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 A political entity in Western Europe from 800 to 1806. The Empire was in theory a revival of the Western Roman Empire?the political counterpart of the Roman Catholic Church. It was initially known as the Empire in the West. Before 1815, there was no state called Germany, in the sense we now use. There was the Holy Roman Empire, with a ruler called (officially in Latin) the Roman Emperor and which claimed to be in principle the continuation of the Roman Empire which ruled basically all of what is now Germany, as well as pieces of Italy, Austria, the Low Countries [nowadays Belgium and the Netherlands] and a few more In the 11th century it was called the Roman Empire and the title Holy Roman Empire was adopted in the 12th century. Although the borders of the empire shifted greatly throughout its history, its principal area was always that of the German states. From the 10th century its rulers were elected German kings, who usually sought, but did not always receive, imperial coronation by the popes in Rome.
This map shows the Holy Roman empire at its height. During the 1000's, the Holy Roman Empire extended from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

The emperor generally dominated the various states and principalities that made up the German nation (which included present-day Austria, the Czech Republic, part of Poland, Luxembourg, and other bordering areas) as well as northern Italy. The emperor was chosen by electors representing certain states and dioceses, but the position tended to become hereditary, as the electors usually selected the ruler's natural heir. He customarily was crowned emperor by the pope in Rome.

Holy Roman Empire flag. The Holy Roman Empire flag flew in what is now Germany from the 1200's until 1806. It features a large beagle on a yellow background.

The emperor's power depended largely on his personal and family inheritances, and on alliances. Charles V, for example, when elected emperor in 1519, was also king of Spain and his domain included the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and Spanish America. His son, Philip, was the husband of the ruling queen of England (Mary I). Charles gave Austria to his brother Ferdinand, who was also king of Bohemia and of Hungary and succeeded him as emperor. Spain, however, went to his son, who became Philip II of Spain.


The Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to revive the Western Roman Empire, whose legal and political structure deteriorated during the 5th and 6th centuries, to be replaced by independent kingdoms ruled by Germanic nobles. The Roman imperial office was vacant after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476. During the turbulent early Middle Ages the traditional concept of a temporal realm coextensive with the spiritual realm of the church had been kept alive by the popes in Rome. The Byzantine Empire, which controlled the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire from its capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), retained nominal sovereignty over the territories formerly controlled by the Western Empire, and many of the Germanic tribes that had seized these territories formally, recognized the Byzantine emperor as overlord. Partly because of this and also for other reasons, including dependence on Byzantine protection against the Lombards, the popes also recognized the sovereignty of the Eastern Empire for an extended period after the enforced abdication of Romulus Augustulus.

Romulus Augustus (fl. 461/463 ? after 476, before 488), was the last Western Roman Emperor, reigning from 31 October 475 until 4 September 476. His deposition by Odoacer (Flavius Odoacer (433?493, also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the 5th-century King of Italy, whose reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the classical Roman Empire. He is considered the first non-Roman to ever have ruled all of Italy). Traditionally marks the end of the Western Roman Empire, the fall of ancient Rome, and the beginning of the Middle Ages in Western Europe.

He is also known by his nickname "Romulus Augustulus", though he ruled officially as Romulus Augustus. The Latin suffix -ulus is a diminutive; hence, Augustulus effectively means "Little Augustus". Some Greek writers even went so far as to corrupt his name sarcastically into "Momylos", or "little disgrace".

The historical record contains few details of Romulus' life. He was installed as emperor by his father Orestes (died 28 August AD 476, was a Roman general and politician, who was briefly in control of the Western Roman Empire in 475?6), the Magister militum (master of soldiers) of the Roman army after deposing the previous emperor Julius Nepos (c. 430 ? 480 was Western Roman Emperor de facto from 474 to 475 and de jure until 480). Romulus, little more than a child, acted as a figurehead for his father's rule. Reigning for only ten months, Romulus was then deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer (433?493, also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the 5th-century King of Italy), and sent to live in the Castellum Lucullanum  (Castel dell`Ovo) in Campania, a southern region of Italy; afterwards he disappears from the historical record.

(Romulus Augustus resigns the Crown)

After the abdication.

Romulus' ultimate fate is unknown. The Anonymus Valesianus wrote that Odoacer, "taking pity on his youth", spared Romulus' life and granted him an annual pension of 6,000 solidi, gold coins,  before sending him to live with relatives in Campania.  

The sources do agree that Romulus took up residence in the Lucullan Villa an ancient castle originally built by Lucullus in Campania. From here, contemporary histories fall silent. In the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon notes that the disciples of Saint Severinus of Noricum (ca. 410-482 is a Roman Catholic Roman saint, known as the "Apostle to Noricum) were invited by a "Neapolitan lady" to bring his body to the villa in 488, "in the place of Augustulus, who was probably no more." The villa was converted into a monastery before 500 to hold the saint's remains.

