The Holy Roman Empire
Origin and EvolutionThe Holy Roman Empire originates in the eastern half of Charlemagne's empire, divided after his death. In 800, Charlemagne had received from the pope the title of Emperor (Imperator Augustus), reminiscent of the title held by Roman emperors, both in the Rome of old and in the Byzantium of the time. By 911 eastern and western Franconia, as the area was known, had completely separated, the latter continuing as the kingdom of the Franks, or France; the former continuing as the kingdom of Germany. In 962 Otto I the Great reclaimed the imperial dignity which had lost all prestige and was conferred by popes on bit players in Italian politics. This is usually taken to be the founding date of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) never achieved the political unification that France did; a prolonged attempt at centralizing authority starting with Maximilian I (1493-1519) was wrecked by the Reformation and the ensuing wars, culminating with the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The latter formalized the relationship between the Emperor and his vassals, who thereby achieved all but complete sovereignty. As a result, the HRE was still composed at the end of the 18th century of around 360 distinct entities, differing widely in size, rank and power. Some were kings and princes, other were counts; some were clerics, other were secular rulers.
The nature of the Holy Roman Empire: limited elective monarchyThe HRE evolved over time into a limited elective monarchy, and at the same time a state composed of many states. At its head stood an elected emperor (Kaiser), who was the sole sovereign and monarch of Germany. The exercise of his power was considerably limited, however, by a body representing the member states, the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). Although the various princes and lords of the Empire were all his vassals and subjects, they possessed a number of privileges that brought them close to de facto sovereignty; in particular, the emperor could not intervene in their particular affairs as long as they ruled according to the law.
The Empire was an elective monarchy since the end of the Carolingian dynasty in the early 10th century, although the principle was not firmly set in writing until the constitution of 1338 and the Golden Bull of 1356 (see a picture here and the text here). Later, as part of every electioral capitulation, the newly elected emperor swore not to make his office hereditary.
The Empire was also a limited monarchy, in the sense that any exercise of the Emperor's powers that was not purely executive required the assent of the States of the Empire. This principle was only formulated at the peace of Westphalia in 1648, where (art. 8, sect. 2) the circumstances requiring the assent (and not merely the advice) of the States were listed explicitly. This assent could be expressed either by the States assembled in the Reichstag, or through a duly constituted deputation; the latter means rarely employed after the Diet became permanent in 1663. Assent was determined by majority voting, except in specific matters where consensus was required, mainly in religious matters.
Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this page are devoted to the Constitution of the Empire: executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, respectively. Part 4 looks at the geographical and political structure of the Empire: that is, the sub-units that made it up.
Sources of lawThe fundamental documents on the constitution of the Empire were the following (several of these documents, and many others from the 9th to the 14th c., are available at the Erlangen Institut für Geschichte):
One has to wait until Conrad II to find Romanum imperium used to designate the lands ruled by the emperor (documents of 1034 and 1038). Curiously, the expression Romana res publica is used with the same meaning contemporaneously. The use of the phrase Romanum imperium remains rare under Henry II (in 1049, 1053) and successors until Frederic I. It is however, occasionally used in non-official documents, such as letters, chronicles, even Papal encyclicals (in 1076).
At the same tine, one finds the expression Romanum regnum (Roman realm) in an official document of 1041. In 1045, the signature of the emperor is described as signum regis invictissimi Henrici tertii, Burgundiorum primi, Romanorum secundi. Correspondingly, the title Rex Romanorum makes its apparition in 1040, and is officially adopted in the Intitulatio in 1041 and in the monogram in 1043.
The use of Romanum imperium becomes considerably more frequent under Frederic I Barbarossa (in 1152, 1155, 1157-9, 1162), In 1157, one finds a concurrent use of sacrum imperium et diva res publica (holy empire and holy commonwealth). The phrase sacrum imperium is found again in 1161, 1164, 1174, 1184-6. In 1159, one finds sacratissimum imperium, a phrase occasionally encountered until Otto IV.
The two expressions Romanum imperium and sacrum imperium are used concurrently in official documents for a century, but one does not find the two together until 1254: sacrum Romanum imperium. From that date, the new phrase never falls out of use although the shorter formulas continue to be used commonly.
Official documents in the German language show the phrase heiliges Reich or Römisches Reich frequently in documents of Ludwig of Bavaria, but heiliges Römisches Reich is rare; it first appears in 1340. It becomes common with Charles IV (1347).
The last transformation of the official name of the Empire took place in the late 15th c. A Reformation issued at the Reichstag of Frankfurt in 1442 speaks of dem heiligen Römischen Reich und Deutschen Landern. A similar phrase appears at the Reichstag of 1471: des heiligen Römischen Reichs und der widrigen Teutschen Nation (in Latin: sacri Romani imperii ac celeberrimae nationis Germanicae), and in the Landsfriede of Nürnberg of 1487: dem heiligen Reiche und deutscher Nation, the Landsfriede of 1486: das Römische Reich Teutscher Nation, the Worms diet of 1497: das heilige Reich Teutscher Nation, and the Köln diet of 1512: des heiligen Römischen Reichs Teutscher Nation. The phrase entered the Wahlkapitulation of 1519, by which the emperor promised to reside within dem heiligen Römischen Reiche Teutscher Nation.
