ISSUE of the
So-called 'Holy Roman Empire'

Popular histories error in perpetuating the distortion that Charlemagne's 800 CE crowing by Pope Leo III created a 'Holy Roman Empire' that continued beyond the duration of the Caroliginian ruling dynasty. In fact, the expressions of 'Holy Roman Empire' and 'Holy Roman Emperor' had nothing to do with Charles I 'the Great' -- Charlemagne. Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus) in 768 inherited the title of 'King of the Franks', whose kingdom originally corresponded to the territory of modern France. He was made 'Emperor of the West' (800-814) after adding considerably to his original domain. Charlemagne's 'empire' was a Frankish empire, forged by his personality, and there was not developed a viable system to perpetuate it as a permanent institution.

Charlemagne's 'Carolingian empire' disintergated in stages: 887, 911, and most completely in 987. What remained were two prominent regions that shared some aspects, but each proceeded to evolve further into two distinctly different cultures:
East Franks -- predominately German speaking Franks [though their rulers and governemnt administrations retained Latin] -- continued briefly with their Carolingian monarachs. They dropped them in 911, and elected a Saxon dynasty in 919.
West Franks -- forerunners of French, had a rich, distinctively 'Gallo-Roman' culture and a heritage of Church-anointed rulers going back to the Christening of the Mérovingien king Clovis in 498 CE. Ties to their Latin heritage remained strong, fostering the West Franks' evolving Romance language. The West Franks continued a little longer than did the East Franks with some Carolingian kings that, by default, claimed title of 'emperor'. In 987, the French elected a dynasty that represented Ile de France. This domain soon achieved a degree of political unification as 'France', which was never matched by the newly formed German empire, and later designated 'Holy Roman Empire'.

The use of the expression 'Holy Roman Empire' prior to 1254 is anachronistic. The Pope's conveyed title of Imperator Augustus upon Charlemagne may have led contemporaries to envision a revival of the ancient Roman Empire [though limited to Western Europe] with the Carolingian empire. Further, there were some expectations that there could be created a political unity over the Latin Christain world, centered in Rome, as distinct from the established Greek Christian, Byzantine empire, centered in Constantinople. With the end of the Carolingian empire a political separation between the east and west Franks became irreversible as their respective cultures continued to develop differently.

Some time after the end of the Carolingian empire, in 962, a German king, Otto I 'the Great' managed to conquor Italy. Otto I arranged to have Pope John XII crown him Imperator, and thus founded a new type of empire which merged the two powers -- temporal and spiritual (the Latin Church) under the single rule of the 'Emperor'. While the merger did not last long as an effective institution, the tradition of associating the spiritual and temporal lingered. Important to note is that Otto I's 'empire' was not Carolingian, nor geographically inclusive of nearly half of Charlemagne's Frankish empire. Though the origin of a 'holy roman empire' can be traced to Otto I's German empire, the label of sacrum romanum imperium was long in coming. Starting with Otto I, efforts were made to promote the German empire as somthing more than a mere creation of the powerful German kings. The theme of a Christian-Roman empire was still popular. The terms sacrum, romanum, and imperium were employed separately and in various combinations until put together in 1254 to create the label of a 'Holy Roman Empire'. More symbolic than a political reality, the concept was perpetuated for centuries among the multiple Germanic states.

This page has two main sections:

  • SECTION ONE: Letter to a publisher that argues the mis use of the expression of Holy Roman Empire by many modern authors.
  • SECTION TWO: Table displaying the disintergation of Charlemagine's Carolingian empire, and overlaping emergence of France and a distinctly separate from the new Germanic Empire.

SECTION ONE: Letter to a publisher.

Following essay was written by M. Robert BUSSIERE. Written 12 August 1999, to Mr Lozano, in regards to observations made in an article printed in the National Geographic magazine (July 1997). The article was "The so-called Holy Roman Empire, an alliance of Germanic and Italian states founded by Charlemagne in A.D.800 .." M. Bussiere addresses how the basic premises in this article reflected fundamental errors that are repeated in so many anglophone articles on the topic.

It is true [as many popular articles suggest] that the tradition of the Roman Empire in conjunction with a sense of a unified Christian entity was resumed by Charlemagne in AD 800. This sense of a universal empire' was pursued in the following years, after the sharing and the fragmentation of the Caroligian empire (see for instance the Ordinatio imperii of Louis le Pieux in 817). The various kings ruling in Francia occidentalis, Lotharingia, and Francia orientalis (present Western Germany), each in turn, were aiming more or less at the title of 'emperor' (for example Charles II 'le Chauve' was crowned Emperor in 875).
In 962, Otton [Otto] I 'the Great', a Germanic king [king of the 'east Franks'], obtained the title, after defeating Béranger II in Italy, and submitting the Pope and the whole Church to his power.

