Holy Roman Empire Institutions

views updated


HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE INSTITUTIONS. Though the German monarchy existed from late Carolingian times, the Holy Roman Empire as an institutionalized structure of governance was created between 1495 and 1555, and, with modifications following the Peace of Westphalia (1648), it endured until abolished by Napoleonic decree in 1803.

The imperial reform encompasses the institutions created through negotiations at the imperial diets. Its main phase began at Worms in 1495 and culminated there in 1521; following an interruption by the Reformation, a final phase of reform occurred at Augsburg in 1555. The reform provided for new organs of justice (the Imperial Chamber Court) and peacekeeping (Perpetual Peace) and a regionally based police and military structure (the Circles) and system of taxation (the Common Penny), none of which functioned more than desultorily before the 1550s. An executive commission (the Imperial Governance Council), which functioned briefly and poorly, was also created. The most important of the later additions were the Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which enabled imperial governance to function despite the religious schism, the emergence of the Imperial Aulic Council as an imperial court of justice, and the creation of the Imperial Treasurer's office (1570s1590s), followed in the seventeenth century by a permanent parliamentary body (the Perpetual Diet) with a fixed seat at Regensburg and formal confessional caucuses in religious matters (itio in partes).

The early modern empire was characterized by the absence of a comprehensive royal administration. The central administrative functions were divided among the imperial chancellery of the emperor, which was not entirely distinct from the Austrian chancellery; the imperial chancellery at Mainz, under the elector of Mainz, who served as arch-chancellor of the empire; and the imperial diet. From the mid-sixteenth century most administrative, fiscal, police, and military matters were handled either through the Circles or by delegated princes.

In addition to the monarchy, the principal imperial governing institution was the parliament (diet), which took institutionalized form during the last third of the fifteenth century. Until the Thirty Years' War, the monarch called the parliament to meet in one of several (mainly southern) free cities to deliberate, advise, and decide on measures described in his agenda (referred to as the Proposition). After 1663 the diet met in continuous session at Regensburg (hence the label "Perpetual Diet"), with the Estates represented by envoys. From beginning to end, the diet deliberated in three councils: the first of the several imperial electors, the second of around fifty spiritual and thirty temporal princes (plus one representative each for the imperial abbots and imperial counts), and the third representing the fifty-five or so free cities. Territorial (i.e., nonimperial) nobles, prelates, and towns or districts did not participate in the imperial diet, but rather in their respective territorial parliaments, if such existed.

The empire's fiscal system remained, by European standards, primitive. Twice, in 1495 and again in the early 1540s, futile attempts were made to introduce a general property tax (the Common Penny), which, in the absence of any local imperial officials, parish priests were delegated to collect. Otherwise, taxes were levied according to registers, based on the lists of 1521, which apportioned the levies to the individual estates, based on occasionally revised estimates of their relative wealth.

The imperial church possessed no superior jurisdiction or organs. Around 1500 it consisted of around fifty prince-bishops and eight archbishops, who held lands as temporal lords, bore the title of imperial prince, and held seats in the imperial diets (although one archbishop and sixteen bishops had no such privileges). Twelve bishoprics, nine of them prince-bishoprics, were lost to the Protestants between the 1540s and 1648.

The imperial electors were fixed at seven by the Golden Bull in 1356; these were the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier; the electors of the Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg; and the king ofBohemia. The empire's political aristocracy consisted of the princes (dukes, margraves, landgraves, and princes, plus a few counts), who dominated the diet, while the imperial counts, barons, and knights were represented barely or not at all, though in the sixteenth century they formed important corporate organizations on a regional basis. The nobility, great and small, dominated the bishoprics (and great abbeys), thanks to their predominance in the electing bodies, the cathedral chapters. This power, with which both Vienna and Rome had to come to terms, was not broken until the end of the empire.

The strengths of imperial governance lay in its stability and flexibility. Its stability rested on a fundamental understanding that neither the monarchy nor the Estates could rule alone, an arrangement that encouraged negotiation and compromise. This rule, fixed between 1495 and 1521, was threatened only twicefirst between 1546 and 1552 and then during the Thirty Years' Warby insurrection and civil war. Once the political consequences of the religious schism were contained, the system remained remarkably stable during its last 150 years. The flexibility of imperial governance arose from its dependence for the enforcement of law not on a central, royal apparatus of officials but on the Estates in their regions, organized into the Circles.

The greatest weakness of imperial governance lay in the area of defense. For defense against the Ottomans in Hungary until 1681 and for offensive action thereafter, the empire depended on the Habsburg Monarchy and the defensive system of the Austrian lands. It was powerless to prevent Spanish, Danish, Swedish, and French incursions during the Thirty Years' War and equally helpless to act in concert during the wars of Louis XIV and those of the eighteenth century. A second weakness consisted in the inability of the empire's weakly articulated central government to promote economic growth.

Recent literature on imperial governance has contradicted the earlier, highly unfavorable estimates of the empire's functioning as a state. It emphasizes the imperial policy of protecting small Estates from the expansionist aims of the great princes and affording access to courts of law on several levels. Currently, there is a tendency to idealize the empire as a precursor of modern Germany, governed by the rule of law. This said, perhaps no premodern European political system has benefited more from the decline in the reputation of the modern nation-state.

See also Augsburg, Religious Peace of (1555) ; Habsburg Territories ; Taxation ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) .


Angermeier, Heinz. Die Reichsreform 14101555: Die Staatsproblematik in Deutschland zwischen Mittelalter und Gegenwart. Munich, 1984.

Gagliardo, John G. Reich and Nation: The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 17631806. Bloomington, Ind., 1980.

Hartung, Fritz. "Imperial Reform, 14851495: Its Course and Character." In Pre-Reformation Germany. Edited by Gerald Strauss. New York, 1972.

Press, Volker. "The Holy Roman Empire in Germany History." In Politics and Society in Reformation Europe: Essays for Sir Geoffrey Elton on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Edited by E. I. Kouri and Tom Scott. Basingstoke, U.K., 1987.

Strauss, Gerald. "The Holy Roman Empire Revisited." Central European History 11 (1978): 290301.

Vann, James A., and Steven W. Rowan, eds. The Old Reich. Essays on German Political Institutions, 14951806. International Commission for the History of Representative and Parliamentary Institutions. Studies, 48. Brussels, 1974.

Thomas A. Brady, Jr.

About this article

Holy Roman Empire Institutions

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article