The Holy Roman Empire


  • Introduction
  • Introduction

    The Holy Roman Empire (official name: sacrum romanum imperium, 1254; more details below) designates a political entity that covered a large portion of Europe, centered on Germany, from 962 to 1806.

    Origin and Evolution

    The 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 latter 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 monarchy

    The 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.   Later, as part of every election capitulary, 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 law

    The 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):

    The Official Name of the Holy Roman Empire

    The word imperium appears in official documents of Otto I, but it denotes the imperial power, not the territory.  After Henry II's death some Italian magnates offered the crown of Italy to the son of the duke of Aquitaine, and swore to help him acquire the "imperium" of the Romans; here, the word meant the title itself.

    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.)

    1. The Emperor


    The Emperor had to be a worthy man, aged 18 or more, reside in the Empire, be of noble birth (all four grandparents had to be noble, according to the Schwabenspiegel), and of lay status (this was not explicitly stated).  No law required that he be Catholic, and, although the text in a number of laws assumes that the emperor is Catholic, jurists saw no obstacle to the choice of a Protestant prince.  Nor did he have to be German, as the examples of Alfonso of Castile and Charles V showed.

    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 Reign

    The reign began with the swearing of the Wahlkapitulation, which itself 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.

    Successors and Replacements: the King of the Romans, the Vicars of the Empire

    When a successor was elected during the lifetime of the Emperor, he bore the title of King of the Romans (Rex Romanorum, römischer König).  The conditions under which such an election might take place in advance was not resolved until the Wahlkapitulation of 1711.  From then on, an election could take place only when there were specific reasons to do so, and it was up to the electors to decide to hold an election.  They were first to notify the emperor, but could proceed without his approval.

    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 son Ferdinand 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.  He also ruled the empire in case the emperor was incapacitated, but stayed out of the government of the empire otherwise.

    For other situations when a regency was needed, the empire was governed by two Imperial Vicars (Reichsvikarien).  They were the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Saxony, and the empire was divided between them according to the regions where Frankish and Saxon law was in force, respectively.  In Italy, the titular vicar was the duke of Savoy.

    Titles and Styles

    See also the page on the 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 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; the emperor-elect went ahead and styled himself "imperator" (see the example of Ludwig IV below). Ultimately, Maximilian I changed the style of the emperor in 1508: the emperor was so from the moment of his election, and his style was Dei gratia Romanorum imperator electus semper augustus.  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

    • Charlemagne, from his will of 806: Imperator caesar Karolus rex Francorum invictissimus et Romani rector imperii pius felix victor ac triumphator semper augustus in one version, Karolus serenissimus augustus, a Deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator, Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misericordiam Dei rex Francorum atque Langobardorum in another
    • Otto I in 962: Dei gratia imperator augustus
    • Frederic I in 1140: Divina favente clementia Romanorum imperator augustus (from a diploma in the Vatican archives)
    • Frederic I in 1152: dei gratia Romanorum imperator et semper augustus (from the Landfriede). Note that Frederic I was not crowned until June 18, 1155.
    • Frederic II in 1220: divina favente clementiae Romanorum rex et semper augustus et rex Sicilie (from the constitution on ecclesiastical princes)
    • Frederic II in 1235: divina favente clemencia Romanorum imperator semper augustus, Jerusalem et Sicilie rex (from Peace of Mainz)
    • Louis of Bavaria in 1338: Ludovicus Dei gratia Romanorum imperator et semper augustus (from the law licet juris)
    • Karl IV of Bohemia in 1356: divina favente clementia Romanorum imperator semper augustus et Boemie rex (from the Golden Bull)

