Two Swords


The problems of defining the Empire are already apparent in the confusion over its title. For most of its existence it was simply ‘the Empire’. The words Holy, Roman and Empire were only combined as Sacrum Romanum Imperium in June 1180, and though used more frequently from 1254, they never appeared consistently in official documents.1 Nonetheless, all three terms formed core elements of the imperial ideal present from the Empire’s foundation. This chapter will consider each in turn, before investigating the Empire’s troubled relationship with the papacy.

The holy element was integral to the Empire’s primary purpose in providing a stable political order for all Christians and defending them against heretics and infidels. To this end, the emperor should act as chief advocate, or guardian, of the pope, who was the head of a single, universal Christian church. Since this was considered a divine mission, entrusted by God, it opened the possibility that the emperor and Empire were themselves sacred. Like the Roman and imperial elements, the holy character of the Empire was rooted in the later, Christian phase of the ancient Roman empire, rather than the pagan past of the first Caesars or the earlier Roman republic.

Christian Rome

After more than three centuries of persecuting Christians, Rome adopted Christianity as its sole, official religion in ad 391. This step partially desacralized the imperial office, since the singular Christian God would not tolerate a rival. The emperor no longer considered himself divine and had to accept the church’s development as a separate institution throughout his empire. These changes were eased by the church’s adoption of a clerical hierarchy modelled on Roman imperial infrastructure. Christian bishops resided in the chief towns, exercising spiritual jurisdictions (dioceses) that generally matched the political boundaries of the empire’s provinces. Moreover, though no longer considered a god, the emperor retained a sacral role as mediator between heaven and earth. The Pax Romanum remained an imperial mission, but changed from providing an earthly paradise to advancing Christianity as the sole path to salvation.

The later Roman empire faced internal tensions and external pressures. Parts of the empire were already devolved to co-emperors after 284, and this resumed after a brief reunification under Constantine I, who revived the ancient Greek town of Byzantium as a new capital, immodestly dubbed Constantinople in the 330s. The split into eastern and western empires became permanent after 395. Both halves survived through accommodating invading warriors, especially the western empire, which absorbed successive waves of Germanic invaders, notably the Goths and, later, the Vandals. These poachers were turned into gamekeepers through the attractions of Roman culture and settled life. They abandoned raiding to serve as the empire’s border guards and became partly Romanized, including adopting forms of Christianity.

Their embrace of Rome was always conditional on the benefits of subordination outweighing the lure of independence. This balance tipped against the western empire during the fourth and fifth centuries. The western Gothic tribes, known as the Visigoths, established their own kingdom in former Roman Spain and southern Gaul in 395, and sacked the imperial capital only fifteen years later. The Franks – another tribe about which we will hear more shortly – assumed control of northern Gaul around 420 after 170 years of alternately attacking and serving the local Roman defenders.2 Having seen off the Huns, a fresh set of armed migrants arriving in the mid-fifth century, the victorious Goths under Odovacar toppled the last western emperor, fittingly called Augustulus, or ‘Little Augustus’, in 476.

Only later was this regarded as the ‘fall of the Rome empire’. For contemporaries, Rome simply contracted to its eastern half based in Constantinople, which still regarded itself as a direct continuation of ancient Rome, despite its much later distinctive label as the Byzantine empire. Nonetheless, the events of 476 were significant. The city of Rome was no longer capital of the known world, but a precarious outpost on the western periphery of an empire whose primary interests now lay in the Balkans, Holy Land and north Africa, and whose culture was predominantly Greek rather than Latin by the seventh century. Byzantium underwent periodic revivals, but was short of manpower, especially after costly wars against the Islamic Arabs, generally known as Saracens or Moors, who emerged as a new enemy as they overran Palestine and north Africa by 640.

Byzantium was obliged to secure Rome by relying on the Ostrogoths, another tribe displaced by the Huns’ eruption into central Europe in the fifth century. Following established practice, Byzantium offered status and legitimacy in return for political subordination and military service. The Ostrogoth leader, Theodoric, had been raised in Constantinople and combined Romanized culture with the Gothic warrior ethos. Having defeated Odovacar, he was recognized as ruler of Italy by Byzantium in 497. Cooperation broke down during the reign of Emperor Justinian, who capitalized on his temporary reconquest of north Africa to try to assert more direct control over Italy. The resulting Gothic War (535–62) saw the eventual defeat of the Ostrogoths and the establishment of a permanent Byzantine presence in Italy. Known as the Exarchate, this had its political and military base at Ravenna in the north, with the rest of the peninsula divided into provinces, each under a military commander called a dux – the origins of both the word ‘duke’ and the title duce taken by Benito Mussolini.

Success proved temporary as the Lombards, another Gothic tribe that had served as Byzantine auxiliaries in the recent war, launched their own invasion of Italy in 568. Unlike Odovacar’s Goths, they failed to take Rome, or the new Byzantine outpost at Ravenna, but nonetheless established their own kingdom based initially in Milan, and then Pavia from 616.3 Italy was now split in three. The invaders’ new kingdom of Langobardia extended along the Po valley, giving that region its modern name of Lombardy. Lombard kings exercised only loose control over southern Italy, which was largely organized as the separate Lombard duchy of Benevento. The remainder was known as the Romagna, or ‘Roman’ territory belonging to Byzantium, and surviving today as the name of the region around Ravenna.

The Emergence of the Papacy

A fourth political factor emerged with the growing influence of the papacy, based in Rome. The popes traced their origins as the church’s ‘father’ (papa) through ‘Apostolic Succession’ from St Peter, though they were only really free to function once ancient Rome tolerated Christianity. Rome was only one of five primary Christian centres, but the loss of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria to the Arabs (638–42) increased its importance alongside Constantinople. Additional prestige derived from Rome’s own continued importance as an imperial city, and its emotional and spiritual significance in the development of early Christianity. Beginning with the execution of St Peter and St Paul in the year 64, all 30 Roman bishops prior to Constantine’s toleration Edict of Milan (313) were subsequently recognized as saints and claimed as martyrs by the church.4

It was important for the later Holy Roman Empire that the Roman papacy developed differently to the eastern patriarchate in Constantinople. Byzantium retained the centralized imperial structure, with its culture of hierarchical subordination and written administration deriving directly from ancient Rome. This imparted two characteristics largely absent in the early western church. The patriarch remained subordinate to the emperor, while the desire to fix theology in written statements made doctrinal differences much more pronounced than those in the western church, which was both more decentralized and less concerned with communication in writing. The eastern church distanced itself from the version of Christianity known as Arianism, which retained a strong following amongst the Lombards, while a dispute over the human and divine aspects of Christ’s nature had forced the emergence of a separate Coptic church in Syria and Egypt when these were still Byzantine provinces.

The absence of durable imperial structures in the west deprived the Roman popes of the strong political backing afforded the eastern patriarch. Papal authority relied on asserting moral rather than direct administrative leadership of the western church, which remained a loose agglomeration of dioceses and churches. Since the fifth century, popes used the argument of Apostolic Succession to claim the right to pronounce on doctrine without reference to any political authority. This was extended to the right to judge whether the candidates chosen by the various Christian Gothic kings and nobles were suitable to become bishops or archbishops. Authority was symbolized through the practice of investiture developed in the seventh century: no archbishop could take office without receiving a special vestment known as the pallium from the pope. In turn, popes made archbishops responsible for checking the credentials of bishops within their archdiocese, thus extending papal influence indirectly deeper into the localities. Wynfrith, an Anglo-Saxon monk later known as St Boniface, who was the first archbishop of Mainz and a key figure in the Empire’s church history, was given cloth that had lain across St Peter’s tomb as his pallium in 752. The message was clear: opposing the pope was equated with disobeying St Peter.

The early medieval popes would have preferred a strong emperor who could protect them and allow them to pursue their spiritual mission. Rome was one of the military duchies established in Italy after the Gothic War, but Byzantine power was flickering, while Byzantium had to deal with its own practical problems. As bishops of Rome, popes were further bound to local society through canon law, the as yet largely uncodified customs governing the management of the church and its personnel. Bishops were to be elected by the clergy and inhabitants of their diocese. Local young men tended to be preferred: 13 of the 15 popes in the century before 654 were Romans who often had an uncomfortable relationship with their city’s clans, or leading families, who held much of local wealth and power. Gregory I, the most important of these popes, hailed from a family of Roman senators and pushed the papacy into the void left by contracting Byzantine power. Within a century, his successors had assumed ducal authority across the city and its hinterland, known as St Peter’s Patrimonium (Patrimonium Petri), a coastal strip either side of the Tiber.5 Over time, this territory became the material basis for papal claims to supremacy over the western church. Popes steadily appropriated the symbols and political claims of Byzantine emperors, whilst simultaneously deliberately obscuring or minimizing their continued ties to Constantinople. For example, by the late eighth century, popes issued their own coins and dated their pontificates like the reigns of kings.6Meanwhile, their spiritual influence grew while Byzantine political authority contracted. Gregory I and his successors sent missionaries to Christianize Britain and Germany, areas long since outside any Roman imperial orbit.

However, the popes did not follow seventh-century Islamic leaders in establishing their own imperial state. Latin Christianity alone proved insufficient to reunite the kingdoms and principalities emerging from the former western Roman empire. The papacy still needed a protector, but Byzantium proved increasingly unhelpful. Constans II made the last serious attempt to eject the Lombards from southern Italy in 662–8, and was the last Byzantine emperor to visit Rome, but he spent his time transferring ancient treasures to Constantinople. Friction increased after 717 through Byzantine tax demands and interference in western Christian practices. The Lombards seized the opportunity to capture Ravenna in 751, essentially extinguishing Byzantine influence. The pope was left alone facing the Lombards, who now claimed former Byzantine rights, including secular jurisdiction over Rome and thus the papacy.

The Franks

The pope looked north-west to the Franks as alternative protectors. Like many of the peoples of post-Roman western Europe, the Franks had emerged as a tribal confederacy; in their case in the Weser-Rhine area of north-western Germany known then as Austrasia and later, loosely, as Franconia. Unlike their southern neighbours, the Alamanni of Swabia, the Franks assimilated much from Rome as they spread westwards into Gaul after 250.7 By 500 they controlled all Gaul under their great warrior, Clovis, who united all the Frankish tribes and was proclaimed king. Clovis accepted baptism directly into the Roman church, rather than the usual Germanic choice of Arianism, while his successors cooperated with papal missionaries, notably St Boniface’s activities on the eastern and northern fringes of their realm.

These factors probably influenced the pope’s choice, as did the extent and proximity of the Frankish realm. By 750 it extended beyond Gaul and north-western Germany to include Swabia, and – crucially – Burgundy, which then encompassed western Switzerland and south-east France, and so controlled access over the Alps into Lombardy. These huge territories, known as Francia, were ruled by the Merovingian family descended from Clovis. Unfairly criticized by later French historians as les rois fainéants(‘the do-nothing kings’), the Merovingians had achieved much, but they were suffering from inbreeding and the Frankish custom of partitioning property amongst sons, which led to repeated civil wars during the seventh and early eighth centuries. Power slipped to what became known as the Carolingian family, which held the office of ‘mayor of the palace’ controlling the royal household.8

Accordingly, the first papal appeal was addressed not to the Merovingian king, but to his mayor Charles, known as Martel (‘the Hammer’) after his victory over the invading Moors at Poitiers in 732. Cooperation was frustrated by Charles’s death within a year, followed by renewed Frankish civil war. As the pope’s situation deteriorated after the fall of Ravenna, he took the bold step of assuming the Romano-Byzantine strategy of offering status to a ‘barbarian’ leader in return for submission and support. Acting through Boniface, Pope Zachary crowned Martel’s son Pippin the Short as Frankish king in 751, thereby sanctioning Pippin’s coup overthrowing the Merovingians. Pippin signalled his subordination to the pope at two meetings in 753 and 754 by prostrating himself, kissing the papal stirrup and helping the pontiff dismount. Unsurprisingly, Frankish accounts contain no record of this ‘Strator service’, which was to assume considerable significance in later papal-imperial relations as a highly visible means of demarcating superiority.9More practically, Pippin invaded Lombardy (754–6), capturing Ravenna and relieving the pressure on Rome without removing it entirely.

The papal-Frankish alliance was renewed in 773 by Charlemagne, Pippin’s eldest son, who answered renewed calls for assistance as the Lombards again tried to assert secular jurisdiction over Rome. The future emperor looked the part at 1.8 metres, towering over his contemporaries, even if he was developing a pot belly from over-eating. Detesting drunkenness and dressing modestly, Charlemagne nonetheless clearly enjoyed being the centre of attention.10 Recent attempts to debunk him as a military leader are unconvincing.11 The Franks were simply the best organized for war of all the major post-Roman kingdoms, as Charlemagne amply demonstrated in his campaign to rescue the pope in 773–4 (see Plate 4). Charlemagne besieged Pavia for a year, and its capture in June 774 ended two hundred years of Lombard royal rule. In keeping with Frankish custom, Lombardy was not annexed directly, but preserved as a distinct kingdom under Charlemagne. Following the suppression of a rebellion in 776, Charlemagne replaced most of the Lombard elite with loyal Franks and spent the next three decades ruthlessly consolidating his authority throughout Francia and extending his influence with new conquests in Bavaria and Saxony.

