Holy Roman Empire
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Holy Roman Empire




Otto I and the Holy Roman Empire

The vacuum in the Carolingian East left by Louis the Child's death had been solved by the election of Henry the Fowler to become King of Germany.  Now the transition to a new order was complete and the Carolingian Empire was officially over. 

The choice of Henry to take Conrad's place heralded the beginning of the Ottonian dynasty.  Henry's son Otto I (912–973) inherited the Duchy of Saxony and the kingship of the Germans upon his father's death in 936. 

Otto the Great would reign as German king from 936 until his death in 973.  Otto proved to be a competent ruler.  Once he solidified his role as King of Germany, this meant the split between East and West Francia was complete and irreversible.

Otto continued his father's work to unify all German tribes into a single kingdom.  He greatly expanded the king's powers at the expense of the aristocracy. Through strategic marriages and personal appointments, Otto installed members of his own family to the kingdom's most important duchies.

This reduced the various dukes, who had previously been co-equals with the king, into royal subjects under his authority.  Royal subjects maybe, but Loyal subjects no.  The bitterness they felt would be reflected in a thousand year dance - the princes of Germany would always deliberately keep their king weak for fear that a strong king would curtail their influence.

Otto's next move was to transform the Roman Catholic Church in Germany to strengthen the royal office and subjected its clergy to his personal control.  Otto then suggested to the Pope that the church align itself with his powerful kingdom. 

The coronation of Otto I by Pope John XII in 962 marked a revival of the concept of a Christian emperor in the west.  Otto become the leader/founder of the Holy Roman Empire when he was crowned emperor.  Otto fashioned himself as the "successor of Charlemagne". 

Some historians refer to the coronation of Charlemagne as the origin of the HRE, while others prefer the coronation of Otto I as its beginning.  If one dates the start of the HRE to Charlemagne, it enjoyed a Thousand Year run.  If one dates the start to Otto I, it was the beginning of an unbroken line of Holy Roman emperors lasting for more than eight centuries.

Thanks to Charlemagne, the HRE had started in West Francia.  However, the coronation of Otto meant the center of the HRE had flipped to East Francia, aka the Kingdom of Germany.

The Kingdom of Germany and the HRE would remain loosely synonymous for the next 800 years until its dissolution in 1806 thanks to the decision of Napoleon.  Although the HRE included at times the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Kingdom of Burgundy, the core and largest territory of the empire was always Germany.

Otto I, his son Otto II and grandson Otto III each regarded the imperial crown as a mandate to control the papacy. They dismissed popes at their will and installed replacements more to their liking.  This power, together with territories covering much of central Europe, gave the German empire and the imperial title great prestige in the late 10th century.

But subservience was not what the Pope had in mind when the Pope John XII reinstated the Holy Roman Empire.  Over the next eight centuries, there would be many showdowns.

Here in America, our founding fathers had the wisdom to keep the church and the state separate.  The Europeans had no such luck.  Politics are difficult enough as it is, but when religion becomes intricately entwined with politics, things can get very confused. 

The power struggles between the various Kings of Germany, aka the "Emperors of the HRE" and the various popes over the centuries helped turn Germany into a complete mess.

The Holy Roman Empire began in 962 and ended in 1806.  In this snapshot from 1000 AD, one can see the rough outline of today's modern German nation.  

Weakness of the Emperor

So what exactly was the Holy Roman Empire??  Good question, but very tough to answer. 

The Holy Roman Empire was a strange political entity. 

The HRE was not a highly centralized state like most countries today. Instead, the HRE came to be divided into dozens — eventually even HUNDREDS — of individual political units governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, archbishops, abbots, and princes.

Strangely enough, the German people came up with a system where the King of Germany was "elected".  Has anyone ever heard of a King being elected?

It started when the throne of East Francia was vacated with no valid heir.  Once Louis the Child died, that forced the Princes, the rulers of the duchies and therefore the next level of power in Germany... to pick someone to be their ruler.

After Conrad of Franconia was ELECTED to take the place of Louis the Child, this set the precedent to ELECT Henry the Fowler as well.  From that point on, unlike the Kings of other European countries who simply inherited the crown, a German King had to be "elected" to office by a council of elite German princes. 

After Otto the Great ran roughshod over the Princes, they thought twice about this new system.  The German Princes decided amongst themselves that limiting the powers of the "King" was in their own best interests.  One needs to remember that all people fear the rule of tyrants.  For example, the main reason Julius Caesar was assassinated was due to fear over his increasing power. 

So the German Princes made sure each new King would maintain the decentralized system of states in Germany. 

This odd circumstance did indeed keep the Kings from being more powerful than the Princes, but it was unfortunate for the Kingdom of Germany because it guaranteed the country would never become "unified".

Since Otto's original idea was to align East Francia with the Catholic Church, the new "Emperor" was usually German.  Once the new German king was chosen, the current Pope would then coronate the new king as the new Holy Roman Emperor

The same lack of real authority spilled over to the position of "Holy Roman Emperor".  After the new German monarch realized he was in a restricted position as the "King", he would discover his position as "Holy Roman Emperor" was not very powerful either. 

If anything, interference from the Church made governing Germany even harder.  As time passed, the authority of the "King and Emperor" to govern grew weaker and weaker.

The Emperor was expected to protect the Pope and the Church.  Unfortunately, over the 8 centuries of the HRE, the Emperor would usually spend more time arguing with the Pope than anything else. 

The Holy Roman Empire changed shape many times during its eight century run with different territories coming and going, but the Kingdom of Germany was always at the core.  Since the Emperor was typically "German", Germany and the HRE became roughly synonymous.

Simony and the Investiture Controversy

There is a legend that the Founding Fathers of America studied the history of Europe carefully so they could avoid the mistakes of the European political systems.  Two features in particular were changed.  There would be no kings... America would be a democracy... and there would be no religious interference in matters of government (or vice versa). 

Surely the story of the power struggles between the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire was the major reason that led to the decision to keep the Church separate from the State here in America. 

Medieval times were often called the "Dark Ages" for a reason.  There were incredibly cruel and horrible things done that defy understanding.  Not that we have evolved all that much... there is still war, murder and corruption aplenty going on today.  Nevertheless, many things were done back in those days that we would term "excessive" now.

Anyone who has studied the history of the Roman Catholic Church knows full well there are shameful stories aplenty. 

In particular, many of the abuses - genocide against people of other religions, torture - were done either by the Church itself or by representatives acting in the "Name of God".  "Spanish Inquisition", the suppression of knowledge (think Galileo), and the Crusades are prime examples. 

