Not Beyond Metz

For three miserable months in the autumn of 1552, Charles V besieged Metz with the largest army he ever commanded. The French had taken the city five months earlier in agreement with the Protestant princes opposing Charles’s unpopular solution to the Empire’s religious tension. The princes had already forced his younger brother Ferdinand to agree the Peace of Passau on 31 July. Charles needed a major victory to restore prestige. Instead, he suffered his worst defeat. With his forces reduced by disease and desertion, he finally abandoned the siege of Metz on 1 January 1553. The outcome demonstrated clear limits to imperial authority and hastened the political process culminating in the Peace of Augsburg two years later.1

These limits had already been marked symbolically during the siege by the French defenders, who taunted Charles by displaying an image of the imperial eagle chained between two pillars and the motto Non ultra Metas – a clever double pun, literally meaning ‘not beyond Metz’, but also ‘not exceeding proper limits’, since Metas could mean both ‘Metz’ and ‘boundary’. The design mocked the motif invented at Charles’s accession in Spain in 1516, but which drew on ideas already expressed by Dante. According to ancient legend, Hercules had marked the limits to the known world by placing pillars either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. As part of their pseudo-genealogy, Habsburg apologists claimed Hercules along with other suitable heroes as Charles’s direct ancestors. In 1519 the motto plus ultra (‘still further’) was added to the device showing the two pillars to symbolize both the traditional view of the Empire as encompassing Christian civilization and the new vision associated with Spain, which was then conquering its New World imperium in Mexico and Peru (see Plate 10).

Even as this device was being prepared, it was obvious that the known world was divided into many different states. What was not yet clear was how far each was independent and whether they should interact as equals. These problems were present at the Empire’s foundation, but they never developed sufficiently to render imperial pretensions entirely meaningless, or to undermine the emperor’s authority within his own territories.


Charlemagne and Pope Leo III had established an empire in 800 that was neither singular nor the only one claiming to be Roman. Byzantium’s survival for another 653 years proved fundamental in dividing Christian Europe into eastern and western political and religious spheres, leaving a legacy persisting today. In contrast to the Empire, Byzantium could legitimately claim direct continuity from ancient Rome through an unbroken line of emperors. Unlike the western emperor, who was always also a king, his Byzantine counterpart was only ever imperial. There were regencies in the east, but never interregna as in the west where there were long periods without a crowned emperor. Byzantium never evolved clear rules governing succession like those that eventually emerged in the late medieval Empire. The army, senate and people participated in varying combinations in electing eastern emperors between the fourth and ninth centuries. Successful candidates were raised upon a shield amidst acclamation of their soldiers, rather than being crowned at a church service. No more than four generations of the same family ruled prior to the Makedonian dynasty, which held power between 867 and 1056. The practice of naming a successor emerged during the tenth century, establishing hereditary rule under the Comnenians (1081–1185) and again under the Palaiologians (1259–1453).

Byzantine emperors assumed office directly. A coronation had been used since 474, but without any sacral element until this gradually appeared through western influence in the thirteenth century. The emperor was expected to rule like an Old Testament king, and, while not considered a god, he was nonetheless believed to be like one, ruling Dei gratia – by God’s grace in direct pious submission to the divine will. Following Constantine’s example in the fourth century, Byzantine emperors exercised overall management of their church through their appointment of the patriarch of Constantinople. Patriarchs retained moral authority and could impose penance on wayward emperors. The failure of the imperial family to remove images from worship between 717 and 843 also demonstrated limits to their direction of religious affairs. Nonetheless, they could depose obstructive patriarchs and asserted greater control of doctrine from the eleventh century, ultimately forcing their clergy into an unwilling and short-lived reunification with Rome in 1439. This combination of imperial and papal powers was condemned by westerners as Caesaropapism.2

Unlike Rome, Constantinople remained a world-class capital until the later Middle Ages. Although its population declined from a peak of about half a million in the sixth century, it still totalled 300,000 five centuries later when the Byzantine empire had 12 million inhabitants. The Great Palace, begun by Constantine and now the Topkapi, was full of marvels like mechanical lions, a self-elevating throne and a golden organ, offering a dazzling vision of imperial splendour to awestruck western visitors. Elaborate court etiquette perpetuated a sense of solid traditions despite the collapse of much of the ancient infrastructure, like the education system. Although changed substantially, the empire maintained a large standing army, bureaucracy and regular tax system – all features missing in the west. Continuity and coherence enabled Byzantium to develop what has been termed a ‘grand strategy’ by the seventh century. Combining diplomacy, avoidance of unnecessary risk and careful application of scarce military assets, this enabled it to survive against often formidable odds, as well as stage several impressive recoveries after serious defeats.3

East–west theological differences were apparent since disagreements over religious images in 794 and became more pronounced with the Gregorian drive for doctrinal uniformity. This hardened disagreements into permanent schism after 1054, with the final separation of the eastern and western Christian churches.4 However, even zealous clerics regarded a divided Christendom and the existence of two empires with unease. Outside polemic, east–west religious tensions were largely confined to competition for the hearts and minds of east-central and northern Europeans between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Acceptance of either Latin or Greek Christianity was a crucial marker of imperial influence, and the outcome reflected the balance between the Empire and Byzantium. Pagan leaders swiftly appreciated this, manipulating imperial rivalry to enhance their own prestige and influence.

The clash was most obvious in the area of the ‘Great Moravian empire’, which emerged on the Empire’s eastern frontier in the early ninth century, only to collapse around 907. A Byzantine missionary expedition led by Cyril and Methodius had some success there by translating the Scriptures into Slavonic in the 860s. Pope Hadrian II was obliged to accept this in order to retain the region’s recognition of the Latin church. Although the Slavonic liturgy was largely expunged by Gregorianism in the eleventh century, the Croats retained it whilst still acknowledging Rome. The Ottonians succeeded in drawing Poland and Hungary into the Latin church through recognition of their rules as kings. Bulgaria, however, gravitated towards the eastern church, especially thanks to Cyril, who devised a new script (Cyrillic) enabling its population to retain their vernacular when embracing Christianity in the 890s. Kiev likewise chose Christian Orthodoxy in 988, thus spreading it to what became Russia, and was followed by Serbia in 1219, despite Byzantium’s growing political problems.5

The Armenians were regarded in Byzantium as schismatics and used the First Crusade in 1095–6 to contact Rome and the Empire. Like his counterparts in Poland and Hungary, Prince Leo of Armenia hoped for recognition as king in return for accepting incorporation within the western political and Christian orbit. Eventually, Henry VI sent Bishop Conrad of Hildesheim to crown both Leo and Prince Amalric of Cyprus as kings under nominal imperial suzerainty in 1195. The Empire maintained intermittent contact as Armenia became a battleground between Persia and the rising Turkish empire after 1375. Seventeenth-century emperors wrote on behalf of Jesuit missionaries to persuade the Persian shah to rescind repressive laws against Christians. Although irredeemably lost, a sense of connection remained sufficiently strong for Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm in 1698 to toy with the idea of making himself Armenian king in order to secure the region for Catholicism and elevate his family to European royalty.6

Religious rivalry was matched politically by the ‘two emperors problem’ caused by Byzantium and the Empire rejecting the ancient solution of two parallel Roman empires.7 Each claimed exclusive pre-eminence, but neither had much appetite to assert this through war. Charlemagne conquered Istria, the last Byzantine outpost in northern Italy, between 806 and 809. Louis II tried to subordinate the remaining Byzantine and Lombard possessions in the south during the 860s, and Otto II made another serious effort a century later. Otherwise, the two empires refrained from fighting, choosing largely to ignore each other. At best, Byzantium was prepared to accept the rival western emperor as a new Theodoric, governing lands it still officially claimed as its own. Byzantine documents used the term basileus, translating as ‘emperor’, but falling short of the full ‘Caesar’. Western claims to be Imperator Romanorum angered the Byzantine court and contributed to the repeated failure of Carolingian and Ottonian diplomatic missions. Westerners responded in kind, calling the Byzantine emperor Rex Graecorum and presenting Charlemagne as conqueror of the effeminate Greeks.8

The Byzantine empress Irene proposed a marriage alliance and even allegedly offered herself to Charlemagne after his coronation. The scheme came to nought, but the prospect of a Byzantine bride remained attractive to western emperors into the high Middle Ages as a way to assert supremacy over truculent lords by marrying way above their circle. The lure of Byzantine riches as a dowry and hopes of securing precedence ahead of the eastern empire were added inducements. Otto I followed his own imperial coronation by obtaining the Byzantine princess Theophanu for his son in 972, perhaps believing this would also consolidate his hold over southern Italy. Otto ignored pressure from his lords to send Theophanu home when it transpired she was only the niece, and not the daughter, of the Byzantine emperor. Otto III – himself half-Byzantine – sent two embassies to the east to woo a wife. Princess Zoe set out as his expectant bride, only to turn back on news of the emperor’s death in 1002. Conrad II made a similar attempt on behalf of his own son Henry III, while Conrad III became the first emperor to visit Constantinople when he passed through during the Second Crusade in the late 1140s. His sister-in-law Bertha married the Byzantine emperor Manuel I in 1146, taking the Greek name Irene. Henry VI’s brother, Philip of Swabia, married another Irene, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus, a year before he became German king in 1198.9

Western influence peaked between 1195 and 1197 when Byzantium paid tribute to Emperor Henry VI, who simultaneously obtained formal submission from the rulers of England, Cyprus, Armenia, Syria, Tunis and Tripoli. The tribute remained symbolic. Byzantine emperors often paid their enemies, regarding this as a temporary expedient similar to Danegeld payments from western kings to the Vikings. The Ottonians did the same with the Magyars in the early tenth century. The deliberate ambiguity of these arrangements allowed each party to present them more favourably to their followers.