Foundation of the Empire

The Holy Roman Empire owed its foundation to the pope’s decision to dignify this expansion by conferring an imperial title on Charlemagne. The reasons for this step remain obscure, but can be reconstructed with reasonable certainty. It seems likely that the pope initially regarded Charlemagne as a second Theodoric, the fifth-century Ostrogothic chieftain who acted as Byzantine governor of Italy: a useful, domesticated barbarian king, rather than a substitute for the Byzantine emperor. However, the failure of a Byzantine expedition in 788 to eject the Franks from Benevento, which they had just conquered, seemed to confirm the new balance of power. In December 795 Leo III notified Charlemagne of his election as pope, a favour normally reserved for the Byzantine emperor. Nonetheless, contingency rather than systematic planning characterized the next five years leading to Charlemagne’s coronation.12

Three aspects stand out. First, the Empire was a joint creation of Charlemagne and Leo III, ‘one of the shiftiest occupants of the throne of St Peter’.13 Accused of perjury and adultery, Leo was unable to assert authority over the Roman clans, who orchestrated a mob which attacked him in April 799, nearly cutting out his eyes and tongue – acts of mutilation that were considered to render their victim unfit for office. Already at his accession, Leo had sent Charlemagne a banner and the keys to St Peter’s tomb, symbolically placing the papacy under Frankish protection. Charlemagne was reluctant to assume this responsibility, which could require him to judge and possibly remove a wayward pontiff.14

Writing a generation later, the Frankish chronicler Einhard claimed Leo sprang the idea of an imperial coronation when Charlemagne finally visited Rome in November 800. We should not be misled by this typical hagiographic device stressing Charlemagne’s supposed modesty in not seeking worldly ambition.15 The details were agreed in advance and carefully choreographed, with the participants fully aware they were taking a significant step. Leo rode 12 miles from Rome to meet Charlemagne, double the usual distance accorded a mere king. The ambassador from the patriarch of Jerusalem was on hand to present the keys to the Holy Sepulchre. Although the actual site was in Arab possession since 636, this act symbolized Charlemagne’s assumption of the ancient Roman mission of protecting Christianity. Finally, the choice of Christmas Day 800 for the coronation was deliberate. This was not only a central Christian holy day, but that year fell on a Sunday and was believed to be exactly 7,000 years since the Creation.16

Just what Charlemagne thought he was getting into is not clear, because – like virtually all medieval emperors – he left no written insight into his motives. His concern was unlikely to have been the purely immediate one of convincing the recalcitrant Saxons to accept his rule.17 The Franks had long regarded themselves as rightful rulers over the Saxons and the other Germanic tribes that were not formally constituted as monarchies. Rather, it is more likely Charlemagne saw his accession as a way to consolidate his hold over all Italy, since the former Lombard kingdom only covered the north, whereas the idea of the Roman empire had great resonance throughout the entire peninsula.18 Additionally, in accepting the various religious symbols, Charlemagne signalled his partnership with the pope as joint leaders of Christendom.19

Alongside the joint effort and careful choreography, the third factor is that it is highly likely Charlemagne believed he was being made Roman emperor. The Byzantine throne was technically vacant, since Emperor Constantine VI had been deposed and blinded in 796 by his mother Irene, who assumed power herself. As the first woman to rule openly in Byzantium, her authority remained hotly contested, with her immediate opponents claiming the throne as vacant to legitimize their own counter-coup, which toppled her in 802.20 This had lasting significance. To its supporters, the Empire was not an inferior, new creation, but a direct continuation of the ancient Roman one with the title simply being ‘translated’ (transferred) by Leo from Byzantium to Charlemagne and his successors.

Spiritual and Secular Authority

Nonetheless, a whiff of illegitimacy still surrounded the Empire’s birth. It was questionable whether the disreputable Leo had the authority to transfer the imperial title to the Frankish strongman, not least since the pope had already symbolically submitted to Charlemagne by greeting him outside Rome. These specific problems betray the deeper difficulties that contemporaries faced over the relationship between spiritual and secular authority.21 Two biblical passages exemplify this. Jesus’s response to Pontius Pilate’s question ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ was the potentially revolutionary: ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world . . . My kingly authority comes from elsewhere’ (John 18:33, 36). This opposition to secular authority made sense during Christianity’s time of persecution by the Romans, and was underpinned by the doctrine of Christ’s second coming, which suggested the secular world was of little significance. However, the delay in the Messiah’s return made accommodation with secular authority unavoidable, as exemplified by St Paul’s response to the Romans: ‘Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution’ (Romans 13:1–2).

Christians owed obedience to all authority, but their duty to God trumped that to secular power. It proved impossible to agree whether they should suffer tyrants as a test of faith or were entitled to oppose them as ‘ungodly’ rulers. Attempts to resolve these tensions also drew on Scripture, notably Christ to the Pharisees: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:17). In short, Christian thought tried to distinguish separate spheres of regnum, denoting the political realm, and sacerdotium for the spiritual world of the church.

Delineation of separate spheres merely raised the new problem of their mutual relationship. St Augustine was in no doubt of the superiority of sacerdotium over regnum.22 Responding to Roman intellectuals’ attribution of the Gothic sack of their city in 410 as the wrath of their former pagan gods, Augustine argued this merely demonstrated the transience of temporal existence compared to the enduring Christian ‘city of God’ in heaven. This distinction was later elaborated by Latin theologians to reject Byzantium’s continuation of a semi-divine imperial office. Pope Gelesius I used the influential metaphor of two swords, both provided by God (see Plate 1). The church received the sword of spiritual authority (auctoritas), symbolizing responsibility for guiding humanity through divine grace to salvation. The state received the secular sword of power (potestas) to maintain order and provide the physical conditions to enable the church to perform its role. Christendom had two leaders. Both pope and emperor were considered essential to proper order. Neither could ignore the other without negating his own position.23 Both remained locked in a dance that each struggled to lead, yet neither was prepared to release his partner and go solo.

Disagreements were expressed in texts that circulated in only a few handwritten copies and that are much more widely known now than they were at the time. They were position statements prepared to provide arguments to wield in oral debate, rather than to be used as mass propaganda.24 Their impact on daily life was limited. Clergy and laity generally worked together, while spiritual and secular authority generally proved mutually reinforcing rather than conflictual. Nonetheless, the issues remained clear enough. Secular power was inconceivable without reference to divine authority. Likewise, the clergy could not dispense with the material world, despite waves of enthusiasm for those seeking ‘freedom’ from earthly constraints as hermits or monks. The Franks gave Ravenna to the pope through the Donation of Pippin in 754, presenting this as restoring it to the Patrimonium, yet they retained secular jurisdiction over the entire area, asserting claims not dissimilar to those of the Lombards they had just displaced.

The difficulties with ultimate authority were obvious at the Empire’s birth. Pope Leo’s public obsequiousness extended – if we believe the Frankish accounts – to prostrating himself before the newly crowned emperor. Yet, moments before, he had placed the crown on Charlemagne’s head in a ceremony invented for the occasion; Byzantine emperors did not use crowns before the tenth century. The coronation thus enabled both parties to claim superiority. It was not in Charlemagne’s interest to contest papal claims directly, since the process of translating his imperial title from east to west required a pope with wide-ranging authority. Thus, the Franks did not seriously question the inventions of previous popes; notably Symmachus, who claimed in 502 on dubious precedents that no secular power could judge a pontiff. Nor did they challenge the Donation of Constantine, purportedly dating from 317, but probably written around 760, which presented the pope as temporal lord of the western empire as well as head of the church.25

From Sacral Kingship to Holy Empire

Other arguments favoured imperial supremacy. The idea of the secular sword elevated the emperor above other kings as ‘defender of the church’ (defensor ecclesiae), extending the Franks’ existing Christianizing mission to include repelling external threats from the Arabs, Magyars and Vikings. Defence could also entail combating internal enemies, including corrupt or heretical clergy, thus suggesting a spiritual as well as a military and political mission. Petrus Damiani, shortly to become one of the Empire’s most vocal critics, called the Empire a sanctum imperium in 1055. By that stage, many had gone further to assert that the emperor was not merely sanctified, but intrinsically sacred (sacrum).26

Ancient Roman emperors had been regarded as demigods, with Caesar posthumously pronounced divine by the senate. The idea continued under his successors, but the need to respect Rome’s still powerful republican traditions prevented this developing into full, theocratic kingship – something that was further curbed by the conversion to Christianity early in the fourth century. While ancient practice continued in Byzantium, the western Empire emerged amidst post-Roman ideas of piety as a guide to public behaviour.

Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis I, is known in Germany as ‘the Pious’, but in France as le Débonnaire; both soubriquets capture aspects of his behaviour. He was sufficiently sinful to require three rites of penance during his reign, yet devout enough to perform them. His more grievous sins included cloistering his relations to remove them as rivals to his succession in 814, mortally blinding his nephew for revolt, breaking a sworn treaty with his sons, and allowing his marriage to deteriorate to the point of his wife having an affair with a courtier. Interpretations differ whether the Carolingian bishops regarded him as an errant member of their flock or used the rites of penance as show trials to discredit him politically.27 Either way, Louis certainly emerged stronger, even though he never silenced his opponents.

The obvious benefit of penitential acts was that they allowed you to do bad things and get away with them. For example, the tenth-century Emperor Otto III walked barefoot from Rome to Benevento to spend two weeks as a hermit after violently crushing a rebellion in 996.28 Piety peaked under Henry III, who banished musicians seeking work at his wedding in 1043, and who often wore penitential clothes and even asked for forgiveness after his victory over the Hungarians at Menfö in 1044, in contrast to the usual prayers before battle.29 Nonetheless, as the controversy over Louis I’s behaviour shows, penitence could easily appear humiliating, as will be seen later with Henry IV’s experience at Canossa (see pp. 57–8).

Piety remained important, particularly with the start of the First Crusade in 1095, but otherwise it became less obviously politicized until the emergence of baroque Catholicism in the seventeenth century when emperors regularly led religious processions and dedicated elaborate monuments as thanksgiving for victories or deliveries from danger. Throughout the Empire’s existence, the routine of the imperial court remained regulated by the Christian calendar, with the highly visible presence of the imperial family at important religious services.30

The notion that emperors were sacred rather than merely pious took hold during the tenth century. Its most visible expression was the practice of appearing at public events accompanied by 12 bishops, such as the consecration of new cathedrals – something that contemporaries clearly understood as imitatio Christi with the Apostles. Otto I’s deliberate Renovatio, or renewal of the Empire in the 960s, included emphasis on his role as Christ’s vicar (vicarius Christi) wielding a divine mandate to rule.31 Some caution is required in interpreting such acts, not least because the primary evidence is liturgical texts. Early medieval emperors remained warriors, including Henry II, who was subsequently canonized in 1146 and who consciously presented the Empire as God’s House. Nonetheless, the period 960–1050 clearly saw a more sacral style of kingship (regale sacerdotium) intended to manifest the divine imperial mission through public acts. The most prominent of these was Otto III’s grand tour in the millennial year 1000, which assumed the character of a pilgrimage via Rome and Gniezno, culminating in Aachen, where the young emperor personally opened Charlemagne’s tomb. Finding his predecessor sitting upright ‘as if he were living’, Otto ‘robed him on the spot with white garments, cut his nails, and [replaced his decayed nose] with gold, took a tooth from Charles’s mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber, and withdrew again’.32 Treating the imperial corpse like a holy relic was an obvious first step towards canonization; this project was interrupted by Otto’s death shortly after, but completed by Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ in 1165.

Like their Roman predecessors, the Empire’s rulers stopped short of claiming to be priests, but their coronation ritual resembled a bishop’s ordination by the mid-tenth century, including anointing, assuming vestments and receiving objects that symbolized spiritual as well as secular authority.33 In the two centuries following Charlemagne, emperors regularly followed Constantine’s example from 325 and convened church synods to discuss ecclesiastical management and doctrine. Otto II introduced new images on coins, seals and illuminated liturgical texts showing him elevated on a high throne, receiving his crown directly from God, while the royal insignia were increasingly treated like holy relics.34 Otto and his next three successors assumed positions as cathedral and abbey canons, thereby combining secular and ecclesiastical roles, though not in top clerical positions.35

This trend was interrupted by the seismic clash with the papacy known as the Investiture Dispute (see pp. 56–60 below), in which Henry IV suffered the humiliation of being excommunicated by the pope in 1076. After this blow, it was harder to believe the emperor was holy, let alone pious, and the stress on the divinity of the imperial mission sounded increasingly shrill. It proved impossible for kings to live up to the ideal of Christ in their personal lives and public actions. More fundamentally, as Henry IV’s notary Gottschalk pointed out, claims for the emperor’s sacrality derived from anointing by the pope and so risked acknowledging papal supremacy.36 Thus, the Empire did not pursue sacral monarchy to the extent found in England and France, where kings claimed the miraculous powers of the Royal Touch.37 This probably explains why the cult of St Charlemagne took firmer roots in France, where it was celebrated as a public holiday from 1475 to the Revolution of 1789.38 Neither Charlemagne, nor Henry II and his wife Kunigunde – both of whom were canonized (in 1146 and 1200, respectively) – emerged as royal national saints of the Empire, unlike Wenceslas in Bohemia (from 985), Stephen in Hungary (1083), Knut in Denmark (1100), Edward the Confessor in England (1165), or Louis IX in France (1297).

A renewed bout of papal-imperial tension in the mid-twelfth century (see pp. 63–7) confirmed the impracticality of sacral kingship to legitimate power in the Empire. The Staufer family, ruling from 1138, changed the emphasis from the monarch to a transpersonal holy Empire, first using the title Sacrum Imperium in March 1157.39 Already sanctified by its divine mission, the Empire did not need the pope’s approbation. This powerful idea survived the Staufers’ political demise in 1250, persisting thereafter even in the long periods when no German king was crowned emperor.


The Legacy of Rome

The Roman legacy was powerfully attractive, but hard to assimilate within the new Empire. Knowledge of ancient Rome was imperfect, though it improved during the ninth century with the intellectual and literary movement known as the Carolingian Renaissance.40 The Bible and classical sources presented Rome as the last and greatest in a succession of world empires. Both the German Kaiser and Russian tsar derive from Caesar, while the name Augustus was also synonymous with ‘emperor’. Charlemagne was depicted on coins in profile dressed as a Roman emperor crowned with oak leaves.41 However, he quickly dropped the title Imperator Romanorum conferred by Leo III, perhaps to avoid provoking Byzantium, which still regarded itself as the Roman empire (see pp. 138–43). Another reason was that the adjective ‘Roman’ was not considered necessary since there was no need of such a qualification at a time when no other power was recognized as ‘imperial’.

