Holy Roman Empire

   Created on the basis of the Carolingian state of the eighth-century Franks, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was first held by Charlemagne from 800 until his death in 814. The Frankish ruler received the title, somewhat reluctantly, from Pope Leo III (r. 795–816), thus laying the groundwork for an ambiguity that plagued imperial politics from the empire’s inception down to its dissolution at the beginning of the 19th century. Who, ultimately, was Christendom’s supreme authority, pope or emperor? At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I had proclaimed that his own office was responsible for the spiritual welfare of Christendom and the Holy Roman Emperor was charged with securing secular order. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two officials was never that clear-cut.
   The popes and emperors vied with each other throughout medieval and early modern times over theoretical and practical understandings of their competence. By the end of the Middle Ages, the papacy had clearly prevailed. Though the emperor was formally sovereign in the German lands and in certain areas of the Italian peninsula as well, his authority was increasingly more nominal than real. As late as the beginning of the 15th century, the emperor still spoke for the German territories in matters of foreign policy and defense and was responsible for domestic peace and some higher forms of justice. He also had the right to confer and remove titles, a crucial power as long as the German lands were largely governed by princely territorial authority grounded in the imperial constitution. Nevertheless, the dominant tendency of German imperial politics, from at least the 13th century on, was the strengthening of territorial rule in Germany at the expense of imperial control. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which territorialized the Catholic, Lutheran, and after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Calvinist churches, further reinforced these developments.
   Habsburg Austria, and even the larger entity of the Habsburg Empire, played central roles in the Holy Roman Empire until its collapse. The Lower Austria of the Middle Ages was the eastern march (Ostmark) of the Carolingian and of the Holy Roman Empires; its Babenberg, then Habsburg rulers were often central figures in medieval German politics and culture. The Tyrol, Styria, Carinthia, and the Vorarlberg were important parts of the Holy Roman Empire, as was Salzburg, then governed by a prince-bishop. All were liable for some imperial taxes levied upon their holdings. Moreover, Habsburg involvement with the Holy Roman Empire went far beyond the Austrian lands. From the latter third of the 13th century down to the middle of the 15th, Habsburgs served off and on as emperors. From 1440 until they formally laid down the emperorship in 1806, the dynasty held the imperial office, except for the years between 1742 and 1745. When they became kings of Bohemia in 1526, the Habsburgs could also participate in choosing the emperor, because the title made its holder an imperial elector along with the archbishops of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz and the territorial rulers of Brandenburg, the Rhenish Palatinate, and Saxony.
   The ambitions of the Habsburgs and those of the imperial estates, made up of three chambers representing electors, spiritual and secular princes, and towns, were rarely congruent. The estates always suspected that Habsburg-inspired reforms were more in the interests of the dynasty than of Germany as a whole. They therefore refused to cooperate with efforts on the parts of such rulers as Maximilian I, Charles V (1500–1558), and Ferdinand I to create some form of an imperial standing army and to centralize the administration of justice.
   The German territorial states, for their part, did develop regional and local structures based on territorial divisions called circles (Germ.: Kreis), established in 1512. These were often quite effective in resolving some of the conflicts that the religious differences of the Reformation brought to Germany, as well as generally securing domestic peace. Subcommittees of the imperial estates and regular consultations among the imperial electors and their emperor helped develop policy on such matters as the use of mercenary forces abroad as well. But the drift toward the virtual independence of the territorial states continued. The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which closed the Thirty Years’ War, gave the German princes a free hand in conducting their own foreign policies.
   Wars with Louis XIV of France, who was eager to move French boundaries to the eastern banks of the Rhine, and a final, unsuccessful assault by the Ottoman Empire on central Europe, which ended in the second siege of Vienna in 1683, temporarily restored the Habsburg role in defending Germany’s small and midsized states. The house of Austria itself continued to protect its imperial title, if only to keep some unfriendly power from capturing the office and orienting German policy away from Austrian interests. The Napoleonic Wars, however, put an end to any notion that the Holy Roman Empire served a useful political or military purpose. Following the provisions of the treaty of Lunéville (1801), the German states and Emperor Francis I (1768–1835) began indemnifying themselves at the expense of their weaker brethren to make up for French conquests along the Rhine and in Italy. In 1806, the victorious Bonaparte cobbled together the Confederation of the Rhine, abolishing about 300 political units of the old empire in the process. Knowing well what awaited him in Germany, Francis I had provided a new title for himself, Emperor of Austria, in 1804.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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