The Empire's territorial extent varied over its history, but at its peak it encompassed the Kingdom of Germany, the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Burgundy, territories embracing the present-day Germany, Austria (except Burgenland), Switzerland, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Belgium, as well as significant parts of modern France (mainly Artois, Alsace and Lorraine), Italy (mainly Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany), and Poland (mainly Silesia and Pomerania). For much of its history the Empire consisted of hundreds of smaller sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities, as well as other domains. Despite its name, the Empire did not include Rome within its borders.
In its later phases, contemporaries did not quite know how to describe this entity. In his famous 1667 description De statu imperii Germanici, published under the alias Severinus de Monzambano, Samuel Pufendorf wrote: "Nihil ergo aliud restat, quam ut dicamus Germaniam esse irregulare aliquod corpus et monstro simile ..." ("We are therefore left with calling Germany a body that conforms to no rule and resembles a monster").
In Faust I, in a scene written in 1775, the German author Goethe has one of the drinkers in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig ask "Our Holy Roman Empire, lads, what still holds it together?" Goethe also has a longer, not very favourable essay about his personal experiences as a trainee at the Reichskammergericht in his autobiographical work Dichtung und Wahrheit.
A prospective Emperor had first to be elected King of the Romans (Rex romanorum/römischer König). Kings had been elected since time immemorial: in the 9th century by the leaders of the five most important tribes: (the Salian Franks of Lorraine, the Ripuarian Franks of Franconia, and the Saxons, Bavarians, and Swabians); later by the main dukes and bishops of the kingdom; finally only by the so-called Kurfürsten (electing dukes, electors). This electoral college was formally established in 1356 by the King of Bohemia Charles IV, through a decree known as the Golden Bull. Initially, there were seven electors: the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier. During the Thirty Years' War, the Duke of Bavaria was given the right to vote as the eighth elector. A candidate for election would be expected to offer concessions of land or money to the electors in order to secure their vote.
In many cases, this took several years while the King was held up by other tasks: frequently he first had to resolve conflicts in rebellious northern Italy, or was in quarrel with the Pope himself. Later Emperors dispensed with the papal coronation altogether, being content with the styling Emperor-Elect: the last Emperor to be crowned by the Pope was Charles V in 1530.
The Emperor had to be a man of good character over 18 years. All four of his grandparents were expected to be of noble blood. No law required him to be a Catholic, though imperial law assumed that he was. He did not need to be a German (Alfonso X of Castille was not). By the 17th century candidates generally possessed estates within the Empire, such as Louis XIV of France.
At no time could the Emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the Empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders: after the late 15th century, the Reichstag established itself as the legislative body of the Empire, a complicated assembly that convened irregularly at the request of the Emperor at varying locations. Only after 1663 would the Reichstag become a permanent assembly.
The number of territories was amazingly large, rising to approximately 300 at the time of the Peace of Westphalia. Many of these comprised no more than a few square miles, so the Empire is aptly described as a "patchwork carpet" (Flickenteppich) by many (see Kleinstaaterei). For a list of Reichsstands in 1792, see List of Reichstag participants (1792).
The Reichstag was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire. It was divided into three distinct classes:
Henry designated his son Otto, who was elected King in Aachen in 936, to be his successor. A marriage alliance with the widowed queen of Italy gave Otto control over that nation as well. His later crowning as Emperor Otto I (later called "the Great") in 962 would mark an important step, since from then on the Eastern-Frankish realm and not the West-Frankish kingdom that was the other remainder of the Frankish kingdoms–would have the blessing of the Pope. Otto had gained much of his power earlier, when, in 955, the Magyars were defeated in the Battle of Lechfeld.
In contemporary and later writings, this crowning would also be referred to as translatio imperii, the transfer of the Empire from the Romans to a new Empire. The German Emperors thus thought of themselves as being in direct succession of those of the Roman Empire; this is why they initially called themselves Augustus. Still, they did not call themselves "Roman" Emperors at first, probably in order not to provoke conflict with the Roman Emperor who still existed in Constantinople. The term imperator Romanorum only became common under Conrad II later (than his crowning in 1027, thus in the early-middle 11th century) after the Great Schism.
At this time, the eastern kingdom was not "German" but a "confederation" of the old Germanic tribes of the Bavarians, Alemanns, Franks and Saxons. The Empire as a political union probably only survived because of the strong personal influence of King Henry the Saxon and his son, Otto. Although formally elected by the leaders of the Germanic tribes, they were actually able to designate their successors.