There were also domestic pressures against embracing Rome. Charlemagne already ruled his own realm, which itself stimulated imitation: the Polish król, Czech král and Russian korol, all meaning ‘king’, derive from ‘Charles’. The Franks were not prepared to renounce their own identity and merge themselves with the peoples they had recently conquered to become a common body of Roman citizens. While the Franks were Romanized, the centre of their power lay on or beyond the Limes – the frontiers of the ancient Roman empire. Memories lingered, such as the widespread stories that Caesar himself had laid the foundations of various important buildings, but most Roman settlements had contracted or been abandoned completely. Likewise, Roman institutions influenced Merovingian governance, but had also been heavily modified or replaced by entirely new methods.42 The situation was different in Italy, where three-quarters of ancient towns were still economic and population centres in the tenth century, often retaining theiroriginal street pattern.43 Frankish control of Italy only dated from 774 and was disrupted by the partition of the Carolingian empire in 843. Italy and the imperial title were reunited with the former eastern Frankish lands in 962, but by this point these were ruled by the Ottonians from Saxony – a region that had never been part of the Roman empire.

The Ottonians curried favour north of the Alps by ostentatiously incorporating Frankish traditions. Otto I dressed as a Frankish noble and presented himself at Aachen as the direct continuation of Carolingian, rather than Roman, rule. His court chronicler, Widukind of Corvey, ignored the lavish imperial coronation in Rome (962) in his history, and instead presented Otto as already ‘Father of the Fatherland, Master of the World and Emperor’ after his victory over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955.44 Nonetheless, Roman traditions were important to Otto I and his successors. It is unlikely that Otto III’s adoption of the motto Renovatio imperii Romanorum in 998 was part of a coherent plan, but the subsequent historical controversy is useful in pointing to Rome’s dual significance both as a secular imperial centre and as the city of the Apostles and mother of the Christian church.45

The title imperator originally meant ‘military commander’. It acquired political meaning through Caesar and, especially, his adoptive son and successor, Octavian, who assumed the name Augustus and ruled as the first full emperor from 27 bc. The title avoided offending Roman identity, which rested on the expulsion of the original kings at the end of the sixth century bc, and disguised the transition from republican to monarchical rule. A victorious general’s acclamation as emperor by his troops suggested choice by merit and ability, rather than hereditary succession, and could be reconciled with the continuation of the Roman senate, which formally endorsed the soldiers’ action.46 This method could be easily accommodated within Frankish and Christian traditions. Germanic kingship also rested on the idea that rulers were acclaimed by their warriors, allowing the Frankish elite to buy into Charlemagne’s coronation in 800. Victory was regarded as a sign of divine favour, while the fiction that all present voiced their consent unanimously was interpreted as a direct expression of God’s will.47

While Roman traditions could be accommodated, the actual city of Rome was another matter. In 754 the pope had already granted Pippin the title of Roman patrician, suggesting some kind of stewardship for the city. However, Frankish nobles were warrior-landlords with no desire to reside in Rome as senators. Some later emperors also accepted the title of patrician, probably because they hoped it would bring influence in papal elections, but they were not prepared to receive their imperial dignity from the Romans directly. The best opportunity to forge closer ties to Rome’s inhabitants came as the senate re-emerged to challenge papal control of the city in the 1140s. Despite their own troubled relationship with the pope, the Staufer kings rebuffed Roman delegations offering them the imperial title in 1149 and 1154. At least the pope was head of the universal church, whereas the senators merely governed a large Italian city. The Romans felt betrayed and the knights of Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ had to prevent an angry mob from disrupting his coronation by Pope Hadrian IV in 1155. Only Louis IV accepted a Roman invitation, in January 1328, but under the special circumstances of a papal schism and when he had been excommunicated by Pope John XXII. Once his position improved four months later he had himself crowned by his own pliant pope, Nicholas V. The last offer came from Cola di Rienzo, who had seized control of Rome in 1347, later during the same schism. His arrival in Prague proved an embarrassment for King Charles IV, who arrested him and sent him home, where he was murdered by local opponents.48

A Rome-free Empire?

There were only about 50,000 people in Rome in 800, and despite some Carolingian rebuilding, the numerous ancient ruins indicated just how much time had passed since it had been capital of the known world. Although still large by contemporary standards, it was not big enough to accommodate pope and emperor simultaneously. Following the Carolingian partition of the Empire in 843 into three kingdoms (West Francia, East Francia and Lotharingia), the imperial title was generally held by the Frankish kings of Italy until 924, but they were relatively weak, especially after 870, and they usually resided in the old Lombard capital at Pavia, or in the former Byzantine base at Ravenna. While imperial coronations were often years in the planning, subsequent emperors rarely stayed in Rome for long. Otto III did build a new imperial palace, but even he returned to Aachen after his coronation and began fresh construction there too.

Although they sometimes wanted to displace the pope as emperor-maker, the Romans shared the pontiff’s hostility towards a prolonged presence. Emperors might be feted with sumptuous banquets and even applauded for deposing unpopular popes, but they should not outstay their welcome. Rome was in any case too far from Germany, which became the main seat of imperial power after 962. The Frankish expeditions to Italy in 754–6 and 773–4 by Pippin and Charlemagne respectively attracted strong support from Carolingian nobles, who welcomed an excuse to plunder the Lombards, but such opportunities declined once Italy was incorporated into Charlemagne’s realm. Plunder remained possible if the emperor was engaged on a punitive expedition to punish Italian rebels, depose a pope, or assert control over the still largely independent southern part of the peninsula. However, a prolonged presence required more peaceful methods, removing the incentive for most northerners to cooperate. Usually, support swiftly transformed into accusations that the emperor was neglecting his subjects north of the Alps.

The possibility of dispensing with Rome altogether was strongest during the early Carolingian era. Charlemagne never returned to Italy after the spring of 801, and it was 22 years before another emperor visited Rome; whereas popes crossed the Alps three times, including for the coronation of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis I, in Reims (816). Louis had already been crowned co-emperor without papal involvement in 813 (before his father’s death next year), as was his eldest son Lothar I four years later. Aachen was the site of an important palace from 765 and was already known as nova Roma and Roma secunda before Charlemagne’s coronation in 800. The Aachen chapel was modelled on the Byzantine palace chapel at San Vitale in Ravenna and incorporated ancient columns and statues thought to represent Theodoric, thus symbolizing a link as much to the glorious Gothic past as to a Roman one.49 However, the turbulence of Carolingian politics from the 820s both made it imperative to involve the pope in legitimizing possession of the imperial title and decreased the incentive for the pope to travel over the Alps to please the Franks. Lothar’s decision to have his son Louis II crowned co-emperor in 850 is usually accepted as definitively fixing imperial coronations in Rome. Thereafter, it proved hard to break what appeared to be tradition.

While it became impossible to become emperor without being crowned by the pope, papal involvement was not necessary to rule the Empire. The so-called ‘interregna’ are misleading. The Empire had an almost unbroken succession of kings; it was just that not all of them were crowned emperors by the pope (see Table 1 and Appendices 1 and 2). Otto I established the convention that the German king was automatically imperator futurus, or, as Conrad II asserted in 1026 before his coronation, ‘designated for the imperial crown of the Romans’.50 However, it proved fundamental to the Empire’s subsequent history that Otto did not merge the imperial with the German royal title. Despite being proclaimed emperor by his victorious army at Lechfeld, he waited until his coronation in 962 before presenting himself as such. Unlike later nationalist historians, Otto and his successors never regarded the Empire as a German nation state. In their eyes, what made them worthy to be emperor was that they already ruled such extensive lands. By the early eleventh century it had become accepted that whoever was German king was also king of Italy and Burgundy, even without separate coronations. The title King of the Romans (Romanorum rex) was added from 1110 in a bid to assert authority over Rome and reinforce claims that only the German king could be emperor.51

Table 1. Imperial Reigns and German Kings


   Dynastic Era   

  Number of Kings  

  Total Years  

  Years with an Emperor  

















   Lothar III   










   ‘Little Kings’   














*including Otto IV (Welf family), 1198–1218

**including Charles VII (Wittelsbach), 1742–5

Translatio imperii

German claims evolved in response to the difficulties in dealing with the papacy, rather than rejection of the Roman imperial tradition. Indeed, the idea of unbroken continuity grew stronger with the spread of new ideas about the ‘imperial translation’ enacted in 800 by Leo III and Charlemagne. Like all powerful medieval ideas, this was rooted in the Bible. The Book of Daniel (2:31ff.) recounts how the Old Testament prophet responded to a request to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about the future of his empire. Thanks to an influential reading by St Jerome in the fourth century, this was understood as a succession of four ‘world monarchies’: Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome. The notion of ‘empire’ was singular and exclusive. Empires could not co-exist, but followed each other in a strict sequence that was epochal, involving the transfer of divinely ordained power and responsibility for humanity, rather than merely changes of ruler or dynasty. The Roman empire had to continue, since the appearance of a fifth monarchy would invalidate Daniel’s prophecy and contradict God’s plan.52

These beliefs hindered any Byzantine-imperial mutual recognition (see pp. 138–43), and are a reason why the Carolingians and Ottonians were often unclear how far they were directly continuing the Roman empire or merely reviving power which Byzantium had allowed to lapse. The mood changed around 1100 in response to the Investiture Dispute and scholastic interest in classical history. Frutolf of Michelsberg compiled a list of 87 emperors since Augustus, suggesting that Charlemagne had succeeded to the original Roman empire in 800, rather than merely reviving it.53 Translation ideology became increasingly flexible as other authors presented the shifts from Rome to Constantinople (fourth century), to Charlemagne (800), to his Carolingian successors in Italy (843), and finally to the German king (962), as merely a succession of glorious dynasties ruling the same empire. The papacy was obliged to endorse these arguments, since it wanted to preserve its role as agent in each ‘translation’ of the imperial title.

The belief that the Roman empire was the last monarchy included the idea of it as Katechon, or restrainer, keeping the divine schedule on track and preventing the premature destruction of the world by the Anti-Christ. Byzantine readings of the Book of Revelation produced the idea of the ‘last world emperor’, who would unite all Christians, defeat Christ’s enemies, travel to Jerusalem and submit earthly power to God. Having already spread to western Europe, this idea readily lent itself to eulogizing Charlemagne, who, by the 970s, many believed was merely resting in Jerusalem, where he had allegedly gone as a pilgrim at the end of his reign.54 Abbot Adso articulated similar ideas in his Book of the Anti-Christ, written around 950 at the request of Gerberga, Otto I’s sister. Otto III and Henry II both had ceremonial cloaks embroidered with cosmic symbols and may have considered themselves emperors at the end of time. Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ is known to have attended a play about the Anti-Christ in 1160, and certainly apocalyptic arguments helped emperors justify deposing ‘false’ popes as potential Anti-Christs.55

As with all futurology, these ideas encouraged people to relate real events to the predictions. A central concern was to distinguish the good last world emperor from the evil Anti-Christ, since both were associated with Jerusalem and an expanding empire. It was thought that the Empire would reach its highest perfection as an earthly paradise under the former, suggesting that any signs of decline portended the latter. Already in the eleventh century, the monk Rodulfus Glaber identified the emergence of distinct Christian kingdoms as such a portent.56 The most influential writer was Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), a Cistercian abbot who claimed the world would end 42 generations after Christ, predicting Judgement Day would fall sometime between 1200 and 1260 – precisely in the period of renewed papal–imperial conflict. Many people longed for the end, which was expected to herald a golden age of social justice and open all human hearts to God. Such ideas took hold amongst the radical Franciscans, Waldensians and other groups flourishing after 1200, who were swiftly condemned as heretics by the church establishment, which in 1215 also dropped its initial acceptance of Joachim’s arguments.57

Emperor Frederick II’s recovery of Jerusalem in 1229 intensified debate, since he had acted outside the official crusading movement and whilst excommunicated by the pope. His death in 1250 reinforced his place in Joachimist chronology and swiftly led to rumours that he was still alive. Initially, this took the form of various imposters, one of whom briefly issued his own decrees in the Rhineland using a forged imperial seal. By 1290 this rumour had transformed along the lines of the myths surrounding Charlemagne; the emperor was merely resting and would return as part of the end of days. While it was initially claimed Frederick had disappeared into Mount Etna, by 1421 it was believed he was slumbering under the steep Kyffhäuser mountain near Nordhausen in the Harz region. The unrealistic expectations accompanying the accession of Charles V in 1519 prompted the last flowering of the Joachimist fantasy, by which time Frederick II had become confused with his grandfather, Frederick ‘Barbarossa’. This was probably because Barbarossa’s frequent visits to the Harz had embedded him in local memory, while his death on crusade and absence of a grave fitted the story better.58


Singular and Universal

The belief in imperial translation might strike modern readers as far detached from the Empire’s reality, especially after the demise of the Staufers around 1250. Yet, of all the Latin European states, only the Empire developed a consistent, fully imperial (as opposed to simply monarchical-sovereign) ideal prior to the new age of global maritime empires in the sixteenth century.59 There were only 25 years with a crowned emperor between 1245 and 1415, but the Empire’s monarch continued to be considered more than an ordinary king.

