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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center


Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter XX: Fall Of The Empire.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901


Page Twenty

Chapter XX: Fall Of The Empire.

Goethe has described the uneasiness with which, in the days of his
childhood, the burghers of his native Frankfort saw the walls of the Roman
Hall covered with the portraits of Emperor after Emperor, till space was left
for few, at last for one ^1. In A.D. 1792 Francis the Second mounted the
throne of Augustus, and the last place was filled. Three years before there
had arisen on the western horizon a little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand,
and now the heaven was black with storms of ruin. There was a prophecy ^2,
dating from the first days of the Empire's decline, that when all things were
falling to pieces, and wickedness rife in the world, a second Frankish Charles
should rise as Emperor to purge and heal, to bring back peace and purify
religion. If this was not exactly the mission of the new ruler of the West
Franks, he was at least anxious to tread in the steps and revive the glories
of the hero whose throne he professed to have again erected. It were a task
superfluously easy to show how delusive is that minute historical parallel of
which every Parisian was full in A.D. 1804, the parallel between the heir of a
long line of fierce Teutonic chieftains, whose vigorous genius had seized what
it could of the monkish learning of the eighth century, and the son of the
Corsican lawyer, with all the brilliance of a Frenchman and all the resolute
profundity of an Italian, reared in, yet only half believing, the ideas of the
Encyclopaedists, swept up into the seat of absolute power by the whirlwind of
a revolution. Alcuin and Talleyrand are not more unlike than are their
masters. But though in the characters and temper of the men there is little
resemblance, though their Empires agree in this only, and hardly even in this,
that both were founded on conquest, there is nevertheless a sort of grand
historical similarity between their positions. Both were the leaders of fiery
and warlike nations, the one still untamed as the creatures of their native
woods, the other drunk with revolutionary fury. Both aspired to found, and
seemed for a time to have succeeded in founding, universal monarchies. Both
were gifted with a strong and susceptible imagination, which if it sometimes
overbore their judgment, was yet one of the truest and highest elements of
their greatness. As the one looked back to the kings under the Jewish
theocracy and the Emperors of Christian Rome, so the other thought to model
himself after Caesar and Charlemagne. For, useful as was the fancied
precedent of the title and career of the great Carolingian to a chief
determined to be king, yet unable to be king after the fashion of the
Bourbons, and seductive as was such a connexion to the imaginative vanity of
the French people, it was no studied purpose or stimulating art that led
Napoleon to remind his subjects so frequently of the hero he claimed to
represent. No one who reads the records of his life can doubt that he
believed, as fully as he believed anything, that the same destiny which had
made France the centre of the modern world had also appointed him to sit on
the throne and carry out the projects of Charles the Frank, to rule all Europe
from Paris, as the Caesars had ruled it from Rome ^3. It was in this belief
that he went to the ancient capital of the Frankish Emperors to receive there
the Austrian recognition of his imperial title: that he talked of
'revendicating' Catalonia and Aragon, because they had formed a part of the
Carolingian realm, though they had never obeyed any descendant of Hugh Capet:
that he undertook a journey to Nimeguen, where he had ordered the ancient
palace to be restored, and inscribed on its walls his name below that of
Charles: that he summoned the Pope to attend his coronation as Stephen had
come ten centuries before to instal Pipin in the throne of the last
Merovingian ^4. The same desire to be regarded as lawful Emperor of the West
shewed itself in his assumption of the Lombard crown at Milan; in the words of
the decree by which he annexed Rome to the Empire, revoking 'the donations
which my predecessors, the French Emperors, have made ^5;' in the title 'King
of Rome,' which he bestowed on his ill-fated son, in imitation of the German
'King of the Romans ^6.' We are even told that it was at one time his
intention to eject the Hapsburgs, and be chosen Roman Emperor in their stead.
Had this been done, the analogy would have been complete between the position
which the French ruler held to Austria now, and that in which Charles and Otto
had stood to the feeble Caesars of Byzantium. It was curious to see the head
of the Roman church turning away from his ancient ally to the reviving power
of France - France, where the Goddess of Reason had been worshipped eight
years before - just as he had sought the help of the first Carolingians
against his Lombard enemies ^7. The difference was indeed great between the
feelings wherewith Pius the Seventh addressed his 'very dear son in Christ,'
and those that had pervaded the intercourse of Pope Hadrian the First with the
son of Pipin; just as the contrast is strange between the principles that
shaped Napoleon's policy and the vision of a theocracy that had floated before
the mind of Charles. Neither comparison is much to the advantage of the
modern; but Pius might be pardoned for catching at any help in his distress,
and Napoleon found that the protectorship of the church strengthened his
position in France, and gave him dignity in the eyes of Christendom ^8.