    Elections and Coronations

    Name elected crowned (Empire) crowned (Italy) ended
    Karl I     25 Dec 800 S. Peter, Rome     d. 814
    Ludwig I             d. 840
    Lothar I         820   d. 855
    Ludwig II     872   844 Rome d. 875
    Karl II   875       d. 877
    Karl III     881   879   dep. 887
    Arnulf     28 Apr 896 Rome      
    Wido     21 Feb 891   884 Pavia (*) d. 894
    Berangar I         888 Pavia  
    Lambert     892       d. 898
    Arnold     27 Feb 896       d. 899
    Ludwig III     12 Feb 901   900 Pavia (*) dep. 915
    Berengar II     25 Dec 915       d. 924
    Rudolf         922 Pavia (*)  
    Hugo         926 Pavia (*) abd. 945
    Lothar         931 Pavia (*) d. 950
    Beranger II         950 Pavia dep. 961
    Adalbert         950 Pavia dep. 961
    Otto I     2 Feb 962 Rome      
    Otto II              
    Otto III              
    Arduin         1002 Pavia  
    Heinrich II         1004 Pavia  
    Konrad II         1026 Milan (+)  
    Otto           Milan(+)  
    Konrad         1093 Milan  
    Heinrich III              
    Heinrich IV              
    Henry V     11 Apr 1111        
    Lothar II     4 Jun 1133 Rome      
    Konrad III         26 Jun 1128 Monza  
    Friedrich I 4 Mar 1154 Frankfurt 1 Aug 1167  S. Peter 18 Jun 1155 S. Peter  
    Heinrich VI     15 Apr 1191 S. Peter, Rome 1186 Monza (?)  
    Otto IV 22 Sep 1208 Halverstad          
    Friedrich II              
    Konrad IV 1237 Wien          
    Manfred         Aug 1258 Palermo  
    Rudolf I 11 Sep 1273            
    Adolf I              
    Albrecht I              
    Heinrich VII      29 Jun 1312 Lateran, Rome 6 Jan 1311 Milan  
    Ludwig IV     1327   1327 Milan d. 1347
    Karl IV 1346 Rhens am Rhein 1355 Rome 1355 Milan d. 1378
    Wenzel     9 Jul 1376 Aachen      
    Sigismund     1431   1431 Milan  
    Albrecht II 18 Mar 1438 Frankfurt         d. 1439
    Friedrich III 2 Feb 1440 19 Mar 1452 Rome 19 Mar 1452 Rome d. 1493
    Maximilian I 16 Feb 1486 Frankfurt 9 Apr 1486 Köln     d. 1519
    Karl V 28 Jun 1519 Frankfurt 24 Feb 1530 Bologna 22 Feb 1530 Bologna abd. 14 Mar 1558
    Ferdinand I 5 Jan 1531 Köln 24 Mar 1558 Frankfurt     d. 25 Jul 1564
    Maximilian II 28 Nov 1562 Frankfurt 30 Nov 1562 Frankfurt      
    Rudolf II 27 Oct 1575 Regensburg 1 Nov 1575        
    Matthias 13 Jun 1612 Frankfurt 24-26 Jun 1612 Frankfurt      
    Ferdinand II 26 Aug 1619 Frankfurt 9 Sep 1619 Frankfurt     d. 15 Feb 1637
    Ferdinand III 22 Dec 1636 Regensburg 30 Dec 1636 Regensburg     d. 2 Apr 1657
    Ferdinand IV 31 May 1653 Augsburg         9 Jul 1654
    Leopold I 18 Jul 1658 Frankfurt 1 Aug 1658 Frankfurt     d. 5 May 1705
    Joseph I 23 Jan 1690            
    Karl VI 12 Oct 1711     Frankfurt      
    Karl VII 24 Jan 1742 Frankfurt 12 Feb 1742 Frankfurt      
    Franz I 13 Sep 1745 Frankfurt 4 Oct 1745 Frankfurt      
    Joseph II 27 Mar 1764 Frankfurt 1764 Frankfurt      
    Leopold II 30 Sep 1790 Frankfurt 9 Oct 1790 Frankfurt      
    Franz II 7 Jul 1792 Frankfurt 14 Jul 1792 Frankfurt     abd. 1806

    4. Structure of the Empire

    The Empire was made up of sub-units, either territories or people.  They can be classified according to several related but distinct dichotomies:
    • allodial and feudal
    • states of the Empire and non-states
    • immediate and mediate lands or people
    • sovereign and subject
    • temporal (secular) and spiritual (ecclesiastic)
    • etc.
    These distinctions will be explained below and their relationships explored.