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church has done a great deal of good as well.  The Church has played an enormous role in bringing the valuable teachings of Jesus to the Western Civilization. 

The Church took a noble stand against slavery.

And many times it was the Church who protected the weak by acting as the only check on the abuse of powers by evil kings.  When it came down to abuse of powers, there have been some European rulers who would have stopped at nothing were it not for the Church standing in their way.

The Holy Roman Empire was fertile ground for power struggles between the Church and the German rulers.  There were all kinds of inherent conflicts built into the system. 

The story of the 800 year Holy Empire could be boiled down to a three ring circus between the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the German princes who learned to gang up on whichever side was not currently acting in their preferred interests.

When Otto I got himself declared "Holy Roman Emperor" in 962, he fully expected to have his way with the Popes. 

German Princes making their wishes known to the Emperor.  For the entire reign of the Holy Roman Empire, by pursuing their own individual interests, it was the German princes who played a key role in limiting the Emperor's authority and keeping Germany divided. 

And that is pretty much how it went down at first.

The Emperors had their way with the Popes for the first hundred years of the system put in play by Otto I.  The Church was rich beyond belief and the Emperors exploited the wealth any way they could. 

One of their favorite tricks was Simony. Simony was the act of selling church offices and roles.

Since a substantial amount of wealth and land was usually associated with the office of a bishop or abbot, the sale of Church offices (a practice known as simony) was an important source of income for leaders among the nobility.  It wasn't just the nobility who owned the land.  By charity, the nobility donated the land that allowed the building of churches and cathedrals. After that, the Church owned the land. Over time, the Church had acquired extensive property of its own and had grown greatly in power.

The Church was able to place itself in the middle of all affairs in the daily life of the people.  Frequently the bishops were regarded for legal purposes as lords, and some bishops had extraordinary political powers.  They made many daily decisions that greatly affected the business practices and personal lives of the people in their realm.  In addition, some bishops even had the power to decide who the next Emperor would be.  For example, three bishops were among the seven men who elected emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.

The result was that the nobles as political authorities saw great importance in having bishops who were politically aligned with their interests.  There had always been a principle that the Church chose its own bishops.

The purchase of ecclesiastical authority was a sin called "simony".

And why was it a sin??

In a nutshell, the widespread practice of Simony deprived the Popes of much of their authority.

Since priests who were outside the ruling nobility did not earn substantial wealth or have the ability to pass their inheritance on, they would be difficult to sway by greed and power.  Their decisions would be fair and their jobs would depend on answering to the Pope.

On the other hand, it was beneficial for a ruler or nobleman to appoint or sell the office to someone who would be "loyal", which is another way of saying maybe the people he appointed would be willing to let the ruler get away with murder... literally.

Even before Otto came along, the practice of simony became widely accepted, sin or no sin.  As we saw in the crazy tale of Lothair II, Hucbert, the brother of Teuberga, was not only a sinning, bullying soldier, he just happened to also be an abbot .  Ghunter and Thietgaud, the men who presided over the trial of Teutberga, were not only Archbishops, they were also relations of Waldrada.  These men had all purchased their positions of authority within the church.

The story of Hucbert et all shows the practice of simony was well-entrenched even before Otto came along to reestablish the position of Holy Roman Emperor.

Otto I versus Pope John XII

Otto added a new feature.  Otto made sure the Emperor chose the Pope and not vice versa. The Pope-elect was required to issue an oath of allegiance to the Emperor before his confirmation as Pope.  If the Emperor didn't like the Pope, he would get rid of him.

Almost immediately, Pope John XII regretted his decision to empower Otto.  He began to fear the Emperor's rising power in Italy and began secret negotiations a nobleman named Berengar to depose Otto.  The Pope also sent envoys to the Hungarians and the Byzantine Empire to join him in an alliance against the Emperor. Otto discovered the Pope’s plot and, after defeating and imprisoning Berengar, marched on Rome.

John XII fled from Rome, and Otto, upon his arrival in Rome, summoned a council and deposed John XII as Pope, appointing Leo VIII as his successor.

Otto returned to Germany by the end of 963, confident his rule in Italy and within Rome was secure.  However, the moment he was gone, John XII began stirring up trouble behind him.  The Roman populace considered Leo VIII, a layman with no former ecclesiastical training and loyal to Otto, unacceptable as Pope.  

In February 964, at the provocations of John XII, the Roman people forced Leo VIII to flee the city. Leo VIII was deposed and John XII was restored to the chair of St. Peter.

When John XII died suddenly in May 964, the Romans elected Pope Benedict V as his successor.

Upon hearing of the Romans’ actions, Otto mobilized his army and returned to Italy. After marching on Rome and laying siege to the city in June 964, Otto compelled the Romans to accept his appointee Leo VIII as Pope and exiled Benedict V. 

Otto had proven who was in charge.  He had the army.  Whatever Otto wanted, Otto got. 

If Otto wanted the practice of simony to continue, then it would continue.  The consequence was that now bishops and abbots continued to usually part of the ruling nobility themselves.

The German Princes

The practice of simony posed a real problem for the Pope.  It meant that practically every appointment on his staff was out of his control.  It meant that most of his administrative staff was more loyal to the Emperor or to local nobles than to him. 

Although history typically concentrates on the key players such as the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, the German princes, aka "the nobility" were actively involved in the ongoing conflicts.

The fascinating thing about this whole scenario is that the nobility was just as much a player as the Emperor and the Pope.  Because both the Emperor and Pope were elected positions, once the nobility discovered that they had quite a bit of say-so in which particular man got elected and which didn't, they turned into spoiled brats.  Like kids who play Mom and Pop against each other, over time the nobility found that they had the ability to get what they wanted by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the men who wished to occupy vacancies in the seat of power.

The practice of simony was of extreme importance to both the Emperor and the nobles.  Not only could a King or a noble acquire large sums of money from selling high church appointments, he could put friends in high places who were loyal to him.

The nobility developed a clever trick.  Literacy was a pre-requisite to obtaining a church appointment.  However, education was also quite rare in those times. So the nobles developed a system whereby the older siblings in the family would inherit the land and titles while the younger sons of the nobility were assigned the task of learning to read and acquire religious training. When the time came, someone in the family would be prepared to be appointed as bishop or abbot. 

As one might gather, there was a huge premium on having big, strapping healthy boys.  Only boys could be kings.  Only boys could be warriors.  Only boys could find positions of importance in the Church.  Only boys could inherit lands. 

People died young in those days. Life spans weren't very long. The big problem was that disease held a vastly upper hand to knowledge.  Sanitation was poor.  Plague was a constant threat. Infection was a danger.  One fever could end things quickly.  Therefore everyone wanted to have lots of boys in case some of them died in war or to disease. 

