Carolingian, sometimes called Carlovingian, second dynasty of Frankish kings who ruled parts of Western Europe from the 7th to the 10th centuries. The family was descended from Pepin the Elder of Landen, a powerful landowner who served Clotaire II, the Merovingian king of the Franks, as mayor of the palace of Austrasia from around 584 to 629. Pepin's grandson, Pepin of Herstal, eventually succeeded to the mayor's position, and by ad687 he had become the effective ruler of the entire Frankish kingdom, although the Merovingians nominally wielded the royal power. Pepin of Herstal was in turn succeeded by his illegitimate son, Charles Martel, and by two grandsons, Carloman and Pepin the Short. Carloman later abdicated, and in 751 Pepin the Short was crowned as the first Carolingian king of the Franks. This date is generally regarded as the beginning of the Carolingian dynasty. It is historically significant that Pepin was the first Frankish king whose coronation was sanctified by the Roman Catholic church.

Pepin the Short was succeeded by his two sons, Carloman and Charlemagne, who at first ruled the kingdom jointly. After 771 Charlemagne was sole ruler and vastly increased the kingdom. At its greatest extent, it included what is now France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and northern Italy. On December 25, 800, Charlemagne was crowned the first emperor of the revived Western Roman Empire. As emperor, Charlemagne established his court as a center of learning, thus beginning the Carolingian Renaissance (see Romanesque Art and Architecture). Charlemagne achieved fame in many parts of the world for his promotion of education and the arts. When he died, his son Louis I inherited the kingdom. Upon his death, the kingdom was divided among his three surviving sons, who fought each other for the title of emperor. In 843 the kingdom was formally divided by the Treaty of Verdun. Thereafter the power of the dynasty further declined. The German line, which also ruled the Holy Roman Empire, became extinct in 911 and was replaced by the Saxons; the French line held power until 987, when it was succeeded by the Capetians.

Pepin the Elder

Pepin the Elder (circa 580-639), founder of the Carolingian dynasty. A noble of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia, Pepin, also known as Pepin of Landen, joined with Arnulf, bishop of Metz, in the struggle to overthrow Brunhild, queen of Austrasia, in 613, and subsequently governed the kingdom as mayor of the palace for Brunhild's successor, Clotaire II. Pepin's descendants remained dominant in Austrasia, and in the following century displaced the Merovingians as the royal house of the Franks.

Pepin of Herstal

Pepin of Herstal (635?-714), Carolingian mayor of the palace, who reunited the Frankish realms in the late Merovingian period. A grandson of Pepin the Elder, he succeeded to his position in the kingdom of Austrasia around 680. In 687 he extended Carolingian rule to the other Frankish kingdoms, Neustria and Burgundy, but retained members of the Merovingian dynasty as figurehead monarchs in all three. Two years later he extended his control over the Frisians, a pagan people living on the North Sea coast. Pepin's death was followed by a civil war and the succession of his illegitimate son Charles Martel.

Charles Martel

Charles Martel (688?-741), Carolingian ruler of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia (in present northeastern France and southwestern Germany). Charles, whose surname means “the hammer,” was the son of Pepin of Herstal and the grandfather of Charlemagne. Pepin was mayor of the palace under the last kings of the Merovingian dynasty. After Pepin died in 714, Charles, an illegitimate son, was imprisoned by his father's widow, but he escaped and was proclaimed mayor of the palace by the Austrasians. A war between Austrasia and the Frankish kingdom of Neustria (now part of France) followed, and at the end of it Charles became the undisputed ruler of all the Franks. Although he was engaged in wars against the Alamanni, Bavarians, and Saxons, his greatest achievements were against the Muslims from Spain, who invaded France in 732. Charles defeated them near Poitiers at the Battle of Tours in which the Muslim leader, Abd-ar-Rahman, the emir of Spain, was killed. The progress of Islam, which had filled all Christendom with alarm, was thus checked for a time. Charles drove the Muslims out of the Rhône valley in 739, when they had again advanced into France as far as Lyon, leaving them nothing of their possessions north of the Pyrenees beyond the Aude River. Charles died in Quierzy, on the Oise River, leaving the kingdom divided between his two sons, Carloman and Pepin the Short.

Holy Roman Empire


Holy Roman Empire, political entity of lands in western and central Europe, founded by Charlemagne in ad 800 and dissolved by Emperor Francis II in 1806. The extent and strength of the empire largely depended on the military and diplomatic skill of its emperors, both of which fluctuated considerably during the empire’s thousand-year lifetime. However, the principal area of the empire was the German states. From the 10th century, its leaders were German kings, who usually sought but did not always receive coronation as emperor by the popes in Rome.

