Map. The Carolingian Empire in 843.

The Political Structures of the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France (from the 9th to the 16th Century). A Brief Overview

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

How were the Holy Roman Empire and Middle Ages France different in term of political structure? What led to those differences?

I always hear about HRE being a loose confederation of minor kingdoms (for lack of a better word). But wasn’t middle age France much the same? Strong dukes often controlling the king? How did the HRE and medieval France differ and how where they same? Why did the HRE becomes a looser confederation of minor kingdoms than France?

~ posted by u/daimposter on the r/AskHistorians subreddit.

My Answer

The political structure of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and the Kingdom of France both derive from the political structure of the Carolingian Empire. So let’s have a quick look at that first 😉

A Very Short History of the ‘Origins’

Our contemporary society recognizes three forms of power: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The Carolingian Empire only had two: the temporal and the spiritual (the executive, legislative and judicial powers were all bundled up together). The emperor ruled over both. Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, had a total control over the lords and the Church. They could grant lands, titles, bishoprics or revoke them as they see fit.

On the one hand, Charlemagne only had one heir: Louis the Pious. On the other hand, Louis had to split his Empire, according to the Frankish customs, between his three sons. He also didn’t have the charismatic aura of his father, who went from conquest to conquest, and he was left with an Empire practically impossible to rule. It all concluded in Louis’ three sons (Charles, Lothair and Louis/Ludwig) splitting the Empire into three parts. Lothair’s share was ultimately absorbed into his brother’s realms and from that point onward, West Francia and East Francia evolved into very different countries.

In the meantime, the Church which had greatly benefited from the leadership and protection of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and their predecessors gradually became an independent political body. The Church had obeyed and served the Carolingian emperors, but it had grown so much that it was now able to confront their heirs and come up with its own political agenda. The spiritual power was free from the temporal power by the end of the 9th century and the pope became a major political player by the end of the 10th century.

The Implementation of the Feudal System in West Francia

It is often written that Charles the Bald, who inherited and ruled West Francia, gave birth to the Feudal System with the Capitulary of Coulaines (available online on the marvelous MGH website). Though the direct effects of the capitulary were not as dramatic as historians used to say, it nonetheless recognized that lands given by the King to his vassals could be inherited by their progeny. It meant that not before long every region of the realm had its own local blue-blood dynasty. Therefore the Capitulary of Coulaines was a substantial stepping stone for the implementation of the Feudal System (reminder: the word ‘feudal’ comes from the Latin word ‘feudum’ which is a type of ‘beneficium’ (a gift from a king or prince to a faithful ally) that implies the gifting of a piece of land). By the 10th century, it became obvious that the aristocrats held the real power over most of the land, ensuring it by the building of motte-and-bailey castles and by getting the Church on their side through charity. Founding and donating to monasteries became a regular political play for powerful laymen although it greatly benefited to the rise of the Benedictine Order and the network of the Cluny monasteries more than anything. Nevertheless, anyone inheriting a fief still had to pay a ‘homage’ (Latin, homagium; German, huld) to the king and formally recognize his temporal authority. It was a very significant ceremony that reminded everyone their role and the proper hierarchy within the structure of society.

The Capet Dynasty

The progressive loss of a central and strong seat of power rendered the Carolingian dynasty of West Francia unable to enforce the peace in the realm and to properly protect the northern coasts from new invaders: the infamous Vikings. It became clear to the magnates that they were better off without a king. However, they had to maintain some kind of puppet on the throne to prevent the Carolingian kings of East Francia to march on Paris and conquer the kingdom whole. Several attempts had already been made in the past to reunite the West and the East Francia. While invoking the old Frankish principle of elective monarchy, the great vassals of the realm put a new dynasty on the throne: the powerless House of Capet.

The Capet, however, followed a clever strategy. They would always make sure that two kings were simultaneously elected and anointed, the rex coronatus and the rex designates, so that matters of succession were always settled from the start and there was never any leeway for another dynasty to rise on the throne. Moreover, the Capet gradually extended their personal demesne so that they could eventually compete with their vassals and enforce their law. At the very start of the 14th century, Philip IV the Fair even instituted the ‘États Généraux’, a general assembly of the people gathering representatives of the three orders, to counter the meddling of the pope over the spiritual matters in their realm. It also served him to kill the Order of the Knights Templar and confiscate all their possessions. The kings of France therefore became strong political figures, capable of handling both the temporal and the spiritual power of their realm. They were feared and respected by their vassals and treated on an equal footing by the emperor of the HRE and the pope.

