In the previous article of this rubric we witnessed the conclusion of the struggle for world dominion between the papacy and the Hohenstaufen family. We saw that the claims of the papacy survived also the blows struck again and again by this house; and my closing remark was that the struggle ended with the Holy Roman Empire prostrate in the dust before the papacy. The term “Holy Roman Empire” is one in the need of some explanation. Empire is a term used to signify the dominions governed by a person bearing the title of emperor. The first succession of great empires known to the historian was formed of the Babylonian and Assyrian powers, the Medo-Persian, and the Macedonian. They included the greater part of the ancient civilized world before Christ. The Macedonian power was superseded by the Old Roman empire, founded by Julius Caesar and Augustus. In 393 A.D. it was divided into two parts, the Western, ruled from Rome by one sovereign and the other or Eastern half from Constantinople by another, although the whole was still regarded as forming a single Roman state. But actually the Old Roman empire had come to an end, so that there v/ere now the Eastern Roman empire, which lasted a thousand years, and the Western Roman empire, which so on expired, the reason being that it was unable to resist the invasions of the German tribes. In 451 the German kingdoms that resulted from these invasions voluntarily passed under the jurisdiction of the emperor of Constantinople and the Western Roman empire came to an end.
This state of things continued until Charles the Great, who succeeded his father Pepin in 768, brought under his rule all Western Europe, that is most of the countries that had been included in the Western Roman Empire, and thus established the Roman-Germanic or so-called Holy Roman Empire. It was called Holy because Charles wished to unite all Western Europe into a Christian Empire. It was called Roman because Charles claimed to be the successor of the Caesars of the Old Roman Empire. The object was to make Rome again the capital of an undivided Roman empire, rather than creating a separate Western empire. But as the Eastern Empire continued to exist, the result of the step really was to establish two mutually hostile lines of emperors, each claiming to be the successor of Augustus and Constantine.
The territorial extent of the Western (Holy) Roman Empire that was founded by Charles varied greatly at different periods of its history. At the time of Charles the Great it embraced the northern half of Italy, France, Western and Southern Germany, and a part of Spain. Under Otto the Great (936-973) it was spread over the whole of Germany, Holland and Belgium, the south-east part of northern France, and laid claims to the ancient kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, and Denmark, and the greater kingdoms of France, England, Spain, and northern Italy. At the time of the Reformation all claims over the districts outside of Germany were dropped. From the 15th century on it had the same bounds as modern Germany, except that it did not include East Prussia.
From the time of Otto the Great there was an unbroken succession of German kings who took the name of the Emperors of the Old Roman Empire, and were acknowledged in the countries of Western Europe and by the Roman Catholic Church as the head of the whole Christian community. Their jurisdiction was, however, practically limited to Germany and Northern Italy. It was especially the strong emperors of this so-called Holy Roman Empire that opposed the claims of the papacy to supreme magisterial power over the kingdoms of the earth. Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen line was such an emperor. But as we have seen his war with the papacy ended in his destruction and in that of his house; and the empire, definitely Germany and Italy, had become so weak that the encroachments of the papacy could no longer be resisted. In its long struggle against the pope, its strength had been broken, and the Italian states and German territorial rulers became practically independent princes, sovereign in their own territories, and often more powerful than the emperor. By 1648 it was really no longer an empire at all, but a loose federation of many large and small principalities, united under the presidency of a ruler who bore the title of emperor but had no actual power. Yet it lasted on till the year 1806, when Francis II, king of Hungary, resigned his imperial title, and withdrew to his own kingdom. With him the Holy Roman Empire ended.
As was stated, with the death of Conradin I, the male line of the Hohenstaufen dynasty became extinct; and the electorial princes of Germany elevated Rudolf of Hapsburg to the imperial throne of the Holy Roman empire. Hapsburg is the name of an old German family, native of Switzerland, and the first mention of which is in a document of 1099, were the name Werner, count of Hapsburg, occurs in connection with the consecration of the monastery of Muri. This family, that took its name from an old Swiss castle, now in ruins, has given sovereigns to Germany, Spain and Austria, and continued to recent times to be a reigning dynasty. Rudolf, crowned emperor October 24, 1273, was a just ruler and without ambition to extend his jurisdiction. Moreover, being a religious tempered man, he was loyal to the Roman hierarchy. He refrained from controlling the election of bishops in his realm, protected the rights of the church and dropped all claim to the states of the papacy in Italy. In a word, he was a man according to the papacy’s heart. Gregory, elected pope in 1271, was pleased with him. In a tone of conciliation he wrote, “It is incumbent on princes to protect the liberties and rights of the church and not to deprive her of her temporal property.” But he added, “It is also the duty of the spiritual ruler to maintain kings in the full integrity of their office.” In comparison with many of his predecessors, Gregory was a man of peaceful spirit. Men said that he was a saint; and he is one of the two popes of his century so canonized. But he did not hold himself aloof from politics. That would be expecting too much of the best of popes, seeing that all held the view that Christ had instituted the papacy to rule the world. Gregory secured the election of Rudolf, and had thereby gained a brilliant victory.