From the late 16th c. to the 18th c. jurists debated the meaning of the phrase. Other early 16th c. documents suggest that it originally may have meant the German part of the Empire, with deutsche Nation in opposition to fremde Nation. Interestingly, the debate in the 17th c. was whether the phrase meant that Germany happened to be an empire, or whether the Empire happened to be located mainly in Germany. Increasingly, jurists and writers used the phrase imperium Romano-Germanicum. Significantly, the final acts of the Holy Roman Empire, namely the Reichsdeputationshauptschluß of 1803, the note of the French ambassador of August 1, 1806 and the abdication of Francis II, all use the phrase Deutsches Reich (confederation germanique) rather than the formal title.
(Source: Karl Zeumer: Heiliges römisches Reich deutscher Nation. in Quellen und Studien, Bd IV, Heft 2. Weimar, 1910.)
The office was not hereditary, but elective. However, from 1453 to 1740, a Habsburg was always Emperor. The last Habsburg Charles VI died leaving only daughters, and the Elector of Bavaria was elected as Charles VII in 1742, but he died in 1745 and Charles VI's son-in-law Francis of Lorraine was elected emperor in 1745; until the end of the Empire in 1806, the imperial crown was in the Habsburg-Lorraine family.
Beginning and End of ReignThe reign began with the swearing of the Wahlkapitulation, or electoral capitulation, a kind of contract between the Emperor and the Empire. Even a minor could take the oath (as did the 12-year old Joseph I in 1690), although he also promised to renew his oath upon assuming power. This oath preceded the coronation, led by the archbishop of Mainz. The imperial cities took an oath of loyalty at the time of coronation, but not the states of the empire, since each took such an oath at the time they inherited their fief.
The reign ended by death, abdication (Charles V in 1555) or deposition of the emperor. The latter could be declared by the Reichstag, although earlier texts (Schwabenspiegel and Sachsenspiegel, as well as the Golden Bull c5, §3) speak of a jurisdiction of the Count Palatine of the Rhine over the emperor, which was never formally abolished.
The election of a successor in the lifetime of the empire was practised up to Frederic II's sons Heinrich in 1220 and Konrad in 1237. It was then abandoned except for Wenceslas in 1376. The Habsburgs resumed it, with Charles V's brother Ferdinand's election in 1531, followed by Maximilian II in 1562, Ferdinand III in 1636, Ferdinand IV in 1653 [who died before his father], and Joseph I in 1690.
The King of the Romans bore his arms on a shield on the breast of a single-headed eagle sable (as opposed to the double-headed eagle of the Emperor). He had royal rank and came immediately after the Emperor in precedence. He succeeded the emperor immediately, without need for another coronation or Wahlkapitulation, since he had already been crowned and sworn a capitulation at the time of his election. He also ruled the empire in case the emperor was incapacitated (as did Joseph I in the last days of his father's reign), but stayed out of the government of the empire otherwise, according to the oath he took upon election.
If no king of the Romans existed, and if either the Emperor was incapacitated or under age (sede pleana), or there was no emperor (sede vacante, case of an interregnum), the imperial authority was held jointly by two Imperial Vicars (Reichsvikarien), although exercised in the name of the emperor in the first case. By virtue of the Golden Bull, these were the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Saxony, and each had special authority over a part of the empire, depending on which type of law was in force: the Elector Palatine in regions of Franconian law (Franconia, Swabia, the Rhine, southern Germany), while the Elector of Saxony in regions of Saxon law (Saxony, Westphalia, northern Germany, Hannover). The boundaries between the two areas (particularly in Hesse, Julich, Cleve, Berg, Liége, Ostfriesland) were disputed until 1750, and some regions (Bohemia, Austria) did not recognize any vicar. In Italy, the titular vicar was the duke of Savoy.
In 1623 the Elector Palatine lost his electorship to Bavaria, and in 1648 a new electorship was created for him. Thereafter Bavaria and Pfalz were in dispute as to who was vicar. In the 1659 interregnum both claimed to be vicars and issued documents on that authority, but the arch-chancellor and the other vicar recognized Bavaria, as did emperor Leopold after his election. In 1724 a family pact between the two branches of the Wittelsbach family set forth joint exercise of the vicariate, but this was not accepted by the Reichstag. In 1745 the two branches agreed to alternate, with Bavaria starting first in the 1745 interregnum. This was accepted by Francis I after his election and by the electors, and later confirmed in 1752 by the Reichstag. In 1777 the Bavarian branch became extinct and the agreement moot.
