Change and Continuity under the Staufers

This chapter explores the Empire’s governance from the start of the Staufers in 1138 to the era of imperial reform around 1500. These three and a half centuries are not normally considered together. Rather than continuity, most accounts stress a break around 1250, usually presenting this as the end of royal state-building and the onset of political decentralization under a succession of ‘weak’ kings. The narrative of ‘decline’ rests on treating the Empire as a conventional ‘national monarchy’ undermined by the Staufers’ alleged disregard for ‘German’ interests in favour of ‘unrealistic’ ambitions in Italy.1

The usual interpretation places undue emphasis on aspects that were relatively unimportant to Staufer governance outside their Sicilian possessions and misses the lines of continuity both backwards to the Salian era and forwards beyond 1250. The Staufers’ real importance lies not in their failure to centralize, but their success in revising and recombining earlier methods into a new, more collective form of imperial governance by the emperor and a more self-conscious princely elite. Far from representing decline, the feudalization of the Empire’s lords and the territorialization of their authority actually preserved the Empire once the Staufers themselves imploded after 1250.

Sicily and the Crown Lands

The Staufers’ conquest of Norman Sicily in 1195 certainly appears to signal a new direction (Map 5). Sicily was a rich prize, with over 500,000 inhabitants; the island was the Mediterranean’s grain basket and, together with its associated lands around Naples, it added 100,000 square kilometres to the Staufers’ personal possessions. The Normans had already established a command monarchy, supported by a powerful judiciary using codified law, and an administration where written culture was routine. These structures were retained by Henry VI and Frederick II, who used them to consolidate their authority across the former Norman possessions, confiscating castles from recalcitrant nobles and redistributing them to loyal followers like Conrad von Urslingen, who already administered Spoleto after 1177 and now became governor of Sicily. Markward von Annweiler, a former ministeriale, was entrusted with Ancona, Romagna, Ravenna and the Abruzzi to secure the vital corridor linking northern Italy to the new southern possessions around Naples.2

However, most of the Norman treasures were distributed to reward Staufer supporters, while the invasion had literally cost a king’s ransom: Henry VI financed the operation using the 16 tons of silver that England paid to free Richard the Lionheart. The Staufers also inherited the problem of split-site management from the Normans, who already had problems controlling the mainland barons from Sicily. These difficulties grew when Henry’s unexpectedly early death at 32 was followed by papal interference and the double election of 1198, which destabilized Staufer rule in Germany and Italy. The Norman lords seized the opportunity to revolt and their unrest continued into the 1240s with papal encouragement. In short, Sicily proved never sufficiently stable to be a base from which to reorganize imperial governance. Nor did the experience of ruling Sicily provide compelling evidence that its style of kingship was inherently superior to the methods developed over past centuries in Germany. The pro-Staufer lords clearly thought not, since they chose Frederick II’s uncle, Philip of Swabia, in 1198 rather than renewing their endorsement of him as Henry VI’s successor made only 18 months earlier.

The Staufers’ engagement in Italy was more prolonged than that of the Salians. Henry IV spent only a quarter of his reign there, compared to a third under Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ and three-quarters under Frederick II. Nonetheless, the family powerbase remained Swabia, which they had held since 1079 along with allodial possessions in Alsace. These lands were close to those of their Salian patrons. Thus, Conrad III’s accession in 1138 shifted the Empire’s core region back to south-west Germany from the north, to which it had briefly moved under Lothar III. Barbarossa and Henry VI bought or inherited additional lands across southern and east-central Germany after 1160, increasing the number of individual crown properties to 4,300.3 Existing palaces were renovated and expanded, while new, fortified ones were built in their core region: Wimpfen, Gelnhausen, Hagenau and Kaiserslautern. Altenburg and Eger were constructed in central Germany to secure access to Bohemia.

While scarcely ‘a catastrophe for Germany’,4 Henry VI’s death in 1197 was a serious setback for the Staufers, because it triggered the double election and civil war after 1198. The county Palatine on the Middle Rhine was seized by their Welf rivals, while the newly acquired properties in east-central Germany were lost. However, Frederick II recovered royal lands which, by 1241, were almost as extensive as at their peak in 1197, while the family’s own possessions expanded considerably with the (temporary) acquisition of Austria and Styria in 1237. Royal possessions were managed more intensively through methods such as clearance of wastes and greater engagement in the commercializing economy. Royal officials, recruited from ministeriales, were posted to oversee crown lands, castles, and the growing number of imperial towns that the Staufers also actively promoted.

Governance followed a broadly similar path in Italy, though with far greater emphasis on reclaiming regalia rather than lands. Thanks to the new understanding fostered by the Worms Concordat of 1122, regalia were now more clearly understood as legal rights to exploit particular resources and to exercise certain kinds of jurisdiction, especially in Italy’s numerous towns. Barbarossa convened an assembly of Italian lords at Roncaglia near Piacenza in November 1158 and demanded the return of all regalia allegedly usurped since the 1070s. Contemporaries estimated these were worth 30,000 pounds of silver annually.5 This was not simply an attempt to set the clock back. Barbarossa accepted greater demands for civic self-government, but insisted that the new elected officials swear loyalty to him as emperor. He also demanded that all towns maintain a royal palace, though he agreed these could now be placed outside their walls. Overall, he aimed to forge a more direct relationship with Italian towns, similar to that in Germany. Strong opposition in the form of the Lombard League forced him to compromise in 1183. Over the next 12 years many of the recently recovered regalia were transferred to the cities in return for cash and political support, notably during the conquest of Sicily in 1194–5. Henry VI renewed efforts at tighter control, appointing royal castellans in castles to curb civic influence in their rural hinterlands, but also continued to pawn Italian crown lands.6

Previous emperors had promoted tighter supervision of crown lands, notably Henry IV. Like their predecessors, the Staufers’ development of crown and family possessions was simply part of a wider range of royal strategies and certainly should not be interpreted as an alternative to feudalization, especially as the Roncaglia assembly also saw efforts to foster tighter political loyalty based on clearer reciprocal obligations between king and vassals.7

The New Feudal Order

Staufer policies become clearer when we recognize they were not seeking a unitary state, but instead employed different methods in their various lands. In Sicily they regarded themselves as the legitimate heirs to Norman hereditary kingship, whereas they tried to manage the Empire by reworking relations with their vassals. This process has been labelled the ‘Feudalization of the Empire’ and represented the definitive abandonment of attempts to prevent fiefs becoming hereditary in favour of trying to turn this to the emperor’s advantage.8

Lothar III had already attempted to reorder relations with his vassals by defining a longer and clearer status hierarchy in 1136. Conrad III continued this, as did Barbarossa after 1157 when he encouraged the use of Roman law, which was being studied at the new university of Bologna. Bologna lawyers helped define vassalage in more obviously feudal terms, but their influence should not be exaggerated, as the disassociation of public functions from aristocratic titles was already accelerating since the early eleventh century. All lords were assuming broadly similar responsibilities as, for example, bishops acquired counties and thus superior criminal jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the Investiture Dispute encouraged superior lords to fix their vassals’ obligations more precisely in writing to be sure of their support.9

The process of feudalization involved identifying the scope of fiefs and their associated rights and obligations more clearly in written charters. This established a sharper hierarchy. The feudal lord retained superior powers over the fief, variously termeddominium directum, dominium feodale or dominium superius, but always consisting of reserve rights expressed practically as the power to confirm the vassal’s possession. The vassal enjoyed rights of usage (dominium utile), often defined expansively to include powers to develop the fief economically and to oversee the lives of its inhabitants.

These distinctions were standard throughout Latin Christendom, but assumed a particular form in the Empire thanks to the deliberate elaboration of a complex status hierarchy after the mid-twelfth century. The more intensive management of crown lands reflected how the Staufers no longer saw these as assets to be distributed as rewards for loyalty and support. Instead, they used their undefined imperial reserve powers to distinguish additional ranks of lords. Moreover, as suzerains of the entire Empire, the Staufers retained existing powers to confirm or withhold recognition of individual lords’ inheritance of what were now accepted as hereditary fiefs.

Feudalization emerged ad hoc from the practical problems of managing the senior lords, notably the Welf family, whose rise demonstrated the problems associated with established methods. The Welfs were an old, well-connected family with several branches. The one established in 1055 around Ravensburg in Swabia rose to prominence through its appointment as dukes of Bavaria in 1070. Although the Welfs lost this in 1077 after opposing Henry IV, they changed sides and were reinstated in 1096. Ten years later they were allowed to inherit part of the Billungs’ private property in Saxony and were rewarded with the Saxon ducal title in 1127 after their defection from the Staufers helped secure Lothar III’s election. Heinrich ‘the Proud’, the leading Welf, was designated the successor by Lothar only to be defeated by Conrad III in the 1138 election. The Welfs were punished through the loss of both duchies at Heinrich’s death in 1139, but his only son, Henry ‘the Lion’, was compensated with the county of Brunswick and eventually recovered Saxony in return for recognizing Conrad III.10 This sequence of reward, punishment and partial reinstatement was entirely in line with Salian and Ottonian practice, and reflected the importance of personal friendships and animosities within the Empire’s lordly elite. However, these changes depended heavily on circumstance, like the opportunity provided by Heinrich the Proud’s death, which allowed Conrad to block Henry the Lion’s inheritance.