Imperial apologists fully recognized that the Empire’s territory was much smaller than the extent of the known world (Map 1). Like the ancient Romans, they distinguished between the Empire’s actual territory and its divine imperial mission, which they considered limitless. French, Spanish and other western monarchs increasingly emphasized their own sovereign royal authority, but this did little to diminish arguments that the emperor was still superior. Even if they acknowledged practical limits to imperial authority, most writers still believed in the desirability of a single, secular Christian leader.60

The Empire was considered indivisible, since the theory of imperial translation ruled that there could only be one empire at a time. The clergy pressured the Franks to abandon their practice of partible inheritance. It is not clear how far Charlemagne accepted this, since two of his sons predeceased him, leaving only Louis I as heir in 814.61 Louis declared the Empire indivisible in 817 on the grounds that it was a gift from God. However, it was the Franks’ own conception of Empire that proved more significant since this envisaged imperial leadership of subordinate kingdoms, rather than a centralized, unitary state. Thus, Louis assigned Aquitaine (southern France) and Bavaria to his younger sons, with the bulk of the land going to the eldest, Lothar I, as emperor, while his nephew Bernard continued as king of Italy.62 Family jealousies wrecked these arrangements, leading to civil wars from 829 and a series of partitions after the Treaty of Verdun in 843 (Map 2), but the Carolingians continued to regard their lands as part of a wider unit and held at least 70 summit meetings between 843 and 877 alone.63 It is only subsequent historical convention that sees these partitions as creating distinct nation states. The same convention also stresses discontinuity, especially by ignoring the emperors based in Italy between 843 and 924, and instead interpreting Otto I’s acquisition of the title in 962 as the foundation of a new, ‘German’ empire.64 Although the last reunion of eastern and western Francia broke up in 887, none of the Paris-based Carolingian kings ever claimed their own imperial title. The singularity of empire was too deeply rooted in Christian political thought; there could only be one emperor, because there was only one God in heaven.

Practical politics reinforced this. For most of the Middle Ages, the Empire remained its own political world. Indeed, for the first four centuries of its existence, Byzantium and France were the only significant outsiders, and the latter remained ruled by kings from the Carolingian family until 987 when the western Frankish Carolingian line died out. There were no major external threats to the Empire between the defeat of the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 and the approach of the Mongols around 1240 – and these later fortunately turned back before they did serious harm. All other rulers could be considered peripheral to both the Empire and Christendom generally. Even as the Empire’s actual territory contracted, it remained far larger than that of any other Latin monarch (seeChapter 4).

The Frankish ideas imparted important characteristics to the Empire, giving it a strong ideological continuity, but ultimately contributing to its inability to match new political ideas emerging in Europe by the eighteenth century. Although different in many ways, one aspect of ancient Rome is strikingly modern. Romans believed their empire was a unitary state inhabited by a common people who had submerged any previous identities through the acceptance of common citizenship. By contrast, the Franks and their imperial successors were more like other pre-modern emperors in Persia, India, China and Ethiopia who saw themselves as ‘kings of kings’, ruling empires composed of discrete kingdoms inhabited by different peoples.

This was a source of great strength to the Franks and their successors. It meant that the imperial title retained prestige, remaining a much more realistic goal than trying to establish direct hegemony over the subjects of other rulers. Peoples and lands were mostly only indirectly subject to the emperor, whose authority was mediated by a variety of other, lesser lords. This hierarchy would lengthen, especially under the Staufers, eventually becoming more elaborate and rigid as it began to be fixed in copious written and printed documents from the fifteenth century. Although ultimately hindering adaptation to change, this aspect provided coherence since status and rights depended on each lord or community’s continued membership of the Empire. It also rendered the creation of a national monarchy undesirable, because the Empire was defined as many kingdoms, rather than just one kingdom.


As in other empires, the emperor was expected to preserve peace. Charlemagne blended Merovingian and late Roman ideals by presenting peace as the fruit of justice. The Salians and Staufers asserted a more active style of kingship, reversing the church’s argument that good governance was a precondition of faith and justice.65 This shift should not be misunderstood as deliberate state-building. It was not until the eighteenth century that Europeans embraced the modern idea of progress, which envisaged the future as an improved version of the present, encouraging both the elaboration of new utopias and the expectation that politics should deliver these.66 Previously, people generally viewed the future in terms of salvation and secular ideals of fame and posthumous reputation. They might bemoan current problems like disorder, disease and misrule, but saw these as deviations from an essentially static, idealized order. The discrepancy between ideal and reality was not too troubling, since it was considered an expression of the imperfection of human, earthly existence. The ruler was expected to embody idealized harmony (Concordia) and to manifest it through symbolic-laden actions.

The emphasis on consensus remained fundamental to imperial politics until 1806, but it would be wrong to replace the earlier narrative of emperors as failed state-builders with a new one of them as honest peace-brokers.67 Virtually all the men ruling the Empire before the sixteenth century were successful warriors, with many of them owing their position to victory over domestic rivals.


Likewise, we should not confuse the Empire’s much cherished freedoms with the modern, democratic ideal of Liberty. The latter derives inspiration from republican Rome and the ancient Greek city states, neither of which feature significantly in the classical legacy embraced by the Empire. Instead, Frankish warrior culture imparted a distinctly pre-modern idea of local and particular liberties, which started to shape the Empire as a status hierarchy, distributing political and social capital unevenly across society. The emperor’s coronation and mission elevated him above other lords, but these lords still played a role in his accession as king. The Franks’ success as conquerors bred a culture of entitlement amongst the aristocracy that Carolingian rulers never escaped. No king could afford to ignore his leading lords for long. However, these rarely sought to displace the king, or to establish fully independent kingdoms of their own. As we shall see in Chapter 7, the Carolingian and Ottonian aristocracy repeatedly declined opportunities to break up the Empire during periods of weak royal rule. Rebellions were about individual influence, not alternative forms of governance.

The most important liberty was the right of lords to participate in the greater affairs of the Empire by having a voice in forming the political consensus. Rather than a constant battle between centralism and princely independence, the Empire’s political history is better understood as a long process of delineating these rights and fixing them with greater precision. As will become clearer in Chapter 8, the graduations became sharper with the fundamental distinction from the later twelfth century between those with ‘imperial immediacy’ and those whose relationship to the emperor was mediated by one or more intervening levels of lordship. Over the next five centuries, immediacy became more firmly associated with the rule of increasingly distinct territories and their mediate subjects. Meanwhile, those possessing immediacy shared common political rights that came to be exercised through more formal institutions from the later fifteenth century.

Freedoms and status were corporate in the sense of being shared communally by members of a legally recognized social group, such as the clergy. They were also local and specific, varying across different parts of the Empire, and even between those of nominally the same social rank. Fundamentally, however, their freedoms and status related all inhabitants in some way to the Empire as the ultimate source of individual or communal liberties. The Empire’s hierarchy was not a chain of command, but a multilayered structure allowing individuals and groups to disobey one authority whilst still professing loyalty to another. This was exemplified by the refusal of Counts Frederick and Anselm to join their immediate lord, Duke Ernst II of Swabia, in rebelling against Conrad II in 1026: ‘If we were slaves of our king and emperor, subjected by him to your jurisdiction, it would not be permissible for us to separate ourselves from you. But now, since we are free, and hold our king and emperor the supreme defender of our liberty on earth, as soon as we desert him, we lose our liberty, which no good man, as someone says, loses save with his life.’68


Imperial rule was not hegemonic, despite periodic moves towards a more command-style monarchy, notably under the Salians, but was characterized more by brokerage and negotiation. It worked because the main participants usually had more to gain from preserving the imperial order than by overturning or fragmenting it. The Carolingians extended a broadly standard system of general governance across their entire realm, entrenching it by adapting the specifics of rule to local circumstances (see pp. 334–52). The Empire was divided into duchies as military districts, subdivided into counties for the maintenance of public order. The duchies largely mapped onto the diocesan structure west of the Rhine, and onto the fewer, but larger tribal areas east of that river. Land was endowed as fiefs or benefices to enable the dukes and counts to sustain themselves and carry out their functions, as well as to support bishops and abbots in developing a more extensive and dense church infrastructure (see pp. 79–89 and 326–30).

Later chapters will explore how far these institutions provided political continuity, but for now it is important to note that the Carolingians already distinguished between the kingdom (regnum) and the king (rex), with the former persisting even if it was ruled by several kings.69 The transition from the Carolingians to the Ottonians as German kings in 919 was regarded by contemporaries as a significant event. Like Otto I’s assumption of the imperial title in 962, they disagreed how far this represented a break with the past, but by the twelfth century most emphasized continuity even if they did not all fully accept the wider claims of imperial translation.70

Continuity persisted despite subsequent changes of ruling family and the long periods without a crowned emperor. History records the Empire’s kings as members of different dynasties, and this is certainly a useful shorthand. However, true dynasticism only emerged in the fourteenth century, and in fact simply reinforced existing ideas that each ruler could claim descent from his illustrious predecessors. Wipo of Burgundy expressed this as ‘Charlemagne’s stirrups hang from Conrad [II]’s saddle’.71 Most medieval kings tried at least once in their reign to sit on Charlemagne’s stone throne, which was carefully preserved in Aachen. Frederick I renovated the Carolingian palaces at Ingelheim and Nimwegen. As time progressed, Charlemagne became an idealized role model. Even the Ottonians, who, as Saxons, came from a people once defeated by Charlemagne, could still celebrate him as the bringer of Christianity.72

Continuity suggested that power was transpersonal, transcending the lives of individual monarchs. This idea developed in France, England and Bohemia around 1150 where it was expressed through the idea of the crown symbolizing the kingdom as a combination of inalienable royal rights and property. The loyalty that all subjects owed to the crown transferred automatically from one king to the next. This idea did not take firm hold in the Empire, despite its having Europe’s oldest crown in continuous use.73While royal rule remained continuous in the Empire, imperial coronations depended on papal cooperation before 1530. Consequently, it was the Empire itself that was abstracted as transpersonal. This was most famously demonstrated in 1024 by Conrad II’s furious response to a delegation from Pavia that defended their demolition of the imperial palace there on the grounds that his predecessor Henry II had died: ‘Even if the king had died, the kingdom remained, just as the ship whose steersman falls remains. They were state, not private buildings; they were under another law, not yours.’74

Abstracting the Empire helped divorce political continuity from specific territory, unlike western European monarchies, where power was increasingly associated with ruling a distinct people and place.75 The sacrality of the imperial mission reinforced this. Continuity was only seriously challenged with changes in historical perception emerging from Renaissance Humanism, which was more likely to contest claims that lacked foundation in verifiable written sources. The Protestant Reformation proved a second challenge, since continuity with ancient Rome was automatically suspect to those busy renouncing papal supremacy over their church. Finally, political changes became more obvious as imperial governance shifted under the Habsburgs to possession of lands controlled directly by the emperor, including parts of the New World during the reign of Charles V in the sixteenth century. However, it was not until 1641 that anyone published a serious critique of the ideology of imperial translation, while imperial political culture continued to celebrate aspects of the Holy Roman imperial past right up to 1806, such as the belief in unbroken imperial rule since Charlemagne.76


The Papacy and the Carolingians

The relationship between spiritual and secular authority broadly followed the common European trend for power to become less personal and more institutional. As institutionalized politics has long been associated with progress, individual popes and emperors have been criticized for putting what are perceived as private interests before their public roles. Medieval emperors, in particular, have been accused of pursuing the ‘chimera’ of imperial power in Italy, rather than building a strong German national monarchy.77Individuals were certainly important in shaping events, notably through the deaths of key figures at critical moments. Yet, Italy was an integral part of the Empire, and defence of the church was central to the imperial mission.

Popes and emperors were not necessarily predestined to clash. Indeed, their relationship in the ninth century was more about assistance than assertiveness. The church remained underdeveloped and decentralized. Clergy were relatively few and scattered, especially north of the Alps, where they faced many challenges (see pp. 77–83). While the pope enjoyed prestige and a measure of spiritual authority, he was not yet the commanding international figure he would become by 1200 and was often at the mercy of the feuding Roman clans. Over two-thirds of the 61 popes between 752 and 1054 were Romans and another 11 came from other parts of Italy.78 Lothar I confirmed the free election of popes by the clergy and congregation of Rome in 824, but required successful candidates to seek confirmation from the emperor. This assertion of imperial authority did not unduly trouble most popes at this point, since they wanted an emperor who was strong enough to protect them, yet not so close by as to be an oppressor. The Carolingian civil wars after 829 exposed Rome to the Arabs, who sailed up the Tiber and sacked St Peter’s in 846.

The Empire’s partition in 843 following the Treaty of Verdun widened papal autonomy, since the pope could choose between three, still relatively powerful Carolingian kings – of West Francia, East Francia (Germany) and Lotharingia – who each saw the imperial title as a way of asserting leadership over the others. This gave the pope a vested interest in perpetuating the idea of a singular, enduring Empire to sustain his role as emperor-maker. Lothar I already held the title co-emperor alongside his father Louis I since 817. Lothar retained this title in the partition of 843 and, as the eldest Carolingian, was allowed to choose his share of empire, selecting Aachen and the middle strip of territory running up the Rhine and over the Alps to Italy, which became known as Lotharingia. This arrangement suited the pope, since it kept the emperor interested in defending Rome. The incidence of papal-imperial meetings indicates the generally good cooperation. Lothar’s successor as emperor, Louis II, met the pope nine times during his reign (855–75), thrice more than any of his immediate successors.79 However, the balance clearly shifted in the pope’s favour, as symbolized by Louis’ performance of Strator service for Pope Nicholas I in 858 – the first time for over a century, and possibly the first ever occasion if we believe Frankish accounts that Pippin had not acted as papal groom in 752. Some contemporary observers criticized Louis as only ‘emperor of Italy’, a charge levelled against his successors, whose lands shrank still further after the 880s.80

The extinction of the central Lotharingian branch in 875 intensified the civil wars amongst the Carolingian elite. The deposition of Charles III ‘the Fat’ as German king in 887 unravelled the last reunification of East and West Francia and ended Carolingian rule in Italy, where control passed to the leading Carolingian-Lombard aristocrats, notably the dukes of Spoleto. These events underscored the importance of a viable Empire for the papacy, which was again caught between the Roman clans and regional strongmen like Guido of Spoleto, whom Pope Stephen V was obliged to crown emperor in 891. Stephen’s successor, Pope Formosus, tried to escape subordination by transferring the title in 896 to the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia, only to be paralysed by a stroke and, afrer the 15-day reign of Boniface VI, replaced by Stephen VI. The new pope was obliged to recognize Guido’s son Lambert II as emperor, disinter Formosus’s recently buried corpse and put it on show trial. The corpse was duly condemned and thrown into the Tiber, but subsequent reports of miracles discredited Stephen VI, who in turn was himself strangled in August 897. His successor, Pope Romanus, ruled for only four months and was followed by Theodore II, whose pontificate of just 20 days nonetheless proved long enough to overturn the verdict and rebury the somewhat fragmenting Formosus.81

Some stability within the papacy returned once the Theophylact clan seized power in 901 and established a more durable relationship with the dukes of Spoleto, and then with the powerful lord of the southern Alps, Hugo of Arles, who did not receive the imperial title but nonetheless ruled as king of Italy from 926 to 947.82 Some of the Theophylact popes were no more sinful than other medieval pontiffs, but the state of the papacy was still shocking, especially to senior clergy north of the Alps, who were growing more confident with their own efforts to promote Christianity. A sentiment emerged that would later be labelled as ‘reform’. This lacked clear ideological coherence prior to the mid-eleventh century, but nonetheless it already argued that the church had to be freed from the ungodly and entrusted to better men. Prior to the later eleventh century, all reformers looked to the emperor to achieve this.