Changing Byzantine attitudes reflected that empire’s own fortunes. Emperor Michael I’s tacit acknowledgement of Charlemagne’s imperial status in 812 followed the defeat of his predecessor Nicephorus by the Bulgar khan, who used his victim’s skull as a drinking cup. Byzantium became less receptive to western overtures as it managed to Christianize the Bulgars in the 860s. Bulgaria claimed its own imperial status in direct imitation of Byzantium after 914, leading to a long war of attrition, culminating in a major Byzantine victory in 1014. Emperor Basil II blinded 14,000 Bulgarian prisoners, earning the title of the ‘Bulgar Slayer’. By the time of his death in 1025, Byzantium was twice as large as it had been in the eighth century. This expansion proved unsustainable and was reversed by the serious defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071. The Crusades, launched nominally to aid Byzantium, inflicted more damage.10 The Normans established kingdoms in the Holy Land and participated in the sack of Constantinople in 1204, establishing their own rival Latin emperor there until 1261. The Palaiologian family recovered Constantinople, but Byzantium was now reduced to a narrow area along the Bosphorus, plus an outpost at Trebizond in north-east Anatolia. The Byzantines relied heavily on the Turks, who defeated a resurgent Bulgarian empire in 1393 and crushed a Serbian one (established 1346) at Kosovo Polje in 1389. But by 1391 the Turks had completely surrounded Byzantium, which had shrunk to a tenth of its former size.11

Byzantine emperors twice offered reunification with the Latin church (in 1274 and 1439), and thrice travelled west personally to seek aid between 1400 and 1423. These moves stirred internal opposition and failed to bring about the desired results. The last western Crusade ended in disaster at Varna (eastern Bulgaria) in 1444. Nine years later Constantinople faced its thirteenth siege by a Muslim-led army since 650. The city’s population had shrunk to 50,000, but Constantinople’s eventual loss in 1453 was nonetheless perceived as a huge disaster for all Christians. In 1461 the fall of the Trebizond empire (north-eastern Anatolia and southern Crimea) removed the last outpost.12

Byzantine decline occurred during a period of western imperial weakness. None of the German kings between 1251 and 1311 were crowned emperor, while those that followed were embroiled in renewed problems with the papacy into the 1340s. The subsequent Great Schism further hindered any coordinated response until it was too late. Thus, the two-emperor problem was largely resolved by default. Its longer-term significance lay in the slow secularization of imperial titles as superior monarchical ranks, rather than singular and uniquely tied to a universal Christian mission.13

The prolonged existence of two Christian emperors also helped embed east–west distinctions. Ancient and medieval geographers identified Europe, Asia and Africa as continents, but these meant little in political or ideological terms, especially as ancient Rome had straddled all three. The ancient view persisted in Byzantium where the Bosphorus flowed through the heart of its empire. ‘Europe’ was simply the ecclesiastical and administrative district of Thrace immediately to the west. This was politically unacceptable in the west, where the foundation of the Empire necessitated sharper demarcation with the east. Anything else would have entailed either acknowledging that there were two emperors, or that one was not fully imperial. ‘Europe’ came to denote western civilization, bounded to the east by the limits of the Empire and Latin Christianity. The Empire’s place in these ideas was expressed most clearly by Charlemagne’s early medieval hagiographers, who hailed him as Father of Europe.14

The Sultan

Their capture of Constantinople in 1453 fixed the Ottoman Turks in western minds as the Muslim ‘other’, despite continued trade and other points of contact between east and west.15 With the eventual establishment of the Ottomans in Hungary and on the Adriatic coast, the Empire would come to define itself as Christendom’s bulwark against Islam. The rapid spread of prejudice was facilitated by the coincidence of the Ottoman advance with the invention of printing. Hostility in the west to the Ottomans overlaid and reinforced earlier resentment of the Byzantines, extending far deeper than antagonism towards any western people and creating a sense of existential threat persisting into the later eighteenth century. Yet the Ottomans were only one of several Muslim imperial powers succeeding the Caliphates that framed the Muslim world between seventh-century expansion and the shock of the thirteenth-century Mongol invasions. The Shiite Safavid family forged a new Persian empire by 1501. The Mamalukes were originally Turkic slave soldiers who seized power in Egypt around 1250, and were the only power to inflict a serious military defeat on the Mongols, routing them in Syria in 1260. The Mamaluke empire survived until conquered by the Ottomans in 1517. The Mongols toppled the last Caliphate, based in Baghdad, in 1268, but converted to Islam soon after. Although the vast Mongol empire soon fragmented, one group re-emerged as the Mughuls in India by 1526. Thus, Spain’s rise to global imperial power under Charles V coincided with the consolidation of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughul Islamic empires, which together controlled 130 to 160 million people across the Mediterranean, Anatolia, Iran and South Asia.16

The Ottomans traced their origins to Osman, their first sultan and a tribal leader in Bithynia, a landlocked province south of the Sea of Marmara. Osman completed the transition of his people from a nomadic to a settled existence around 1320. Like the Safavids, Mughuls and Habsburgs, the Ottomans cultivated what became a dynastic monarchy, emerging to dominate all other Turkic groups after the decline of the Seljuks and Byzantines, both of whom they ultimately replaced.17 Westerners viewed the Ottomans as Muslims, not least because of their culture of holy war. Yet their rise depended on accommodation with Christians. Osman’s great-grandson, Bayezid I, named his own sons Jesus, Moses, Solomon, Muhammed and Joseph. Mehmet II signalled his desire to make Islam the unifying force for his empire by expelling 30,000 Christians from Constantinople after he took it in 1453. However, Sunni Muslims only became the largest population group following further conquests in Anatolia, Arabia and north Africa around seventy years later. They thus controlled the holy sites of Medina, Jerusalem and Mecca, but self-identification with Sunni Islam was primarily a response to the rise of Shiite Persia immediately to the east, rather than through conflict with the west. Additional gains in the Balkans between the 1460s and 1540s ensured that Christians still formed a substantial proportion of Ottoman subjects.18

The emergence of three empires in the Muslim world offers instructive comparisons for the Empire’s position amongst Christians. Unlike Christianity, which converted the Roman empire and used Roman structures to build its church, Islam developed in the seventh century as a community largely outside a formal imperial framework.19 The Caliphate was created subsequently to advance the faith, deriving its authority through descent from Muhammed by marriage, in contrast to the direct links to the divine claimed by western kings. The Caliphate became dynastic, splitting into Spanish, north African and Middle Eastern branches. Meanwhile, religious structures remained decentralized without a single priestly hierarchy equivalent to Christendom’s bishops. Spiritual authority was diffused amongst a multitude of holy men, teachers and interpreters of Koranic law, whose influence depended on their personal reputations for learning and morality.

Lying outside the Christian political order, Muslim rulers did not challenge the Empire’s singular imperial pretensions. Charlemagne’s reign coincided with a surge of fresh Arab conquests, including Sardinia (809) and Sicily (827). From the Carolingian perspective, this was simply the kind of behaviour to be expected from ‘barbarians’. Charlemagne sent an embassy to tell the Baghdad caliph Harun al-Rashid of his coronation. After many adventures, the survivors returned with rich gifts, including an elephant called Abolabas – a traditional sign of authority in the Near East since Alexander the Great. The caliph simply regarded Charlemagne as a potentially useful ally against his Muslim rival in Spain. As with imperial-Byzantine relations, both parties were free to interpret signs as they wished. Political and geographic distance lessened the incentive to formalize relations. Otto I tried to contact the al-Andalus Caliphate in Córdoba in 953, but failed to provide suitable credentials for his envoys. The caliph was already well informed about the Empire and remained decidedly unimpressed.20

The Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily in the eleventh century drove a wedge between the Empire and Islamic north Africa. Together with papal hostility during the Investiture Dispute, this ensured that the emperor did not emerge as Crusader leader after the First Crusade of 1095. Conrad III joined the Second Crusade in the late 1140s under incompetent French leadership, personally contributing to the disastrous, unprovoked attack on Damascus in 1148. The young Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ fought in this crusade, as well as leading the Third Crusade in 1190, becoming the only major ruler to participate in two crusading expeditions. Barbarossa’s prestige as emperor assisted his negotiations with Byzantium, Hungary, Serbia, Armenia, the Seljuk sultan and even Saladin. Although diplomacy failed to bring a peaceful solution, it at least secured the long route chosen through Anatolia. Barbarossa’s huge army included his son Freidrich VI of Swabia, 12 bishops 2 margraves and 26 counts.21 Barbarossa himself died en route, but though the expedition failed to recover Jerusalem, it relieved the pressure on the Crusader kingdoms and forged closer connections between crusading and the imperial office.

The illness of Barbarossa’s successor, Henry VI, prevented his personal participation, but he sent a major expeditionary force in 1197. Large numbers of Germans, Frisians and Austrians joined the next three crusading campaigns between 1199 and 1229. Frederick II led 3,000 men in June 1228, though his excommunication by the pope prevented this from being classed a full crusade. The emperor succeeded by peaceful means where others had failed with more violent methods, though he was fortunate in arriving at the Holy Land as Saladin’s realm split into three rival sultanates amidst Mongol attacks. Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil was also impressed by Frederick’s relative openness to Islam and patronage of Muslim refugees in Lucera, near Foggia in southern Italy. Most of the latter were in fact deportees, who had been forced from Sicily by Henry VI to curry favour with Christian inhabitants after his conquest of that island in 1194. Frederick stepped up these deportations after 1223 until Lucera’s population reached 60,000. The Byzantines and Normans had already used expulsion as a method of control, but Frederick’s action was unique in that he resettled the population, creating a community on his mainland possessions who depended on his patronage. Lucera provided around 3,000 elite troops who, as Muslims, had the added value of being impervious to papal excommunication and served Frederick faithfully, including on his Jerusalem expedition.22 Favoured by these circumstances, Frederick and al-Kamil concluded the Treaty of Jaffa in February 1229, giving the emperor control of Jerusalem for 10 years, 5 months and 40 days – the maximum permitted under Islamic law for the alienation of property to non-Muslims. Although he retained control of the Dome of the Rock, al-Kamil also conceded access corridors to Bethlehem and Nazareth and gave Frederick an elephant. Frederick was crowned king of Jerusalem in the Holy Sepulchre on 17 March 1229, the only Holy Roman emperor actually to visit the city.