The imperial vicars exercised the powers of the emperor that were not explicitly reserved to his person, and in doing so were bound by the terms of the deceased emperor's capitulation. They handled all matters of grace: legitimations, emancipations, privileges, ennoblements and titles, etc. They exercised the emperor's judicial powers, they collected taxes in his name, nominated to ecclesiastical benefices, and invested vassals with imperial fiefs, whether inherited or newly conceded (except for principalities and Fahnlehen). The emperor was formally obliged to ratify the acts of the vicars after his election, although there are instances of such acts being repealed by the Reichshofrat. The vicariate ended once the new emperor had sworn to uphold his electoral capitulation.
The emperor was entitled to have a Household, a real one as well as one
"for show" composed of the High Offices of the Empire (Erzämter,
archiofficia). The four High Offices appear under the Ottonian dynasty:
at the coronation of Otto I in 936, each of the Stammherzöge held
one of the functions. The Golden Bull of 1356 assigned them to the lay electors
(in fact, some
electors may have become so because they were High Officers). After a new
electorate was created for the count Palatine, a new office of Arch-Treasurer
was created for him, in 1652. In 1706, after Bavaria was banned, the elector
palatine resumed his office of Arch-Steward, and the office of Arch-Treasurer
passed in 1710 to the newly created elector of Hanover. In 1714, Bavaria
was reinstated, and the elector palatine resumed the office of Treasurer,
but Hanover continued to use the title and augmentation of arms until the
merger of the Bavarian and Palatine electorates in 1777 allowed Hanover
to exercise the office. New offices were planned but never chosen for the
electors created in 1803.
In the exercise of these functions outside of the coronations, the lay electors were represented by the holders of corresponding hereditary offices (Erbämter), and some were themselves represented in everyday activities by holders of hereditary offices (Hofämter: Obrist-Hofmeister, Obrist-Kämmerer, Obrist-Hofmarschall, Obrist-Stallmeister).
The hereditary lands of Austria (Upper and Lower Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Krain, Tirol, Salzburg, Bohemia) each had their own hereditary officers of the household as well: in the following table, the names of the officer-holders for Austria and their heraldic augmentation, if known, are listed as well.
The corresponding offices in the French Royal household were distinguished by external ornaments rather than augmentations to the coat of arms.
The arms of the Emperor were a double-headed eagle or on a field sable, charged with an escutcheon bearing his personal arms.
Jura reservataThe emperor had certain powers that flowed from his position as sovereign of the empire, from his plenitudo potestatis. Over time, this "plenitude of power" became restricted. By the 17th c., the powers of the emperor which were specifically his were called jura reservata or reserved rights; they were opposed to the powers of the Reichstag on one hand, the powers of the individual territories on the other.
The reserved rights were divided into the unrestricted (jura reservata illimita) and restricted (jura reservata limita) depending on whether the Reichstag was involved or not. They were also divided into exclusive (jura reservata exclusiva) or concurrent (jura reservata communia), depending on whether the individual territories also enjoyed those rights or not.
Examples of such imperial powers include:
The emperor delegated the exercise of these rights to officials called counts palatine (Hofpfalzgrafen). Such delegated powers were called comitiva, and distinguished into the comitiva minor (power to grant majority, legitimize, appoint notaries, grant arms) and comitiva major (ennoblement and power to delegate the comitiva minor). The comitiva minor was commonly bestowed to rulers of territories or titular counts, as well as attached to certain positions (such as provosts of universities). The comitiva major was rarely bestowed, and it was hereditary in the houses of Pfalz and Schwarzburg.title of emperor for the broader history of the title of "emperor".
Charles, king of the Franks, received the title of Emperor on Christmas Day 800 from Leo III in St. Peter's in Rome. According to his biographer Einhard (Vita Karoli Magni, par. 28) Charlemagne was taken by surprise and would never had entered the church that day had he known was the pope was up to. Nevertheless, he accepted the title. His official style in documents, as emperor, was: Imperator Augustus Romanum gubernans Imperium or serenissimus Augustus a Deo coronatus, magnus pacificus Imperator Romanorum gubernans Imperium. (All the Western original sources on Charlemagne's coronation are available). The title of Emperor was confirmed by Byzantium in 812.
Otto I, in 962, assumed the style of imperator augustus. In 966 he also used the style imperator augustus Romanorum ac Francorum, but reverted the same year to the previous, simpler style, which his successors kept. By the 12th century, the standard style was Dei gratia Romanorum imperator semper augustus, and it remained until the 16th c.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the convention was that the (elected) king of Germany (a kingdom formed by the division of the empire in 843 and the separation of the western Franconian kingdom in 888) was also Emperor of the Romans. His title was royal (king of the Germans, or from 1237 king of the Romans) from his election to his coronation in Rome by the pope; thereafter, he was emperor. After the death of Frederic II in 1250, however, formal coronation by the pope happened less frequently: Henry VII in 1312, Charles IV in 1355, Sigismund in 1433, Frederick III in 1452, Charles V in 1530. The title of "king of the Romans" became less and less reserved for the emperor-elect but uncrowned in Rome; the emperor-elect was either known as German king or simply styled himself "imperator" (see the example of Ludwig IV below). The reign was dated to begin either from the day of election (Philipp, Rudolf of Habsburg) or the day of the coronation (Otto IV, Heinrich VII, Ludwig IV, Karl IV). The election day became the starting date permanently with Siegmund.