Furthermore, having children was a real headache.  As we saw in the case of our friend Teutberga coming up barren, many arranged marriages saw men trapped to women who could not bear children.  For example, Anne of Austria, wife to France's Louis III, spent twenty-three years of marriage trying to produce an heir.  After four miscarriages, Anne finally gave birth to a son, the future Louis XIV.  The birth was considered a "miracle" at the time, but more likely Anne discretely switched to another man in her desperation to fulfill her duty.

Giving birth was serious business. Due to poor sanitary habits, child birth often resulted in the death of the child or death of the mother or both.  Furthermore, having a healthy, intelligent boy was a lot harder than one might imagine.  The health of the child was never taken for granted.  Due to ignorance about the dangers of inbreeding, cousins married all the time.  The result was that many royal children were sickly, deformed, and oft times moronic.

The Church didn't make things any easier by prohibiting divorce (e.g. Henry VIII of England and his shenanigans of getting rid of one wife after another trying to have a male heir). 

Bottom Line: Due to the difficulty having a healthy male child with a good head on his shoulders, hereditary lines died out all the time.

For example, Otto I became Emperor in 962. He was succeeded as Emperor by Otto II by Otto III by Henry II and then his line died out in 1024.  Four men lasted a sum total of of 42.  Men simply didn't live very long in those days.  In only 42 years, the line established by Otto I was gone. 

What to do?  Elect a new line.  Note the key word "elect".  Here is an opportunity where the German Princes could sell their votes to the highest bidder.  In other words, the German Kings were often just barely more powerful than the Princes themselves.

Henry III and Benedict IX

After the Saxon-based Ottonian dynasty of emperors died off thanks to the childless Emperor Henry II, Conrad II was elected to succeed him as King in 1024 at the age of 34.  Conrad founded his own dynasty of rulers.  Known as the Salian dynasty, this line lasted 111 years before it too died off.

The Salian line included four men - Conrad, Henry III, Henry IV, and Henry V - who ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1024 to 1135.

After Conrad came Henry III in 1046.  Henry III (1017-1056) presided over perhaps the strangest era in Papal history.  The story of Henry III would set the stage for one of the most important personal showdowns in European history.

Of course, this story about the History of Germany has been a long one, but we really do need to stop here and take a close look at the remarkable story of a truly despicable Pope.  Benedict IX was remarkable all right, but not in the normal sense.  Despite a legion of some really bad Popes to pick from, Benedict IX is considered one of the Ten Worst Popes in history. 

Let's read some of Benedict's press clippings.

  St. Peter Damian is alleged to have described him as "feasting on immorality", accusing him of routine homosexuality and bestiality. Benedict was said to be the first pope to have been primarily homosexual.  He was said to have held orgies in the Lateran palace.

  Papal historian Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote about Benedict, "It seemed as if a demon from hell, in the disguise of a priest, occupied the chair of Peter and profaned the sacred mysteries of religion by his insolent courses."

  The Catholic Encyclopedia calls him "a disgrace to the Chair of Peter."

  Benedict was accused by Bishop Benno of Piacenza of "many vile adulteries and murders".

  Pope Victor III, in his third book of Dialogues, referred to Benedict in this way: "his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it."

Benedict IX holds several strange records.  He was the only man ever to be Pope twice.  In fact, Benedict was Pope three times and narrowly missed at a fourth shot!!

Benedict holds another dubious record - he is the only Pope to ever sell his position!  Even more bizarre, he did it twice!

As pointed out earlier, Benedict is the only man to have served as Pope for three discontinuous periods.  He was Pope for 12 years from 1032 to 1044.  Benedict gave up his papacy the first time in exchange for a large sum of money in 1044 to Pope Sylvester

Benedict returned in 1045 to depose his replacement Sylvester.  He stuck around and reigned for one month. Then Benedict left again, possibly to marry. Now he sold the papacy for a second time in 1045, this time to Gregory, his godfather.

Two years later, Benedict was back again.  This time he ruled from 1047 to 1048.

So how did Benedict get away with this shameful behavior?   Or for that matter, how did Benedict get elected in the first place?

The answer is a bit of a mystery, but the most likely reason was that Conrad II, the emperor at the time (1032), was preoccupied with his own problems up in Germany 1,000 miles away.  Let us not forget that travel was measured in weeks, not days.  So with Conrad out of the picture, Roman politics kicked in.  Benedict was not only the nephew of two previous pope, he was also the son of a very powerful Roman family.  So Benedict got the nod in 1032.

In 1039, out of the blue, all sorts of European rulers started dying. First Conrad II died unexpectedly. Immediately his son Henry III took over.   With more rulers dying right and left, in short order Henry became a triple-duke (Bavaria, Swabia, and Carinthia) and triple-king (Germany, Burgundy, and Italy).  Henry, 22 at the time, quickly found himself immersed in putting out fires throughout his kingdoms in Europe.  Henry III was so preoccupied, it took him seven years before he finally got around to paying attention to the problems in Rome. 

Meanwhile Benedict IX was making a disgrace out of his position.  In 1045, when Benedict sold his papacy for the second time, once Henry III got the news, Henry decided the time had come to step in.  In 1046, Henry III traveled down to Rome and fired all three of the clowns - Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI - and took the time to find one he liked in Pope Clement II

Shortly after Clement had been appointed Pope, Clement turned around and crowned Henry III to the position of Holy Roman Emperor in 1946. This filled the vacancy that had lasted for seven years since Conrad's death.  Satisfied the Church was finally in good hands, Henry left Italy and headed back to Germany.

Clement II was indeed a good man.  Only one problem.  Clement was busy making plans for reform when he died suddenly two years into his reign.  Considering Clement had been in perfect health, everyone suspected that Pope Clement II had been poisoned.  As it turns out, they were absolutely right.  A toxicologic examination of his remains in the mid-20th century confirmed the centuries-old rumors that the Pope had indeed been poisoned with lead sugar. 

Now who would do a thing like this?  Well, Suspect Number One would have to be Benedict IX, the man who had been fired by Henry III.  After all, Benedict had the most to gain. Interestingly, once Benedict IX noticed there was a Papal opening, he campaigned to take Clement's place.  

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened.  With Henry III in Germany, during the time it took Church officials to send word to Henry and ask what to do next, our favorite anti-pope Benedict IX stepped into the vacuum and became Pope again.  Benedict would reign for one year until 1048.

A religious leader named Poppo of Brixen eventually forced Benedict out of Rome.  Poppo became the next pope under the name Damasus II.  Only one problem... Damasus II lasted as Pope for all of 23 days.   And then he died.

