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 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 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. 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 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, 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.
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
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
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.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.
Burgund, Lorraine (Habsburg); Pfalz-Lautern, Pfalz-Simmern, Pfalz-Zweibrücken, Pfalz-Veldenz (Wittelsbach); Mompelgard (Württemberg); Lüttich; Worms; Basel; Trier; Köln; Wissemburg;
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);
Eichstädt, Berchtesgaden (Lorraine-Tuscany);
Mainz, Knights of St. John, Teutonic Knights
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;
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 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...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.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
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.
Here are some online resources:
National Heraldry Page | Search Heraldica | Heraldic Glossary