Ultimately, Maximilian I changed the style of the emperor in 1508, with papal approval: after his German coronation, his style was Dei gratia Romanorum imperator electus semper augustus. That is, he was "emperor elect": a term that did not imply that he was emperor-in-waiting or not yet fully emperor, but only that he was emperor by virtue of the election rather than papal coronation (by tradition, the style of rex Romanorum electus was retained between the election and the German coronation). At the same time, the custom of having the heir-apparent elected as king of the Romans in the emperor's lifetime resumed. For this reason, the title king of the Romans (Rex Romanorum, sometimes king of the Germans or Rex Teutonicorum) came to mean heir-apparent, the successor elected while the emperor was still alive.
The German translation of the imperial style was Von Gottes Gnaden (erwählter) Römischer Kaiser, zur aller Zeit Mehrer des Reichs. The peculiar "translation" of semper augustus appears on a Lehenbrief (letter of enfeoffment) of 1301 in the form zu allen ziden ein merer des heiligen Romischen riches.
The emperor had precedence over all Christian monarchs. The emperor's wife, the Empress, also had rank, but not his children, since the office was elective.
Examples of imperial styles
The Imperial Regalia in Aachen. See a closer picture here.
The composition of the Reichstag evolved over the Middle Ages. By 1495 it had been divided into three colleges or sections:
The status of State of the Empire was originally attached to a particular land, and was a right of the owner or ruler of that land. Consequently:
A territory could lose the quality of State of the Empire
The Emperor was chosen by the Elector princes (Kurfürsten). This institution emerges sometime in the first half of the 13th c., as a consequence of the crisis of 1198. It appears in the Sachsenspiegel, a compilation of German feudal law written between 1220 and 1235. Its composition seems to have been set fairly early, by the 1230s at the latest. Initially the electors nominated a candidate, subject to ratification by the magnates, but fairly quickly their choice became final. Its formal regulation came with the Golden Bull of 1356, although changes were made occasionally. by the late 15th c., the electors were understood to form a distinct college.
The composition was set as follows:
The status of the king of Bohemia was controversial for a long time, because he was not (necessarily) German; on the other hand, he was the Butler of the Empire, and one theory founded the right to elect the Emperor on holding one of the four high offices. One view was that the king of Bohemia's vote was meant to be the deciding vote in case of an even split of the other six. The Sachsenspiegel did not include him as an elector, but the Schwabenspiegel did. It took the Golden Bull of 1356 to settle the matter definitively. The king of Bohemia did not attend the elections after Wenceslas in the 14th c., and in the 17th century was not present for the deliberations, until 7 Sep 1708, when Bohemia was admitted again as a full member of the Electoral college.
Changes to the list of electors were made in the 17th and 18th c.
The powers and rights of the electors were:
The electors elected the king of Germany or king of the Romans who, once crowned, became the Emperor. Under the Habsburgs, it had become usual for the Emperor to have his oldest son crowned as king of the Romans. At the peace of Westphalia, France and Sweden tried to have the right to elect the king of the Romans transferred to the Reichstag, without success. Finally, the electoral capitulation of 1711 included the stipulation that an election would take place only in case of extended absence, advanced age, permanent incapacity of the Emperor, or other urgent necessity. It was up to the electors to decide to hold an election. They were obligated to give the emperor prior notification, but could proceed without his approval.
The electors were free to elect whom they wished, and the Emperor, in his capitulation, promised not to interfere with this freedom or use any form of coercion. They could, nevertheless, pledge their vote: when Brunswick (later Hanover) was given an electorate in 1692, it promised in return never to vote for anyone else but the eldest-born archduke of Austria. (In the election of 1742, there were none, and the elector of Hanover was free to cast his vote). A spiritual elector could vote even before having been invested by the Pope and received the pallium, as long as he had been invested by the Emperor. Conversely, an archbishop deprived of his electorate but not of his see could not be replaced as elector and his vote was forfeited (as happened to Cologne in 1711). A minor's vote was cast by his tutor.
The electors were summoned by the archbishop of Mainz, or else by the archbishop of Trier, normally within a month of the death of the Emperor. The electors met in Frankfurt, as prescribed by the Golden Bull (when they didn't, the city protested and it was granted reversals reserving its rights for the future) normally within three months of notification. The Grand Marshal was responsible for the logistics and protection of the electors and their suites. Electors appeared in person, entrusted their vote to another elector, or more often sent an electoral embassy, even if they were present (as the king of Bohemia in 1657 and 1690, or the elector of Mainz in 1741). The ministers presented their credentials to the archbishop of Mainz, who presided over the deliberations, in particular the drafting of the electoral capitulation. When the moment to vote came, the Grand Marshal ordered all princes, noblemen, ambassadors, representatives etc. not part of an electoral suite out of the city. The electors proceeded on horseback from the city hall to the cathedral, and convened in the electoral chapel, and swore to choose the worthiest man, and to accept the majority vote. The elector of Mainz proceeded to collect the votes, starting with Trier and ending with Saxony, and then himself. Electors could vote for themselves, as the king of Bohemia frequently did (although formally, a majority voted for him and he then consented).