Three weeks.  Hmm.  That was kind of fast.  Does the reader have a suspicious mind? 

  Fact One: Benedict was said to be a highly immoral man, a person who showed little respect for the Church he was supposed to serve.

  Fact Two: Two of the shortest papal tenures in history occurred while Benedict, one of the absolute worst popes in history, was hanging around Rome. 

  Fact Three: It has been proven that one of those Popes was poisoned.

  Fact Four:  Poppo's worst enemy was Benedict. 

Given the (correct) belief that Clement had been poisoned, it didn't take much to suspect further foul play.  Whenever Benedict was around, popes had a strange way of dying. 

This set of circumstances gave rise to rumors that Poppo was also poisoned.  The finger was pointed at Gerhard Brazutus, a good friend of Benedict IX, as a likely suspect. 

It did not help that with Poppo/Damasus out of the way, Benedict began attempts to regain the Papal Throne for the fourth time.  This led people to speculate that Benedict had Poppo poisoned not just for revenge, but also so Benedict could become Pope yet again. 

Benedict was unsuccessful in landing a fourth term thanks to the looming shadow of Henry III from afar.  Instead the papacy remained empty for a year until Henry could find the right man.  In 1049 Henry III stepped back in and appointed Leo IX, a man widely considered the most historically significant German Pope of the Middle Ages.  Leo was so excellent that he would later be declared a saint.

Pope Leo IX was a reform Pope.  Besides his condemnation of clerical marriage, his stand against simony and the loss of the church's properties meant that he was serious about solving the most serious problems of the Church.  Unfortunately, Leo died before he could see his work carried out.  His term lasted only five years until his death in 1054.

Leo was succeeded by Pope Victor II in 1055.  Victor was a kinsman and friend to Henry.   Like Clement and Leo before him, Victor was also a good man.  Like Leo before him, Victor was also a reform Pope and Victor also condemned the practice of simony... which was rather ironic because Victor owed his position to simony in the first place.

Victor would be at his friend's side at Henry's deathbed.  Sadly, Pope Victor lived only one more year after Henry III's death.  As we shall see, this odd circumstance would prove to be very significant.

Henry's legacy was a strange one.  On the one hand, Henry III had been one of the most powerful of all the Holy Roman Emperors. His authority as king in Burgundy, Germany, and Italy was only rarely questioned.  His ostensible relationship with the Church was termed a positive one.  Henry was not responsible for Benedict at all; Benedict was appointed by his father Conrad. Once the insanity in Rome became apparent, Henry replaced Benedict.  In fact, Henry not only got rid of Benedict, his three choices for Pope - Clement, Leo, and Victor - had all been good men.

It wasn't Henry's fault that Pope Benedict turned out to be a serial killer.


The Catholic Church Makes its Move

Henry III's relationship with the Church is often pronounced a failure in that he apparently left problems far beyond the capacities of his successors to handle.  Henry knew about these problems in the Church and basically ignored them.  During Henry's 17 year reign, many times Henry chose not to leave Germany in case there might be an uprising during his absence.  His constant absence allowed huge problems in the Church to grow unchecked.

Meanwhile the Church was having a bad run of luck.  Previous Papal elections had been effectively controlled by the Roman aristocracy, unless the Emperor was strong enough to be able to intervene from a distance to impose his will.  However, the insanity of Benedict's disgraceful reign had made it clear the current system of selecting Popes was not working.

Unfortunately, Benedict's replacements Clement, Leo, and Victor had all died before they could enact the much-needed reforms. 

Now, however, that luck was about to change.  Henry III's death gave the Church a rare opportunity to make a significant change.

Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII

What a story. 

Henry IV (1050–1106), son of Henry III, had ascended to King of the Germans in 1056 at the age of six.   However, his mother Agnes would rule as Regent until he came of age.

There had been six new popes since the embarrassment of Benedict.  Each man pope had fretted about the problem of simony.  They knew full well there was so much in the Church that needed to change, but how?

An opportunity came in 1056 when Henry III died and Henry IV became German king at six years of age.

The reformers knew that as long as the emperor maintained the ability to appoint the pope, they would never be able to take control of their own house. So their first step was to forcibly gain the papacy from the control of the emperor.  The reformers seized the opportunity to take the papacy by force while Henry was still a child and could not react.   In 1059 a church council in Rome declared that leaders of the nobility would no longer have any part in the selection of popes.  They created the College of Cardinals as a body of electors made up entirely of church officials. 

Now in control of electing their own pope, the College of Cardinals could carefully choose the right man to lead them. 

Running on a parallel path to Henry IV was a Tuscan priest named Hildebrand (1015-1085).  In 1073, the charismatic Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII. He was 58 at the time.  Hildebrand was destined to change the course of history.  During his 12-year term, Pope Gregory VII would become one of the greatest popes to ever occupy the papal throne; he was a true reformer who acted out of religious zeal.  He would become the man who did something about simony. 

In 1075, that parallel course turned into a collision course instead when Pope Gregory decreed that the Pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen.  Gregory had decided to forcefully taking the power of "investiture", the act of appointing bishops from the Holy Roman Emperor and place that power wholly within control of the Church.  This began the Investiture Controversy.

By this time, Henry IV was no longer a child.   Henry reacted to this declaration by sending Gregory VII an angry letter in which he withdrew his imperial support of Gregory as Pope in no uncertain terms.

The letter began "Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk".  It called for the election of a new Pope. His letter ends, "I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages."

Henry defied Gregory and continued to appoint his own bishops.  In other words, Henry IV was going to continue to sell church appointments whether Gregory liked it or not and Henry intended to remove Gregory from office for good measure. 

The situation came to a head when Henry IV installed his chaplain, Tedald, as Bishop of Milan, when another priest of Milan, Atto, had already been chosen in Rome by the pope for candidacy.

In 1076 Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry, removing him from the Church and deposing (i.e. removing) him as German king.

Pope Gregory VII excommunicating Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV

After much bluster on both sides, the advantage gradually came to the side of Gregory VII because the German princes and the aristocracy saw a great opportunity.  Happy to hear of the king's removal as "Emperor", they used religious reasons to continue a major rebellion started in 1075. 

This began a seizure of royal holdings.  Aristocrats claimed local lordships over peasants and property, built forts (which had previously been outlawed) and built up localized fiefdoms to secure their autonomy from the empire.

Seeing his empire disintegrate, Henry IV had no choice but to back down.  He needed time to marshal his forces to fight the rebellion in his homeland.  So in 1077 Henry IV traveled to Canossa in northern Italy to meet the Pope and apologize in person.  It was a famous moment because it marked the first time an Emperor had ever given in to the authority of the Pope.