But there are some differences between Charlemagne and Otton I:

1. The term of 'Holy Roman Empire' was not used at the time of Charlemagne, who had the title of 'Occidentalis Imperator', according to the historians, using various translations ('Empereur d'Occident' in French). ['Emperor of the West', as opposed to the 'Emperor of the East' at Constantinople.]
As for the empire founded by Otton the I in 962, its official title, defined much later on, was: 'Sacrum Romanorum Imperium Nationis Germanicae'. It is interesting to note that the notion of 'Sacrum Imperium' (which corresponds to 'holy empire') was introduced by Frederic I at the Besançon Diet, as late as 1157; the term was used in the royal acts only from 1254 and after. The term 'Nationis Germanicae' appeared in the 15 th century and was really put in use in the 17th.

2. What was new with the empire founded by Otton I 'the Great' was a sort of merging between the Empire and the 'Sacerdoce', the spiritual and the temporal power. This confusion turned rapidly into a complete subduing of the Pope and Church, put by force at the service of the emperor. There was nothing especially 'holy' in it. This situation did not last more than a century, and after several revolts the 'Sacerdoce' re-took a large amount of independence.

3. The 'Holy Empire', contrary to Charlemagne's empire, was never, in the following centuries, a powerful and centralized political organization; it was prolonged by the strength of tradition. The emperor never had a real power in front of the multiple germanic princes and cities.

4. Maybe the most important is that the author confused Charlemagne's origin with that of Otton I. Charlemagne, son and heir of Pepin 'le Bref', was King of the Francs since 768, the kingdom of the Francs having variable limits but constantly covering the present France (except Britanny) since the Clovis' christening in 496 or 498, and a variable part of the present western Germany. Charlemagne expanded constantly his kingdom towards the east (notably against the Saxons), the south (against the Arabs) and in Italy.

No doubt that the 'Kingdom of the Francs' had a solid political and military significance, and cannot be confused with a 'germanic state', even if the Francs were racially akin to the germanic people. Instead, Otton I was a germanic king, and the so-called 'holy empire' included, when it was founded, most of the 'Germanic and Italian states' (as mentioned by the author when he refers to Charlemagne), plus Burgundy. Maybe it is useful to recall that neither the kingdom of the Francs, nor the Kingdom of France afterwards have ever been part of the Holy Empire.

The point made here may seem trivial to many American readers who are unaware of the subtle implications suggested in historians carelessly suggesting a 'holy Roman empire' linked to Charlemagne's empire. For a long time the Germans, especially during the Nazi period, have claimed Charlemagne as a 'German', for nationalist propaganda reasons, and this is what the author seems to suggest. It would be of course ridiculous and anachronic to say he was 'French'; but for sure he was a 'Franc'.
The author's confusion, be intended or innocent, the point is that the American public must not be misled on the subject of Europe's history. By using only English sources on Europe's history might precisely be misleading (this can be verified for example about the Hundred Years War). May I recommend sources like the 'Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse', and authors like Halphen on Charlemagne, or Folz and Noël on the 'Holy Empire'.


SECTION TWO: Disintergation of Charlemagine's Carolingian empire and the emergence of a Germanic 'Holy Roman Empire'.

The following table attempts to illustrate the disintergation of Charlemagine's Carolingian empire, and the emergence of the German empire that became known as the 'Holy Roman Empire'. A key factor shown is that while the Carolingian dynasty continued briefly, off and on, in the ruling house of France, it and the domain of Francia occidentalis had ceased to be any part of the newly created Germanic empire that emerged within Francia orientalis.

Carolingian Emperors (800-911) and Kings of the Franks/France (800-987)