This changed after Henry II died in 1024 without any children. Conrad II, first of the Salian Dynasty, was then elected king in 1024 only after some debate. How exactly the king was chosen thus seems to be a complicated conglomeration of personal influence, tribal quarrels, inheritance, and acclamation by those leaders that would eventually become the collegiate of Electors.
Already at this time the dualism between the "territories", then those of the old tribes rooted in the Frankish lands, and the King/Emperor, became apparent. Each king preferred to spend most time in his own homelands; the Saxons, for example, spent much time in palatinates around the Harz mountains, among them Goslar. This practice had only changed under Otto III (king 983, Emperor 996–1002), who began to utilize bishoprics all over the Empire as temporary seats of government. Also, his successors, Henry II, Conrad II, and Henry III, apparently managed to appoint the dukes of the territories. It is thus no coincidence that at this time, the terminology changes and the first occurrences of a regnum Teutonicum (German Kingdom) are found.
The glory of the Empire almost collapsed in the Investiture Controversy, in which Pope Gregory VII declared a ban on King Henry IV (king 1056, Emperor 1084–1106). Although this was taken back after the 1077 Walk to Canossa, the ban had wide-reaching consequences. Meanwhile, the German dukes had elected a second king, Rudolf of Swabia, whom Henry IV could only defeat after a three-year war in 1080. The mythical roots of the Empire were permanently damaged; the German king was humiliated. Most importantly though, the church was clearly an independent player in the political system of the Empire, not subject to imperial authority.
Also, under Barbarossa, the idea of the "Romanness" of the Empire culminated again, which seemed to be an attempt to justify the Emperor's power independently of the (now strengthened) Pope. An imperial assembly at the fields of Roncaglia in 1158 explicitly reclaimed imperial rights at the advice of quattuor doctores of the emerging judicial facility of the University of Bologna, citing phrases such as princeps legibus solutus ("the emperor [princeps] is not bound by law") from the Digestae of the Corpus Juris Civilis. That the Roman laws were created for an entirely different system and didn't fit the structure of the Empire was obviously secondary; the point here was that the court of the Emperor made an attempt to establish a legal constitution.
Imperial rights had been referred to as regalia since the Investiture Controversy, but were enumerated for the first time at Roncaglia as well. This comprehensive list included public roads, tariffs, coining, collecting punitive fees, and the investiture, the seating and unseating of office holders. These rights were now explicitly rooted in Roman Law, a far-reaching constitutional act; north of the Alps, the system was also now connected to feudal law, a change most visible in the withdrawal of the feuds of Henry the Lion in 1180 which led to his public banning. Barbarossa thus managed for a time to more closely bind the stubborn Germanic dukes to the Empire as a whole.
Another important constitutional move at Roncaglia was the establishment of a new peace (Landfrieden) for all of the Empire, an attempt to (on the one hand) abolish private vendettas not only between the many local dukes, but on the other hand a means to tie the Emperor's subordinates to a legal system of jurisdiction and public prosecution of criminal acts a predecessor concept of "rule of law", in modern terms, that was, at this time, not yet universally accepted.
In order to solve the problem that the emperor was (after the Investiture Controversy) no longer as able to use the church as a mechanism to maintain power, the Staufer increasingly lent land to ministerialia, formerly non-free service men, which Frederick hoped would be more reliable than local dukes. Initially used mainly for war services, this new class of people would form the basis for the later knights, another basis of imperial power.
Another new concept of the time was the systematic foundation of new cities, both by the emperor and the local dukes. These were partly caused by the explosion in population, but also to concentrate economic power at strategic locations, while formerly cities only existed in the shape of either old Roman foundations or older bishoprics. Cities that were founded in the 12th century include Freiburg, possibly the economic model for many later cities, and Munich.
The later reign of the last Staufer Emperor, Frederick II, was in many ways different from that of earlier Emperors. Still a child, he first reigned in Sicily, while in Germany, Barbarossa's second son Philip of Swabia and Henry the Lion's son Otto IV competed with him for the title of King of the Germans. After finally having been crowned emperor in 1220, he risked conflict with the pope when he claimed power over Rome; astonishingly to many, he managed to claim Jerusalem in a crusade in 1228 while still under the pope's ban.
