The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Latin: Imperium Romanum Sacrum Nationis Germanicæ; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation) was traditionally founded on Christmas Day of the year 800 A.D., when Pope Leo III placed the crown on the head of Charlemagne in St. Peter's, and the assembled multitudes shouted "Carolo Augusto, a Deo coronato magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria!" — "To Charles the Magnificent, crowned the great and peace-giving emperor by God, life and victory!" Strictly speaking, however, Charles's empire was neither Roman nor German, but Frankish — or as we might say, a sort of French-German mix (for that matter, there was a perfectly valid Roman Emperor at the time in any casenote Or to be precise, empress. Charlemagne's supporters claimed that a woman couldn't rule the Roman Empire. The Byzantines promptly deposed Irene and installed Nikephoros I, who was certainly a man; they were possibly disappointed that Charlemagne saw no reason to abdicate.). The Empire was not officially described as "Holy" until the twelfth century, nor officially "German" before the sixteenth. Charlemagne's empire quickly fell to pieces among his squabbling successors, and the Holy Roman Emperors themselves tended to ignore any discontinuity between pagan and Christian Rome — Frederick I Barbarossa (1123-1190) going so far as to assert that one of his reasons for going on Crusade was to avenge the defeat of Crassus by the Parthians (53 B.C.).note Never mind that the Parthians were Zoroastrian Persians and the rulers of the Middle East of the time were primarily Turkish and to a lesser extent Arab Muslims...
Germany as a realm separate from the Frankish empire emerged with the Treaties of Verdun (843) and Mersen (870). Modern historians tend to distinguish between Charlemagne's Empire (usually referred to as the Frankish Kingdoms or the Carolingian Empire), and the proper Holy Roman Empire, which itself is exclusively descendent from the Eastern Frankish realm when the Carolingian Frankish Kingdom fractured. Thus, while Charlemagne was officially crowned "Roman Emperor" by the Pope, it is more common to refer to Otto I as the first Holy Roman Emperor. The title of "Roman Emperor" bounced around between various descendents of Louis the Pious, but the lands of the title holder varied, at first holding the entire Caroligian Empire (Charlemagne and Louis the Pious), then the Middle Frankish Kingdom (area of modern day Low Countries, Burgundy, and Northern Italy), then to just Northern Italy, and so on. The title fell out of use for 38 years, until Otto I was crowned Roman Emperor, where the title was once again in continuous use, and it became associated with the German lands. After the last of Charlemagne's line died in 911, the German nobles elected Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, as King of the Germans. The coronation of his son Otto in 962 may be taken as the actual foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. The actual term "Holy Roman Empire" began to be used only during the reign of Friedrich Barbarossa two centuries and two dynasties later, reflecting Frederick Barbarossa's ambition to rule Italy and the Papacy. Prior to that, it had variously (and highly inconsistently) been referred to as "Imperium Romanum" (Roman Empire), "Imperium Teutonicorum" (German Empire), and "Regnum Teutonicorum" (Kingdom of Germany). Once again, readers should keep in mind that there was a still existing Roman Empire in the form of the Byzantine Empire, and the Byzantines were deeply insulted when the Pope crowned "Roman Emperors," which massively contributed to the East-West schism in Christianity. Keep in mind that at the time, the Byzantines were still calling themselves the Roman Empire and Romans (the term Byzantine didn't even appear until the 16th century) so the Pope was giving just about the biggest snub possible to their rulers.
The mediæval period of the Empire was dominated by a series of internal struggles with the powerful German nobility, by struggles with the Italian communes, and (above all) by the great struggle with the Papacy. Notable figures in that contest include Henry IV, whose famous submission to Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) at Canossa was subsequently reversed by Gregory's exile, and the aforementioned Frederick I, whose defeat at Legnano led to his submission to Alexander III. The important point here is that the Empire and the Papacy, both competing for secular and religious power over all Christiandom without the means to enforce it, essentially destroyed each others credibility. This was not helped by a fairly consistent policy of Emperors to neglect the basis of their power in Germany to grasp at its shadow in Italy - because in order for a German king to become an Emperor, he had to go to Italy and be crowned by the pope. This worked much to the advantage of the nationalistic monarchies of France (especially), England and Spain.
