Kingdom of Italy (Holy Roman Empire)

For other kingdoms of Italy, see Kingdom of Italy (disambiguation).
The Kingdom of Italy within the Holy Roman Empire and within Europe in the early 11th century.

The Kingdom of Italy (Latin: Regnum Italiae or Regnum Italicum, Italian: Regno d'Italia) was one of the constituent kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire, along with the kingdoms of Germany, Bohemia, and Burgundy. It comprised northern and central Italy, but excluded the Republic of Venice. Its original capital was Pavia until the 11th century.

In 773, Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, crossed the Alps to invade the Kingdom of the Lombards, which encompassed all of Italy except the Duchy of Rome and some Byzantine possessions in the south. In June 774, the kingdom collapsed and the Franks became masters of northern Italy. The southern areas remained under Lombard control in the Duchy of Benevento. Charlemagne adopted the title "King of the Lombards" and in 800 had himself crowned "Emperor of the Romans" in Rome. Members of the Carolingian dynasty continued to rule Italy until the deposition of Charles the Fat in 887, after which they once briefly regained the throne in 894–96. Until 961, the rule of Italy was continually contested by several aristocratic families from both within and without the kingdom.

In 961, King Otto I of Germany, already married to Adelaide, widow of a previous king of Italy, invaded the kingdom and had himself crowned in Pavia on 25 December. He continued on to Rome, where he had himself crowned emperor on 7 February 962. The union of the crowns of Italy and Germany with that of the so-called "Empire of the Romans" created the Holy Roman Empire, to which Burgundy was added in 1032. From this point on the Holy Roman Emperor was usually also King of Italy and Germany, although emperors sometimes appointed their heirs to rule in Italy and occasionally the Italian bishops and noblemen elected a king of their own in opposition to that of Germany. The absenteeism of the Italian monarch led to the rapid disappearance of central government in the High Middle Ages, but the idea that Italy was a kingdom within the Empire remained and emperors frequently sought to impose their will on the evolving Italian city-states. The resulting wars between Guelphs and Ghibellines, the anti-imperialist and imperialist factions, respectively, were characteristic of Italian politics in the 12th–14th centuries. The Lombard League was the most famous example of this situation; though not a declared separatist movement, it openly challenged the emperor's claim to power.

By the 15th century, the power of the city-states was largely broken. A series of wars in Lombardy from 1423 to 1454 further reduced the number of competing states in Italy. The next forty years were relatively peaceful in Italy, but in 1494 the peninsula was invaded by France. The resulting Great Italian Wars lasted until 1559, when control of most of the Italian states passed to King Philip II of Spain. The Spanish branch of the Habsburg dynasty—the same dynasty of which another branch provided the Emperors—continued to rule most of imperial Italy down to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). After the Imperial Reform of 1495–1512, the Italian kingdom corresponded to the unencircled territories south of the Alps. Juridically the emperor maintained an interest in them as nominal king and overlord, but the "government" of the kingdom consisted in little more than the plenipotentiaries the emperor appointed to represent him and those governors he appointed to rule his own Italian states. Imperial rule in Italy came to an end with the campaigns of the French Revolutionaries in 1792–97, when a series of client republics were set up. In 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by the last emperor, Francis II, after its defeat by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz.

Lombard kingdom

After the Battle of Taginae, in which the Ostrogoth king Totila was killed, the Byzantine general Narses captured Rome and besieged Cumae. Teia, the new Ostrogothic king, gathered the remnants of the Ostrogothic army and marched to relieve the siege, but in October 552 Narses ambushed him at Mons Lactarius (modern Monti Lattari) in Campania, near Mount Vesuvius and Nuceria Alfaterna. The battle lasted two days and Teia was killed in the fighting. Ostrogothic power in Italy was eliminated, but according to Roman historian Procopius of Caesarea, Narses allowed the Ostrogothic population and their Rugian allies to live peacefully in Italy under Roman sovereignty.[1] The absence of any real authority in Italy immediately after the battle led to an invasion by the Franks and Alemanni, but they too were defeated in the battle of the Volturnus and the peninsula was, for a short time, reintegrated into the empire.

The Kings of the Lombards (Latin: reges Langobardorum, singular rex Langobardorum) ruled that Germanic people from their invasion of Italy in 567–68 until the Lombardic identity became lost in the ninth and tenth centuries. After 568, the Lombard kings sometimes styled themselves Kings of Italy (Latin: rex totius Italiæ). Upon the Lombard defeat at the 774 Siege of Pavia, the kingdom came under the Frankish domination of Charlemagne. The Iron Crown of Lombardy (Corona Ferrea) was used for the coronation of the Lombard kings, and the kings of Italy thereafter, for centuries.

The primary sources for the Lombard kings before the Frankish conquest are the anonymous 7th-century Origo Gentis Langobardorum and the 8th-century Historia Langobardorum of Paul the Deacon. The earliest kings (the pre-Lethings) listed in the Origo are almost certainly legendary. They purportedly reigned during the Migration Period; the first ruler attested independently of Lombard tradition is Tato.

