ANA World's Fair of Money

HomeWorld CoinsThe Last Coins of the Holy Roman Empire

The Last Coins of the Holy Roman Empire


By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek….
The last of things have a poignancy all their own, from the passing of the last Civil War veteran to the last rose of summer. Consider the saga of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), an elective monarchy sprawling across the heart of Europe from the west bank of the Rhine to the Elbe, from the North and Baltic Seas across the Alps to central Italy. Its name was inscribed on countless coins over the centuries in Latin as Sacrum Romanum Imperium. The German form was Heiliges Römisches Reich.

The Diet of Cologne in 1512 modified the name to Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation, Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in recognition of the overwhelming German character of most of the states which by then made up the Empire, but this realistic name soon faded from use.

charlemagneIts demise came in 1806, but the Empire can be traced back in time to the coronation of Frankish King Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800 CE or alternatively to the coronation of Otto I in 962. In one of his most frequently quoted writings of 1756, the philosophe Voltaire famously wrote that this historic structure was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire.

It was nonetheless a long-enduring if largely powerless reality that occupied the center of the map of Europe for some eight centuries. Leo III had hoped that Charlemagne would have the power to reestablish the unity that had prevailed in the classical Roman Empire until its destruction during the barbarian invasions. A single government under a consecrated emperor and a single church under the pope would unify Europe, halting the incessant warfare and destruction of the post-Roman world.

No such firm union was ever achieved and in the German lands the leit-motiv was the endless struggle between elected emperors striving to impose greater unity under their scepter and the determination of the most powerful dukes and princes to seek greater autonomy from their elected ruler.

Traditionally, the emperor was elected by the seven Prince-Electors specified in the Golden Bull of 1346, who were also powerful spiritual (geistliche) or civil (weltliche) magnates in their own right. Despite their independence, the electors gloried in strictly honorific ceremonial court titles of the empire.

Thus, the Archbishop of Mainz was Archchancellor of the HRE, the Archbishop of Cologne, Archchancellor for Italy, and the Archbishop of Trier, Archchancellor for Gaul.

Worldly electors included the non-German King of Bohemia as Archcupbearer. He was allowed to take part in imperial elections but was permitted no other role in the German lands. After Frederick V, the Winter King, came under the Ban of the Empire, his electorate was bestowed on the Catholic Wittelsbach Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria as Count Palatine of the Rhine as Archtreasurer.

A second Count Palatine of the Rhine was the Protestant Archsteward. Destined for higher things were the Duke of Saxony, Archmarshal and Vicar of the Empire; and the Margrave of Brandenburg, Archchamberlain, elevated to King in Prussia in 1701. All of these ranks and titles were made more complicated by the violent religious divisions created by the Reformation.

The title of elector, Kurfürst, carried vast prestige, ranking just below king. The Protestant duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg was made elector and Archbannerbearer of HRE in 1692; soon after the Elector Georg Wilhelm became King George I Great Britain, thus achieving great power status.

The Empire included some 300 states during the late 18th century, ranging from sprawling Bavaria and Prussia to minuscule principalities such as Reuss-Greiz and the branches of Stolberg; the Free Cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Frankfurt; or the Imperial Camp of Friedberg.

brandenburg-bayreuth1757bJealousies over rank and precedence were ongoing. In the early 18th century a senior count and loyal servant of the reigning emperor was offered promotion to the rank of prince but refused it. At the Imperial Diet, princes and counts entered in order of creation, and though prince was a higher rank, the new holder of the title would enter last. He explained, “I would rather enter first among counts than last among princes!”

These sharp divisions assured that there was never a unified coinage for the Holy Roman Empire as most of the states had the coinage right and guarded it zealously. There was, however, coinage of the reigning emperor for the lands he inherited from his ancestors, on which he was named ROM. IMP. S.A., Roman Emperor, Ever August. Many coins of the German States gave their rulers’ names and titles ending in SRI, duke, prince, count, baron of the Holy Roman Empire.

Some smaller entities and several free cities as far from the center as Hamburg struck silver thaler coins whose reverses bore the imperial double-headed eagle, the crown of Charlemagne and the name and titles of the reigning emperor.