The candidate receiving more than half of the votes was elected. In modern times the votes were unanimous. However, some elections were contentious. The election of 1519 was one. As early as 1516, while Maximilian was not clear about his own intentions for his successor, the king of France François I had begun collecting votes, and by 1518 secured the votes of Trier, Mainz, Brandenburg and the Palatinate. Then Maximilian decided to have his grandson Charles elected before his own death, and soon had the commitment of Brandneburg, Cologne, Mainz and the Palatinate, with the vote of Bohemia (the minor king Louis II) cast by his guardians Maximilian and the king of Poland. With Maximilian's death all bets were off and negotiations began anew. Here, the order of voting mattered, and allowed electors to make conditional promises: thus, Joachim of Brandenburg (who voted 6th) could promise to vote for François if two electors had voted for him and if he knew that his brother the archbishop of Mainz (who voted last) would also vote for him. In the end, Charles secured enough votes to win the election, in part through payments to the electors (330,000 florins in lump-sum payments and a total of 30,000 florins in annual pensions promised to four electors). What happened on June 27 (when the voting began and broke off after an hour) and June 28 is unclear; there is a possibility that Frederick the Wise of Saxony was elected but declined. In the end, all electors voted for Charles, although the elector of Brandenburg made a notarized statement beforehand that his vote was not free. (see Henry J. Cohn, 'Did Bribes Induce the German Electors to Choose Charles V as Emperor in 1519?' German History 19(1):1-27.)
Another contested election was that of 1741. Karl VI had died in 1740, the last male Habsburg: there was no obvious successor for the first time in over two hundred years. In 1741 the electors decided to exclude the ambassadors of Karl's daughter Maria Theresia, queen of Bohemia, not because she was a woman but because of the pending dispute over that crown (the elector of Bavaria had just seized Prague and had himself crowned king of Bohemia in December 1741). She protested against the legality of the election until the treaty of April 22, 1745 with Bavaria, by which she posthumously recognized Karl VII as emperor. At the election of 1745, she voted, but the electors Palatine and of Brandenburg abstained, although the elector of Brandenburg later recognized the validity of the election on Dec. 25, 1745.
Once elected, the candidate was asked by the archbishop of Mainz if he accepted the election capitulation drafted by the electors (until 1708, the ambassadors of the king of Bohemia were shown the draft beforehand in an adjacent room). If he did, he was immediately proclaimed in the cathedral. In the elect's absence his ambassador or representative took the oath, but the imperial government remained in the hands of the vicars until the elect had taken the oath himself.
The procedures for electing a king of the Romans were identical, except that the king-elect swore not to intervene in the affairs of the Empire.
The Golden Bull prescribed that the German coronation take place
although in modern times it usually took place in the same city as the
election. According to an agreement of 16 June 1657, included in
the Wahlkapitulation of 1658, the ceremony was performed either by the
archbishop of Cologne or the archbishop of Mainz, according to whose
province was the location of the coronation (Frankfurt was in the
province of Mainz); and if it took place outside of either province
(for example, Regensburg, in the province of Salzburg) then Cologne and
The insignia used in the coronation consisted of the crown, the silver scepter, two rings, a gold orb, the sword of Charlemagne and the sword of Saint Mauritius, various clothes, an illuminated Gospel, a sabre of Charlemagne, and a number of relics (the tablecloth of the Last Supper, the cloth with which Christ washed the feet of the Apostles, a thorn of his crown, a piece of the Cross, the spear that pierced his side, a piece of his crib, the arm of Saint Ann, a tooth of John the Baptist, the blood of Saint Stephen). These insignia and relics were kept in Aachen and Nürnberg and sent to the coronation. The emperor was crowned by either the archbishop of Mainz or that of Trier, depending on the diocese in which the ceremony took place (in 1742, the archbishop of Cologne, brother of Emperor Karl VII, officiated with the consent of the archbishop of Mainz). All three spiritual electors laid together the crown on the emperor's head. After the election the emperor was made a canon of the cathedral of Aachen. He then proceeded to the city hall for the banquet.
The Council of Princes (Reichsfürstenrat) included both clerics and lay people.
Clerics, as in other European Estates such as the House of Lords in England or the Estates General, had a seat by virtue of the see or abbacy. Those prelates who did not have individual votes were grouped into two benches, the Bench of the Rhine and the Bench of Swabia, each with a collective vote.
The secular princes included the Princes (Fürsten) properly speaking (with titles of prince, grand-duke, duke, count palatine, margrave, landgrave) and the Counts and Lords (Grafen und Herren). The princes held individual votes (although sometimes held collectively by a family) while the counts and lords were grouped in Benches, each bench with one collective vote. The bench of Franconia was created in 1630-1641 from the bench of Swabia, and the bench of Westphalia was created in 1653 with part of the bench of Wetterau: thus, after 1653, there were four benches.