At its peak in the 12th century, the empire comprised most of the territory of modern-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, eastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, western Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy. By the later middle ages, however, the emperors' power had become increasingly symbolic, with real legal and administrative power exercised at the territorial and municipal levels. When the last Holy Roman emperor resigned in 1806, the realm had long matched Voltaire's famous description of it as "neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire."


The Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to revive the Western Roman Empire, whose legal and political structure had deteriorated during the 5th and 6th centuries and had been replaced by independent kingdoms ruled by Germanic nobles. The Roman imperial office had been vacant after Romulus Augustulus was deposed in ad 476. But, during the turbulent early Middle Ages, the popes had kept alive the traditional concept of a temporal realm coextensive with a spiritual realm of the church. The Byzantine Empire, which controlled the Eastern Roman Empire from its capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), retained nominal sovereignty over the territories formerly controlled by the Western Empire, and many of the Germanic tribes that had seized these territories formally recognized the Byzantine emperor as overlord. Partly because of this and also because the popes depended on Byzantine protection against the Lombards, a Germanic tribe in northern Italy, they continued to recognize the sovereignty of the Eastern Empire.

As the political bonds that had held western Europe together gradually gave way to a variety of successor states, the idea of a universal and eternal Roman Empire did not die out, but was transformed among recently converted barbarian peoples into the ideal of a Christian Empire. The Western Christian, or Catholic, church, had been the one institution that remained unified throughout the former empire.

By the beginning of the 8th century, two developments set the stage for a revived western empire. First, the Byzantine Empire lost much of its territory as the Muslims expanded during the 7th century. As the political prestige and power of the Byzantine Empire declined, the popes grew increasingly resentful of Byzantine interference in the affairs of the Western church. Byzantine emperors then further increased tensions with popes Gregory II and Gregory III by increasing taxes and by banning the worship of religious icons (see Iconoclasm). From 726 to 757 Byzantine emperors prohibited all religious statues and paintings, while they continued to be used in the West.

The Eastern emperors were not the only threat to the pope’s power; the Lombards, who went unchecked by any Byzantine presence in northern Italy, also threatened Rome. In seeking protection against the Lombards, the popes turned to the Franks, a tribe that controlled a large amount of territory in what is now France. The Frankish king Pepin the Short first took the battlefield against the Lombards, but it was his son Charlemagne who ultimately established papal sovereignty in what is now Italy. Charlemagne brought the idea of a revived western empire to life, and became its first emperor.

The Carolingian Empire (800-912)

During his reign of almost 50 years, from 768 to 814, Charlemagne expanded the Frankish kingdom until it encompassed almost all of western Europe. Still, it is uncertain that he would have assumed the title of Roman emperor were it not for the support and urging of Pope Leo III. Leo sought an alliance with the Frankish kingdom because of its power, its extent, and most of all its devout Christianity. For these reasons, he believed it was fitted to become the guardian of Rome and the papacy in place of the weakened Byzantine Empire.

The pope thus broke the ties with Constantinople and created a new western empire by crowning Charlemagne emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800. The new title did not confer any new powers on Charlemagne, but it did legitimate his rule over central Italy, a fact eventually acknowledged by the Byzantine emperor Michael I in 812. Though not yet known as such, the Holy Roman Empire thus came into being.

Scholars continue to debate the significance of Leo’s act for both the papacy and the western empire. Leo and his successors definitely benefited from gaining temporal authority over central Italy, in the region known as the Papal States. The coronation also symbolically promoted both the papacy and the Frankish kings to a level of authority comparable only to that of the Byzantine emperor. The pope’s endorsement of Charlemagne’s rule, however, had not been sought by the Frankish king. Charlemagne intended to have his heir crowned without papal participation. When Leo’s successor seized an opportunity to continue the tradition by crowning Charlemagne’s son Louis I in 817, the precedent of papal coronation was established. By granting the title of emperor, the papacy gained a huge influence over all subsequent imperial candidates, ensuring the pope’s role in legitimizing western emperors for centuries to come. Even bitter conflicts between the popes and the emperors could not dissolve this important ceremony.