Monetary conventions concluded between states encouraged coinage of silver thalers that could circulate in all of the contracting states. Among these were Convention thalers coined at the rate of ten pieces to the Cologne fine mark, X EINE FEINE MARK. Expanding Prussia (formerly Brandenburg) issued Graumann Standard thalers at 14 to the fine mark.

Gold coins saw little daily circulation within the states, and there was no unity among the numerous billon (base silver) minor coins (Scheidemünzen) or copper Landmünzen that were only passable in their issuing state. Widespread illiteracy and the myriad coin types in circulation demanded knowledge of coin types and a finely tuned sense of weight. Coinage output varied, depending on population and the wealth on the issuing ruler.

By the 16th century, nearly all elected emperors were members of the House of Habsburg, rulers of what was loosely called Austria or more accurately the Erblände or Hereditary Lands of that house. First to be elected had been Rudolf of Habsburg, who was elected in 1273, and ruled 1273-1291. The family name was derived from the castle Habichtsburg, located at the junction of the rivers Aar and Reuss in district of Brugg in what would become Switzerland.

The family took over much of Swabia and its possessions increased in a pattern of expansion by marriage, “Others make war. You, fortunate Austria, marry.” The Declaration of Rhense in 1338 had eliminated the requirement of papal confirmation of an imperial election and the unimpeded choice was made by the seven Electors.

The apogee of Habsburg rule came in the reign of Charles V, who first ruled as Charles I, king of Spain. His world-spanning realms included Spain, the Netherlands and much of the Western Hemisphere. He was elected emperor in 1519, largely as a result of massive bribery made possible by the staggering wealth of gold arriving from the Americas.

Habsburgs were routinely elected after this division of their realms. The Spanish lands went to Philip II and the European possessions to Ferdinand. Charles V was foiled by France and by the emerging religious divisions from reestablishing a strongly united continent-spanning realm. Called “Charles of Europe” by one biographer, he found this goal to be too great for one man to accomplish.

mariatheresacoin1HRE bucketed along through wars and struggles, but a nearly fatal crisis came in 1740 when Emperor Charles VI died without a male heir. His daughter Maria Theresa succeeded in the Hereditary Lands but the Salic Law barred her from the imperial crown and her neighbors leaped to the attack despite the assurances many had given her father.

The resulting election at Frankfurt am Main saw Charles Albert of Bavaria elected Emperor as Charles VII, the first non-Habsburg in several lifetimes to claim the imperial dignity. His new title brought him little joy, as the War of Austrian Succession saw Bavaria devastated with destructive battling continuing until 1748. The disappointed emperor died in 1745.

Maria Theresa and her husband Francis Stephen of Lorraine (elected emperor 1745) began rebuilding from the wars’ damage, but her son Joseph II triggered vigorous discontent with his far-reaching attempts at reforms, notably his interference with the church. He died just as the French Revolution was entering its most violent phases and was succeeded by his brother Leopold (1790-1792).

His son Francis II (born 1768) became emperor in 1790 and was destined to suffer through the seemingly endless revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in which the empire was repeatedly defeated and deprived of extensive territories. Not a man of brilliant intellect, he was firm in his duties and unswerving in his beliefs, fearing the spread of radicalism. His later reign saw tight control over all aspects of his subjects’ lives.

The French Revolution and its wars burst into the HRE like a cyclone, dooming the inherently rickety structure. The rise of an obscure artillery student named Napoleon Bonaparte brought a total overhaul of Central Europe as French armies overthrew rulers, looted treasures, eliminated most existing states and decreed new ones. Francis led his realm into coalitions against Napoleon and suffered repeated defeats.

After the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz in December 1804, Francis was forced to recognize Napoleon as emperor and in 1810 was forced to provide his daughter Marie Louise as the conqueror’s bride. Francis was forced to watch from the sidelines as his enemy launched the Confederation of the Rhine including the surviving German states but excluding Austria and Prussia.

Francis realized that when the HRE was finished, he would be left with only royal titles including king of Germany, Bohemia and Apostolic King of Hungary and the inherited title Archduke of Austria. The HRE continued to breathe down to the end, however, and four new Electors were created in 1804: the duke of Württemberg (soon to be elevated to king); the Margrave of Baden (soon to be Grand Duke); the Grand Duke Salzburg, formerly grand duke of Tuscany, later moved to Würzburg as Prince-Elector.