[Footnote 1: Wahrheit und Dichtung, bk. i. The Romer Saal is still one of the
sights of Frankfort. The portraits, however, which one now sees in it, seem
to be all or nearly all of them modern; and few have any merit as works of

[Footnote 2: Fordanis Chronica, ap. Schardium, Sylloge Tractatuum.]

[Footnote 3: In an address by Napoleon to the Senate in 1804, bearing date
10th Frimaire (1st Dec.), are the words, 'Mes descendans conserveront
longtemps ce trone, le premier de l'univers.' Answering a deputation from the
department of the Lippe, Aug. 8th, 1811, 'La Providence, qui a voulu que je
retablisse le trone de Charlemagne, vous a fait naturellement rentrer, avec la
Hollande et les villes anseatiques, dans le sein de l'Empire.' - Oeuvres de
Napoleon, tom. v. p. 521.

'Pour le Pape, je suis Charlemagne, parce que, comme Charlemagne, je
reunis la couronne de France a celle des Lombards, et que mon Empire confine
avec l'Orient.' (Quoted by Lanfrey, Vie de Napoleon, iii. 417.)

'Votre Saintete est souveraine de Rome, mais j'en suis l'Empereur.'
(Letter of Napoleon to Pope Pius, Feb. 13th, 1806. Lanfrey.)

'Dites bien,' says Napoleon to Cardinal Fesch, 'que je suis Charlemagne,
leur Empereur [of the Papal Court] que je dois etre traite de meme. Je fais
connaitre au Pape mes intentions en peu de mots, s'il n'y acquiesce pas, je le
reduirai a la meme condition qu'il etait avant Charlemagne.' (Lanfrey, Vie de
Napoleon, iii. 420.)]

[Footnote 4: Napoleon said on one occasion, 'Je n'ai pas succede a Louis
Quatorze, mais a Charlemagne.' - Bourrienne, Vie de Napoleon, vi. 256, who
adds that in 1804, shortly before he was crowned, he had the imperial insignia
of Charles brought from the old Frankish capital, and exhibited them in a
jeweller's shop in Paris, along with those which had just been made for his
own coronation. But if there was not in this a trick of Napoleon's, there
must be a mistake of Bourrienne's, for these insignia had been removed from
Aachen by Austria in 1798. (Cf. Bock, Die Kleinodien des h. romischen
Reiches, p. 4.) Somewhat in the same spirit in which he displayed the Bayeux
embroidery, in order to incite his subjects to the conquest of England.]

[Footnote 5: 'Je n'ai pu concilier ces grands interets (of political order and
the spiritual authority of the Pope) qu'en annulant les donations des
Empereurs Francais, mes predecesseurs, et en reunissant les etats romains a la
France.' - Proclamation issued in 1809; Oeuvres, iv.]

[Footnote 6: See Appendix, Note C.]

[Footnote 7: Pope Pius VII wrote to the First Consul, 'Carissime in Christo
Fili noster .... tam perspecta sunt nobis tuae voluntatis studia erga nos, ut
quotiescunque ope aliqua in rebus nostris indigemus, eam a te fidenter petere
non dubitare debeamus.' - Quoted by Aegidi.]

[Footnote 8: Let us place side by side the letters of Hadrian to Charles in
the Codex Carolinus, and the following preamble to the Concordat of A.D. 1801,
between the First Consul and the Pope (which I quote from the Bullarium
Romanum), and mark the changes of a thousand years.

'Gubernium reipublicae [Gallicae] recognoscit religionem Catholicam
Apostolicam Romanam eam esse religionem quam longe maxima pars civium Gallicae
reipublicae profitetur.

'Summus pontifex pari modo recognoscit eandem religionem maximam
utilitatem maximumque decus percepisse et hoc quoque tempore praestolari ex
catholico cultu in Gallia constituto, necnon ex peculiari eius professione
quam faciunt reipublicae consules.']

