What is the most feasible change that could be made to European History to allow the creation of a United European Empire during the Middle Ages, before the Third Crusade?


My story starts some time after the Last Crusade. The anglo-frankish European Empire descends into civil war when a duke loyal to the old Holy Roman Empire tries to secede with his lands.

The main character is a down-on-their-luck peasant in a border village who gets caught up in the conflicts. They’re about 20 years old and have lived their whole life under this European Empire. Their father took part in the highly successful Last Crusade.

My goal is to end up with an alternate history European Empire scenario in the middle ages, where Continental Europe (plus England) is united under a single banner for a significant period of time, before being fractured by internal conflict and politics. I have the majority of this part of the story mapped out, it just needs a feasible historical point of divergence as background.

I'd like help evaluating the feasibility of my current timeline, and/or alternate suggestions to achieve this setting.


Preferable constraints on the main question:

  • It happens before the Third Crusade - (my story requires the tech level of the time, and the Holy Land has been utterly conquered before the main characters birth)
  • This Empire is Anglo-Frankish - (reaching across continental Europe roughly according to this map: https://i.stack.imgur.com/xRLkG.jpg)
  • This Empire is stable* for at least 20 years - (or long enough for the main character to have lived their whole life under this rule)
  • This Empire has a single/‘national’ army - (this is my reason for using the Knights Templars and Christianity as a core)

  • Bonus points: The dissolution of this empire would weaken Europe to such an extent that non-European kingdoms can roll in and take it

Some artistic license is obviously okay. It doesn’t have to be perfectly realistic, just narratively feasible without fantasy elements like magic and miracles.

I have chosen the 12th century because because of features like the White Ship Disaster, the religious mistrust after the failure of the Second Crusade, the Anarchy in England and the Investiture Controversy. I feel like all these things align to allow the possibility of a European Empire.

My main problem is getting the empire united and ‘stabilised’* in a pretty short space of time.

*By ‘stable’, I mean the kingdom can continue to exist uninterrupted by civil war for at least of a couple of decades, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to be perfectly happy about it.

Current Concept

TL;DR - Henry II dies and never becomes King of England. Eleanor of Aquitaine takes advantage of the religious and political turmoil of Europe to round up the land under the pretext of a new christendom.

In my current timeline: Henry II dies during The Anarchy (unable to pay his mercs, and Stephen doesn’t pay them off for him) and never becomes King of England. King Stephen continues to rule before dying in 1159 and being succeeded by his son William. Eleanor of Aquitaine, ambitious as she is, marries King Stephen’s vulnerable/inexperienced son William. Bam, an Anglo-Frankish union with Aquitaine’s significant resources.

She then has designs on the French throne and King Louis is down on manpower after the failure of the Second Crusade. Bernard calls for a follow up crusade, and King William (with Eleanor’s support/direction) says he will financially back it, but the sinful elements of leadership that lead to the failure of the Second Crusade have to be removed first. With this he garners the support of the Knights Templar and leads a sort of Christian Revolution/Purge of France. With this he takes France, leading to an alternate version of the Angevin Empire.

Chasing Empress Matilda back to Italy, the Anglo-Frankish Templar union then takes advantage of the aftermath of the Investiture Controversy to absorb the Holy Roman Empire (by picking off individual states through marriage, claims and conflict). William and Eleanor become St. William and St. Eleanor, King and Queen of Europaea. After a short period of reorganisation, they announce the Third Crusade, waged almost entirely by the ever-growing Knights Templar, which ends up successfully retaking Edessa.

The romanticism of the victory helps stabilise the Empire for a while and the Knights Templar expands into the de facto ‘national’ army of Europe. In addition, William and Eleanor set up a sort of council for vassal kings to help facilitate organisation of the Empire.

Reasons for Current Concept

  • The Carolingian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and the Angevin Empire were all close to a wide-reaching European Empire, but had different conceptual basis to my fictional empire, often being a loose collection of states rather than a single empire
  • The Anarchy only ended because after King Stephen's son Eustace died, it was easier and better to concede the throne to Henry II; without him, Stephen's son William may have ascended to the throne
  • The Second Crusade was a failure; King Louis VII was at odds with Eleanor (who supported retaking Edessa); the Crusader orders mistrusted eachother over the failure; St Bernard publicly blamed the failure on the sins of those involved, some crusaders prepared to take up his call for an immediate follow up crusade
  • The so-called Angevin Empire that formed in our timeline formed with relative ease, there was little impetus for the Angevins to conquer the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of Europe
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in Europe, was known to be ambitious, politically intelligent, and supported the Knights Templar and the Cistercian Order
  • The Holy Roman Empire was vulnerable due to the Investiture Controversy
  • The Knights Templar were one of the most powerful organisations of the time
  • Piety and honour are hugely important to people in this period, so a religious impetus seems most effective for establishing unity