By pitting the nobility against the King/Emperor, Gregory had finally found a way to check the previously undisputed control of the Emperor. Emperor Henry IV had been one of the most powerful men in Europe.  Now he was forced to spend the rest of his life dealing with people who were suddenly willing to give him problems. 

Amazingly, the Church had finally gained the upper hand.  However, the fight wasn't over.  The conflict between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII was only the early part of the Investiture Controversy. That controversy would be continued by later kings, emperors, and popes for several centuries.


Frederick Barbarossa

When Frederick I (1122-1190), previously Frederick Barbarossa of Hohenstaufen, was chosen as king in 1152, royal power had been in effective abeyance to a considerable degree for more than eighty years.  The Germany that Frederick had inherited was a patchwork of more than 1600 individual states, each with its own prince. A few of these states such as Bavaria and Saxony were large, but many were too small to even pinpoint on a map. 

This ridiculous situation was a direct consequence of the fight between Henry IV and Pope Gregory.  The reigns of Henry IV and and his son Henry V left the status of the German empire in complete disarray, its power waning under the weight of the Investiture Controversy.

The German monarchy had become a nominal title with no real power. The king was chosen by the princes, he was given no resources outside those of his own duchy, and he was prevented from exercising any real authority or leadership in the realm.

Once the supreme authority of the German King/ Holy Roman Emperor had been shattered, the various princes and nobles began to fight amongst themselves as well as prey upon the weak.  They seized every chance they could to grab new chunks of land.  As civil wars broke out throughout the land, Germany became increasingly subdivided. 

The Germany Frederick Barbarossa inherited was in a state of constant civil war.  Frederick made it his goal to put an end to this fighting.  However, it wouldn't be easy. The German princes, far from being subordinated to royal control, were intensifying their hold on wealth and power in Germany and entrenching their positions.

When Frederick came to the throne, the prospects for the revival of German imperial power were extremely thin. The great German princes had increased their power and land holdings. The king had been left with only the traditional family domains and a vestige of power over the bishops and abbeys. The backwash of the Investiture controversy had left the German states in continuous turmoil. Rival states were in perpetual war.  These conditions allowed Frederick to be an occasional peace-maker. 

Interestingly, Barbarossa did not use force to end the fighting, but rather diplomacy.   Frederick was a pragmatist who dealt with the princes by finding areas of mutual self-interest.  Using his natural gifts of mediation and his family ties, Barbarossa was able to unite the various warring Germanic factions and create peace. 

To be able to patch Germany back together again simply through the force of his own personality was asking a bit much, but Barbarossa was largely successful. Frederick's charisma led to a fantastic juggling act in which he settled squabble after squabble mainly through negotiation.  Working his magic over a quarter of a century, Frederick restored the imperial authority in the German states.

That said, in the end, Frederick failed to achieve his dream of a Central European Empire.  He really never had a chance - his enemies were far too formidable to force them to actually unite, especially with the Pope constantly using his tricks to turn various Princes against Barbarossa.  But at least Frederick was able to get the various powers to cooperate and stop fighting.  Therefore Frederick left behind a legacy of a strong ruler who was able to create peace.

Frederick II, Barbarossa's grandson, did a good job of continuing the balancing act.  By playing the various German states against each other, the lions stayed largely in check.  The 100 year period of the two Fredericks was largely a time of peace in the German realm.

This changed abruptly after the death of Friedrich II.  Germany again plunged into civil war when Frederick's Hohenstaufen rule ended. The sovereign rulers of the empire's various regions began anew to quarrel over property rights and there was no one to mediate.  Thanks to constant war, the economy and culture of the area lagged greatly behind the rest of Europe. Then came the worst curse of all when the Black Death pandemic swept through Europe.  In some areas, up to one-third of the population died off.

On the surface, it appeared the Church had won the long struggle. However, from this point on, the Church overplayed its hand. The people of Europe watched as one pope after another used his office for political reasons rather than spiritual reasons. As a result, confidence in the position of the pope declined steadily over time. The constant involvement of various popes in worldly matters sowed the seeds of rebellion against the authority of the Church.

With the passing of Frederick Barbarossa and his grandson, Germany lay shattered.  Germany would remain in pieces for another 600 years.

During these harsh times, the constant suffering created a longing among the people for the days of the bygone dynasty and the great red-bearded leader. After a few centuries of passing on his legend by word of mouth, Frederick I became commonly known as "Barbarossa".  By the 16th century the legend of "Barbarossa" had become quite elaborate, quite possibly outstripping the man's actual accomplishments.  The name "Barbarossa" had become the symbol of the general population's growing desire for a united Germany. 

The Barbarossa cult became even more pronounced in the late 19th century.  William I, the eventual founder of the German Empire, is said to have benefited greatly from the legacy of Frederick Barbarossa.

The Germany of Frederick Barbarossa's day (1152) was said to be divided into 1600 individual states.  This 1648 map suggests that Germany continues to be subdivided into a vast number of separate entities that are basically independent nation-states. 

Take note that much of Germany belonged to the Church.  All those "territoires ecclesiastiques" colored in mauve are church property.

Also note that these small, divided nation states are ripe for conquest by the larger states surrounding them such as Austria, Poland, France, Denmark, and Sweden.  Divided Germany was something of a sitting duck.


Patchwork Germany

What a mess.  Back in the days of Otto I, no one ever foresaw these problems.  From Otto's point of view, the Emperor would always be in charge.  However, the fact that the seat of King/Emperor was an elected position became an Achilles Heel.

Once Pope Gregory began the process of eroding the Emperor's power, Frederick Barbarossa was the last man to effectively challenge the Papal authority.  Once he was gone, the next 600 years of Emperors were all severely restricted by the near-equal power of the various Prince Electors.  At no time could the Emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the Empire.  The Emperor always had to answer to the German Princes. 

From the High Middle Ages onwards, the HRE was marked by an uneasy coexistence of meddling popes and the princes of the local territories who were always looking for ways to take power away from the Emperor.

To a greater extent than in other medieval kingdoms such as France and England, the Emperors were unable to gain much control over the lands they 'formally owned', but were ruled over by other leaders such as the Princes. 

Furthermore, since the King and Emperor positions were "elected", the Emperors were vulnerable to being voted out. 

This was crippling.  Now instead of consolidating the far-flung territories into a cohesive unit, Emperors were forced to grant more and more autonomy to princes, nobles and bishops to secure their position from a threat of being deposed. 