Frederick’s supporters hailed it as the dawn of a new age, fanning unrealistic expectations and inevitable disappointment. The Templars and Knights of St John condemned the treaty for failing to restore their lost lands. Frederick remained nominal king of Jerusalem, but left actual government to Alice of Champagne (aunt of his second wife) as regent. The city was surrendered to the Saracens when the lease expired in 1239, and within five years the Latin kingdom was restricted to five Lebanese coastal towns. It passed to the Angevins, who had assumed the Staufers’ Mediterranean interests in 1269, but the last crusader outpost (Acre) fell to the Muslims in 1291.

Meanwhile, papal propaganda capitalized on the imperial patronage of Lucera to present Frederick as an oriental despot, complete with harem. The Lucera ‘Saracens’ served loyally, but the Staufers’ final defeat in 1268 left them no choice but to transfer allegiance to the Angevins, serving them in turn against Byzantines, Tunisians, Turks and Sicilian rebels. However, the presence of a large Muslim community proved increasingly embarrassing to the Angevins, who were seeking to displace the Empire as the papacy’s protectors. Lucera’s inhabitants were forced to convert to Christianity in August 1300 when the town was renamed Città Santa Maria.

Rudolf I took the crusader vow in 1275, but was prevented by domestic events from honouring it. His successors also faced more immediate problems, while crusading increasingly appeared a risky and hopeless enterprise. Nonetheless, direct participation in the Second and Third Crusades had left a lasting impression on the Empire’s inhabitants during the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.23 Prior to becoming emperor, Sigismund led an unsuccessful crusade to save his own kingdom of Hungary from Turkish invasion in 1396. His successor Albert II also regarded Hungary’s defence as a crusade, preferring to fight and die there than consolidate his authority in the Empire.24

The Ottoman advance through the Balkans after 1453 transformed what had been crusades with distant geographical goals organized by individual emperors into a collective defence of the Empire. This reinforced the wider process of imperial reform, encouraging a more collective form of power-sharing and responsibility in the Empire’s governance (see pp. 396–408). The Ottomans took Belgrade in 1521, invading Hungary again the following year. Within four years they had conquered around half of that kingdom. Within another three they were at the gates of Vienna, threatening the Habsburgs and the Empire directly. The pace of events fused with traditions brought by the Habsburgs to reinvigorate the ideal of the emperor as Christendom’s defender. The Habsburgs had become kings of Spain as Iberia was freed from Muslim Moorish rule. Begun in the eleventh century, this Reconquista had stalled around 1270, but revived in 1455 in response to papal crusading appeals, gathering pace after 1482 to culminate in the defeat of the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, in 1492. Charles V carried this success story with him, as well as Spain’s Mediterranean interests, when he became emperor in 1519. Seven years later, his brother Ferdinand assumed Hungary’s own traditions when he inherited that kingdom from King Louis II, who died in battle against the victorious Turks at Mohács in August 1526.25 Spain continued to oppose the Ottomans in the Mediterranean, scoring the notable naval victory at Lepanto in 1571, but the Empire carried the main burden of defending central Europe.

The ideological clash was sharpened by the Ottomans’ assumption of Byzantine imperial traditions, setting them apart from previous Muslim empires and reviving the two-emperor problem in new form. The Ottomans already combined Romano-Byzantine traditions with Turkic and Islamic ones before 1453, but became self-consciously imperial after taking Constantinople that year.26 They moved their capital from Adrianople (Edirne) to Constantinople, taking up residence in the former Byzantine imperial palace. Shari’a civil law and Ottoman secular fiscal and administrative practice were all combined with Byzantine Caesaropapism, entrenching the ruler as legislator and inhibiting the transition to the rule of law ultimately made in the Empire.27 Byzantine infrastructure was retained in modified form. Mehmet II adopted the title Kaysar and presented himself as the successor to ancient Rome and Alexander the Great, claiming he would unite east and west under Islam. Latin and Greek scholars were commissioned to write official histories incorporating mythic Byzantine emperors from Solomon onwards in tales of Muhammed.28

The adoption of imperial imagery and rhetoric was complex. In part, it was about presenting the sultan to his new Christian subjects in ways already familiar to them. It was also encouraged by the Venetian and Genoese merchants, long-standing intermediaries between the Latin and Greek worlds, who continued trading after the latter passed under Ottoman rule. It also stemmed from westerners who tended to apply their own political language when dealing with the Ottomans.

Following the rapid conquest of Mamaluke Egypt (1514–17) and victory over Persia, the new sultan Süleyman I turned west again in 1521. Having plucked the Red Apple of Constantinople, Ottoman aspirations increasingly focused on the Golden Apple of Vienna, heightened by the coincidence of the growth of their imperial power with that of the Habsburgs. Charles V refused to be diverted by the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529, going ahead with his own imperial coronation by Pope Clement VII in Bologna in 1530.29 Süleyman was forced to retire, having waited in vain for Charles to meet him in battle. The sultan masked the anticlimax by staging a triumphal homeward journey, hoping to outshine Charles’s recent coronation. A huge crown was commissioned from Venetian craftsmen, costing 115,000 ducats, equivalent to a tenth of Castile’s annual revenue. The design mixed Charles’s crown with a papal tiara, but added a fourth diadem deliberately to upstage the sultan’s western rivals. The success of this PR stunt is demonstrated by Süleyman’s lasting fame in the west as ‘the Magnificent’.

After 1536 Süleyman progressively abandoned western trappings in favour of a more Islamic Ottoman style distinct from both the Christian imperial tradition and that of Safavid Persia. The Ottoman conquests of Egypt and Arabia had redressed the religious balance, while the majority of Anatolian and Balkan elites had converted to Islam. Sultans had already presented themselves as new caliphs since 1453 in a bid for leadership of the entire Muslim world. Byzantine distinctions between civilization and barbarism were sublimated within the Islamic division of the world into antagonistic ‘Houses’ of Islam and War, making permanent peace with Christians politically impossible.

The fault line ran through Hungary, where Habsburg efforts at reconquest stalled by 1541, compounded by the failures of Charles V’s expensive expeditions to Tunis and Algiers.30 The Habsburgs were obliged to accept a tripartite division between imperial (Habsburg) Hungary in the west (including Croatia), Ottoman Hungary in the centre and south-east, and Transylvania in the north-east. Possession of Transylvania and the right to use the Hungarian royal title remained contested until 1699, further hindering permanent peace. Ferdinand I bought a truce by paying 30,000 florins in tribute to the Ottomans in 1541. Further defeats forced him to pay this annually after 1547. The sultan refused to recognize the Habsburgs as emperors, claiming they were merely his tributaries. The truce forbade major military operations, but allowed raiding by militia across the frontier. The constant friction provided a ready excuse for war, but Habsburg efforts to end tribute to the Ottomans through renewed campaigns from 1565 to 1567 and 1593 to 1606 failed.31

Although not full crusades, Habsburg operations were backed by the papacy and drew strong support from across Europe, attracting foreign volunteers such as John Smith, the future founder of Virginia.32 Days of prayer and penance were decreed from the 1530s to tackle the perceived causes of the Turkish menace in the sin of the Christian population. So-called Turkish Bells were rung throughout the Empire daily at midday during campaigns to remind people to pray for the success of imperial armies. The ideological impossibility of peace encouraged acceptance of the Empire’s structural reforms, requiring all imperial Estates to contribute to collective defence (see pp. 398–406 and 445–62).

Relations between east and west nonetheless fell short of a ‘clash of civilizations’. Not only did Hungarians and the Empire’s subjects continue to trade with the Ottomans, but the emperor regarded Shiite Persia as a potential ally. The Persian shah first proposed an alliance to Charles V in 1523. Intermittent contacts intensified around 1600 as a large Persian embassy arrived in Prague. Talks ultimately collapsed in 1610 due to differing expectations. Shah Abbas mistook vague Habsburg expressions of friendship for firm commitment and attacked Ottoman Kurdistan in 1603. He regarded the Habsburgs’ separate peace with the Ottomans at Zsitva Torok in 1606 as a betrayal, leaving long-standing resentment and wrecking all attempts to renew contact between the Habsburgs and the Persians.33

Zsitva Torok extended the pre-war truce between Habsburgs and Ottomans, but required that both parties ‘should address each other as emperor, not just as King’.34 It was renewed five times by 1642, improving relations by granting Habsburg subjects favourable trading status within the Ottoman empire. The annual tribute paid to the Ottomans ended in 1606, but each renewal of the truce cost the Habsburgs 200,000 florins. Good relations proved vital for the Habsburgs’ survival, since the sultan, preoccupied with his own problems, rejected opportunities to exploit the Thirty Years War, having toyed with the idea of backing the Bohemian rebels. The truce was renewed again for 20 years in July 1649 when the Habsburgs’ ‘free gift’ was reduced to 40,000 florins. Friction persisted, because Habsburg efforts to crush malcontents in their part of Hungary opened the door to Ottoman intervention, which escalated into full war by 1662. The need to coordinate aid from the Empire consolidated the constitutional changes enacted through the Westphalian settlement and led to the Reichstag remaining permanently in session after 1663.35 The Habsburgs bought another 20 years’ truce by paying 200,000 florins in 1664, but this time the sultan also sent gifts, suggesting a more equal relationship.

The pattern appeared to repeat itself in 1683 when the Ottoman leadership attacked Vienna again in the hope of reasserting authority after prolonged internal unrest in their empire. Instead, the city resisted until it was relieved by Polish and imperial troops in a truly international victory, hailed in the west as another Lepanto. The huge amount of booty included tents, carpets and at least 500 Turkish prisoners who were forcibly settled in Germany. Orientalism swept central Europe well before the better-known wave following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.36 It was hoped that even Jerusalem might be recovered, but the initial euphoria instead soon gave way to a long, successful but grinding war of reconquest in Hungary between 1684 and 1699.

