This Day in History – End of the Holy Roman Empire

On August 6, 1806, Franz II, the Habsburg emperor of Austria, renounced the title “Holy Roman Emperor.” No one was ever again to take up that title.

The Holy Roman Empire arguably began on Christmas Day of 800, when Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish King Charlemagne as emperor of the Roman Empire, the first time there had been an emperor in the West since 476.  Although the name “Holy Roman Empire” (German: “Heiliges Römisches Reich”; Latin: “Sacrum Romanum Imperium”) was not used until much later, the elements were there in what Charlemagne called himself--“Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.”

Voltaire famously said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, but it certainly was an empire—a polity embracing diverse linguistic/national groups—and did at times (mainly in the 10th through the 12th centuries) include Rome.  It is mainly associated with Germany, Burgundy, Bohemia and Italy, but also included Switzerland and Austria.  Over the centuries, the scions of several dynasties held the title of Holy Roman Emperor; these dynasties included the Salians, Hohenstaufens, and finally the Habsburgs. 

The animating notion behind the Holy Roman Empire, an idea gestating at least from the time of Constantine, was that Christianity should be a state church, and that the Roman empire should be a Christian empire.  By the medieval heyday of the Holy Roman Empire, the prevailing ideology was that the state should be the secular arm of the church, answerable to the church, and ultimately under the Pope’s control. 

When an 11th Century Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV of Germany, got into a political fight with Pope Hildebrand (Gregory VII) and the pope excommunicated him and all his bishops, his political situation became untenable and he was forced to yield to the Pope.  In the famous walk to Canossa, Henry sought an audience at the Italian castle where Hildebrand was staying, but was forced to wait outside in the snow for three days, wearing a hair shirt, no shoes, and without food or shelter, before the Pope finally agreed to see him.  (See, e.g., Great Controversy, p. 57).

Ironically, the end of the Holy Roman Empire was brought about by the same power to whom the pope had originally granted the title—France.  In December, 1805, in what would be his most brilliant victory, Napoleon defeated combined Austrian and Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz.  In the ensuing peace treaty, Napoleon took most of the Habsburg’s German principalities and put them into a French-allied entity called the Confederation of the Rhine.  Since these territories were the traditional nucleus of the Holy Roman Empire, it seemed pointless to Franz II to continue to hold that title. 

But it wasn’t just that the historic territory of the “Holy Roman Empire” was lost; by 1806, the ideology of church-state combination had lost its hold on the peoples of Christendom.  The French Revolution, Napoleonic France, and (ultimately more lastingly) the United States Constitution had made secular government with freedom of religion and non-establishment of religion the new Christian norm.  It still is today, but for how much longer?

This confirms, I would argue, that Adventists have correctly interpreted the 1260-day prophecy.  The period of papal supremacy began in the 6th Century and ended near the end of the 18th Century.  Some will cavil about specific dates, but the overall contours are beyond good faith dispute.