Imperial Old Roman Catholicism and the Holy Roman Empire

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King Bosone of Lower Burgundy and Provence, Imperial Vice-King of Italy,
humbles himself before Saint Stephen the Deacon and Protomartyr,
celestial Patron of the Patriarchate of St. Stephen.
From a fresco in the Abbey of Charlieu in Burgundy.



St. Willibrord






Charles "the Hammer"

The history of Old Roman Catholicism is deeply rooted in and intertwined with the history of the Holy Roman Empire. Old Roman Catholicism descends from the ancient Roman Catholic Diocese of Utrecht in Holland, founded in the year 695 by Saint Willibrord. Imperial Old Roman Catholicism is traditional Roman Catholicism historically affiliated with the See of Utrecht and the Holy Roman Empire. In the early 8th century, Charles "the Hammer" Martel, Duke of the Franks and grandfather of Charlemagne, was in the process of uniting the Frankish and Germanic tribes to stand against the Muslim forces that had entered Gaul from Spain. As he conquered the Frisians, he sent Saint Willibrord, Bishop of Utrecht, to convert the people.

The Holy Roman Empire was the dominant political system for most of central Europe and Italy for nearly 900 years (from 962 until 1806). The HRE was considered a restoration and Christian continuation of the ancient original Roman Empire. In fact, the HRE can be traced back 100 years earlier, when the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day in the year 800 by Pope Leo III. Because Holy Roman Emperors were Germanic, their traditional titles also included that of “King in Germany” or “King of Germany.”

The Holy Roman Empire was intended to represent the unity of all Western Christian states within a single unified structure as the secular counterpart, working in conjunction with the Catholic Church. German princes who were elected as Emperor by the German Prince-Electors took the style of “King of the Romans” and “Emperor Elect” until they could be crowned Emperor by the Pope. Eventually the requirement for direct papal coronation was removed.

While most states of the Holy Roman Empire were Germanic, the Empire extended down into the Italian peninsula. The HRE effectively spread outside of its own primary territory through Germanic princes inheriting other crowns. For example, the Crown of Great Britain went to the Holy Roman Empire House of Orange and then to the Holy Roman Empire House of Hanover under the name of “Windsor,” a House that still rules Britain to this day.

In 1024, Utrecht was established as a State of the Holy Roman Empire as a Prince-Bishopric and had spiritual and secular authority. In 1145, Utrecht was granted autonomy by Pope Eugene III. Autonomy was confirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and by Pope Leo X in 1520, for whom it became known as the “Leonine Privilege.” In 1528, temporal authorities of the Prince-Bishopric of Utrecht were transferred to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V with permission of Pope Clement VII. The former Utrecht holdings became part of the dominion of the Imperial and Royal House of Habsburg. In 1559, the See of Utrecht was raised to the status of an Archdiocese. The Holy Roman Empire continued until its illegal dissolution, forced by the Napoleonic Empire in 1806. Old Roman Catholicism today remains a living relic of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Imperial Patriarchate of St. Stephen, Old Holy Roman Church of the English Rite (Anglican Rite Roman Catholic Church) continues today as the English Rite successor of Imperial Old Roman Catholicism and as the imperial and ecclesiastical successor to the Vice-Kingship of Italy in the Holy Roman Empire. The complete patrimony of the Patriarchate includes not only Florence and Imperial Italy, but also the Rhineland Electorates of Trier and Mainz, as well as Westphalia and the Electorate of Würzburg.

Click here to learn more about the Imperial Patriarchate and the Imperial Kingdom of Italy.

The English Language and the Holy Roman Empire

Although the primary language of the early Holy Roman Empire was German, many other languages were used concurrently within the Empire. While English was not an official language of any of the member states of the Holy Roman Empire, English and German evolved to become the two main Germanic languages.1,2 However, although much of the grammar and the core vocabulary is Germanic in origin, the majority of the English vocabulary (approximately two thirds) is of French and Latin origin, due to the influence of the Romans and Normans.5 It is, therefore, a "Germanic-Romance" language.

Between 400-800 AD, the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Lombards, Franks, and others invaded England. It is from the Angles and the Saxons that the term Anglo-Saxon is derived, and from the Angles that the terms Anglican and its synonym English originated.

Old English is a West Germanic language closely related to Old Saxon and Old Frisian.3 Old English (otherwise known as Anglo-Saxon) was spoken between the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. Middle English began developing in the late 11th century and was the primary form of the language from the late 12th century through the mid-15th century. It was with Middle English that the Germanic Languages became linked to the Romance Languages. The Normans ruled England during this period from the Conquest in 1066, bringing the Old French language with them. Modern English began to develop in the 15th century. The early period of Modern English in the 16th century provides the basis of the form of English typically used in the English portions of the Anglo-Roman liturgy. Today, Modern English, as a Germanic-Romance language and the direct linguistic successor to Middle English, remains the principal linquistic link between the Germanic language family and Romance languages, such as French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, etc.

From 1650 to 1702, the House of Orange ruled Great Britain. From 1714 onward, the House of Hanover has held the British throne. Their rule effectively brought an English-speaking nation into the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, George I, King of England and his successors served as Prince Elector and King of Hanover until the reign of Queen Victoria exclusive.4 Today, the House of Hanover still reigns in Britain under the name of Windsor; a name adopted during First World War due to the conflict presented by Germanic origins. Similarly, the Imperial Patriarchate of Saint Stephen, as an Anglican (English) Rite Old Roman Catholic jurisdiction, contributes a linguistic link between the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire. The Patriarchate makes use of liturgical English alongside Latin due both to its heritage from the pre-Reformation Catholic Church of England and to its historic ties to Saxon Walsingham (from which the Court of Saint Mary of Walsingham takes its name). It is also one of the official languages of the Patriarchate due to its international status and its historic links to both the Frankish and Romance languages found throughout the Holy Roman Empire. It serves as a unifying element, tying together the diverse patrimony of the Patriarchate.


[1] Curtis, Andy. Color, Race, and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning. Routledge. 2006.
[2] Ringe, Don. A linguistic history of English: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press. 2009.
[3] Barber, Charles. The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. 2009.
[4] Queen Victoria was ineligible to inherit the Electorship of Hanover as a female, given that there were eligible male heirs.
[5] Joseph Williams, 1975.


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