Cassiodorus, then a secretary to Theodoric the Great, wrote a letter to a "Romulus" in 507 confirming a pension. Thomas Hodgkin, a translator of Cassiodorus' works, wrote in 1886 that it was "surely possible" the Romulus in the letter was the same person as the last western emperor.The letter would match the description of Odoacer's coup in the Anonymus Valesianus, and Romulus could have been alive in the early sixth century. But Cassiodorus does not supply any details about his correspondent or the size and nature of his pension, and Jordanes, whose history of the period abridges an earlier work by Cassiodorus, makes no mention of a pension.

Last Emperor

As Romulus was a usurper, Julius Nepos was claimed to legally hold the title of emperor when Odoacer took power. However few of Nepos' contemporaries were willing to support his cause after he fled Italy. Some historians regard Julius Nepos, who ruled in Dalmatia until being murdered in 480, as the last lawful Western Roman Emperor.

Following Odoacer's coup, the Roman Senate Roman sent a letter to Zeno, who was Eastern Roman Byzantine Emperor from 474 to 475 and again from 476 to 491, saying that "the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both the East and the West". While Zeno told the Senate that Nepos was their lawful sovereign, he did not press the point, and accepted the imperial insignia brought to him by the Senate

Growing Tensions

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 475 A.D., the Lombard tribe in northern Italy frequently encroached on lands held by the pope. In 753?54 Pope Stephen II traveled to Germany to appeal for help from Pepin the Short, king of the Franks. Pepin subdued the Lombards and declared the pope ruler of all church property holdings in Italy. The Lombards, however, continued to be a threat to the popes. Pepin's son, Charlemagne, made a number of expeditions to Italy to protect papal interests.

With the coalescence of the Germanic tribes into independent Christian kingdoms during the 6th and 7th centuries, the political authority of the Byzantine emperors became practically nonexistent in the West. The spiritual influence of the western division of the church expanded simultaneously, in particular during the pontificate (590-604) of Gregory I. As the political prestige of the Byzantine Empire declined, the papacy grew increasingly resentful of interference by secular and ecclesiastical authorities at Constantinople in the affairs and practices of the Western church. The consequent feud between the two divisions of the church attained critical proportions during the reign (717-41) of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who sought to abolish the use of images in Christian ceremonies.

Papal resistance to Leo's decrees culminated (730-32) in a rupture with Constantinople. After severance of its ties with the Byzantine Empire, the papacy nourished dreams of a revivified Western Empire. Some of the popes weighed the possibility of launching such an enterprise and assuming the leadership of the projected state.

The Lombard tribe in northern Italy frequently encroached on lands held by the pope. In 753?54 Pope Stephen II traveled to Germany to appeal for help from Pepin the Short, king of the Franks. Pepin subdued the Lombards and declared the pope ruler of all church property holdings in Italy. The Lombards, however, continued to be a threat to the popes. Pepin's son, Charlemagne, made a number of expeditions to Italy to protect papal interests.

Lacking any military force or practical administration, and in great danger from hostile Lombards in Italy, the church hierarchy, abandoning the idea of a joint spiritual and temporal realm, seemed to have decided to confer imperial status on the then dominant western European power, the kingdom of the Franks. Several of the Frankish rulers had already demonstrated their fidelity to the church, and Charlemagne, who ascended the Frankish throne in 768, had displayed ample qualifications for the exalted office, notably by the conquest of Lombardy in 773 and by the expansion of his dominions to imperial proportions.

The Western Empire

Holy Roman Emperor: AD 800

In 799, for the third time in half a century, a pope is in need of help from the Frankish king. After being physically attacked by his enemies in the streets of Rome (their stated intention is to blind him and cut out his tongue, to make him incapable of office), Leo III makes his way through the Alps to visit Charlemagne at Paderborn.

It is not known what is agreed, but Charlemagne travels to Rome in 800 to support the pope. In a ceremony in St Peter's, on Christmas Day, Leo is due to anoint Charlemagne's son as his heir. But unexpectedly (it is maintained), as Charlemagne rises from prayer, the pope places a crown on his head and acclaims him emperor.

Charlemagne expresses displeasure but accepts the honor. The displeasure is probably diplomatic, for the legal emperor is undoubtedly the one in Constantinople. Nevertheless this public alliance between the pope and the ruler of a confederation of Germanic tribes now reflects the reality of political power in the west. And it launches the concept of the new Holy Roman Empire which will play an important role throughout the Middle Ages.

The Holy Roman Empire only becomes formally established in the next century. But it is implicit in the title adopted by Charlemagne in 800: 'Charles, Most Serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman Empire.'

On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor. When Pope Leo III placed the crown on the head of Charlemagne in St. Peter's, and the assembled multitudes shouted "Carolo Augusto, a Deo coronato magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria!" ? "To Charles the Magnificent, crowned the great and peace-giving emperor by God, life and victory!" Strictly speaking, however, Charles's empire was neither Roman nor German, but Frankish ? or as we might say, a sort of French-German mix (for that matter, there was a perfectly valid Roman Emperor at the time in any case). The Empire was not officially described as "Holy" until the twelfth century, nor officially "German" before the fifteenth. Charlemagne's empire quickly fell to pieces among his squabbling successors, and the Holy Roman Emperors themselves tended to ignore any discontinuity between pagan and Christian Rome ? Frederick I Barbarossa (1123-1190) going so far as to assert that one of his reasons for going on Crusade was to avenge the defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus by the Parthians. Marcus Licinius Crassus (Latin: M-Licinivs-P-F-P-N-Crassvs). ca. 115 BC ? 53 BC, was a Roman General and politician who commanded the left wing of Sulla's army at the Battle of the Colline Gate, suppressed the slave revolt slave led by Spartacus, provided political and financial support to Julius Caesar and entered into the political alliance known as the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar.