Internally, this continued the trend towards mixed monarchy in the Empire. Internationally, it represented a significant shift in the Habsburgs relative to the Ottomans, who finally accepted a permanent peace at Karlowitz in 1699. The Habsburgs secured all Hungary and Transylvania, swiftly eradicating all trace of 150 years of Muslim presence. The sultan also promised better treatment of Catholics in his territories. However, the religious element was waning. The emperor continued to receive German and Italian aid in further Turkish wars into the 1730s, but these conflicts were increasingly regarded as purely Austrian concerns. The Turkish Bells rang for the last time during the 1736–9 war, and suggestions of repeating this in the next conflict (1787–91) were rejected as unenlightened.37 Meanwhile, further gains from the Turks in 1716–18 cemented the Habsburgs as a great power independent of the imperial title, transforming their relationship to the Empire and other European powers.

The Tsar

The prolonged warfare against the Ottomans between 1683 and 1718 drew in Russia, hastening that country’s integration within the nascent European states system. Although initially regarded as a useful ally against the Ottomans, it soon became clear that the tsar was replacing the sultan as chief challenger to the Habsburgs’ claim to be Europe’s pre-eminent monarchs.

Russia originated in the Varangians (Vikings) who conquered Kiev and were called Rus by the Slavs. The ruling Rurik family were wooed by Byzantine and Latin missionaries and they ultimately adopted eastern Christianity, which allowed them to use a Slavonic liturgy. The conversion of Prince Vladimir in 988 established the basis of a highly personalized sacral monarchy. Rurik princes contributed one third of the 180 Russian saints from the tenth to thirteenth centuries.38 Internal disputes produced rival Rurik principalities after 1054, all of which were conquered by the Mongols, who overcame the fearsome Russian winter by using the frozen rivers as roads for their cavalry. The Mongols established themselves by 1240 as the Golden Horde on the Lower Volga, extorting tribute from the Rurik princes. The principality of Moscovy emerged from the wreckage after 1325, facilitated subsequent to 1438 by the fragmentation of the Golden Horde. Tribute was stopped in 1480. Five years later, Moscovy took Novgorod, eliminating a major rival and signalling a desire to extend towards the Baltic.

As with the Ottomans, rapid expansion encouraged ambitions to formalize prestige through more overt imperial imagery. Ivan III ‘the Great’ married Zoe Palaiologina, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, in 1472 and proclaimed himself ruler of all the Russias. He took the title tsar, again a word derived from Caesar, which had been used before but was now employed more consciously to mean emperor in contrast to the old Kievan title knyaz, meaning prince or king.39 The link to ancient Rome was reinforced by the Russian Orthodox church’s rejection of the brief reunification of the Greek and Latin churches imposed by the Byzantine emperor in 1439. Philotheus, abbot of Pskov, developed his own version of imperial translation, arguing that the first Rome fell through heresy, the second (Constantinople) was conquered by the infidel, but the third (Moscow) would endure until Judgement Day. Like their western equivalents, such ideas derived their importance not as practical programmes, but through fostering an intellectual climate conducive to imperialism. Russian rulers aimed to ‘liberate’ Constantinople and claimed to protect Christian holy places – both as late as 1853 contributory factors in the outbreak of the Crimean War.40

Byzantine traditions were readily adaptable to Russian circumstances, as they did not challenge the idea of a sacred ruler. The tsar already exercised greater control over his metropolitan than the Byzantine emperor over his patriarch – one metropolitan was strangled in 1568 for daring to criticize the tsar. The Russian church secured full autonomy in 1685 when the tsar declared the metropolitan independent from the Greek patriarch, who still lived under Ottoman rule in Constantinople. The move deliberately undercut the sultan’s authority over his Christian subjects whilst bolstering his Russian rival’s pretensions as champion of the true church.

The imperial double eagle first appeared as a tsarist symbol in 1480, though it only became the primary one under Peter I ‘the Great’, displaying icons and other religious symbols on military flags around 1700.41 Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’ staged a coronation 14 years into his rule, in 1561, that deliberately asserted Russia as a continuation of ancient Rome. The ceremony used a Slavonic translation of the Byzantine coronation service, while the regalia were presented as those of the former Byzantine emperor. Ivan regarded himself as a direct descendant of Emperor Augustus, and even the tsar’s notorious terror was influenced by ancient examples.42

Assumption of the Byzantine legacy reinforced western perceptions of Russia as an alien civilization, but it also raised the tsar’s profile as a potential ally. The first imperial embassy to Russia was despatched in 1488 by Frederick III. This revealed how the two-emperor problem had also translated to Moscow. Frederick approached negotiations from the perspective of his pre-eminence, while Tsar Ivan III (rightly) stressed that neither he nor his ancestors had ever been imperial vassals. Ivan and his successors wanted international recognition that their title of tsar meant emperor, while westerners continued to ignore it and to refer to Russian rulers as merely ‘dukes’. Civil wars eventually saw the Ruriks replaced by the Romanovs in 1613, but these events simply reinforced westerners’ prejudices of Russia as barbaric and discouraged acceptance that its new rulers directly continued Romano-Byzantine imperialism. Russians for their part remained baffled by the Empire, despite increasing efforts to understand it – for example, the tsar’s government obtained copies of the Peace of Westphalia just three months after its conclusion in 1648. The Empire’s constitution contained many elements for which there was no Russian equivalent, and the tsar and his advisors found it hard to understand that feudal relations did not mean the princes’ servitude under the emperor.43

The desire to learn more grew as Russia’s frontiers advanced westwards after 1653, bringing greater influence in Poland and direct contact with the eastern edge of the Ottoman empire by 1667. German traders and immigrants were an important source of information, but the main shift came with Peter the Great, who personally travelled across the Empire on his famous European tour in 1697–8. Russia’s involvement in the Great Northern War (1700–1721) not only secured access to the Baltic but brought direct contact with imperial politics as Peter’s army pursued the Swedes across northern Germany. On 19 April 1716, Peter the Great’s niece Ekaterina Ivanovna married Duke Carl Leopold of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, initiating two centuries of close dynastic relations between the Romanovs and German princely families.44

Russian imperial imagery became increasingly western, though without entirely jettisoning Byzantine elements. Peter issued a two-rouble coin depicting himself as an ancient Roman emperor to celebrate his victory over Swedish forces at Poltava in 1709. His officials then discovered a letter from Maximilian I sent in 1514 seeking an alliance. Whether by accident or design, the Habsburg chancellery had addressed Vasily III as Kayser, implicitly recognizing the Russians’ insistence on translating tsar as emperor. Peter had the letter published in 1718 as part of the careful preparations culminating in his self-proclamation as imperator in October 1721.45 The coincidence of this act with the successful outcome of the Great Northern War underscored Russia as an imperial power.

The Habsburgs persisted in refusing to recognize the Russian emperor as their equal, rebuffing a proposal that the two emperors alternate as Europe’s foremost monarch. Backed diplomatically by France, Emperor Charles VI recycled old arguments that Europe could not have two emperors.46 Deteriorating relations with western European powers forced Charles to compromise, recognizing the tsar’s imperial title as part of a wider alliance in 1726, though Charles still claimed formal pre-eminence. Russia remained content until 1762, because it saw Austria as a useful ally against the still-powerful Ottomans. The alliance drew it deeper into imperial politics. Russian troops thrice entered the Empire to assist Austria in wars between 1733 and 1762. The Romanovs were now closely related to the princely families of Mecklenburg, Holstein, Württemberg, Hessen-Darmstadt and Anhalt-Zerbst, with the last providing the princess who ruled Russia as Catherine II ‘the Great’ between 1762 and 1796. The purpose of involvement shifted from payback for Austrian assistance in the Balkans to a growing concern for the Empire’s internal political balance as a factor in Russia’s own wider strategic interests. Russia brokered the Peace of Teschen ending the Austro-Prussian War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9), and thereafter claimed this made it a guarantor of the Peace of Westphalia. Although he was never fully recognized, a permanent envoy at the Reichstag was maintained by Russia after 1782 to safeguard its interests.47

The Most Christian King

A factor in Austria’s accommodation with Russia was the growth of France as a western European great power. France shared common roots with the Empire in the Carolingian realm. The Treaty of Verdun (843), which divided the Empire into three kingdoms (West Francia, East Francia and Lotharingia), was celebrated later as the foundation of France and Germany, but at the time there was no sense that this had created separate countries. Reunification efforts continued into the 880s, while ties amongst the elite persisted across the Rhine long after that. Distinctions became clearer as the Ottonians succeeded the defunct eastern Carolingian royal line in 919. The meeting between the Ottonian Henry I and the ‘French’ King Rudolf I near Sedan in 935 was carefully choreographed to stress parity – something that was repeated during further royal summits in 1006–7. However, none of the monarchs involved held the imperial title at the time of the meetings.48

Common origins allowed French kings to claim the imperial tradition themselves. King Lothar reacted angrily to Otto I’s imperial coronation in 962, while the Capetian family ruling France after 987 were prepared to recognize Byzantium’s imperial title if this would secure an anti-Ottonian alliance. From the tenth century onwards, French writers Frenchified Charlemagne and the Franks, stressing an unbroken line of Christian kings since Clovis. They disputed the concept of imperial translation, instead presenting the empire as a Carolingian creation always centred on Paris, not Aachen. A central feature was the myth that Charlemagne had gone to Jerusalem and brought back the relics of St Denis to found a Parisian monastery – a story vigorously propagated by the monks to assert their house as home to French royal and national identity. Unable to ignore Ottonian possession of the actual imperial title, they sought to reduce the emperor’s role to protecting the pope, judging the emperor’s actions according to the current state of Franco-papal relations.49

The initial goal was to maintain parity with the former East Frankish realm, but after 1100 French writers increasingly distinguished between the German kingdom as a foreign country and the imperial title that they claimed for their own king. However, some went further, arguing that, as direct heir to the Franks, the French king should rule all former Frankish territory, including Germany. The victory of King Philip II Augustus over Otto IV at Bouvines in 1214 decided the Welf–Staufer civil war and appeared to make France the arbiter of imperial affairs. Philip’s troops carried the Oriflamme, the blood-red banner of St Denis abbey that was traditionally considered Charlemagne’s own flag, while their superiority appeared confirmed by their capture of Otto’s imperial standard in the battle.50