Ottonian Imperial Rule

The lack of a crowned emperor from 925 to 961 was largely due to the reluctance of the Theophylact popes to play their last card in their game against increasingly powerful kings of Italy. Hugo of Arles had been succeeded by Berengar II, margrave of Ivrea, who, by 959, had conquered Spoleto and was threatening Rome as the Lombards had done two centuries before. The best chance of relief appeared to be the Ottonians, who followed the Carolingians in eastern Francia from 919. Otto I had already made two botched attempts to assert authority in northern Italy between 951 and 952. He spent the next decade consolidating his hold over Germany, whilst carefully cultivating contact with bishops fleeing the troubles in Italy. Otto was determined to present himself as liberator, not conqueror, and thus worthy to be crowned emperor.83 His great victory over the heathen Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 convinced many contemporaries, including Pope John XII, that Otto was divinely favoured. Despite being unable to capture Berengar, Otto’s invasion of northern Italy succeeded in 961 and he was crowned emperor on 2 February 962.84

Otto’s coronation did not ‘refound’ the Empire, nor create a new empire, since a sense of the original Carolingian realm had persisted and there had been plenty of individual emperors after Charlemagne. Nonetheless, his coronation was a significant event and clearly intended to put papal-imperial relations on a new, improved footing. To this end, Otto issued his own charter (the Ottonianum), confirming the ‘donations’ of Pippin and Charlemagne of extensive lands in central Italy to sustain the pope. As with his predecessors, Otto envisaged these lands remaining under his suzerainty. He likewise bound himself to protect the pope, to whom he transferred large amounts of gold and silver, receiving numerous holy relics in return for his programme of Christianization north of the Alps.85

Otto’s ‘Roman expedition’ (Romzug) lasted three years and already displayed all the features shaping subsequent imperial interventions in medieval Italy. The convergence of interests facilitating Otto’s coronation was insufficiently stable for prolonged papal-imperial collaboration. Emperors wanted popes to possess sufficient personal integrity not to demean the imperial honour they conferred, but otherwise to be pliant executors of the emperor’s will. In Otto’s case, this included the controversial elevation of Magdeburg to an archbishopric (see p. 85). Like his successors, Pope John XII wanted a protector, not a master, and he rebelled against the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ of Ottonian emperorship by conspiring with Berengar and the Magyars in 963.86 The next moves established the template for subsequent emperors towards disobedient pontiffs. Otto returned to Rome, while John fled to Tivoli. After a brief exchange of letters failed to restore harmony, Otto convened a synod in St Peter’s, which deposed John on the grounds of murder, incest and apostasy – a charge sheet sufficiently grievous to justify the first ever deposition of a pope, and one that became standard for such actions in the future. Otto confirmed Lothar I’s papal constitution of 824, allowing the Roman clergy a fairly free choice in electing Leo VIII as replacement in December 963.

Deposition was the easy part. As Otto and his successors soon discovered, it was extremely hard to maintain their own pope without firm local support, which, for the next century or so, meant the backing of the Roman clans, Italian lords and bishops. John was still at large, creating a papal schism that threatened the integrity and legitimacy of the church. The Romans rebelled as soon as Otto left their city in January 964, allowing John to return and hold his own synod to depose his rival. Leo was restored by force later that month, expelling John, who died in May – allegedly in the arms of a married woman, another story typical of the mudslinging during later papal schisms. What followed merely underscored the intractability of the problem. The Romans elected Benedict V as their own anti-pope. Enforcement of Leo VIII was now a matter of imperial prestige. Otto besieged Rome until the starving inhabitants handed over the unfortunate Benedict, who was demoted and packed off as a missionary to Hamburg. Otto sent two bishops to oversee a new election following Leo’s death in March 965, but the successful candidate was in turn expelled by another Roman revolt nine months later. The emperor was obliged to return personally, crushing Roman opposition in December 966. The socially inferior were executed, while the rich were exiled. Those who had died in the meantime were disinterred and their bones scattered in what was clearly intended as exemplary punishment.87

Subsequent opposition drew an equally harsh response. The leader of the Crescenti clan was beheaded and hung by his feet along with 12 supporters in 998. Simultaneously, anti-pope John XVI was blinded, mutilated and forced to ride through Rome seated backwards on a donkey. A riot after Henry II’s coronation in Pavia as king of Italy in 1002 ended in a massacre by imperial troops in which the city burned down. Further rioting after the imperial coronation of 1027 prompted Conrad II to force the Romans to walk barefoot, though this time they were spared execution. This ‘German fury’ (furor teutonicus) reflected general attitudes to justice in the Empire, which permitted harsh punishment of those who ignored opportunities to negotiate, or who rebelled having been previously pardoned.88 It also betrayed the basic strategic weakness of the imperial presence in Italy throughout the Middle Ages. Rome was not a pleasant billet for an imperial army. The nearby pestilent marshes made their presence felt each summer through malaria epidemics. That of 964 killed the archbishop of Trier, the duke of Lorraine and a sizeable part of Otto’s army. Campaigns in southern Italy often encountered the same problem: malaria killed both Otto II (983) and Otto III (1002), while Conrad II lost his wife and most of his troops to disease in 1038. Losses were hard to take, because Ottonian and Salian armies were quite small (see pp. 321–2). While they did have some capacity for laying sieges, Italy was a land of numerous, well-fortified cities. Violent shock and awe appeared a quick fix to these problems, but as later regimes have discovered, it generally alienated local support and discredited those who used it.

The Empire and Church Reform

Conflict within Rome produced another schism with three rival popes after 1044, including the pious but naive Gregory VI, who had bought his title. Concerned this would tarnish his imperial office, Henry III deposed all three at the Synod of Sutri in December 1046 and appointed Suitger, bishop of Bamberg, as Pope Clement II. This initiated a succession of four popes selected from loyal incumbents of German bishoprics lasting until 1057, and was most likely intended simply to restore the papacy as a reliable partner rather than subordinate it directly as part of the imperial church.89

Imperial intervention came precisely when the papacy faced new challenges emerging from the anxieties produced by rapid population growth and economic change.90 Many believed the church was losing its way amidst the new materialism, fuelling a broader reform agenda encapsulated by the slogan ‘freedom of the church’ (libertas ecclesiae). Better standards were demanded of the clergy, with key papal advisors becoming more critical of long-standing issues around the mid-eleventh century. Gregory VI’s deposition focused attention on the problem of simony, the purchasing of ecclesiastical office, named after Simon Magus, who had tried to buy salvation from the Apostles. This was broadened into a generalized condemnation of the sale of spiritual office as well as favours. A second bugbear was nikolaitism, or clerical concubinage, associated with Nikolaos, a member of the early church who had defended elements of pagan practice. Both issues were part of a general renunciation of earthly life, which expected all clergy to live like monks and renounce worldly activities. By 1100, reformers also expected them to look different from laity by cutting their hair as a tonsure. Such demands were in fact part of a general reconceptualization of the social order along functional lines, with each group allotted a task to perform for the benefit of all.

A parallel and partially contradictory element emerged with the demand for greater spirituality among the laity too. This had a common root in the yearning of individuals for a simpler life free of worldly burdens. The most obvious manifestation was a new wave of monasticism particularly associated with Gorze in Lorraine and Cluny in the French part of Burgundy. The number of Cluniac houses increased fivefold across the eleventh century. A key element in the new monasticism was the renunciation of local control in favour of placing each religious house under the direct – but largely nominal – control of the pope. The movement spread to Italy where it was known as the Fruttuaria, and to Germany through the influential abbey of Hirsau where it was adopted by over two hundred monasteries.91 Reformed monasticism largely catered to elite interests, and its connections to wider lay piety were complex and not always amicable, but its coincidence with a broader yearning for a simpler, more Christian life added to the general sense of change.92

It was no coincidence that reform emerged in Lorraine and Burgundy where royal rule was relatively weak. Both Gorze and Cluny benefited from strong local lordly patronage, a factor exposing one of the main contradictions of reform. The new asceticism improved the clergy’s social prestige, enhancing the attractions of monasteries as convenient accommodation for the unmarried children of lords. Founding and promoting churches was a good way to extend local influence and earn spiritual credit. Lords were happy for the monks to escape the jurisdiction of local bishops by placing their house under papal authority, because the pope generally entrusted them, as the primary donors, with supervisory and protectorate rights.93 Asceticism appealed also to the growing urban population, most of which was still under the jurisdiction of bishops as lords of cathedral towns. Attacks on simony and concubinage lent moral force to political demands for civic autonomy. Popular movements called Patarenes developed in Milan and Cremona during the 1030s, calling for sworn associations of the godly to provide a more moral and autonomous government.

The reformers’ demands were not immediately anti-imperial. Henry II had already held a synod at Pavia in 1024 that wrote most of the moral agenda into imperial law, including bans on clerical marriage, concubinage and some forms of simony. He personally forced Fulda abbey to observe Gorze rules, while other members of the imperial family promoted the new monasticism into the 1070s. Imperial support no doubt owed much to personal conviction and to the general mission to promote Christianity. The reform agenda served concrete, political goals too, since improved clerical discipline also promoted better management of the huge properties that emperors had given the church, which in turn enabled abbots and bishops to support the imperial household and military campaigns.94 Likewise, libertas ecclesiae could improve the emperor’s access to these resources by liberating them from local lordly influence.

Two developments conspired to pit pope against emperor over the reform agenda. First, the Salians were victims of their own success, since their rehabilitation of the papacy between 1046 and 1056 made it an agent rather than object of reform. Leo IX held at least 12 synods on his own initiative across Italy, France and Germany between 1049 and 1053, demonstrating active and credible leadership with decrees against simony and nikolaitism. Papal action was supported by the parallel development of canon law, which saw more systematic efforts to elaborate rules governing church management based on Scripture, the writings of the church fathers and the papal registers. Partial codification of the canons (i.e. decisions) and other papal decrees helped remove some of the ambiguities and gave greater credibility to papal claims to direct the church.95 The pope asserted himself as the ultimate judge on doctrine and ritual, demanding that all true Christians share his opinions. The desire for clarity and uniformity opened a rift with Byzantium, which widened into the separation of the Latin and Orthodox churches after 1054. Latin definitively displaced vernacular languages in communicating Christianity in the west, while the role of priests was enhanced as they became the sole official intercessors between the laity and God. By the early twelfth century, the papacy wrested control over canonization from bishops and local synods, and within another century it was taking the initiative in selecting and approving candidates for sainthood.96

These measures had effect thanks to a more sophisticated papal bureaucracy that emerged in the second half of the eleventh century, together with a treasury whose resources grew exponentially with the new taxes levied on Christians to support the crusades declared after 1095. The papal library and archive ensured the pope was less forgetful than other monarchs, and could usually produce documentary evidence to support his claims. Simultaneously, the advisory group around Leo IX assumed greater coherence as thecuria Romana. Staffed initially mostly by Lorrainers closely involved in monastic reform, the curia expanded the pope’s capacity for sustained action and curbed the pernicious influence of the Roman clans. The reformers’ moment came in December 1058 when they got one of their number elected as Pope Nicholas II. Four months later, a reform synod revised papal election rules restricting participation to the (then) seven cardinals, or auxiliary bishops of Rome. Although the rules still contained a vague reference to notifying the emperor, the chances of external manipulation had been severely curtailed.97 Having captured the papacy, the reformers had less need to respect imperial interests.

The wider political context proved a second factor in deteriorating papal-imperial relations. The Salians were at loggerheads with the duke of Lorraine in the 1040s. The duke married into the family ruling Tuscany, a province which had demonstrated great loyalty to the emperor and which occupied a strategic location between Rome and the main imperial centres at Pavia and Ravenna. Although the problem of Lorraine was neutralized, the Tuscan heiress, Matilda of Canossa, remained firmly anti-imperial.98Tuscany’s subsequent defection assumed importance because it coincided with a still more momentous change to the south. Nicholas II abandoned two centuries of papal support for ineffectual imperial control over southern Italy by allying with the Normans in 1059. Arriving around 1000, these ruthless freebooters rapidly expunged the last Byzantine outposts and remnants of Lombard principalities to take control of the entire south. By the time the alliance was renewed by Gregory VII in 1080, the Normans were well on their way to conquering Sicily as well. For the first time, the pope had a credible alternative to imperial protection, because the Normans were not only nearby and militarily effective, but as newcomers, they craved recognition and accepted papal suzerainty over their possessions in return for acceptance as legitimate rulers.99

Henry III’s death in 1056 had frustrated an effective imperial response. His son Henry IV, though accepted in Germany as king, was only six and could not be crowned emperor until an adult. Government of the Empire devolved to a regency council until 1065. This remained preoccupied with more immediate affairs and failed to see the dangers ahead. Intervention in the 1061 papal election in favour of Alexander II was particularly ill-judged, leading to the imperial court being condemned for dividing rather than defending the church. Imperial prestige suffered while the pope’s identification with reform was reinforced.100

The next pope, Gregory VII, still saw the emperor as a valuable partner, but a decidedly junior one. Originally from Tuscany and usually presented as of humble origins, Gregory came from a family well connected within the papacy and rose rapidly in the expanding administration. Having embraced reform, he became a prime mover in papal elections from the 1050s before being accepted as pope himself in 1073. Controversial in his own lifetime, he survived an assassination attempt in 1075 to give the reform agenda its later name ‘Gregorianism’.101 While Gregory did not initiate reform, he certainly radicalized it with his uncompromising assumption that his opponents must be agents of the Anti-Christ. His political views were encapsulated in his Dictatus Papae of 1075, a set of 27 maxims that were only published later. The church as immortal soul was superior to the mortal body of the state. The pope was supreme over both, entitled to reject bishops and kings if they were unfit for office. However, Gregory’s thinking remained moral, rather than constitutional, and he and his supporters never systematized these ideas or resolved their implications.