Barbarossa took a different course by following Henry IV’s example of splitting larger ducal jurisdictions to facilitate more subtle management of the senior lords. Barbarossa needed to reward Henry the Lion for his invaluable assistance in securing the royal election in March 1152, but did not want to make him too powerful.11 Accordingly, when he gave the now vacant duchy of Bavaria back to Henry in 1156, he simultaneously detached its eastern marches as a new duchy of Austria, which he gave to the Babenberg family. The Babenberg ally, Duke Vladislav of Bohemia, was granted royal status in return for renouncing claims to Austria and for accepting the incorporation of the Piast duchy of Silesia into the Empire in 1163. Meanwhile, a new duchy of Merania was created in 1152 from various lordships on the Croatian and Dalmatian coast and given to Count Conrad of Dachau.

Henry the Lion was left as de facto royal governor of northern Germany during Barbarossa’s prolonged absences in Italy. However, he used this to pursue a feud with the archbishop of Cologne after 1166 over possession of Westphalia, the western part of the old duchy of Saxony. He developed his own court which, unlike the emperor’s, was fixed in Brunswick. Henry became the first German lord to assume the prerogative of issuing his own charters, while his marriage to Matilda, daughter of the English king Henry II, appeared to confirm his regal aspirations. The deciding factor in the ensuing conflict was the relative willingness of the participants to accept obligations to the Empire. Cologne’s archbishop, Count Philipp von Heinsberg, won Barbarossa’s favour by agreeing to provide additional troops just as Henry refused to assist the imperial campaign of 1176 unless he received the royal lands at Goslar. The dispute deepened as Henry refused a personal summons to participate in another campaign.12

Barbarossa returned to Germany in 1177 having been defeated in Italy. He needed to reassert his authority and rally support, while Count Philipp saw an opportunity to defeat his regional rival. Henry the Lion’s trial in 1178 followed the conventional pattern of prolonged consultation amongst interested parties, allowing counts like the Askanier and Bogislav of Stettin a chance to complain about his overbearing management of northern Germany. The verdict was passed as the Gelnhausen Act on 13 April 1180. Henry was exiled and Westphalia was given to Cologne as a distinct duchy, while the rest of Saxony passed to the Askanier Count Bernhard of Anhalt. Five months later Bavaria was transferred to Count Palatine Otto of Wittelsbach, another of Barbarossa’s partisans. However, the process of 1156 was repeated with the margraviate of Styria being detached as a separate duchy under the Traungau family. A year later, Bogislav was freed from Saxon jurisdiction as duke of Pomerania, while the archbishop of Aquileia was given ducal rank based on the former margraviate of Friaul.13 These changes doubled the number of ducal titles since 1098.

Henry the Lion returned from exile in 1185, but found little support for his efforts to reverse the Gelnhausen Act before his death in 1195.14 Henry VI’s unexpected death in 1197 allowed Henry the Lion’s son, Otto IV, to challenge the Staufers, resulting in the 1198 double election. The Staufer candidate, Philip of Swabia, was backed by the beneficiaries of the 1180–81 redistribution, plus Mainz and the bulk of the imperial church and ministeriales. Only Cologne broke ranks, hoping to displace Mainz as the premier archbishopric by staging Otto’s election. Otto also drew support from those alarmed by Staufer absenteeism in Italy and Henry VI’s proposal for a hereditary monarchy.15 Most of the fighting was in Italy, where it seriously damaged imperial prestige, but the war was already settled before Otto’s defeat at Bouvines in 1214, since most of his supporters had defected to Frederick II, who replaced the murdered Philip of Swabia as Staufer candidate in 1208.

The Emergence of the Princes

Frederick II confirmed Wittelsbach possession of the Palatinate and Bohemia’s royal status after being elected king by his own supporters in 1212. Once his victory was secure, he formalized what until then had been a temporary expedient and granted uniform privileges in two charters to the spiritual (1220) and lay lords (1231).16 Other European monarchs issued similar general charters: England’s Magna Carta (1215), the Aragonese Privileges (1283, 1287), the Joyeuse Entrée of Brabant (1356). Those in the Empire codified ideas of princely status (principatus) evolving since the tenth century, which suggested that all senior lords were collectively ‘princes’ regardless of their precise titles or lay or spiritual characters. Scholars in Bologna and elsewhere encouraged this with a new interpretation of ancient Rome’s military and political elite as combining judicial powers (jurisdictio) with governance (regimen).17 In short, the charters did not devolve royal powers to the princes, but applied new terminology to distinguish them as a political elite above other lords.

Already after 1180, Barbarossa distinguished more sharply between princeps and nobiles. Both were noble in the sense of socially distinct from commoners thanks to their military function, but the former were now clearly politically superior. Frederick II’s charters confirmed this by relating princely status directly to holding immediate imperial fiefs (Reichslehen). He retained the traditional position as suzerain, entitling him to confirm each new vassal in possession of his fief and to adjudicate internal family inheritance disputes. However, the changes also brought significant new advantages. Confirmation of the new duchies enlarged the number of senior vassals immediately subordinate to the emperor. The grant of broadly similar charters to both spiritual and lay princes ensured a more uniform set of obligations towards the Empire. Separate legislation since 1136 meanwhile strengthened the authority of the nascent princes over their own vassals, while continuing demographic and economic development ensured that, although smaller than the old duchies, the new ones could now be asked to provide more assistance. Finally, the Staufers’ parallel articulation of a collective imperial honour helped instil a sense of their obligations as binding on all in ‘service to the Empire’ (Reichsdienst).18

A new fundamental division between immediate and mediate vassals emerged as politically more significant than the earlier distinction between lay and spiritual lords. The charters identified the princes as a corporate group collectively enjoying the status of ‘imperial immediacy’ (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) directly under the emperor. Other lords were ‘mediate’ (mittelbar) under at least one intervening layer of authority between them and the emperor. Ecclesiastical princely fiefs remained more defined than their secular counterparts, because they were clearly transpersonal, whereas secular ones depended on the size and biological survival of princely families. The duchy of Merania on the Adriatic coast created in 1152 passed on the extinction of the counts of Dachau in 1180 to the counts of Andechs, but was broken up when they died out in 1248 and was absorbed into Istria. In addition to Merania, there were 16 secular princes in 1200, including the dukes holding the rumps of Bavaria, Saxony, Swabia and Lorraine, as well as Carinthia and the new duchies of Austria, Brabant, Styria and Zähringen. The others comprised Bohemia (now a kingdom), the count Palatine, the margraves of Brandenburg, Lusatia and Meissen, the landgrave of Thuringia and the count of Anhalt. Collectively, these princes held jurisdictions covering a third of the German kingdom. Another third was held by the 47 archbishops and bishops, 27 abbots and 18 abbesses comprising the imperial church. All archbishops and bishops now held secular powers in their lands comparable to dukes. The remaining third comprised royal domains and the possessions of around 80 counts and several thousand free nobles, all of whom were still immediate under the emperor, but lacked the princes’ corporate privileges. Another 14 ducal titles were created across the next two centuries, compared to only two dissolutions following family extinctions (Merania, Zähringen) (Table 5). The Swabian title was also defunct following the death of the last Staufer in 1268 when the bulk of its associated possessions passed to the count of Württemberg. The Franconian title had been transferred to the bishop of Würzburg in 1168, but effectively ceased to exist outside the bishopric itself.19

Twelve of the new titles involved the elevation of loyal counts by grateful monarchs who used their prerogatives to adjust the status of existing counties to duchies. Brunswick’s elevation was an exception that proves the marginal role played by personal possessions in the formation of German territories. Having returned to Germany and imprisoned his own son in 1235, Frederick II was at the height of his power and finally persuaded the Welfs to accept peace on his terms. They surrendered their allodial possessions around Brunswick and received them back as an imperial fief augmented by the income from the crown lands at Goslar. This established Frederick’s own claim on Brunswick’s resources through vassalage, and confined the Welfs to a relatively minor role until the family’s dramatic resurgence during the seventeenth century. It also confirmed the three-way division of the old Saxon duchy into Westphalia (associated with Cologne), Brunswick in the centre, and Sachsen-Lauenburg in the east, held by the Askanier until their extinction in 1689.