Until 1582, votes at the Reichstag were owned by individuals, and were often multiplied when inheritances were divided, or, more often, jointly held by several families. After 1582, votes were attached to a territory (in a few exceptional cases a vote was granted to an individual without territory), and were no longer multiplied, but could still be shared by various individuals (as result of an inheritance, typically).
By 1792, there were 100 votes in the Council of Princes, of which 55 were Catholic (although Osnabrück alternated between Catholic and Protestant since the peace of Westphalia). Of the 100 votes, 37 were clerics (35 individual votes and 2 collective votes), while 63 were lay (59 individual votes and 4 collective votes). (See the detailed composition.)
The peace of Lunéville of 1801 led to the elimination of 18 votes in territories ceded to France, almost all of them Catholic. Plans to redistribute votes floundered on the issue of maintaining the religious balance, and although a special committee of the Reichstag had reached and agreement in 1803, the Emperor had not yet ratified it by the time the Empire dissolved in 1806 (see below).
The following table (based on Arenberg 1951) lists the secular votes in the Reichsfürstenrat
in 1582, the decisive moment when allocation of votes became determined
by strict rules. The families who possessed those votes in 1582 are considered
for the princely families, altgräflich for the comital families.
Families who were elevated between 1582 and 1803 to princely (resp. comital)
rank, with membership in the Council of Princes, are termed neufürstlich
In 1803, 45 cities were mediatized, leaving 6 cities: Augsburg, Lübeck, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg. Augsburg and Nürnberg were absorbed by Bavaria in 1806. Frankfurt became a grand-duchy in 1810 but re-emerged with a minicipal government in 1813. Frankfurt was the seat of the Bund's assembly from 1816 to 1866; it was annexed by Prussia in that year. Lübeck was annexed to Schleswig-Holstein under the Nazis in 1937. At present, Bremen and Hamburg still exist as autonomous Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany, the last remnants of the Imperial cities.
The composition of the Reichstag at these three dates is fairly well known, because of three sources:
For the Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte, Oestreich and Holzer have collated these three lists and determined which members appeared or disappeared between those dates, and why. The lists are presented in a separate page (in German).
A. High Courts
The Reichskammergericht (Camerae Imperialis Judicium), Imperial Chamber Court, was created at the Worms Reichstag of 1495. Its initial purpose was to sit in judgment of violations of the Landfrieden of 1495, but over time became the main court of the Empire and the guarantor of imperial law.
The Court consisted initially of a Judge assisted by 16 assessors (a number increased to 50 in 1648 and reduced to 25 in 1729). The Judge, two Presidents and one assessor were appointed by the Emperor, the other assessors by the electors and by the circles of the States of the Empire. The Judge was noble, or rank no less than a baron. Half of the assessors were noblemen, the others were doctors of law. The Judge, one President and 13 assessors were catholics, the other President and 12 assessors were protestants (Augsburg confession). The members, once appointed, were reichsunmittelbar and could not be removed except by the Court itself. The court also had 12 advocates and 30 procurators to process cases. Cases were examined by "senates" of 8 or 9 members, with equal numbers of protestants and catholics. When the senate was split evenly, additional members were appointed, or the case was sent to the full Court. In religious matters, members voted by religion (a procedure called itio in partes). If votes remained evenly split, the matter was sent to the Reichstag. On some procedural matters the Court could make interim rulings that had force of law until an imperial law was published.
The Court was competent in suits against immediate members of the empire, either in first or second instance; in civil matters involving mediate members of the empire, as appeals court from local courts (except when there was privilegium de non appellando, as for territories of electors); appeals on denials of justice; it could also confirm treaties, testaments, guardianships among immediate members. It had no jurisdiction over spiritual matters (including validity of marriages), cases involving major fiefs or matters of imperial grace, criminal cases involving immediate members. The court had exclusive jurisdiction over judicial matters involving its own members.
One could ask the Court to review its own rulings, or refer the matter to a Reichskammergerichtsvisitation, a commission appointed by the Reichstag to periodically review the Court's activities (initially annual, these visitations became scarcer after the 16th c.). Ultimately, it was always possible to appeal to the Reichstag itself.
Maximilian I had only reluctantly agreed to the formation of the Reichskammergericht. To help him in his direct administration of justice, he established in 1518 a Reichshofrath (Consulium imperiale aulicum), Imperial Court or Aulic Council, which became accepted as equal to the Reichskammergericht in 1648.
Contrary to the Court, this body was a creature of the Emperor. It had a president, a vice-president, and 16 councillors, all appointed by the Emperor. The imperial vice-chancellor, appointed by the arch-chancellor (the elector of Mainz) was also a member ex officio, and presided in the absence of the president. (The vice-chancellor and the president were the only Imperial Ministers). Members of the Council had to be German nationals, and the president and vice-president had to be noblemen of the empire (prince, count or baron). Members could not be removed except by a ruling of the Council itself, but the death of the emperor automatically brought the dissolution of the council and the imperial chancery.