Issues with Current Concept

  • The length of time from the White Ship disaster to the Third Crusade being too short for this to happen (perhaps starting from Charlemagne would be better)
  • Even if Henry II dies, Empress Matilda had two other sons who were similar age to Henry II (but didn't actively participate in the conflict), so the peace treaty that ended the Anarchy could have involved one of them instead
  • What's to say that Eleanor marrying one King of England over another will actually have a difference
  • Eleanor was perhaps not on the best terms with Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Whether it’s believable for Eleanor of Aquitaine to be ambitious beyond marrying the King of England
  • Whether the characters involved would actually be able to garner this kind support from the Knights Templar
  • Whether keeping Eustace, King Stephen’s son, alive might be better, and if so, whether Eleanor would even marry him
  • Whether the conflict of the Anarchy is necessary to precipitate this fictional Christian Revolution
  • The Papacy; I still don't fully understand its role and the public opinion of it during the time, I'd considered the possibility of removing them entirely with the Christian Revolution but I don't know if that'd go down well
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "United European Empire" containing what exactly? You do understand that there was another empire at that time, with the capital at Constantinople? And you do realize that the Iberian peninsula was firmly in Arab hands? That what are today Finland and the Baltic states were still pagan and had nothing to do with English kings? That the entire eastern half of the continent was minding its own business and was in no way involved with England and France? Ah, and "France" at that time was not coextensive with what we call France today. As for removing the Pope in the 13th century... good luck. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 28, 2018 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Good question, I will make an amendment to specify this. As for your other points, I realise a lot of those facts, which is the primary reason I posted this question. There are many barriers to the formation of this empire which I need to overcome. As for naming countries, I use France for familiarity's sake. I'm of course referring to West Francia, or the Frankish lands under King Louis VII ownership. $\endgroup$
    – Tseng
    Feb 28, 2018 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose you've had in mind the Holy Roman Empire $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2018 at 15:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You'd need a conquerer on the level of Genghis Khan, Napoleon or Alexander the Great to achieve an empire like you want. The various European nations were far too divided to become anything more than a loose collection of states. You MIGHT be able to pull off a larger Holy Roman Empire, but that is being optimistic. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Clarke
    Feb 28, 2018 at 15:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that neither France nor England had any chance to conquer all of Europe in the 12th century. And note that there were two powerful empires in Europe in the early middle ages, the Holy Roman Empire and the "Byzantine" or eastern Roman Empire. Note that Otto III was half "Byzantine", and was engaged to a "Byzantine" princess( who later was either Empress Zoe or Empress Theodora) when he died in 1002, suggesting the possibility of a union in an alternate universe which might lead to reconquering most of the classical Roman Empire. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2018 at 18:35

1 Answer 1


Personally, I think a better schism from history (if less flashy) would be in the relationship of Otto I and Archbishop Frederick of Mainz in the 940's and 950's. If those two could have gotten along better, Otto would have been able to keep expanding the Empire across southern Europe and we wouldn't have had the Investiture Controversy that spawned many of the big issues of the next hundred years. This would have tamped down the growing controversy between Church and State such that one could overcome the other with a well-devised takeover, creating your united Anglo-Frankish empire.

Because you're right, Henry II's brother Geoffrey of Nantes had both the ambition and the desire to take the throne if Henry II wasn't in the way. Hell, he tried to capture and marry Eleanor anyways after Henry's post-kingship death.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Pretty good. I figured the Investiture Controversy would make it easier for someone to swoop up the HRE. I hadn't considered that a less fractured HRE would make a larger single target. I'm not sure what you mean with "This would have tamped down the growing controversy between Church and State such that one could overcome the other with a well-devised takeover". Are you saying the Church could have overtaken the State or vice versa? $\endgroup$
    – Tseng
    Feb 28, 2018 at 15:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Without the huge rift between Church and State at that point, the Magyars couldn't have exploited the rift in Eastern Europe immediately afterwards, and a bloody ruthless figure like Basil II probably wouldn't have been necessary or accepted in European society. So with more posh and less military-focused leaders in charge (as well as a lack of Basil with his 'kill-overproud governors' and 'give generals the minimum necessary resources to prevent insurrection' policies, allowing for secondary power figures to develop), the situation is ripe for somebody ambitious to make a big land grab. $\endgroup$
    – Carduus
    Feb 28, 2018 at 16:29

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