The emergence of this princely elite around 1200 incorporated the more successful of the pushy new lordly families emerging since the later tenth century who had acquired titles of margrave or landgrave, as well as the count Palatine and the Askanier counts of Anhalt. Similarly, the counts of Cilli acquired princely status without receiving a ducal title. Baden’s rulers originated as a distant branch of the Zähringen family installed as margraves of Verona in 1061. They kept their margrave title when they transferred to possessions on the Upper Rhine in 1112. The territories known later as Ansbach and Bayreuth became margraviates through their acquisition by the burgrave of Nuremberg around 1415. Brabant and Limburg became duchies around the beginning of the twelfth century as Henry IV and Henry V temporarily transferred the disputed Lorraine ducal title to their counts during the Salian civil war. Likewise, the lordship of Bouillon became a duchy in 1330 through its acquisition by later dukes of Lorraine. What became known as the Saxon duchies emerged from the defunct landgraviate of Thuringia, which passed to the Wettin family during the thirteenth century. Later partitions amongst the Wettins created separate duchies in Altenberg, Coburg, Eisenach, Gotha, Meiningen and Weimar from fragments of Thuringia. Likewise, partitions within the Palatine and Welf families by the seventeenth century attached princely status to many of their counties and lordships as these were parcelled out among different heirs. In all cases, the emperor’s permission was required, providing further opportunities to extract concessions from the beneficiaries.20

Table 5. New Ducal Titles
















   Jülich (margraves since 1336)  




   The Burgrave of Nuremberg received permission to use the personal title of prince  


   The Count of Nassau received permission to use the personal title of prince  




   Krain (used a ducal title already since 1364)  




   Cilli (title of prince; incorporated into Styria after 1456)  




   Württemberg (last of the medieval elevations to ducal status)  

*raised to a margraviate, though its later lords claimed ducal status

**new title of ‘archduke’ invented by Duke Rudolf IV

Hierarchy and Status

The last of the medieval elevations occurred in 1495 when the count of Württemberg was made duke, legitimated through his possession of Teck, which had once been held by the defunct dukes of Zähringen. Thereafter, counts who were promoted simply received the title of ‘prince’ (Fürst), adding a subtle, yet significant distinction between themselves as ‘new princes’ and the ‘old princely houses’ holding electoral, ducal, margravial or landgravial rank. Titles served as fine distinctions within an otherwise common corporate group and became the focus of often intense competition during early modernity.

All immediate fiefs were linked to the emperor through the obligations of vassalage. Women acquired the status of duchess, margravine or princess through marriage or kinship, but were generally disbarred from fief-holding. This had obvious disadvantages as families adopted more dynastic inheritance strategies. Since around 1037, emperors had designated some fiefs as Weiberlehen, permitting women to inherit if the vassal died without a son.21 The most important of these ‘women’s fiefs’ was Austria, which was designated as such in 1156. The emperor benefited from continuity of service since, though the female fief-holder could not serve herself, she was obliged to send male warriors to fulfil her duties. There were at least ten female imperial fiefs by the eighteenth century, while Charles VI effectively converted the entire Habsburg hereditary possessions into one through the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 to allow his daughter, Maria Theresa, to inherit.22 The idea of Leihezwang expressed in the thirteenth-centurySachsenspiegel suggested the emperor had to redistribute any fief that fell vacant. This was never formally adopted and was rendered irrelevant by the flexibility of inheritance arrangements that ensured there were always heirs. In practice, the emperor had to buy off or defeat claimants if he wanted to retain a vacant fief. The difficulties are illustrated by the long and ultimately fruitless attempts by thirteenth-century kings to retain the landgraviate of Thuringia after the death of Heinrich Raspe in 1247.

Many immediate fiefs were small and not associated with princely titles. Some were parcels of royal domains that remained in the hands of former ministeriales during the later thirteenth century. Others belonged to knights who only secured recognition of immediacy in the sixteenth century (see pp. 553–62). However, the vast majority were classed as mediate fiefs following the Staufer legislation and in turn fell into two main categories. The first, known as ‘knight’s fiefs’ (Ritter-or Schildlehen), obliged their holders to act as armed retainers for their lord and provided the primary way in which princes discharged their own obligations to the Empire prior to early modernity. The second category emerged through the extension of vassalage as a means of profiting from the new forms of wealth being created by commoners. ‘Wallet fiefs’ developed in late medieval Austria and Bavaria as peasants agreed to pay dues into their lord’s wallet (Beutel) rather than perform various services in person. In fourteenth-century Brandenburg and elsewhere, burghers acquired fiefs and even towns held them collectively. The commercialization of fief-holding and lordship generally allowed this to spread as lords sold or pawned fiefs. By 1596, 54 of Württemberg’s 181 lesser fiefs were held by commoners.23

Contemporaries responded to the growing complexity of feudal arrangements by trying after 1200 to fix their overall structure in what was known as the ‘military shield order’ (Heerschildordnung). This envisaged a hierarchy descending from the king through ecclesiastical princes, secular princes, counts and barons, subvassals of these, further subvassals or ministeriales and finally the commoner ‘passive vassals’. Authors accepted some regional variations, but such schemes remained an idealized representation of reality and were abandoned by 1500.24 There was never a single continuous feudal chain from king to peasant. All secular princes and most counts and barons were in fact immediately subordinate to the king, and not through other intermediaries.

More meaningful distinctions were expressed in new forms of homage and investiture rituals developed during the thirteenth century. Princes received enfeoffment in person from the enthroned king to symbolize their proximity to majesty. Counts and knights were summoned to receive enfeoffment from their nearest prince acting as the emperor’s proxy, while citizens swore homage through their magistrates in the imperial cities. Princely investitures assumed increasingly elaborate forms in the high Middle Ages. A prince would arrive at the emperor’s camp with hundreds of followers. He would then ride round the king three times while his nearest relations kneeled as petitioners before the monarch. The prince then dismounted and knelt to receive investiture (see Plate 23). The development of heraldry added to the display. Electors received flags emblazoned with the badge of their arch-office, while senior immediate vassals were given red flags symbolizing their superior ‘bloody jurisdiction’ (Blutsgerichtsbarkeit) over capital crimes.25 Elements of written culture crept in; for instance, the counts were summoned by letter rather than imperial heralds by the fifteenth century. However, the rituals demonstrated the continued importance of the personal element in these arrangements, which, like those during the earlier Middle Ages, were agreed discreetly in advance to avoid public humiliation for the participants.


Territories in Imperial History

Territorialization denotes how the status and rights associated with fiefs became fixed in specific lands. The term derives from Leopold von Ranke in 1839 who distinguished political development at the level of the principalities from that at national level. Like ‘feudalization’, the term is both useful and problematic. Ranke’s distinction proved fundamental in entrenching the dualist interpretation of the Empire being eaten from within as the principalities supposedly usurped the emperor’s powers. It implies that territorialization was ‘unwanted’, driven instead by princes who placed their own interests above those of the nation. The customary linkage of ‘territory’ to ‘state’ adds to this, suggesting a federalization of the Empire as a loose association of what became de facto independent states. Similar problems stem from the strong contemporary tradition of regional history, which traces the development of the modern German federal states (Bundesländer) from the various principalities, counties and cities once occupying their current space.26

Territorialization was a feature of the entire Empire and not just those principalities large enough to appear on the pages of historical atlases. The process emerged from the wider adjustments of power outlined in the preceding section and which represented a division of labour within the elite’s collective responsibility for the Empire. The emperor upheld the Empire’s overall integrity, pursued the imperial mission, and offered ‘leadership’ along the lines of idealized kingship. The princely elite exercised more local responsibilities for order and justice through their ‘political self-sufficiency’.27 They were expected to carry out their tasks without the emperor’s supervision or assistance. Territorialization developed to enable them to achieve this, thus complementing rather than contradicting imperial authority. The late medieval and early modern conflicts between emperors and princes remained largely personal, not constitutional.

The exercise of jurisdiction had always entailed some sense of spatial limits, though this was complicated by the fact that authority was often over people, not places. As earlier chapters have indicated, the original duchies were not understood by their inhabitants as having precise frontiers. The feudalization of vassalage helped change conceptions of space and authority, encouraging the reconfiguration of the Empire’s internal order as a hierarchy of spatial divisions defined by the feudal order. These divisions gradually acquired solidity, crystallizing between about 1480 and 1580. While they could be combined into larger units, they could no longer be merged or dissolved into each other. New administrative subdivisions emerged that became equally rigid. These boundaries persisted well beyond 1806, in some cases to the present.

