The Holy Roman Empire

This book takes the highly contentious position among historians that the Holy Roman Empire ( was a stable and successful political structure. It is presented as a thematic history of the Empire from its medieval origins to its demise in 1806.


In the first of four sections, ‘Ideal’, Peter Wilson shows the power of the imperial ambition: the Emperor’s assumption of the ancient Roman mission of protecting Christianity, which gave him a status above that of an ordinary king. This ideal remained important, Wilson suggests, well into the early modern period: Maria Theresa may have described the imperial crown as a ‘fool’s hat’, but the title still conferred symbolic power. In the second section, ‘Belonging’, Wilson explores how the Empire’s various peoples and lands comprised the political reality, whilst at the same time preserving their unique cultures. In section three, ‘Governance’, he examines the Empire’s rulers, institutions and resources, emphasising that its history cannot be written in terms of a failed attempt to create a unitary state. In the final section, ‘Society’, the author addresses the relationship between its governance and the lives of its inhabitants. Through examining various forms of authority and association, he shows the extent to which the political and social structures of the Empire were interwoven.


In the Holy Roman Empire as described by Wilson there is much to admire. As a ‘collective actor’, the Empire was not bellicose or expansionist, unlike Louis XIV’s France. Wilson praises its ability to manage both political and legal problems, using methods that were ‘more realistic and often more humane’ than those employed elsewhere in Europe. For example, there is the story of the 11th-century Emperor Conrad II, who stopped on the way to his coronation to listen to petitions from the dispossessed.


This monumental history will resonate with current debates about the European Union. Wilson makes it clear that, because of its complexity and diversity, the Holy Roman Empire, just like the European Union, could divide as well as unite. The mosaic of competing interests jostle to this day. As we embark on the tangled process of BREXIT negotiations, this book could do for some solid background reading. At a mere 1008 pages, that’s only one page for each year of the Empire’s existence. You’ll be able to suck it all up in a week.


Peter H. Wilson ( is the Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, Oxford.


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1008 pages in Allen Lane

First published 2016

ISBN  978-1846143182


Professor Peter Wilson

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