    A. Geographical Structure

    External Boundaries

    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 (1335), the bishoprics of Metz, Toul, Verdun (1558), Alsace (1648), Franche-Comté (1678), Lorraine (1766), the west bank of the Rhine (1801) were incorporated into France after being ceded 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.

    5. The End of the Empire (1803-06)

    A. The Secularization of 1803

    The French Revolution and the European war that broke out as a result in 1792 ultimately led to the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and the redrawing of the map of Europe. As a result of French victories in 1794-95, French troops occupied the whole Left Bank of the Rhine, including the Circle of Burgundy and other territories. These losses, ratified by the treaty of Campoformio on 17 Oct 1797, were supposed to lead to compensations within the Empire for the dispossessed families. The congress at Rastadt had begun work on this compensation, on the basis of secularization of almost all ecclesiastical Reichsstände (the only survivors were the archbishop of Mainz, the knights of St. John and the Teutonic Knights). War broke out again from 1798 to 1800, but the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801 confirmed the loss of the left bank of the Rhine. An imperial delegation (Reichsdeputation) representing the Reichstaf 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 never took legal effect.

    The new distribution increased the number of votes from 108 to 131. The ecclesiastical votes corresponding to secularized territories were abolished or reassigned to secular princes, but a number of new votes were created as well, either in favor of existing members, or to introduce new members. Some new members had already been made princes but without votes (Nassau-Usingen, Nassau-Weilburg, Waldeck, Öttingen, Reuß-Plauen-Greitz), most previously numbered among the counts but some weren't even on the counts' bench (Lorraine-Tuscany, Croy). 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 following changes were made to the States of the Empire (the name of the State followed by the name of the owning family, when different; this list is backed out of a less precise list by Arenberg, so there may be errors). To understand this list, keep in mind the distinction between States and families. Some States were eliminated (de jure, since they had ceased to exist de facto much earlier), ecclesiastical States were secularized and transferred, others were created anew. Transfers and new creations werre made to the benefit of either families that already owned States (that were already Reichsständig) or to families that were not previously Reichsständig and became so as a result. No family ceased to be Reichsständig in 1803.

    • States eliminated (13):

    • Burgund, Lorraine (Habsburg); Pfalz-Lautern, Pfalz-Simmern, Pfalz-Zweibrücken, Pfalz-Veldenz (Wittelsbach); Mompelgard (Württemberg); Lüttich; Worms; Basel; Trier; Köln; Wissemburg;
    • States secularized and transferred to Reichsständig families (23):

    • Salzburg, Trente, Brixen (Habsburg); Regensburg (Mainz); Bamberg, Würzburg, Augsburg, Freysing, Passau, Kempten (Wittelsbach); Ettenheim-Straßburg, Constanz (Baden); Ellwangen, Tübingen (Württemberg); Osnabrück (Braunschweig-Lüneburg); Lübeck (Oldenburg); Querfurt (?) (Sachsen); Fulda (Nassau-Orange); Göttingen (Braunschweig-Hannover); Hildesheim, Paderborn, Munster, Eichsfeld (Brandenburg);
    • secularized in favor of families previously not Reichsständig (2):

    • Eichstädt, Berchtesgaden (Lorraine-Tuscany);
    • not secularized (3):

    • Mainz, Knights of St. John, Teutonic Knights
    • new States transferred to Reichsständig families(26):