The Council had two functions:
All matters were decided by the whole Council. In case of split votes, the president could break the tie, or he could choose to refer the matter to the Emperor. In religious matters, an even split automatically referred the matter to the Reichstag. Appeals were handled the same way as for the Court, except that the right of visitations, in principle held by the arch-chancellor (elector of Mainz) were never exercised.
B. Lower Courts
The external boundaries of the Empire varied over time. In particular, the western boundary shifted many times eastward, as French kings encroached on the Empire as they enlarged their domains. Thus Provence (1246), Dauphiné (1349), the bishoprics of Metz, Toul, Verdun (1558), Alsace (1648), Franche-Comté (1678), Lorraine (1736), the west bank of the Rhine (1801) were incorporated into France, losses that were eventually acknowledged by the Emperors. There were losses elsewhere: the Swiss cantons, practically independent of their Habsburg overlords since the Middle Ages, were formally set free at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
The Empire itself consisted of Imperial lands (Reichsländer) properly speaking, and neighbouring lands. The latter category included Lorraine, Burgundy, and Lombardy. Bohemia was part of the Imperial lands because its king was an elector, but its status as a kingdom was unique within the empire. When the elector of Brandenburg became king of Prussia, he was so only in his lands lying outside of the Empire.
The exact status of Northern Italy within the Empire became rather confused over time. By the 18th century, what remained formally were a collection of imperial fiefs of various sizes: 13 in Lombardy (including the duchies of Milan, Mantua, Monferrat, the principality of Mirandola, the Gonzaga territories), 19 in Liguria, 20 in the region of Bologna (including the duchies of Modena and Ferrara), 10 in Tuscany (the grand-duchy of Tuscany, Piombino, Soramo, Comacchio) and 11 in Tirnisani.
Under Maximilian I the imperial states had been organized in Imperial Circles (Reichskreise). The original 6 Circles of 1500 (Swabia, Bavaria, Franconia, upper Saxony, lower Saxony, Westphalia) were increased in 1512 to 10 (Austria, Rhine, Saxony, Burgundy). The role of the circles was to serve as administrative units in the enforcement of imperial law and order. Each was headed by a prince as Kreisoberst, and regional assemblies called Kreistage were held (which could include territories that were not imperial states).
Österreichischer Kreis (Austrian Circle)pop: 4.8m, area: 2565 sq mi
Burgundischer Kreis (Burgundian Circle)pop: 2.0m, area: 470 sq mi
Kurrheinischer Kreis (Circle of the Rhenish Electorates)pop: 1.185m, area: 460 sq mi
Hoch-rheinischer Kreis (Upper-Rhenish Circle)pop: 1.17m, area: 500 sq mi
Schwäbischer Kreis (Swabian Circle)pop: 2.0m, area: 730 sq mi
Bayrischer Kreis (Bavarian Circle)pop: 1.198m, area: 1200 sq mi
Frankischer Kreis (Franconian Circle)pop: 1.1m, area: 485 sq mi
Hohersächsicher Kreis (Circle of Upper Saxony)pop: 4.0m, area: 2000 sq mi c
Niedersächsicher Kreis (Circle of Lower Saxony)pop: 2.25m, area: 1280 sq mi
Westphalischer Kreis (Westphalian Circle)pop: 2.3m, area: 1250 sq mi
Other Territories of the Empire
The Circles did not include all territories of the Empire: notably, Bohemia (pop: 2.9m, area 982 sq mi), Moravia (Mähren; pop: 1.2m, 468 sq mi), Lusatia (0.45m, 180 sq mi) and a number of others totalling 0.25m and 200 sq mi.
Sovereignty was considered to be bestowed by the Emperor, and its possession to result from an investiture by the Emperor. This was true of imperial fiefs, which were themselves granted by investiture, but also of allodial lands. The right to receive the investiture was nevertheless attached to the land, and could not be denied by the Emperor.
Sovereignty was exercised: by hereditary lords, by elected prelates, by municipal governments. It could pass by inheritance, testament, investiture, infeoffment, or even sale or lien. Its possession or enjoyment did not require noble status. It could be owned jointly in condominium.
An imperial delegation (Reichsdeputation) representing the Reichstag was sent to Paris to negotiate with Bonaparte the conditions under which this secularization would take place. Their main resolution, the famous Reichsdeputationshauptschluß of 25 Feb 1803, was ratified by the Reichstag on 24 March 1803 and by the Emperor on 27 April 1803, with a reservation concerning the new allocation of votes in the Reichstag. The new number of votes was 131, but with an overwhelming Protestant majority which the Emperor did not accept. The new distribution of votes thus never took legal effect, but mediatization and land reallocation did. Although this new arrangement barely lasted at all, it had important consequences because the situation in which families stood as of 1806 determined their subsequent status within Germany after 1815 (more on this later).
The new distribution increased the number of votes from 100 (35
spiritual princes, 2 prelates' benches, 59 temporal princes, 4 counts'
benches) to 131.