The climax was reached with the reign of Friedrich II (1215-1250), Barbarossa's grandson, who while being an individual of singular gifts nonetheless attempted to run an Italian-German Empire from Sicily, but had come to the throne against his rival Otto IV largely as a consequence of the victory of King Philip II of France against the armies of King John of England and Otto at Bouvines. His reign had some impressive successes (he managed to get excommunicated for leading a crusade which restored the "holy places" to christian pilgrims without anyone getting killed), but failed to establish a secure power base and got his line targeted by both the French and the Papacy, insofar as the difference mattered at that point. After his death and those of his sons, the name of Holy Roman Emperor was an empty title sought and won by adventurers. After this period, the Interregnum, or in the words of a German poet, "die kaiserlose, die schreckliche Zeit" (the emperor-less, terrible time"), the Empire recovered somewhat and for a time its greats allotted the crown to the Houses of Habsburg, Luxemburg and Wittelsbach by rota.
Despite its name, the empire had many traits of a confederation, with the German King (Emperor-elect) being elected by the most powerful regional lords, although it was only through the Golden Bull of 1356 that it was settled in a legally binding way who had the right to elect a king. From 1356 there were seven prince electors: the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, the King of Bohemia, the margraves of Brandenburg and Meissen (Saxony), and the Count Palatine on the Rhine (Pfalzgraf bei Rhein). This more or less set the tone, but there were several changes over the centuries. For one, the Duke of Bavaria would sometimes conspire with the Count Palatine to get Bavaria in by excluding Bohemia on the grounds that he wasn't German—but only when the duke and the Count Palatine weren't squabbling about some family issue (both were Wittelsbachs). During the Thirty Years' War, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs got ahold of the Palatinate vote because the Bavarian line were Catholics and their Palatinate cousins were not; after the war concluded, the Palatinate branch got a shiny new Electorate to maintain balance between Protestants and Catholics among the electors. However, this new electorate passed to a third, Catholic branch of the Wittelsbachs, leading to the appointment of a new Protestant elector, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (whose territory became known as the Electorate of Hannover from its capital city; members of this line would find greater success elsewhere). As luck would have it, the original Catholic Wittelsbach line of Bavaria petered out shortly thereafter, leaving the Catholic Palatinate Wittelsbachs to inherit Bavaria, as well, making the whole charade a moot point (although Hannover got to keep his electorate, nobody wishing to rock the boat). Finally, Regensburg, Salzburg, Würzburg, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Kassel were all given electorates in the final years of the Holy Roman Empire to add to their stature (and in part to replace the four electorates that had been conquered by the French - Mainz, Trier, Cologne, and the Palatinate) however, this proved to be a moot point, as the Empire was dissolved a few years later.
At times, the empire consisted of over 300 sovereign kingdoms, duchies, free cities, and other entities. In the late 18th century, there were nearly 1800, ranging from the kingdom of Bohemia (=the current territory of the Czech Republic almost exactly) to the nominally autonomous territories of Reichsritter (Imperial knights, i. e. knights subject only to the emperor) and even a handful of Reichsdörfer (Imperial villages). Unsurprisingly, it often was a total chaos.
Thus throughout most of its history it is rather difficult to define the very borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Many of the princes owned large territories outside the Empire or would successfully bid for foreign crowns, such as the rulers of Austria (also kings of Hungary and, sometimes, of Spain and Portugal), Hanover (who became kings of the United Kingdom), Saxony (two of whom became kings of Poland), and Brandenburg (kings in or of Prussia since 1701). On the other hand foreign sovereigns came to inherit territories belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, such as the king of Denmark in the duchy of Holstein, or conquered them (the kings of Sweden in the Thirty Years War). Territories that had become de facto independent powers would still technically considered part of the Empire (as e. g. the Swiss Confederation and the Republic of the United Netherlands were until the end of the Thirty Years War).
