quaterion The Institutional Structure of the Holy Roman Empire

Image: This figure, called "the Quaternion," was, after the black, crowned, doubled-headed eagle alone, the most widely employed symbol of the Holy Roman Empire during the Early Modern era. On the eagle's breast is a crucifix. Along the edge of the outstretched wings are the arms of the Imperial electors. Below them on the primaries, the large feathers, are groups of four coats of arms, each feather representing a different rank or estate of the Empire. They are not to be taken literally, for some of the entities represented no longer existed by 1500, and others were fancifully classified. This image was widely reproduced on drinking cups, in stained glass windows, and on other objects of display [image and text supplied by Thomas A. Brady, Jr.] To understand the context of the Reformation and its connection to the formation of secular power and spiritual authority, it is helpful to understand a few basic characteristics of that odd bird of European political history, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. During the decades prior the "Luther Affair," the Holy Roman Empire and its institutions had been undergoing rapid transformation. In various shapes and forms, the Empire had existed for half a millenium; but only toward the end of the sixteenth century did it acquire the characteristics that, as it turned out, would define it during the remaining centuries of its existence, until 1806.
    These institutions developed in constant tension between two, often competing forces. On the one hand was the Emperor, a  king and monarch, but with few powers in his own right. Furthermore, the Emperor was not a title passed by inheritance from monarch ruler to the next. Rather, each new Emperor was chosen by election at the death of his predecessor; the right to participate in the election of an Emperor was a high privilege reserved for a few great princes of the realm, the Electors, whose identity had been fixed under imperial law in 1356. Opposite the Emperor stood the imperial estates, a shorthand term that historians use to describe a diverse assortment of secular rulers, ecclesiastical princes, imperial knights and free imperial cities, all of whom had no other feudal overlord than the Emperor himself. Their relationship with the Emperor was not always conflictual; on the contrary, supreme power in the Empire was said to reside with both "Empire and Estates" (Kaiser und Reich), a complementary duality of power symbolized by the double-headed eagle, the emblem for the Empire since Emperor Sigismund first employed it in 1433.
    What follows is a highly schematic overview of the Empire's principal institutions, as they had emerged from a complex process of imperial reform during the last decade of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. Its two main components were the Emperor himself and the imperial diet, or Reichstag, the formal assembly of imperial estates. A supreme imperial judiciary was divded between the two.

Map: Central Europe, ca. 1477

I. The Holy Roman Emperor (Kaiser)
a) Supreme Head of the Empire (Reichsoberhaupt): in this capacity, the Emperor enjoyed the highest rank in the political hierarchy of the Empire and Christendom; each Emperor was elected to office at the death of his predecessor by majority vote of the Prince-Electors (Kurfürsten). There was no formal qualification for election—but only a powerful member of the princely lineage had any chance of getting elected. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century, there were still several families able to contend for the office of Emperor—the Wittelsbach dynasty of Bavaria, the Luxemburg dynasty, and the Habsburgs, who by the time of the Reformation had acquired a sprawling collection of territories that extended from the Netherlands to Alsace to Austria, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary.
    But there were few effective powers of royal sovereignty attached to the office of Emperor. Consequently, an Emperor was only as strong as the powers he wielded as a prince of the Empire. A strong prince could function as a (comparatively) strong Emperor, but a weak prince would almost certain fail in the imperial office. These realities strongly encouraged the perpetuation of a de facto Habsburg monopoly over the imperial office: beginning with the reign of Albert II in 1438, the Habsburg family supplied each occupant of the imperial throne, with one exception, until the Empire's dissolution in 1806. The exception also proved the rule: Emperor Charles VII, a member of the Bavaria Wittelsbach dynasty, was too weak a prince to exercise the imperial office effectively.
    As Supreme Head of the Empire, the Emperor possessed authority to grant immunity from decisions of imperial judicial tribunals (privilegium de non appellando); the Emperor also enjoyed the formal privilege to summon and preside over the Imperial Estates (Diet or Reichstag).
b) Supreme Feudal Overlord (Oberster Lehensherr): in this capacity, the Emperor enjoyed formal suzreinty over all territorial princes of the Empire. Technically, this meant that every prince held his or her territority as a fief from the Emperor under feudal law. This entitled the Emperor to dispossess a prince of his fiefs for breach of feudal contract, such as failure to provide military aid at the Emperor's request, or to punish him for offenses against public order. But these authorities were rarely used. This authority also enabled the Emperor to bestow noble status by imperial fiat, to approve or reject publication of papal pronouncements within the German church, and to appoint commissioners with right of disqualification at elections of German archbishops, bishops, and abbots.

