by secular or ecclesiastical domain—of the imperial electors. Procedures were set for the emperor’s election, the specific functions of the electors were prescribed, and an order of succession was provided if an elector died. For example, to prevent rival claims from lingering and dragging the realm into disunity and war, the deliberations of the electors must result in a timely decision. Failure to decide on an emperor within 30 days in theory would result in the electors being given only bread and water as sustenance until they concluded their task.
Also significant was the Golden Bull’s undermining of the emperor’s power. Sometimes described as a German analogue to the Magna Charta of 1215 imposed by the English nobility on King John, it affirmed the privileges of the nobility against the emperor. Tolls and coinage were the right of the nobles in their domains. Crimes against them, including presumably through actions by the emperor, became treason against the empire itself. The rulings of their courts could not be appealed to the emperor. With a few notable episodic exceptions, such as the rule of Maximilian I and Charles V in the 16th century, this decree put the Empire on a gradual path to disintegration and reconfiguration as independent nations-states.
Voltaire is credited with the quip in his Essay on Customs in 1756 that the Empire was “neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.” Whatever might have been the veracity of his derision half a millennium earlier, when he wrote the essay his satire did not require much nuanced reflection on the part of his readers. The emperor in a basic sense was always the primus inter pares, and his power rested on the prestige of his title, the size and wealth of his own ancestral domain, and his skills as a political operator and military leader. Even with the emergence of the modern nation-state, the Holy Roman Empire remained just a confederation of de facto sovereignties, a matter underscored by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The Habsburg ruler’s power was a far cry from the classic imperium of Octavian.
With the Reformation and the rise of the self-confident nation-state, the Roman and classic medieval idea of the universal Christian empire also became anachronistic. And it was no longer “Roman.” The conscious effort of Frederick I Barbarossa in the 12th century to demonstrate that the Empire was “Roman” stands in stark contrast with the 16th century, when emperors and the Diet emphasized its German character. As constituent German entities in the Empire, such as Prussia and Bavaria, grew more powerful, the struggles between emperor and nobles intensified and sharpened into outright wars as between independent nations. The imperial structure and its institutions, such as the Diet, became weaker and, indeed, irrelevant. Despite some belated and ineffectual efforts at reform and reorganization around the turn of the 19th century, the Empire, the thousand-year Reich, was dissolved a half-century after Voltaire’s remark, when Napoleon’s army crushed the emperor’s forces and effected the abdication of Francis II in 1806.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.