This article explores the competitive and periodically conflictual relationship between France and the Holy Roman Empire over the course of the Renaissance. Rulers of both states claimed and contested preeminence within the European political system, reflecting the centrality of hierarchy and status to that system. These contests shaped not only the two states themselves but also, given the influence of France and the empire across the continent, Renaissance Europe more broadly. The article begins by studying French claims to imperium. In the Renaissance, imperium connoted singularity, universality, and superiority. There were also related religious aspects to understandings of imperium. Whether or not French kings truly believed these claims, it seems clear that the monarchy felt that others might. Lots of propaganda about French claims to imperium was produced during this period, and monarchs attempted to enact these claims. From the 1200s through the 1600s, French kings made multiple attempts to gain the imperial throne. French kings also based claims to imperium on the argument that they, unlike the emperors, enjoyed full sovereignty. One notable example of this reasoning remains Jean Bodin’s influential 1576 definition of sovereignty as the power to make law independent of all other human authorities.
These debates about imperium with their connotations of preeminence played out against a particular context of structures and events. Franco-Imperial rivalry intensified during the late 1400s, partially out of contested claims to strategic borderland territories, particularly Burgundy and Brittany. Three years later, in 1494, the French King Charles VIII invaded Italy. Italy remained central to Franco-Imperial competition for decades, and the contest triggered a flowering of claims to imperium. French claims to imperium increased even more during the intense period of personal rivalry between the French King Francis I and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that lasted from the 1510s through the 1540s. Fearing Charles’s election as emperor in 1519, Francis advanced himself as a candidate. Although he failed, for the remainder of his reign Francis sought to support a wide variety of opponents to the Habsburgs, including the imperial princes. Francis spoke of building an alliance to protect “German Liberties,” referring to the many particular privileges protected by imperial law. Despite this attempt, the German princes mistrusted the French king, in part because of the religious tensions resulting from the Reformation. Francis’s son and successor, Henry II, continued many of these policies regarding the empire. However, Franco-Imperial relations shifted during the century following Henry’s death in 1559. Certain aspects of those relations continued in the mid-seventeenth century. King Louis XIV was proposed as a potential candidate for the imperial throne in 1657, and in the second half of the 1600s French monarchs continued to seek alliances with German princes against the emperors. However, at the same time, a sense of geographic divisions emerged. By the end of the century, Louis XIV had begun to take a more aggressive stance, pursuing territorial expansion at the expense of the empire through open warfare, assertive diplomacy, and legal machinations. Overt claims to imperium declined. The multifaceted rivalry between France and the empire transformed both sides and had broader impacts, leading to the redrawing of frontiers and the transforming of Europe’s political and religious circumstances.