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Holy Roman Empire - 1273 - The Elective Empire

At the death of Henry in 1125, the elective principle was established instead of the hereditary. It was by election that Lothar II, of Saxony (1125-38), Conrad III (1138-52), founder of the Swabian or Hohenstaufen line, and Conrad's nephew. Frederick I, Barbarossa (1152-90), succeeded.

Rudolph of Habsburg, archduke of Austria, had been chosen emperor in 1273, and with Albert II in 1438, the Habsburg family, with few interruptions, continued the imperial title to the final extinction of the empire in 1806. Several of these Habsburg emperors were influential, but it must always be remembered that they owed their power not to the empire but to their own hereditary states. The Emperor, elected by the many princes, dukes, and bishops of the constituent lands and confirmed by the Pope, nominally governed over a vast territory, but had very limited ability to intervene in the affairs of the hundreds of entities that made up the Empire, many of which would often wage war against each other. The Empire was never able to develop into a centralized state.

The Great Interregnum ended in 1273 with the election of Rudolf of Habsburg as king-emperor. After the interregnum period, the emperors came from three powerful dynastic houses: Luxemburg (in Bohemia), Wittelsbach (in Bavaria), and Habsburg (in Austria). These families alternated on the imperial throne until the crown returned in the mid-fifteenth century to the Habsburgs [who retained it with only one short break until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806].

The Empire, therefore, presented at the beginning of the fourteenth century the strange spectacle of a federative republic of municipal corporations and a feudal order composed of lay and ecclesiastical princes existing side by side, and presided over by an elective head practically powerless without the co-operation of these unlike elements. In contrast with the vigor of the national monarchies, in which all power was concentrated in the hands of the King, the Empire had become the image of political impotence.

For three hundred years, each holder of the imperial throne was crowned thrice: once at Aachen, as King of Germany; once at Milan or Pavia, as King of Italy; and finally at Rome, as Emperor. In theory the imperial throne was to be filled by free election at Rome, and any free man in Christendom might be chosen ; but in practice no one was eligible for the imperial election until he had become King of Germany, and every king of Germany who could march to Rome was at once saluted Emperor. The decrees of 1338 laid down the doctrine that a legally chosen Emperor needed no further confirmation, holding his powers from God alone.

The Golden Bull of 1356, an edict promulgated by Emperor Charles IV (r. 1355-78) of the Luxemburg family, provided the basic constitution of the empire up to its dissolution. It formalized the practice of having seven electors--the archbishops of the cities of Trier, Cologne, and Mainz, and the rulers of the Palatinate, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Bohemia--choose the emperor, and it represented a further political consolidation of the principalities. The Golden Bull ended the long-standing attempt of various emperors to unite Germany under a hereditary monarchy. Henceforth, the emperor shared power with other great nobles like himself and was regarded as merely the first among equals. Without the cooperation of the other princes, he could not rule.

The emperor was chosen by seven "electors," who were the chief princes of the realm. These seven were the archbishops of Mainz (Mayence), of Cologne, and of Trier (Treves), the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the count palatine of the Rhine. Not infrequently the electors used their position to extort concessions from the emperor-elect which helped to destroy German unity and to promote the selfish interests of the princes. The imperial Diet was composed of the seven electors, the lesser princes (including the higher ecclesiastical dignitaries, such as bishops and abbots), and representatives of the free cities, grouped in three separate houses.

The emperor was not supposed to perform any imperial act without the authorization of the Diet, and petty jealousies between its members or houses often prevented action in the Diet. The individual states, moreover, reserved to themselves the management of most affairs which in western Europe had been surrendered to the central national government. The Diet, and therefore the emperor, was without a treasury or an army, unless the individual states saw fit to act favorably upon its advice and furnish the requested quotas. The Diet resembled far more a congress of diplomats than a legislative body.

The princes were not absolute rulers either. They had made so many concessions to other secular and ecclesiastical powers in their struggle against the emperor that many smaller principalities, ecclesiastical states, and towns had retained a degree of independence. Some of the smaller noble holdings were so poor that they had to resort to outright extortion of travelers and merchants to sustain themselves, with the result that journeying through Germany could be perilous in the late Middle Ages. All of Germany was under the nominal control of the emperor, but because his power was so weak or uncertain, local authorities had to maintain order--yet another indication of Germany's political fragmentation.

In theory, the Holy Roman Empire claimed supremacy over all Christian rulers and peoples of central and western Europe, and after the extinction of the eastern empire in 1453 it could insist that it was the sole secular heir to the ancient Roman tradition. But the greatness of the theoretical claim of the Holy Roman Empire was imatched only by the insignificance of its practical acceptance. The feudal nobles of western Europe and its had never recognized it, and the national monarchs, though they might occasionally sport with its honors Practice and titles, never admitted any real dependence upon it.

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