The actual control of the sovereigns of both the major areas that constitute the kingdom — Langobardia Major in the centre-north (in turn divided into a western, or Neustria, and one eastern, or Austria and Tuskia) and Langobardia Minor in the centre-south, was not constant during the two centuries of life of the kingdom. An initial phase of strong autonomy of the many constituent duchies developed over time with growing regal authority, even if the dukes' desires for autonomy were never fully achieved.

The Lombard kingdom proved to be more stable than its Ostrogothic predecessor, but in 774, on the pretext of defending the Papacy, it was conquered by the Franks under Charlemagne. They kept the Italo-Lombard realm separate from their own, but the kingdom shared in all the partitions, divisions, civil wars, and succession crises of the Carolingian Empire of which it became a part until, by the end of the ninth century, the Italian kingdom was an independent, but highly decentralised, state.

Constituent of the Carolingian Empire

The death of the Emperor Lothair I in 855 led to his realm of Middle Francia being split among his three sons. The eldest, Louis II, inherited the Carolingian lands in Italy, which were now for the first time (save the brief rule of Charlemagne's son Pepin in the first decade of the century), ruled as a distinct unit. The kingdom included all of Italy as far south as Rome and Spoleto, but the rest of Italy to the south was under the rule of the Lombard Principality of Benevento or of the Byzantine Empire.

Following Louis II's death without heirs, there were several decades of confusion. The Imperial crown was initially disputed among the Carolingian rulers of West Francia (France) and East Francia (Germany), with first the western king (Charles the Bald) and then the eastern (Charles the Fat) attaining the prize. Following the deposition of the latter, local nobles — Guy III of Spoleto and Berengar of Friuli — disputed over the crown, and outside intervention did not cease, with Arnulf of Eastern Francia and Louis the Blind of Provence both claiming the Imperial throne for a time. The kingdom was also beset by Arab raiding parties from Sicily and North Africa, and central authority was minimal at best.

In the 10th century the situation hardly improved, as various Burgundian and local noblemen continued to dispute over the crown. Order was only imposed from outside, when the German king Otto I invaded Italy and seized both the Imperial and Italian thrones for himself in 962.

Imperial Italy

In 951 King Otto I of Germany had married Adelaide of Burgundy, the widow of late King Lothair II of Italy. Otto assumed the Iron Crown of Lombardy at Pavia despite his rival Margrave Berengar of Ivrea. When in 960 Berengar attacked the Papal States, King Otto, summoned by Pope John XII, conquered the Italian kingdom and on 2 February 962 had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor at Rome. From that time on, the Kings of Italy were always also Kings of Germany, and Italy thus became a constituent kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire, along with the Kingdom of Germany (regnum Teutonicorum) and—from 1032—Burgundy. The German king (Rex Romanorum) would be crowned by the Archbishop of Milan with the Iron Crown in Pavia as a prelude to the visit to Rome to be crowned Emperor by the Pope.

In general, the monarch was an absentee, spending most of his time in Germany and leaving the Kingdom of Italy with little central authority. There was also a lack of powerful landed magnates — the only notable one being the Margraviate of Tuscany, which had wide lands in Tuscany, Lombardy, and the Emilia, but which failed due to lack of heirs after the death of Matilda of Canossa in 1115. This left a power vacuum - increasingly filled by the Papacy and by the bishops, as well as by the increasingly wealthy Italian cities, which gradually came to dominate the surrounding countryside. Upon the death of Emperor Otto III in 1002, one of late Berengar's successors, Margrave Arduin of Ivrea, even succeeded in assuming the Italian crown and in defeating the Imperial forces under Duke Otto I of Carinthia. Not until 1004 could the new German King Henry II of Germany, by the aid of Bishop Leo of Vercelli, move into Italy to have himself crowned rex Italiae. Arduin ranks as the last domestic "King of Italy" before the accession of Victor Emmanuel II in 1861.

Henry's Salian successor Conrad II tried to confirm his dominion against Archbishop Aribert of Milan and other Italian aristocrats (seniores). While besieging Milan in 1037, he issued the Constitutio de feudis in order to secure the support of the vasvassores petty gentry, whose fiefs he declared hereditary. Indeed, Conrad could stable his rule, however, the Imperial supremacy in Italy remained contested.


Imperial Italy (outlined in red) in the 12th and 13th centuries

The cities first demonstrated their increasing power during the reign of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152–1190), whose attempts to restore imperial authority in the peninsula led to a series of wars with the Lombard League, a league of northern Italian cities, and ultimately to a decisive victory for the League at the Battle of Legnano in 1176, which forced Frederick to recognize the autonomy of the Italian cities.

Frederick's son Henry VI actually managed to extend Hohenstaufen authority in Italy by his conquest of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, which comprised Sicily and all of Southern Italy. Henry's son, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor — the first emperor since the 10th century to actually base himself in Italy — attempted to return to his father's task of restoring imperial authority in the northern Italian Kingdom, which led to fierce opposition not only from a reformed Lombard League, but also from the Popes, who had become increasingly jealous of their temporal realm in central Italy (theoretically a part of the Empire), and concerned about the hegemonic ambitions of the Hohenstaufen emperors.