So there was now peace in the relations of the papacy and the empire (Holy Roman). But what pope should not be able to get along well with a man like Rudolf? The era of good feeling continued all the days of Rudolf, who died in 1291. In fact, not once again did men witness a fierce struggle for power between a Holy Roman emperor and the papacy such as that in which Frederick II and some of his predecessors in the imperial throne had engaged the popes. The reason is that since the days of the Hohenstaufen the empire was too greatly enfeebled by internal wars and disorders to defy through its emperors the popes of Rome in their preposterous pretentions. The title of Holy Roman emperor was born by members of the Austrian house of Hapsburg from 1273 to 1740, but the emperors had power as rulers of their hereditary estates rather than as occupants of the imperial throne in Germany, and therefore were powerless to suppress the incessant wars between the German princes and the cities and the discord of the lower nobility. As to their mode of living these nobles were veritable highway robbers. This state of things in Germany continued to the time of the Reformation and even beyond that time.
From 1438, the year of the accession of Rudolf to the imperial throne, to 1294 there reigned successively no less than eight popes, Gregory X, Innocent Y, Adrian V, John XXI, Nicolas III, Martin IV, Nicolas IV, and Coelestis V. The combined reigns of Innocent, Adrian, and John lasted only eighteen months. Innocent died before he was consecrated. It was during the pontificate of Gregory that the Council of Lyons, also known as the Fourteenth Ecumenical Council, held its sessions. It is remembered chiefly for the futile attempt to unite the Greek and Western churches. Nicolas III was a firm administrator, who managed to frustrate the attempt of the ambitious Charles of Anjou to seize the Greek crown. Martin IV, a Frenchman and a man of lowly birth, is conspicuous as the tool of a monarch, this Charles of Anjou. In southern Italy the ruling positions were everywhere held by Frenchmen, who were thoroughly hated by the Sicilians. Rising up, they massacred all the Normans on the island with the Sicilian wives of the Normans. It is estimated that at from eight to twenty thousand of their number fell. The massacre ended Charles rule on the island, and Peter of Aragon was chosen king in his stead. Martin placed Sicily under the papal ban, and imposed upon Christendom a tribute of one tenth for a crusade against Peter. The ambition of Nicolas. IV was to restore to Christendom the holy places of Palestine, but he died err his plans could be executed.
The pontifical throne was vacant for twenty seven months, when Peter de Murrhone, who wanted to be known as Coelestine V, was raised to the papal dignity. His brief reign, it lasted less than a year, forms a curious chapter in the history of the papacy. The college of cardinals, as they could agree on no one else, chose this man, who formed a strange and direct contrast to his predecessors. Peter de Murrhone was a pious monk—an anchoret, in fact-—who from his twentieth year—at the time of his elevation to the papal throne he was seventy nine—had led a solitary life, devoted to prayer and religious contemplation. There was a story in circulation about him that he had succeeded in the unprecedented feat of hanging his tub, wherein he was wont to sit, on a sunbeam. Against his wishes, he was made to exchange the contemplative life for a sphere of action of the most enormous extent. As pope he wore the monkish dress under the papal robe. In appearance, he formed a striking contrast to that of the other popes of this time. Seated upon an ass, led by the kings of Sicily and Hungary, he made his entry into Rome. Thousands flocked about him to obtain his blessing. But when this feeble old man was set down in the midst of the vast business of his office, he proved woefully incompetent. In his simplicity, he gave his ear now to this counsellor and then to that. Pie subscribed to rolls of parchment that he had not even read or that had not been written on, and which therefore could be filled at pleasure. The cardinal resolved to get rid of him, and he, too, longed to be restored to his former solitude. Despairing of the wickedness of the papal court, he exclaimed, “O God, while I rule over other men’s souls, I am losing the salvation of my own”. But it was difficult to see how a pope could be divested of his office. But Peter was assured that it was allowable. He published an ordinance to that effect, and subsequently abdicated and returned to his quiet, and was succeeded by Coelestine VI. With the commencement of the reign of this pope, a new era for the papacy was at hand.