However, Charlemagne's empire was divided among three of his grandsons by the Treaty of Verdun (843) and soon broke into numerous feudal states that resisted the authority of the monarchs. Charlemagne's descendants enjoyed the honorary title of emperor. This act established both a precedent and a political structure that were destined to figure decisively in the affairs of central Europe.

The precedent established the papal claim to the right to select, crown, and even depose emperors that was asserted, at least in theory, for nearly 700 years. In its primary stage, the resurrected Western Empire endured as an effective political entity for less than 25 years after the death of Charlemagne in 814. The reign of his son and successor, Louis I, was marked by feudal and fratricidal strife that climaxed in 843 in partition of the empire. For an account of the growth, vicissitudes, and final dissolution of the Frankish realm, see FRANCE.

 Emperors and Popes: AD 962-1250

The imperial role accorded by the pope to Charlemagne in 800 is handed on in increasingly desultory fashion during the 9th century. From 924 it falls into abeyance. But in 962 a pope once again needs help against his Italian enemies. Again he appeals to a strong German ruler.

The coronation of Otto I by Pope John XII in 962 marks a revival of the concept of a Christian emperor in the west. It is also the beginning of an unbroken line of Holy Roman emperors lasting for more than eight centuries. Otto I does not call himself Roman emperor, but his son Otto II uses the title - as a clear statement of western and papal independence from the other Christian emperor in Constantinople.

Otto and his son and grandson (Otto II and Otto III) regard the imperial crown as a mandate to control the papacy. They dismiss popes at their will and install replacements more to their liking (sometimes even changing their mind and repeating the process). This power, together with territories covering much of central Europe, gives the German empire and the imperial title great prestige in the late 10th century.

But subservience was not the papal intention in reinstating the Holy Roman Empire.

(Image of Otto I) Despite the dissension within the newly created Western Empire, the popes maintained the imperial organization and the imperial title, mainly within the Carolingian dynasty, for most of the 9th century. The emperors exercised little authority beyond the confines of their dominions, however. After the reign (905-24) of Berengar I of Friuli, also styled as king of Italy or ruler of Lombardy, who was crowned emperor by Pope John X, the imperial throne remained vacant for nearly four decades. In Italy, meanwhile, Roman nobles had usurped the political authority of the papacy. The East Frankish kingdom, or Germany, capably led by Henry I and Otto I, emerged as the strongest power in Europe during this period. Besides being a capable and ambitious sovereign, Otto I was an ardent friend of the Roman Catholic church, as revealed by his appointment of clerics to high office, by his missionary activities east of the Elbe River, and finally by his military campaigns, at the behest of Pope John XII, against Berengar II, king of Italy. In 962, in recognition of Otto's services, John XII awarded him the imperial crown and title.

Otto I the Great (23 November 912 in Wallhausen ? 7 May 973 in Memleben), son of Henry I the Fowler and Matilda of Ringelheim, was Duke of Saxony, King of Germany, King of Italy

Papal decline and recovery: AD 1046-1061

The struggle for dominance between emperor and pope comes to a head in two successive reigns, of the emperors Henry III and Henry IV, in the 11th century. The imperial side has a clear win in the first round.

In 1046 Henry III deposes three rival popes. Over the next ten years he personally selects four of the next five pontiffs. But after his death, in 1056, these abuses of the system bring a rapid reaction. Pope Nicholas II, elected in 1058, initiates a process of reform which exposes the underlying tension between empire and papacy.

In 1059, at a synod in Rome, Nicholas condemns various abuses within the church. These include simony (the selling of clerical posts), the marriage of clergy and, more controversially, corrupt practices in papal elections. Nicholas now restricts the choice of a new pope to a conclave of cardinals, thus ruling out any direct lay influence. Imperial influence is his clear target.

In 1061 the assembled bishops of Germany - the emperor's own faction - declare all the decrees of this pope null and void. Battle is joined. But meanwhile the pope has been enlisting new allies.

In 1059 Nicholas II takes two political steps of a kind, unusual at this period, which will later be commonplace for the medieval papacy. He grants land, already occupied, to recipients of his own choice; and he involves those recipients in a feudal relationship with the papacy, or the Holy See, as the feudal lord.

This time the beneficiaries are the Normans, who are granted territorial rights in southern Italy and Sicily in return for feudal obligations to Rome. The pope, in an overtly political struggle against the German emperor, is playing a strong hand. The issue will be brought to a head within a few years by another pope, Gregory VII.