Holy Roman Emperors:
Rudolf I (1273-1291)
Adolf of Nassau (1292-1298)
Albert I (1298-1308)
Henry VII (1308-1313)
Ludwig IV the  Bavarian (1314-1347)
Frederick the Fair (1314-1330)
Charles IV (1347-1378)
Wenceslaus (1378-1400)
Rupert, Count Palatine (1400-1410)
Sigismund (1410-1437)
Albert II (1438-1439)
Frederick III (1440-1493)
Maximilian I (1493-1519)
Charles V (1519-1556)
Ferdinand I (1556-1564)
Maximilian II (1564-1576)
Rudolf II (1576-1612)
Matthias (1612-1619)
Ferdinand II (1619-1637)
Ferdinand III (1637-1657)
Leopold I (1657-1705)
Joseph I (1705-1711)
Charles VI (1711-1740)
Charles VII of Bavaria (1742-1745)
Francis I of Habsburg-Lorraine (1745-1765)
Joseph II (1765-1790)
Leopold II (1790-1792)
Francis II (1792-1806 [1835])
(Note: Habsburg Emperors in bold; Luxemburg Emperors in italics)

The College of Electors (from 1356 on)

The number and identity of Imperial Prince-Electors (Kurfürsten) was established in an imperial decree of 1356, the so-called Golden Bull of Emperor Charles IV. Membership in this group remained fairly stable after that, although there were several adjustments as a result of the Thirty Years' War and its resolution.

1. Archbishop of Mainz (ex officio the Archchancellor of the Empire)
2. Archbishop of Cologne
3. Archbishop of Trier
4. King of Bohemia (without a corresponding seat in the Reichstag)
5. Duke of Saxony
6. Count Palatine of the Rhine (dropped 1620, restored 1648, then dropped again 1777-1778)
7. Margrave of Brandenburg
8. Duke of Bavaria (added 1648)
9. Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg [Hannover] (added 1692)

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II. The Imperial Diet (Reichstag)
As it emerged from the era of imperial reform, the Reichstag was the supreme lawmaking authority of the Empire as a whole, as well as court of final appeal from the Empire's two supreme courts. It was composed of representatives from all the lords of the Empire who were entitled by status and/or precedent to attend. As a legal technicality, this meant lords or corporations who held their lands in fief from the Emperor as supreme feudal overlord. A German prince who enjoyed this status was said to be “immediate to the Empire” (reichsunmittelbar), i.e., there was no intervening authority between him and the Emperor. As a rule of thumb, all princes and corporations represented in the Reichstag had to be reichsunmittelbar.
    Technically, the Reichstag was able to enact legislation that superceded the laws of the Empire’s constituent territories, hence the constitutional-law aphorism “imperial law breaks territorial law” (Reichsrecht bricht Landrecht). Sessions of the Reichstag were summoned irregularly and in various locales until 1648; from 1663 to 1803, the Reichstag met in continuous session in the imperial city of Regensburg (hence the so-called “Eternal Diet” [Immerwährender Reichstag]). In practice, however, its practical ability to enact legislation were severely limited, both by the sovereign powers of member states in the Empire and by the complexity of voting procedures.
    Actual voting is not done by the Reichstag as a whole, but in each of three constituent houses and in this sense, the Reichstag differed considerably from the English Parliament or even the États généraux of France. The very complex operations of the Reichstag were managed by several presiding officers, some of the representing the Emperor, others representing the Reichstag itself as a collectivity.  A majority vote of the three constituent houses is considered to be binding on the entire Diet and with it, applicable in all parts of the Empire.

A. Officers of the Reichstag

1) The Emperor: As Supreme Head of the Empire, the Emperor enjoyed the formal right to preside over plenary sessions of the Reichstag.  The Emperor also enjoyed the right to present an agenda for the Reichstag's deliberation, the so-called Proposition. In the likely event that the Emperor himself did not attend, he was represented by a presiding “principal commissioner” (Prinzipalkommissar) and, in his absence, by a “co-commissioner” (Konkommissar). The function of commissioners was to communicate the Emperor’s wishes and proposals to the Diet, and to convey its decisions back to him.

2) The Imperial Archchancellor: the Archchancellor of the Empire was ex officio the same person as the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz and represented the Reichstag as a collectivity..

  • The Archchancellor or his representative to the Reichstag functioned as the de facto chairman in its plenary session;
  • The Archchancellor (or his delegated representative) was in charge of receiving and approving the credentials of all delegates to the Reichstag, as well as all ambassadors from foreign states;
  • The Archchancellor was responsible for putting into proper legal form all proposals brought before the assembly; the Archchancellor also drew up and controlled the legislative agenda, although the Reichstag could alter its agenda at will.

