Introduction to Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire, a realm in medieval and early modern times that consisted primarily of Germany and that part of Italy governed by the German ruler. The empire, which lasted from 962 to 1806, was in theory a revival of the Western Roman Empire—the political counterpart of the Roman Catholic Church.

Holy Roman Empire.Holy Roman Empire. This map shows the Holy Roman empire at its height. During the 1000's, the Holy Roman Empire extended from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

The emperor generally dominated the various states and principalities that made up the German nation (which included present-day Austria, the Czech Republic, part of Poland, Luxembourg, and other bordering areas) as well as northern Italy. The emperor was chosen by electors representing certain states and dioceses, but the position tended to become hereditary, as the electors usually selected the ruler's natural heir. He customarily was crowned emperor by the pope in Rome.

Holy Roman Empire flag.Holy Roman Empire flag. The Holy Roman Empire flag flew in what is now Germany from the 1200's until 1806. It features a large bird on a yellow background.

The emperor's power depended largely on his personal and family inheritances, and on alliances. Charles V, for example, when elected emperor in 1519, was also king of Spain and his domain included the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and Spanish America. His son, Philip, was the husband of the ruling queen of England (Mary I). Charles gave Austria to his brother Ferdinand, who was also king of Bohemia and of Hungary and succeeded him as emperor. Spain, however, went to his son, who became Philip II of Spain.


After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 475 A.D., the Lombard tribe in northern Italy frequently encroached on lands held by the pope. In 753–54 Pope Stephen II traveled to Germany to appeal for help from Pepin the Short, king of the Franks. Pepin subdued the Lombards and declared the pope ruler of all church property holdings in Italy.

The Lombards, however, continued to be a threat to the popes. Pepin's son, Charlemagne, made a number of expeditions to Italy to protect papal interests. In 800, in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Roman emperor. This event is often considered the origin of the Holy Roman Empire. However, Charlemagne's empire was divided among three of his grandsons by the Treaty of Verdun (843) and soon broke into numerous feudal states that resisted the authority of the monarchs. Charlemagne's descendants enjoyed the honorary title of emperor, but had little or no empire to go with it.

In Italy, meanwhile, Roman nobles had usurped the political authority of the papacy. In 954 Pope John XII appealed to the German king, Otto (I) the Great, for aid. Otto invaded Italy in 962 and was crowned Roman emperor by the pope. (The word “Holy” was added in the 12th century.)

For the next 850 years the title of (Holy) Roman emperor was held by German sovereigns. The empire consisted of Germany and, at first, of northern Italy as far south as Rome. During one period it included the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Italians, however, fiercely resented German rule and revolted frequently. After the middle of the 13th century, Germany made little effort to govern Italy.

Holy Roman Empire in 1250.Holy Roman Empire in 1250. This map shows the territory of the Holy Roman Empire in 1250. The empire extended from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and from Eastern France to Poland. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a personal possession of the emperor, was geographically separated from the empire by the Papal States.

In 1356 Charles IV issued the Golden Bull, which formally established the principle of an elective monarchy for the empire. This document specified that the emperor be elected by the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, and the rulers of Saxony, Bohemia, Brandenburg, and the Palatinate.

After the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) the German states were sharply divided by religious and political differences and the influence of the emperor declined. In the 18th century the French writer Voltaire remarked that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The emperor ruled Austria and was still king of Hungary, but elsewhere his title had more shadow than substance. In 1806 Napoleon I forced the dissolution of the empire, its ruler becoming merely the emperor of Austria.