In The Renaissance, despite a brief flourishing under Charles V (the last ruler actually crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope), the Reformation and the subsequent Wars of Religion and Thirty Years' War effectively broke the Empire as a single political unit. Thereafter, the German states ruled themselves and were able to conclude international treaties as sovereign principalities, and the Habsburg emperors, though retaining the Imperial title, concentrated more and more to their Austrian dominions (which included Hungary, parts of Northern Italy and Southwest Germany, and, since the War of Spanish Succession, the Austrian Netherlands (most of what is now Belgium plus Luxembourg)). After the War of Austrian Succession, despite the flourishing of culture under rulers such as Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick The Great of Prussia, and Augustus the Strong of Saxony, the empire was finished. When Emperor Francis II assumed the title of Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1804 and was forced by Napoleon to abdicate as Holy Roman Emperor in 1806, the changed reality was recognized and the Empire came to an end. Although some German nationalists dreamed of recreating it following Napoleon's defeat, all they got was the loose German Federation (Deutscher Bund, 1815-1866).
Though the actual Holy Roman Empire lasted about a thousand years, its depiction in popular culture is largely a matter of three periods: the time of the Minnesingers, the time of Albrecht Dürer; and the petty German princedoms of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Minnesinger period features noble minstrels singing of love, stately castles on hilltops, and cruel overlords named Ulrich oppressing the local Lombard/Polish/Swiss peasants.
The Dürer period (which effectively lasts a hundred years after the artist's death) features woodcuts, fat burghers, half-timbered and high-gabled houses, and earnest Lutheran preachers denouncing Corrupt Churchmen. All writing is invariably done in Ye Olde Fraktur.
Tropes often associated with the Holy Roman Empire:
Artifact Title: The empire's name gradually became this as the Voltaire quote from the top of the page exemplifies. By the late 18th Century, the empire had gone through so many corruption scandals that calling itself "holy" was considered a joke and Snark Bait, it had lost most of its former Italian possessions (including Rome), and its authority over the states that it did still control had grown so weak that the "emperor" had become little more than an honorary title.
Ass Pull: The Pope crowned Charlemagne as emperor because there was a Binding Ancient Treaty that allowed the Pope to crown a Roman emperor in the west. That treaty was later found to be a forgery.
Historians are still debating on the group responsible for forging the treaty, as it was a very popular Ass Pull for those involved.
Awesome Moment of Crowning: Charlemagne's coronation at St. Peter's has to have been pretty awesome. And yet Charles' court biographer Einhard wrote that it came as a surprise to the king ... which probably makes it just the more awesome. He wrote that Charlemagne was actually mad at the pope, because he was crowned by him before being acclaimed by Italians, which implied his power came from the pope rather than his own might.
Corrupt Church: Given the corruption and political power plays within the Medieval Catholic Church, it comes as no surprise that the HRE would witness (and participate in) both a Papal civil war and later on the Reformation.
The Emperor: For about a thousand years, when people in Western Europe said "The Emperor," this was the guy they meant. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that the term was very rarely used in the full negative sense it bears in modern popular culture; the office was generally respected, even if the man filling it was not.
The Empire: Ditto. Most English maps of the 15th-18th century period simply slap the giant words "THE EMPIRE" across Germany.
And at certain times, such as during the reigns of Charlemagne and Barbarossa, it really was more of a relatively unified country than the entity it ultimately became.
The High Queen: Maria Theresa of Austria fits this trope perfectly, with a touch of The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask — though she was devoted to her husband, the Emperor Francis I, his philandering made her bitterly unhappy; her son Joseph II's progressive policies troubled her deeply; and among her daughters was Marie Antoinette (although her execution took place after her mother's death, marital alliances with France always were a source of troubles).