A swift succession of triumphs had left only one thing still preventing
the full recognition of the Corsican warrior as sovereign of Western Europe,
and that one was the existence of the old Romano-Germanic Empire. Napoleon
had not long assumed his new title when he began to mark a distinction between
'la France' and 'l'Empire Francais.' France had, since A.D. 1792, advanced to
the Rhine, and, by the annexation of Piedmont, had overstepped the Alps; the
French Empire included, besides the kingdom of Italy, a mass of dependent
states, Naples, Holland, Switzerland, and many German principalities, the
allies of France in the same sense in which the 'socii populi Romani' were
allies of Rome ^1. When the last of Pitt's coalitions had been destroyed at
Austerlitz, and Austria had made her submission by the peace of Presburg, the
conqueror felt that his hour was come. He had now overcome two Emperors,
those of Austria and Russia, claiming to represent the old and the new Rome
respectively, and had in eighteen months created more kings than the occupants
of the Germanic throne in as many centuries. It was time, he thought, to
sweep away obsolete pretensions, and claim the sole inheritance of that
Western Empire, of which the titles and ceremonies of his court presented a
grotesque imitation ^2. The task was an easy one after what had been already
accomplished. Previous wars and treaties had so redistributed the territories
and changed the constitution of the Germanic Empire that it could hardly be
said to exist in anything but name. In French history Napoleon appears as the
restorer of peace, the rebuilder of the shattered edifice of social order, the
author of a code and an administrative system which the Bourbons who dethroned
him were glad to preserve. Abroad he was the true child of the Revolution,
and conquered only to destroy. It was his mission - a mission more beneficent
in its result than in its means ^3 - to break up in Germany and Italy the
abominable system of petty states, to reawaken the spirit of the people, to
sweep away the relics of an effete feudalism, and leave the ground clear for
the growth of newer and better forms of political life. Since A.D. 1797, when
Austria at Campo Formio perfidiously exchanged the Netherlands for Venetia,
the work of destruction had gone on apace. All the German sovereigns west of
the Rhine had been dispossessed, and their territories incorporated with
France, while the rest of the country had been revolutionized by the
arrangements of the peace of Luneville and the 'Indemnities,' dictated by the
French to the Diet in February 1803. New kingdoms were erected, electorates
created and extinguished, the lesser princes mediatized, the free cities
occupied by troops and bestowed on some neighbouring potentate. More than any
other change, the secularization of the dominions of the prince-bishops and
abbots proclaimed the fall of the old constitution, whose principles had
required the existence of a spiritual along-side of the temporal aristocracy.
The Emperor Francis, partly foreboding the events that were at hand, partly in
order to meet Napoleon's assumption of the imperial name by depriving that
name of its peculiar meaning, began in A.D. 1805 to style himself 'Hereditary
Emperor of Austria,' while retaining at the same time his former title ^4.
The next act of the drama was one in which we may more readily pardon the
ambition of a foreign conqueror than the traitorous selfishness of the German
princes, who broke every tie of ancient friendship and duty to grovel at his
throne. By the Act of the Confederation ^5 of the Rhine, signed at Paris,
July 17th, 1806, Bavaria, Wurtemberg, Baden, and several other states, sixteen
in all, withdrew from the body and repudiated the laws of the Empire, while on
August 1st the French envoy at Regensburg announced to the Diet that his
master, who had consented to become Protector of the Confederate princes, no
longer recognized the existence of the Empire. Francis the Second resolved at
once to anticipate this new Odoacer, and by a declaration, dated August 6th,
1806, resigned the imperial dignity. His deed states that finding it
impossible, in the altered state of things, to fulfil the obligations imposed
by his capitulation, he considers as dissolved the bonds which attached him to
the Germanic body, releases from their allegiance the states who formed it,
and retires to the government of his hereditary dominions under the title of
'Emperor of Austria ^6.' Throughout, the term 'German Empire' (Deutsches
Reich) is employed. But it was the crown of Augustus, of Constantine, of
Charles, of Maximilian, that Francis of Hapsburg laid down, and a new era in
the world's history was marked by the fall of its most venerable institution.
One thousand and six years after Leo the Pope had crowned the Frankish king,
eighteen hundred and fifty-eight years after Caesar had conquered at
Pharsalia, the Holy Roman Empire came to its end.

