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The Holy Roman Empire: Politics & Religion

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  • 0:01 A Long History
  • 1:13 The Nuts and Bolts
  • 2:57 The Habsburgs
  • 4:11 The Empire Disintegrates
  • 6:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the Holy Roman Empire. We will learn about its development, explore its political institutions, meet its leaders, and study its last days.

A Long History

The French philosopher Voltaire once commented that the Holy Roman Empire wasn't holy, Roman, or even an empire, and he was right. The Holy Roman Empire was actually a loose confederation of European states in what is today Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and parts of France, Italy, and Poland. It did, however, exist for over a thousand years.

On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, as emperor of the Romans, reinstating the defunct Roman Empire and establishing a firm cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the secular emperor. When Charlemagne died, the empire fell apart again, only to be revived by Otto I in 962. The Holy Roman Empire, as it was now known, endured many conflicts in the Middle Ages when emperors and the popes didn't always see eye to eye, but it survived and flourished.

The Nuts and Bolts of the Empire

Let's pause for a moment to examine the nuts and bolts, the inner workings, of the empire. Many of its political institutions were established early on, standardized in 1356, tweaked a bit more in the reform of 1495, and lasted in one form or another until the empire's demise.

The Holy Roman Emperor stood at the pinnacle of the empire. He was elected by seven electors, traditionally three archbishops and four secular rulers. The emperor had a broad range of powers, but they were limited in application. He could approve or veto laws, propose and enforce laws, appoint officials, represent the empire internationally, and serve as the empire's ultimate judge, but he could not introduce taxes, declare war, make peace, form alliances, or act as a judge on his own.

To do those things, he needed the approval and cooperation of the Imperial Diet, the empire's legislative branch. The Diet, which was composed of three houses, created the empire's laws and made the final decisions about war and peace. Two courts helped the Diet and the emperor administer justice.

The emperor, Diet, and courts governed a wide variety of states and territories, sometimes over 300 at a time. Many were kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and ecclesiastical territories that paid tribute and allegiance to the empire, but were pretty much sovereign in practice. Others were free imperial cities and villages that were under the direct control of the emperor.

The Era of the Habsburgs

Frederick III was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1452, establishing the Habsburg family's imperial dynasty, which held the throne almost continually for the next 350 years. The Habsburgs came from a long line of German kings, and they married their way into power all over the empire and beyond, eventually reigning over Austria, the Netherlands, Milan, Sicily, and Spain along with the empire.

Under Habsburg rule, the Holy Roman Empire underwent many changes and experienced many challenges. The Protestant Reformation, which began in the 16th century, created religious conflicts as some rulers of imperial territories became Protestant while others remained Catholic. Pretty soon Protestants were fighting Catholics and different Protestant confessions were fighting each other. The religious unity of the empire was shattered. The 1555 Treaty of Augsburg recognized both Catholics and Lutherans as legitimate, banned religious wars, and allowed each ruler to choose a religion for his territory. It was a good attempt at peace, but it didn't last long.

The Empire Disintegrates

Religious rivalries continued to heighten, and in 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years' War ripped through the empire, killing between 1/5 and 1/2 of the population in various territories. Catholics fought Protestants, the empire battled France, princes raged against the emperor, and other countries entered the fray. When it was all over, the Treaty of Westphalia, signed on October 24, 1648, spelled the beginning of the end for the empire, for it completely freed some territories from the emperor's power and made many others stronger and more independent. The empire came out weakened and fragmented.

Over the next century and a half, the power and strength of individual states continued to grow. Austria, for instance, developed its army and centralized its government as it faced a threat from the Turks and fought wars against France. Prussia, too, experienced a swell of national pride as its ruler increased in authority and its government developed. The empire faded into the background.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, various monarchs stepped up to oppose France, but they didn't do so as an empire but rather as individual states and members of coalitions created in moments of need. France steadily pushed into the empire's territories, winning victories and increasing its influence. Feeling the pressure and striving for control, the empire reorganized its territories in 1803, passing many ecclesiastical territories into the hands of secular rulers.

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