Catholic Dictionary

Holy Roman Empire

Some date the beginning of this political entity to Christmas, A.D. 800, when Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne as "Emperor ruling the Roman Empire," thus restoring the imperial dignity to the West. More properly, the "Roman Empire" may be said to have been effectively established by Otto I (ruled 936-973). It was not called "Holy" until the reign of Frederick I Barbarossa (ruled 1152-1190). Never a unitary State in the modern sense, it was a federation of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and free cities, over which the emperor exercised loose authority. The office of emperor was in theory elective, but from the thirteenth century until the end of the empire, it was held by the Hapsburgs of Austria, with one exception. After the sixteenth century, the title of emperor was largely honorific. At its greatest extent the Holy Roman Empire included modern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and parts of Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland. The existence of the empire continued to remind Europe of the dream of political unity that had been lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the eighteenth century, the French philosopher Voltaire remarked that it was "neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." In 1386 Napoleon I abolished the empire. The Hapsburg emperors of Austria continued to regard themselves as the heirs of the Holy Roman Emperors until the collapse of that monarchy in 1918.

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