The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was the political entity that succeeded the empire of Charlemagne. It began in the year 962 with the coronation of Otto I, king of the Germans, and was known in history as the First Reich. Its goal was the unification of all Christendom under joint temporal and ecclesiastical authority; the pope was to serve as the Vicar of Christ in spiritual affairs, and the emperor was to rule earthly matters.
In 843, the three surviving sons of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son, divided the Carolingian Empire into three kingdoms: 1) Charles II the Bald received the western portion, which later would become France. 2) Lothair was granted the central portion, which later would become the Low Countries, Alsace, Lorraine, and Burgundy. 3) Ludwig II the German received the eastern portion and was guaranteed the kingships of all lands to the east of the Rhine and to the north and east of Italy; Ludwig’s kingdom’s was either called the Eastern Frankish Realm, or Germania, which was the precursor of the Holy Roman Empire and of modern Germany.
After Ludwig II’s death, the Eastern Frankish Realm got fragmented in many feudal territories which were distributed among powerful noblemen, and by the end of 9th century the kingdom was divided into five duchies: Swabia, Franconia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Lorraine. When Ludwig II the German’s grandson died in 911, Germania found herself without a legitimate king, as Ludwig the Child was the last descendant of Charlemagne. So, the dukes established an elective system to chose the king among them. They elected Conrad, Duke of Franconia, who ruled until 918. Upon’s Conrad’s death a Saxon duke was chosen king, Henry I the Fowler, who ushered in the Saxony Dynasty. Henry I strengthened the royal authority over the dukes’, as he created a regular army and organized the borders defence.
Henry the Fowler died in 936 and was succeeded by his son Otto who was crowned Otto I, known as the Great (936-973). He was intelligent and bold, and he consolidated the kingdom’s unity, imposing his authority over the great duchies, curbing the power of the counts as he created an ecclesiastical feudalism. Once his royal authority was consolidated, Otto I launched a campaign against the Hungarians who threatened the eastern border, defeating them at the battle of Lech in 955. He was also victorious against the Danes and Slavs and expanded the border eastward and northward.
In 961, as the Lombards invaded the northern Papal Estates, the Pope John XII asked Otto I for help. The German king crossed the Alps and conquered the kingdom of Lombardy. Then Otto I went to Rome and reestablished the papal authority. To reciprocate his actions, the Pope crowned Otto I Emperator of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto I the Great died in 973 and was succeeded by his son Otto II, took over the crown in 983. Otto III was followed by Henry II who was the last king of the house of Saxony, as he died in 1024.
House of Franconia
Upon Henry II’s death, the electors chose Conrad II king of the Germans. Then he was succeeded by:
– Henry III, the Black, 1039-1056, son; deposed 3 popes; annexed Burgundy.
– Henry IV, 1056-1106, son; regency by his mother, Agnes of Poitou. Banned by Pope Gregory VII, he did penance at Canossa.
– Henry V, 1106-1125, son; last of Salic House.
– Lothair, duke of Saxony, succeeded Henry V in 1125 and ruled until 1137. He was crowned emperor in Rome, 1134.
House of Hohenstaufen
Frederick I, Barbarossa
When his father died in 1147, Frederick became duke of Swabia, and immediately afterwards accompanied his uncle, the German king Conrad III, on the Second Crusade, during which he greatly distinguished himself and won the complete confidence of the king. Abandoning the cause of the Welfs, he fought for Conrad against them. In 1152, on his deathbed, Conrad III recommended to the German princes that his nephew Frederick be chosen for the German kingship and the imperial throne. Accordingly, after the death of his uncle in 1152, Frederick I Barbarossa was made German king and elected Holy Roman Emperor. He conceived of his imperial title as a grant from God, through the German princes, and wished to restore the glory of the Roman Empire. He consequently decided to consolidate the imperial position in Germany and Italy and began by issuing a general order for peace among the princes of Germany, at the same time granting them extensive concessions. In 1154 he proceeded to Italy, where he received the Lombard crown at Pavia. In 1155 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV, whose authority Frederick had reinstated before his coronation.
Frederick I’s main political objective was to extend and consolidate his conquest in northern Italy, where many cities had achieved almost total independence due to the liberties granted to them by the former kings from the house of Franconia. In 1158, to put an end to that situation that endangered the Italian unity and hence the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick I went down to Italy where he met with the Italian feudal lords at the Diet of Roncaglia and reminded them of their duties as he proclaimed the emperor’s rights to administer justice and levy taxes; and furthermore, he appointed a king’s representative in each of the Italian cities.
The prosperous Italian cities that were used to govern themselves strongly opposed Frederick I’s policies. Milan led the insurrection and expelled the emperor’s representatives. Also the Pope Alexander III sided with the Italian cities which had organized into the Lombard League. In order to crush the rebellion, Frederick Barbarossa crossed the Alps once again as he headed towards Italy, but he was defeated at Legnano by armies of the Lombard League in 1176. Frederick was forced in 1177 to acknowledge Alexander III as pope and in 1183 to sign the Peace of Constance, agreeing to the demands of the Lombards for autonomy but retaining imperial authority over the towns.
Frederick I Barbarossa initiated the Third Crusade in 1189, and in the following year, having resigned the government of the empire to his son Henry, later Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, set out for Asia Minor. After gaining two great victories over the Muslims at Philomelion and Iconium, he was drowned while fording the Saleph River in full armor on June 10, 1190.
After the death of Frederick I Barbarossa the following monarchs succeeded him on the emperial throne:
– Henry VI, 1190-1196, took lower Italy from Normans. Son became king of Sicily.
– Philip of Swabia, 1197-1208, brother.
– Otto IV, of House of Welf, 1198-1215; deposed.
– Frederick II, 1215-1250, son of Henry VI; king of Sicily; crowned king of Jerusalem in 5th Crusade.
– Conrad IV, 1250-1254, son; lost lower Italy to Charles of Anjou.
– Conradin, 1252-1268, son, king of Jerusalem and Sicily, beheaded. Last Hohenstaufen.
Interregnum, 1254-1273, Rise of the Electors.