In the face of Napoleon’s assumption of the title “Emperor of the French” in 1804 and the Austrian defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, the Habsburg monarchy began contemplating whether the imperial title and the empire as a whole were worth defending.
Many of the states nominally serving the Holy Roman Emperor, such as Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, had openly defied imperial authority and sided with Napoleon. Even then, the significance of the empire was not based on actual control of resources, but on prestige.
The main idea behind Franz II’s actions in 1806 was to lay the groundwork needed to avoid additional future wars with Napoleon and France. One concern held by the Habsburg monarchy was that Napoleon might aspire to claim the title of Holy Roman Emperor.
Napoleon was attracted to Charlemagne’s legacy; replicas of Charlemagne’s crown and sword had been made for (but not used during) Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French and he consciously revived Roman imperial symbols and aspired to create a new order in Europe, something akin to the universal dominion implicit in the title of Emperor of the Romans.
Napoleon’s vision of Charlemagne was completely different from the German vision of the old emperor, however. Instead of seeing Charlemagne as a German king, Napoleon viewed him as a Frankish conqueror who had extended French rule across Central Europe and Italy, something Napoleon aspired to accomplish as well.
Austria was slow to respond to the fast pace of events. Already on the 17 June, Francis had taken the decision to abdicate at the moment that seemed best for Austria. Klemens von Metternich was sent on a mission to Paris to discern Napoleon’s intentions.
On 22 July, Napoleon made them clear in an ultimatum demanding that Franz II abdicate the Imperial Throne by 10 August. Still, as late as 2 August, Joseph Haas, the head of the principal commission’s secretariat, hoped that the end of the Holy Roman Empire might yet be averted.
The general opinion among the Austrian high command was however that abdication was inevitable and that it should be combined with a dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire through relieving the vassals of the Emperor of their duties and obligations.
A formal dissolution of the empire was perceived as necessary, as it would prevent Napoleon from acquiring the imperial title. During an interregnum, the two imperial vicars Saxony and Bavaria would be entitled to exercise imperial authority and since both were aligned with Napoleon, such an arrangement could cause an abdicated Franz (as only Emperor of Austria) to become a vassal of Napoleon if Napoleon assumed the office of Holy Roman Emperor.
Though there is no concrete evidence that Napoleon actually aspired to become Holy Roman Emperor, it is possible that he entertained the idea, especially after he had formed the Confederation of the Rhine and beaten back Austria in early 1806.
Perhaps Napoleon did not think that the title could be combined with “Emperor of the French” (even though Franz II was emperor of both the Holy Roman Empire and Austria) and because of this he might have abandoned any potential Roman aspirations since he did not wish to relinquish his other imperial title.
The ephemeral Roman aspirations can also be gathered from Napoleon’s correspondence with the papacy; in early 1806, he warned Pope Pius VII that “Your Holiness is sovereign in Rome but I am its Emperor”.
More crucially than fearing Napoleon potentially usurping the title, the abdication was also intended to buy time for Austria to recover from its losses as it was assumed that France would meet it with some concessions.
Although the Roman title and the tradition of a universal Christian monarchy were still considered prestigious and a worthy heritage, they were now also considered things of the past. With the Holy Roman Empire dissolved, Franz II could focus his attention on the continued rise and prosperity of his new hereditary empire, as Emperor Franz I of Austria.
On the morning of August 6, 1806, the imperial herald of the Holy Roman Empire rode from the Hofburg to the Jesuit Church of the Nine Choirs of Angels (both being located in Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Monarchy), where he delivered Franz II’s official proclamation from a balcony overlooking a large square.
Written copies of the proclamation were dispatched to the diplomats of the Habsburg monarchy on August 11 alongside a note which informed former princes of the empire that Austria would compensate those who had been paid from the imperial treasury.
The abdication did not acknowledge the French ultimatum, but stressed that the interpretation of the Peace of Pressburg by the imperial estates made it l a new emperor, Francis II’s abdication simultaneously dissolved the empire itself so that there were no more electors.