More on the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V

More on the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V:

The Holy Roman Empire

Statue of Charlemagne photo by Lokilech available through Creative CommonsThis was established in Western Europe with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 CE. Since the decline of the Roman Empire from the 5th and 6th centuries CE, no political alliance had linked the countries of Western Christendom, where the papacy was anxious to protect the interests of the Catholic Church. The Empire was centred on Germany and at the height of its power in the 12th century, included Poland, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.

From the 15th century, the Empire came under the control of the powerful Austrian Hapsburg dynasty. The Empire had, by Charles' time, begun to fragment, as it became increasingly difficult for the Emperor to control so large and diverse an area. Furthermore, most of the Empire's energies were directed to defending its eastern borders against the power of the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

Charles V

The son of a French father and a Spanish mother, Charles was elected Emperor in 1519 and ruled until his abdication in 1556. He controlled a larger expanse of territory than any Emperor since Charlemagne and his great ambition was to reunite the old Empire as it had been at the height of its power. But although he was a strong and imaginative ruler, even he could not heal the existing fractures in the Empire or resist emerging forces for change. The most important of these were:

  • The growing power of the Ottoman Empire in the East
  • The developing ambitions of France in the West
  • The growth of Protestantism in northern Germany.

Charles was particularly troubled by the last of these, because the Reformation:

  • Challenged the power of the Catholic Church
  • Provided a focus for German ambitions for political, as well as religious, independence.

After a long period of conflict, including war, a peace was made in 1555. One of the terms of this allowed the princes of the Empire to decide whether Catholicism or Protestantism should be the main religion in the area over which they ruled.

The end of the Holy Roman Empire

The treaty of 1555 effectively ended any idea of the Empire as a unified Christian entity. The treaty eventually broke down, with further conflicts in the seventeenth century, especially the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648. Thereafter, the sovereignty and autonomy of the 350 states that made up the Empire were recognised. From then on, the Habsburgs concentrated on their core territories in Austria and their struggle for power with the neighbouring state of Prussia. The successes of Napoleon Bonaparte further reduced the Empire's power and it was formally dissolved in 1806.

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