Social and Economic Factors

Territorialization is associated with princes, but was only possible thanks to the demographic and economic growth since the eleventh century that enabled lords to exploit land more intensively and extensively. Much of the Empire remained covered in forest and twelfth-century lords acquired more exclusive rights over these and other ‘empty’ areas, and used the prerogatives granted by the emperor to command the labour needed to clear woodland, drain marshes and plant wastes. The internal migration discussed inChapter 2 was also part of this general situation. Changes in land use necessitated clearer boundaries to demarcate lordly authority and secure exclusive claims to labour and resources. Meanwhile, the greater concentration of wealth and people provided support for a larger and denser lordly hierarchy, especially in south and west Germany.

The Staufer charters of 1220 and 1231 accelerated an existing trend to fix authority in writing. The nascent princely elite began creating their own chancelleries from their personal chapel staff, like the emperor had done three centuries earlier. Cologne, the Palatinate and Upper Bavaria all did this during the thirteenth century, being joined by Austria (1299) and Württemberg (1350). Most others only followed in the fifteenth century, including Saxony (1428), Lower Hessen (1469), and all larger territories after the 1480s.28 These bodies developed their own internal hierarchies and demarcation of function as their advisory role was transferred to separate ‘court councils’, which also assumed greater permanence around the mid-fourteenth century. The chancelleries’ initial primary task was to maintain the feudal registers (Lehensbücher) appearing from 1220 and listing subordinate vassals and their obligations. The registers were expanded from the mid-fourteenth century to record the issuing of charters and other key documents and were soon supplemented by correspondence ledgers. These developments were rarely consistent, nor planned. Tirol maintained financial accounts from 1288, but stopped this when it passed to the Habsburgs in 1363 and only resumed the practice in 1415.

Territorialization was also related to the broader social transformation from aristocratic kindreds to patrilinear families, because the greater wealth both reduced mutual dependency whilst increasing the desire to demarcate exclusive shares. Like the emperors, princely families developed identities around castles, monasteries and family tombs. The margraves of Baden developed the Cistercian monastery of Lichtenfeld in 1248, which they used to bury their dead for the next 150 years as a focal point for their self-identity.29 One family’s misfortune was often a boon to others and the margraves were fortunate to acquire additional territory through inheritance. Natural extinction ended the rise of the Ebersbergers in Bavaria, Conradiners in the Wetterau and Ezzonids on the Lower Rhine by the mid-eleventh century, dispersing their carefully accumulated lands to others. Indeed, the development of patrilinear families created smaller breeding groups, increasing the chances of extinction, though those chances were now usually only limited to individual branches. The demise of the Zähringer in 1218 halted the growth of a potentially powerful south-west German duchy, which was split between what became Baden, Fürstenberg and the Swiss confederation. Conversely, the longevity of individual rulers often contributed to territorialization. Count Eberhard I ruled Württemberg for 46 years after 1279, enabling him to exploit four changes of king to recover lands lost at the start of his reign to Rudolf I. Count Eberhard II’s 48-year rule after 1344 then consolidated Württemberg and provided the basis for its subsequent elevation to a duchy.30

Unlike the emperor, lords holding immediate fiefs enjoyed greater powers to escheat lesser, mediate fiefs, enabling them to block potential local rivals by preventing anyone accumulating too many holdings. Meanwhile, the recovery of vacant mediate fiefs allowed lords to reward loyal clients by enfeoffing them. As a result, access to higher status grew more restricted, since it was difficult for lesser nobles to accumulate their own powerbase, which could support their personal elevation. The difficulty in securing sufficient land contributed to biological extinction. Only 10 of the 25 Styrian lordly (Herren) families in 1300 survived a century later, while those in Carinthia declined from 12 to two across 1286–1446. The number of Austrian lordly families fell from 33 in 1200 to nine by 1450. Changes in the lower ranks were even greater: 118 Lower Austrian knightly families died out between 1524 and 1574, followed by another 92 by 1625. Only 83 of the 259 Brandenburg noble families in 1540 were still represented in 1800. This reflected a ‘natural’ process in pre-industrial Europe because richer families fared better as they produced more children. Thus, while a status group might preserve its overall wealth, its composition could change significantly as the poorer families died out. Unless it opened its ranks to new members, such a group could face gradual extinction. The top stratum of the bishop of Würzburg’s vassals was the only one to grow (from 12 families in 1303 to 51 by 1519), whereas the total number of vassal families declined from 421 to 182 in the same period.31

Although the Würzburg mediate elite prospered, they and their equivalents elsewhere had no prospect of forming their own territories without first acquiring the status of immediacy through their own personal elevation, or the purchase or inheritance of an existing immediate fief. However, even counties offered only a restricted basis, since most of the large ones had already been raised as new principalities. Most of the counties that remained in the fourteenth century only comprised a castle, small town or large village, and some parcels of land. Rule here was more direct, since few counts had many mediate vassals of their own. Dynastic partitions eroded the potential of many counts’ families on the Rhine, Main and Danube. For instance, the county of Löwenstein was sold to the Palatinate in the mid-fifteenth century only to re-emerge after 1611 to accommodate junior lines of the Wittelsbachs. Counts declined in prestige as a group because many counties passed into the hands of princes whose ranks were also growing. The counts of Görz sold all their possessions to the Habsburgs between 1335 and 1500. By 1400, few of the families of counts had held that rank for more than a century and none were viable contenders to be German king in contrast to the position around 1300 (seepp. 377–96).

Growing commercialization contributed to territorialization by eroding the original military function of vassalage and providing a way that additional fiefs could be acquired. Fiefs could be assessed in terms of cash values, derived from revenue streams or land prices, rather than in disparate forms of produce and bundles of rights and obligations. It became easier to transfer fiefs, because it was clearer what was being sold and how much it should cost. This also helped resolve inheritance disputes without involving the emperor as arbitrator. Large fiefs were very expensive. Albrecht III sold his share of the Habsburg lands to his brother Leopold for 100,000 florins in 1379, while Sigismund transferred Brandenburg to Friedrich IV of Hohenzollern for four times that sum in 1415.32Those with cash could develop and expand their territories. The Württemberg counts founded only seven towns, but bought three in the thirteenth century, 47 in the fourteenth and 10 more in the fifteenth century. This example illustrates another general point in that the counts bought land and lordships wherever these became available as a means to amass wealth and influence, rather than to create a neat, compact territory. For example, they made extensive purchases in the 1320s in Alsace, a considerable distance across the Rhine from their county; safeguarding these enclaves would haunt Württemberg rulers until they were finally lost in the French Revolutionary Wars.33 Although families generally tried to concentrate their acquisitions from the late fourteenth century, territorialization continued to follow the logic of the imperial status hierarchy, not modern geopolitical thinking.

The intensification of vassalage and commercialization of fief-holding combined to create new subdivisions within princely jurisdictions. These, in turn, slowly gave fiefs greater geographical coherence. Dependent vassals became more closely associated with these subdivisions after the mid-thirteenth century. Other factors assisted this, including the shift to patrilinear families based in castles where the eldest male assumed responsibility for discharging obligations to the lord. The emergence of a more fixed parish structure also provided a handy means to define the shape of the subdivisions, which increasingly became known as ‘districts’ (Ämter). This process was neither rational nor planned. Most princely jurisdictions remained a collection of subordinate fiefs. Large chunks of land often remained unincorporated within the district structure – in some cases into the eighteenth century. Districts were generally small, mostly only three or four parishes, but they never replaced villages and towns as the primary foci for inhabitants’ identities.

Nonetheless, districts slowly acquired greater coherence, especially as they developed more clearly as administrative units under district officials (Amtleute or Amtmänner). Larger territories like Bavaria, Saxony, Styria and the Palatinate created superior districts (Oberämter) as an additional coordinating layer between the centre and localities. Again, variations remained. Officials in only 13 of the 40 to 45 districts in sixteenth-century Brandenburg were directly appointed by the elector, with the rest comprising his subvassals serving in that capacity under feudal obligations.34 By then, the district was the chief administrative unit in most territories and its official received new powers in line with the expanding ambitions of princes to regulate ordinary life and to meet the new obligations imposed by imperial reform (see pp. 396–408 and 445–62). Above all, districts provided the infrastructure required to collect taxes. Geldern in north-west Germany was unusual in already establishing a central treasury with its own accounts in 1290 in addition to the ledgers maintained by the districts. The other small Rhenish territories followed suit by 1350, but Austria and Bavaria were more typical in only doing this around 1500.

Ecclesiastical Territorialization

Ecclesiastical lords were initially ahead of their secular counterparts in developing the elements that eventually fused as territorialization. Bishops and abbots already lived apart from other clergy in their own residences by 900, followed by abbesses during the twelfth century, adding to their sense of being by various definitions ‘superior’.35 The task of church-building, together with the higher burdens imposed by medieval kings on the imperial church, encouraged the development of taxes well before these appeared in most secular fiefs. As we have seen (pp. 347–8), ecclesiastical lords were the first to employ ministeriales, circa 1020. Around a century later, these lords were building their own stone castles, like Aschaffenburg (1122) and Erfurt (1123) that were constructed to protect the archbishop of Mainz’s key possessions. Ecclesiastical lords also benefited from being based in towns, whereas few secular lordships possessed sizable towns prior to the later Middle Ages. Senior clerics had already developed traditions of being buried in their main church before most secular lords cultivated family tombs.

