Holy Roman Emperor

'There is nothing in this world we want more'

This section concentrates on the structure of the Holy Roman Empire and how Charles became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.

By 1519 the Holy Roman Empire was already an ancient institution, in existence since 800 A.D. when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the Pope. In the early 16th century it consisted of over 300 separate principalities, duchies, free imperial cities and other territories ruled by dukes, counts, princes, archbishops, bishops, city councils, imperial knights and others. These covered a large area of central Europe. At its greatest extent it included most of the modern states of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Belgium, northern Italy (excluding Venice), western Poland, and eastern France (Alsace, Lorraine, Franche Comte, and Savoy). Such were the divisions and complexity of the territories that many ruling princes had to cross their neighbour’s land to visit outlying portions of their own.

The term ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ was used to signify the elected head of the Empire. There were 7 ‘electors’: the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne; the King of Bohemia; and three secular ‘princes’, the electors of Brandenburg, Saxony, and the Palatinate. Those elected became ‘King of the Romans’, until such time they were crowned by the Pope, at which point they became ‘Emperor of the Romans’ or ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. Charles’ grandfather and predecessor, Maximilian, had been prevented from going to Rome for his coronation and so Pope Julius II gave him the title ‘Emperor-elect of the Romans’. From then on those elected were called Emperor and if during their lifetime a successor was chosen, that heir designate was given the title ‘King of the Romans’.

The Role of the Holy Roman Emperor

By the time of Charles’ accession to the Imperial throne the power of the Emperor was in decline with on-going conflict about the degree of influence and access to the resources of the territories that the Emperor should have. Each territory aspired to as much independence as possible, and the more powerful princes were steadily gaining authority, but most were also keen to have the strength that association brought against external enemies. The Emperor was acknowledged as the supreme judge in law, had the right to bestow titles and decide on issues for discussion at the Diets - formal meetings of the rulers within the Empire divided into the three ‘estates’ of the ‘electors’, other secular and ecclesiastical rulers (the ‘princes’), and representatives of the imperial cities. (See Regensburg) He also had the obligation to uphold ancient rights and protect the Empire from foreign aggression. But this was in no way a modern state with a central government. As princes of the Empire themselves, the Habsburgs (who held the title of emperor from 1438 through to the end of the Empire in 1806, with one short exception in the mid-18th century) were at times in conflict over territory with other German princes. There was no permanent army, no established system of Imperial taxation, and no really effective means of enforcing decisions made at the Diets.

Charles had no doubt that it was his duty to take on the role. In his later years his grandfather Emperor Maximilian had been working hard to have Charles elected as King of the Romans, his automatic successor. Maximilian well understood that this would be achieved not by promises alone but by hard cash, but he had not achieved his aim by the time of his death in January 1519. This meant that Charles would have to be elected in a more open contest, since any commitments made by the electors to Maximilian, however expensive to the ageing Emperor, were now null and void.

Although he was the most likely successor, Charles’ election was not a certainty. Earlier, Maximilian and Margaret had considered the young Louis of Hungary or Charles’ brother, Ferdinand, as possible candidates. When early in 1519 it was gently suggested that perhaps with all his other responsibilities Charles should give way to his brother, he responded vigorously that a division of Habsburg lands was exactly what the French wanted. He went on to argue in a letter to Margaret of Austria: ‘It seems to us that if the said election is conferred on our person...we will be able to accomplish many good and great things, and not only conserve and guard the possessions which God has given to us, but increase them greatly and, in this way, give peace, repose and tranquillity to Christendom. We are resolved to spare nothing and to commit everything we have, since there is nothing in this world we want more and which lies closer to our heart’.

It was so important to Charles because he recognised, as did others, that the Imperial throne brought with it the claim to the secular leadership of Christendom, as ‘God’s standard bearer’. Charles, influenced by the ideas of his new Chancellor, Gattinara, came to see this as his destiny; to defend Christian Europe against the threat posed by Ottoman expansion in the east and in the Mediterranean, and against the threat of heresy from within. He believed that he would be more effective with the resources of his other territories behind him than another ruler who lacked such support. Charles considered that his reputation and honour depended on it. There was much more to it than mere territorial expansion; after all he must have recognised the difficulties that were inherent in the office, especially when added to his other responsibilities.

