In 800 AD, the Catholic Church and European monarchies came closer together than they had ever been before. Always closely aligned, the coronation of Charlemagne as the “Holy Roman Emperor” tied their stories together forever.
However, by the end of the 9th century, Charlemagne had died and no one could agree on who should rule in his place. The Holy Roman Empire was no more.
So much for that.
But wait! There’s more.
In the 10th century, a man named Otto I became the King of Germany. From there he conquered the Kingdom of Italy and forged alliances with other powerful kings to bring them into a unified political federation. Add in some support from the Pope and voila! the Holy Roman Empire was born again.
Reforming the Holy Roman Empire: The Rise of Otto I
When Charlemagne died in 814 AD, his heirs squabbled over who should take over. In the end, they couldn’t agree (surprise!), and his kingdom was divided into three parts.
These three kingdoms were known as the Western, Easten, and Central Frankish Kingdoms.
Though at one point united under Charlemagne’s Kingdom of the Franks, these realms were ethnically and culturally distinct. The western parts retained much of their Latin heritage (the Roman empire lived on), which is why modern French has its roots in ancient Latin. Meanwhile, the eastern part was much more German.
Over time, the Western Frankish kingdom went on to assert its own authority, eventually becoming the Kingdom of France, which comes from the word “Frank.”
The Central Frankish Kingdom was caught in between, much like the middle child, and was eventually broken up and consumed by the Eastern and Western Frankish Empire.
The Eastern Frankish Kingdom went on to form an empire. But before it was known as an empire, it underwent a name change.
Uniting the Kingdom of Germany
It all started with Otto I. He rose to power as the Duke of Saxony, a region in Northern Germany, in the 10th century. A duke was a powerful medieval noble responsible for governing an entire region. He usually had a number of less powerful nobles working underneath him to rule specific cities and counties.
Given their position, it wasn’t uncommon for dukes to rise up and challenge the king, especially if they had strong command over a large army.
This is exactly what Otto had. And this is exactly what he did.
But before he could look to faraway lands to bring into his realm, he had to first unite the people around him. Using their common language and their fervent Catholicism, and don’t forget a little bit of force, he managed to bring the realms of Lorraine, Swabia, and Bavaria, all regions in modern Germany, under one crown.
This marks the beginning of the Kingdom of Germany.
Happy birthday, Germany!
Conquering the Kingdom of Italy
What powerful monarch has ever stopped after their first round of victories? Pretty much none. And Otto had the perfect target for his next round of conquests: Italy
The Italian peninsula had lacked strong central leadership pretty much since the fall of Rome.
The Bishop of Rome, aka the Pope, held a good deal of power in the region, but so did the Byzantine empire and the Lombards, a Germanic speaking people who had established their own kingdom in the northern parts of the peninsula.
A royal pain in the you know what to both the people of southern Italy and the Byzantine emperors, the Lombards were just powerful enough to remain independent but not strong enough to expand beyond their tiny region in North Italy.
Seeking to put an end to the ongoing battle of who was in charge of Italy, he and his army moved in at the end of the 10th century and took it by force. He then named himself the King of Italy. From this point forward, the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Germany were forever intertwined.
Talk about a killer BOGO deal!
The “Holy Roman Empire” is Reborn
Remember Charlemagne? The king of the Franks who was named Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD more or less to his total surprise.
Well, when he died, this title kind of disappeared. But with the victories of Otto, the Pope saw another opportunity to make himself look good. He revived the title and named Otto as the new Holy Roman Emperor.
Was the Holy Roman Empire Actually an Empire?
Today, we call the union of the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Germany the birth of an empire. Later on in history, other powerful kingdoms in the region joined in on the fun. First it was the Kingdom of Burgundy, located in southeastern France. Then the Kingdom of Bohemia, a region that roughly corresponds with the modern Czech Republic.
At first glance, this seems like an empire. But was it?
It’s got an emperor, sure. But that was a largely symbolic title given out by the Pope to expand Church power. Over time, the most powerful kings of Europe got together and voted on the next “Holy Roman Emperor,” but considered this leader “first among equals” and not a supreme leader like emperors usually are.
Okay, so the Holy Roman Empire only sort of had an emperor. But at least it had some form of strong, centralized government, right?
Oh, no, sorry. It didn’t have that either.