Initially well disposed towards Henry IV, Gregory underestimated the young king’s need to appear strong in the face of constant challenges to his authority in Germany. Scarcely less obstinate, Henry contributed to a series of misunderstandings and lost opportunities between 1073 and 1076 that left both men viewing the other as rival not partner. The clash widened as each buttressed his position with ideological arguments, drawing in others who often had their own, local agendas. The complexity and multiplicity of the issues broke previous bounds, producing an explosive situation that could not be resolved through conventional means.102

The Problem of Investiture

The dispute crystallized over the problem of investiture, which eventually came to name the entire papal–imperial struggle lasting until 1122.103 The trigger was Henry’s investiture of Archbishop Godfrey of Milan, whom the reformers charged with simony in 1073. Investiture proved so controversial because it touched the basis of both material and ideological power in the Empire. The vast endowments to the church were still considered integral parts of the crown lands, particularly north of the Alps. In an age largely without written rules, obligations were affirmed through rituals. The process of appointing an abbot or a bishop involved his investiture. Royal patronage already gave the king a role, while clergy regarded it as a special honour to be invested by the monarch, since this reinforced their place in the social order. Local congregations and clergy did play a role in electing abbots and bishops, but this often rested on royal charters and not yet clearly on canon law. Thus, it was established practice for the king to hand the new cleric a staff, while the archbishop would give him a ring. Under Henry III, both items were presented by the king. Given the heightened sacrality of kingship in the Empire around 1020, this was not immediately contentious. Moreover, it was not entirely clear which item symbolized the cleric’s acceptance of his military and political obligations in return for his lands, especially as these same lands also supported his spiritual activities.104 The problem was that Gregorian criticism extended beyond the conventional (whether Godfrey was a suitable archbishop for Milan) to challenge royal involvement altogether and, in doing so, broke several centuries of unarticulated theocratic consensus. Worse, this occurred precisely at a time when the monarchy was involving bishops and abbots more heavily in the Empire’s governance.

Since the twelfth century, chroniclers have simplified events into a clash between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The former derived from the German aristocratic Welf family, which briefly backed the reform papacy, while the latter was a corruption of Waiblingen in Swabia, which was erroneously believed to be the Salian family home.105 These names did assume importance in the factionalism of later medieval Italian politics, but the Investiture Dispute was waged by loose coalitions rather than disciplined parties. Many clerics opposed Gregorian reform as excessive. For example, the monks of Hersfeld abbey were convinced Gregory divided the church further each time he opened his mouth. Those clergy with female partners considered themselves legally married. The eventual triumph of reform by the 1120s reduced the wife of a priest to the legal status of a concubine, while their children became serfs of the church. Bishops often opposed the cause of church liberty, because this could be used to undermine their authority and withhold tithes at local level.106 Likewise, the attractions of reform asceticism drew many laity to support the papacy.

The Investiture Dispute

The dispute in Milan was the culmination of a decade of bitter, local conflict between the reforming Patarene movement, supported by the pope, and the wealthy, pro-imperial archbishop and clergy.107 Unable to resolve the matter, Henry IV convened a synod at Worms in January 1076, which renounced obedience to Gregory VII and demanded he abdicate. The fact that the assembled bishops stopped short of full deposition implicitly acknowledged they were not entitled to do so, while the whole event lacked credibility as it was too late to complain at irregularities in Gregory’s election three years into his pontificate. The new balance was revealed a month later when Gregory went further than any previous pope by not merely excommunicating Henry, but deposing him, releasing all his subjects from their oath of loyalty.

Henry’s situation worsened across the year with growing opposition in parts of Germany, but he seized the initiative in late December by dodging his opponents in the Alps and crossing the Mont Cenis pass. Allegedly, the snow forced him to crawl up the mountain, while his wife and the other royal women had to slide down the other side on a cow hide. Nonetheless, Henry intercepted Gregory, who was on his way to meet the anti-royalist German lords and bishops at Augsburg. This was not a royal commando mission to kidnap the pope, but instead an attempt by Henry to force Gregory to rescind his excommunication and deposition by appearing as a penitent. Having ‘waited, clad in wool, barefoot, freezing, in the open air outside the castle’, the king was finally allowed into Canossa, a fortress belonging to Matilda of Tuscany and where Gregory was staying (see Plate 5).108

Henry’s action divided contemporary and subsequent opinion. He won considerable sympathy and appeared to achieve his immediate objectives. Gregory was prevented from joining the German opposition and obliged to lift the royal excommunication. Despite the positive spin of some recent interpretations, it is hard not to agree with the earlier perception of royal humiliation, regardless whether Henry performed an act of penance or political submission.109 By going to Canossa, Henry implicitly acknowledged that Gregory had the power to excommunicate and depose him, whereas the king’s own supporters regarded these actions as illegal. The contrast with his father could not have been stronger. Henry III had deposed two popes and appointed his own in 1046, whereas Henry IV had failed even to reverse his own deposition, since Gregory subsequently claimed he had merely absolved a penitent, not reinstated a king.

The political opposition in Germany carried on regardless, electing Rudolf of Rheinfelden as the first ever anti-king at an assembly in Forchheim on 15 March 1077. Although two papal legates were present, the rebel dukes acted independently of Gregory and advanced their own contractual theory of monarchy, arguing that they, not the pope, were responsible for the Empire’s collective welfare. Their actions reveal the complexity of the issues that were emerging as well as an important trend in imperial politics, which ultimately ensured the Empire survived its monarchs’ successive defeats by the papacy.110

Henry’s repeated demands that Gregory condemn Rudolf eventually forced the pope to pick sides and excommunicate him again in March 1080, this time permanently. Henry retaliated by summoning another synod, which not only formally deposed Gregory but elected an anti-pope, creating another schism, lasting until 1100. These actions finally led to open warfare from October 1080. Henry was obliged to operate either side of the Alps, backing his own anti-pope Clement III in Italy, whilst confronting his political opponents in Germany. Initial successes in Italy enabled Henry to be crowned emperor by Clement in March 1084. Having seen off Rudolf and two further anti-kings by 1090, Henry found himself opposed three years later by his own eldest son, Conrad, whom he had made co-king in 1087. Unlike the previous anti-kings, Conrad was widely shunned as a papal stooge after he made extensive concessions at the expense of imperial prerogatives.111

Meanwhile, Pope Gregory and his reformist successors received strong backing from Matilda until her death in 1115, as well as intermittent assistance from the self-seeking Normans, who burned much of Rome when they rescued Gregory from an imperial siege in 1084. German support was limited, but could prove strategically significant, especially in 1089 with the temporary defection of the duke of Bavaria, who facilitated Conrad’s rebellion by closing the Alpine passes and trapping Henry in northern Italy. Henry only broke out after making concessions to Bavaria in 1096.

Despite his considerable military skill and dogged determination, Henry was defeated and never returned to Italy. His numerous mistakes and chaotic personal life made him an easy target for Gregorian propaganda, especially once his second wife, Praxedis, fled alleging brutality.112 Combined with his prolonged excommunication, these accusations demolished the sacral kingship developed since the later Ottonians and which Henry still claimed to exercise. He remained within established patterns of kingship rather than finding new ways of working with Italian lords, bishops and urban communes, many of which had their own reasons to oppose the pope and Matilda. Henry might have rallied wider European support once Gregory widened his claims to supremacy beyond the Empire to cover all kings after 1078. Instead the French king Philip I outflanked him, forging closer ties to the papacy by backing the First Crusade in 1095, thus assuming the position of Christendom’s defender that many had expected Henry as the emperor to fulfil.

The perception of royal failure was a factor behind another rebellion in Germany, this time led by Henry’s second son, Henry V, whom he had recognized as king and legitimate successor in 1098. Henry IV’s death in 1106 after a year of inconclusive skirmishing opened the possibility for a new direction, but Henry V essentially continued his father’s line towards the papacy and failed to exploit mistakes of the new pope, Paschalis II.113 This contrasted sharply with the success of the French and English kings in reaching agreements over similar issues with the papacy in 1104 and 1107 respectively. As neither had challenged papal authority directly, compromise was easier, while the agreements also reinforced the pope’s claim that the dispute was entirely the German king’s fault.

These settlements rested on ideas advanced since the 1080s by Ivo, bishop of Chartres, and others, who distinguished between spiritual office (spiritualia) and temporal powers and properties (bona exterior). The latter, now increasingly understood collectively as ‘regalia’, were associated with the material world and duties to the monarch.114 This distinction was welcomed by German and Italian bishops who needed their temporal jurisdictions to secure resources and the labour required for cathedral-building and other projects. The French and English agreements showed that conceding spiritual investiture did not impair royal authority over regalia. Pope Paschalis’s death in 1118 meant that Henry V could compromise without losing face, though further misunderstandings delayed the actual agreement until 23 September 1122.

The Concordat of Worms

The agreement consisted of two documents known collectively as the Concordat of Worms, though this name actually dates from seventeenth-century accounts. The emperor conceded spiritual investiture with vestments, ring and staff to the pope. German bishops were to be chosen according to canon law and free from simony, but the emperor was allowed to be present at elections and could adjudicate any disputes. The emperor invested each bishop with a sceptre symbolizing the temporal authority associated with regalia. This was to take place before ordination in Germany, but after it in Italy and Burgundy. The clause was revised in 1133 to emphasize that the new bishop had to swear loyalty to the emperor before receiving his temporal powers. The papacy’s own possessions were exempt from these arrangements, suggesting they were entirely outside imperial jurisdiction.

The Concordat has widely been interpreted as marking an epochal shift from the early to the high Middle Ages, and the start of secularization.115 In fact, religion remained closely entwined with politics, but the agreement nonetheless regulated papal-imperial relations until 1803. Later generations have joined contemporaries in debating who benefited most. Pope Callistus II certainly thought he had won, celebrating with commemorative frescos in the Lateran palace and sending copies of the Concordat around Europe. The corporate distinctions of the clergy had been preserved, while the new investiture ceremonies made it clear that the German king lacked spiritual powers – in this sense, politics were indeed desacralized. Henry V’s disavowal of the last imperial-backed anti-pope in 1119 underscored the emperor’s inability to make and break popes. However, the Empire had not been weakened. Rather, the outcome reinforced underlining trends, accelerating the transformation of church property from parts of the crown lands to possessions held by spiritual princes bound in more formalized feudal relations to the monarch. Meanwhile, the sense of collective responsibility for the Empire expressed through the rebellions against Henry IV continued with the Concordat, which had been negotiated with the assistance of lay and spiritual lords. These swore collectively to ensure that Henry V adhered to the terms. The Salians’ command monarchy was being replaced by a mixed system where the emperor shared more responsibility with his leading lords.116

The papacy changed too. The original Gregorian goal of church liberty had been defeated. The more radical reformers were forced to accept that the papacy had political as well as spiritual responsibilities. The repeated papal schisms since 1080 had spawned multiple local ones as rival pontiffs consecrated their own bishops in the same sees. Reform was compromised as the papacy sold church property to finance its war against the emperor. The papacy was increasingly monarchical, imitating the Empire from the mid-eleventh century in the use of imperial purple and elaborate coronations. A century later, the popes assumed the title Christ’s Vicar, which had been used by the Salian kings but was now employed to assert papal authority over all monarchs. Papal territory expanded as the pope claimed Tuscany after Matilda of Canossa’s death. The Latin church was subject to greater central control, underpinned by the expanding papal administration and the establishment of the Inquisition in 1231 to police belief. The free election of abbots and bishops had largely ceased by 1380 as successive popes claimed the right to vet candidates and approve appointments.

