“Holy Roman Empire: A loose confederation of German states ruled by various royal German houses who claimed the authority of ancient Rome. The butt of generations of joking students (it was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire), the Holy Roman Empire lasted in name for over one thousand years (800-1806). It began when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III and ended when Francis II (Francis I of Austria) abdicated. While the power of the emperor and the cohesion of the empire always existed more in theory than in practice, the Holy Roman Empire did give a certain unity to the many German states.
The first German emperor was Henry the Fowler, who was crowned in 919. Since the title was not hereditary, the emperor being elected by seven electors, the crown was held at various times by nearly all the royal German houses. The uninterrupted line of Hapsburg emperors began in 1438. The power and prestige of the Austrian Hapsburgs reflected on the empire as well. Under Maximilian I and Charles V the empire had its greatest strength. After Charles relinquished the crown in 1556, there began the steady decline that ended in 1806 with the empire’s extinction.”
Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.