Gregory VII and investiture: AD 1075

Pope Gregory seizes political control by decreeing, in 1075, that no lay ruler may make ecclesiastical appointments. Powerful bishops and abbots are henceforth to be pope's men rather than emperor's men.

The issue becomes known as the investiture controversy, being in essence a dispute over who has the right to invest high clerics with the robes and insignia of office.

The appointment of bishops and abbots is too valuable a right to be easily relinquished by secular rulers. Great feudal wealth and power is attached to these offices. And high clerics, as the best educated members of the medieval community, are important members of any administration.

In subsequent periods compromises are made on both sides, particularly in the Concordat of Worms, in 1122, where a distinction is made between the spiritual and secular element in clerical appointments. But investiture remains a bone of contention between the papacy and lay rulers - not only in the empire, after the first dramatic flare up between Gregory and Henry IV, but also in France and England.

Rome and the struggle for power: AD 1076-1138

The nine-year struggle between pope Gregory VII and the emperor Henry IV provides a vivid glimpse of the political role of the medieval papacy. St Gregory, canonized in the Catholic Reformation, is one of the great defenders of papal power. His career involves incessant power-broking and military struggle.

Henry IV, alarmed at the demands being made over investiture, sends a threatening letter to the pope in 1076. The pope responds by excommunicating the emperor. By his public penance at Canossa, Henry has the excommunication lifted. But the truce is short-lived. Henry's enemies, prompted by the pope's action, take a hand.

German princes opposed to Henry IV elect and crown, in 1077, a rival king - Rudolf, the duke of Swabia. Rudolf and Henry engage in a civil war, which Henry wins in 1080. By then the pope has recognized Rudolf as the German king and has again excommunicated Henry.

This time Henry's response is more aggressive. He summons a council which deposes the pope and elects in his place the archbishop of Ravenna (as pope Clement III). Henry marches into Italy, enters Rome and is crowned emperor by this pope of his own creation. Meanwhile the real pope, Gregory, is living in a state of siege in his impregnable Roman fortress, the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Gregory appeals for help to his vassals the Normans, recently invited by the papacy to conquer southern Italy and Sicily. A Norman army reaches Rome in 1084, drives out the Germans and rescues Gregory. But the Norman sack of the city is so violent, and provokes such profound hostility, that Gregory has to flee south with his rescuers. He dies in 1085 in Sicily.

Clement III returns to Rome and reigns there with imperial support as pope (or in historical terms as antipope) for most of the next ten years. Urban II, the pope who preaches the first crusade in 1095, is not able to enter the holy city for several years after his election. Unrest prevails in Rome, and uncertainty in the empire, until the Hohenstaufen win the German crown in 1138.

Hohenstaufen: AD 1138-1254

The castle of Staufen, in Swabia, lends its name to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick, the builder of the castle, is a faithful follower of the emperor Henry IV. In 1079 he marries the emperor's daughter, Agnes. In 1138, after some years of upheaval and civil war, their son Conrad is elected the German king - as Conrad III.

For more than a century, with one minor interruption, members of the Hohenstaufen family inherit the German kingdom - usually together with the status of Holy Roman emperor. The first Hohenstaufen to make a profound impression on the empire is Conrad's nephew, Frederick I.

In a reign of thirty-eight years Frederick, known also as Frederick Barbarossa, asserts his authority throughout Germany and extends imperial power into Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. But his greatest effort is in Italy, where he tries to recover the empire in the north and to extend it south of the Papal States down to Sicily.

He meets strong opposition in the north from the Italian communes, who form the Lombard league to resist him. And his attempts in the south are unpopular with the papacy, alarmed at the danger of being surrounded. In the long term Frederick's most significant act, before his death on crusade in 1190, is to marry his son Henry to Constance, heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

The marriage of Henry to Constance brings Sicily and southern Italy into the German empire. Henry VI is crowned emperor in Rome in 1191 and king of Sicily in 1194. But he dies shortly afterwards, in 1197, when his son Frederick is just three years old.

At first it seems unlikely that the boy can inherit both Sicily and the German kingdom, particularly since the prospect displeases the papacy. From 1198 he is recognized only as king of Sicily. But after a period of confusion, with warring candidates, he is also elected king by the German princes in 1211. With some reluctance the pope accepts the situation. He crowns Frederick II emperor in Rome in 1220.

Subsequent popes have cause to regret this coronation. They excommunicate Frederick II twice, and even proclaim a crusade against him, in a prolonged power struggle which eventually weakens his authority in both Sicily and Germany. In spite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieves his own crusade to Jerusalem, Frederick leaves an inheritance which cannot long survive him.

His son, Conrad IV, becomes the last ruler in the Hohenstaufen line. With Conrad's death, in 1254, there is a vacancy on the German throne which is not filled for another nineteen years.

A Union of Germanic States

The empire in the West, at first an unstable union of Germany and northern Italy and later a loose union of Germanic states, remained in almost continuous existence for more than 800 years. During the Italo-German phase, the empire played a significant role in central European politics and ecclesiastical affairs. A central feature of this period was the mortal struggle between the popes (notably Gregory VII) and the emperors (notably Henry IV) for control of the church. With the Concordat of Worms (1122), an agreement between Emperor Henry V and Pope Callistus II, the emperor relinquished the right of spiritual investiture, or installation of bishops into ecclesiastical office. All the emperors were German kings, and because imperial duties and ambitions inevitably required their full attention, local German interests were neglected.