Frederick II's efforts to bring all of Italy under his control failed as signally as those of his grandfather, and his death in 1250 marked the effective end of the Kingdom of Italy as a genuine political unit. Conflict continued between Ghibellines (Imperial supporters) and Guelfs (Papal supporters) in the Italian cities, but these conflicts bore less and less relation to the origins of the parties in question.


The Italian campaigns of the Holy Roman Emperors decreased, but the Kingdom did not become wholly meaningless. In 1310 the Luxembourg King Henry VII of Germany with 5,000 men again crossed the Alps, moved into Milan and had himself crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, sparking a Guelph rebellion under Lord Guido della Torre. Henry restored the rule of Matteo I Visconti and proceeded to Rome, where he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by three cardinals in place of Pope Clement V in 1312. His further plans to restore the Imperial rule and to invade the Kingdom of Naples were aborted by his sudden death the next year.

Successive emperors in the 14th and 15th centuries were bound in the struggle between the rivalling Luxembourg, Habsburg and Wittelsbach dynasties. In the conflict with Frederick the Fair, King Louis IV (reigned until 1347) had himself crowned Emperor in Rome by Antipope Nicholas V in 1328. His successor Charles IV also returned to Rome to be crowned in 1355. None of the Emperors forgot their theoretical claims to dominion as Kings of Italy. Nor did the Italians themselves forget the claims of the Emperors to universal dominion: writers like Dante Alighieri (died 1321) and Marsilius of Padua (c.1275–c.1342) expressed their commitment both to the principal of universal monarchy, and to the actual pretensions of Emperors Henry VII and Louis IV, respectively.

The Imperial claims to dominion in Italy mostly manifested themselves, however, in the granting of titles to the various strong-men who had begun to establish their control over the formerly republican cities. Most notably, the Emperors gave their backing to the Visconti of Milan, and King Wenceslaus created Gian Galeazzo Visconti Duke of Milan in 1395. Other families to receive new titles from the emperors included the Gonzaga of Mantua, and the Este of Ferrara and Modena.

Aftermath: shadow kingdom

By the beginning of the early modern period, the Kingdom of Italy still existed, but was a mere shadow. Its territory had been significantly limited — the conquests of the Republic of Venice, which considered itself independent of the Empire, in the “domini di Terraferma” had taken most of northeastern Italy outside the jurisdiction of the Empire, while the Popes claimed full sovereignty and independence in the Papal States in Central Italy. Nevertheless, the Emperor Charles V, owing more to his inheritance of Spain and Naples than to his position as Emperor, was able to establish his dominance in Italy to a greater extent than any Emperor since Frederick II. He drove the French from Milan, prevented an attempt by the Italian princes, with French aid, to reassert their independence in the League of Cognac, sacked Rome and brought the Medici pope Clement VII to submission, conquered Florence where he reinstalled the Medici as Dukes of Florence (and later, Grand Dukes of Tuscany), and, upon the extinction of the Sforza line in Milan, claimed the territory as an imperial fief and installed his son Philip as the new Duke.

This new Imperial dominance, however, did not remain with the Empire, in which Charles was succeeded by his brother Ferdinand, but rather was transferred by Charles to his son, who became King of Spain.

Nevertheless, the Imperial claims to suzerainty remained, and were actually called forth in the early 17th century when the Duchy of Mantua fell vacant in 1627. Emperor Ferdinand II used his rights as feudal overlord to prevent the heir, the French Duke of Nevers, from taking over the Duchy, leading to the War of the Mantuan Succession, a part of the much larger Thirty Years' War. In the early 18th century, during the War of the Spanish Succession, imperial claims to suzerainty were used again to seize Mantua in 1708, which was now attached by the Austrian Habsburgs to the newly conquered Duchy of Milan.

This was the last notable usage of Imperial power, as such, in Italy. The Austrians retained control of Milan and Mantua, and intermittently, other territories (notably Tuscany after 1737), but the claims to feudal overlordship had become practically meaningless. The imperial claims to Italy remained only in the secondary title of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne to be "Arch-Chancellor of Italy" and in the formal adherence of Emperor and Diet to various treaties resolving the succession of various northern Italian states which were still considered to be imperial fiefs. During the French Revolutionary Wars, the Austrians were driven from Italy by Napoleon, who set up republics throughout northern Italy, and by the Treaty of Campo Formio of 1797, Emperor Francis II relinquished any claims over the territories that made up the Kingdom of Italy. The imperial reorganization carried out in 1799–1803 left no room for Imperial claims to Italy — even the Archbishop of Cologne was gone, secularized along with the other ecclesiastical princes. In 1805, while the Empire was still in existence, Napoleon, by now Emperor Napoleon I, claimed the crown of Italy for himself, putting the Iron Crown on his head at Milan on 26 May 1805. The Empire itself was abolished the next year.


  1. De Bello Gothico IV 32, pp. 241-245
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