Heavy French involvement in the Crusades after 1095 added interest, because the emperor was widely regarded as the Crusaders’ ‘natural’ leader. French observers interpreted the prolonged absence of a crowned emperor between 1251 and 1311 as a factor in the failure of later crusading ventures.51 Opposition to individual emperors remained contingent on specific circumstances, not principled objections to the idea of the Empire. For instance, action against Henry VII stemmed from a desire to protect French interests in Italy and the belief that the pope had crowned the wrong king as emperor. Prayers for the emperor continued in France and Spain into the fourteenth century. French kings made serious efforts to secure the imperial title in 1273–4, 1308, 1313 and 1324–8. Charles Valois, brother of Philip IV, even married the granddaughter of Baldwin II, the last Latin emperor of Byzantium, in the hope of reuniting the eastern and western empires. These attempts failed, but thanks to their growing power, French kings did assert themselves as the papacy’s protectors by the late thirteenth century. The propagandists of Philip Augustus already presented him as Charlemagne’s true heir. ‘Augustus’ was in fact a nickname given the king by Rigord, a senior monk of St Denis, to celebrate Philip’s appropriately ‘imperial’ expansion of monarchical authority across France. Rigord also repeatedly referred to him as ‘Most Christian King’ (rex Christianissimus), a rank chosen to outflank the imperial title by emphasizing the French monarch’s special mission. This title was later confirmed by the pope, while further papal concessions since the twelfth century cemented the separate identity of the French church.52

Failure to obtain the imperial title encouraged the assertion that the French monarchy already possessed imperial, in the sense of sovereign, powers. Charlemagne had been a great king before his imperial coronation. This became the standard argument into the mid-seventeenth century, serving to justify continued bids to obtain the title, and to deflect any criticism when these attempts failed. The belief in both the independence of the French monarchy and its continued membership of a single, universal Christian order did not strike contemporaries as contradictory. While later nationalist writers played up the former whilst ignoring the latter, late medieval and early modern opinion was in fact strikingly modern: twenty-first-century France is clearly still a sovereign country despite being part of the European Union.53

The myth of Charlemagne helped inspire Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494, especially as his immediate target, Naples, claimed the defunct title of king of Jerusalem since 1477. François I had more concrete imperial ambitions, securing papal backing and canvassing German support from 1516. In his attempt to cover all the ideological bases he claimed Trojan descent, presented himself as embodying Roman virtues, and argued that French and Germans shared common Frankish ancestry. He pushed universalism to its logical conclusion: the title was not a purely German possession, but open to all worthy candidates. However, the process of becoming emperor was by now firmly associated with election as German king. The German electors regarded Charlemagne and the Franks as their own, exclusive ancestors and rejected François’ overtures in favour of Charles V.54

Louis XIV and his advisor, Cardinal Mazarin, made the last attempt at securing the imperial title, following Ferdinand III’s death in 1657. Mazarin backed the candidacy of the duke of Pfalz-Neuburg as a stalking horse to test German support for Louis. But the primary motive was to prevent another Austrian Habsburg emperor who might involve the Empire in France’s ongoing war (since 1635) with Spain. The ploy contributed to what became the longest imperial interregnum since 1494–1507, but failed to prevent the election of Leopold I in 1658. Speculation about another French candidacy persisted into the 1670s, but was rendered irrelevant by Leopold’s longevity (he died in 1705). French diplomats swiftly fell back on arguments advanced since the 1640s that their king was the German princes’ natural ally in defending their constitutional liberties against the threat of ‘imperial absolutism’.55

The abandonment of direct imperial ambitions inevitably led to assertions that France was already superior. The experience of civil war between 1562 and 1598 had produced new arguments for strong royal rule as the foundation of a stable social and political order. French writers increasingly drew disparaging contrasts with the Empire, which they presented as declining from an (allegedly) hereditary monarchy under Charlemagne’s ‘French’ rule into a degenerately elective one under the Germans. It was no longer an empire, but merely a sorry shadow of one, whereas the continuous line of Christian French kings had existed beyond the combined span of republican and imperial Rome. France was a divine monarchy, with its king chosen by God through hereditary succession. As the Sun King, Louis outshone any other ruler. Thanks to his Christian credentials and practical power, he, not the emperor, was the natural arbiter of Europe.56

French pretensions to be Europe’s arbiter foundered in a series of wars between 1667 and 1714. Louis achieved the long-standing French goal of keeping Spain and Austria apart by defeating Habsburg claims to the entire Spanish succession after 1700. Yet by the Sun King’s death in 1715 it was clear that most diplomats favoured ideas of a power balance rather than a single peacekeeper (see pp. 170–76). France also struggled to assert itself as arbiter of the Empire’s internal balance, because it proved hard to find a reliable German partner to facilitate intervention. Bavaria was preferred since the 1620s as suitably Catholic and large enough that, with help, it could serve as a counterweight to the Austrian Habsburgs. Franco-Bavarian cooperation intensified when Charles VI’s death without a male heir in October 1740 broke the line of Habsburg rulers since 1438 and opened the War of the Austrian Succession, lasting until 1748. Carl Albrecht of Bavaria was eventually elected as Charles VII with French backing in 1742. His brief reign of just under three years proved a disastrous failure for both Bavaria and the Empire.57 The setback encouraged the French foreign minister, the Marquis d’Argenson, to propose federalizing Germany and Italy by reorganizing them into fewer, larger territories in 1745. The plan was opposed by Prussia and Savoy, who saw greater opportunities for themselves through preserving the old order. Austria’s recovery of the imperial title through Francis I’s election later in 1745 ended d’Argenson’s scheme.58

A Fool’s Hat?

Habsburg statesmen realized long before this point that the imperial title no longer meant what it had done in the Middle Ages. Following successful wars against the Ottomans, by 1699 the Habsburgs had more land outside the Empire than within it, inevitably changing how they regarded the imperial title. Plans to raise Austria to a kingdom had been abandoned in 1623. Nonetheless, the term ‘Austrian monarchy’ was employed from 1703 as a vague yet suitably regal designation for the Habsburg lands, which in fact included several genuine kingdoms: Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia, Naples (between 1714 and 1735), plus Galicia, annexed from Poland in 1772, and nominal claims to Jerusalem.59 These developments raised questions about the continued utility of the imperial title, especially as the Habsburgs survived without it between 1740 and 1745 during the international War of the Austrian Succession. They felt betrayed by the failure of the imperial Estates to back them against France, Bavaria and their allies. Francis I’s wife, Maria Theresa, took an especially dim view, calling the imperial crown a ‘fool’s hat’, refusing to be crowned empress and referring to her husband’s coronation in 1745 as a ‘Punch and Judy Show’ (Kaspar Theater). These misgivings persisted even when their son Joseph II succeeded his father in 1765. Joseph described the position of emperor as ‘a ghost of an honorific power’ and was quickly frustrated by the imperial constitution, which was indeed functioning to constrain Habsburg management of the Empire as French diplomats hoped.60

Historians have often cited these comments as evidence for the Empire’s supposed irrelevance after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. However, Francis I’s advisors replied to his questions on 7 March 1749 by stressing that the imperial title was a ‘brilliant symbol of the highest political honour in the West . . . bringing precedence ahead of all other powers’ (see Plate 7).61 The entire Habsburg government – including the imperial couple – were convinced that the loss of the imperial title in 1740 had been disastrous, and resolved to defend the Empire’s internal political hierarchy since this gave Austria a privileged position and helped maintain its international influence. Austria was obliged to concede ceremonial parity with France in 1757 as part of an anti-Prussian alliance. Even the French Revolutionaries remained sufficiently status conscious to get this confirmed in 1797 and 1801. The imperial title was now the sole marker of this pre-eminence and the Habsburgs clung to earlier arguments that all others calling themselves ‘emperors’ were really only ‘kings’.62 For the Habsburgs, both the Empire and Europe as a whole were hierarchical political systems. These arguments were useful in putting upstarts like Prussia in their place, and were backed by many of the smaller imperial Estates, which felt any levelling of the established order would lead to the kind of federalism proposed by d’Argenson, thereby threatening their autonomy.

Having found Prussia an unreliable German partner after 1740, France switched to an Austrian alliance in 1756, lasting until the Revolutionary Wars after 1792. The resulting Seven Years War (1756–63) failed to eliminate Prussia as challenger to Austria. The French envoy to the Reichstag after 1763 identified the other imperial Estates as ‘inert resources’ (forces mortes), which France should preserve from both Austria and Prussia to prevent either German great power from dominating central Europe.63 The French public failed to appreciate the subtleties of this policy, seeing only surface aspects like the arrival of the unpopular Austrian princess, Marie-Antoinette, as symbolizing their country’s humiliating association with its long-standing enemy. Few were interested in the complexities of imperial politics, and those that were believed the Empire could not be reformed without destroying it.64

French hostility grew after 1789 when some German princes sheltered the émigrés fleeing the Revolution. The Girondin and Jacobin factions were both disappointed by their failure to replace their country’s established ties to German princes with a new alliance with the ‘German nation’. Revolutionary policy became ever more extreme as it departed from accepted diplomatic norms. French policy-makers now considered the Westphalian settlement as ‘absurd’, while still using it in negotiations to further their goals. Even this lost its relevance once advocates among the French revolutionaries of ‘natural frontiers’ seized power in Paris by 1795, intending to annex the entire left bank of the Rhine to France.65

A New Charlemagne

French military successes by 1797 raised urgent questions about the Empire’s reorganization, renewal or dissolution. Many answers focused on Napoleon, the rising figure within the French Republic. Beethoven was not the only central European disappointed by Napoleon. The smaller imperial Estates hoped Napoleon would renew the Empire, especially Arch-chancellor Dalberg, who sent him numerous proposals.66 Napoleon initially continued earlier French policy, writing in May 1797 that if the Empire did not already exist, France would have to invent it to keep Germany weak.67 Differing interpretations of Charlemagne’s legacy reflect how Napoleon’s attitudes soon diverged radically. Central Europeans, like Dalberg, who hoped to preserve the Empire, regarded Charlemagne as the progenitor of a thousand years of power tempered by law and propriety through the Empire’s constitution. Napoleon’s interpretation was rather closer to the historical reality, seeing Charlemagne as a heroic warrior and conqueror.