While Frederick brought the mythical idea of the Empire to a last high point, he was also the one to initiate the major steps that led to its disintegration. On the one hand, he concentrated on establishing an innovative state in Sicily, with public services, finances, and other reforms. On the other hand, Frederick was the emperor who granted major powers to the German dukes in the form of two far-reaching privileges that would never be reclaimed by the central power. In the 1220 Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis, Frederick gave up a number of regalia in favour of the bishops, among them tariffs, coining, and fortification. The 1232 Statutum in favorem principum mostly extended these privileges to the other (non-clerical) territories (Frederick II was forced to give those privileges by a rebellion of his son, Henry). Although many of these privileges had existed earlier, they were now granted globally, and once and for all, to allow the German dukes to maintain order north of the Alps while Frederick wanted to concentrate on his homelands in Italy. The 1232 document marked the first time that the German dukes were called domini terræ, owners of their lands, a remarkable change in terminology as well.
During the long stays of the Hohenstaufen emperors (1138–1254) in Italy, the German princes became stronger and began a successful, mostly peaceful colonisation of West Slavic lands, so that the empire's influence increased to eventually include Pomerania and Silesia.
In 1257, there occurred a double election which produced a situation that guaranteed a long interregnum. William of Holland had fallen the previous year, and Conrad of Swabia had died three years earlier. First, three electors (Palatinate, Cologne and Mainz) (being mostly of the Guelph persuasion) cast their votes for Richard of Cornwall who became the successor of William of Holland as king. After a delay, a fourth elector, Bohemia, joined this choice. However, a couple of months later, Bohemia and the three other electors Trier, Brandenburg and Saxony voted for Alfonso X of Castile, this being based on Ghibelline party. The realm now had two kings. Was the King of Bohemia entitled to change his vote, or was the election complete when four electors had chosen a king? Were the four electors together entitled to depose Richard a couple of months later, if his election had been valid?
The difficulties in electing the king eventually led to the emergence of a fixed college of electors, the Kurfürsten, whose composition and procedures were set forth in the Golden Bull of 1356. This development probably best symbolizes the emerging duality between Kaiser und Reich, emperor and realm, which were no longer considered identical. This is also revealed in the way the post-Staufen kings attempted to sustain their power. Earlier, the Empire's strength (and finances) greatly relied on the Empire's own lands, the so-called Reichsgut, which always belonged to the respective king (and included many Imperial Cities). After the 13th century, its relevance faded (even though some parts of it did remain until the Empire's end in 1806). Instead, the Reichsgut was increasingly pawned to local dukes, sometimes to raise money for the Empire but, more frequently, to reward faithful duty or as an attempt to civilize stubborn dukes. The direct governance of the Reichsgut no longer matched the needs of either the king or the dukes.
Instead, the kings, beginning with Rudolph I of Habsburg, increasingly relied on the lands of their respective dynasties to support their power. In contrast with the Reichsgut, which was mostly scattered and difficult to administer, these territories were comparably compact and thus easier to control. In 1282, Rudolph I thus lent Austria and Styria to his own sons.
With Henry VII, the House of Luxembourg entered the stage. In 1312, he was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor since Frederick II. After him all kings and emperors relied on the lands of their own family (Hausmacht): Louis IV of Wittelsbach (king 1314, emperor 1328–1347) relied on his lands in Bavaria; Charles IV of Luxembourg, the grandson of Henry VII, drew strength from his own lands in Bohemia. Interestingly, it was thus increasingly in the king's own interest to strengthen the power of the territories, since the king profited from such a benefit in his own lands as well.
The 13th century also saw a general structural change in how land was administered. Instead of personal duties, money increasingly became the common means to represent economic value in agriculture. Peasants were increasingly required to pay tribute for their lands. The concept of "property" more and more replaced more ancient forms of jurisdiction, although they were still very much tied together. In the territories (not at the level of the Empire), power became increasingly bundled: Whoever owned the land had jurisdiction, from which other powers derived. It is important to note, however, that jurisdiction at this time did not include legislation, which virtually did not exist until well into the 15th century. Court practice heavily relied on traditional customs or rules described as customary.
It is during this time that the territories began to transform themselves into predecessors of modern states. The process varied greatly among the various lands and was most advanced in those territories that were most identical to the lands of the old Germanic tribes, e.g. Bavaria. It was slower in those scattered territories that were founded through imperial privileges.