As a result, Germany, which might have been transformed into a strong centralized state, degenerated into a multiplicity of minor states under aristocratic rule. The agreement at Worms had removed one source of friction between church and state, but through the 12th century the struggle for political ascendancy continued. In 1157 Frederick I, called Frederick Barbarossa Hohenstaufen, one of the greatest of emperors, first used the designation Holy Empire, ostensibly to increase the sanctity of the Crown. Frederick, attempting to restore and perpetuate the ancient Roman Empire, tried to suppress both the restless nobles of Germany and the self-governing cities of Italy.

His interventions in the latter country were opposed by the Lombard League and severely strained his relations with the papacy. Pope Adrian IV insisted that Frederick held the empire as a papal fief, but the emperor, who had the support of the German bishops, maintained that his title to it came from God alone. During the almost two decades of sporadic warfare in Italy that followed, Frederick was defeated at Legnano (1176) by the cities of the Lombard League, and the cities thus established their independence from further imperial authority. Emperor Henry VI Hohenstaufen, who claimed the throne of Sicily through marriage, twice invaded Italy and the second time (1194) made Sicily his in fact. Emperor Frederick II renewed imperial efforts to vanquish the Italian cities and the papacy in the 13th century, but he was unsuccessful.

Frederick Barbarossa ? Hohenstaufen Dynasty: AD 1138-1254

The castle of Staufen, in Swabia, lends its name to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick, the builder of the castle, is a faithful follower of the emperor Henry IV. In 1079 he marries the emperor's daughter, Agnes. In 1138, after some years of upheaval and civil war, their son Conrad is elected the German king - as Conrad III.

For more than a century, with one minor interruption, members of the Hohenstaufen family inherit the German kingdom - usually together with the status of Holy Roman emperor. The first Hohenstaufen to make a profound impression on the empire is Conrad's nephew, Frederick I.

Fredrick Barbarossa (1122 ? 10 June 1190) he was elected King of Germany at Frankfurt on 4 March 1152 and crowned in Aachen on 9 March, crowned King of Italy in Pavia in 1155, and finally crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV, on 18 June 1155, and two years later in 1157 the term "sacrum" (i.e. "holy") first appeared in a document in connection with his Empire. He was then also formally crowned King of Burgundy at Arles King on 30 June 1178. The name Barbarossa came from the northern Italian cities he attempted to rule, and means "red beard" in Italian ? a mark of both their fear and respect.

Before his royal election, he was by inheritance Duke of Swabia (1147?1152, as Frederick III). He was the son of Duke Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. His mother was Judith, daughter of Henry IX, Duke of Bavaria, from the rival House of Welf, and Frederick therefore descended from Germany's two leading families, making him an acceptable choice for the Empire's prince-electors.

Frederick Barbarossa and Milan

In 1158 Milan , the chief city of Lombardy, revolted. Then over the Alps came an army of a hundred thousand German soldiers, with Frederick Barbarossa at their head. After a long siege the city surrendered. But soon it revolted again. The emperor besieged it once more and once more it surrendered. Its fortifications were destroyed and many of its buildings ruined. But even then the spirit of the Lombards was not broken. Milan and the other cities of Lombardy united in a league and defied the emperor. He called upon the German dukes to bring their men to his aid. All responded except Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, Frederick's cousin, whom he had made duke of Bavaria also. Frederick is said to have knelt and implored Henry to do his duty, but in vain. In his campaign against the Lombards Frederick was unsuccessful. His army was completely defeated and he was compelled to grant freedom to the cities of Lombardy. Everybody blamed Henry the Lion. The other dukes charged him with treason and he was summoned to appear before a meeting of the nobles. He failed to come and the nobles thereupon declared him guilty and took from him everything that he had, except the lands he had inherited from his father.

Frederick Barbarossa and Germany

Frederick now devoted himself to making Germany a united nation. Two of his nobles had been quarrelling for a long time and as a punishment for their conduct each was condemned, with ten of his counts and barons, to carry dogs on his shoulders from one country to another. Frederick finally succeeded in keeping the nobles in the different provinces of Germany at peace with one another, and persuaded them to work together for the good of the whole empire. He had no more trouble with them and for many years his reign was peaceful and prosperous.

Frederick Barbarossa and the Crusades

After the Christians had held Jerusalem for eighty-eight years, it was recaptured by the Moslems under the lead of the famous Saladin, in the year 1187. There was much excitement in Christendom, and the Pope proclaimed another Crusade. Frederick immediately raised an army of Crusaders in the German Empire and with one hundred and fifty thousand men started for Palestine. He marched into Asia Minor, attacked the Moslem forces, and defeated them in two great battles. But before the brave old warrior reached the Holy Land his career was suddenly brought to an end.

