What is the Holy Roman Empire? I have a little background knowledge and I read a little bit on Wikipedia, but I'm still not exactly sure what it is. I know that the states under the "Empire" were still more or less independent. I also know from Wikipedia that the Holy Roman Emperor was the protector of the Catholic Church, and that the Holy Roman Empires consisted of mainly Germanic states, but that's about all I know. Also, who could be named Holy Roman Emperor? Was it Germanic Kings only?

  • Wow, big question. You might want to split it into smaller ones. I'll address you last one - no, in theory everyone could qualify since the throne was elective. For example, Alfonso X of Castile tried long and hard to get himself elected but failed. Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 23:14
  • @FelixGoldberg So was the Holy Roman Emperor always the same person as the ruler of Austria/other Germanic states?
    – Ovi
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 23:38
  • From 1438 onwards, yes, because Austria was ruled by the Habsburg family, who from 1438 managed to keep a stranglehold on the imperial election. However, it was never an automatic process. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Habsburg for more details Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 0:28
  • @FelixGoldberg so for example if Alfonso X would have won the election, would he have taken over the territories of the contemporary have automatically taken authority over Austria and the other Germanic States? I doubt that would happen peacefully
    – Ovi
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 0:50
  • Sorry, not sure what you mean.. Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 1:06

2 Answers 2


Imagine the USA electoral process: you don't technically elect the president, you elect someone into the electoral college of your state who elects for the president every 4 years, and you elect some members of congress and the senate every 2.

Now imagine that congress doesn't exist, every state gets 1 appointed senator, and you, the filthy lowborn peasant, obviously don't vote for another filthy lowborn peasant to choose the heaven-appointed man who will lead the German Reich. Also, irrelevant states like Wyoming and Rhode Island aren't worthy enough to choose the next president. In fact, only economically/militarily powerful states like California, New York and Washington D.C. (just imagine it is a city state and not the capital) can. The smaller states can only participate in the Senate, or Diet, where every state sends 1 delegate. The Diet itself is an institution whose power waxes and wanes depending on what period of time you are looking at. For example, they did formalise who would be the electors of the HRE in the Golden Bull of 1356, declared by the Diet of Nuremberg which every state votes in.

The criteria for the man who becomes emperor has an added requirement: he must be able to claim lineage to Charlemagne. However, nobility in the olden days interbreed often, by about 400 years later just about any duke or lesser noble can become a potential candidate. Notice that this process is NOT hereditary, but by the 15th century the Hapsburgs became so powerful that they control the Imperial office and were re-elected every time.

The new emperor then becomes de jure liege to all the states. But like the president in the early days of the USA, his word is not law. Instead, it is up to the state to implement the changes. This leads to the major problem of the most powerful states in the Empire competing for power, much like how if the governor of New York told the governor of California to stop trying to make rap music because the east coast is obviously better, California would not listen. As a result, the HRE often falls into civil war, the biggest being the 30 Year's War from 1618-1648, which resulted in the Emperor being given even less powers.

In essence, the HRE is kind of an elected monarchy with an appointed senate, but then again not so much.

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    This answer is absolutely anachronistic. And I totally love it! :) You've accomplished something quite rare - explained a historical notion with modern parallels. Usually people who try to do this end up messing up both. You somehow made it clearer. Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 15:35

The nearest modern equivalent to what the Holy Roman Empire was is a federation. It consisted of a large set (up to 1.800) semi-independent areas.

When elected, the Holy Roman Empire would not gain complete control over these areas, instead these areas all had their own rule or administration which was generally inherited.

  • How much control would the Emperor actually have? Would he be able to merge the military forces of all the states in the Empire? I realize this may be very different in different time periods, but I am focusing more on 15th-17th century.
    – Ovi
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 5:16
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    @Ovi That would make a good, separate question. :-) Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 5:19
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    It's important to stress, though, that the HRE as founded by Charlemagne and renovated by the Ottonians was at first a rather centralized state. It was under Frederick I and Frederick II that effective federalization took place (of course they did not create the underlying centifugal dynamics, just legally recognized them, instead of trying to combat them). Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 9:29
  • @FelixGoldberg It may have been more centralized, but it was still made up of independent areas, early on it was mostly Duchy's as I understand it, of which Otto I himself was only Duke of Saxony until he was elected King of Germans. He then Conquered the Kingdom of Italy, and was crowned Emperor after that. So the Kingship was elected, but that did not give him direct control over all of the areas of the empire, it still rested on the various Dukes and Princes. I assume the amount of power the Emperor had varied greatly over time. Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 12:25
  • @LennartRegebro Well, Frederick I was still able to dismiss Henry the Lion from his duchies, something later emperors would not have even be able to contemplate. Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 12:38

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