  • B. Councils Within the Reichstag:

    1) Council of Electors (Kurfürstenrat): 3 Clerical Members (Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, & Cologne) and 3 Lay Members (Electors of Saxony, Brandenburg, & the Palatinate), plus King of Bohemia, who had no seat in the Diet. From 1495 on, princes who enjoyed the right to participate in the election of an Emperor formed a separate house or Council within the Reichstag, the Council of Electors. Each member of this Council enjoyed full voting privileges in his own right, and a majority vote in council committed the entire council in votes of the plenary Reichstag.

    2) Council of Princes (Fürstenrat) ; lay bench = dukes, margraves, landgraves, princes; 2 representatives each of the Imperial prelates and Imperial counts.
    The council of princes included representatives of all territorial princes who had no liege-lord other than the Emperor—in other words, those who are “immediate” to the throne—and who were not members of the Council of Electors.  The Council of Princes was divided into two subgroups, or “Benches”:

    The Council of Princes had a total of one hundred votes; sixty principalities in the Council had a full, individual vote, known as the Virilstimme; seventy-four Imperial Knights (or Counts) who were entitled to a seat on the Secular Bench exercised their voting rights collectively according to the four regional caucuses (curiae) to which they were individually assigned. Each caucus had a single full vote, called the “curial vote” (Kuriatstimme). Similarly, thirty-four principalities of the Clerical Bench had a Virilstimme; and twenty-four lesser ecclesiastical princes were grouped into two regional caucuses, one “Rhenish” and one “Swabian”, each of which possessed a single, collective Kuriatstimme. As with the Council of Electors, a majority of votes cast in the Council commited the entire Council in votes of the plenary Reichstag.

    3) Council of Cities:
    The Council of Cities included representatives of all cities enjoying imperial status, approximately 65 innumber. The Council did not, however, enjoy voting rights until 1648. Like the Council of Princes, the Council of Cities was subdivided into two regional benches. These were

    As with the other two councils, a majority vote in council committed the whole council in votes of the plenary Reichstag.

    4) Voting and Majorities: Two Notes

    1) The right to vote was essentially an entitlement of territorial rule, not a personal privilege, which meant that a prince could have as many votes as he possessed sovereign territories having the corporate entitlement to representation in the Reichstag. Indeed, most of the more powerful princes had more than one vote, because they normally ruled over more than one territory that had a vote in the Reichstag. The most prominent example of this was the Kingdom of Bohemia. Except for a brief period at the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, the King of Bohemia was always a member of the Habsburg dynasty; this gave the Habsburgs a seat in the Council of Electors and a vote in the election of an Emperor; but the Habsburg also enjoyed numerous seats in the Council of Princes by virtue of the their rule over other territories within the Empire's boundaries. In the eighteenth century, 37 representatives controlled 60 votes on the Prince’s Bench of the Council of Princes.

    2) Despite the principle of majority rule, consensus was the desired approach in practice, and a procedure known as Co- und Re-Relation is designed to resolve disagreements that emerge between the three councils early in their deliberations. Initially, the Councils of Electors and Princes try to agree on a resolution; if they succeed, they approach the Council of Cities for its approval.  Even if the Cities dissent, however, the agreement of the first two councils equals a majority vote of the Reichstag.  Although in point of law, the Council of Cities possesses ability to cast a deciding vote (from 1648 on), this was never allowed to happen.  By unwritten agreement, a resolution to which the Princes and Electors could not agree would not be submitted to the Cities.  Formal decisions of the Diet were submitted to the Emperor for his ratification, in which case they became law.  If the Emperor refused ratification, the resolution died.  But since the Emperor’s representative sat in both the Council of Electors [all Emperors of the Habsburg dynasty were also Kings of Bohemia and therefore members of the Electoral College] and the Council of Princes [all Habsburg Emperors were also princes] it was unlikely that any resolution to which the Emperor objected strongly would ever reach a vote.

    C. Confessional Bodies Within the Reichstag
    In addition to the three legislative bodies, the Reichstag was divided (after 1648) into two confessional bodies, the so-called corpus evangelicorum (Protestant) and the corpus catholicorum (Catholic). Informally before 1648, and formally thereafter, matters of religion were negotiated through these two confessional bodies, not via the normal route of deliberation in the Councils. Called the itio in partes, this procedure was employed whenever a majority within one of the two confessional blocs called for it. Because Catholic majorities existed in both the Council of Electors and the Council of Princes, the itio in partes was initiated exclusively by Protestants.