The Knights Templar: The Teutonic Knights were also a crusading order like them and are nearly as famous in their own right. However, their Drang nach Osten ("Drive toward the East") was toward Eastern Europe instead of the Middle East, against Europe's last pagan peoples (which they kept doing long after those nations converted). They also rival the Holy Roman Empire in being "Germany before modern Germany." Some of the lands they conquered were considered German until WWII because of it (as referenced in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land: Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutschnote Roughly, "I'm not Russian, I come from Lithuania; I'm a genuine German").
Strictly speaking, this falls outside the scope of the Holy Roman Empire as these territories (in East and West Prussia and the Baltic states) were well outside its borders. After their defeat at Grunwald/Tannenberg, the Teutonic Knights had to acknowledge the suzerainty of the King of Poland again. Also, apart from East and West Prussia with their predominantly German (or at least German-speaking) population, the territories were only partly German insofar as they contained a relatively small, but culturally dominant ethnically German minority (i. e. the majority of the population was non-German, but the local nobility and educated middle class was dominated by Germans).
Long Runners: The Holy Roman Empire had an uninterrupted existence of over 1,000 years, from 800 to 1806.
While there are different definitions among disagreeing historians as to what exactly should be considered the "Holy Roman Empire," the above statement is true for none of them. If the definition of a beginning at year 800 were taken for granted (Charlemagne being crowned by the Pope as Roman Emperor), then it was far from "uninterrupted," as Charlemagne's Empire quickly fractured into opposing pieces by the time Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious died, and the lands divided among his three sons, and then fracturing even more after that. The title itself passed irregularly to various descendents and usurpers until falling out of use for 38 years. Modern historians tend to consider Otto I as the first true "Holy Roman Emperor," and his coronation date, 962, as the official starting date of the Holy Roman Empire. At that point, you can say that the Empire existed uninterrupted until 1806. Nonetheless, it is still undoubtedly a long runner.
Magnificent Bastard: Oddly enough, there were two with the same name (and number): Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire and Frederick II of Prussia. Both were brilliant, highly cultured, highly successful, godless masters of war and political intrigue.
Micro Monarchy: Although not all were strictly monarchies, there were hundreds of territories in the HRE that consisted of just a city or town or the land surrounding a castle or a monastery. There were so many that historians still debate exactly how many there were at some times.
Nice Hat: There were several: the Iron Crown of Lombardy, the Crown of Charlemagne, the mitred crown of Rudolph II, and the little military hat of Frederick II of Prussia, who famously said, "A crown is just a hat that lets the rain in."
Papal States: The HRE both ensured their existence and quarreled with them over power. It did neither much credibility.
People's Republic of Tyranny: Or rather, its pre-French Revolution equivalent; "Holy," "Roman," and "Empire" were the great political buzzwords of the time, and by the end, it managed to be none of them. Most of the time the Holy Roman Emperors didn't even have any power in Rome itself. The "German" part (which was only official after 1512) is a bit more complicated; its core territory was Germany throughout its history, but it also contained much of North Italy, and Czech and Slovene lands until long after its demise.
Despite the facility of Voltaire's canard, down to the end the Empire, even in its derivative Austro-Hungarian form, remained at least Holy, Roman (Catholic), and Imperial enough to be granted a say in the election of The Pope at Rome, as in 1903 when the Imperial veto against Cardinal Rampolla resulted in the election of Cardinal Sarto as Pope St. Pius X.
The Sound of Martial Music: By the latter half of the HRE's existence, the Austrian lands under the Habsburgs became increasingly prominent, ultimately becoming nigh synonymous with the Empire. Tellingly, nearly every Emperor (and defacto Empress) at this point all the way up to the very end was a Habsburg.
Though more often than not, the Empire itself tended to have this attitude towards the Pope's power.
Vestigial Empire: What the HRE ultimately became, especially towards the latter centuries of its existence. Two nominal remnants would come of of it: one the Habsburg Empire; the other, the Principality of Liechtenstein, which still exists today.