The Plantagenet Problem… and the Valois Solution

The Capet, however, were far from all powerful. Remember those Vikings I mentioned above? They had carved a duchy for themselves, the duchy of Normandy, and no one dared to oppose the duke of Normandy. The guy minted his own money. He was so powerful and relentless, in fact, that he conquered a kingdom. I’m talking of William the Conqueror and the 1066 conquest of England, of course. Eventually, all his possessions were inherited by the Plantagenet dynasty, who also inherited the duchy of Aquitaine through clever matrimonial alliances. At some point, the Plantagenet ‘empire’ included half the kingdom of France! And the Capet kings were totally powerless against such a mighty force, until King John of England rose to the throne, faced revolts at home, bad luck abroad, was dragged into signing the Magna Carta (1215) and saw most of his French possessions confiscated and redistributed by the king.

Nevertheless, the king of France retained a vassal who was a king and everywhere he went he was faced with fierce resistance from the great dukes of the realm. The royal demesne was slowly expanding but the Parliament (the highest court of Justice in the land) had to relentlessly keep on fighting against its dismemberment by the king himself, who often wished to grant a land or two to any of his courtier or captain who provided him a great service. Eventually, after many political intrigues, the king of England said, “Enough!” and claimed the throne for himself when the Valois succeeded to the Capet.

What is really interesting is that at that point, the idea of electing a new king crossed no one’s mind. The quarrel was a quarrel of succession. The realm was an inheritance. It was traditionally passed down from one generation to the other. Since the straight line of male successors was extinct, the only question to answer was to know if a woman could inherit and pass down a kingdom or not. The long game Capet strategy had worked like magic!

Eventually, the Valois stood strong on the principle that the kingdom itself could only pass through male hands and could never be inherited or transmitted by a woman. The Hundred Years’ War came close to an end when Charles VI and Richard II became best buddies, but their terrible fate precipitated the start of new conflicts. Henry VI of England legally and effectively became the king of France but he had a strong opponent, who held on and kept the fight alive mostly despite himself, Charles VII. The latter ultimately passed on heavy taxation reforms and instituted the first permanent non-feudal but professional royal army. He won the war. His son, Louis XI, killed the dreams and ambitions of the great vassals with that very army. No one could contest the king’s authority anymore, but his own Parliament.

The Holy Roman Elective Empire

Whereas the Capet managed to turn the kingdom of France into a hereditary monarchy, which would become the most powerful centralized state of Europe, Germany remained a conglomerate of semi-autonomous states. Maybe it is worth being reminded that Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor, only took on the title to challenge the authority of the emperor of Constantinople, especially on spiritual matters. First and foremost, Charlemagne was and stayed the king of the Franks. He never had the centralized administration capable of holding an empire together. He only became a powerful imperial figure through his military charisma but the institutions of the old Roman Empire had since long collapsed and what was left of them couldn’t carry the political weight needed for an actual empire anymore.

Louis the German, Charlemagne’s grandson and Charles the Bald’s brother was not able to keep the dream alive. His dynasty was very short-lived and the imperial title quickly fell out of use. The political crises of the 9th and 10th centuries, the expansion of Christianity and the Magyar and Viking violent immigration waves prompted a ‘strong man’ to take charge and restore the imperial charge around the same time that the Capet were elected on the throne of France. This man was Otto I ‘the Great’ and he was the actual founder of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. However, unlike the Capet, the Ottonian didn’t implement a hereditary system of succession. Too many people were fighting for the honor to wear the imperial crown. Otto III, Otto I’s grandson, was already faced with an ‘anti-king’, elected by his political rivals! The Staufer tried to make the imperial title a hereditary one. Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ had his son elected to the imperial throne at the same time as him, which made him his uncontested father’s successor but it remained an absolute exception and the general rule was that stuck through the centuries was that the emperor was elected. It was also interpreted as a direct intervention of God in political matters and it helped to keep unworthy heirs away from the throne.