Charlemagne’s empire (called Carolingian after Charlemagne’s Latin name, Carolus Magnus) assumed many of the traditions and social distinctions of the late Roman Empire, but also introduced some key governmental innovations. Charlemagne granted large landholdings called fiefs to many tribal military leaders, known as dukes, and appointed numerous Frankish officials to the lesser posts of counts and margraves. Under Charlemagne’s system, the dukes were kings in miniature, with all the administrative, military, and judicial authority of the emperor within their territories. To oversee these people, Charlemagne established a system of traveling inspectors and representatives of the king, who were known as missi dominici. However, Charlemagne was unable to assimilate many of the tribal leaders fully into the new empire, and as Charlemagne’s successors discovered, these leaders often placed their personal interests above those of the empire.

Already towards the end of Charlemagne's reign, the empire had stopped expanding and had adopted a defensive posture. It was too large to administer effectively and consequently it was prey to tribal dissension. The Carolingian Empire did not long survive Charlemagne’s death in 814. It was the creation of one man whose military strength and religious devotion alone held the realm together. After his death, the diverging personal interests of the Frankish nobles and the church proved too much for his successors to handle.

Charlemagne’s successor, his son Louis I, could not prevent the dukes and counts from transforming their feudal fiefs into hereditary estates. The five major tribal fiefs were transformed into stem (most likely from the German word stämme, meaning “tribal”) duchies—Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine—and these became the strongest in the empire, threatening the overall authority of the emperor. Civil wars between Louis’s sons and these powerful rulers soon disrupted imperial unity, and upon Louis’s death the empire was divided.

By the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the empire was split among Louis’s three sons. Charles II received West Francia (roughly modern-day France); Lothair I acquired the imperial title and an area running from the North Sea through Lotharingia (Lorraine) and Burgundy to northern Italy; Louis II received East Francia (the German duchies of Saxony, Swabia, and Bavaria). In 870 Lothair's middle kingdom was divided by the Treaty of Mersen, which gave Lotharingia to East Francia and the rest to West Francia.

This division created the foundation for today’s states of Germany and France, respectively; however, in the 9th century these were highly fractured dynastic states, not modern nation-states. Subsequent attempts by both East and West Francian rulers to conquer the other were unsuccessful.

German kings were elected by the most prominent nobles of their realm, in accordance with ancient Frankish custom. The imperial title was not, however, necessarily conferred at the same time a German monarch was elected. Many German kings reigned for several years before their coronation as emperors of Rome. The election of the German king as emperor, however, was only a formality as long as the Carolingian line remained intact. In 911 the last of the East Francian Carolingians died, and the electors of East Francia determined the first of many dynastic changes by electing Duke Conrad of Franconia as their king.

In 918, on his deathbed, Conrad secured the election of the skilled ruler Henry I, Duke of Saxony, as his successor as German king. Henry's successors restored a measure of imperial control over the German nobles and thereby established the Germanic kingdom as a power capable of making its presence felt outside its own borders.

The Ottonian Empire (936-1024)

The kings of East Francia monopolized the imperial crown after 881. However, it was not until the reign of Otto I, who was elected king in 936, that the East Frankish kings were able to establish strong control over the nobility and clergy, and in doing so restore the reality of the Carolingian Empire. Like Charlemagne, Otto I combined military prowess with genuine religious faith. He attempted to create a strong centralized monarchy by giving the stem duchies to his relatives. For instance, Swabia and Bavaria were ruled by Otto’s oldest son and his brother, respectively, who tried to claim legitimacy by marrying the daughters of previous rulers from each duchy. Unfortunately, this practice resulted in Otto’s double misfortune of unpopular outsiders in positions of power, as well as relatives who were often disloyal and plotted to overthrow him. After several dangerous uprisings, Otto changed his tactics and began to break up the stem duchies into nonhereditary fiefs that he granted to bishops and abbots. By nominating these churchmen (often referred to as capellani) and bringing them into the royal court, he ensured their loyalty and was also able to use their literacy skills in correspondence and legislation. Otto used the capellani much as Charlemagne had used the missi dominici, as representatives of the king throughout his realm. This alliance with the church and the gradual establishment of formal institutions and laws within the empire were both carried much further by Otto’s successors.