The magic remaining in the title elector was dramatized by Landgrave Wilhelm IX of Hessen-Cassel, who received it in this session, only to be deposed by Napoleon and his state annexed to the new kingdom of Westphalia. Wilhelm was restored by the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and clung stubbornly to the fossilized title of elector to try to outrank the rival Grand Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt until Hessen-Cassel was annexed by Prussia in 1866.


Faced with this swiftly advancing wave of change, Francis took an historic step on Aug. 10, 1804, maintaining equality with the upstart Napoleon by assuming the titles Francis I erwählte römische-deutsche Kaiser, Elected Roman-German Emperor and Hereditary Emperor of Austria. The last shred of the HRE was set aside on Aug. 6, 1806 when he formally proclaimed the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire and adopted the primary title of Emperor of Austria.

Francis outstayed Napoleon and hosted the great Congress of Vienna that re-ordered the map of Europe. He ran through four wives and fathered a large family before his death in 1835. He is not remembered as a glittering figure but as a steady, deliberate ruler and convinced autocrat who rose to the challenges of a world seemingly gone mad and emerged from the fray among the victors despite many setbacks and upsets.





The first coins of Francis II as Holy Roman Emperor included .583 fine silver (billon) 20 kreuzer pieces bearing a young laureate head r. in laurel wreath. The reverses bore the Habsburg double eagle with closed crown and bifold shield of Austria-Lorraine. His Latin titles were FRANC. II. D.G. R.I.S.A. GERM. HV. BO. REX, Francis II by the Grace of God Roman Emperor, ever August, King of Germany, Hungary and Bohemia. Reverse titles .ARCHI. AVST. D. BVRG, LOTH. M. D. HET, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy and Lotharingia, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Shown here are pieces of 1794 G (Graz Mint) and 1796 B (Kremnitz).



Francis also ruled the Austrian Netherlands, today Belgium and Luxembourg. .873 fine silver ¼ kronenthaler coins of 1795 B (Kremnitz) and A (Vienna) bear his laureate bust, titles FRANC. II. D.G. R.I.S.A. GERM. HV. HIE. HVN. BO. REX, Francis II by the Grace of God Roman Emperor, ever August, King of Germany, Jerusalem, Hungary and Bohemia. Reverse shows four distinctive crowns divided by the Cross of Burgundy, titles ARCH. AVS DVX BVRG . LOTH. BRAB. COM. FLAN, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Lotharingia and Brabant, Count of Flanders.



Francis II as Ferencz II as Apostolic King of Hungary issued this 1793 .986 fine gold ducats bearing his standing armored form holding sword and orb. The reverse bears the Madonna and Child as Patroness of Hungary.




War and defeat necessitated emergency coins, including this 7 kreuzer of 1802 C (Nagybanya) with full imperial titles but struck over a 1795 12 kreuzer.




Billon 20 kreuzer of 1805 B and 1806 C (Prague) bear the interim title of FRANC. II. D.G. ROM. ET HAER. AVST. IMP., GER. HVN. BOH. REX. A.A. D. LOTH. VEN. SAL. Over the shield bearing a tiny imperial eagle is the Crown of Charlemagne.






As the economic dislocation caused by the Napoleonic Wars worsened, Francis I appeared on 1807 copper Bank Tokens denominated in kreuzer erbländisch for the Hereditary Lands with high denominations of 30 kreuzer (Schmollnitz)..



francvis1832Francvis basic coin designs persisted for decades. Long after the smoke cleared, a now-aged Emperor Francis appeared on this .883 fine silver 1832 A (Vienna) half thaler and the hardy .583 silver.




When is “the last” not the last? The HRE ceased to exist in 1806, but the former landgraviate of Hessen-Cassel, raised to electorate in 1804 clung to the title for 60 more years. Here is a ,500 silver 1/6 thaler struck in 1836 by Electoral Prince Frederick William as regent for his insane father Elector William II. The regent succeeded in 1847, only to see his state annexed to Prussia in 1866.  



David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

Related Articles



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Heritage Auctions Consign

L and C New Arrivals

Blanchard and Company Gold and Precious Metals