    • Steier, Kärnten, Brisgau, Tirol, Ortenau (Habsburg); Niederbayern, Sulzbach, Mindelheim, Berg (Wittelsbach); Meissen (Sachsen); Bruchsal-Speier (Zähringen-Baden); Ploen (Oldenburg-Holstein); Teck, Zwiefalten (Württemberg); Westfalen, Starkenburg (Hesse-Darmstadt); Hanau, Fritzlar (Hesse-Cassel); Aschaffenburg (Mainz); Blankenburg (Braunschweig-Hannover); Stargard (Mercklemburg-Strelitz); Erfurt (Brandenburg); Baar and Stuhlingen (Fürstenberg); Klettgau (Schwarzenberg); Buchau (Thurn-Taxis); Salm-Kyrburg;
    • new States for families previous not Reichsstäandig (18):

    • Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen; Nassau-Usingen; Nassau-Weilburg; Öttingen-Spielberg; Öttingen-Wallerstein; Waldeck; Löwenstein-Wertheim; Solms-Braunfels; Hohenlohe-Neuenstein; Hohenlohe-Wadenburg-Schillingfürst; Hohenlohe-Waldenburg; Hohenlohe-Bartenstein; Isenburg-Birstein; Rittberg (Kaunitz); Reuß-Plauen-Greitz; Linange; Edelstetten (Ligne); Looz-Wolbeck (Looz-Coorswarem).

    The dissolution of 1806 and mediatization

    The Empire, which had become a loose confederation of virtually sovereign states in 1648, was close to collapse after the major territorial changes wrought by France.  Napoleon, whose ambitions found Russia, Prussia and Austria arrayed against him, tried to create a coalition of German states free from the influence of either Prussia or Austria.  He succeeded in making allies of Baden and Württemberg, and keeping Prussia neutral, in the war of September-December 1805 which ended with the crushing victory of Austerlitz.  The resulting peace treaty of Pressburg enlarged Napoleon's allies and made them kings; Prussia was given Hanover, 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 major 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 :

    « 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...
    Nur diesem Umstande muss man ohne Zweifel die im Jahre 1795 im Reiche selbst hervorgetane Trennung zuschreiben, die eine Absonderung des Interesses des nördlichen und des südlichen Deutschlands zur Folge hatte... Die Frankreich zunächst gelegenen, von allem Schutz entblössten und allen Drangsalen eines Krieges, dessen Beendigung in den verfassungsmässigen Mitteln zu suchen nicht in ihrer Gewalt stand, ausgesetzten Fürsten sahen sich gezwungen sich durch Separatfrieden von dem allgemeinen Verbande in der That zu trennen... Indem sie sich durch gegenwärtige Erklärung von ihrer bisherigen Verbindung mit dem teutschen Reichskörper lossagen, befolgen sie bloss das durch frühere Vorgänge und selbst durch Erklärungen der mächtigeren Reichstände aufgestellte System... Dass die kostbare Ruhe der Hauptzweck des rheinischen Bundes sei, davon fanden die bisherigen Reichsmitstände der Souveräns, in deren  Namen die gegenwärtige Erklärung geschieht, den deutlichen Beweis darin, dass jeder unter ihnen, dessen Lage ihm eine Theilnahme daran erwünschlich machen kann, der Beitritt zu demselben offen gelassen ist »
     (Jean-Engelbert d'Arenberg: Les Princes du St-Empire à l'époque napoléonienne, Louvain 1951, pp. 142-3)
    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 Emperor drew the logical conclusions, and himself abdicated and freed all his former subjects from the laws of the Holy Roman Empire by a declaration of 6 Aug 1806, published simultaneously by the Austrian chancery in Vienna and by the archducal-austrian envoys (erzherzoglich-österreichische Gesandte) to the Reichstag: (Corpus Iuris Confoederationis Germanicae vol. 1 p. 72):

    « Wir, Franz der Zweite, von Gottes Gnaden erwählter römischer Kaiser, zu allen Zeiten Mehrer des Reichs, Erbkaiser von Osterreich, etc, K&ounml;nig in Germanien, zu Hungarn, Böheim, Croatien, Dalmazien, Slavonien, Galizien, Lodomerien und Jerusalem, Erzherzog zu Oesterreich, etc.