The Death of Frederick Barbarossa

One day his army was crossing a small bridge over a river in Asia Minor. At a moment when the bridge was crowded with troops Frederick rode up rapidly. He was impatient to join his son, who was leading the advance guard; and when he found that he could not cross immediately by the bridge, he plunged into the river to swim his horse across. Both horse and rider were swept away by the current. Barbarossa's heavy armor made him helpless and he was drowned. His body was recovered and buried at Antioch. Barbarossa was so much loved by his people that it was said, "Germany and Frederick Barbarossa are one in the hearts of the Germans." His death caused the greatest grief among the German Crusaders. They had now little heart to fight the infidels and most of them at once returned to Germany.

The Legend of Frederick Barbarossa

In the Empire the dead hero was long mourned and for many years the peasants believed that Frederick was not really dead, but was asleep in a cave in the mountains of Germany, with his gallant knights around him. He was supposed to be sitting in his chair of state, with the crown upon his head, his eyes half-closed in slumber, his beard as white as snow and so long that it reached the ground. "When the ravens cease to fly round the mountain," said the legend, "Barbarossa shall awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness."  

In the long term Frederick's most significant act, before his death on crusade in 1190, is to marry his son Henry to Constance, heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The marriage of Henry to Constance brings Sicily and southern Italy into the German empire. Henry VI is crowned emperor in Rome in 1191 and king of Sicily in 1194. But he dies shortly afterwards, in 1197, when his son Frederick is just three years old.

At first it seems unlikely that the boy can inherit both Sicily and the German kingdom, particularly since the prospect displeases the papacy. From 1198 he is recognized only as king of Sicily. But after a period of confusion, with warring candidates, he is also elected king by the German princes in 1211. With some reluctance the pope accepts the situation. He crowns Frederick II emperor in Rome in 1220.

Subsequent popes have cause to regret this coronation. They excommunicate Frederick II twice, and even proclaim a crusade against him, in a prolonged power struggle which eventually weakens his authority in both Sicily and Germany. In spite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieves his own crusade to Jerusalem, Frederick leaves an inheritance which cannot long survive him.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen


(26 December 1194 ? 13 December 1250), called "Stupor mundi", the "wonder of the world" was one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperor Holy Roman of the Middle Ages. Viewing himself as a direct successor to the Roman Emperors of Antiquity, he was King of the Romans from his papal coronation in 1220 until his death; he was also a claimant to the title of King of the Romans from 1212 and unopposed holder of that monarchy from 1215. As such, he was King of Germany, of Italy, and of Burgundy. At the age of three he was crowned King of Sicily as a co-ruler with his mother Constance, the daughter of Roger II of Sicily. His other royal title was King of Jerusalem by virtue of marriage and his connection with the Sixth Crusade.

He was frequently at war with the Papacy, hemmed in between Frederick's lands in northern Italy and his Kingdom of Sicily (the Regno) to the south, and thus he was excommunicated four times and often vilified in pro-papal chronicles of the time and since. Pope Gregory IX went so far as to call him the Antichrist.

He was said to speak six languages: Latin, Sicilian, German, French, Greek and Arabic. By contemporary standards, Frederick was an uncommonly avid patron of science and the arts.

He was also patron of the Sicilian School of poetry. His Sicilian royal court in Palermo, from around 1220 to his death, saw the first use of a literary form of an Italo-Romance language, Sicilian. The poetry that emanated from the school had a significant influence on literature and on what was to become the modern Italian language. The school and its poetry were well known to Dante and his peers and predate by at least a century the use of the Tuscan idiom as the elite literary language of the Italian peninsula.  

Born in Jesi, near Ancona, Italy, Frederick was the son of the emperor Henry VI. He was known as the puer Apuliae (son of Apulia). Some chronicles say that his mother, the forty-year-old Constance, gave birth to him in a public square in order to forestall any doubt about his origin. Frederick was baptized in Assisi.

In 1196 at Frankfurt am Main the infant Frederick was elected King of Germany. His rights in Germany were disputed by Henry's brother Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick. At the death of his father in 1197, the two-year-old Frederick was in Italy travelling towards Germany when the bad news reached his guardian, Conrad of Spoleto. Frederick was hastily brought back to his mother Constance in Palermo, Sicily.

Constance of Sicily had been in her own right queen of Sicily; she had Frederick made King of Sicily and established herself as regent. In Frederick's name she dissolved Sicily's ties to Germany and the Empire that had been created by her marriage, sending home his German counsellors (notably Markward von Annweiler and Gualtiero da Pagliara) and renouncing his claims to the German throne and empire.

Upon Constance's death in 1198, Pope Innocent III succeeded as Frederick's guardian. Frederick's tutor during this period was Cencio, who would become Pope Honorius III. Frederick was crowned King of Sicily on 17 May 1198.