This process had begun in the 11th century with the Investiture Controversy.  From that point on, each Emperor struggled to regain the upper hand, but were thwarted both by the papacy and by the princes of the Empire. 

Germany began as an assemblage of a number of once separate and independent people and kingdoms known as duchies.

When Louis the German took over East Francia in 843 after the Treaty of Verdun, the area was subdivided into several sub-kingdoms known as "Stem Duchies". 

These duchies were essentially the domains of the old Germanic tribes of the area that had first settled there such as the Saxons (Saxony).

Bavaria was another stem duchy.  Bavaria is one of the oldest continuously existing states in Europe. It was established as a stem duchy in the year 907.  In the 17th century, the Duke of Bavaria became a Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Within the large stem duchies, there were also hundreds of small, German-speaking principalities.  For example, modern Bavaria includes parts of the historical regions of Franconia, Upper Palatinate and Swabia.  These were all independent nation-states at some point in time.

Oddly enough, medieval England and France once looked the same way.  They were just as divided as Germany. 

However, while England and France used the power of the throne to become unified into large, coherent nations with central authority, the German lands remained separate.

We have seen the difference boiled down to the weakness of the Emperor.  He could be voted out of office.  He couldn't tell the princes what to do with their own lands. 

At various points during the 800 years of the HRE, the Emperor was more cheerleader than actual leader, more puppet than potentate.  He was forced to watch helplessly as his "Empire" became increasingly chopped into bits and pieces.

In the end, the problems in Germany could be attributed directly to the constant interference of the Church and the manipulation of the German princes. 

Once the Church undermined the authority of the Emperor starting with Henry IV, the princes became the real power.  Lacking any central authority, the inmates ruled the asylum.  The constant civil wars kept Germany separated.

Another problem was a process known as feudal fragmentation.  Each German nation-state had significant autonomy to the point of outright independence.  Each state was ruled by a high-ranking noble such as a prince or a duke.

Feudal fragmentation occurs after the death of the legitimate ruler who leaves no clear heir. Fragmentation also occurs when the legitimate rule subdivides his territory to several heirs.

Besides the large stem duchies, within them were hundreds of small, German-speaking principalities, most of which derived from successive dynastic splits.

Due to this bizarre system, other than war, the fast way to grow a dynasty and acquire land was to MARRY someone else with land and merge the territories.

Principalities were sometimes united through royal marriages, but the resulting entity was often not a contiguous territory.  Princes might control two or three territories hundreds of miles apart.

The number of territories in the Empire was considerable, rising to approximately 300 at the time of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Many of these Kleinstaaten ("little states") covered no more than a few square miles, or included several non-contiguous pieces.  The Empire was called a Flickenteppich ("patchwork carpet").

Over time, these small states modernized their military, judicial, and economic administrations.  These institutions hardly existed at the imperial level.  The emperor was little more than a feudalistic figurehead, a man without political or military clout. 

Many of the princes had better armies than the emperor.  This was by design; the princes did not wish to give up control to a central leader. 

If anyone had given this any thought, they would see the lack of centralized authority meant German lands were ripe for invasion.  United we stand, divided we fall. 

Never in their wildest dreams did the princes guess their own Emperor would do something so stupid as to cripple the Kingdom of Germany for the next two centuries.


1789 was the year of the French Revolution.  As this map indicates, over the past eight centuries, German territory had been sliced and diced into something resembling Swiss Cheese. 

Estimates of the total number of German states at any given time during the 18th century varies range from 294 to 348 separate nation-states.  This crazy map gives a good idea of just how fragmented Germany had become. 

Although we are jumping ahead somewhat, note that the important nation state of Saxony was now in the Habsburg Austrian domain.  In the 18th and 19th century, Austria was the dominant power.  And notice how large Brandenburg has become. 

Below is the same map enlarged.

In the summer of 1789, young Wilhelm von Humboldt and some friends, left Brunswick, capital of the Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, for France to observe the revolutionary events unfolding in Paris. 

Von Humboldt wrote that he would need to enter and exit six duchies, four bishoprics (land owned by the Church) and one Free Imperial City (Aachen) simply to reach the French border. 

See how long it takes you to locate the red star on the map which marks his home territory (Braunschweig).  The struggle to locate the red star will reflect the absurdity of how complicated this map is.


Martin Luther

One of the most important figures in European history was Martin Luther.  Martin Luther changed the world.  He also unwittingly got a lot of people killed in the process. 

Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) was a German monk, Catholic priest, and professor of theology. Luther became the key figure of a reform movement in 16th century Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation.

The Investiture Controversy had reversed the abuses of State power under "simony", the practice of selling high church offices against the will of the church.  However, once the Church had the upper hand, the Church had begun to abuse its own power as well.  The Church had begun selling places in Heaven!!

Current Roman Catholic theology stated that faith alone could not guarantee man's place in Heaven. Justification depended on charity and good works.  The benefits of good works could be obtained most easily by donating money to the church.  Luther didn't agree. 

On 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences.  Among Luther's points was Thesis 86 which asked: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"

Luther also objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs into heaven".

Luther insisted that forgiveness was God's alone to grant. He added those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

Luther strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with monetary values. Luther taught that salvation and subsequently eternity in heaven is not earned by good deeds but is received only as a free gift of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin.

It should be no surprise to learn that Luther had made a powerful enemy. The Pope was incensed.

Luther's theology had directly challenged the authority of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God.

In 1520 Pope Leo X demanded Luther retract all of his writings.  Luther's refusal resulted in his excommunication by the Pope.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V took note.  This was his chance to protect the Church and the Papacy.  Charles summoned Luther to a meeting to renounce or reaffirm his views.

At the Imperial Diet of Worms on 28 January 1521, Luther gave a brilliant defense of his ideas.  His presentation was so powerful that several leaders in the audience were shocked to realize his ideas made actually sense. 

They also could not believe the Church had been stupid enough to give this brilliant man an open forum for his ideas.

It was common knowledge that Luther's fate had been sealed long before this meeting even took place.  Luther was surely a dead man.  But maybe not. 

Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate.  Then came the verdict. 

The Emperor declared Luther an outlaw, banned his literature, and ordered his arrest. 

"We want Luther to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic." 

Martin Luther gives a brilliant explanation of his ideas at the 1521 Diet of Worms

The problem was that Luther had disappeared. 

Now they had to find him.  The verdict made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter; it also permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence. 

About the same time as the verdict was being read, Luther had been on the road walking home.  To his shock, he was accosted by masked horsemen who insisted he come with them against his will.  As Luther would learn, it was all an act.  Prince Frederick, Duke of Saxony, had decided to "kidnap" Luther for his own good.  He made his men appear as armed highwaymen to disguise his involvement.  In reality Frederick was taking steps to protect Luther from certain death.  It was a brilliant move.