However, ecclesiastical territorialization gathered pace precisely at a time when many cathedral towns escaped episcopal jurisdiction by securing recognition of their self-governance. Bishops retained control of the cathedral and usually some other important buildings, but otherwise lost the ability to command the inhabitants’ wealth and labour (see pp. 512–15). Although senior clergy developed a sense of transpersonal office, they were not hereditary rulers. The Investiture Dispute and papal schisms proved particularly disruptive, because rival popes frequently appointed their own bishops to the same see. Even under normal conditions, a new bishop often had to find his feet and cultivate local clients. Cathedrals and abbeys had their own administrations known as ‘chapters’ staffed by canons supported by benefices attached to the church. Chapters acquired additional resources and rights. For example, Henry IV allowed the chapter in Speyer to own property after 1101. Chapters considered themselves representatives of their church and had displaced lesser clergy and lay inhabitants from any role in selecting new bishops and abbots by the high Middle Ages. The position of chapters was strengthened by the outcome of the Investiture Dispute, which confirmed the principle of ‘free election’. The chapters developed along broadly similar lines to the Empire’s electoral college and entrenched their position by bargaining ‘electoral agreements’ from prospective bishops and abbots from the fourteenth century. Innocent XII forbade further agreements after 1695 and though such contracts continued to be made, bishops were generally backed by the pope and emperor in the event of disputes. Moreover, canons frequently hoped to become bishops themselves, and so refrained from undermining episcopal powers too far. Ecclesiastical princes thus broadly followed their secular counterparts in adopting a more command-style of governance from the later seventeenth century, complete with magnificent new palaces to display their status.36

Spiritual boundaries remained fairly stable, since they could only be altered with papal agreement, unlike the frequent partitions and changes in secular jurisdictions. However, the actual territory of bishops and abbots was always much smaller than their spiritual jurisdictions. Since it originated in gifts of crown land to the church, ecclesiastical territory was considered inalienable. Pieces were sold or pawned, but never on the scale witnessed with secular possessions, especially as the chapters always opposed alienation as threatening to their church. The Salians transferred numerous counties to church lords, while, as we have seen, Frederick II confirmed the bishops’ possession of ducal powers entailing judicial and military privileges equivalent to the secular princes. The Staufers’ demise ended the growth of ecclesiastical lands and jurisdictions, since no future monarchs were able to be so generous, while the spiritual character of abbots and bishops ensured that they could not accumulate further lands through inheritance. The subsequent viability of ecclesiastical territories therefore depended on how far they had been favoured by earlier medieval rulers. Paderborn and Eichstätt remained poor, as did bishoprics and abbeys north of the Elbe, which were mostly later foundations which had had less time to acquire land than the longer-established ones in the old core regions along the Rhine and Main. The relative vulnerability of many northern and eastern ecclesiastical territories also helps explain why they were already on their way to being secularized ahead of the Reformation.

Ecclesiastical lords also appeared to be less potent patrons than their secular counterparts after 1250 and were often unable to prevent their vassals escaping their jurisdiction. Cologne is a prominent example. Since the 1060s, successive archbishops had amassed the extensive terra coloniensis across north-west Germany, consolidated by the grant of their new title as duke of Westphalia in 1180. However, the counts took the opportunity of the Staufer’s demise to emancipate themselves during the later thirteenth century. The defeat of Archbishop Siegfried von Westerburg of Cologne in the battle of Worringen in 1288 proved a major setback and though he continued to oppose his counts’ desires, those in Geldern, Jülich, Berg and Cleves all eventually secured their autonomy through the acquisition of ducal titles in the fourteenth century. A similar process occurred in the archbishopric of Trier where the counts of Luxembourg and Nassau escaped jurisdiction, while the bishop of Würzburg found his acquisition of the old Franconian ducal title did not improve his position relative to neighbouring secular lords.37

Mainz became hemmed in through the expansion of secular neighbours (Map 17). The acquisition by the lords of Hessen of the landgraviate of Thuringia in 1247 enabled them to develop a distinct territory, cutting that of Mainz in two by isolating the section around Erfurt from the main strip at the Rhine–Main nexus. Hessen was able to stop Mainz from summoning its inhabitants before episcopal courts after 1370. Mainz’s refusal to grant similar concessions to the neighbouring Palatinate led to a long and debilitating dispute that lasted from the fifteenth century into the 1660s. However, ecclesiastical lords were not invariably the losers. Margrave Albrecht Achilles of Bayreuth overreached himself in the mid-fifteenth century when he tried to coerce local monasteries into accepting his protection, but fell deeply into debt when he was then blocked by the bishop of Bamberg.38

Secular Territorialization

The examples of Mainz, Hessen and the Palatinate suggest we should not interpret territorialization as a linear process driven by a succession of rulers all working to the same plan. The Palatinate remained one of the most powerful ‘territories’ of the later Middle Ages by relying on its electoral and Palatine status and rights, rather than through amassing land. It owed its later influence to Barbarossa’s transfer of the count Palatine title to his half-brother Conrad of Staufen in 1156, and the subsequent grant of former Salian estates in the Rhineland and, especially, protectorates over Worms, Speyer and Lorsch ecclesiastical properties. The royal estates at Alzey were transferred to the Palatinate in 1214, followed by fiefs acquired from Speyer and Worms; the latter included Heidelberg in 1225, which became the administrative seat. The Staufers’ demise ended these donations, ensuring that Palatine territorialization was closer to that of the ecclesiastical territories rather than hereditary secular duchies. Subsequent growth remained largely restricted to efforts at converting the Palatinate’s bundles of jurisdictions over knights, towns and monasteries into more immediate forms of control.39

Thuringia’s example also illustrates how territorialization was never a simple process of consolidation. Originally the area of the Toringi, who had been conquered by the Franks in 534, Thuringia was bounded by the Harz mountains and the Unstrut, Werra and Saale rivers. In addition to Erfurt, which belonged to Mainz, the region contained the important imperial abbeys of Fulda and Hersfeld. The accession of the Ottonians in 919 transformed it from a border zone to a core region soon endowed with important palaces. The Ludowinger family of counts based at Schauenburg became the dominant local presence under the Salians and were awarded the title of landgrave in 1130. Barbarossa rewarded Ludowinger support by giving them the Palatine powers formerly associated with ducal Saxony, which he stripped from Henry the Lion in 1180. These powers were similar to those of the counts Palatine on the Rhine, and gave the Thuringian landgrave opportunities to cultivate his own clientele. The Ludowinger family inherited additional property in Hessen protected by the castle of Marburg, as well as the castles of Neuburg on the Unstrut and the Wartburg, the latter made famous in 1517 when Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on its chapel door. So far, Thuringia’s development fitted the classic pattern of gradual accumulation and consolidation. It was sufficiently advanced for Landgrave Heinrich Raspe to be considered worthy of election as anti-Staufer king in 1246. However, Thuringia was not coherent enough to survive his death a year later, as this opened a prolonged inheritance dispute that eventually pulled it apart. Hessen passed as a separate territory to the counts of Brabant, who were awarded a landgrave title in 1292. The rest passed to the Wettin family as counts of Meissen, who managed to repel royal efforts to escheat it as a vacant fief between 1294 and 1307. The Wettins resumed the earlier consolidation, but were unable to reassert control over the lords of Gleichen, Henneberg, Reuss and Schwarzburg, who had meanwhile gained autonomy. The Wettins acquired the Saxon ducal title from the defunct Wittenberg branch of the Askanier in 1423, but split their possessions in 1485, separating the electorate of Saxony to the east from the rump of Thuringia, which was subsequently partitioned as the ‘Saxon duchies’ of Weimar, Gotha and Coburg after 1572, followed by further subdivisions during the next two centuries.40

Partitions were a constant feature, indicating the very slow acceptance of dynasticism as a political principle. The Welfs split in 1267, barely three decades after the establishment of their new duchy at Brunswick, and multiple lines persisted until 1918. Hessen repeatedly split into Upper and Lower sections after 1308, with this division becoming permanent with the establishment of separate lines based in Kassel and Darmstadt in 1567. Baden’s initial expansion stalled in repeated partitions after 1190, with only a brief reunification from 1475 to 1536 until the various sections were finally concentrated in 1771. Other families divided their lands without such serious repercussions for their subsequent influence: the Habsburgs, Wittelsbachs, Hohenzollerns and (to an extent) the Wettins.

