the holy roman empire neither holy nor roman nor empire truly though it seems that the holy roman empire existed as no more than a weak attempt to revive the glory of what once was the hre really was pretty inadequate relatively at least so then how did the successor of the magnificent roman empire turn out so incredibly bad one reason that many historians often point to is the fact that the holy roman emperor was actually, for the most part, an elected official at the birth of the empire.
in the 9th century the emperor was chosen by the pope beginning with charlemagne over the next few centuries this continued to be the case generally speaking although the role was more or less hereditary for a good chunk of time between the 9th and 13th centuries then in the 13th century the pope allegedly requested that the emperor instead be elected by a group of prince electors within the empire these prince electors were split into two categories.
the secular electors and spiritual electors the secular electors were of course local rulers within the empire whose own positions were hereditary the spiritual electors on the other hand were chosen by cathedral chapters and served as both religious and local leaders over their own territories under the holy roman empire together these two groups would vote to elect the new monarch and the pope would then officially crown the nominee.
as emperor for the following few centuries near the end when the habsburg family came to power as the holy roman emperors the elections were mostly just a formality and the title was essentially hereditary on everything other than paper but nonetheless it was still officially an elected position this detail in itself isn’t exactly a smoking gun in the case of why the empire was so messy but it’s still a factor that is often cited.
as a contribution this circumstance also goes hand in hand with the next red flag that historians seem to really focus on the decentralization of the empire while decentralization itself wasn’t necessarily a sign of doom it did contribute heavily to the lack of authority that the emperor often actually had the reason people often feel that the hre wasn’t actually an empire has a lot to do with this detail and the fact that the emperor seemed to be the head of a confederation like entity more than.
even an empire and its vassals to give one example the holy roman empire didn’t even have one fixed capital city instead the empire was actually in amalgamation of dozens and eventually hundreds of individual entities with their own local leaders who had their own authority and whose authority often actually restricted that of the emperor by the end of the thirty years war this fact became even more apparent with the peace of Westphalia.
which recognized the independence both religiously and politically of holy roman member states even before this agreement though the decentralized state of the hre was undoubted and often contributed to a lack of unity and an essence of union or confederation more than the empire this alone makes the holy roman empire appear to be a bit of a mess but again there’s more that contributed to the inadequacy.
as a whole religious discord ironically was another significant reason for the disordered state of the empire following the protestant reformation the hre became home to a mixture of catholic and protestant states and conflict was seemingly inevitable the piece of augsburg was consequently signed between charles v of the holy roman empire and the schmall-kaldik league.
in september of 1555 in hopes of suppressing any religious disputes within the empire for the most part the treaty was successful at preventing any violent conflicts between the roman catholics and german lutherans of the empire and it granted all member states the freedom to choose between the two religions but it also further damaged any image or feeling of unity under.
the emperor the treaty wasn’t well respected by a certain emperor either when ferdinand ii found himself on the holy roman throne he tried to enact a counter-reformation and not so subtly forced roman catholicism on his people this triggered the series of events that would eventually lead to the 30 years war which pitted the holy roman emperor against many of his own people the war threw europe into turmoil and truly fractured the hre even worse the series of treaties to end the war.
as previously mentioned was the peace of westphalia which officially solidified the emperor’s existence as more or less just a symbolic position by this point the combination of drastic decentralization the odd process of electing emperors whether figurative or not and now the unfixable religious disunity was deeply weakening the holy roman empire this proved to be fatal.
then when napoleon decided to take on the crumbling imperial state with the hre barely holding itself together as any kind of united entity napoleon had already begun breathing down its neck after the treaty of luneville gave multiple holy roman territories over to france still there had remained some even if dwindling sense of unity within the holy roman empire.
throughout the french revolutionary wars which saw prussia come to the aid of the emperor as probably the most important player on the emperor’s side but when prussia eventually withdrew its support due to more pressing priorities in its polish territories the fate of the hre became even grimmer as the empire scrambled to reorganize and rebuild its political and imperial prowess.
while making peace with france a new problem arose with napoleon’s coronation as emperor of the french in 1804 while a previous agreement had already been made which established a hierarchy where the holy roman empire was intended to remain the ultimate authority in europe many within the hre and the Austrians.
in particular felt that napoleon taking the imperial title was an undeniable threat still they knew that refusing to acknowledge his new status which had already been accepted by the pope would only mean a new war with the french in response francis ii of the holy roman empire declared himself to now also be the emperor of austria though reluctantly conflict broke out yet again between austria and france in the war of the third coalition.
which resulted in an even more complicated shuffle of territories thanks to the peace of pressburg finally on august 1st 1806 napoleon declared that he no longer recognized the legitimacy of the holy roman empire this came after a handful of german states within the hre had formed the confederation of the rhine the month prior and those states too issued a proclamation alongside napoleon stating that the holy roman empire was no longer.
an empire anyway and had collapsed long ago due to the outcome of the battle of austerlitz not even a week later francis ii the final emperor of the holy roman empire abdicated his throne and dissolved the imperial entity entirely as drastic as it may seem now francis’s decision to topple his own empire was actually not as unpredictable as one may think in fact he had already decided that whenever it best benefited Austria.
he would do just that this mindset is a good example of why the holy roman empire appears to have been such a mess and in many ways a defective empire the title of emperor of the romans was about prestige more than anything else which is why the layout of the empire as a confederation type was tolerable this though as mentioned at the beginning played a significant role.
in the disunity and ultimate demise of the empire even at the very end it was the sovereignty of the territories within the empire that allowed the german states to negotiate with and eventually align with napoleon additionally the religious conflict brought about by the protestant reformation was poorly addressed by the often absentee emperors and truly gives irony to the holy part of the holy roman empire really the only thing holy or even roman about it was the role of the pope.
in confirming the election of each emperor but this didn’t even last through the entire existence of the hre the combination of decentralization religious conflict internal and external disputes and other oddities all contributed to why the holy roman empire was as disordered as it was the reason why it was so bad especially near the end to the point of betrayal by member states and the emperor himself was due to a simple lack of care since the title was mostly honorary.
it served the imperial rulers such as francis ii better to prioritize their other territories and kingdoms there wasn’t much motivation to risk napoleon declaring war or attempting to seize the holy roman crown to defend an empire that really only existed as such in name.
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