Otto had to defend his realm from outside pressures, particularly against the Danes in the north and the Slavs in the east. He defeated both of these tribes and added their lands to his own. Additionally, he permanently broke the power of the Magyars—a nomadic tribe who had conquered much of what is now Hungary—at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. Wishing to emulate Charlemagne as a devout missionary and protector of the Christian faith, Otto established the archbishopric of Magdeburg in 968 and other dioceses as centers of civilization in the conquered lands. In addition to his attempts to exert a strict control over Germany, Otto also wished to make Italy an integral part of the empire. In 951 he invaded Italy, beginning the disastrous policy of German attempts to control territory there. For centuries to come, all would-be Roman emperors imitated Otto’s extremely costly fixation on the heart of the ancient empire. This preoccupation not only drained resources from the emperors’ real power base in Germany, it also kept the emperors preoccupied and away from Germany. As a result, they were unable to control the German nobility.

Otto’s second Italian campaign was waged at the behest of Pope John XII, who was being attacked by Berengar II, king of Italy. Otto successfully defeated Berengar and was crowned emperor by the grateful John in 962. By a treaty called the Ottonian Privilege, Otto guaranteed the pope's secular claim to most of central Italy. In exchange, the pope agreed that all future papal candidates would swear loyalty to the emperor.

Otto's successors, known as Ottonians, continued his domestic and Italian policies as best they could. Otto II, who reigned from 973 to 983, established the Eastern March (now Austria) as a military outpost. This outpost served to begin the policy of Germanizing the local population. He was, however, defeated by the Muslims in his efforts to secure southern Italy. He spent much of the remainder of his reign fighting off revolts from his German nobles.

His successor, Otto III, was moved by his father’s ambition and the lineage of his mother, the Byzantine princess Theophano, to assume even grander imperial ideas. He ruled from Rome, hoping to expand the German empire into a new Christian empire along the lines of those created by Constantine and Charlemagne. Otto III continued his predecessors’ tradition of choosing popes—a tradition established by the Ottonian Privilege—and appointed his cousin to the papal throne as Gregory V in 996. After Gregory’s death, Otto made his tutor the pope, under the name Sylvester II. Otto’s actions caused tensions with the people of Rome, however, and he was forced to flee by a rebellion in 1001.

Otto died childless in 1002, and after a short civil war, the German princes elected Henry II of Bavaria their new king. Henry attempted to continue the imperial and ecclesiastical reform started by Otto III by securing the loyalty of nobles and churchmen to strengthen his control over the empire. However, his attempts to maintain control over Italy led to his extended absence from Germany, and the German princes used this time to consolidate their own power at the expense of that of the emperor.

The Salian Emperors and the Investiture Controversy (1024-1125)

For the next 100 years, German kings were chosen from the Salian line of Franconia, which was related to the Saxons. The Salians greatly increased the power and extent of the empire, but also initiated a period of intense political and religious strife, particularly the conflict with the papacy known as the Investiture Controversy.

The origins of the Investiture Controversy date back at least to the Carolingian Empire. By the 10th century, it had become common practice to treat ecclesiastical, or church, lands such as dioceses and monasteries as royal fiefs, which the German king could give out as he wished. Upon the death of a bishop, the king or one of his vassals appointed the successor, giving him the symbols of his office—the episcopal staff and ring—in a ceremony known as investiture. Often, as in other feudal transactions, money also changed hands; thus the entire process became tainted with the religious abuse known as simony (the buying or selling of spiritual offices or services).

During the 11th century, the issue of investiture by laymen—such as kings and emperors—rather than by churchmen became increasingly contentious. Much of the tension can be attributed to the monastic reform movement originating in Cluny, in present-day France, which encouraged a more austere, disciplined, and prayerful life within monasteries and convents. Cluniac leaders sought to abolish all acts of simony and to end control of the church by laymen. Some emperors were sympathetic to such reforms and fully supported them. But in the second half of the century, a series of popes were inspired by the Cluniac reforms to seek greater independence for the papacy as well.

Since the time of Otto I, new popes had been nominated by the emperor and consistently relied on his support and protection during their reigns. However, in 1059 a synod, or Church council, took this power away from the emperors and established an independent college of churchmen, known as cardinals, who would elect the popes. This and other reforms began two centuries of power struggle between popes and the emperors, who had long been allies.