Napoleon’s use of Charlemagne’s memory was primarily directed at consolidating his authority within France, where he used his position as First Consul to foster a personality cult, replacing the Revolution’s classical republican iconography with royalist-imperial images. The words Karolus Magnus are carved into the rock at Napoleon’s feet in Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of him crossing the Alps, painted in 1801–2. The idea of a heroic strongman asserting order had considerable popular appeal after the revolutionary disorders. The appropriation of Charlemagne was part of a wider strategy to legitimate the regime without tying it to any single tradition. More specifically, the Frankish king’s role as papal protector proved useful when Napoleon urgently needed a compromise with the papacy to end the Revolution’s war with French Catholics, which had killed 317,000 people since 1793. These moves culminated in Napoleon’s proclamation of himself as ‘emperor of the French’ on 18 May 1804, followed by his coronation on 2 December where Pope Pius VII read the same text used by Leo III when investing Charlemagne over a millennium before. Replicas of Charlemagne’s sword and crown had to be used, because the Austrians still had the originals. Napoleon hoped to reconcile republicans by issuing a new constitution, but he did not regard the French as new Roman citizens. He declared Rome a free city when he annexed the Papal States to France in 1809, rather than making it his imperial capital.68

The Napoleonic empire promised to guarantee order by sweeping away defective socio-political arrangements and defeating all possible external enemies. Napoleon’s universalism rested on the hegemony of decisive victory and rational uniformity exemplified by his civil code and the metric system.69 His deployment of Charlemagne’s legacy directly challenged the Empire by suggesting his territorial ambitions extended to the entire former Frankish realm. Initially, he still formally deferred, promising in May 1804 that he would only use his imperial title once it had been recognized by Emperor Francis II and the Empire.70

Austrian ministers immediately recognized that refusal would mean renewed war, but like their Prussian counterparts, they deluded themselves in thinking that Napoleon’s conversion of the revolutionary republic into a monarchy would make France more predictable. Although the leading minister, Count Cobenzl, acknowledged that Francis II’s status ‘has shrivelled to little more than an honorific title’, it had to be upheld lest Russia claim parity and Britain assume its own imperial crown.71 Conversion of the Holy Roman imperial title into a hereditary one was rejected as breaching the Empire’s constitution. Instead, the vague status of the Habsburg lands as a separate monarchy provided the basis for Francis II to assume a new, additional and hereditary title of ‘emperor of Austria’. The title was intended to maintain Austria’s formal parity with France since 1757, whilst still allowing Francis to trump Napoleon through his additional Holy Roman dignity. In December 1804 the new status was announced along with a fanfare of trumpets and kettledrums to crowds assembled before specially constructed wooden tribunes in Vienna’s six suburbs.72 No coronation was considered necessary, because Francis had already been crowned as the (last) Holy Roman emperor in 1792: there was never an Austrian imperial coronation throughout the entire life of the Austrian empire, between 1804 and 1918.

The conservative publicist Friedrich von Gentz wrote to the future chief minister Metternich that Francis might as well call himself emperor of Salzburg, Frankfurt or Passau.73 His critique reflected the widespread belief that the proliferation of imperial titles diminished them all. Sweden lodged a formal protest in its capacity as guarantor of the Peace of Westphalia, claiming Francis had exceeded his powers by unilaterally assuming the title rather than securing agreement from the Reichstag.74 Criticism was rendered irrelevant by relentless French pressure, which frustrated any remaining hope of reforming the Empire. Napoleon crowned himself king of Italy on 26 May 1805 using the Lombard iron crown, thus usurping one of the Empire’s three core kingdoms. Further friction produced renewed war, culminating in Napoleon’s decisive victory over Austria and Russia at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805. Napoleon soon abandoned ideas of assuming the Holy Roman imperial title, partly because this would hinder peace with Britain and Russia, while Austria still had the original regalia, but mainly because its associations were incompatible with his style of imperial rule (see Plate 3).75 He now sought to undermine the remnants of the old order to break Austria’s remaining influence over the smaller German territories. Faced with the threat of renewed war, Francis II reluctantly abdicated on 6 August 1806, hoping that by dissolving the Empire he would undermine the legitimacy of Napoleon’s reorganization of Germany.

The events of 1804–6 signalled a new age for European empire. Although Napoleon’s Grand Empire collapsed in 1814, his nephew ruled a Second French Empire between 1852 and 1870, while the subsequent republican regime expanded the country’s overseas possessions into a large colonial empire from the 1880s. Prussia’s victory over the Second French Empire led to the foundation of the German Second Empire in 1871. Queen Victoria finally formalized British imperialism by assuming the title ‘empress of India’ in 1876. Throughout, Austria, Russia and the Ottomans remained imperial states. There were now six empires on one continent. ‘Empire’ ceased to mean a singular ‘world order’ and became the title accorded a monarch ruling a large state.


Imperial Spain

The hegemonic aspects of late nineteenth-century European imperialism were clearest in the global dominance in which even the continent’s smaller countries shared – notably Belgium’s notorious rule in the Congo. This new imperial age had begun with Portuguese and Spanish conquests in the later fifteenth century and differed fundamentally from the imperial ideal embodied by the Empire. Spain is the most interesting case here, because it acquired the largest European empire (prior to the British) while its king was also Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Medieval Iberia was governed by multiple rival kingdoms. Documents for the king of Asturias used terms like basileus and rex magnus in the tenth century. These kingdoms were imperialist in the hegemonic sense, based on the victories of Asturias over the Moors and other Spanish kingdoms. The same impulse explains the intermittent use of the title totius Hispaniae imperator in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. By 1200, Spanish writers rejected ideas that their country had ever been part of the Carolingian empire, citing Charlemagne’s defeat in the Pyrenees in 778. Unlike their role in the Crusades, Holy Roman emperors played no part in the Reconquista of Iberia from the Moors.

Already prior to the Staufers’ collapse, Vincentius Hispanus wrote ‘the Germans have lost the Empire by their own stupidity’, suggesting Spanish kings had demonstrated better credentials by battling Muslims.76 Such claims received some attention outside Spain, assisting the election of Alfonso X of Castile as German king in 1257. Although ‘foreign’ like his rival for the royal title, Richard, earl of Cornwall, Alfonso was nonetheless the grandson of the German king Philip of Swabia and a Staufer ally. His election to the imperial office was also backed by Pisa and Marseille (then part of Burgundy), reflecting the wider Mediterranean connections of these parts of the Empire. Unlike Richard, who was elected simultaneously by a rival faction, Alfonso never went to the Empire, though he initially acted as German king by issuing charters to the dukes of Brabant and Lorraine, as well as petitioning the pope to prepare an imperial coronation.77

Alfonso’s nominal rule ended in 1273 and remained an isolated interlude. Meanwhile, individual Spanish kingdoms acquired their own Mediterranean dominions. Catalonia briefly held the duchy of Athens, a fragment of the crumbling Byzantine empire in the fourteenth century. Aragon acquired Sicily (1282) and Sardinia (1297), whilst also absorbing neighbouring Catalonia and Valencia, before finally joining Castile in 1469 to create a united Spain. Spain joined the Italian Wars after 1494 to press claims to Naples. Potential conflict with imperial interests was defused through dynastic marriage with the Habsburgs, leading to Charles V’s accession in Spain in 1516, three years ahead of his election as emperor. At that point, Charles ruled 40 per cent of all Europeans, controlled the continent’s major financial and economic centres (Castile, Antwerp, Genoa, Augsburg), and enjoyed access to Spain’s seemingly unlimited colonial wealth (Map 8).78

The combination of Europe’s last Christian empire and foremost New World one proved an unsteady mix lasting only for Charles’s reign. Charles was the last and greatest of the travelling emperors. Whereas none (except the three crusading emperors) had ventured far beyond imperial frontiers, Charles visited England and Africa both twice, France four times, Spain six, Italy seven and Germany nine. Meanwhile, conquistadors claimed Mexico, Peru, Chile and Florida in his name. As the French philosopher and jurist Jean Bodin already noted in 1566, the association with the rapidly expanding New World made the old Empire appear smaller, not greater.79

Antoine de Granvelle advised Charles V to designate his son Philip as successor rather than his younger brother Ferdinand I, because effective exercise of the imperial office clearly required considerable wealth. Charles had planned to nominate Philip as his brother’s successor in a bid to establish alternating emperors from Austria and Spain, but was thwarted by Ferdinand’s opposition in 1548.80 Instead, Philip was assigned Burgundy, thus retaining a place within the Empire at the partition of the Spanish and Austrian branches in 1558. By that point it appeared that Spain had a better claim to represent the universal Christian mission. Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia included a map devised in 1537 by Johannes Putsch showing Europe as a monarch: Germania was merely the torso, whereas Iberia represented the head (see Plate 17).81 This appeared still more justified once Philip annexed Portugal in 1580 after its king disappeared in battle against the Moors: now Spain held the other European world empire.

Philip had lived in Germany from 1548 to 1551, knew many princes personally, and still considered himself an imperial prince even after succeeding his father as king of Spain in 1556. These Hispano-German contacts would be largely broken by his death in 1598, while concessions to Protestants at the Peace of Augsburg (1555) reinforced Spanish perceptions of the Empire as in decline.82 Spaniards increasingly articulated their own universalist claims based on victories over the Ottomans and heretics – the success of their arguments is demonstrated by the way history remembers their naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto (1571), rather than the more substantial conflicts fought by Austria in defence of Hungary. Spain’s ruler, it was claimed, was Europe’s premier king, because he was the most godly.83 This allowed Spain to assume self-appointed leadership without directly antagonizing their Austrian cousins, who still held the imperial title. Considering himself the senior Habsburg, Philip III felt entitled to succeed Rudolf II, but also grand enough already to dispense with doing so. In 1617 he traded support for Ferdinand II’s election as next emperor in return for territorial concessions from Austria intended to improve Spain’s strategic position. Spain backed Austria during the Thirty Years War in the expectation that Ferdinand II would help it against the Dutch rebels and France on the grounds that Spanish possessions in Burgundy and northern Italy were still part of the Empire.