Charles' Election

The election itself took place while Charles was still in Barcelona and so his campaign was organised on his behalf by his representatives in the Low Countries and Germany. Much of the work was coordinated by Margaret of Austria, now confirmed by Charles as his regent in the Low Countries. The other contenders for the Imperial throne were Francis I of France and, less of a threat, Henry VIII of England and Frederick of Saxony, himself one of the electors. Francis certainly had serious hopes, initially encouraged by the Pope and by some of the electors. They clearly had a vested interest in a contested election, since this provided an opportunity for the receipt of bribes and other inducements from the various candidates. During the campaign Charles used three main approaches to gain the support of the electors: bribery, propaganda and the threat of force. Maximilian had already spent considerable sums and these had to be renewed. Charles did not have sufficient ready money (nor did the other contenders) but he did have access to the German banking houses, particularly Jacob Fugger and the Welser of Augsburg. The Fugger’s agent in Antwerp, Wolff Haller, already known to Charles from his days as Duke of Burgundy, travelled to Spain and negotiated the loan. It is estimated that of the 835,000 florins that Charles used to win the election, Jacob Fugger (see blog) provided 65% (543,000 florins). (See Chapters 5 and 16 in 'Charles V:Duty and Dynasty - The Emperor and his Changing World')

Francis could not match this level of funding. His campaign was based on the arguments that, if elected, Charles would become too powerful, something that the German princes would see as a threat; that it was undesirable for one family to continuously hold the title; that he had friendly relations with some electors and indications of support from the Pope. On the last point the contemporary Florentine diplomat and writer Francesco Guicciardini commented that Francis ‘deceived himself more every day’. Pope Leo X was indeed concerned about Charles’ potential power, but he was equally worried about the impact of a victory for the French king on Italy. But even the hint of an alliance between France and the Pope strengthened Charles’ hand. According to Guicciardini the Pope then wished Francis to put his support behind a third candidate, elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, whose election, however unlikely, would leave Leo X a much freer hand in Italy. In the end Frederick declined to become a candidate.

Charles’ propaganda countered that the title should not go to a ‘foreign’ non- German ruler, since this was against custom and would not be tolerated by other rulers and free towns in the Empire. Francis was characterised as a foreign adventurer out for what he could get; Charles as the ‘national candidate’ (even though he had yet to learn German or visit Habsburg lands there). Only Charles, it was argued, could be relied upon to look after the interests of German lands and be powerful enough to defend the Empire against the growing external threat of the Ottoman Turks. To back up his case Charles was able to take advantage of the defeat of Francis’ ally Duke Ulrich of Wurttemberg by troops of the Swabian League to establish a military presence by funding those troops to remain mobilised, as well as by buying the support of the Swiss for 30,000 florins and of the German mercenary Franz von Sickingen for 40,000 florins. Von Sickingen positioned himself just outside Frankfurt where the electors met on 28th June 1519.

The details of the negotiations, financial dealings, manoeuvrings and promises made were complex. Suffice to say that the self-interest of the electors, whether motivated by greed, ambition, fear or genuine belief in his cause, eventually resulted in the unanimous choice of Charles and a consequent deepening of the enmity between the new emperor and Francis I. Henry VIII sent a message of congratulation to the new emperor and reminded Charles of the long friendship between England and both the Low Countries and Spain. So too did Francis. However, as the Venetian ambassador to France, Antonio Giustinian, wrote; ‘These sovereigns are not at peace; they adapt themselves to circumstance, but they hate each other very cordially’. If Charles claimed it as his duty to become Emperor, others saw it as ambition to further his own power and that of his dynasty.

These perceptions were to remain unchanged and had a major influence on European affairs for the rest of the century and beyond. Becoming emperor meant that Charles had to face ongoing hostility from France , oppose the threat to the unity of the church sparked by Martin Luther (See Religious Divisions), and take on the challenge that the Ottoman Empire posed to central Europe and throughout the Mediterranean. It has been questioned whether anyone could successfully take on such an enormous task. The rest of his reign was to show that Charles could not successfully deal with all three challenges simultaneously.