Holy Roman Empire

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Part of the series on
The Middle Ages
Historical Periods

Early Middle Ages (6th-10th century)
High Middle Ages (11th-13th century)
Late Middle Ages (14th-15th century)

Medieval History

Holy Roman Empire
Investiture Conflict
Black Death
The Crusades

Medieval Society

Medieval religion
Medieval politics

The Empire in 887

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (sometimes called the First Reich), from 800 to 1806 AD was the territory in Europe, loosely under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. In practice the constituent states ruled themselves.

The immensely popular game of modern chess developed during this time, and its pieces reflect the positions of power.


The origins of the Holy Roman Empire lie with the Carolingian empire founded by the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne. The Catholic Charlemagne, after conquering much of the area which would become the Holy Roman Empire, ushered in a sort of subtle Renaissance in the Frankish kingdom; he introduced standardized measurement and educational systems, introduced a common currency and written language, and patronized architecture meant to be reminiscent of Ancient Rome. These and other policies managed to introduce a level of prosperity to Charlemagne's kingdom little scene in Europe since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Pope Leo III, pleased that Charlemagne had done this in a Christian context, declared the Frankish kingdom to be the Catholic reincarnation of Rome. On Christmas day in the year 800, Leo formally crowned Charlemagne "Holy Roman Empire", and thus dubbed his territories the "Holy Roman Empire". Unfortunately, this prosperity was not to last. After the death in 840 of Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, the Frankish Empire fell into civil war among the three sons of Louis, Lothair, Charles the Bald and Louis the German. At the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the three sons agreed to split the Empire in three parts and divide them among themselves.

Louis the German gained the eastern part of the Empire, and was made King of East Francia. In 962, his descendant Otto I inherited the Imperial crown as the last surviving heir of the Carolingian dynasty. At this point, the Kingdom of East Francia became the Holy Roman Empire, although this name was not common until later centuries.


The name "Holy Roman Empire", which became common in the 12th century, reflects the self-perception of its emperors as descendants of the Roman Empire. Through a process called translatio imperii, the old Roman Empire continued in the shape of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 16th century, the full description The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was usually used in formal references.

In 1756, liberal Voltaire notoriously described the Empire as "neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire", in his Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations and on the Principal Occurrences in History.


Throughout its history, the Holy Roman Empire was an unstable political structure. Power in the Empire was very decentralized, and mostly held by strong noble families and ecclesiastical princes. The power of the Emperor was often dependent on both his personal lands and resources, and on his ability to negotiate or coerce the other powerful nobles of the realm.

The Emperor was chosen through election by the so-called Prince-Electors, Kurfürsten in German. For the greater part of the Empire's history, there were seven Electors: The three Archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg.


During the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire, like the rest of Europe, followed the Catholic faith. Throughout its history, however, the Empire was plagued by religious conflicts, especially between the Emperor and the Pope. The most important of these conflicts was the so-called Investiture Conflict between c. 1076 and 1122 AD and the Thirty Years' War between c. 1618 and c. 1648.

These conflicts were mostly political in nature, however, and as a rule, the position of the Catholic Church was unchallenged in the Empire until the end of the Middle Ages. The emergence of first the Hussite movement in Bohemia the beginning of the 15th century and especially the Protestant reformers a century later, however, challenged the religious unity of the Empire and gave rise to serious conflicts such as the Thirty Years' War.

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