The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a grand idea that didn’t really materialize into an equally grand reality. The Empire was founded in 800 AD by Charlemagne and was the most powerful state in early medieval Europe, encompassing Germany, Northern Italy, and Burgundy. It was held together by an outdated political structure that had virtually no central governing bodies. Central to the political ethos of the Empire was the idea that the Roman Empire instead of being torn apart limb from limb had transferred from Roman to German control.
The Empire became a force to be reckoned with under Otto I from 936-973 A.D and continued to thrive under Saxon, Salian, and Hohenstaufen dynastic rule.
One of the significant rulers of the Salian dynasty was Henry IV, third Salian ruler to ascend the throne and first European monarch to be humbled at the hands of a sitting Pope.
In order to understand the tussle between Henry IV and the Pope, it’s important to understand the role the Holy Roman Empire played in Christendom at this time. The Holy Roman Emperors were heads of state who exerted the greatest amount of control over the church, having the authority to appoint Bishops and Abbots and even controlling Papal elections. This had a knock on political effect since it was the Pope alone who had the right to crown the Emperor. The kind of religiopolitical machinations that followed in the wake of such an arrangement were mind-boggling. This was however brought to an end when Henry IV ascended the throne as a boy. The Papacy took advantage of his status as a minor and issued the Papal Election Decree, transferring the responsibility to elect a new Pope from the Emperor to the newly created College of Cardinals.
The Emperor was also responsible for presenting a newly appointed Bishop or Abbot with the symbols of their office. This ceremony was known as an Investiture and basically inducted the new appointee into their role.
In 1075 under the ecclesiastical reform movement titled the Gregorian Reform, Pope Gregory VII declared that only the Papacy could invest bishops with the authority of their office. This was a strategic power play on the part of the Papacy to muscle its way into the arena of political power. Henry IV opposed the move within his realm and attempted to depose the Pope. He failed to do this because he lacked the support of the people and the Pope in retaliation excommunicated the Emperor and attempted to depose him by inviting the subjects of the Empire to rebel against the authority of the Emperor.
Henry immediately backpedaled and in a show of humility and subservience walked barefoot through the snow in submission to the Pope at the Castle of Canossa in 1077 AD. Gregory VII forgave him but the damage was already done and the rebellion could not be stamped out leading to Civil War and the destabilizing of the Empire.
The entire episode is a fascinating example of the close connection between religion and politics in medieval Europe and of the kind of power the Roman Catholic Church held over the people and by proxy over Imperial politics.
The Empire reached a political turning point during the rule of Frederick of Barbarossa who ruled between 1152-1190 A.D. Barbarossa had his sights set on conquering Italy and he poured a significant chunk of his time and energy into this pet project. The downside to this was that he neglected affairs at home leading to a lot of political unrest within Germany which in turn led him to try and pacify the nobles at home by giving them more and more executive power thus weakening his own power base as Emperor. At the end of his rule, the Holy Roman Empire was nothing more than a collective of independently governed states that only theoretically submitted to the rule of the Emperor.
To complicate matters further the successor to the throne of the empire was not determined by heredity but by election which meant that the emperor was actually appointed by an electoral commission made up of the most influential German princes called Electors. In a brilliantly calculated political maneuver, the electors generally appointed an Emperor who would keep the central authority of the Holy Roman Empire weak thus ensuring that they would retain power over their respective states. The only form of central government was the Diet, an assembly of all the Princes and Dukes of the Empire presided over by the Emperor, which acted as a legislative assembly to settle disputes, forge alliances and deal with matters of common interest. The key factor in the progress of the Reformation was the lack of strong central governance across the Empire which enabled each province to administer its own policies of government and individually decide what course of action it would take with regards to the movement of the Reformation
An example of this is the rule of Frederick of Saxony who was a friend of Martin Luther and in whose province the University of Wittenberg was located. Frederick was an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, giving him a significant amount of power which in turn enabled him to offer not only Luther but many other German reformers like Melancthon asylum within his realm despite the opposition of the church and the Emperor.
From 1432 the throne of the Holy Roman Empire was held by the Hapsburg family who spent most of its time increasing its own power base rather than governing the empire. In 1519 however, a new breed of Emperor was elected to the throne. Interestingly Frederick of Saxony was put forward by Pope Leo X as his favored candidate to occupy the Imperial throne. However, Frederick declined the nomination and instead used his influence as an Elector to place Charles V on the throne. Charles was a part of the Habsburg dynasty but was a man of broader vision and greater ambition. From his paternal grandparents, he inherited the thrones of Austria, the Burgundian Netherlands and other parts of central Europe as well as the that of the Holy Roman Empire. From his maternal grandparents, he inherited the throne of the Spanish Empire which at the time had colonies in the Americas and Asia. This made him ruler over a vast worldwide Empire that had numerous interests outside of Germany. The extent of his entire empire and his particular interest in the government of the vast and diverse Spanish Empire meant that he spent very little time in Germany. This allowed the Reformation to spread throughout Germany relatively unhindered.