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    III. The Imperial Courts of Law (Reichsgerichte)
    Among the most enduring products of the imperial reform movement of the late fifteenth century were two supreme courts of appeal, the Imperial Cameral Tribunal (Reichskammergericht, or RKG) and the Imperial Aulic Council (Reichshofrat, or RHR).

    A. The Imperial Chamber Court (Reichskammergericht, or RKG)

    Formed in 1495, the RKG derived its authority primarily from the Reichstag, not from the Emperor. Seated initially in Frankfurt, the RKG eventually moved to the town of Fritzlar, then to Wetzlar. Consists originally of sixteen judges (Assessoren), appointed by the Reichstag, and a presiding representative of the Emperor’s personal authority. The total number of judges fluctuates greatly: the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 stipulated 50, of whom 25 should be Protestant and 25 Catholic. In fact, the total never actually exceeded eighteen, and in the mid-eighteenth century had sunk as low as five.
        The RKG held the exclusive right to judge breaches of the General Peace of 1495 (Landfrieden), that is to say, any violent, hostile, coercive action taken by one member of the Empire against any other. The RKG could also serve as a court of appeal from territorial tribunals in lands that do not enjoy exemption from imperial jurisprudence (the privilegium de non appellando);  since most of the larger territories were exempt from its judicial authority, however, the RKG’s practical jurisdiction was limited to smaller, weaker territories of central, southestern, and northwestern Germany. Only the Emperor held the right to pardon a subject of the Empire from judgments of the RKG; there was only one court of appeal higher that the RKG, which was the Reichstag itself.

    B. The Imperial Aulic Council (Reichshofrat)

    Formed soon after the RKG in 1498 to compete with it, the RHR derived its authority from the Emperor. Accordingly, it was seated throughout its existence in Vienna, the principal administrative seat of the Habsburg lands and therefore the de facto imperial residence for most of the period between 1450 and the Empire's demise in 1806. Technically, the presiding office of the RHR was the Imperial Vice-Chancellor (appointed by the Imperial Archchancellor, the Archbishop of Mainz). The tribunal consisted of two groups of imperial councilors (Reichshofräte), all of them appointed by the Emperor, who served for life:
    1) The Lord’s Bench (Herrenbank): Members are recruited from the nobility
    2) The Learned Bench (Gelehrtenbank): Members are recruited from the legal profession
    The total number of councilors varied, but unlike the RKG remains relatively stable at 24; under pressure from the Reichstag, Ferdinand III in 1654 agreed to appoint equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics. While councilors may originate from any imperial territory, in practice the majority were recruited within the Habsburg domains.
        The RHR held exclusive jurisdiction over cases pertaining to the rights of the Emperor, to feudal law, and to criminal accusations involving princes with no other lord than the Emperor. The RHR could also serve as a court of appeal from territorial tribunals in lands that do not enjoy exemption from imperial jurisprudence (the privilegium de non appellando). As with the RKG, the RHR’s practical jurisdiction is limited to smaller, weaker territories of central, southeastern, and northwestern Germany, simply because most of the more powerful princes enjoyed the privilegium de non appellando, which exempted their territories from the jursidiction of all imperial courts of law.  For a time, the RHR functioned as a supreme court for the Habsburg domains, but by the end of the seventeenth century the Habsburg lands were excluded from its jurisdiction as well. The Emperor held the exclusive right to pardon individuals from judgments rendered against them by the RHR; the only route of appeal beyond the RHR is to the Reichstag itself.

    Suggestions for Further Reading:
    Thomas A. Brady, Jr., "The Holy Roman Empire, 1555-1648," in Handbook of European History, 1400-1600, ed. Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), vol. 2, Visions, Programs, Outcomes, 349-384.
    Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Turning Swiss: Cities and Empire, 1450-1550 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
    John G. Gagliardo, The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763-1806 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980).
    Volker Press, "The Habsburg Court as Center of the Imperial Government," Journal of Modern History 58 Supplement (1986): S23-S45.
    Armgard von Reden-Dohna, "Problems of Small Estates of the Empire: The Example of the Swabian Imperial Prelates," Journal of Modern History 58 Supplement (1986): S76-S87.
    Anton Schindling, "The Development of the Eternal Diet in Regensburg," Journal of Modern History 58 Supplement (1986): S64-S75.
    Winfried Schulze, "Majority Decision in the Imperial Diets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," Journal of Modern History 58 Supplement (1986): S46-S63.
    Mack Walker, German Home Towns: Community, Estate, and General Estate, 1648-1871 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971).
    Mack Walker, Johann Jakob Moser and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
    Mack Walker, The Salzburg Transaction: Expulsion and Redemption in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).
    Peter H. Wilson, The Holy Roman Empire, 1495-1806 (New York: St. Martin's, 1999).

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