The first and most famous conflict occurred when the emperor Henry IV, who reigned from 1056 to 1106, attempted to preserve his control over German clerical appointments. The young emperor came to power during a particularly desperate time for the empire, when the German princes were more divided and rebellious than ever. Henry had just fought off a Saxon revolt in 1075 when he was confronted by the new pope Gregory VII, who wanted to free the entire church from control by laymen. When Gregory forbade the practice of nonchurch officials installing churchmen in their religious offices, Henry had him deposed by an episcopal synod at Worms, Germany, in 1076. The pope promptly excommunicated Henry, denying him the services of the church, and released all of his subjects, particularly his rebellious noble vassals, from their oath of loyalty to him. The rebellious German nobles gave Henry the choice of either seeking forgiveness from the pope or being deposed by them. Henry chose the former and sought the pope out at a palace in Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077, waiting outside for three days as a barefoot penitent in the snow. Thinking he had succeeded in humiliating a disobedient emperor, Gregory forgave Henry.

Gregory, however, unwittingly angered the German nobles, who felt betrayed. They elected a rival king, Rudolf of Swabia, triggering nearly 20 years of civil war. In 1080 the pope recognized Rudolf as king and again excommunicated Henry. Henry responded by declaring Gregory deposed and having the Italian archbishop Guibert of Ravenna elected in his stead as Pope Clement III. Rudolf was killed in 1080, and Henry regained control of Germany. He then led his forces into Italy and captured Rome in 1084, where he was crowned emperor by Clement. A Norman army came to the aid of Pope Gregory, however, and drove Henry from Rome. Henry returned to Germany and there participated in a long series of civil wars, in which his sons eventually turned against him. In 1105 he was taken prisoner by his son Henry, later Emperor Henry V, and forced to abdicate.

Henry V continued his father's struggle for supremacy over the papacy, but in the end the princes forced him to compromise with Pope Callistus II on investiture. The result was the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which stipulated that the elections of church officials in Germany were to take place in the imperial presence without the exchange of money. It also required that the emperor invest the candidate with the symbols of his worldly office before a bishop invested him with the spiritual ones. The pope probably had the better of the bargain. The continuing rivalry between empire and papacy contributed in many ways to the weakening of the emperor's authority and his powers. Although the imperial role in investiture was acknowledged, the shift towards a more independent church was unmistakable. Bishops, like other clerics, were increasingly integrated into a separate church hierarchy, with its own law and courts and its own autocratic ruler—the pope. The emperors, meanwhile, had not only lost their dominance over the papacy but, by giving up their ability to appoint bishops loyal to them, had also gained more potential rivals.

The Hohenstaufens and the Peak of the Empire (1137-1254)

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the empire expanded to its greatest extent but was also divided by political feuding between two old princely rivals. The Hohenstaufen or Waiblingen family of Swabia, known in Italy as the Ghibellines, held the German and imperial crowns for over a century. The Welfs of Bavaria and Saxony, known as Guelphs in Italy, were allies of the papacy and persistently plotted against Hohenstaufen rulers.

After Henry V, the last Salian emperor, died without an heir, the Welfs and the Hohenstaufens competed for succession to the imperial crown. The other German princes took advantage of this rivalry to increase their own power at the expense of the empire, playing the factions off against one another. They bypassed the more powerful members of the feuding families who would have exerted greater imperial control and instead elected a series of weak emperors who were unable to challenge their authority. This resulted in a long civil war between the two factions, a war that eventually spilled over into Italy as the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict. The civil war in the empire was finally settled in 1152 by the election of Frederick I, the son of a Hohenstaufen father and a Welf mother.

However, the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict continued for another two centuries. It became a specifically Italian conflict between forces opposed to the papacy and those supporting it. See Guelphs and Ghibellines.

Frederick I, Barbarossa

Handsome, intelligent, warlike, judicious, and charming, Frederick I, called Barbarossa, ruled from 1152 to 1190. Partly to assert his status as a religious equal of the pope, he added Holy to his title of Roman Emperor. He spent most of his reign shuttling between Germany and Italy, trying to restore imperial glory to both regions and coming closer than any other medieval ruler.

In the north, he married the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy and joined that duchy to his hereditary lands. In the south, Frederick made six expeditions to Italy to assert full imperial authority over both the pope and the cities of the Lombards, which had become increasingly independent of the empire. He was initially successful in defeating a variety of alliances between these two challengers to imperial authority in Italy. During his fifth Italian expedition, however, he was defeated by the Lombard League at the Battle of Legnano in 1176 and was forced to recognize the cities' political autonomy. Frederick later died leading the Third Crusade.

The Last Hohenstaufen Kings

More ambitious even than his father Frederick, Henry VI seized Sicily, an island off southern Italy, and forced the northern Italian cities to submit to him. Intending to create an empire in the Mediterranean, he exacted tribute from North Africa and the weak Byzantine emperor.