    Nach dem Abschlusse des Presburger Friedens war Unsere ganze Aufmerksamkeit und Sorgfalt dahin gerichtet, allen Verpflichtungen, die Wir dadurch eingegangen hatten, mit gewohnter Treue und Gewissenhaftigkeit das vollkommenste Genüge zu leisten, und die Gegnungen des Friedens Unsern Völkern zu erhalten, die glücklich wieder hergestellten friedlichen Verhältnisse allenthalben zu bestetigen, und zuerwarten, ob die durch diesen Frieden herbeigeführetn wesentlichen Veränderungen im deutschen Reiche es Uns ferner möglich machen würden, den nach der kaiserlichen Wahlcapitulation Uns als Reichs-Oberhaupt obliegenden schweren Pflichten genug zu thun. Die Folgerungen, welche mehreren Artikeln des Presburger Friedens gleich nach dessen Bekanntwerdung und bis jetzt gegeben worden, und die allgemein bekannten Ereignisse, welche darauf im deutschen Reiche Statt hatten, haben Uns aber die Ueberzeugung gewährt, daß es unter den eingtretenen Umständen unmöglich seyn werde, die durch den Wahlvertrag eingegangenen Verpflichtungen ferner zu erfüllen: und wenn noch der Fall übrig blieb, daß sich nach födersamer Beseitigung eingetretener politischer Verwickelungen ein veränderter Stand ergeben dürfte, so hat gleichwohl die am 12. julius zu Paris unterzeichnete, und seitdem von den betreffenden Theilen begnehmigte, Uebereinkunft mehrerer vorzüglichen Stände zu ihrer gänzlichen Trennung von dem Reiche und ihrer Vereinigung zu einer besondern Conföderation, die gehegte Earwartung vollends vernichtet.

    Bei der hierdurch vollendeten Ueberzeugung von der gänzlichen Unmöglichkeit, die Pflichten Unseres kaiserlichen Amtes länger zu erfüllen, sind Wir es Unsern Grundsätzen und Unserer Würde schuldig, auf eine Krone zu verzichten, welche nur so lange Werth in Unsern Augen haben konnte, als Wir dem von Churfürsten, Fürsten und Ständen und übrigen Angehörigen des deutschen Reichs Uns bezeigten Zutrauen su entsprechen und den übernommenen Obliegenheiten ein Genüge zu leisten im Stande waren. 

    Wir erklären demnach durch Gegenwärtiges dass wir das Band, welches uns bis jetzt an den Staatskörper des deutschen Reichs gebunden hat, als gelöst ansehen, dass wir das reichsoberhauptliche Amt und Würde durch die Vereinigung der conföderierten rheinischen Stände als erloschen und uns dadurch von allen übernommenen Pflichten gegen das Deutsche Reich losgezahlt betrachten und die von wegen desselben 'bis jetzt getragene Kaiserkrone und geführte Kaiserliche Regierung, wie hiermit geschieht, niederlegen. 

    Wir entbinden zugleich Kurfürsten, Fürsten und Stände und alle Reichsangehörigen, insonderheit auch die Mitglieder der höchsten Reichsgerichte und übrige Reichsdienerschaft von ihren Pflichten, womit sie an uns, als das gesetzliche Oberhaupt des Reichs, durch die Konstitution gebunden waren. Unsere sämmtlichen (sie) teutschen Provinzen und Reichsländer zählen wir dagegen wechselseitig von allen Verpflichtungen, die sie bis jetzt unter was einen Titel gegen das teutsche Reich getragen haben, los, und wir werden selbige in ihrer Vereinigung mit dem ganzen österreichischen Staatskörper, als Kaiser von Oesterreich unter den wiederhergestellten und bestehenden friedlichen Verhältnissen mit allen Mächten und benachbarten Staaten zu jener Stufe des Glücks und Wohlstandes zu bringen beflissen sein, welche das Ziel aller unserer Wünsche, der Zweck unserer angelegensten Sorgfalt stets sein wird. 

