The imperium of the Holy Roman Empire had been the highest secular office in the western world ever since its foundation by Charlemagne, an act surrounded by myth and legend. Envisioned as a resurrection of the ancient Roman Empire, in reality the empire was however far removed from the medieval ideal of a universal realm founded on Latin Christendom.
The concept of the empire was loaded heavily with religious symbolism: the ancient Imperium Romanum in which Jesus Christ was born and the Christian doctrine of salvation originated was designated by the biblical prophets as the last of the worldly kingdoms before the second coming of Christ at the end of the world. It was upon these ideas that the renovatio imperii, the revival of empire, was founded in the early Middle Ages.
The sacredness of the empire was omnipresent in its symbols and insignia: the imperial cross and the sacred lance were both relics directly associated with the Christian tradition of salvation and embodied the idea of Empire just as much as the secular symbols of power, the crown, the orb, the sceptre and the imperial sword. All this underpinned the ideas of the divine source of imperial authority. The structure of the empire reflected the medieval ideal of the divinely ordained order of the world as a strict hierarchy, with the emperor at its head.
The idea of the imperium was renewed at the turn of the millennium under the Ottonian dynasty (translatio imperii): the designation ‘Holy Roman Empire’ occurs for the first time as a symbol of continuity at Otto the Great’s coronation in 962. The concept of Empire reached a pinnacle of significance under the dynasty of the Staufer (Hohenstaufen) dynasty. However, by the time the Habsburgs first succeeded in gaining the imperial crown with the coronation of Rudolf I in the late thirteenth century, the idea of a universal imperium encompassing the whole of Christendom had already collapsed. The empire confined itself to Central Europe with emphasis on the German-speaking nations – despite the fact that territories speaking other languages belonged to the empire.
The ruler was elected by the princes of this empire and bore the title of ‘German king’. During the Middle Ages, anyone who aspired to the title of an emperor by God’s grace, thus making the bearer the incontestable head of the empire, required the pope to perform the coronation and blessing. The candidate had to travel to Rome and thus manifest at least symbolically his authority over Italy and the city of Rome in the tradition of the ancient emperors. This was a complicated, expensive and politically precarious undertaking, for northern Italy was increasingly disassociating itself from the empire.
Frederick III hazarded the journey to Rome in 1452 and was in fact the only Habsburg to succeed in this and simultaneously the last emperor in the medieval tradition: his son and heir Maximilian I dispensed with coronation by the Pope and in 1508 introduced the title of ‘elected emperor’. Though Charles V had himself crowned by the Pope in 1530, this took place in Bologna and not in Rome.
At the threshold of the modern age, the ideal of the unrestricted authority of the emperor over the empire had long been a fiction. The hollowing out of the imperial concept was exacerbated by the religious schism and the political disintegration of the empire; the final attempt to establish an imperial, universal monarchy by Charles V collapsed in the face of these obstacles. Nevertheless, despite all the concessions to realpolitik, the Habsburgs were committed to the principles of Empire. This was enormously important for the dynasty’s image of itself, for the Habsburgs were utterly convinced of the legitimizing power of God’s grace. From 1452 to the end of the empire (with the exception of the period of 1740 to 1745), the Habsburgs held the title of emperor. However, it was increasingly regarded as an anachronism and finally declared defunct in 1806 by Emperor Franz II in the face of the threat to the European order posed by Napoleon.