The "constitution" of the Empire was still largely unsettled at the beginning of the 15th century. Although some procedures and institutions had been fixed, for example by the Golden Bull of 1356, the rules of how the king, the electors, and the other dukes should cooperate in the Empire much depended on the personality of the respective king. It therefore proved somewhat fatal that Sigismund of Luxemburg (king 1410, emperor 1433–1437) and Frederick III of Habsburg (king 1440, emperor 1452–1493) neglected the old core lands of the empire and mostly resided in their own lands. Without the presence of the king, the old institution of the Hoftag, the assembly of the realm's leading men, deteriorated. The Reichstag as a legislative organ of the Empire did not exist yet. Even worse, dukes often went into feuds against each other that, more often than not, escalated into local wars.
At the same time, the church was in crisis too. The conflict between several competing popes was only resolved at the Council of Constance (1414–1418); after 1419, much energy was spent on fighting the heresy of the Hussites. The medieval idea of a unified Corpus christianum, of which the papacy and the Empire were the leading institutions, began to decline.
With these drastic changes, much discussion emerged in the 15th century about the Empire itself. Rules from the past no longer adequately described the structure of the time, and a reinforcement of earlier Landfrieden was urgently called for. During this time, the concept of "reform" emerged, in the original sense of the Latin verb re-formare, to regain an earlier shape that had been lost.
When Frederick III needed the dukes to finance war against Hungary in 1486 and at the same time had his son, later Maximilian I elected king, he was presented with the dukes' united demand to participate in an Imperial Court. For the first time, the assembly of the electors and other dukes was now called Reichstag (to be joined by the Imperial Free Cities later). While Frederick refused, his more conciliatory son finally convened the Reichstag at Worms in 1495, after his father's death in 1493. Here, the king and the dukes agreed on four bills, commonly referred to as the Reichsreform (Imperial Reform): a set of legal acts to give the disintegrating Empire back some structure. Among others, this act produced the Imperial Circle Estates and the Reichskammergericht (Imperial Chamber Court); structures that would — to a degree — persist until the end of the Empire in 1806.
However, it took a few more decades until the new regulation was universally accepted and the new court began to actually function; only in 1512 would the Imperial Circles be finalized. The King also made sure that his own court, the Reichshofrat, continued to function in parallel to the Reichskammergericht. It is interesting to note that in this year, the Empire also received its new title, the Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation ("Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation").
From 1515 to 1523, Habsburgian government in the Netherlands also had to contend with the Frisian peasant rebellion led first by Pier Gerlofs Donia and then by his nephew Wijerd Jelckama. The rebels were initially successful but after series of defeats, the remaining leaders were captured and decapitated in 1523. This was a blow for the Holy Roman Empire since many major cities were sacked and as many as 132 ships dissapeared (once even 28 in a single battle).
Meanwhile, religious conflicts were waged in various parts of Europe for a century, though in German regions there was relative quiet from the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 until the Defenestration of Prague in 1618. When Bohemians rebelled against the emperor, the immediate result was the series of conflicts known as the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), which devastated the Empire. Foreign powers, including France and Sweden intervened in the conflict and strengthened those fighting Imperial power, but they also seized considerable chunks of territory for themselves. The long conflict bled the Empire to such a degree that it would never recover its former strength.
The actual end of the empire came in several steps. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War, gave the territories almost complete sovereignty. The Swiss Confederation, which had already established quasi-independence in 1499, and the Northern Netherlands left the empire. Although its constituent states still had some restrictions — in particular, they could not form alliances against the Emperor — the Empire from this point was a powerless entity, existing in name only. The Habsburg Emperors instead focused on consolidating their own estates in Austria and elsewhere.
By the rise of Louis XIV, the Habsburgs were dependent on the position as Archdukes of Austria to counter the rise of Prussia, some of whose territories lay inside the Empire. Throughout the 18th century, the Habsburgs were embroiled in various European conflicts, such as the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Polish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession. The German dualism between Austria and Prussia dominated the empire's history since 1740. From 1792 onwards, revolutionary France was at war with various parts of the Empire intermittently. The Empire was formally dissolved on August 6, 1806 when the last Holy Roman Emperor Francis II (from 1804, Emperor Francis I of Austria) abdicated, following a military defeat by the French under Napoleon (see Treaty of Pressburg). Napoleon reorganized much of the empire into the Confederation of the Rhine, a French satellite. Francis' House of Habsburg-Lorraine survived the demise of the Empire, continuing to reign as Emperors of Austria and Kings of Hungary until the Habsburg empire's final dissolution in 1918 in the aftermath of World War I. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Confederation of the Rhine was replaced by the German Confederation and the North German Confederation in succession, until the German-speaking territories outside of Austria were united under Prussian leadership in 1871, as the German Empire, the predecessor-state of modern Germany.