The Empire, which had become a loose confederation of virtually
states in 1648, was close to collapse after the major territorial
wrought by France. Napoleon, whose ambitions found Russia, Prussia and
Austria arrayed against him, tried to create a coalition of German
free from the influence of either Prussia or Austria. More generally,
he was trying to achieve a longstanding goal of French policy: to
establish her dominance over Germany. Napoleon succeeded in
allies of Baden and Württemberg, and keeping Prussia neutral, in
war of September-December 1805 which ended with the crushing victory of
Austerlitz (Dec 2). The resulting peace treaty of Pressburg (Dec 26)
allies and made them kings, while Austria lost all
remaining possessions in Italy.
These results decided a number of German states to abandon the Empire and form a new Confederation under Napoleon's protection. This was the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund), formed 12 July 1806 and initially composed of ten members, enlarged by 1808 to thirty and made up of almost all German states, the exceptions being Austria and Prussia.
The treaty of 12 July 1806 obligated its members to announce their separation from the Empire by Aug 1 (art. 3). Accordingly, on that date, the members of the Confederation published a note declaring that, in their view, the Empire had ceased to exist. Here is an excerpt of the text (see the full text):
« Die Begebenheiten der drei letzten Kriege, und die Politischen Veränderungen, welche daraus ensprungen sind, haben die traurige Wahrheit in das hellste Licht gesetzt, dass das Band, welches, bisher die verschiedenen Glieder des teutschen Staatskörpers miteinander vereinigen sollte, für diesen Zweck nicht mehr hinreiche oder vielmehr, dass es in der Tat schon aufgelöst sei...On the same day, the French ambassador to the Reichstag issued a note stating that "S.M. L'Empereur et Roi est donc obligé de déclarer qu'il ne reconnaît plus l'existence de la constitution germanique, en reconnaissant néanmoins la souveraineté entière et absolue de chacun des princes dont les états composent aujourd'hui l'Allemagne et en conservant avec eux les mêmes relations qu'avec les autres puissances indépendantes de l'Europe" (HM the Emperor and King is thus forced to declare that he does not recognize anymore the existence of the German state, but nevertheless recognizes the complete and absolute sovereignty of each of the princes whose states presently compose Germany, and maintaining with them the same relations as with the other independent powers of Europe).
The time came soon: on July 22, Napoleon gave Austrian diplomats an ultimatum: either the German Emperor abdicated by August 10 or else war would resume. Francis II drew the logical conclusions, and on August 6, the Austrian chancery in Vienna published the following declaration (see translations in French and English):
Source: Corpus Iuris Confoederationis Germanicae vol. 1 p. 72; see Karl Zeumer: Quellensammlung zur Geschichte der Deutschen Reichsverfassung, Tübingen, 1913, p. 538. See also another copy of the German text.The declaration did more than simply abdicate the crown. Francis II also dissolved the Holy Roman Empire by freeing all his former subjects from its laws. While it was certainly in his power to abdicate (Charles V had done so), it is difficult to argue that he had the power to unilaterally dissolve the Empire. His declaration was not communicated to the Reichstag by the normal procedure (the so-called Diktatur) but instead simply circulated to the other envoys at Regensburg by the Austrian envoy (who was under instruction not to accept any response). The Reichstag itself was in recess for three months from July 7.
German jurists of the 18th c. had elaborated a theory that the Emperor could use emergency powers with the consent of the Reichstag, or at least the consent of the Electors (more controversially, some asserted that he could do so without any consent) in order to fulfill his obligation to preserve the Empire. The advisers of Francis II made the argument that it was not enough to abdicate: Napoleon could have used an interregnum to wreak further damage or even have himself installed as emperor, and it was in the members' best interests to deprive Napoleon of such tools. But it seems difficult to argue that the Emperor was legally founded to use his emergency powers to destroy the Empire in order to save it.
The legality of the dissolution could be founded on the tacit consent of the members of the Empire; but there was at least one dissent, namely the Elector of Hanover (king George III of Great Britain). The text of the protest is not known, but its existence was asserted by the Hanoverian envoy to the Vienna Congress in two declarations of Sep 1, 1813 and Nov 25, 1814 (Ompteda, Politischer Nachlaß, 2:3:232 and Klüber 1:1:83 for the texts). The Elector of Hanover continued to style himself as such until October 12, 1814.
All other parties accepted the dissolution of the Empire. Obviously, the signatories of the August 1 declaration did. Denmark recognized the dissolution and annxed Holstein on Sept. 9, 1806; Sweden (which possessed Pomerania) did the same on Aug 22. Prussia recognized the Confederation of the Rhine by the treaty of Tilsit of Jul 9, 1807, and Austria by the treaty of Oct 14, 1809. Only Great Britain never recognized the Confederation, and by 1813-14 continued to negate the dissolution of the Empire, and even (briefly) argue for its restoration.
(For more information seeWalter, Gero: Der Zusammenbruch des Heiligen Römischen Reichs deutscher Nation und die Problematik seiner Restauration in den Jahren 1814/15. Heidelberg ; Karlsruhe : Müller, Juristischer Verl., 1980.)
Most of the material on the legal and political structure in this page is taken from
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