Works set in, featuring, or otherwise relating to the Holy Roman Empire:
Anime and Manga
Axis Powers Hetalia features a character who embodies the Holy Roman Empire: a young and serious boy who dreams of being as great as Rome and is in love with his maid, Italia aka Chibitalia (not knowing that "she" is a Wholesome Crossdresser). The story strongly hints that Germany is the grown-up version of him.
Further, another character seems to embody both Austria and the Habsburg family, one of its important ruling dynasties.
More exactly, said character is the embodiment of Austria, and the Austrian Habsburgs are his bosses. Specifically, he's shown interacting with the recently crowned Empress Maria Theresa.
And it's also hinted that he's the real power behind the HRE. Which more or less mirrors what Austria's role was in real life.
RosenkreuzStilette plays with the setting by having magic, fairies and demons exist alongside bombs, early prosthetics, and robots. Other than that, it's straight up Holy Roman Empire.
The events portrayed happen a long way away from the Holy Roman Empire, however, and the way the Teutonic Order organized its state was different and in many ways more modern than the contemporary HRE.
The Scarlet Empress, a 1934 historical drama (in part) — Petty Princedom. Catherine, on her way to becoming "The Great", is raised in a boring little German court.
A Sarabande for Dead Lovers, a 1948 historical drama — Petty Princedom
The Flame and the Arrow, a 1950 adventure move — Minnesinger
Liechtenauer's Bloßfechten, non-fiction. A highly influential treatise on fencing composed at some point between 14th and 15th Century.
In his Essay on General History and on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations (1756), French philosophe and Deadpan SnarkerVoltaire famously remarked, "This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." This has been considered very witty.
On The Tudors, the Holy Roman Emperor is one of Henry VIII's two great political rivals (the other being the King of France), he plays a major role in stymieing Henry's attempts to divorce his first wife, and the Imperial Ambassador to Henry's court is a major character in all four seasons.
On Vikings, King Ecbert of Wessex mentions the time he spent in Emperor Charlemagne’s court.
Some of Friedrich Schiller's plays, including Kabale und Liebe (also turned into an opera by Verdi as Luise Millerin, 18th century decadent court), Wilhelm Tell (Dürer), and Wallenstein (Thirty Years War).
Heinrich von Kleist's Kätchen von Heilbronn — Minnesinger.
Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer wrote e. g. König Ottokars Glück und Ende" (King Ottokar's Fortune and End, Dürer) and Ein Bruderzwist im Hause Habsburg (A Fraternal Strife in the House of Habsburg, early 17th century).
Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera The Prophet, about the Anabaptists of Münster — Dürer.
Atelier Series — The early ("Salburg" and "Gramnad") games were heavily Dürer-influenced; Salburg is even a likely expy of Salzburg. This fades in later games, though some influences remain throughout.
Europa Universalis features a HRE mechanic, allowing the player to control any of the states within it, take or defend territory for the Empire, become the emperor and eventually, through a series of difficult diplomatic actions, unite the HRE into a single nation, often the most powerful nation in the world. Alternatively, the empire usually just collapses in its own internal politics and power struggles.
Crusader Kings, another game in the Paradox lineup, includes the HRE as a feudal "Kingdom of Germany."
In the sequel, Crusader Kings 2, the HRE is a playable faction and one of the two full-fledged empires in existence when play begins; this can change during the course of the game, but generally the HRE tends to 'blob,' or accumulate vast quantities of territory all on its own.
The old DOS roleplaying game Darklands was set in the Holy Roman Empire during the 1400s. While the game strives to be historically accurate, it also portrays medieval Europe as the inhabitants at the time believed it to be, meaning fantastic elements like demons, witches, and dragons are real.
In Look to the West, it looks as though the Empire might reverse its decline when the Prussians lose the Silesian Wars against the Austrians, but in the end it falls around the same time as in our timeline thanks to We Are Struggling Together in the face of a French invasion. However, it remains something of an inspiration for German unificationists in years to come.