    Gegeben in Unserer Haupt- und Residenzstadt Wien, den schsten August im einteausend achthundert und sechsten, Unserer Reiche des Römischen und der Erbländischen im fünfzehnten Jahre. (L.S.) Franz

    Johann Philipp Graf von Stadion. Ad Mandatum Sacrae Caesareae ac caes. regiae apost. Maj. proprium

     Hofrath von Hudelist.
    (ibid., pp. 144-5)


    See also W. A. Reitwiesner's page on mediatization.

    The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire meant that anyone who was previously a direct vassal of the Emperor without any intermediary (in other words, was unmittelbar or "immediate") became ispo facto sovereign. However, not everyone survived as sovereign into the new legal order that emerged in 1806. Obviously, those who became members of the Confederation of the Rhine became full-fledged members of the international community as sovereign entities. Within the area covered by the Confederation, many did not.

    With the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine on 12 July 1806, a number of boundary changes were made. Some were exchanges between members; others were outright annexations; finally, others consisted in the transfer of sovereignty over an immediate territory to a member of the Confederation.

    As a result, a number of families who had status as immediate vassals of the Emperor became subjects of someone else: they were mediatized. Most mediatizations took place in July 1806 as a consequence of the formation of the Confederation. A few other mediatizations were carried out by Napoleon between 1806 and 1813, and were not reversed by the Congress of Vienna. The exact process of mediatization was delineated by articles 25-33 of the treaty founding the Confederation. Although the mediatized families did not acquire sovereignty and lost some of their powers (legislation, final jurisdiction, control over police and military conscription, right to levy taxes), they kept their private estates and feudal rights, including lower jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, jurisdiction over local policing, forests, hunting and fishing rights, mining rights, etc. Mediatized princes continued to be subject to a special jurisdiction in criminal matters, their estates were free from confiscation, and some of their liabilities were taken over by their new sovereigns. They were free to settle anywhere within the territory of the Confederation.
    List of Families Mediatized in 1806
    Princes Nassau-Dillenburg, Fürstenberg, Schwarzenberg, Hohenlohe (7 branches); Lobkowicz, Croÿ-Solre, Öttingen, Thurn-Taxis, Linange, Auersperg, Dietrichstein, Fugger (princes and counts), Wied (-Neuwied and -Runkel), Truchsess-Waldburg (princes and counts), Metternich, Looz-Coorswarem, Salm-Reifferscheidt, Solms (princes and counts: -Hohensolms, -Braunfels, etc), Loewenstein-Wertheim (princes and counts: -Wertheim, -Brauberg, -Heubach, etc), Esterhazy, Sinzendorf 
    Counts Castell, Koenigsegg-Aulendorf, Schaesberg, Stadion, Limburg-Stirum, Hatzfeld, Sayn-Wittgenstein, Salm-Horstmar, Bentheim-Steinfurt, Erbach, Hesse-Homburg (landgraviate), Isenburg, Walmoden, Nostiz, Schönborn, Aspremont, Rechteren-Limpurg, Ostein, Traun, Törring, Bassenheim, Quadt, Wartenberg, Sternberg, Plettenberg
    Others several barons: Wendt, Riedesel, Bömelburg; knights of the Empire 

    Heraldry in Holy Roman Empire

    References and Resources

    Most of the material on the legal and political structure in this page is taken from Heinrich Zoepfl: Grundsätze des gemeinen deutschen Staatsrechts, Leipzig 1863; reprint Scriptor Reprints, Regensburg 1975.  Lists and tables are drawn mainly from Jean-Engelbert d'Arenberg: Les Princes du St-Empire à l'époque napoléonienne, Louvain 1951.

    Here are some online resources:


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    François Velde
    Feb 20, 2002