While in captivity, Luther would write a German version of the Bible. He would soon form his own Lutheran church which led to the Protestant Reformation

Centuries of resentment towards the Catholic Church and its abuses resulted in mass defections.  Now that people had a CHOICE of religion, countless Protestant churches began to appear across Germany.  Overnight this new religion would create a huge schism within Western Christianity.  Soon this schism would lead to the terrible European wars of religion.

Martin Luther had unwittingly brought the equivalent of a Biblical Plague right to the doorstep of Germany.  7 million people were doomed to die in the religious wars that would soon follow. 

1618-1648: The Thirty Years War

As if Germany didn't have enough problems already, Germany was now further subdivided along religious lines. Martin Luther's Reformation in 1517 pitted the religious beliefs of Catholics versus Protestants. 

Germany had hundreds of rulers, some of them famous, most of them forgotten.  Every one of the rulers was either important or thought he was important. 

They wanted control and greatly resisted external authority. They invariably coveted the lands of their neighbors, but now they had a new excuse to fight:  Religion!!

The Reformation meant that many states within the Catholic HRE had suddenly become Protestant instead. The backlash was predictable.  Catholic rulers decided they had the God-given right to change the religion of their neighbors by force. 

The concept of religious tolerance simply did not exist back in those times.  Over the next century, states headed by Roman Catholic dynasties faced those ruled by Protestant dynasties in a seemingly neverending series of religious conflicts.

As far as Dynasties were concerned, there was one dynasty that stood out above all others - the Roman Catholic Habsburg Family. They controlled territory in Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia.

The power base of the Habsburg family had begun in Switzerland in the 1000s.  From there, the family had moved its power base to the Duchy of Austria. Each century marked new acquisitions of land.

At times the family used force to expand its territory, but mainly it used a series of dynastic marriages to vastly expand its domains.  By marrying the rich to the rich and rulers to the rulers, Burgundy, Spain,  Hungary, Bohemia, and other territories all came by inheritance.

The House of Habsburg produced kings of various Dutch and Italian countries, Spain, Bohemia, England, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Ireland, and Portugal. The throne of the HRE was continuously occupied by the Habsburgs between 1438 and 1740.

The most powerful Habsburg of all was Charles V.  Under Charles, the Habsburg dynasty achieved the position of being a true world power. 

Charles was unhappy that there were holes separating his various territories.  It was his ambition to see an unbroken empire across the continent.  He came close.  Charles stretched the House of Habsburg so far across Europe that he was said to rule "the empire on which the sun never sets".

Charles V was best known for his constant battles with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), but in his spare time as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles was also the man who organized the initial counter-attack to the Protestant Reformation

However, it would be left to Ferdinand, brother of Charles V, who caused the greatest war in European history to date.

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) began when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II of Bohemia attempted to curtail the religious activities of his subjects.

One needs to remember the duty of the Holy Roman Emperor is to protect the Catholic Church.  Ferdinand II assumed he had the right to tell his people which religion they should choose "or else".

This of course sparked rebellion among the Protestants of the realm. 

During the 16th century, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation had divided all of Germany into hostile Protestant and Catholic camps, each prepared to seek foreign support to guarantee its integrity if need arose.  Well, the need arose.

In 1618, when Ferdinand II used his authority as the Holy Roman Emperor to curtail certain religious privileges enjoyed by his subjects, they immediately appealed for aid to Protestants in the rest of the empire and to the leading foreign Protestant states: Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Denmark.

Ferdinand now called upon the German Catholics (led by Bavaria), Spain, and the papacy to send armies in support.

Not surprisingly, Ferdinand's coalition known as the Imperial Army dominated Phase I and Phase II of the ensuing war.

Ferdinand and his allies won a major victory at White Mountain (1620) outside Prague thanks to the Imperial armies commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein.  This victory was so complete that let to the extirpation (extinction) of Protestantism in most of the Hapsburg lands (Austria, Bohemia).

Encouraged by his success, Ferdinand turned in 1621 against Bohemia’s Protestant supporters in Germany. Despite aid from Britain, Denmark, and the Dutch Republic, the Protestants lost again.

In 1629, imperial armies commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein, a brilliant Bohemian military leader, overran most of Protestant Germany and much of Denmark.

Ferdinand assumed he had won. He then issued the Edict of Restitution, reclaiming lands in the empire belonging to the Catholic Church that had been acquired and secularized by Protestant rulers. 

One of the interesting stories throughout the war involved Wallenstein.  This talented general had never been defeated in a major battle.  However he was released from service in August 1630 after Ferdinand grew wary of his ambition.

Immediately the Protestants began to win.  Several Protestant victories over Catholic armies induced Ferdinand to recall Wallenstein, who again turned the war in favor of the Imperial cause.

However, Emperor Ferdinand dismissed him for the second time out of fear that Wallenstein was becoming too powerful.

Dissatisfied with the Emperor's treatment, Wallenstein considered allying with the Protestants.  However, he was assassinated at Cheb in Bohemia by one of the army's officials, Walter Devereux, acting with Emperor Ferdinand's approval.

Had Wallenstein lived, Europe's map might look very different today.  Instead, with Wallenstein out of the picture, the Protestants made a comeback.  

It took Swedish military aid to save the Protestant cause. In 1630 an army led by Gustavus Adolphus landed in Germany. 

Thanks to a subsidy from the French government and assistance from many German Protestant states, Adolphus routed the Imperialists at Breitenfeld (1631) and drove them from Germany.

The Protestant revival continued until 1634.  A Spanish army raised by the Habsburgs intervened at Nordlingen to defeat the main Swedish army and force the Protestants out of southern Germany.

This new Hapsburg success had an unexpected consequence.  France had played only a support role till now.  But the growing power of the Habsburg family created a fear of encirclement - Spain, Austria, and Germany were threats.  It was time to ensure that Germany stayed out of Habsburg hands 

France declared war first on Habsburg Spain (1635) and then on Ferdinand, the Habsburg HRE emperor (1636). 

Previously the war had been fought principally by German states with foreign assistance throughout the 1620s.

With the entrance of France, now this war escalated to become a struggle among the great powers - Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria.  Suddenly major campaigns involving countless thousands of troops were fought largely on German soil.

What had started out as a localized battle suddenly became the most brutal and all-encompassing war Europe had ever seen.

For the next 12 years, 500 armies maneuvered for supremacy in every corner of German territory.  These armies carried out a “dirty war”.  The destruction caused by mercenary soldiers defied description. Even if something wasn't valuable to them, they destroyed it anyway if it might be of possible use to the enemy. 