Biology overtook strategy after 1646 as the Spanish Habsburgs faced extinction, precipitating a decline that was more personal than structural.84 Spain increasingly relied on Austria, especially to defend its north Italian possessions against France. Nonetheless, there was considerable Spanish resistance to the prospect of Austria inheriting their empire at the death of the last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II, in 1700. Britain and the Dutch Republic backed a continuation of existing arrangements using the Austrian Archduke Charles to found a new Spanish Habsburg line. Emperor Leopold I cooperated, but clearly intended securing Spain’s possessions in Italy for Austria.85 Austrian biological failure in turn undid these arrangements. The deaths of Leopold (1705) and his eldest son and successor Joseph I (1711) left Archduke Charles as the sole Habsburg candidate for the imperial title (as Charles VI). Britain and the Dutch opposed the resurrection of Charles V’s combined Old and New World empire, forcing Charles VI reluctantly to renounce Spain and its overseas possessions by 1714.

No Place in the Sun

Although Austria recovered direct control of Burgundy and northern Italy, it remained excluded from Spain’s colonial riches. This was compounded by Anglo-Dutch confirmation (in 1713) of the closure of the river Scheldt to international commerce, conceded by Spain as part of its peace with the Dutch in 1648. These arrangements secured Amsterdam’s supremacy over Antwerp, which had been Europe’s principal Atlantic entrepôt under Charles V. Such exclusion from lucrative global trade has long been part of the charge sheet cited by German nationalist historians for the Empire’s supposed weakness. Even more recent, balanced accounts blame Charles V for denying Germany a chance to participate in early European colonialism through assigning Burgundy’s maritime towns to Spain in 1548. ‘Defeats’ in the Thirty Years War a century later allegedly compounded this by transferring many North Sea and Baltic ports to Sweden. Germans were supposedly unable to engage effectively in colonial trade, retarding economic and social development, which had to be pushed through at great political cost during the later nineteenth century when Kaiser Wilhelm II vociferously demanded his ‘place in the sun’ of European imperialism.86

Quite apart from ignoring the extensive commercial activity of Italians who still lived within the Empire during this period, these arguments underestimate German involvement in colonial trade. Maximilian I and his family used the south German merchants like the Fugger, Welser, Herwart and Imhoff firms to procure precious stones from the Far East and New World. Germans, Netherlanders and Italians from the Empire were heavily involved in Portuguese colonial and trading ventures in India, and later in Dutch activity in Brazil, Africa and Indonesia. For instance, Count Johann Moritz of Nassau-Siegen was a key figure in disseminating scientific knowledge to Europe while he was governor of Dutch Brazil from 1636 to 1644. Thousands of German soldiers served the Portuguese, Dutch and British in the Indies and Americas, most notoriously in the failed attempt to suppress the American Revolution (1775–83).87

The absence of a strong, centralized monarchy did not inhibit direct colonial ventures from the Empire. Despite the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, Duke Friedrich III of Holstein-Gottorp founded the port of Friedrichstadt as a North Sea base for colonial commerce in 1621. Having secured imperial privileges, the duke also despatched a trade mission to Russia and Persia (1633–6). Opposition from other Holstein towns and a peasant insurrection frustrated these ventures.88 Colonial activity was promoted as a panacea to the problems of economic development after the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. As many other Europeans discovered, the actual costs generally outweighed the benefits: In 1669 Count Friedrich Casimir of Hanau-Münzenberg was deposed by his relations after losing his money buying a large tract of Dutch Guiana.

Brandenburg-Prussia undertook the largest of these ventures. Having failed to buy Tranquebar on the Bay of Bengal from Denmark, the elector founded the Brandenburg African Company in 1682, directly modelled on its much larger and better-financed Dutch rivals. This engaged in the Atlantic triangular trade, transporting 30,000 African slaves to the Americas and importing sugar, wood, cocoa, indigo and tobacco through its base at Emden. The Brandenburg navy never exceeded 34 warships and proved too small to overcome Dutch and French hostility. The main post was sold to the Dutch in 1717, with the last transferred to France four years later.89 In 1667 Austria founded an Oriental Company to trade with Persia and the Ottomans. Disrupted by the Turkish Wars (1683–1718), this resumed in a new form in 1719 at Trieste, which Charles VI designated a free port. A new Austrian navy was established under an English admiral, while conscripted peasants built a road over the mountains linking Trieste to Vienna. Its subsequent bankruptcy in 1734 was due to its being tied to the Austrian state lottery, which went bust. A separate Ostend Company was founded in 1722 to circumvent the embargo on the Scheldt and open trade with India and China. This was abandoned in 1731 to purchase Anglo-Dutch support for Austrian interests in Europe. Prussia also briefly operated an Asiatic Company trading with China during the 1750s.

Adverse circumstances precipitated all these failures. The Empire also lacked the central focus present in the combination of government support and financial capital available in Iberia, England, France and the Dutch Republic. However, the primary reason was that such activity was never a priority for any of the Empire’s multiple authorities. Eighteenth-century German territorial governments were more concerned to attract migrants than see valuable taxpayers and potential recruits emigrate to distant colonies. Numerous Germans indeed sought better lives in British North America, providing the origins of the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ (Deutsch) and the word ‘dollar’ (deriving from the German silver coin Taler). Nonetheless, Brandenburg-Prussia attracted 74,000 immigrants between 1640 and 1740, including 20,000 French Huguenots, followed by another 285,000 people by 1800. A further 200,000 migrants were enticed by the Habsburgs to settle in Hungary, while Catherine II induced 100,000 to settle in Russia. In all, 740,000 Germans moved east compared to 150,000 heading for North America during the eighteenth century.90

The Hanoverian succession in Britain in 1714 did not change the Empire’s relationship to European colonialism. Concerned that his electorate might become a British dependency, George I kept Hanoverian government, armed forces and laws entirely separate. Britain-Hanover remained a purely personal union that fragmented in 1837 with the accession of Queen Victoria, who, as a woman, was disbarred from succeeding in Hanover, which went its brief, separate way under its own kings until annexed by Prussia in 1866.91 The British crown played a prominent role in promoting what became the world’s largest empire, but private capital also loomed large in the chartered companies active in North America, the Caribbean, Africa and especially India. Queen Victoria’s assumption of an imperial title 18 years after the dissolution of the Mughul empire remained confined only to India. Likewise, republics such as France and (from 1898) the USA acquired colonies without assuming the formal trappings of empire. The mission and intent of these New World empires were very different from those of the Old World’s Holy Roman Empire.


Emperors in their own Kingdoms

Europeans developed their own critique of empire long before they began subjugating non-Europeans. European anti-imperialism originated in papal propaganda during the Investiture Dispute and especially with the onset of renewed conflict against the Staufer emperors from the mid-twelfth century. Responding to renewed papal schism after 1159, John of Salisbury posed the rhetorical question to Frederick I: ‘Who is he that subjugates the universal church to a particular church? Who has appointed the Germans the judges of nations? Who has granted such a coarse and violent folk the power to install a prince above humanity?’92

However, the papacy’s own actions simultaneously invalidated its claims to supplant the emperor as universal judge. Increasingly, legal scholars rewrote imperialism from a benevolent common Christian order to present it as unwarranted hegemony of one power over another. Initially, these arguments were directed primarily at strengthening royal authority within each kingdom, rather than challenging the Holy Roman emperor’s pre-eminence. The early thirteenth-century Italian lawyer Azo of Bologna claimed each king was ‘an emperor in his own kingdom’ (rex imperator in regno suo est  ), defining sovereignty at this point as freedom from internal constraints on royal power. England’s King John claimed in 1202 that ‘the kingdom of the English can be compared to an empire’ for the same reason, though through Magna Carta his barons compelled him to acknowledge there were indeed limits.93 Unlike in the Empire, sacralization of monarchy continued in the west, where it was used to elevate kings above fractious nobles. The crime of lèse-majesté, previously reserved to protect the emperor, was increasingly employed to defend kings. Even criticizing the king was now equated with sacrilege. These arguments were employed nationally, with each set of scholars claiming them exclusively for their own king whilst still acknowledging the emperor’s authority as extending over other European kingdoms.94

The early Renaissance added impetus to this debate by disseminating a new understanding of Aristotle’s political categories, and with attempts to write national histories, all of which encouraged the view that Europe was composed of distinct countries each claiming descent from ‘free’ peoples. French monarchs found these arguments especially useful in their struggles for influence against early fourteenth-century popes and emperors. The organization of the Council of Constance (1414–18) into ‘national’ groups of bishops is widely acknowledged as marking the general acceptance of Europe as composed of distinct sovereign jurisdictions.95

Gradual disenchantment with the ideal of a singular Christian order raised the question of how the various kingdoms should interact peacefully. It proved hard to conceive of anything other than some kind of hierarchy. Christian doctrine maintained the imperfection of earthly existence and divinely ordained socio-political inequality. The new theories of monarchy elevated each king above his own lords, making it difficult to accept that he was not also superior to other monarchs. Unfortunately, this intensified competition between monarchs, since precedence had to be actively asserted.96

These developments encouraged new interest in the emperor as arbiter of this potentially violent new order, not least because the Reformation removed the pope as an acceptable alternative, while the rapid accumulation of territories in direct Habsburg possession at last gave the emperor the means to intervene effectively in European affairs. French opposition and Charles V’s inability to defuse the religious controversy swiftly closed this opportunity.97 Spanish power and pretensions after 1558 attracted growing criticism that it was usurping the traditional imperial role through seeking an illegitimate ‘fifth monarchy’. Although drawing on the traditional ‘four world monarchies’ ideology, this predominantly French and Protestant critique was implicitly hostile to the Empire, not least because its proponents usually saw Austria as Spain’s willing spear carrier.98 Imperialism now meant the illegitimate subordination of sovereign monarchies and their peoples.

