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[T]he Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Latin: Imperium Romanum Sacrum Nationis Germanicæ; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich deutscher Nation) was traditionally founded on Christmas Day of the year 800 A.D., when Pope Leo III placed the crown on the head of Charlemagne in St. Peter's, and the assembled multitudes shouted "Carolo Augusto, a Deo coronato magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria!" — "To Charles the Magnificent, crowned the great and peace-giving emperor by God, life and victory!" Strictly speaking, however, Charles's empire was neither Roman nor German, but Frankish — or as we might say, a sort of French-German mix (for that matter, there was a perfectly valid Roman Emperor at the time in any case[1]). The Empire was not officially described as "Holy" until the twelfth century, nor officially "German" before the sixteenth. Charlemagne's empire quickly fell to pieces among his squabbling successors, and the Holy Roman Emperors themselves tended to ignore any discontinuity between pagan and Christian Rome — Frederick I Barbarossa (1123-1190) going so far as to assert that one of his reasons for going on Crusade was to avenge the defeat of Crassus by the Parthians (53 B.C.).

Germany as a realm separate from the Frankish empire emerged with the Treaties of Verdun (843) and Mersen (870). After the last of Charlemagne's line died in 911, the German nobles elected Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, as King of the Germans. The coronation of his son Otto in 962 may be taken as the actual foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. The actual term "Holy Roman Empire" began to be used only during the reign of Friedrich Barbarossa two centuries and two dynasties later.

The mediæval period of the Empire was dominated by a series of internal struggles with the powerful German nobility, by struggles with the Italian communes, and (above all) by the great struggle with the Papacy. Notable figures in that contest include Henry IV, whose famous submission to Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) at Canossa was subsequently reversed by Gregory's exile, and the aforementioned Frederick I, whose defeat at Legnano led to his submission to Alexander III. The important point here is that the Empire and the Papacy, both competing for secular and religious power over all Christiandom without the means to enforce it, essentially destroyed each others credibility. This was not helped by a fairly consistent policy of Emperors to neglect the basis of their power in Germany to grasp at its shadow in Italy. This worked much to the advantage of the nationalistic monarchies of France (especially), England and Spain.

The climax was reached with the reign of Friedrich II (1215-1250), Barbarossa's grandson, whom while being an individual of singular gifts nonetheless attempted to run an Italian-German Empire from Sicily. His reign had some impressive successes (he managed to get excommunicated for leading a crusade which restored the "holy places" to christian pilgrims without anyone getting killed), but failed to establish a secure power base and got his line targeted by both the French and the Papacy, insofar as the difference mattered at that point. After his death and those of his sons, the name of Holy Roman Emperor was an empty title sought and won by adventurers.

By the fifteenth century, the Empire, weakened by internal dissension, gradually fragmented and yielded more and more to the nationalist powers of France and England.

Despite its name, the empire had many traits of a confederation, with the emperor being elected by the most powerful regional lords (the prince electors). At times, the empire consisted of over 300 sovereign kingdoms, duchies, free cities, and other entities. Unsurprisingly, it often was a total chaos.

In The Renaissance, despite a brief flourishing under Charles V (the last ruler actually crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope), the Reformation and the subsequent Wars of Religion and Thirty Years War effectively broke the Empire as a single political unit. Thereafter, the German states (of which there were some three hundred by this time) ruled themselves as sovereign principalities, and the Habsburg emperors, though retaining the Imperial title, confined themselves more and more to their Austrian (and Hungarian and Balkan) dominions; the deathblow was struck when the Elector Frederick III declared himself King Frederick I in Prussia in 1701. Despite the flourishing of culture under rulers such as Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Augustus the Strong of Saxony, and the rising influence of nationalism, the empire as a single nation was finished; and the abdication of Francis II as Holy Roman Emperor in 1806 and his assumption of the title of Francis I of the Austrian Empire (and the Kingdom of Hungary), though dictated by Napoleon, were simply a recognition of reality.

Though the actual Holy Roman Empire lasted about a thousand years, its depiction in popular culture is largely a matter of three periods: the time of the Minnesingers, the time of Albrecht Dürer; and the petty German princedoms of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  • The Minnesinger period features noble minstrels singing of love, stately castles on hilltops, and cruel overlords named Ulrich oppressing the local Lombard/Polish/Swiss peasants.
  • The Dürer period (which effectively lasts a hundred years after the artist's death) features woodcuts, fat burghers, half-timbered and high-gabled houses, and earnest Lutheran preachers denouncing Corrupt Churchmen. All writing is invariably done in Ye Olde Fraktur.
  • The Petty Princedom period features beautiful princesses stifled by the dull etiquette of a Deadly Decadent Court, rebellious court musicians, and fountains running with wine at the conclusion of the Peace of Pumpernickel-Knoblauch.

