AEIOU – the motto of the Holy Roman Empire.


AEIOU. This was the device of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was variously said to stand for:                                                                                                                                                                         

  • Austria est imperio optime unita: Austria is the empire best united.
  • Austria erit in orbe ultima: Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world.
  • Austriae est imperare orbi universo: It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world
  • Austria est imperari orbe universa. Austria is the ruler of the whole world.
  • Aquila Elegit Iovis Omnia Vincit. The chosen eagle of Jove conquers all.
  • Alles Erdreich ist Osterreich Untertan. All earthly realms are subject to Austria.


Whichever version of this motto one prefers the overall message was unmistakeable.

  • The Holy Roman Empire (hereinafter the HRE) was based around Austria. The full name was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The Holy Roman Empire was known as ‘the Empire’ in Europe at the time. If anyone in Europe said the Empire everyone knew it was the HRE that was being spoken of. Likewise if someone said ‘the Emperor’ one was clearly referring to the Emperor of the HRE.

In the early 16th century the HRE consisted of the modern day countries and regions of Austria, the Czech Republic, most of Germany, northern Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Slovenia, western Poland, Switzerland and a slice of eastern France. Amongst the ordinary people of the HRE there was no common language. Charles V said, “I speak French to men, Italian to women, Spanish to God and German to my horse.”  The language of government was Latin but this was true of every Roman Catholic and indeed Protestant country at the time. (The educated elite were fluent in Latin. Latin was still a spoken language used for diplomatic, legal and ecclesiastical purposes.) Nor was there any real capital. Until Charles V the Emperors of the Habsburg dynasty had spent most of their time in Vienna.

The HRE was very divided, linguistically, ethnically and geographically. The HRE was divided into scores of different states. This smorgasbord of states was ruled by a variety of different rulers with all sorts of different titles: kings, princes, archbishop-princes, dukes, grand dukes, margraves and counts. There were also ‘free cities’ ruled by elected councils – but only rich men were allowed to vote and so these free cities were dominated by a handful of wealthy merchant families. The Emperor had rather limited control over the many states of the HRE. Perhaps one could say that the HRE existed on paper rather than in reality. Indeed, in the 18th century the French thinker Voltaire acidly remarked that the HRE was, ”neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire.”

Roman Catholicism was the only form of Christianity allowed in the HRE. However, Charles V had to agree to tolerate Protestantism in the 1520s. Charles V was a Roman Catholic but was quite willing to wage war against the Papal States. Likewise he was willing to forge alliances with Protestant heretics to fight against his fellow Roman Catholic Henry II of France. The HRE was supposed to the the Protector of the Pope but Charles V was for a time the captor of the Pope. The Pope could not afford to anger the Emperor by granting Henry VIII’s request and annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine of Aragon was Charles V’s aunt.

The Emperor was not a hereditary title. The Emperor was elected, but only seven men had the right to vote. The electors were fixed – the Archbishop of Trier, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Margrave of Brandenburg and so on. Thereafter the title ”elector” (or in German ”kufuerst”) was awarded to a few other magnates even though they did not actually vote to elect the emperor.

The Habsburgs were the dukes of Austria and the Habsburg family came to dominate the HRE. The Habsburgs managed to have won of their dynasty elected to be the Emperor in 1438 and a Habsburg dynast remained Emperor – with one brief break 1740-45 – until the dissolution of the HRE in 1806.

Because the Habsburgs had no automatic right to the Crown Imperial Henry VIII wanted to be elected Emperor in 1519. The election was open to any Roman Catholic man over 18, of good character and of noble blood. Henry VIII failed and the Crown went to Charles V – nephew of Catherine of Aragon. The fact that Henry VIII had had the temerity to bid for the Crown of the HRE offended Charles V and permanently soured relations between the two potentates. 


About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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