Far from freeing the church, reform embedded it deeper into politics. The church alienated many of the people it claimed to serve and who now saw it as corrupt and detached from their spiritual needs. The result was further waves of monasticism and new forms of lay piety. The latter were further stimulated by the heightened concern for personal salvation emerging in the twelfth century. The Waldensians and other grassroots fundamentalists embraced extreme poverty and rites increasingly at odds with the official church’s growing insistence on uniformity of belief and practice. Crusader indulgences were extended from the Holy Land to include combating heresy in a series of brutal campaigns in southern Europe after 1208. The requirement to confess at least once a year from 1215 opened the door to greater policing of inner thoughts. From 1231 heresy was punishable by death, and by 1252 the Inquisition was authorized to use torture to root out heresy.117

The Empire’s rulers largely refrained from direct involvement in these issues after Henry V’s death in 1125 ended the Salian line. Pope Honorius II reversed the earlier papal-imperial relationship by claiming the right to confirm the next German king, and intervened in imperial politics by excommunicating the anti-king Conrad Staufer in 1127. The successful candidate, Lothar III, performed Strator service when he met the next pope in 1131. The Lateran palace was quickly redecorated with new frescos depicting this, which were then showed at the next imperial visit as evidence for what was now claimed as traditional practice. The emperor’s inferior status was further emphasized by the pope’s insistence on riding a white horse, symbolizing his purity and proximity to God.118

The Staufers and the Papacy

As with so much in the Empire’s history, this apparent decline was soon reversed by new trends beginning in 1138 with the reign of Conrad III, who initiated the line of kings from the Staufer family lasting until the mid-thirteenth century. The Staufers capitalized on the fact that the pope still regarded the German king as the only monarch worthy of being crowned emperor. Conrad referred to himself as emperor even without being crowned.119 This practice was continued by his nephew and successor, Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, who assumed imperial status immediately at his royal coronation in 1152, and named his own son ‘Caesar’ without papal involvement in 1186 (see Plate 25). The later Staufers followed suit, with Frederick II taking the title ‘elected Roman emperor’ in 1211, and it is likely that this practice would have become firmly established had he emerged victorious in his struggle with the papacy after his imperial election in 1220. This assertion of imperial identity rested on the further development of the Empire as a collective political structure, since it tied imperial powers to the German royal election involving the major lords, and not to the coronation by the pope. Henry IV had already proclaimed ‘the honour of the Empire’ (honor imperii), and the Staufers developed this as something in which all lords shared, giving them a stake in defending it against the papacy.120

The stress on honour unfortunately hindered imperial policy in Italy by discouraging concessions that might have secured compromises, or won allies like the cities that combined in the powerful Lombard League in 1167 to demand self-government. Frederick Barbarossa’s expedition to Italy in 1154 was the first for 17 years and ended a 57-year period in which German monarchs had spent only two years south of the Alps. The prolonged absence weakened the personal networks that might have assisted peaceful negotiations. The emperor did not seek conflict, but was determined to reassert imperial authority. The 1,800 knights accompanying his first expedition were already considered a large army, and he returned with 15,000 on his second campaign in 1158.121However, the armies were never sufficient to master such an extensive and populous country. The need for local bases added urgency to Barbarossa’s insistence on reviving imperial regalia, including the right to garrison towns, levy taxes and demand military assistance. Inevitably, he was sucked into local politics. Northern Italy was a dense mosaic of bishoprics, lordships and cities, often enmeshed in their own conflicts. Support from one for the emperor usually prompted its rivals to back the papacy. Already on the first expedition Tortona was sacked and destroyed after it had surrendered, because Barbarossa was unable to restrain his Pavian allies.122 The return of the notorious ‘German fury’ damaged imperial prestige, further hindering the desired pacification. The pattern was repeated in four subsequent campaigns between 1158 and 1178. Barbarossa achieved local successes, but he could never control all of Lombardy.

The pope was not averse to cooperating with the emperor to escape the now oppressive influence of the Normans, whom he had been forced to raise to royalty as kings of Sicily in 1130. The Normans and the French had through their interference in Roman politics already created a schism (1130–39). However, they now combined to back a majority candidate as pope against an imperial-backed anti-pope in a renewed schism (1159–80). Like Henry IV, Barbarossa was excommunicated, but unlike the Salian emperor he accepted a compromise in the Treaty of Venice 1177. The presence of Sicilian and English representatives at the negotiations revealed the internationalization of Italian affairs, which were clearly no longer an internal matter for the Empire. Although he made significant concessions to the Lombard League, Barbarossa was acknowledged as suzerain of northern Italy.

He was able to return to Italy from 1184 to 1186, this time without an army, and consolidate peace through an additional agreement with the Normans involving the marriage of Barbarossa’s son Henry to Constanza d’Hauteville, daughter of the king of Sicily. The unexpected death of the Norman king in 1189 opened the prospect of the Staufers acquiring both Sicily and its dependent territories, later known as Naples, in southern Italy. Timing favoured the Staufers, because the Saracen victory at Hattin in 1187 and subsequent capture of Jerusalem distracted the papacy, which now also needed imperial assistance for the planned Third Crusade. Despite opposition from many Norman lords, by 1194 Barbarossa’s son, now Henry VI, had secured Sicily. This success encouraged an escalation of his ambition. Already in 1191, Henry had rejected papal claims to suzerainty over Naples and argued this was under imperial jurisdiction. Within five years he was planning to integrate the former Norman kingdom within the Empire and convert the German monarchy into an hereditary possession (see pp. 192 and 303–4). Papal-imperial relations had shifted dramatically in the emperor’s favour. The extinction of the Normans deprived the pope of a counterweight to imperial influence, reduced his temporal jurisdiction to the Patrimonium, and left him facing an emperor more powerful than any since Otto I (Map 5).

Contingency again intervened, this time with Henry’s unexpectedly early death at 31 in September 1197, followed by that of his wife Constanza 14 months later, which left their four-year-old son, Frederick II, as a ward of the pope. The Staufers’ German supporters picked Frederick’s uncle, Philip of Swabia, as a more viable candidate in the royal election of 1198, but the situation was exploited by their local rivals, who elected Otto IV from the Welf (Guelph) family, leading to civil war until 1214.123

The response from Pope Innocent III reflected the political high stakes. After some initial hesitation, in 1202 Innocent issued a decretal, or judgement of the papal court, called Venerabilem. This restated the Gregorian interpretation of the Two Swords doctrine that all authority, including temporal, flowed from God through the pope to kings. Innocent did not challenge the division of spiritual and secular authority enshrined in the Worms Concordat, and agreed that the Germans were free to elect their king, but claimed that popes had the right of approbation. This suggested he could veto candidates, for example on the grounds they had sinned. He also rebutted the Staufer practice of assuming imperial prerogatives immediately on their accession as kings, arguing that only popes crowned emperors. By distinguishing the wider Empire from the German kingdom, Innocent sought to usurp imperial authority in Italy and southern Burgundy. He claimed the status of imperial vicar, or governor if either there was no emperor or he was absent from Italy. Within 50 years, canon lawyers were claiming the pope was really the true emperor, since he had translated authority from Byzantium.124

Venerabilem entirely reversed the position under the Ottonians, who had claimed broadly similar powers over the papacy. However, it also revealed how the papacy remained bound to the Empire. No pope could reduce the Empire to the status of any other kingdom without devaluing his own pretentions as sole emperor-maker. This explains why, despite extensive periodic tensions, popes crowned every German king from Otto I to Frederick II, except Conrad III and Philip of Swabia.

In practice, Innocent was unable to steer events. Both sides in the German civil war shared a desire to restrict papal influence. Hoping to prevent a union of the Empire and Sicily, Innocent eventually endorsed Otto IV, but this merely alienated some of that king’s supporters who now viewed him with suspicion. By 1207 Otto was obliged to ask for a truce, only for Philip of Swabia to be murdered in an unrelated dispute the following year.125 Otto skilfully rallied most of Philip’s supporters by assuming the same imperial goals in Italy, including attempting to control the south. Having just crowned Otto emperor, Innocent was compelled to excommunicate him a year later in 1210 and join France in supporting the young Frederick II of Sicily as the new Staufer candidate. Otto overreached himself by joining his uncle, King John of England, in an invasion of France that ended in a rout of the imperial army at Bouvines, east of Lille, on 27 July 1214. Having already been crowned German king in 1212, Frederick was able to assume power unchallenged.

Frederick II is probably the most controversial of all emperors (crowned in 1220). The English chronicler Matthew Paris called him Stupor Mundi, or the ‘amazement of the world’. He was certainly astonishing. Intelligent, charming, ruthless and unpredictable, he often appeared to act on a whim. His supporters saw him as fulfilling a messianic mission, especially after his recovery of Jerusalem in 1229 (see pp. 146–7). His papal opponents called him the Beast of the Apocalypse and compared him to Nero in destroying the Empire. Later generations have shared this mix of awe and revulsion: hated by Luther, Frederick was celebrated by Nietzsche as a ‘free spirit’. The emperor had 19 children by 12 different women and deposed his son and designated heir. Frederick regarded himself as a true Christian, yet spoke some Arabic, tolerated Muslims, and had his own Saracen bodyguard. However, he was not a modern multiculturalist, nor as innovative as some biographers have claimed.126

Frederick reneged on his agreement with Pope Innocent as soon as he felt sufficiently secure in Germany. By 1220 it was obvious he had resumed his father’s programme of uniting Sicily and the Empire. The papacy reluctantly played along, hoping the emperor would lead a new crusade. Relations broke down, leading to Frederick’s excommunication in 1227, which had to be lifted after he recovered Jerusalem through bloodless negotiation. Problems resumed after 1236, leading to his renewed excommunication for alleged heresy three years later – this time permanently. The issues remained the same as those under the previous three emperors, but now the pope employed the new weapon of crusader indulgences to rally military assistance in addition to backing a series of German anti-kings from 1246. The situation returned to that under Barbarossa where neither side could gain a decisive preponderance, yet this time no one was in the mood to negotiate. Imperial defeats in Italy between 1246 and 1248 were reversed in later counter-attacks, and the situation remained open at Frederick II’s death in 1250. The Staufer failure was contingent, not structural (see pp. 377–8).

Frederick’s son Conrad IV and other relations rapidly lost control of Germany after 1250, in turn hastening their demise in Italy in the face of local revolts in Naples and papal support for Charles of Anjou, the French king’s younger brother, whose conquest of Sicily was sanctioned as a crusade.127 The death of the last Staufer claimant in 1268 secured the papacy’s primary goal of preserving its suzerainty over Sicily and Naples whilst keeping these separate from the Empire. However, the failure of either pope or emperor to gain the upper hand in the prolonged war since 1236 increasingly encouraged contemporaries to regard both as merely ordinary monarchs.128


Empire and Papacy in the Age of the ‘Little Kings’

The period from Frederick II’s death in 1250 to Henry VII’s imperial coronation in 1312 was the longest without a crowned emperor in the Empire’s history. Without coronation journeys, there was also no royal presence in Italy. However, the imperial ideal remained potent, attracting the first ‘foreign’ candidates in what proved a second ‘double election’ in 1257 when both Alfonso X of Castile and Richard, earl of Cornwall, were elected German king. Between 1273 and 1313 the German kingdom was ruled by a succession of men who had only been counts prior to their election. All saw the imperial title as a means of asserting themselves over the more powerful dukes (see pp. 377–96). Imperial traditions remained strong. Rudolf I, Adolf of Nassau and Albert I were all buried in the imperial crypt in Speyer Cathedral next to the illustrious Salian emperors. Henry even had Adolf and Albert expressly moved there to convey a sense of legitimate continuity after a brief renewed civil war in 1298.

The papacy also remained interested in the Empire. Like their previous choices of protectors, the popes found that the Angevins (the Anjou family) quickly escaped their control as they added Sicily and Naples to their existing possessions in Provence. The revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers led to the loss of the island to the king of Aragon in 1282. This severed the link between Sicily and mainland Naples that had existed since the Norman conquest around 1070, and so released the papacy from the threat of encirclement.129 However, the Angevins remained powerful, even exercising a protectorate over the papacy for about twenty years after 1313. Additionally, the popes had to deal with increasingly assertive western monarchs like the kings of France. Embarking on a prolonged series of wars with England, the French kings redirected annual fees paid by their clergy from the papacy to their own war chest. Faced with these problems, a strong but largely absent emperor again appeared an attractive option to the papacy.

Pope Gregory X urged the German electors not to repeat their double election of 1257 when Richard of Cornwall died in 1272. Three years later the pope also persuaded Alfonso of Castile to renounce the German royal title he had never actually exercised. The new king, Rudolf I, thrice planned to go to Rome for a prearranged coronation, only for other events to intervene.130 Meanwhile, French pressure on the papacy mounted, encouraging Clement V to welcome the arrival of Henry VII, who had been elected German king in November 1308.131 Henry’s arrival late in 1310 encouraged unrealistic expectations amongst those, like Dante, who identified themselves as Ghibellines and hoped Henry would restore order and end the violent factionalism raging in many Italian cities. All initially went well as Henry was crowned king of Italy in Milan in January 1311. However, the Italian cities were no longer accustomed to accommodating imperial expeditions, while the Angevins marched north from Naples to block any attempt to reassert imperial jurisdiction over southern Italy. Some cities paid Henry to go away, but others resisted, providing excuses for his largely mercenary army to repeat the ‘German fury’ of old. Henry’s brother Walrum was killed, while his wife died (of natural causes) and most of his troops went home. Delays meant that Henry missed the planned date of 2 February 1312 for his imperial coronation, which had been scheduled to coincide with the 350th anniversary of Otto I’s coronation. Roman resistance had to be overcome by a violent assault in which Archbishop Baldwin of Trier, the only senior German lord accompanying Henry, split the skull of a defender with his own sword (see Plate 6).

Clement had meanwhile decamped to Avignon, where the papacy was obliged by French pressure to remain until 1377. With St Peter’s still held by his opponents, Henry was forced to stage his imperial coronation (the first since 1220) in the Lateran palace on 29 June 1312. Only three cardinals officiated on Clement’s behalf, while Guelph crossbowmen fired at the imperial party in the banqueting hall afterwards.132 It was hardly an auspicious beginning. The end came soon. Having failed to capture Florence, Henry caught malaria and died at Buonconvento, near Siena, on 24 August 1313.

Another double election to the German throne in 1314 saw Louis IV ‘the Bavarian’ pitted against Frederick ‘the Fair’ until the latter renounced his claim in 1325. Learning from Innocent III’s failure in 1198, Pope John XXII refrained from posing as arbiter and instead declared the throne vacant, establishing the new idea of vacante imperio to strengthen papal claims to exercise imperial prerogatives in the absence of an emperor.133 Louis’ determination to dispute this opened what proved to be the final round of old-style papal-imperial conflict. Louis appointed Count Berthold of Neuffen as his own imperial vicar in 1323 to exercise prerogatives in Italy, thereby directly challenging papal claims. Pope John responded with the full range of measures developed since 1073, but now underpinned by a much more substantial administration. Proceedings were opened at the papal court in Avignon, which predictably condemned Louis as a usurper, hence John’s reference to him as merely ‘the Bavarian’ to deny him legitimacy in Germany. Louis’ excommunication (1324) and a crusade (1327) followed as the dispute escalated.134

Unlike his predecessors, Louis enjoyed support from leading intellectuals who were alienated both by the papacy’s move to Avignon and by its condemnation of popular movements such as the Franciscan Spirituals, who took the vow of poverty literally. Those arguing for imperial supremacy as a way to a new order included Dante, William of Ockham, Marsilius of Padua and Johannes of Jandun, but their writings were not widely disseminated for another century.135 In practice, Louis relied on traditional methods, forcing his way into Italy in 1327–8 aided by local supporters. His imperial coronation by two Italian bishops on 17 January 1328 was the first since 817 without either a pope or at least a papal legate officiating. Advised by his supporters, Louis cited Otto I’s example in order to depose John XXII on the grounds he had abandoned Rome and to install his own pope, creating the first schism since 1180. This had little effect given that John was safe under French protection in Avignon.