[Footnote 1: Cf. Heeren, Political System, vol. iii. p. 273.]

[Footnote 2: He had arch-chancellors, arch-treasurers, and so forth. The
Legion of Honour, which was thought important enough to be mentioned in the
coronation oath, was meant to be something like the mediaeval orders of
knighthood: whose connexion with the Empire has already been mentioned.]

[Footnote 3: Napoleon's feelings towards Germany may be gathered from the
phrase he once used, 'Il faut depayser l'Allemagne.'

Again, in a letter to his brother Louis, he says, 'You must know that the
annihilation of German nationality is a necessary leading principle of my

[Footnote 4: Thus in documents issued by the Emperor during these two years he
is styled 'Roman Emperor Elect, Hereditary Emperor of Austria,' (erwahlter
Romischer Kaiser, Erb-kaiser von Oesterreich).]

[Footnote 5: This Act of Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) is printed in
Koch's Traites (continued by Scholl), vol. iii., and Meyer's Corpus Iuris
Confoederationis Germanicae, vol. i. It has every appearance of being a
translation from the French, and was no doubt originally drawn up in that
language. Napoleon is called in one place 'Der namliche Monarch, dessen
Absichten sich stets mit den wahren Interessen Deutschlands ubereinstimmend
gezeight haben.' The phrase 'Roman Empire' does not occur: we hear, only of
the 'German Empire,' 'body of German states' (Staatskorper), and so forth.
This Confederation of the Rhine was eventually joined by every German State
except Austria, Prussia, Electoral Hessen, and Brunswick.]

[Footnote 6: Histoire des Traites, vol. viii. The original may be found in
Meyer's Corpus Iuris Confoederationis Germanicae, vol. i p. 70. It is a
document in no way remarkable, except from the ludicrous resemblance which its
language suggests to the circular in which a tradesman, announcing the
dissolution of an old partnership, solicits, and hopes by close attention to
merit, a continuance of his customers' patronage to his business, which will
henceforth be carried on under the name of, &c., &c.]

There was a time when this event would have been thought a sign that the
last days of the world were at hand. But in the whirl of change that had
bewildered men since A.D. 1789, it passed almost unnoticed. No one could yet
fancy how things would end, or what sort of a new order would at last shape
itself out of chaos. When Napoleon's universal monarchy had dissolved, and
old landmarks shewed themselves again above the receding waters, it was
commonly supposed that the Empire would be re-established on its former
footing ^1. Such was indeed the wish of many states, and among them of
Hanover, representing Great Britain ^2. Though a simple revival of the old
Romano-Germanic Empire was plainly out of the question, it still appeared to
them that Germany would be best off under the presidency of a single head,
entrusted with the ancient office of maintaining peace among the members of
the confederation. But the new kingdoms, Bavaria especially, were unwilling
to admit a superior; Prussia, elated at the glory she had won in the war of
independence, would have disputed the crown with Austria; Austria herself
cared little to resume an office shorn of much of its dignity, with duties to
perform and no resources to enable her to discharge them. Use was therefore
made of an expression in the Peace of Paris which spoke of uniting Germany by
a federative bond ^3, and the Congress of Vienna was decided by the wishes of
Austria and the difficulty of bringing the various states to agree to anything
else, to establish a federal league. Thus was brought into existence the
Germanic Confederation, an institution confessed almost from its birth to be a
temporary expedient - an unsatisfactory compromise between the reality of
local sovereignty and the semblance of national union, which, after an ignoble
and often-threatened life of half a century, fell unregretted upon the fields
of Koniggratz and Langensalza.

[Footnote 1: Koch (Scholl), Histoire des Traites, vol. xi. p. 257, sqq.;
Hausser, Deutsche Geschichte, vol. iv.]

[Footnote 2: Great Britain had refused in 1806 to recognize the dissolution of
the Empire. And it may indeed be maintained that in point of law the Empire
was never extinguished at all, but lives on as a disembodied spirit to this
day. For it is clear that, technically speaking, the abdication of a
sovereign can destroy only his own rights, and does not dissolve the state
over which he presides.]

[Footnote 3: 'Les etats d'Allemagne seront independans et unis par un lien
federatif.' - Histoire des Traites, vol. xi. p. 257.]