Jülich’s steady expansion on the Lower Rhine was thus highly unusual. Its dukes successively acquired Geldern, Berg, Ravensberg, Cleves and Mark between 1393 and 1521. Its demise was rather more typical. Biological extinction of the ruling line opened what proved the last inheritance dispute accompanied by serious violence, between 1609 and 1614, other than that over the Austrian succession (1740–48), which was an altogether different affair.41 Jülich’s example also demonstrates the growing rigidity of fiefs, since its expansion occurred after feudal jurisdictions had acquired more stable identities and boundaries. Each fief retained its own laws and institutions as it was acquired by the duke of Jülich, who held fiefs as a personal union rather than integrated territory.

The Growing Significance of Mediate Fiefs

The inheritance or transfer of immediate fiefs affected their mediate, dependent vassals as well. Territories thus remained composites, comprising three elements: 1) the allodial possessions of the ruling family in secular principalities or lands attached to the cathedral and chapter in ecclesiastical ones; 2) the possessions of territorial subjects subject to their prince’s legal and fiscal jurisdiction; and 3) the mediate vassals’ fiefs. The exact mix varied considerably, while jurisdictions frequently did not entirely align with land ownership. For example, ecclesiastical princes exercised spiritual jurisdiction across the lands of their secular neighbours, while princes might share rights or hold different levels of criminal jurisdiction over parts of their possessions.

Crucially, fief-holding retained political and military significance across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and did not simply become another form of landownership, unlike in France and England where lords responded to the new economic pressures by converting many of their obligations into cash payments. Instead, the periodic struggles to control the German crown required that princes and their vassals remain armed.42 Armed retaliation through feuds remained a legal way to seek redress under imperial law, while lordship over mediate vassals offered an effective way to expand influence in the conditions of the later thirteenth century. The Staufers’ last decade saw serious fighting in much of the Empire, while the kings after 1257 were rarely able to help their lesser vassals. The ministeriales and knights charged with administering crown lands and protecting imperial abbeys were usually too weak to fend for themselves. Many placed themselves under the protection of neighbouring bishops or secular princes, notably the count Palatine and the dukes of Bavaria.

This process continued even as the general political situation stabilized after 1273, because the agrarian depression setting in around 1300 adversely affected the lesser vassals. Many of those who were still ‘free’ (i.e. immediate under the king) now voluntarily placed themselves under princely protection and became mediate vassals. The new understanding of property greatly facilitated this, because the knights retained ‘rights of usage’ of their fiefs. Often, these arrangements included princely confirmation of new forms of inheritance allowing the knight to exclude daughters and other relations in future. Overall, these developments hastened the merger of the ministeriales within the lesser nobility, either as knights who remained free under the king or as a new social Estate of ‘territorial nobles’ (Landadel) under a prince.

These changes were often accompanied by considerable violence at the local level, because they involved clarifying exactly who was subordinate to whom and what rights and land each noble held. Princes also used the new powers acquired in the 1220 and 1231 charters, which allowed them to decide who was allowed to build castles and to oblige their vassals to ‘open’ their own castles to them. Princes often deliberately manipulated personal and material animosities to extend lordship over a rival’s mediate vassals. Nobles responded by forming associations to defend their status and autonomy. Princes could offer cash subsidies to cover the cost of service as inducements to entice vassals to switch allegiance. They also broke up their own allodial property to form new fiefs that could be granted to clients.43

Although still useful, the term ‘territorialization’ is thus in many ways a misnomer. Rather than the coloured patches shown on later historical atlases, princely territories expanded largely as webs of jurisdictions. Coalescence was often interrupted by the extinction of families or their partition into different branches, as well as more fundamentally by the economic and demographic upheavals of the first half of the fourteenth century. True ‘territorialization’ as conceived by later historians only really commenced with the political and institutional changes of imperial reform during the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as we shall see (pp. 396–406 and 524–38).


The End of the Staufers

Territorialization advanced further and faster in Bavaria, Austria, Tirol, Bohemia and parts of west and north-west Germany. These were neither necessarily the richest nor most populous parts of the Empire. The prolonged royal presence in Franconia, Swabia, the Upper Rhine and parts of Thuringia contributed to the number of small fiefs emerging from the crown lands, while the concentration of people and wealth in the south-west also helped sustain a larger number of relatively small lordships. The Staufers’ demise after 1250 saw the monarchy shift to the more territorialized parts of Germany. At first glance, this appears to corroborate the old view of the Empire as being undermined by princely autonomy. However, the Staufers’ end was more personal than structural. After a 15-year absence in Italy and the Holy Land, Frederick II had returned to Germany in 1235 accompanied by lavishly dressed Muslim bodyguards, camels and elephants – the ultimate symbol of pre-modern imperialism. Despite not recruiting additional troops, he crushed a rebellion without a fight, deposed his son Henry (VII) and Duke Friedrich II Babenberg of Austria, and settled the long-running dispute with the Welfs.44

The real problem was legitimacy, not autonomy. The princes certainly desired autonomy, but this is what the Staufers had been giving them since the 1180s. Individual princes might prove uncooperative, like Duke Friedrich II, who recovered Austria by force in 1237 and obliged the emperor to accept this three years later as the price of his support.45 However, it was Frederick’s mishandling of the situation in Italy and his second excommunication after 1239 that undermined his authority and made it harder to compel the princes to honour their commitments to the Empire.

The Survival of the Monarchy

The period from the death of Frederick II’s son Conrad IV in 1254 and Rudolf I’s accession in 1273 appears as an ‘interregnum’ in traditional accounts.46 The papacy certainly regarded the imperial title as vacant until Henry VII’s coronation in 1312. However, there was no break in German kings who throughout also claimed to rule over Burgundy and Italy. Indeed, there were often too many kings. The anti-king William of Holland outlived Conrad IV to enjoy two years’ uncontested rule. The double election after his death returned both Alfonso X of Castile and Richard, earl of Cornwall, who had Staufer credentials through being Frederick II’s brother-in-law. Unlike Alfonso, who never visited Germany, Richard came to be crowned king in Aachen in May 1257. He distributed privileges to his supporters, but also used force against those who had backed Alfonso. He was obliged in 1259 to return to England where deteriorating relations between his brother King Henry III and the barons threatened the flow of funds financing his rule. He came back briefly to Germany in 1260, before leaving to support his brother in the Barons’ War, in which he was captured. German princes continued to visit him in England, while his supporters successfully repelled an incursion of Conradin, the last Staufer, from Italy into Swabia in 1262. The Angevins’ execution of Conradin in 1268 eased Richard’s position just as he was at last able to return to Germany where he spent around a year enjoying uncontested rule, before being obliged to leave for England again where he died in April 1272. Richard retained the feudal relations developed by the Staufers, as well as several key officials who had served William of Holland. The idea of Richard’s reign as an interregnum only developed after 1273 as Rudolf I’s supporters presented him as ‘restoring’ the monarchy.47

The 75 years after Richard’s death proved an era of ‘leaping elections’ (springenden Wahlen) with five successive kings from different families until greater continuity emerged under the Luxembourgs. In contrast to previous monarchs, these were all ‘little kings’ unrelated to earlier royal lines and they came instead mainly from the ranks of the counts. Their low status should not mislead us into underestimating the continued power and prestige of the Empire’s monarchy. Apparent royal weakness was scarcely unusual. In Richard’s homeland, Edward I was the sole king to rule uncontested during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while only three English kings were succeeded directly by their sons, and just one ruled without an assassination attempt. Above all, the royal office never became a worthless prize in the manner of, say, the Chinese presidency in the warlord era of 1911–30, and those possessing it were able to achieve tangible goals.

One reason for the monarchy’s continued significance was that it was part of a wider framework in which the other participants still believed and valued. The king symbolized the proper order. Individual details might be disputed, but no one doubted that a proper order was monarchical. Aachen and Frankfurt remained the key political sites. The Empire did not fragment. Duke Friedrich II’s attempt to secure recognition of Austria as a kingdom failed in the mid-1240s.48 Bohemia remained a kingdom, but also firmly within the Empire. Continued subordination to the king was not simply out of habit, but because the Empire’s survival had become part of the princes’ self-consciousness. Individuals might acquire crown lands, but no one could usurp royal prerogatives without threatening the rights and autonomy of all princes as the monarch’s immediate vassals.

