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Useful Notes / Holy Roman Empire

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Hoch Hapsburg!

This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

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 ). 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 


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 descended 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 descendants 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" or "Empire of the Germans"), and "Regnum Teutonicorum" ("Kingdom of Germany" or "Kingdom of the Germans"). 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, well after their empire had fallen in 1453) 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 other's 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 (eventually better known as the Kings of Prussia) and Meißen (later better known as the Dukes/Prince-Electors of 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, most of which had to do with the interminable family conflicts of the House of Wittelsbach. 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 duke and Count were Wittelsbachs) and/or conspiring with Bohemia to exclude the Count Palatine (for reasons of South German geopolitics). 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), 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).

One of the effects of the fracturing of the Holy Roman Empire into dozens and then hundreds of sovereign states was that many princes and princesses from these states became eligible to marry into the ruling families of non-German nations, which in some cases led to branches of German dynasties to becoming the ruling houses elsewhere. One classic example is the House of Oldenburg, which split into several lines including the royal houses of Denmark (until today), Norway (until today), Sweden (1751-1818) and Greece (1863-1974), the ducal house of Oldenburg (until 1918), and the imperial house of Russia (from Peter III and Paul I to Nicholas II). Another is the House of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha (a branch of the Ernestinian line of the House of Wettin), which since the 19th century supplied monarchs to Belgium (until today), the United Kingdom (until today, albeit under a different name, and technically about to be replaced by a junior branch of the Greek line of Oldenburgs after HM The Queen passes), Portugal (1853-1910) and Bulgaria (1887-1946note ).

In the early The Renaissance, the Empire flourished briefly under Charles V, the last ruler actually crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, and the Emperor with the most extensive empire: not only did he have a firmer grasp on power within the Empire than any other Emperor for generations, he also ruled Spain and its vast New World empire directly (ruling the first "empire on which the Sun never sets"), and held substantial influence in the Italian states, Portugal, and the British Isles (all of which either consisted of Imperial client states or were so firmly opposed to France that they may as well have been client states). However, 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 844 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.
  • The Petty Princedom period features beautiful princesses stifled by the dull etiquette of a Deadly Decadent Court wondering which foreign prince they will be married off to, rebellious court musicians, and fountains running with wine at the conclusion of the Peace of Pumpernickel-Knoblauch.

Works set in, featuring, or otherwise relating to the Holy Roman Empire:

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     Anime and Manga  

  • Axis Powers Hetalia
    • One character 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.
    • There is a dual embodiement of both Austria and the Habsburg family, one of its important ruling dynasties. 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. It's further 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.
  • Ancient Belka in Lyrical Nanoha is obviously an expy of Holy Roman Empire. With Magitek. In Space. Virtually everyone in the 'verse has Germanic name. Though by the time the series start, Ancient Belka is no more.
  • The Empire of Germania from The Familiar of Zero is implied to be a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of the HRE, though of its earlier more unified form.


  • The Golem, How He Came Into The World (silent movie) — Dürer
  • Alexander Nevsky, though set in Russia, features Teutonic (i.e., "German") Knights with many of the features of Ulrich the Overlord
    • 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
  • The Last Valley — A rare example set actually in the Thirty Years' War, after Dürer days but before the Petty Princedoms.
  • Amadeus — Petty Princedom
  • Luther (2003 movie) — Dürer

     Folklore (multiple media)  

  • All versions of the legend of Faust — Dürer
  • The legends of William Tell in all its various versions — 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 Snarker Voltaire 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.
  • Washington Irving's "The Specter Bridegroom"
  • Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic short story "Metzengerstein"
  • Sir Walter Scott's Anne of Geierstein - A rare example from The Late Middle Ages.
  • Most of the works of Luise Mühlbach, Germany's answer to Dumas, père, and Harrison Ainsworth
  • Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Knights of the Cross (Krzyżacy) — Minnesinger; set outside of the Holy Roman Empire, though the villains are German knights backed up by the Empire.
  • Two of Umberto Eco's Historical Fiction novels (Minnesinger era both times):
    • The Name of the Rose (including the movie made from the novel) is set in 14th century Italy, a part of the HRE (at least formally).
      • And William of Baskerville, as his historical model William of Ockham, served as an advisor to Emperor Louis IV aka Ludwig the Bavarian.
    • Baudolino, set in 1204, where the eponymous protagonist is (or claims to be) a long-time confidant of Frederick Barbarossa.
  • The 1632 series dumps a small modern West Virginian town into the Thirty Years' War period, hovering indistinctly between Dürer and the Petty Princedom era.
  • Heinrich von Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas is set in 16th century Saxony, the time of Martin Luther.
  • Lion Feuchtwanger's novels Jew Suess (Petty Princedom, in this case the duchy of Württemberg) and The Ugly Duchess Margarete Maultasch (Dürer)
  • Otfried Preußler's Krabat, a Young Adult novel set in Saxony around 1700.

     Live Action TV  

  • 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.


     Tabletop Games  

     Theatre & Opera  

     Video Games  

  • Age of Empires II has a campaign where you play as the Holy Roman Empire - Minnesinger. More generally, they also feature the Teuton civilization, which reflects both the Teutonic Knights military order and the various German-speaking states of the era.
  • Civilization 4 adds Charlemagne as a playable character in one of the expansions. The HRE completely dominates in the medieval military area.
  • Medieval II: Total War has HRE as playeable faction and addon Kingdoms has Teutonic Knights.
  • 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. DLC eventually pushed the starting date back to Charlemagne, necessitating mechanics to form the Holy Roman Empire.
    • The Divergences mod for Victoria II has as part of its Alternate History that the equivalent of the French Revolutionary Wars didn't actually lead to the formal dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the claim to which is still maintained (and in parts of Germany recognized) by the Kings of Bohemia. It is possible to reform the Empire into a viable, unified form (which effectively makes it into something of a Germany by another name - very useful for Bohemia, since they can't form the usual Germany, being the wrong culture), although it is deliberately made very hard to keep the AI from pulling it off more than in extremely rare cases.
  • Siegfried Schtauffen, The Hero of the Soul Series, is from the Holy Roman Empire. Hilde, introduced in IV, is a princess from the fictional kingdom of Wolfkrone, which also lies within the Empire (apparently near Switzerland).
  • 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.
  • Anthony's chapter of Eternal Darkness directly concerns Charlemagne and the circumstances around his death, at least as an Alternate History.

     Web Original  

  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Holy Roman Emperor


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