Tropes often associated with the Holy Roman Empire:

  • Ass Pull: The Pope crowned Charlemagne as emperor because there was a Binding Ancient Treaty that allowed the Pope to crown a Roman emperor in the west. That Binding Ancient Treaty was later found to be a forgery.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Charlemagne's coronation at St. Peter's has to have been pretty awesome. And yet Charles' court biographer Eginhard wrote that it came as a surprise to the king ... which probably makes it just the more awesome. He wrote that Charlemagne was actually mad at the pope, because he was crowned by him before being acclaimed by Italians, which implied his power came from the pope rather than his own might.
  • Corrupt Church: Given the corruption and political power plays within the Medieval Catholic Church, it comes as no surprise that the HRE would witness (and participate in) both a Papal civil war and later on the Reformation.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: A staple of the Petty Princedom period.
  • Elective Monarchy: The Emperor was elected by the seven Prince-electors.
  • The Emperor: For about a thousand years, when people in Western Europe said "The Emperor," this was the guy they meant. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that the term was very rarely used in the full negative sense it bears in modern popular culture; the office was generally respected, even if the man filling it was not.
  • The Empire: Ditto. Most English maps of the 15th-18th century period simply slap the giant words "THE EMPIRE" across Germany.
    • And at certain times, such as during the reigns of Charlemagne and Barbarossa, it really was more of a relatively unified country than the entity it ultimately became.
  • The Federation: Especially after the Middle Ages.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Empire in Warhammer.
  • Hegemonic Empire: Much of the Emperor's power was soft power.
  • The High Queen: Maria Theresa of Austria fits this trope perfectly, with a touch of The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask — though she was devoted to her husband, the Emperor Francis I, his philandering made her bitterly unhappy; her son Joseph II's progressive policies troubled her deeply; and her daughter was none other than Marie Antoinette.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The Teutonic Knights, who were really about on a par with other mediæval rulers, emerge in popular culture as proto-Nazis dedicated to Putting on the Reich. Their common soldiers are all Faceless Goons.
  • Joker Jury / Trial of the Mystical Jury: The Vehmgericht vacillates between these two tropes.
  • The Knights Templar: The Teutonic Knights were also a crusading order like them and are nearly as famous in their own right. However, their Drang nach Osten ("Drive toward the East") was toward Eastern Europe instead of the Middle East, against Europe's last pagan peoples (which they kept doing long after those nations converted). They also rival the Holy Roman Empire in being "Germany before modern Germany." Some of the lands they conquered were considered German until WWII because of it (as referenced in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land: Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch).
  • Land of One City: The Free Imperial Cities (freie Reichsstädte) were this.
  • Long Runners: The Holy Roman Empire had an uninterrupted existence of over 1,000 years, from 800 to 1804.
  • Magnificent Bastard: Oddly enough, there were two with the same name (and number): Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire and Frederick II of Prussia. Both were brilliant, highly cultured, highly successful, godless masters of war and political intrigue.
  • Nice Hat: There were several: the Iron Crown of Lombardy, the Crown of Charlemagne, the mitred crown of Rudolph II, and the little military hat of Frederick II of Prussia, who famously said, "A crown is just a hat that lets the rain in."
  • Papal States: The HRE both ensured their existence and quarreled with them over power. It did neither much credibility.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Or rather, its pre-French Revolution equivalent; "Holy," "Roman," and "Empire" were the great political buzzwords of the time, and by the end, it managed to be none of them. Most of the time the Holy Roman Emperors didn't even have any power in Rome itself. The "German" part (which was only official after 1512) is a bit more complicated; Its core territory was Germany throughout its history, but it also contained much of North Italy, and Czech and Slovene lands until long after its demise.
    • Despite the facility of Voltaire's canard, down to the end the Empire, even in its derivative Austro-Hungarian form, remained at least Holy, Roman (Catholic), and Imperial enough to be granted a say in the election of The Pope at Rome, as in 1903 when the Imperial veto against Cardinal Rampolla resulted in the election of Pope St. Pius X.
  • Take That: The Pope declared a new Roman empire in the west as a Take That to the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople.
    • Though more often than not, the Empire itself tended to have this attitude towards the Pope's power.
  • Vestigial Empire: What the HRE ultimately became, especially towards the latter centuries of its existence. Two nominal remnants would come of of it: one the Habsburg Empire; the other, Liechtenstein, which still exists today.

