After the death of Archduke of Austria, King of the Romans, and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in January of 1519, many of his titles went directly by inheritance to his Habsburg grandson Charles V. The title emperor, however, would be given by decision of the seven elector-princes of the Germans, Albert of Mainz; Richard von Greiffenklau zu Vollrads of Trier; Hermann of Wied of Cologne; Frederick III of Saxony; Joachim I of Brandenburg; Louis V, Elector Palatine; and Louis II Jagiellon, King of Bohemia. Charles was most obvious choice as brother-in-law to Louis of Bohemia, but others were nervous about too much power being placed in one man's hands. Along with his grandfather's titles, Charles had also recently inherited the title “King of Spain”, which he ruled alongside his mother, Joanna the Mad of Castile.
Francis I of France also wished to hold the powerful title, rejoining lands that had all once been Carolingian. Francis and Charles were bitter rivals since a French victory at the Battle of Marignano the year before brought the twenty-one-year-old Francis to the forefront of European politics. The two began a bribing war for votes, which made some electors all the more nervous. Ideally, a German would be emperor, which was suggested to Fredrick of Saxony, but he refused. Another possibility for the election was Henry VIII of England, but he did not have nearly the money or influence to compete with the Bourbons of France and all the holdings of the Habsburgs. The decision seemed to settle toward Charles until Cardinal Thomas Woolsey, the Lord Chancellor who had conducted matters of state for the young Henry, presented in secret a new plan: Francis use his influence to support Henry's election. Francis, though disappointed that he would not win the title, was at least satisfied that Charles would be deprived of it. The electors were amiable toward an English king (since at least they could relate the language to German) and were more comfortable with a less overwhelming force. The election of Henry was announced to the shock of Europe and instant dismay of Habsburg-supporters.
In 1520, Francis and Henry met in a garish display at the Camp du Drap d'Or (“Field of the Cloth of Gold”) in northern France as Henry began a tour of his new lands. Wolsey orchestrated this meeting as well, but it proved ineffectual as, despite Francis' generosity, Henry declined forging an alliance. Wolsey, who was quietly campaigning for himself as pope, also organized a meeting with Charles while in Germany, but this meeting also came to no avail. Instead, Europe was in a tense peace as Henry threatened to attack whoever began a war.
Meanwhile, Henry focused on the problems of the Reformation beginning in his new empire. Reacting to the sale of indulgences as part of the funding for construction on St. Peter's Basilica, Augustinian friar Martin Luther had posted Ninety-Five Theses critiquing the Catholic Church. During the latter part of Henry's tour in 1521, he heard Luther's case at Worms. In the end, and to the frustration of Pope Leo X, Henry determined to appease his subjects and declared the matter religious debate and did not seek any punishment for him. The support for Luther won over the respect of disgruntled knights in the Rhineland who were nervous of new money but reaffirmed by Henry out of his fanaticism for jousting. The knights' loyalty proved key to Henry's defeat of the German Peasants' Uprising a few years later.
Despite his great realms, Henry struggled to produce an heir. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, six years his senior, had not had a pregnancy since the birth of their daughter Mary. Henry had become fascinated with one of Catherine's maidens, Anne Boleyn. Anne refused to become a mistress and replied that she could only meet Henry's advances if she were queen. Henry asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage as Catherine had earlier been married to his brother Arthur, but the pope declined. After the debate dragged for years, Henry decided to break with Rome as the Swedes has had done, name himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1533, and bring about his marriage to Anne.
This led to the question of what to do with his holdings in the Holy Roman Empire. Catholic regions saw Henry as an adulterer, but the Protestants saw a chance for freedom from Rome. When Henry dissolved the monasteries of England and seized their valuables, Charles took a stand as defender of Catholicism and invaded the Holy Roman Empire to seize the title he long believed to have been stolen. Henry counterattacked with Swedish assistance, and the war spilled across the Alps as Italian states saw a chance to rebel. Germany served as the principal battleground with towns razed and re-razed as Protestant and Catholic armies carried on campaigns. France attempted to remain neutral as internal strife with the Huguenots grew up, and eventually Francis I determined a policy of religious freedom to maintain his allies. The war threatened to expand further with an unprecedented alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire who had previously besieged Vienna and threatened Hungary, and Charles knew when to capitulate and agreed to a treaty.
Upon the death of Henry in 1547, the electors met again and, thanks to Henry's urgings, named his son Edward VI of England as the new, ten-year-old emperor. Edward proved a great mover in Protestantism, but he was sickly, dying in 1553. His half-sister Mary ascended the throne of England; the electors, however, could not have a female emperor and instead chose Henry II of France, whose consort Catherine de Medici had great influence and policies of religious tolerance were a healthy compromise between electors optioning Protestant King Christian of Denmark or staunchly Catholic Habsburg Ferdinand I. Bourbons continued to be Holy Roman Emperors until 1685 when Louis XIV worked to affirm his autocracy by promoting Catholicism as the single state religion. Many Protestants fled to Germany, but when Louis began to enact strict religious rule in the Empire as well, the electors refused and stripped him of his title. The Franco-German War brought about a liberated Germany at the expense of France. The electors named Frederick, King in Prussia, as emperor; Augustus II of Saxony, King of Poland, also stood had allegiances outside of Germany, and the time had come for German self-rule. United Germany became a powerful central figure in Europe, leading modernization and industrialization through the next two centuries.
In reality, there was no alliance between Francis I and Henry VIII, even at the later a lavish meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Wars between Catholics and Protestants would flare up in Germany to a height in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The Habsburgs held onto the Holy Roman Empire nearly continuously for hundreds of years until it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806.