Horrible atrocities were committed that came close to being flat out genocide.  For example, in Protestant Magdeburg, once the Imperial soldiers broke through after a long siege, they lost control. 

The invading soldiers had not received payment for their service.  Now they took the chance to loot everything in sight; they demanded valuables from every household that they encountered.

Otto von Guericke, an inhabitant of Magdeburg, claimed that when civilians ran out of things to give the soldiers, "the misery really began. For then the soldiers began to beat, frighten, and threaten to shoot, skewer, or hang the people."

The attackers set fire to the city and started to massacre the inhabitants. It took only one day for all of this destruction and death to transpire. Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived.

Eventually the war came to end. It was France's intervention that brought things back under control. 

France’s victory over the Spaniards at Rocroi (1643) and Sweden’s defeat of the Imperialists at Jankau (1645) forced the Hapsburgs to make concessions that led to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

What had started as a religious war ended as a war between states. 

The Habsburgs were well on their way to victory till Roman Catholic France and Orthodox Catholic Russia intervened.  So much for religious differences. 

The irony was obvious.  What had started as a war of religion ended as a World War where religion no longer mattered. 

If anything good came of the Thirty Years War, it was that people became much more accepting of religious differences.  What a shame it was that 7 million people had to die so the living could figure it out.

Along the way, the Holy Roman Empire lost much of what remained of its power.  It would never again be a significant actor on the international stage again.

The Habsburgs would continue to be crowned kings and emperors, but their strength would derive from their family holdings, not as leaders of the HRE.

Map of the Habsburg Family Dynasty. This is "the empire on which the sun never sets."

Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, responsible for sparking a war that killed 7.5 million people, most of whom were civilians. 

Albrecht von Wallenstein

The Massacre of Magdeburg in 1630 convinced many Protestant rulers in the Holy Roman Empire to join Sweden's Adolphus and take a stand against the Catholic emperor.

It also printed on Protestant minds the indelible conviction that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion.

Charles V and Maria Theresa.   The secret weapon of the Habsburg Family was their uncanny knack to have members intermarry into other royal houses in order to build alliances and inherit territory. Empress Maria Theresa is recognized quite notably for it; she is referred to as the "Great-Grandmother of Europe".  For example, Marie Antoinette was the fifteenth of sixteen children of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I.

The political side of the Habsburg dynasty ended with World War I. However the family itself came to an end in a very strange way.  The Habsburgs sought to consolidate their power by the use of frequent marriages within their own family. Marriages between first cousins, or between uncles and nieces, were commonplace in the family.  If one married "inside the family", one did not have to divide and share the land with another family.

This tactic was successful in keeping the vast lands to themselves, but it backfired in a strange way.  Over time this practice resulted in a cumulatively deleterious effect on their gene pool. A study of 3,000 family members over 16 generations suggests that inbreeding led directly to their extinction. The gene pool eventually became so small that the last of the Spanish line Charles II, who was severely disabled from birth, perhaps by genetic disorders, possessed a genome comparable to that of a child born to a brother and sister, as did his father, likely due to "remote inbreeding".

Peace of Westphalia

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia largely settled German affairs for the next two centuries. It ended religious conflicts between the states and included official recognition of Calvinism.

The document altered the boundaries of the HRE by recognizing Switzerland and the Netherlands had become sovereign states outside the empire.

Germany itself was absolutely devastated. This war constituted the worst catastrophe ever to afflict Germany to date.

Anywhere from 25% to 40% of the overall population in the area was dead.  Half the men in Germany were dead. It would take a century to replace the fallen.

The scorched earth policies had leveled entire villages. Castles were destroyed, cities were ruined, farmlands and forests had been burned to the ground.

Germany's economy was severely disrupted by the ravages of the Thirty Years' War. The war created an economic decline as the European economy shifted westward to the Atlantic states - France, England, Spain, Netherlands and Belgium.

Germany had been disunited throughout its history, but it had at least been prosperous.  Its people were industrious and diligent.  Using its location at the center of Europe and the Baltic Sea, the Germans had been leaders for centuries in the Hanseatic League, a vitally important commercial confederation. 

That was all over.  The shift in trade meant that Germany was no longer located at the center of European commerce but rather on its fringes. The Hansa towns in the north became completely dominated by the Dutch.

The thriving economies of many German towns in the late Middle Ages gradually dried up thanks to the long war.  Germany would now enter a long period of economic stagnation that would extend over the next two hundred years.

The real change in Germany was the loss of morale.  For 30 years, German states had waged war on other German states in what amounted to a German "Civil War".  Germans had fought Germans.  The country had been ripped asunder by religious insanity.  

Countless Germans had been murdered by his fellow man all in the name of God.  Now the hatred and distrust of fellow Germans was intense. 

Germany was split into 300 jigsaw pieces.  There was no recognized leader to pick up the pieces and put Germany back together again. 

Ferdinand II, the man who had caused this plague to begin with, had died in the middle of the war.  Ferdinand III, his son, took his place and made things even worse. In 1644 during the last stage of the war, Ferdinand III gave the right to rulers of German states to conduct their own foreign policy.

The emperor was trying to gain more allies in the negotiations with France and Sweden, but this edict backfired.

The main result was the division of Germany into even more territories — all of which, despite their membership in the HRE, won actual sovereignty. 

The Holy Roman Empire concept was reduced to ashes.  As if it were possible, Germany was less united at the end of the war than at the start.

In a sense, 300 separate countries occupied the space we now call Germany. 

These weren't "colonies" like here in America that had at least some common association.  These 300 countries all had their own flag, their own hereditary leader, and no desire at all to be a part of anything bigger.

The survivors just wanted to retreat inside their borders and be left alone to lick their wounds.  How could anyone ever possibly hope to unite a land as disorganized as Germany? 

This map drawn at the end of the Thirty Years War gives another look at the preposterous patchwork carpet of territories Germany had turned into. 

The big winners of the long war were Switzerland and Netherlands which broke away from the HRE to become independent nations.

Is this the strangest map ever? After the Thirty Years War, the European continent resembled a giant doughnut with divided Germany forming the massive pockmarked hole in the middle. 

So what does this picture mean?  Saxony, Bavaria, and Brandenburg were the only sizeable areas. In addition, there were roughly 300 small political units inside that Black Hole.  Each unit had its own leader and army.  Each unit was strong enough to withstand each other, but there was no one to unite the 300 armies against a much larger common enemy.  

Austria on the other hand was eying German territory covetously.  And so was somebody else...

Teutoberg Forest


Holy Roman Empire



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