However, when Henry died suddenly in 1197 while planning a new crusade, the empire immediately fell apart. The German princes refused to accept his infant son Frederick as king and thus initiated a new civil war between backers of the Hohenstaufen, Philip of Swabia, and those of the Welf, Otto of Brunswick. When Otto invaded Italy, Pope Innocent III secured the election of Frederick as German king on the promise that the young king would give up Sicily so as not to surround papal territory. Outstandingly accomplished in many fields, Frederick II, who reigned from 1212 to 1250, was called Stupor Mundi (Latin for "wonder of the world"). Determined to keep Sicily as his base of operations, he revised his coronation promise to the pope, giving Germany rather than Sicily to his young son Henry. In exchange for the German princes' support of his Italian campaigns, Frederick allowed them to usurp many of his own powers, making them virtually kings in their own territories. In an edict issued in 1220, Frederick surrendered to the German princes the right to erect castles, grant town charters, and levy taxes. Bishops and other ecclesiastical rulers received similar concessions for their support. Such decentralization soon backfired on Frederick and Henry, as the princes’ greater autonomy further weakened the power of the emperor. Frederick spent the remainder of his long reign preoccupied with the struggle over northern Italy. He led a successful crusade to Jerusalem in 1228 but was soon forced to return to reclaim Sicily from the invading Pope Gregory IX. In 1237 the pope sided with the Lombard League against the emperor, and this time Frederick responded by seizing the Papal States. Gregory's successor, Innocent IV, fled to Lyon, France, and declared the emperor deposed. Before he could secure his position against the League, Frederick died. Under his successor Conrad IV, the Hohenstaufens were finally ousted from Sicily.

The empire then suffered the turmoil of the Great Interregnum (1254-1273), during which two non-Germans, Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X of Castile, claimed the imperial crown, though neither was ever crowned emperor. The German princes, meanwhile, exploited the absence of an emperor, to further solidify their own political independence. At the very time that French and English kings were centralizing their power, German lands were becoming further politically fragmented into numerous units, thus fracturing central authority. The Great Interregnum marked a decisive turning point in the history of Germany and the empire, beginning the long decline of real imperial power.

Decline of the Empire and Ascendancy of the Habsburgs (1273-1806)

During the next two centuries, leadership of the Holy Roman Empire, as it was now known, was contested by three German dynasties—the Habsburgs, the Wittelsbachs, and the Luxemburgs. Eventually, the house of Habsburg prevailed, and the imperial crown became essentially a hereditary possession. Their victory, which coincided with the steady decline of imperial authority, was far from certain, however.

In 1273 the electors ended the Great Interregnum by choosing a minor Swabian prince, Rudolf of Habsburg, whom they believed would be no threat to their power and independence. Rudolf I instead concentrated on enlarging his own dynastic holdings. He defeated Bohemia and took from it Austria, Styria and Carinthia (both now provinces of Austria), and Carniola (modern Slovenia), thus making the Habsburgs one of the most powerful dynasties in the empire. By the following century, the Habsburgs had succeeded in elevating Austria, their seat of power, into an archduchy, which made the Habsburg family equal to the noble families who had originally sought out Rudolf because of his insignificance.

The Luxemburg Emperors (1347-1437)

After a series of continuing conflicts with the papacy over the choice of emperor, the imperial electors decided in 1338 that henceforth the candidate receiving the majority of votes would be king of the Germans. The king would also automatically become the Holy Roman emperor without being crowned by the pope. The emperor at the time, the rather unpopular Louis IV, correctly perceived this as a threat to imperial power and attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate with both the princes and the pope. At the same time, Pope Clement VI responded to the potential reduction of his own influence by sponsoring Charles of Moravia, the king of Bohemia, as an imperial candidate. The pope hoped that Charles would be easy to control, and upon Louis’s death in 1347, Charles was chosen emperor by five of the seven electors. In 1355 he was crowned as Charles IV in Rome by a papal representative.

Despite Clement’s hopes that Charles would reverse the electors’ decision, the emperor diplomatically evaded the question of the papal role in imperial elections altogether. In the Golden Bull of 1356, Charles specified the seven electors as the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne; the count palatine of the Rhine; the duke of Saxony; the margrave of Brandenburg; and the king of Bohemia. Though all of these princely rulers had traditionally exercised this role, Charles’s bull formalized the entire process and excluded some claimants from electoral status. The large duchy of Bavaria was the most notable of these exclusions, and the power of its rulers diminished somewhat as a result. The bull also made the seven electors’ lands indivisible, granted them monopolies on mining and tolls, and secured gifts from all imperial candidates. As a result, these seven rulers became the strongest of all German princes.