French involvement continued the trend present since at least the 1170s that papal-imperial disputes were open to external influence. France repeatedly hindered negotiations, because the dispute allowed it to prolong what Petrarch called the papacy’s ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in Avignon. John’s imposition of the interdict suspending church services in Germany was widely resented and ignored, and cost him the moral high ground by appearing to punish ordinary Germans. Already in 1300, the leading German lords had rejected papal attempts to fan their dispute with King Albert I. Now in 1338 they backed Louis’ decree Licet iuris explicitly endorsing the Staufer’s earlier idea that the German king was already emperor-designate entitled automatically to exercise imperial prerogatives immediately after his election. For once, an intellectual directly influenced events, as Lupold of Bebenburg supplied the legal and historical arguments for Louis’ decree. This programme was continued by Charles IV, who emerged as Louis’ challenger and, soon, successor, culminating in the Golden Bull of 1356, which excluded the pope entirely from German royal elections (see pp. 301 and 307).

The Luxembourgs and the Papacy

Like Pope Innocent’s Venerabilem, the imperial statements implicitly acknowledged limits. It was difficult to nationalize the imperial title without accepting it no longer represented superiority over other kings. In short, Louis and Charles still sought the idealized cooperation with the papacy that their predecessors had failed to secure. Charles used a brief coincidence of Guelph and Ghibelline sentiment in Italy to travel with only 300 troops for his imperial coronation, which was conducted by a papal legate in Rome in April 1355. This was the first coronation since 1046 not to be marred by serious violence.136 The papacy still insisted on the prerogatives claimed in Venerabilem, while the German lords continued the line resumed in 1338. Pope Gregory XI was ignored in 1376 when Charles’s son Wenzel was chosen as king of the Romans, the title henceforth used for the successor designate in the Empire.

Gregory’s death in March 1378 changed the direction of papal-imperial relations. Gregory had only moved the papacy back to Rome from Avignon 22 months earlier. The Romans had grown accustomed to self-government, while the cardinals regarded themselves like the electors in the Empire and were not prepared to be treated as papal functionaries. France’s reluctance to lose its influence added a third factor. The result was the Great Schism lasting until 1417 and coinciding with a period of dramatic intellectual and religious development. The founding of universities during the twelfth century ended the church’s monopoly over education. The Great Schism accelerated this, since central Europeans were no longer as keen to attend Paris or the Italian universities due to the disruption in public life. Charles IV had already provided an alternative by founding Prague University in 1348. This had been followed by Vienna (1365) and fifteen more universities by 1500, while student numbers in the Empire more than doubled across the fifteenth century to reach over 4,200.137 New, critical approaches associated with Renaissance Humanism increasingly challenged established claims, including the Donation of Constantine, which was proved by Lorenzo Valla to be a forgery in 1440.138 Such criticism appeared most suspicious amidst the surge in popular religious practices, which threatened to escape official supervision. These included new shrines attracting thousands of pilgrims, such as Wilsnack in Brandenburg between 1383 and 1552, as well as Marian cults, fresh waves of monasticism and relic collecting.139

Debates surrounding faith and practice gave urgency to those about church governance, since one could not be resolved without the other. They also merged with reform discussions in the Empire, where the idea of the electors and lords exercising collective responsibility meshed with the new concept known as conciliarism emanating from the University of Paris, which argued that papal monarchy should be balanced by a general council of bishops and cardinals. Practical politics added further impetus. Both Wenzel and Richard II of England were deposed by aristocratic conspiracies within a year of each other, while France descended into civil war from 1407, which widened with England’s involvement eight years later. The instability prevented imperial coronations for either Wenzel or his rival after 1400, Ruprecht (Rupert) of the Palatinate. Wenzel’s refusal to stand down, even after the election of his younger brother Sigismund in 1410, extended the political uncertainty in the Empire until his death in 1419. By that point, the Empire faced its own heretical movement, the Hussites in Bohemia, as well as the menacing advance of the Ottomans through Sigismund’s own kingdom of Hungary to the east.

Sigismund’s decisive intervention demonstrated the continued potency of the imperial ideal, whilst also showing how much had changed since Henry III ended the earlier schism in 1046. Whereas Henry had acted unilaterally, Sigismund had to consider other kings and the multiple influences within the church. First, he allied himself with the conciliarists who had convened a general council in Pisa and elected their own pope in 1409 in defiance of both Avignon and Rome. Having won support to convene his own council in Constance in November 1414, Sigismund outmanoeuvred all three popes, who either abdicated or were deposed by 1417, allowing the church to be reunited under the reform-minded Pope Martin V.140

The Great Schism greatly weakened the papacy, which now confronted the more radical conciliarists who chose Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy in 1439 as what proved to be the last anti-pope. Although conciliarism fizzled out with his abdication ten years later, the renewed schism extended the time for European monarchs to bargain concessions from the Roman papacy. This proved particularly important for the Empire, where monarchical authority was shifting from reliance on imperial prerogatives to the direct control of extensive dynastic possessions – a method perfected by the Habsburgs, who ruled the Empire from 1438 with only a single break until its demise in 1806. The Vienna Concordat secured by Frederick III on 17 February 1448 joined that of Worms from 1122 as the fundamental document regulating the imperial church until 1803. It did not go as far as its French equivalent in halting all papal taxes within the realm, but nonetheless curtailed papal influence over appointments at all levels of the Empire’s church hierarchy. Unlike the nationalized Gallican church in France, there was no single ecclesia Germania. Instead, other leading princes negotiated their own concordats on the Viennese model between the 1450s and 1470s to cover the lesser clergy within their jurisdictions.

Nonetheless, conciliarism had fostered greater cohesion amongst what were increasingly regarded as national episcopates, including that in Germany. A synod of German bishops at Mainz in 1455 drew up the first Gravamina nationis Germanicae, or complaints of the German church, to be presented to the pope. The issues were taken up at the Empire’s assembly in 1458, and subsequent Gravamina became integral elements of imperial politics, especially because they often served imperial interests in the continuing disputes with the papacy over jurisdictions in northern Italy.141

Habsburg-Papal Relations

Sigismund’s success in ending the Great Schism in 1417 appeared to reset papal-imperial relations to the era of Charles IV. Sigismund was the first German monarch to go to Italy after the fiasco of Ruprecht’s abortive Roman expedition in 1401–2. His imperial coronation on 31 May 1433 was the first since 1220 by a universally accepted pope and represented the culmination of two-year’s peaceful presence in Italy. The Vienna Concordat smoothed the way for Frederick III’s imperial coronation on 19 March 1452, which proved to be the last in Rome.142 It was also the last occasion on which an emperor performed Strator service for a pope. The ceremony was already at odds with the new political balance, as the Habsburgs were amassing what would soon become the largest personal possessions held by any imperial family and which provided an entirely new basis for imperial authority.

The new reality was obvious with Habsburg involvement in the Italian Wars, which opened in 1494 with a French attempt to supplant imperial influence over northern Italy whilst asserting direct control of the south. French ambitions were first checked by Frederick III’s son and successor, Maximilian I, and then completely reversed by his great-grandson, Charles V, who was both Spanish king and emperor by 1519. Charles’s power far exceeded even that of Henry VI, enabling the Habsburgs to complete the process under way intermittently since the 1130s and remove papal involvement from the imperial title. Already in 1508 the pope agreed that Maximilian I could simply assume the title Elected Emperor when the way over the Alps to his coronation was blocked by his Franco-Venetian enemies. That year, Lupold von Bebenburg’s most important treatise on the imperial title appeared in book form, using the newly invented print media that now disseminated the arguments behind the fourteenth-century constitutional changes. Meanwhile, the Empire was undergoing a fundamental transformation through rapid institutional growth, consolidating its definitive, early modern form as a mixed monarchy in which the emperor shared power with an increasingly finely graduated hierarchy of princes, lords and cities collectively known as the imperial Estates (see pp. 402–21). The formalization of new forms of representation in the imperial diet (Reichstag) around 1490 distinguished the members of the Empire more clearly. Popes continued to send legates to participate in the Reichstag into the 1540s, but already before the Protestant Reformation made them unwelcome it was becoming obvious they were merely representatives of a foreign potentate.143

Nonetheless, the Habsburgs were not ready to sever all ties to the papacy. Arriving in the Empire from Spain in 1521, Charles V rejected the calls of evangelical reformers to purge Rome of what they considered the Anti-Christ. There was no return to the earlier imperial intervention to reform the church. Instead, Charles responded in line with the division between secular and spiritual responsibility that had slowly emerged since the Worms Concordat. The Reformation was dealt with as an issue of public order, with doctrinal questions left to the papacy (see pp. 108–17). The pope’s reluctance to compromise on doctrine made Charles’s position extremely difficult in the Empire, while both clashed in Italy over conflicting territorial ambitions. The low point was the infamous sack of Rome by imperial troops on 6 May 1527, an event still commemorated annually at the memorial to the 147 Swiss Guards killed defending the Vatican.144

Chastised, Pope Clement VII crowned Charles as emperor in Bologna on 24 February 1530 in the last such ceremony where a pontiff officiated (see Plate 7). The venue was chosen to fit with Charles’s campaign, but was still staged with great pomp and was intended to assist efforts to conclude the Italian Wars with a successful peace. Charles’s triumphal entry into the city presented him as a victorious Roman emperor.145 Charles obtained papal recognition in 1531 that his younger brother, Ferdinand, would succeed him directly without a coronation. By the time this occurred in 1558, Ferdinand had already concluded the Peace of Augsburg (1555) accepting Lutheranism alongside Catholicism as an official religion in the Empire. Ferdinand I’s accession provided the first opportunity since the Reformation to alter the emperor’s place in the imperial constitution. Protestants wanted to strike the clause committing the emperor to act as advocatus ecclesiae, and substitute an obligation to uphold the Peace of Augsburg. The Catholic imperial Estates eventually persuaded them to retain the original language. At Maximilian II’s election as king of the Romans in 1562 this was reworded as general protection of the Christian church, omitting any reference to the papacy; a formula retained thereafter, though clearly interpreted along more traditional lines by the still Catholic Habsburgs.146

The imperial and German royal titles had been merged, consolidating the change of 1508 and ensuring the undisputed assumption of imperial prerogatives immediately upon election. There was now a single coronation, conducted by the archbishop of Cologne, who had generally presided over German royal coronations since the Carolingian kings and whose role was accepted even by the Protestant imperial Estates. Ferdinand IV’s coronation as king of the Romans in 1653 made liturgical concessions to Protestantism, and merely required the monarch to respect rather than obey the pope.147 The ceremonial alterations freed the emperor from the need to go to Rome, removing a major reason for cooperation with the papacy at a time when both were struggling to redefine their roles in a rapidly changing international order.

It was politically impossible for the emperor to cooperate unconditionally with the Counter-Reformation agenda embraced by the papacy at the Council of Trent (1545–63). The constitutional rights secured by Lutherans in the Peace of Augsburg were part of the Empire’s increasingly elaborate web of collective liberties that could only be altered through mutual agreement. The Habsburgs managed the Empire by presenting themselves as impartial guardians of all liberties, whilst remaining personally Catholic and imposing their faith on their own direct subjects. While the pope applauded Habsburg efforts in their own lands, even zealous emperors like Ferdinand II were heavily criticized for not capitalizing on moments of military strength to rescind all Protestant rights in the Empire (see pp. 125–7). France and especially Spain (which became independent of Habsburg Austria in 1558) displaced the emperor as the pope’s primary international champions.148

The pope’s influence in the Empire declined sharply, and efforts to influence a more zealous Catholic line by delaying recognition of Ferdinand III’s accession in 1637 failed to inconvenience the emperor. From 1641 publication of papal decrees in the Habsburgs’ own lands required the emperor’s permission, and a year later demands for papal book censorship were rejected on the grounds that this was a sovereign right of all monarchs. The papal reform of holy days was ignored, because this interfered with events important to the political calendar. More momentously, the pope’s protest when the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 was already pre-empted by a clause asserting the treaty’s validity regardless of what the pontiff thought.149

The last papal–imperial clash – and the first since 1527 – occurred in 1708–9 when Austrian troops invaded the Papal States to assert Habsburg and imperial feudal jurisdictions in Italy over the pontiff’s counter-claims. There were also tense moments in the late eighteenth century when Emperor Joseph II championed the dissolution of the Jesuit order and secularized hundreds of Austrian monasteries. However, Joseph and Pope Pius VI also exchanged official visits in 1782–3.150 Relations were never quite those of equal sovereign states. Vestiges of the shared past lingered beyond the Empire’s demise in 1806, especially as the papacy generally now saw Austria as a more reliable protector than France, which was tainted with revolution after 1789. Concern for his traditional place as head of universal Catholicism prevented Pius IX from assuming the leadership of a liberal united Italy in 1848 as this would have entailed declaring war on Austria, which still controlled most of the north. Austria allowed thousands of its troops to serve as volunteers in the papal army until 1870, and did the same in the ill-fated Catholic-imperial project of Archduke Maximilian in Mexico between 1864 and 1867. Pius IX performed a symbolic translation of the old Empire in 1860 by reworking the still-official prayers for the Imperator Romanorum to one explicitly for the Habsburg emperor. Finally, Austria retained a formal veto in papal elections until 1904.151 As we shall see, these lingering connections were typical of the Empire’s legacy in later European history.

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