There are some names in History that make a whole world of sense. The Eighty Years War lasted, wait for it, eighty years. The Soviet Union was indeed a union of small local districts called Soviets. And AD 69 was called the Year of the Four Emperors because in Ancient Rome…OK, I’ll stop patronising you, you get my idea. Which is why I’m so disappointed to tell you that, when I talk about the Holy Roman Empire, I’m talking about something not particularly Holy, not at all Roman, and debatably one unified empire. And yet it was Europe’s number one superpower at a time when most countries were fractured and tiny. It’s the reason Europe is mostly Christian, and mostly Catholic, and yet it was the birthplace of not one, but several of the movements that opposed it. Most importantly, from my writing-about-history-on-the-net perspective, it’s the perfect example of a feudal system gone horribly wrong and a German Empire gone horribly right, and for those reasons most of all it’s fascinating and the topic of this blog post.
I’m not a fan of that theory that “history is but the biography of great men” – for one, it fails to take account of some pretty great women, and ignores those awful not-great men, who were probably just growing your food or making your armor or running your country, you self-righteous feudal prick. But even I admit that the story of the birth of the Holy Roman Empire (please forgive me for calling it the HRE from now on, even if it does make it sound like it should go alongside COD or BBC) is pretty much the story of one man: The story of Karl Karling.
Now, before you make fun of what must be one of the least cool names in history, bear in mind that Karling is the name of his dynasty, and it’s only called that because his descendants named themselves after him because they were so in love with him. If even that’s not cool enough, people tend to use the Latin “Carolingian” for his dynastic name – surely in a Holy Roman attempt to sound more Roman – and call him Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. But, you know…I prefer Karl. Karl was King of the Franks, crowned in 768 (during the European Dark Ages, a time when we Europeans could do very little but collect flies and stare across at how advanced the Middle East was getting). His ancestors had left him some pretty big boots to fill, going from tiny tribes in North Germany to owners of what is now France (yes, it’s named after the Franks, keep up) and the land around Frankfurt (I’m not repeating myself, you can figure that one out). To any other king, this kingdom would be fantastic. Karl took one look and decided it was not good enough.
I could go into detail into his conquests, but if you look at a map of Western Europe without the Iberian peninsula and the British Isles you pretty much have it. This guy was good – so good, in fact, that the Pope declared him the Roman Emperor despite not owning Rome itself, in the hope that he would restore the Western Roman Empire’s glory and give the power back the the Pope. Karl was even named Caesar (in his own language, Kaiser), and explains how the HRE he created got its H and R. Its shape – a pretty damn big shape encompassing the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic – was basically all that was left after Karl’s death. And that’s when things got interesting.
Remember when I said the HRE wasn’t a proper empire? This is where all that emerges. It had Emperors, yeah, but they were voted for by nobles. It had cities, yeah, but no capital or centre of power. It had a unified army, yeah, but the dukes and princes and archbishops could still declare war on each other within the kingdom, essentially acting as constituencies when it suited them and independent nations when it didn’t. It wasn’t as much an empire as a collection of smaller kingdoms, archbishoprics and free cities who claimed to be part of a larger state, and although that made the HRE relatively stable, it did NOT make it as powerful as it could be. The decline of the empire was slow, punctuated by breakaway kingdoms like Bohemia (yes, it’s a real place, but we call it the Czech Republic now) and infighting Italian Free Cities. By the time Napoleon rolled along (yes, we have skipped a bit, but HRE history before that is much more the history of the awesome families who dominated its politics, and that’s for another time) it was weak enough that the French General broke it up into tiny independent countries so it wouldn’t threaten his shiny new empire. Created by a conquering Frankish Emperor and destroyed by a conquering French Emperor, the HRE had truly come full circle and, like all good things, came to an end.
Did it really make a difference to life today, though? That’s probably up to you to decide. Its religious freedom (“Let every man get to heaven in his own way”, etc) allowed movements like Protestantism and Judaism to survive and thrive in Europe through the Renaissance, but its borders have been broken up and beaten by wars and long forgotten. It is still remembered fondly by Germans (You’ve heard of the Third Reich, right? This is what they count as the First) but is all but forgotten by the nations who once feared it. I can only certify one thing. It’s got some damn good stories.