Despite the absence of a crowned emperor, the princes still saw themselves as part of the wider Empire rather than simply lords of what were, still, relatively small territories. They embraced the Staufers’ concept of collective honor imperii, because feudalization had heightened their sense of being stakeholders in the established order. This explains why they were prepared to cooperate with the resumption of the Staufers’ public-peace activities by Richard and Rudolf (see pp. 620–22). New ideas of the princes’ roles were carried by men educated at Italian universities who were now entering royal and princely service. Princes were not simply royal agents following commands, but members of a corporate elite expected to act on their own initiative to secure peace within their jurisdictions. Although still subordinate, princes were thus co-constituents of monarchy, not counterweights to potential monarchical tyranny as elsewhere. This explains why the Empire’s princes did not develop a right of resistance like Polish or Hungarian aristocrats, nor did they seek to limit royal power through more institutional forms like a House of Lords in the English, Polish or Hungarian parliaments.

Another major reason was that the three senior princes were all ecclesiastical: Mainz, Cologne and Trier. As clergy, they could not stand as candidates in royal elections, and yet their own prestige derived from their arch-offices and roles in elections and coronations. Apart from 1257 when Trier broke ranks, contributing to the double election, the three ecclesiastical electors worked to preserve the collective order. Meanwhile, the deliberate partition of the old duchies after Henry the Lion’s defeat in 1180 prevented the emergence of an obvious candidate to follow the Staufers after 1254, since none of the secular princes held a commanding position. The situation embedded as a lasting characteristic of imperial politics. All the main actors wanted to preserve the overall structure whilst adjusting their own position within it. They tended to combine against anyone threatening this system’s basic stability. While self-correcting, the internal balance was far from harmonious. It was now much harder to pick a winner in royal elections, as no contender appeared much stronger than his rivals after 1250. This widened the political possibilities as different factions coalesced in the hope of security and reward. The absence of firm electoral rules prior to 1356 also encouraged this and contributed to the double elections of 1257 and 1314.

Each new king exploited his reign to reward his most reliable supporters, but particularly himself by enhancing the autonomy of his own territory.49 This naturally fuelled resentment amongst those who had backed defeated candidates and contributed to their refusal to repeat the practice before 1250 of recognizing a successor during the lifetime of an incumbent king. This explains the succession of kings from different families after 1254. However, there was no free-for-all. The situation worked to narrow rather than widen the number of viable candidates. Despite their expansion under the Staufers, the princes remained a small elite within a much larger aristocracy (Map 6). Most were simply too weak to stand for election, especially as potential electors did not want to become obliged to bail out their candidate should he encounter difficulties, and so they still sought able men with considerable resources. Although they failed to secure a direct successor, each incumbent generally strengthened his own family’s position during his reign, thus elevating it further from those who had not yet provided a king.

Royal Candidates

Politics thus resembled a game of musical chairs, with each successive reign reducing the number of ‘players’. Moreover, not everyone wanted to ‘play’ as personal interests and local concerns discouraged individual princes from standing. Only Bavaria remained from the original duchies by the thirteenth century as a substantial principality. Since 1180 it had been held by the Wittelsbachs, who originated from the counts of Scheyern in the eleventh century and took their name from their new castle south-west of Pfaffenhofen in 1115. Their influence really began once they acquired the more prestigious county Palatine on the Rhine in 1214, and they saw themselves as the Staufers’ natural successor after 1250.50 However, the family provides another illustration of how territorialization and dynasticism were not planned or desired historical outcomes. Bavaria was partitioned into Upper and Lower duchies in 1255 to accommodate two brothers as heirs. Both lines experienced further splits before a brief reunification from 1340 to 1349, with renewed partition only being resolved through a bloody inheritance dispute in 1504–5. Bavaria and the Palatinate were held combined until 1317 when a separate Palatine Wittelsbach line emerged before itself splitting four ways in 1410. Further partitions followed a brief reunion between 1449 and 1470. Bavaria and the Palatinate were not recombined until 1779, with a final reunification of all other possessions taking a further twenty years.

The Askanier also split with individual branches offering candidates in royal elections: the margrave of Brandenburg stood in 1257, followed by the count of Anhalt in 1273. The division of the line ruling Saxony in 1288 into rival Wittenberg and Lauenburg branches frustrated the family’s efforts to claim Thuringia and complicated royal elections, since both claimed the Saxon vote until this was definitively awarded to Wittenberg in 1356.

With Wittelsbach and Askanier influence dissipated, only Bohemia and the Habsburgs appeared plausible candidates to succeed Richard of Cornwall in 1273. Bohemia was now by far the most prestigious territory in the Empire, thanks to its royal title, relative size and annual revenues of 100,000 silver marks – five times that enjoyed by the duke of Bavaria.51 King Ottokar II voted twice in 1257 deliberately to force Richard to allow him to claim the vast Babenberg inheritance of Austria, Carinthia, Krain and Styria left vacant by that family’s extinction in 1246. However, Ottokar’s growing power alarmed the other electors, who chose Rudolf I of Habsburg instead in 1273.

Rudolf I

Rudolf is often presented as attempting to reset the monarchy on a centralizing course by initiating a policy of ‘Revindication’ in December 1273. Named from the Latin verb revindicare (‘to demand back’), this was intended to recover crown lands dissipated since the 1240s. The losses were indeed severe: only a tenth of mints remained in royal hands, while the crown now only held rights over one in ten towns compared to one in three at the start of the thirteenth century.52 Rudolf had to compromise, allowing politically important princes to retain some areas they had acquired, though he often reworked the basis to weaken their absolute ownership. Overall, the results were impressive: Rudolf revived crown control over imperial church fiefs to 66 per cent of the level under the Staufers, whilst recovering crown lands to 73 per cent and Staufer family property to an impressive 68 per cent considering this had been almost completely lost. The bulk of Staufer allodial possessions were thus added to the crown lands. Thanks to intervening economic development, the combined value of crown possessions was now higher than under the Staufers. Rudolf’s success further underscores the argument that the monarchy did not unduly suffer during the ‘interregnum’.

The main changes included an end to the expansion of the crown lands and their concentration in south-west Germany combined with a considerable contraction in Saxony and the Lower Rhine. Less obviously, management also changed in response to the continuing emancipation of the ministeriales as knights, as well as further immunities for royal monasteries. Some of these developments were long term. Already in the eleventh century, kings stopped drawing supplies from the economically weaker monasteries and instead granted these exemptions or assigned them to supplement the resources of larger abbeys or bishoprics. Meanwhile, obligations to provide food and accommodation for the royal entourage were increasingly converted into cash taxes from the early twelfth century – well ahead of similar developments in France. Taxation was extended to royal towns that had developed on crown lands under the Staufers. The obligation to feed and accommodate the king was frequently commuted into cash but, unlike the situation in Italy, German royal towns remained more directly subordinate to the king. Rudolf also developed structures already initiated by Richard of Cornwall by establishing jurisdictions called ‘bailiwicks’ (Landvogteien) to oversee the towns and recovered crown assets. Bailiffs were selected from loyal counts and knights who were charged with safeguarding royal prerogatives and upholding peace within their jurisdictions. The network was renewed in 1292 and continued into the first half of the fourteenth century. However, it only encompassed the crown lands and not the immediate fiefs of the lay and spiritual princes, who remained subordinate to the king through the feudal hierarchy developed under the Staufers.

The bailiwicks reflected the geographic spread of royal influence by being concentrated in the south and west.53 Bohemia was temporarily compelled to return the former Staufer crown land of Eger in 1276, but Rudolf encountered serious difficulties when he tried to recover Austria, Carinthia, Styria, Krain and Thuringia on the grounds these were vacant imperial fiefs since the deaths of the last Babenberg (1246) and Heinrich Raspe (1247). Repeated efforts to obtain these fiefs were a central feature of imperial politics until finally abandoned in the mid-fourteenth century. Virtually the entire north, constituting a third of the German kingdom, was ‘distant from the king’. Only 3 per cent of Rudolf’s charters were issued from locations in this area, while he never ventured further north-west than Aachen.54 The last royal visit to Goslar was in 1253. Political gravity shifted south-west, despite isolated later incidents like Charles IV’s visit to Lübeck in 1375. The regions ‘close to the king’ were now Swabia, Franconia, the Middle and Upper Rhineland and parts of Thuringia. These provided most of the resources sustaining the monarchy into the early fourteenth century. The reliance of kings on these regions helped sustain the still large numbers of free minor lords, several of whom benefited from elevations in status, like the Zollerns, who became burgraves of the Nuremberg bailiwick and later rose to prominence as the Hohenzollerns. Not everyone was prepared to cooperate. The Württemberg counts showed how it was still possible to prosper despite generally refusing to serve the king. They rallied support in the south-west from those who saw Rudolf’s plans as threatening the autonomy they had won since 1250. Count Eberhard I led a revolt in 1285–7 that blocked Rudolf’s attempt to re-establish the duchy of Swabia.55

The bulk of the assets recovered through Revindication were alienated again in the century following Rudolf’s death in 1291. The form of alienation differed from that prior to 1273, because many were now pawned either for cash mortgages or under new service agreements binding the mortgagee to provide support over long periods. Pawning became more common from the late thirteenth century, because mortgages circumvented canonical prohibitions on usury by transferring assets rather than contracting loans against interest. Only 13 imperial cities were never pawned between 1273 and 1438.56 Unlike transfer by gift or enfeoffment, the king retained the option of recovering the property by redeeming the mortgage. However, the mortgages were often so high as to make redemption unlikely: Louis IV mortgaged Eger for 20,000 pounds of silver in 1322 back to Bohemia, which retained it permanently. Eger is still today the westernmost point of the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, mortgages cut the king off from the real value of the land since the mortgagee drew the revenue and other benefits in the meantime. Lucrative assets like Rhine tolls, mints, and ore and salt mining rights were repeatedly mortgaged until they were effectively permanently alienated.57

All this might suggest that Rudolf’s reign indeed represents a lost opportunity to centralize. However, the bailiwicks never represented the basis for a new royal bureaucracy, but instead relied on using established prerogatives to entrust minor lords with supervision of royal assets. The dissipation of these assets through mortgages and other forms of alienation effectively removed the crown lands as a significant resource by the late fourteenth century. Rather than constituting ‘decline’, this instead reflected a fundamental shift in the basis of imperial rule to rest on the king’s direct possession of immediate fiefs as hereditary family lands.