The progress of the Reformation divided the Holy Roman Empire along religious lines, with much of the Northern German states like Saxony, Brandenburg, Hesse, Brunswick and others espousing Protestantism and the states to south like Austria and Bavaria espousing Catholicism. This caused an obvious fault line to occur throughout the Holy Roman Empire leading to conflict between the two blocks of states which nearly crippled the legislative functions of the Diet when it assembled. A prime example of this was the protest of the Lutheran princes at the Diet of Speyer in 1529.
One territory that held much of Charles’ time and attention was Italy, where he fought a long series of wars with Francis I of France for control of Milan and Naples. The first war broke out in 1525 and Charles won the Battle of Pavia, taking Francis I captive and gaining control of much of Northern Italy. High on his list of priorities after this conquest was that of eradicating Lutheranism from Germany, which was of particular importance to him given his strong Catholic roots as head of the Spanish Empire. But the Pope, fearing Imperial rule over Italy, forged an alliance with France named the League of Cognac which led the combined forces of France and the Papacy to attack the Imperial armies who had taken control of Northern Italy. Charles was in dire straits, and in need of reinforcements, he turned to the Diet of Speyer for military help, which he received only after agreeing to grant the Protestant German states the legal right embrace Protestantism in their respective territories. The Imperial forces then defeated the French-Papal alliance and took Rome in 1527, capturing the Pope as a prisoner of War.
After a second successful campaign against France Charles turned his attention to Protestantism once more at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, this time determined to stamp out the heresy that had firmly taken root in Germany. He succeeded in repealing the Edict of Speyer issued in 1526, thus outlawing Protestantism in the Empire. But the Protestant princes would have none of it and walked out of the Diet in Protest thus earning the entire Reformatory movement the title of Protestant. Charles religious victory was cut short by the appearance of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1529. Charles went back to the Diet which was convened at Augsburg in 1530 and sought to reach a religious compromise with the Protestant princes in exchange for military aid which they refused to do forcing him to face the Turks alone. The Imperial forces managed to beat back the Turks but not for long and they were back, yapping a the heels of Vienna in 1531 which led Charles to again ask for help at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1532, this time though he was willing to make greater concessions and recognised the legal right of Protestantism to exist in Germany thus reinstating the Edict of Speyer issued in 1526.
The Diet of Nuremberg was a significant victory was the Protestant Reformation in Germany signaling the beginning of an era of uninhibited freedom to drive forward the gospel throughout the Empire and beyond.
Another significant issue that was brewing in Germany during this time were the numerous social revolts of the 1520s. The first revolt was mounted by the German knights under the guise of zeal for the cause of the Reformation. Since 1460 the population had been steadily growing after the worst onslaught of the plague had passed. However, the social and economic constraints that had been put in place during the worst years of the plague remained intact causing a lot of social tension. One of the most notable aspects of these constraints was the renewal of serfdom as a way of managing the economic fallout caused by the plague. When the population began to grow the restraints and stresses of serfdom began to take their toll on an already stressed out peasant population.
Rising inflation, caused by an increased demand due to population growth and the influx of Spanish gold into Europe from the new world cause a lot of strain on an already crumbling economic system. The inflation increased the cost of everything which in turn increased the cost of government for rulers. To meet this increase most raised taxes on peasants and increased their systems of bureaucracy to ensure that the taxes were collected. This led to the loss of traditional local and village autonomy which crushed the already spent peasant population under a heavy burden. For most rulers, this tactic worked as long as long as they had enough of a peasant population within their territory to produce an adequate revenue. Not all rulers had this luxury and among them were a group of rulers called Knights. They controlled smaller land holdings than Princes or Dukes and the economic strain hit them first. Under the strain, some of them turned to highway robbery as a means of survival others turned to revolution and took hold of the Reformation as an excuse for the pillaging and vandalism.
The Knights Revolt of 1523 was instigated by Franz Von Sickingen, who gathered a large group of Knights together and attacked the lands of the Archbishop of Trier. They did this under the guise of establishing the cause of the Reformation but in reality, they were desperate to gain control of Catholic lands.
The second wave of revolution was instigated by the peasants as a way of overthrowing the restraints of Serfdom. Serfdom was an early medieval idea developed during the low population era of the time. Serfs were legally bound to the land upon which they worked on and deprived them of many basic freedoms while imposing heavy taxes and creating appalling working conditions. Serfdom was done away with during the high middle ages when rapid population growth decreased the need for forced labor. But during the 14th Century when the plague halved the population of Europe, Serfdom was reintroduced as a necessary measure to keep the economy afloat. When the population recovered and began to grow from 1460 onwards, however, the nobles still enforced the laws of Serfdom and this cause terrible social tension.
The peasants were desperate to throw off all the heavy impositions, from taxes to tithes that were laid upon them and they clung to Luther’s ideas as a convenient excuse to launch an all-out social revolution. Luther was horrified and tried to help them understand how they had misconstrued his ideas and how the work they were engaging in was sinful. His explanations fell on deaf ears, at which point, he at once denounced them as possessed by the devil and called on the princes of the realm to stamp out the revolt. The events that unfolded within the Holy Roman Empire, though in some respects calamitous, nevertheless, God was able to overrule each one and work out his own end for the good of those who loved and trusted in him. It is when the storm is raging at its fiercest that we may be sure that God is working at his hardest to bring about our best good.