Works set in, featuring, or otherwise relating to the Holy Roman Empire:

Anime and Manga

  • Axis Powers Hetalia features a character who embodies the Holy Roman Empire: a young and serious boy who dreams of being as great as Rome and is in love with his maid, Italia aka Chibitalia (not knowing that "she" is a Wholesome Crossdresser). The story strongly hints that Germany is the grown-up version of him.
    • Further, another character seems to embody both Austria and the Habsburg family, one of its important ruling dynasties.
      • More exactly, said character is the embodiment of Austria, and the Austrian Habsburgs are his bosses. Specifically, he's shown interacting with the recently crowned Empress Maria Theresa.
      • And it's also hinted that he's the real power behind the HRE. Which more or less mirrors what Austria's role was in real life.
  • Rosenkreuzstilette plays with the setting by having magic, fairies and demons exist alongside bombs, early prosthetics, and robots. Other than that, it's straight up Holy Roman Empire.


  • The Golem, How He Came Into The World (silent movie) — Dürer
  • Alexander Nevsky, though set in Russia, features Teutonic (i.e., "German") Knights with many of the features of Ulrich the Overlord
  • The Scarlet Empress, a 1934 historical drama (in part) — Petty Princedom. Catherine, on her way to becoming "The Great", is raised in a boring little German court.
  • A Sarabande for Dead Lovers, a 1948 historical drama — Petty Princedom
  • The Flame and the Arrow, a 1950 adventure move — Minnesinger
  • The Last Valley — A rare example set actually in the Thirty Years War, after Dürer days but before the Petty Princedoms.
  • Amadeus — Petty Princedom
  • Luther (2003 movie) — Dürer

Folklore (multiple media)

  • All versions of the legend of Faust — Dürer
  • The legends of William Tell in all its various versions — Minnesinger


  • Liechtenauer's Blossfechten, non-fiction. It's likely that this manual in swordsmanship was the most influential across the Holy Roman Empire, as it spawned the numerous interpretations. The first known Italian swordsmanship manual dates to over one-hundred years later and bears striking similarity to Liechtenauer's works, meaning that the influence of the manuscript was felt outside the Empire itself.
  • In his Essay on General History and on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations (1756), French philosophe and Deadpan Snarker Voltaire famously remarked, "This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." This has been considered very witty.
  • Washington Irving's "The Specter Bridegroom"
  • Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic short story "Metzengerstein"
  • Sir Walter Scott's Anne of Geierstein - A rare example from The Late Middle Ages.
  • Most of the works of Luise Mühlbach, Germany's answer to Dumas, père, and Harrison Ainsworth
  • Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Knights of the Cross (Krzyżacy) — Minnesinger; whether the action is set in Poland or the Holy Roman Empire depends on one's point of view.
  • Two of Umberto Eco's Historical Fiction novels (Minnesinger era both times):
    • The Name of the Rose (including the movie made from the novel) is set in 14th century Italy, a part of the HRE (at least formally).
    • Baudolino, set in 1204, where the eponymous protagonist is (or claims to be) a long-time confidante of Frederick Barbarossa.
  • The 1632 series dumps a small modern West Virginian town into the Thirty Years War period, hovering indistinctly between Dürer and the Petty Princedom era.
  • Heinrich von Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas is set in 16th century Saxony, the time of Martin Luther.
  • Otfried Preußler's Krabat, a Young Adult novel set in Saxony around 1700.


  • Christopher Lee released a symphonic metal album entitled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which dramatized the life or Charlemagne (whom Lee is a direct descendant of) in the form of a Orchestral rock opera with Lee playing the role of the titular emperor. The upcoming follow-up, Charlemagne: the Omens of Death, will be full-blown Heavy Metal arranged by Richie Faulkner.

Tabletop Games

Theatre & Opera

Video Games

  • Age of Empires II has a campaign where you play as the Holy Roman Empire - Minnesinger
  • Civilization 4 adds Charlemagne as a playable character in one of the expansions. The HRE completely dominates in the medieval military area.
  • Medieval II: Total War has HRE as playeable faction and addon Kingdoms has Teutonic Knights.
  • Atelier Series — The early ("Salburg" and "Gramnad") games were heavily Dürer-influenced; Salburg is even a likely Expy of Salzburg. This fades in later games, though some influences remain throughout.
  • Europa Universalis features a HRE mechanic, allowing the player to control any of the states within it, take or defend territory for the Empire, become the emperor and eventually, through a series of difficult diplomatic actions, unite the HRE into a single nation, often the most powerful nation in the world. Alternatively, the empire usually just collapses in its own internal politics and power struggles.
    • Crusader Kings, another game in the Paradox lineup, includes the HRE as a feudal "Kingdom of Germany."
  • Siegfried Schtauffen, The Hero of the Soul Series, is from the Holy Roman Empire.