Frederick died peacefully, wearing the habit of a Cistercian monk, on 13 December 1250 in Castel Fiorentino (territory of Torremaggiore), in Puglia, after an attack of Dysentery. At the time of his death, his preeminent position in Europe was challenged but not lost: his testament left his legitimate son Conrad the Imperial and Sicilian crowns. Manfred received the principate of Taranto and the government of the Kingdom, Henry the Kingdom of Arles or that of Jerusalem, while the son of Henry VII Henry was entrusted with the Duchy of Austria and the Marquisate of Styria. Frederick's will stipulated that all the lands he had taken from the Church were to be returned to it, all the prisoners freed, and the taxes reduced, provided this did not damage the Empire's prestige.

However, upon Conrad's death a mere four years later, the Hohenstaufen dynasty fell from power and an interregnum (a period of discontinuity or "gap" in a government, organization, or social order) began, lasting until 1273, one year after the last Hohenstaufen, Enzio, had died in his prison. During this time, a legend developed that Frederick was not truly dead but merely sleeping in the Kyffhäuser Mountains and would one day awaken to reestablish his empire. Over time, this legend largely transferred itself to his grandfather, Fredrick I, also known as Barbarossa ("Redbeard").

His sarcophagus (made of red porphyry) lies in the Cathedral of Palermo beside those of his parents (Henry VI and Constance) as well as his grandfather, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily. A bust of Frederick sits in the Walhalla temple built by Ludwig I of Bavaria.

The Holy Roman Empire had little real importance in European political and religious developments after the Great Interregnum (1254-73). The death of Frederick II Hohenstaufen in 1250 left the imperial throne vacant, and two rival candidates attempted to win support for their claims. Frederick's son, Conrad IV, and William of Holland first contended for the throne. In 1257 another imperial election was followed by the crowning at Aachen of the English Richard, earl of Cornwall, who was, however, unable to win control of the empire. In effect, this signalized papal victory in the protracted struggle with the empire.

After the Hohenstaufen: AD 1254-1438

The Hohenstaufen period has seen some notably forceful popes (Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) and powerful emperors (Frederick I, Frederick II). It is followed, after the death of the last Hohenstaufen ruler in 1254, by a prolonged time of uncertainty in both papacy and empire.

The popes abandon Rome in 1309 and spend most of the 14th century in self-imposed exile in Avignon. From 1378 there are two rival popes (a number subsequently rising to three) in the split known as the Great Schism.

Meanwhile, for almost twenty years after the death of Conrad IV in 1254, the German princes fail to elect any effective king or emperor. This period is usually known (with a grandiloquence to match the Great Schism in the papacy) as the Great Interregnum.

The interregnum ends with the election of Rudolf I as German king in 1273. The choice subsequently seems of great significance, because he is the first Habsburg on the German throne. But the Habsburg grip on the succession remains far in the future. During the next century the electors choose kings from several families. Not till the coronation of Charles IV in 1346 is there the start of another dynasty - that of the house of Luxembourg.

Charles IV is crowned emperor in Rome in 1355. He makes his capital in Prague (he has inherited Bohemia as well as Luxembourg), bringing the city its first period of glory. The imperial dignity remains in Charles's family until 1438, when it is transferred to the Habsburgs.

 At the beginning and end of those eighty years Charles and his son Sigismund take a strong line with the papacy. Within a year of his coronation, Charles issues the Golden Bull of 1356 which excludes the pope from any influence in the choice of emperor. And in 1414 Sigismund is instrumental in bringing together the Council of Constance which finally ends the Great Schism and restores a single pope to Rome.

The Golden Bull and the electors: AD 1356-1806

The Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356, clarifies the new identity which the Holy Roman Empire has been gradually adopting. It ends papal involvement in the election of a German king, by the simple means of denying Rome's right to approve or reject the electors' choice. In return, by a separate agreement with the pope, Charles abandons imperial claims in Italy - apart from a title to the kingdom of Lombardy, inherited from Charlemagne.

The emphasis is clear. This is now to be essentially a German empire, as reflected in a new form of the title adopted in 1452 - sacrum Romanum imperium nationis Germanicae (Holy Roman Empire of the German nation).

The Golden Bull also clarifies and formalizes the process of election of a German king. The choice has traditionally been in the hands of seven electors, but their identity has varied.

The group of seven is now established as three archbishops (of Mainz, Cologne and Trier) and four hereditary lay rulers (the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg and the king of Bohemia).

This group of seven electors remains unchanged until the 17th century, when an eighth vote is added (the newcomer to the list is the duke of Bavaria). In 1708 the ruler of Hanover becomes a ninth elector. But by this time the idea of election is as meaningless as in any rotten borough. The office of Holy Roman Emperor has become a hereditary attachment of one family.

From 1438 to 1806 every Holy Roman Emperor but one is part of the Habsburg dynasty. The reason for the exception, in 1742-5, is that the Habsburg ruler of Austria is a woman, Maria Theresa.

An abrupt end: AD 1806

The official Holy Roman Empire, based in Vienna, is by the early 19th century little more than a ceremonial shell, brittle with age and dignity. And it is under threat. It is widely assumed that Napoleon's intention, after appointing himself emperor of France, is to claim the greater title by defeating Austria.