Meanwhile, sovereignty assumed its modern definition through the response of Jean Bodin to the civil wars in his native France after 1562. Bodin expounded the view that sovereignty was indivisible and could not be shared either with groups or individuals within a country or those outside it. This idea formed the basis of the modern definition of the state, as articulated by Max Weber and others much later. Sovereignty becomes a monopoly of legitimate authority over a clearly demarcated area and its inhabitants. The sovereign state is responsible for internal order and can command its population’s resources. External relations were redefined accordingly as the central government’s exclusive prerogative. The earlier concern for loyalty was replaced by an insistence on authority. Medieval vassals had usually been free to act independently provided they did not breach good faith with their overlord. Such action was increasingly regarded as treasonable disobedience, and mercenary service and other ‘extraterritorial violence’ were gradually criminalized between about 1520 and 1856 by states insisting on an exclusive power to make war.99

The Empire as International Actor

Europe’s shift from a medieval to a modern sovereign state order coincided with the Empire’s own reforms, consolidating it as a mixed monarchy where the emperor shared power with a complex hierarchy of imperial Estates.100 Sovereignty remained fragmented and shared, rather than becoming concentrated in a single, ‘national’ government. To many later commentators, this merely appears further evidence of the Empire’s ‘decline’. However, medieval emperors had never monopolized powers of war and peace. Rather, imperial reform constructed new, collectively shared powers in response to the changing international circumstances and new methods of warfare.101 Crucially for the Empire’s subsequent history, these constitutional changes were made while the shape of the wider European order remained open and Charles V’s accession in 1519 lent new substance to traditional claims of imperial pre-eminence.

Measures adopted between 1495 and 1519 distinguished between wars against non-Christians and those against other Christians. The former were still understood in established terms as repelling the Ottoman menace, rather than the colonial conflicts waged by conquistadors and others in the New World. As we have seen (see pp. 149–51), peace with Muslims was considered impossible, so no formal declaration of war was necessary. The imperial Estates were only allowed from the 1520s to debate the level of ‘Turkish assistance’ (Türkenhilfe), not the emperor’s right to demand it. By contrast, conflicts with Christians were handled as judicial rather than military issues, because the emperor was expected to remain at peace with his fellow monarchs. The emperor could not demand assistance, though his obligation to consult the Reichstag since 1495 before making war in the Empire’s name was lightened in 1519 to discussing this only with the electors. Moreover, like his medieval counterparts he was still free to wage war using his own resources.102

As a collective actor, the Empire approached war with Christian neighbours on a similar basis to breaches of its own internal ‘public peace’ declared in 1495. Rather than escalating conflict through an imperative to mobilize, imperial law sought to minimize violence by forbidding imperial Estates to assist those disturbing the peace. Acting through the Empire’s new supreme courts, the emperor could issue ‘advocates’ mandates’, identifying lawbreakers as ‘enemies of the Empire’ (Reichsfeinde). Although imperial Estates were required to assist in restoring peace, this system effectively ruled out mobilization for offensive war. Moreover, it drew on established medieval practices by requiring incremental action proceeding first with public warnings to desist, before force could be used. This process has often been mistaken for wilful inaction and has made it hard to identify if and when the Empire moved from peace to war in particular circumstances.

The Reichstag at Speyer declared France an enemy of the Empire in 1544, but this exceptional act rested on that country’s temporary alliance with the Ottomans and was not repeated.103 The emperor continued to use advocates’ mandates against Christian enemies, including during the Thirty Years War and the conflicts against Louis XIV after 1672. The declaration of ‘imperial war’ (Reichskrieg) by the Reichstag against France on 11 February 1689 represented a significant innovation. The Empire had already mobilized to repel the French invasion of the Palatinate in 1688, but by expressly drawing on the 1544 precedent the new declaration sought to rally moral and material support by placing France on a par with the Ottomans. The practice was repeated in 1702, 1733, 1793 and 1799, in each case following actual mobilization through advocates’ mandates and other, more decentralized constitutional mechanisms.

Formal ‘imperial war’ was a useful tool for the Habsburgs in steering the imperial Estates to support their objectives, but as a powerful symbol of collective action for the Empire’s ‘conservation, security and well-being’ it also stood in stark contrast to the search for personal gloire exemplified by Louis XIV’s belligerence.104 Military action was also collective. Rather than create a single, permanent army, the Empire raised forces when needed by drawing on troops provided by the imperial Estates. Imperial law thus sanctioned the militarization of the Empire’s principalities, giving their rulers a vested interest in preserving the overall constitutional framework as the legal basis for their own military power.

However, the authority to raise troops and taxes from their own subjects also allowed princes to engage as individual actors in the new European politics. Other monarchs always needed troops and were often prepared to pay for German assistance by promising money and influence to help princes achieve their own objectives. This created considerable public-order problems during the early sixteenth century as soldiers were discharged at the end of each campaign, often subsisting as marauders through the winter until hired again in the following spring. The provision of troops to both sides in the French and Dutch civil wars from the 1560s also threatened to drag the Empire into these conflicts. The Reichstag legislated through the 1560s and 1570s to assert control through the imperial Estates, who were empowered to restrict their subjects’ service as mercenaries and to coordinate police action against marauders. These changes entrenched the monopoly of ‘extraterritorial violence’ in the hands of the imperial Estates as part of their ‘German freedom’, whilst preserving the collective structure by banning any military action harmful to the emperor or Empire.105

As with the right of Reformation from 1555, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 simply incorporated this military authority in modified form rather than granting new powers. The principal change was to explicitly deny military authority to mediate nobles, towns and territorial assemblies. This has been widely misunderstood. The standard verdict was that ‘the Empire in its old sense had ceased to exist’ because ‘every authority was emperor in its own territory’.106 In fact, the princes did not receive new powers to make alliances; their dealings with outside powers remained constrained by the obligation not to harm the emperor or Empire. In practice, their engagement in European relations varied according to their inclination, material resources, geographical location and status within the Empire’s constitutional order. The really significant change was that this order was increasingly at odds with the evolving sovereign state system. The gradual acceptance of Bodin’s idea of indivisible sovereignty detached it from social status, shrinking the circle of legitimate public actors from all lords to just mutually recognized states. By contrast, princely status remained both social and political within the Empire’s internal hierarchy. As imperial Estates, princes possessed only shares of the Empire’s fragmented sovereignty, expressed as ‘territorial sovereignty’ (Landeshoheit), which remained circumscribed by imperial law and the emperor’s formal position as their feudal overlord. Thus, in an international order increasingly characterized by independent states, princes occupied an anomalous position of being neither fully sovereign yet clearly something more than the aristocrats of western countries.

This explains the intensity of princely involvement in European wars and diplomacy from the late seventeenth century when all the larger principalities developed permanent armies and maintained envoys in major European capitals. There was ‘an epidemic of desires and aspirations for a royal title’, since this alone was now equated with sovereignty: being an elector or duke was no longer enough.107 Arguably this contributed to international instability, either indirectly through the provision of auxiliaries, or through direct intervention as belligerents like Saxony, Prussia and Hanover in the Great Northern War. However, even more centralized European states were scarcely better at curbing autonomous violence by their subjects, whether in the form of the English and Dutch armed trading companies or the colonial militias which, for example, triggered the French and Indian War in 1754. Perhaps more remarkable still was the fact that, despite being the most heavily armed part of Europe, the Empire did not fragment into the kind of warlordism characterizing China after 1911.108

The Empire and European Peace

A Holy Roman emperor was no longer expected to act as Europe’s policeman by the later sixteenth century, but there was still scope for the emperor as peacemaker. Such action was often in the Empire’s interests, as well as in tune with the traditional imperial ideal. Although repeated efforts to resolve the Dutch civil wars failed, Maximilian II brokered an end to the Danish-Swedish War of 1563–70, securing 50 years of peace for northern Germany.109

The Westphalian settlement explicitly linked the Empire’s internal equilibrium to wider European peace through its combination of constitutional changes within an international settlement.110 The ‘German freedom’ of the imperial Estates was formalized to prevent the emperor converting the Empire into a centralized state capable of threatening its neighbours. Immediate practical conditions shaped this more than theoretical considerations. The Peace of Westphalia forbade Austria from assisting Spain, which remained at war with France until 1659. The unsettled conditions along the Empire’s western frontier encouraged Elector Johann Philipp von Schönborn of Mainz and like-minded princes to seek a wider international alliance to guarantee the Westphalian settlement and secure permanent peace. When these efforts faltered around 1672, Schönborn and others tried interposing themselves as a neutral ‘third party’ to prevent the Empire being dragged into the wars against France.111

These efforts generally ran counter to the interests of the Habsburgs, who managed to scupper them by presenting the princes as dupes of the deceitful French. Nonetheless, the option of formal Reichsmediation collectively through the Reichstag retained considerable moral weight since it was first proposed in 1524 as a way of ending Charles V’s war with France. Ferdinand III recovered Habsburg influence lost earlier in the Thirty Years War by inviting the imperial Estates to participate in the Westphalian peace congress. The Reichstag’s permanence after 1663 offered further possibilities, because the presence of envoys from most European states gave it the character of an international congress.112 Offers to mediate were made in each subsequent major war, but were always frustrated by Habsburg opposition and the growing ceremonial difficulties posed by the discrepancies between imperial Estates and European sovereigns.

The Empire’s limitations as an active peacemaker did not diminish interest in its place in the continent’s tranquillity, especially amongst those dissatisfied with the free-market approach to peace that relied on a supposedly self-regulating ‘balance of power’. Because the Empire had represented an idealized universal order during the Middle Ages, it should not surprise us that writers after the sixteenth century also saw the Empire as a model for a common European system. Prominent exponents included the political philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf, the Abbé St Pierre, William Penn, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Their proposals involved states surrendering at least part of their sovereignty to one or more common institutions inspired by the Reichstag and the Empire’s supreme courts. They offered a positive assessment of the Empire at a time when others felt it was in terminal decline.113 Yet their idealized discussions bore little resemblance to the Empire’s political and social realities. Peace in the Empire remained rooted in pre-modern methods of consensus-seeking and the defence of corporate rights, in contrast to the new ideals of sovereignty, individual rights and (after 1789) popular control of hegemonic state power.

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