In a departure from all his predecessors, Charles finally accepted two unalterable facts about the Holy Roman Empire: the futility of imperial claims in Italy, and the political sovereignty of German cities and princely territories. The bull itself also provided some legal constitution to an empire that Charles himself recognized as an anachronism with little real power. The Golden Bull signaled a new focus for imperial ambitions. Charles began building a powerful state in the east by entrenching his own dynasty in Bohemia; buying Brandenburg and adding it to his kingdom; taking Silesia from Poland; and establishing an impressive court in his capital of Prague (in present-day Czech Republic).

Charles’s son Sigismund, who continued to rule from Prague, attempted to reassert the emperor’s role as the secular head of Christendom by trying to resolve the Great Schism (1378-1417) of the papacy. Since 1378 the church had been torn by the rival claims of two and later three would-be popes. In 1414 Sigismund successfully forced one of the papal claimants, John XXIII, to call the Council of Constance (1414-1418) in an attempt to resolve the crisis. Due largely to the emperor’s careful and extensive diplomacy, the council did eventually end the Great Schism of the papacy. The council also served another of Sigismund’s goals. Sigismund saw himself as the defender of Christianity and was concerned about the popular Czech preacher and religious reformer, Jan Hus (John Huss), who was gaining popularity in the region. Huss was invited to the council to state his views and was immediately condemned as a heretic, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. His death was considered a martyrdom by many local Bohemians and led to a series of confrontations with the emperor known as the Hussite Wars (1419-1436).

Habsburg Line Restored

When Sigismund died without an heir, the electors unanimously chose his Habsburg son-in-law Albert of Austria, who became emperor as Albert II in 1438. From that time on, with the exception of the short period from 1742 to 1745, the imperial crown was hereditary in the Habsburg line. Because the political fragmentation of the empire had rendered imperial control essentially impossible, Albert and his successor Frederick III directed most of their energies toward defending the empire’s eastern frontiers against the encroaching Ottoman Empire and their allies.

Frederick’s son Maximilian I enthusiastically laid many plans for revitalizing the empire, but these plans never materialized. He established an imperial court and an imperial tax to fund it, but neither had much impact. The same is true of his continued attempts to establish a perpetual truce within the empire, as well as the 1512 division of the empire into ten administrative districts known as circles. Rather, his chief success was in arranging marriages to benefit his family. The most notable of these was the union of his son Philip of Burgundy with Joanna of Castile, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The office of emperor meanwhile became an increasingly symbolic position, used in the next five centuries primarily to further Habsburg dynastic ambitions.

The process of imperial disintegration was so advanced by the beginning of the 16th century that even Maximilian's powerful successor Charles V was unable to reverse it. The son of Philip of Burgundy and Joanna of Castile, Charles gradually inherited a vast assortment of territories, stretching from the Netherlands, to Austria, to Spain and its holdings in the Americas. In 1519 he was elected Holy Roman emperor. Though he personally ruled more territory than any European leader since Charlemagne, Charles's legacy at his 1556 abdication was a Holy Roman Empire more politically fractured by religious and other rivalries than at any time since the Great Interregnum of the 13th century. He was also the last emperor crowned by the pope, which was by this time a largely symbolic gesture.

Charles’s lifetime ambition was to reestablish a united Christian empire, but this was consistently frustrated by three sometimes-allied foes—the ruling Valois dynasty of France, the Ottoman Empire, and the Protestant princes and cities in Germany. In the early part of his reign, he was forced to fight a lengthy conflict with France, which was alarmed by the extensive territory Charles governed and the power it gave him. This conflict consumed a great deal of time and money, but was ultimately indecisive. After peace was finally made in the late 1520s, Charles was forced to defend his empire. The Ottomans were advancing in the east and already had conquered much of Hungary and were approaching Austria. This conflict, like that with the French, was also long, costly, and indecisive. It ended in a truce in 1545.

Charles’s biggest challenge, however, was Protestantism, to which he was firmly opposed. The Protestant Reformation started by Martin Luther in 1517 had made much progress in Germany. Many of the German princes saw the cause of religious freedom espoused by the Reformation as a vehicle for their own territorial and political independence from the empire, and supported it wholeheartedly.