Rudolph I (also known as Rudolph of Habsburg) (German: Rudolf von Habsburg, Latin: Rudolphus) (1 May 1218(1218-05-01) ? 15 July 1291(1291-07-15)) was King of the Romans King from 1273 until his death. He played a vital role in raising the Habsburg Dynasty to a leading position among the Imperial feudal dynasties. Originally a Swabian count, he was the first Habsburg to acquire the duchies of Austria and Styria, territories that would remain under Habsburg rule for more than 600 years and would form the core of the Habsburg Monarchy and the present-day country of Austria.

The office was little more than honorary, however, and inasmuch as the empire comprised a loose confederation of sovereign states and principalities, imperial authority was nominal. Louis IV, who assumed the title in 1314, successfully challenged the power of the papacy and for a brief period restored the prestige of the empire. In 1356 Charles IV promulgated the Golden Bull, which prescribed the form and procedure of imperial election and enhanced the importance of the electors. During the reign of Charles V, the empire encompassed territories as extensive as those of Charlemagne; but dynastic rather than ecclesiastical principles composed the chief cohesive element in the imperial structure of Charles V.

The medieval concept of a temporal state coextensive and in harmony with the spiritual dominions of the church survived solely as a theory. As the Protestant Reformation gained headway, even the theory lost practical meaning. The unity of the empire was weakened in 1555 after the Religious Peace of Augsburg permitted each free city and state of Germany to exercise choice between the adoption of Lutheranism or Catholicism. With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War, the empire lost all remaining sovereignty over its constituent states and France became the leading power in Europe.

In its final phase the Holy Roman Empire served mainly as a vehicle for the imperial pretensions of the Habsburgs, but it performed certain useful functions, including the maintenance of a measure of unity among its component states. The later emperors, all rulers of Austria and concerned mainly with aggrandizement of their personal dominions, were mere figureheads. Futile armed intervention against the French Revolution constituted the last important venture of the empire in European politics.  

At a stroke this ends the medieval feudal allegiance of most of the territories within the Holy Roman Empire. Francis responds by taking what can be seen as a logical step. A month after the Confederation of the Rhine, in August 6,  1806, he renounces his title as Holy Roman emperor (of which he has been Francis II) and becomes plain Francis I, emperor of Austria.

By this action, widely accepted as ending the medieval institution, he prevents Napoleon from becoming Holy Roman emperor in his place (though Napoleon now controls more of the empire than anyone has done for centuries). Francis has had this spoiling action in mind for some time. He declared himself emperor of Austria in 1804, on the news of Napoleon's plan to assume imperial rank in France.

In 1806 Francis formally abolishes the Holy Roman Empire. It has lasted just over 1000 years.

Emperor Francis II  

Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor, who may also be referred to as Francis von Habsburg or Emperor Franz I of Austria ( February 12, 1768 ? March 2, 1835) was the last Holy Roman Emperor, ruling from 1792  until August 6, 1806), when the Empire was disbanded. He was also Francis I, first Emperor of Austria (ruling from 1804 to 1835).

He was a son of Leopold II of Austria (1747-1792) and his wife Maria Luisa of Spain (1745-1792).

Francis II as the leader of a large multi-ethnic nation (he was also Francis I of Austria, Francis felt threatened by Napoleon`s  call for liberty and equality in Europe. He led Austria into the French Revolution Wars and was defeated by Napoleon. At the Treaty of Campo Formio, he ceded the left bank of the Rhine to France in exchange for Venice and Dalmatia. He again fought against France during the Second Coalition, and, after meeting crushing defeat at Austerlitz, agreed to the Treaty of Lunéville, which dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, weakening Austria and decentralizing Germany.

In 1809, Francis attacked France again, hoping to take advantage of the conflict embroiling Napoleon in Spain. He was again defeated, and this time forced to ally with Napoleon, ceding territory to the Empire, joining the Continental System, and wedding his daughter Marie Louise to the Emperor. Francis was essentially subjected to being a groveling vassal to the Emperor of France. The Napoleonic wars drastically weakened Austria and reduced its prestige, which would lead to Prussia acquiring the edge in the contest for dominance of Germany.

In 1813, for the fourth and final time, Austria turned against France and joined England, Russia and Prussia in their war against Napoleon. Austria played a major role in the final defeat of France ? in recognition of this, Francis, represented by Clemens von Metternich, presided over the Congress of Vienna, helping to form the Concert of Europe and the Holy Alliance, ushering in an era of conservatism and reactionism in Europe.

He married four times:

  1. January 6, 1788, to Elisabeth of Württemberg (April 21, 1767) - February 18, 1790, who died bearing a short-lived daughter, Ludovika (1790-1791.
  2. August 15, 1790, to Maria Theresa of the Two Sicilies (June 6, 1772 - April 13, 1807), with whom he had twelve children, including his successor Ferdinand I and the French Empress Marie-Louise 
  3. January 6, 1808, to Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este (December 14, 1787 - April 7, 1816) with no issue.
  4. October 29, 1816, to Karoline Charlotte Auguste of Bavaria (February 8, 1792 - February 9, 1873) with no issue
Names in other languages: German: Franz II/I, Czech: Franti?ek I, Slovak: Franti?ek I,Hungarian: I. Ferenc