The Holy Roman Empire must have seemed very remote from England in the fourteenth century. It was centred around the many German states and would not normally have been expected to be interested in anything affecting England. This situation changed in the 1330s.
The empire lasted from 962 until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806, although many consider Charlemagne (crowned in 800) to be the first emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was considered to be a Christian extension of the Roman empire. The term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ dates only from the thirteenth century, however.
Geographically, the empire covered kingdoms and duchies in modern Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, parts of eastern France, parts of western Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia and northern Italy. The borders changed almost constantly, however, and not all of this territory was included all the time.The empire had reached its maximum size in the thirteenth century and territory was lost during the fourteenth century.
Emperors were elected and the first three Hanoverian kings of Great Britain, George I, George II and George III were electors, which meant they had a vote in the election of the emperor. Although the emperor was elected, in practice a small number of royal houses dominated the line of emperors and most emperors were descendants of earlier emperors.
The chances are that you’ve only ever heard of one emperor: Charles V, the nephew of Katherine of Aragon. In 1527, when Henry VIII was trying to divorce Katherine, her nephew captured the pope and would not allow him to grant the divorce. Charles’ son, Philip II, married Henry’s daughter Mary.
The empire did not have a capital as such, but was administered from the beginning of the fourteenth century from Aachen, which had been Charlemagne’s capital. From 1328 to 1347 it was administered from Munich and, from 1355 from Prague.
It was not unusual for the emperor to be at odds with the pope, in fact it was unusual if he was not. There was an almost constant power struggle between the popes and the emperors. Their powers were meant in some ways to be complementary, but in others to act as a balance between the temporal and the spiritual. This was rarely the case in reality. It was not until the eleventh century that the popes achieved some kind of equality. In 1077 Pope Gregory VII made the excommunicated emperor, Henry IV, wait outside the castle walls of Canossa for three days. Henry had come barefoot to ask the pope’s forgiveness. What should have been a formality, since the emperor had already humbled himself, became a battle of wills, which the pope won. The balance did not last long, however, as successive popes tried to gain more secular power and were increasingly resisted by kings and emperors. This came to a head during the ‘Babylonian Exile’ when the papacy had its capital in Avignon and came under the sway of the kings of France. Other kings (particularly Edward III) found it difficult to trust the pope when he was not impartial.
In the thirteenth century Italy was riven by division following interference in Italy by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his successors in the first half of the century. The Italian city states were either Guelphs (pro-papal) or Ghibellines (pro-imperial) and they continued to go to war with one another on this basis long after the political divisions meant anything.
Because the emperors could only be crowned by the pope and they were usually quarrelling with the pope, or even excommunicated, there was often a delay between their election and their coronation.
There were three emperors in the fourteenth century: Henry VII – elected 1308 (crowned 1312)-1313; Louis IV (Louis of Bavaria) – elected 1314 (crowned 1348) – 1347 and Charles IV – elected 1346 and 1349 (crowned 1355) – 1378. None of them was terribly effective as emperor.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century Philip IV of France wanted his brother to be made emperor, but the electors felt that the French king already had too much influence and Henry of Luxembourg was elected. Like his predecessors, Henry meddled in Italian affairs without really understanding them. Henry died of malaria, as did so many from northern Europe who took their armies into Italy.
Louis was allied with Italian enemies of the pope, of whom there were many after the papacy moved to Avignon and the popes became little more than puppets of the French kings. In theory the emperor could do nothing until his election had been confirmed by the pope, but Louis acted without papal authority. He gave shelter to scholars who spoke out against John XXII. In 1328 he invaded Italy and had himself crowned (not by the pope). He also installed an anti-pope in Rome. John XXII excommunicated both Louis and his pope, declaring that there was no emperor. For many years before the outbreak of the Hundred Years War the French had been encroaching on the westernmost territory of the empire and it was not a surprise that, in 1337, Edward III found a willing ally in Louis in his war against the French. Edward III was made a Vicar of the Empire, with powers to act on the emperor’s behalf.
Charles was elected while his predecessor was still alive. This is not surprising, as Louis was considered a heretic and was an excommunicate. Charles was primarily king of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. For most of his reign he did what he could to benefit his kingdom and neglected the German states.