Despite this, the emperor did not make a final break with the Lutherans until after the Augsburg Confession of 1530, which stated the religious doctrines of the Lutherans and sharply criticized the Catholic church. Following the Augsburg Confession, the Lutherans, who were now called Protestants, formed a military alliance, the Schmalkaldic League. War ensued, and in 1547 Charles won a major victory at Mühlberg in Saxony. Conflict continued to build, however, until the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 finally established peace among the empire's feuding Protestant and Catholic princes, and maintained it for over half a century.

The Peace of Augsburg, in the fashion of previous imperial concessions, allowed the empire’s princes to choose Catholicism or Lutheranism as the official state religion for their areas. After this point, Charles’s successors to the imperial throne largely gave up any notions of a universal empire and instead concentrated on centralizing the administration of their dynastic holdings in Austria.

By 1618, however, the religious peace collapsed, resulting in a series of destructive conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years' War. The long war ended in a draw, finalized by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By the terms of the treaty, reminiscent of the Peace of Augsburg, each prince could determine the religion of his German state, choosing among Lutheran, Catholic, or Calvinist. More significantly, the sovereignty and independence of each of the 350-odd states of the Holy Roman Empire was now at last formally recognized, making the emperor powerless. Despite a few fiscal and diplomatic prerogatives, the Holy Roman Empire thus continued mainly in name, having lost all claims to universality or effective centralized government. In practice, it was now little more than a title passed on by the Habsburg rulers of one German state—Austria—with its future tied to the fate of the Habsburg dynasty.

The End of the Empire

During most of the 18th century, the Habsburg emperors were mainly concerned with the power struggles between their own Austria and Prussia, the two most prominent German states. In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, however, they were forced to confront the threat posed by a French invasion. From 1792 to 1802, Austria and Prussia joined forces with other German states in wars of defense against revolutionary France. All the wars ended in defeat, and France continued to expand its territory.

In the face of the successes of Napoleon I, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II modified his title to a more modest hereditary emperor of Austria in 1804. Two years later, however, Napoleon organized the states of the Holy Roman Empire that he had conquered into the Confederation of the Rhine. The 17 members of the confederation then broke away from the empire, prompting Francis II to resign the title of Holy Roman emperor altogether. On August 6, 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved.

Legacy of the Empire

In truth, the empire had long existed more in the realm of ideas than as a political or administrative reality. The ancient obsession with Italy, the costly conflicts with the papacy, and the continuous resistance of German nobles to any strong central authority had made the empire essentially ungovernable for over five centuries. Many nationalist historians of the 19th and 20th centuries agonized over the so-called failure of Germany to unify as France and England had done, and regretted the political and economic impotence that was legacy of this lack of unity.

Yet despite its ignominious decline and end, the Holy Roman Empire continued to exercise a great influence on the imaginations of later German imperialists. When Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian king William I established the German Empire in 1871, they explicitly encouraged the title Second Empire for the new state, so as to borrow some of the glory and power enjoyed by the Holy Roman Empire at its peak. Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist supporters similarly appropriated the legacy of the First Empire by dubbing their own regime the Third Empire and pledging another thousand years of German hegemony. Both regimes of course proved considerably briefer than the original empire during its peak, although for a time they were equally as dominant in the politics of western and central Europe.


Saxons, Germanic people who first appear in history after the beginning of the Christian era. The earliest mention of the Saxons is by the Alexandrian mathematician and geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century ad, at which time they appear to have dwelt in the south Jutland Peninsula in the north of what is now Germany. They conducted piratical raids in the North Sea area, and in the 3rd and 4th centuries they pressed southward into the region of the Weser River, where they encountered the Chauci and the Angrivarii, Germanic tribes that they subdued and absorbed. In the second half of the 4th century, the Saxons invaded Roman domains, and by the close of the 6th century all northwest Germany as far east as the Elbe River had become Saxon territory. In the 5th and 6th centuries, some groups of Saxons invaded Britain, where they were joined by other Germanic peoples, the Angles and the Jutes. At the beginning of the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain was practically completed. In the 8th century, the Frankish king Pepin the Short attacked the Saxons who remained in Germany. His son, Charlemagne, subdued them after a series of fierce wars lasting from 772 to 804 and forced them to accept Christianity. In the course of the 9th century, a great Saxon duchy came into existence under Frankish sovereignty, and its rulers established a dynasty of German kings in the 10th century. This old duchy of Saxony was dissolved toward the end of the 12th century, and the name of Saxony later passed over to an entirely different region.