Dynasty color codes
Robertian [Capetian]
Saxon [Ottonian]
Name Emperor King of the Franks/France Other regions ruled over Comments
Charles I
'Carolus Magus'
[Karl der Große]
(800-814) (768-814) Roughly modern West Germany, including Saxons, Italy, and northern Spain. Charles I expanded his Frankish 'imperial' kingdom to cover what is identified roughly as modern central Europe. On 25 December 800, Pope Leo III bestowed on Charles the titles of 'Imperator and Augustus', effectively establishing an Imperial dignity that would be associated with a 'Carolingian Empire'.
Louis I
'The Pious'
[Ludwig I]
(814-840) (814-840) Germany, and other domains of Charles I's except as listed in next column. Son of Charles I. His brothers were kings of some of their father's realm. Charles k. of Franconia (d.811); and Pepin k. of Italy (781-810) and his son, Bernard, k. of Italy (810-818).
Lothar I (840-855)   Germany, Italy (818-855) The Treaty of Verdun (843) divided the Carolingian empire among the sons of Louis I. Lothar I retained title of 'emperor' and the kingdom of Italy. His brothers assumed domains as follows: Charles II 'the Bald', became king of the Western Franks [West Francia -- essentially modern France] and of Italy; Louis 'the German' (d.876) became king of the Eastern Franks [East Francia -- essentially all of modern Germany and more --; a region extending from the Rhine River to the eastern frontier of the originial Carolingian empire.]
Louis II (855-875)   Italy (855-875), Burgundy (863-875) Son of Lothar I. His brother, Lothar II became king of 'Lotharingia' [Lorraine] (855-869). His brother Charles was king of Burgundy (855-863).
Charles II 'the Bald' [le chauve] (875-877) (843-877) King of West Lorraine (870-877). Son of Louis I, Charles 'the Bald' received the imperial title after his nephew, Louis II.
Interregum -- no emperor from 877 to 881.
Louis II 'the Stammerer' [le bègue]   (877-879)   Son of Charles 'the Bald'.
Louis III   (879-884)   Son of Louis II 'the Stammerer'. His reign was shared with that of his brother, Carloman.
Carloman   (884-887)   Son of Louis II 'the Stammerer'. His reign was shared with that of his brother, Louis III.
Charles III 'the Fat' (881-887) (876? or 884-887) Lorraine (882-887), West Francia [Germany] (884-888) Charles III 'the Fat' was the son of Louis 'the German'. he was chosen to be king of the West Franks over the third son of Louis II. Charles 'the Fat' failed to come to the assistance of defenders of Paris during a 885-886 siege by Vikings. Charles was deposed in 887.
Odo [Eudes], Count of Paris   (887-893)   Odo, count of Paris, marquis de Neustria was the son of Robert 'the Strong', a powerful duke of France ('Ile-de-France'). Odo is, therefore, considered the first of the 'Robertian' dynasty of early French kings. However, the dynasty is better known as 'Capetians' after their more famous member who would later assume the French crown.
Charles III 'the Simple'   (898-922)   The posthumous son of Louis III, of the Carolingian dynasty. In the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte (911), Charles III ceded to the Norse chief, Rollo, the northern province which became the duchy of Normandy.
Arnulf of Carinthia (887? or 896-899)   King of East Francia and Lorraine (887-899), king of Italy (896-899) Grandson of Louis II 'the German' (d.876).
Louis IV 'the Child' (899-911)
[not crowned]
  King of East Francia [Germany] and Lorraine (900-911). Son of Arnulf of Carinthia. He was the last Carolingian emperor. He nominated as his successor, Conrad, duke of Saxony.
Conrad I of Franconia (911-918)
[not crowned]
    The Eastern Frankish [German] magnates elected Conrad, the duke of Franconia, to be their king and to be accepted as 'emperor'-- though he was not crowned by the Pope. Conrad I was the first non-Carolingian to hold the imperial title.
Henry 'the Fowler' (919-936)
[not crowned]
    Henry was the first of the Saxon Dynasty of German emperors.
Robert I   (922-923)   Son of Robert 'the Strong' and younger brother to Odo. Robert was made king of France by the French nobles, who overthrew Charles III. In 923, Robert was killed in battle, but his Carolingian rival, Charles III, was made prisoner by the Robertians. Charles III remained a captive until his death in 929.
Raoul [Rodolph]   (923-936)   Duke of Burgundy and son-in-law of Robert I.
Louis IV 'd'Outre-Mer'   (936-954)   At the death of Raoul, the fifteen year-old son of Charles III 'the Simple', Louis IV, was recalled from England. He successfully defeated attempts of the German emperor, Otto I (936-973) to incorporate the French domain [Francia occidentalis] in to Otto's new Germanic 'Roman Empire'.
Otto I 'the Great' (936-973)     Otto I 'the Great' managed to force the Pope to present him with the imperial crown in 962. His dynamic reign led to the the 'Saxon Dynasty' often being called the 'Ottonian Dynasty' of German emperors. His reign marks the true beginning of the German Empire that would later call itself the 'Holy Roman Empire'.
Lothair   (986-987)   Son of Louis IV.
Louis V   (986-987)   Son of Lothair; and last Carolingian on the French throne.
Hugh Capet   (987-996)   Though there was still a Carolingian contender, Charles duke of Lower Lorraine, the French nobles elected a Robertian. Hugh Capet was the grandson of Robert I. His nickname, 'Capet', would henceforth designate the dynasty as 'Capétian'.
The German Empire created by Otto 'the Great', was distinct from the Carolingian empire of Charlemagne that ended in 911. It is the German Empire that eventually took the title of 'Holy Roman Empire' and lasted under various dynasties: Saxon [Ottonan] (919-1024), Franconian [Salian] (1024-1137), and Hohenstaufen (1138-1271). It experienced an 'Interregum from 1254 to 1273, before continuing under various German houses. The Habsburg dynasty took over in 1428 and ruled until formally abolished in 1806 by Napoleon.
The French Capetian dynasty maintained a 'direct line' of succession until 1328, when it continued under a cadet line of 'Valois'. In 1589, it went under another cadet line, 'Bourbon'. As such the Capétian dynasty lasted until the French Revolution in 1792, experencing a brief 'Restoration' (1814-1848).


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This page was created 9 February 2002, last updated 18 February 2002.
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