In fact, the administration of the Holy Roman Empire was extremely decentralized. Most of the authority was in the hands of local aristocracy. These societal high-ups were beholden to whichever noble was above them, who was ultimately beholden to his king, who was supposed to follow the orders of the “emperor.”
But there was no centralized army or other institution to enforce the will of the emperor, and so local officials often grew quite independent.
The Influence of the Church
And then there was the church. Most people living inside the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire were devout Christians, and they would be willing to listen to local church officials as much if not more so than their local lord.
In the end, no matter how powerful the aristocracy was, they were no match for God.
This even further limited the power of the nobility and put them in direct competition with the Church for political power.
But attaching his power over the Church to the legacy of Rome helped elevate the Pope’s position in Medieval society to one of supreme power.
Unifying Europe by Mixing God with Rome
Though the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, roughly 500 years after the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, people still believed in “Rome.” There was this notion that the Roman Empire was the only authority that could rule over the people of Europe.
The “Eternal Rome” they called it.
That’s just how powerful the Roman legacy was.
Using the title “Roman emperor” helped establish a link to what people perceived as their glorious past. They remembered the times of the Roman Empire as a bright spot in their history. Reviving the name and the concept was a way of playing on people’s emotions and making claims to power over large swaths of territory more legitimate.
According to the Pope, who was the leader of Rome itself, he was the only one who could declare a Roman emperor. Anyone else who tried was simply an imposter.
Because of his influence with the people of Europe, most went along with this. Devout Christians felt their leaders needed the blessing of the Pope, and this brought the Church to the forefront of Medieval politics.
The Establishment of Christendom
Crowning the King of Germany and Italy as a “Roman emperor” not only linked him to the glory of the past but it suggested some sort of unity amongst the Christian kingdoms of the west. This notion of a unified Christian kingdom is often referred to as Christendom and the very existence of this idea helped enhance the Pope’s power.
Over time, this precedent that a monarch needed the Pope to be legitimate spread to other realms. Eventually, the kings of England, France, and Spain, looked to the Pope to support their claims of power due to his influence amongst the Christians living in their land. And the Pope even started the practice of denouncing kings he didn’t like or that didn’t agree with his politics.
Just like that, the Pope put himself in the center of European politics.
Of course, he wasn’t all powerful.
In fact, much of the history of the Holy Roman Empire is defined by the struggles between the political and religious leaders of Europe. But no matter who was in charge, this decision to link the Church with the main political entity of western Europe reshaped power dynamics and created the conditions for Church power to grow.
Enshrining Feudalism and Establishing Some “Peace”
The decentralized nature of the Holy Roman Empire helped cement feudalism as the main political structure of Europe.
The system of feudalism was based around the granting of land in exchange for political and military support. The idea was that the king technically owned all the land, but he could grant some of it to his vassals, those who served him, who could then find vassals of their own.
The exchange was land for loyalty. And people were willing to go along with this because land meant money, which also meant power.
In the first few centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, this political structure was quite messy. Things started to solidify during the Carolingian dynasty and thr Holy Roman Empire added some much needed structure to the feudal system.
The emperor was the first among the kings, then there were the kings, then their dukes, earls, barons, and so on and so on. It brought some order to an otherwise chaotic world of aristocratic feuds and alliances.
This helped the economy of central Europe grow. Kingdoms that historically had done nothing but fight with one another began to cooperate, and extensive trade networks developed throughout the kingdom.
Far from a fully unified political entity, the Holy Roman Empire established some order in Medieval society that formed the foundation of the modern, interconnected Europe we have today.
The Decline of the Holy Roman Empire and the Rise of a New Order
Somewhat ironically, these things that the Holy Roman Empire did for Europe also led to its own decline.
A growing economy bolstered by trade and cooperation forced more and more people into cities, reducing the role of agriculture and making feudalism less effective. Lords could no longer get as much from land grants as they once could, which made them less powerful and more likely to rebel.
Furthermore, people began to become increasingly frustrated with the role the Church was playing in the politics of Europe. Many people believed that the Church had become an entirely corrupt organization and no longer had the interest of God at its core.
By the 16th century, reform movements were spreading all across Europe and were set to completely change the political landscape. Finally, in the early 1800s, the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded.
But it had a good run. Just a touch over 1,000 years to be exact. During that time, it dramatically reshaped the European world by boosting the power of the Pope, enshrining feudalism, and creating conditions for economic growth.
Not bad for an empire that wasn’t actually an empire. Not bad at all.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao