10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire

Patrick Lynch - December 11, 2017

The Holy Roman Empire was a collection of multi-ethnic territories in Central Europe. Pope Leo III technically formed it on Christmas Day 800 when Charlemagne was crowned emperor. It was a way of reviving the title of Emperor in Western Europe some 324 years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Members of the Carolingian family held the title of Holy Roman Emperor until 888. It was claimed by numerous Italian rulers until 924 but was revived by the crowning of Otto I as emperor in 962.

The term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was first used in the 13th century and while the office was supposed to be elective, it was typically held by dynasties. It was a great, sprawling and unique entity that was the heart of Europe for centuries. As well as being the home of many great ideas and inventions, it also led to the formation of various modern European states such as the Czech Republic and Germany.

The Holy Roman Empire’s relations with mighty nations such as France, Italy, Poland and Britain led to a large number of wars in the Middle Ages. The empire also stood shoulder to shoulder with European allies in the face of Muslim invasions. In this article, I look at 10 crucial battles in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Otto III – Wikipedia

1 – Battle of Stilo (982)

Also known as the Battle of Cape Colonna, this fight took place between the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Otto II and the Kalbid Muslims of Sicily on July 13 or 14, 982. The Muslims were led by the Kalbid emir of Sicily, Abu’l-Qasim. Perhaps a few weeks before the battle, the emir had declared a jihad (holy war) against the Germans, but when he saw the size of their army, he had second thoughts and retreated.

Otto chased the Muslims, and once Abu’l-Qasim realized that his retreat had no chance of succeeding, he set up his army for an open field battle just south of Crotone at Cape Colonna. Otto was supported by the Lombards of Southern Italy, and the battle started well for the Holy Roman Empire as German heavy cavalry almost obliterated the center of the Muslim army. The emir died in the initial fighting, and while the loss of a commander normally damages an army’s morale, the death of Abu’l-Qasim galvanized the men who surrounded the German troops with a well-hidden reserve of cavalry.

The Holy Roman Empire’s army lost at least 4,000 men and two dozen nobles including Landulf IV of Benevento and the Bishop of Augsburg, Henry I. Otto managed to survive the slaughter, and he found refuge on a Greek merchant ship. He was forced to head north to Verona and news of the disastrous defeat traveled as far as England. It was one of the most significant early defeats suffered by the empire.

Otto had probably planned to reconquer Calabria from the Sicilian Muslims, but his failure led to a series of revolts against the empire instead. Pagan Slavs rose up in revolt of the emperor’s Christianization policies which led to a loss of imperial control of the area for several decades. Had Otto won the Battle of Stilo, there may have been a more stable empire for Otto III to rule. Instead, the teenage emperor fought to regain control with limited success. When Otto III died in 1002 with no clear heir, the empire was plunged into political chaos.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Henry III – Medieval Histories

2 – Battle of Menfo (1044)

This battle was one of the most important in the Kingdom of Hungary’s early history. Technically it was a fight between the Kingdom of Germany and the Hungarian supporters of Samuel Aba, but since the Kingdom of Germany had made up a large proportion of the Holy Roman Empire since 962, the battle warrants its place on this list. Aba had been the third King of Hungary since 1041 when he deposed Peter Orseolo.

Peter fled to the court of Emperor Henry III and was well received. Samuel attacked Austria in 1042 which forced Henry to retaliate by launching an invasion of Hungary the following year. The emperor forced Samuel to renounce all Hungarian territory west of the rivers Morava and Leitha. He also had to pay tribute to the Holy Roman Empire, and Samuel raised this money by seizing church estates and imposing heavy taxes on Christian prelates.

It was a grave error because it turned members of his council against Samuel. Henry seized on the discontent by launching another invasion of Hungary; this time to restore Peter to the throne. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Henry won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Menfo as the Hungarian army fell apart in the face of the German cavalry. Samuel rode away from the battlefield, and his fate is unknown. German sources of the era claimed Samuel was captured and executed by Henry. 14th-century Hungarian sources wrote that Samuel was murdered by locals when he fled north of the River Tisza.

Peter was restored to the throne in 1044 as Hungary became a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire. However, Peter’s second reign lasted just two years because of a pagan uprising in 1046. Peter was planning to flee to Henry’s side yet again but was coerced into taking a meeting with his nephew Andrew which turned out to be a trap. While 14th-century sources suggest Peter was executed, Cosmas of Prague, an 11th and 12th-century chronicler, wrote that Peter was married in 1055.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Depiction of the Siege of Damascus – Pinterest

3 – Siege of Damascus (1148)

This siege was the pivotal moment of the Second Crusade and resulted in a Crusader defeat. The Second Crusade was announced by Pope Eugene III in 1147, and it was the first of the crusades to be led by European kings including Conrad III of Germany and Louis VII of France. Unlike the First Crusade, the Holy Roman Empire was heavily involved and featured Emperor Frederick Barbarossa I. It began poorly as the armies of Conrad and Louis were defeated by Seljuk Turks in separate engagements.

The original target of the Second Crusade was Edessa, but King Baldwin III of Jerusalem and the Knights Templar had designs on Damascus. Magnates from Germany, France and the Kingdom of Jerusalem decided to divert their attention to Damascus at the Council of Acre. They elected to attack from the west because the orchards would provide a steady supply of food. The crusaders arrived at Damascus on July 24, 1148, and immediately laid siege using wood from the orchard.

On July 27, they made the fateful decision to move to the east of the city. It wasn’t as well fortified but also had less food. Meanwhile, a Muslim commander by the name of Nur ad-Din Zangi arrived at the city with reinforcements and immediately blocked off the crusader’s way back to the west. The crusader lords decided to quit the siege so it ended in dismal failure. On July 28, the crusaders abandoned the siege and returned to Jerusalem but suffered casualties after being attacked by Turk archers.

The failure at Damascus all but ended the Second Crusade and was considered a great victory for the Muslims. Moreover, the Christian forces no longer trusted one another which is why a planned attack on Ascalon never came to fruition. The debacle had a significant cultural impact on several European nations, and the long-term consequences of the failure were disastrous for Jerusalem. The breakdown in trust between European nations, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine Empire enabled the Muslims to gain a foothold in the region. In 1187, Saladin captured Jerusalem which led to the Third Crusade.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
King John of England – Wikipedia

4 – Battle of Bouvines (1214)

According to French historian Jean Favier, the Battle of Bouvines is one of French history’s most decisive and symbolic battles. John France, professor emeritus of Swansea University, believes Bouvines is one of the most important battles in English history that no one has heard of. It also had a major impact on the Holy Roman Empire as it led to the deposition of an emperor.

The battle came about because King John of England wanted to regain the French territories he had lost but Philip II, the King of France, was determined to not only hang on to Anjou and Normandy but also to establish French power and prestige. John’s problem was that he had alienated the English nobility, so he had to call for help from Emperor Otto IV of the Holy Roman Empire and several other European allies. Otto got involved because he was an ally of John’s as well as being his maternal uncle.

The plan was for John’s army to attack the French from the south-west after he landed in La Rochelle while his allies attacked from the north. However, John’s allies moved slowly, and the English king was forced to retreat to Aquitaine on July 3, 1214. By July 23, King Philip was ready for battle and met Otto at a muddy plain near Bouvines four days later. Philip initially turned back to Lille, but the enemy caught up at Bouvines, so he had no choice but to fight.

The result was a bloody and brutal battle that lasted up to five hours. In what was a desperately hard-fought affair, the French emerged victoriously. John was humiliated and had to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 which limited his powers and formed the basis of English democracy. The French Capetians became the dominant force in Europe for the next century. Meanwhile, Otto IV was overthrown as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Frederick II.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Maximilian I – The Famous People

5 – Battle of Dornach (1499)

Dornach was the decisive battle in the Swabian War of 1499 which took place between the Swabian League (with the aid of the Holy Roman Empire) and the Swiss Confederacy. The House of Habsburg had gained the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 1438 and had a long history of hostility and conflict with the Swiss Confederacy. Once the Habsburgs were on the throne, the Swiss knew they could no longer rely on the empire for support.

The Swiss clashed with the Habsburgs at different times during the rest of the 15th century. In 1488, a mutual defense and peacekeeping force called the Swabian League was formed, but when the Swiss were invited to join, they refused. What was once a local conflict got out of hand as concerns over territory led to an outbreak of war. The Swabian War was mainly a collection of skirmishes, but the Battle of Dornach was a disaster for the Holy Roman Empire.

While the Swiss only had 6,000 men, the empire had 16,000 under the command of Heinrich von Furstenberg. The first attacks occurred on July 22, and the Swiss was beaten back at first. However, reinforcements arrived and turned the tide of the battle. Von Furstenberg was killed in action early on, and his death clearly affected the performance of his army. The total number of losses is unknown, but both armies suffered heavy casualties.

Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire was said to have been devastated when he heard the news of his army’s defeat. It was the last time that the Swiss were engaged in armed conflict with any member of the empire. The Swabian War came to an end on 22 September with the signing of the Treaty of Basel. The treaty ensured the Swiss enjoyed far-reaching independence from the Holy Roman Empire even though the Confederacy was officially part of the empire until 1648.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Suleiman the Magnificent – The Famous People

6 – The Battle of Mohacs (1526)

The Battle of Mohacs was one of the most pivotal conflicts in the history of Central Europe. It involved the Kingdom of Hungary, with the aid of allies such as the Holy Roman Empire, against the Ottoman Empire led by Suleiman the Magnificent. While the Turks had a capable commander, the Hungarians and their allies did not. King Louis II was a weak leader, and his disastrous battlefield tactics led to a massacre and the end of the Kingdom of Hungary.

In 1522, Louis married Mary of Habsburg, and the Ottomans were concerned about the Hungarian’s alliance with the Holy Roman Empire. The previous year, the Turks had taken modern-day Belgrade and Szabacs which greatly weakened the defense of the south of Hungary. After failing to raise an army to take back Belgrade, it was clear that Louis was not up to the job of repelling the Ottomans. Matters were made worse when King Francis I of France allied with the Ottomans after losing to the Habsburgs at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.

Louis’ inaction enabled the Turks to take Petervarad. It was an easy win for the Turks since the Hungarians had a huge lack of castle garrisons. Indeed, there wasn’t a single Hungarian town, fort or even a village for 400 kilometers along the Danube from Petervarad to Buda. Eventually, the Hungarian nobles provided the king with troops and ultimately split into three groups. Rather than wait for the Transylvanian and Croatian troops to arrive, the Hungarian war council elected to meet the Turks on a marshy battlefield near Mohacs.

The Hungarians had perhaps 25,000-30,000 men against the Ottoman force which numbered at least 50,000 although modern estimates put the figure closer to 100,000. The Hungarians could have attacked the tired Turks who had just embarked on a march of several hundred kilometers in the searing heat. Instead, they waited for the Ottomans to march through the swampy terrain because attacking them too early wasn’t chivalrous.

It was a dumb move as the Hungarians were utterly routed. They lost at least 14,000 men including Louis II (and over 1,000 nobles) and Suleiman supposedly waited for a few days because he couldn’t believe the pathetic resistance he met was all the once mighty Hungarians could muster. The Ottomans didn’t take Buda until 1541, but Hungary had ceased to be an independent kingdom after the defeat at Mohacs. While the Ottomans held central Hungary, the Habsburgs were in charge of the northern and western parts of Hungary.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Ferdinand II – Wikipedia

7 – The Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648)

The entire conflict was critical in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, and since there was no standout battle, I decided to include an overview of the Thirty Years’ War instead. The war was one of the most protracted in history and also one of the deadliest with an estimated 8 million deaths. It devastated vast regions of Europe and led to famine and disease. At its end, the war had changed the political and religious landscape of Central Europe.

It was caused by the actions of Emperor Ferdinand II of the Holy Roman Empire. He tried to limit the religious activities of his subjects which led to an uprising by Protestants. It was initially a religious war between the Catholics and Protestants within the empire. However, it escalated into a war that spanned much of the continent as major European powers such as France, Spain, Austria, and Sweden, all waged wars on German soil at some point during the war.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the 16th century ensured that Germany was divided into hostile Catholic and Protestant camps. Therefore, when Ferdinand started to curtail certain religious privileges of people in Germany in 1618, they appealed to the rest of the Protestants in the empire. Meanwhile, Ferdinand requested help from major Catholic states. The result was three decades of bloodshed with the first major victory of the war occurring in 1620 when Ferdinand’s forces won at the Battle of White Mountain.

The emperor turned his attention to Bohemia’s Protestant supporters in Germany, and his imperial armies overran Protestant Germany and much of Denmark by 1629. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden turned the tide of the war when he intervened on the Protestant side in 1630. He defeated the imperial army at Breitenfeld in 1631 and drove them out of most of Germany. The war briefly turned again in 1634 with Spanish intervention on the Catholic side, but most of the rest of the conflict occurred in Germany.

The Protestants finally gained the upper hand with wins at Rocroi in 1643 and Jankau in 1645. The Hapsburgs made concessions which led to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The conflict ended the age of religious wars in Central Europe as the role of religion in European politics receded. The Holy Roman Empire suffered significant losses which made it vulnerable when the Ottomans came knocking on their door.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
John III Sobieski – Wikipedia

8 – Battle of Vienna (1683)

Much has been written about the Battle of Vienna which was a crucial battle in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars that had begun at Mohacs in 1526 and ended with the Treaty of Sistova in 1791. Some historians claim that the Christian Coalition’s victory at Vienna saved Western civilization from Islam and marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s decline. While it was unquestionably a pivotal moment in European history, it is important to note that the Ottomans were able to remain competitive in a military sense until the middle of the 18th century.

The Peace of Vasvar in 1664 had ended hostilities between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire, but the Ottomans once again declared war on their old enemy in August 1682 as Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha mobilized an army. However, he had to shelve any plans for a siege of Vienna since winter was approaching and it would have been a logistical nightmare to attack the Austrian capital in August or September. The Ottomans didn’t launch a full-scale offensive until April 1683, and they reached Belgrade in May. Part of the army laid siege to Gyor while 150,000 men moved on Vienna.

Meanwhile, Emperor Leopold, I left for Passau along with 60,000 residents of Vienna. Now, the city was defended by Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg and 16,000 men, 5,000 of who were volunteers. The Turks officially began laying siege to Vienna on July 14, 1683, and for almost two months, they bombarded the city. At one point during the siege, Kara Mustafa demanded surrender, but von Starhemberg replied: “Let him come; I’ll fight to the last drop of blood.” It seemed as if the garrison was about to be overwhelmed by early September.

They had bravely fought off 18 Turkish assaults, but there were only 3,500 men fit for combat plus their munitions were almost gone. Leopold appealed for help while in Passau and finally, a relief force was on its way. By September 7, John III Sobieski was in the Tulln Valley with an army of 18,000 while there were also armies led by Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck, John George III von Wettin, Prince George of Hanover, and Duke Charles of Lorraine. Together, the allied army numbered close to 70,000.

The Battle of Vienna began at around 4 am on September 12 and raged on until the late evening. By 4 pm, Kara Mustafa had retreated to his HQ, and a number of Ottomans were leaving the field. The Allies were ready to deliver the final blow, and it came in the form of history’s largest cavalry charge which began at around 6 pm. Sobieski led the charge which featured 18,000 horsemen and it completely overwhelmed the Ottomans. Within three hours, the Battle of Vienna was over, the coalition had saved Vienna, and some say they also saved the West.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Prince Eugene of Savoy – Wikipedia

9 – Battle of Blenheim (1704)

The War of Spanish Succession began in 1701 and ended in 1714, and the Battle of Blenheim is arguably the most famous battle during the conflict. It pitted the Franco-Bavarian army against the Grand Alliance which included the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, Austria and a few other allies. The French King, Louis XIV, made a bold move to remove the Holy Roman Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Leopold I, from the war by taking the Habsburg capital Vienna.

The city of Vienna was under threat from two sides; the forces of Marshal Marsin and the Elector of Bavaria from the west, and Marshal Vendrome’s huge army in the north of Italy. There was also the small matter of a Hungarian revolt in the east. The Duke of Marlborough understood the danger, and the English commander brought his army towards Vienna to assist Leopold. Marlborough used his cunning to march 400 kilometers to the River Danube in five weeks in relative secrecy. He aimed to force the Bavarians and Marsin into battle before Marshal Tallard arrived with reinforcements.

He was unsuccessful as Tallard arrived, but Marlborough was boosted by the arrival of Prince Eugene of Savoy who brought reinforcements. There is some dispute over the respective strength of the armies, but they were probably comparable in size. Modern estimates suggest the French and Bavarian forces had 60,000 men against the 56,000 strong force of the Grand Alliance. In the midst of battle, Marlborough was able to sustain an assault against the French center with the aid of Eugene’s cavalry corps. Tallard was taken prisoner and while the Allies lost 12,000 men, the French and Bavarians lost over 30,000 men; 18,000 died, and the rest were taken, prisoner.

It was the French army’s first defeat in over half a century and proved that Louis’ army was not the invincible force of lore. The victory at Blenheim looked set to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Grand Alliance as it captured several towns in preparation for an assault on France in 1705. However, the French launched a counteroffensive which forced the Allies to defend the city of Liege. The war continued until 1714 when the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714) partitioned the Spanish Empire and ended the conflict.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Napoleon Bonaparte – Britannica

10 – Battle of Austerlitz (1805)

Often regarded as Napoleon’s greatest victory, the Battle of Austerlitz marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also a crucial battle in the Napoleonic Wars and is sometimes known as the Battle of Three Emperors. It featured the Grand Armee of France under the command of Napoleon against a combined force of Russian and Austrian armies led by Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire.

Napoleon took Vienna in November 1805, and the Austrians decided not to face the Grand Armee again until they were aided by Russian reinforcements. The French commander was eager for battle and went to great lengths to dupe the enemy into thinking his army was in a terrible state. Overall, he had 65,000 men against almost 90,000 and Napoleon masterfully lured the enemy into a trap.

He abandoned Pratzen Heights which was located near Austerlitz and weakened his right flank on purpose. Napoleon wanted the enemy to launch a massive attack as it would weaken their center. The allies did exactly what he wanted, and Napoleon ensured that his III Corps arrived on time to plug the gap. Meanwhile, the IV Corps under the command of Marshal Soult attacked the enemy’s center and demolished it.

Next, Napoleon ordered attacks on both enemy flanks, and the result was total annihilation. 16,000 allied soldiers died, and 20,000 were captured. 1,300 French soldiers died, several thousand were wounded, and only a few hundred were captured. The allies fled the battlefield in a panic, and within two days, Austria had agreed to an armistice with France. The Treaty of Pressburg was signed on December 26, 1805, and per its terms, Austria agreed to pull out of the war and out of the Coalition.

One of the most important outcomes of the Battle of Austerlitz was the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, a group of German states designed to act as a buffer zone between Central Europe and France. Its creation ensured the Holy Roman Empire was obsolete and in 1806, its Emperor abdicated its throne and from that point on, he was known as Emperor Francis I of Austria. An empire which began with the crowning of Emperor Charlemagne ended after over 1,000 years.