The HRE around 962

The emperors had little to go with, however, when their authority was challenged. They didn’t have access to an “imperial army” or to an “imperial administration” to help them out. The very idea that the HRE could ever become a centralized state actually scared all its neighbors and many attempts were made to prevent it from happening, though Germans hated foreign political meddling more than anything.

Several cities were placed under the direct rule of the emperor, but it was more of a way for those cities to manage themselves. Therefore the emperor could only rely on his personal demesne and diplomatic wits to assert his authority. However, contrarily to the French situation, it was not like an Imperial demesne could grow like the French royal demesne since a new dynasty could be put on the imperial throne every time an emperor would die. That’s why emperors ended up mostly benefiting of their title to boost up their personal demesne, instead of sacrificing their own resources to pass on any imperial reforms.

The Cezaropapism Crisis

The temporal power of the Holy Roman emperors was very limited and the feudal system was slowly implemented in Germany, although it developed its own specificities. In 1037, Conrad passed the Constitutio de feudis and extended the benefit of hereditary possessions of fief to the lesser lords. The 11th century also saw the emergence of the ministeriales, a group of unfree knights and vassals promoted by the imperial clergy that had no matching concordance in France, where all vassals were free men with hereditary rights and claims.

Bishops and abbots selected able men of unfree status and enfeoffed them with resources to enable them to serve as knights or administrators. The Salians also began employing ministeriales to administer royal domains and garrison the new castles built in the 1060s. The ministeriales gradually acquired other privileges, embraced an aristocratic ethos, and eventually converted their relationship based on servitude into one of more conventional vassalage to fuse with other lesser nobles as knights and barons by about 1300.

It would be wrong to interpret the ministeriales as the potential staff required to create a centralized monarchy. They were indeed used to verse more intensive management of royal domains, notably in Saxony.

Source: Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Roman Empire (2016).

The HRE around 1050

Meanwhile, the pope had become a real political player. The rise of the Benedictine and various religious orders resulted in many reforms within the papacy. The pope was no longer elected by the most powerful Roman families, for a start. Monks also got elected as pope, and popes that were formerly monks loved to live by strict rules. The papal chancery also became a proper administrative center of power: every king or prince soon flocked towards the pope or sent emissaries at least to see their privileges and titles granted and renewed. It is with a papal banner that William the Conqueror battled at Hastings.

It had to happen that the emperor, faced against rebellious vassals, turned to the pope for help and that the pope asked for something in return. In particular, the pope didn’t like that the emperor could still appoint bishops personally and it was interpreted as a violation of the Church. Henry IV (HRE) and Gregory VII (papacy) couldn’t see eye to eye on that matter. This led to the Investiture Dispute that the emperors ultimately lost. What was left of his temporal and spiritual power? Not much…

The Rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty

The imperial electoral college remained undefined until the 13th century. Eventually, three ecclesiastical electors came on top of the others: the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. As for the secular electors, they were settled by Emperor Rudolf who chose his four sons-in-law: the count Palatine, the margrave of Brandenburg, the duke of Saxony and the king of Bohemia. In 1356, Charles IV, from the Luxemburg dynasty, who had a great personal relationship with the papacy, fixed those electoral votes with the Golden Bull.

Thanks to a very thorough matrimonial strategy, the Hapsburg dynasty managed to lock on to several of the electoral secular fiefs. It also gave birth to some of the most inbred rulers of Europe, but by the election of Maximilian I to the throne in 1486, the Hapsburg maintained a firm grasp over the imperial title.

Nevertheless they were never able to create a centralized state like the Capet and the Valois did and the HRE never had a regular and professional army of its own. Charles V himself, who owned the kingdom of Spain, the former Burgundian dominions and all of the Hapsburg lands, proved unable to face the rise of the Protestant Reform whereas it was murderously quashed in France.

The dominions of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and Bohemia, etc.

In Conclusion…

I hope this short overview has helped to figure out how different the HRE and the kingdom of France were in regards of their political structure. The principle of a hereditary monarchy helped the French kings a great deal to progressively implement a centralized state. Meanwhile, the elective imperial title and lack of proper imperial institutions made the German emperors often powerless to shape Germany into according to their political views. That is why the HRE is often described as a ‘loose confederation of minor kingdoms’ that share a same common Germanic culture, whereas medieval France is a properly united kingdom despite the impulse of autonomy expressed by the great dukes of the realm.