This was already apparent under Rudolf. He owed his election to appearing less of a threat to princely liberties than Ottokar, because Rudolf only held modest possessions in Switzerland and on the Upper Rhine. These produced an annual revenue of just 7,000 pounds in silver; hence the Revindication policy begun soon after his coronation. However, his use of the royal office to contest Ottokar’s claims to the Babenberg inheritance proved far more significant in the longer term. Rudolf’s methods also illustrate the potential of the new feudal structures developed under the Staufers. Rudolf held an assembly at Nuremberg in November 1274 when he confirmed the princes in possession of their immediate imperial fiefs. However, this act explicitly asserted the monarch as suzerain, requiring all to seek formal re-enfeoffment within a year under the practice of Herren- und Mannfall (see p. 300). Rudolf used Ottokar’s failure to do this as an excuse to employ force to resolve the disputed Babenberg inheritance in his own favour after 1276. Rudolf’s strategy entailed high risks, because few of the princes were prepared to see Ottokar fully divested of his lands. However, this problem was solved by Ottokar’s death amidst defeat at Dürnkrut, north-east of Vienna, on 26 August 1278. The electors eventually agreed in 1282 that Rudolf could enfeoff his sons as dukes of Austria and Styria. These acquisitions added 18,000 pounds of silver in annual revenue for the Habsburgs, compared to only 8,000 pounds now flowing from all the imperial cities after Revindication.58

Rudolf’s victory signalled the new direction, but not yet the definitive turning point. The leading princes still expected the king to live from what were increasingly termed the imperial lands (Reichsgut) and, for this reason, had backed Revindication in principle if not always in practice. They remained suspicious of a king who wanted to acquire too many large fiefs directly as family property (Hausgut). A transitional pattern set in for the next century. Kings continued to use imperial lands, though increasingly as objects to pawn. Meanwhile, they used their royal office to secure vacant fiefs for their immediate relations. Henry VII was able to enfeoff his son Johann with Bohemia in 1310, while Louis IV gave Holland, Zeeland and Hainault to his son Wilhelm in 1345. By keeping his gains split between his sons in 1282, Rudolf allayed the electors’ fears that either would be too powerful. Unfortunately, two of his sons predeceased him, leaving only Albert as sole heir when Rudolf died in July 1291. Albert’s curt manner further discouraged the electors, while he was simultaneously distracted by a revolt against Habsburg rule in Switzerland.59

Adolf and Albert

The electors eventually chose Count Adolf of Nassau as king in May 1292. Adolf’s family was one of the success stories from the previous two centuries, having risen from bailiffs serving the archbishop of Mainz. They amassed a large conglomerate of fiefs and jurisdictions on the Lower Rhine after 1080, securing comital rank when these were grouped into the new county of Nassau in 1160, permitting their emancipation from both Mainz and Trier overlordship. Like so many noble families in this period, their good fortune encouraged partitions after 1255, because their relative wealth allowed them to provide for more of their children through inheritance. Further partitions followed and the Nassau lands were not reunited until the very different circumstances of 1814.

Adolf was the weakest of the ‘little kings’. Again, circumstances played a role, because Archbishop Siegfried von Westerburg of Cologne wanted a pliant king to reverse his earlier defeat at Worringen in 1288.60 Adolf was obliged to grant Cologne and the other electors significant concessions, but otherwise continued Rudolf’s Revindication and bailiwick policy. Adolf used the windfall of English subsidies – intended to finance a joint war against France in 1294 – to buy off claims to Thuringia and Meissen, enabling him temporarily to incorporate these into the imperial lands in 1296.61 This proved his undoing, because Bohemia, Saxony and Brandenburg still coveted Thuringia and now combined to oppose Adolf, winning support from Mainz and Austria, but not Trier. The dispute gathered momentum as Adolf refused to compromise. Mainz secured agreement from Saxony, Brandenburg and the count Palatine to depose Adolf on 23 June 1298 in the first of what proved to be only two depositions undertaken exclusively by the electors without papal involvement. The action was highly controversial, because the legality of Adolf’s election and coronation were uncontested and it was hard to find a convincing argument against him.

The situation demonstrated the relative strength of the monarchy as an institution, even if the current incumbent was weak. Moreover, the decision not to involve the papacy showed how the leading princes shared a sense of collective responsibility for the Empire, despite their ulterior motives. It is likely that they already chose Albert of Austria as successor at this point, though details are sparse.62 Adolf was killed in the rout of his forces by Albert at Göllheim near Worms on 2 July 1298. His death contributed to the lasting image of him as a failure, yet he had proved surprisingly successful, despite starting from an even weaker base than Rudolf. The outcome demonstrates the continued significance of agency in events: things would have been quite different if Albert had died instead.

Albert ascended the throne tainted by Adolf’s death.63 A new election was staged in a deliberate show of unity and probity. Albert soon proved the electors’ original fears from 1292 as correct, swiftly outwitting them to consolidate possession of Thuringia and moving to secure Bohemia, left vacant by the death of the last Premyslid in 1306. He was undone by his own family’s lack of dynastic discipline when he was murdered on 1 May 1308 by his nephew Johann, who wanted a larger share of the spoils.

Luxembourgs and Wittelsbachs

The Habsburgs again appeared too strong and the electors rejected Albert’s eldest son, Frederick ‘the Fair’, and instead chose the count of Luxembourg as King Henry VII in 1308. The Luxembourgs’ emergence broadly mirrored that of their Nassau neighbours, except that military defeat rather than family partition stalled an otherwise rapid rise to prominence. Luxembourg developed as a large county that eventually became detached from Lorraine by the twelfth century. Attempts by the family to acquire the duchy of Limburg in 1283 triggered the dispute that ended in Cologne’s defeat at Worringen in 1288. Luxembourg backed the losing side and lost Limburg. However, Count Henry’s brother Balduin was archbishop of Trier and persuaded his electoral colleagues to back Henry.64 Like Adolf, his initial weakness obliged Henry to make concessions at his accession. He is considered an unrealistic dreamer for being the first monarch since Frederick II to go to Rome and be crowned emperor. However, this move made perfect sense in helping to raise Henry’s personal prestige over the other princes. He also continued the trend begun under Rudolf I by renouncing further attempts to incorporate Thuringia within the imperial lands. This bought the necessary support for Henry to escheat Bohemia as a vacant fief and transfer it to his son in 1310, laying the basis of future Luxembourg power, like Rudolf I’s acquisition of Austria for the Habsburgs in 1278.

Henry VII’s unexpectedly early death from malaria in August 1313 necessitated what unintentionally proved the first double election since 1257. The incremental growth of hereditary fief-holding across the previous forty years made the Luxembourgs and Habsburgs evenly matched frontrunners. Hoping to break the deadlock, Johann of Bohemia’s supporters agreed on the Wittelsbach Duke Louis of Upper Bavaria as a compromise candidate. However, Habsburg partisans pre-empted them by electing Frederick the Fair at Frankfurt on 19 October 1314. The Luxembourgs camped at Sachsenhausen on the opposite side of the Main belatedly proclaimed their candidate as Louis IV the next day. Frederick had been elected first, held the correct insignia, and was crowned by the archbishop of Cologne, traditionally considered the ‘right’ person to do so. However, Louis got to the ‘right’ location at Aachen first and was crowned by the archbishop of Mainz with substitute insignia. These moves aptly symbolized the underlying political stalemate that opened the Empire to renewed papal interference. Relatively low-level skirmishing shifted the balance gradually in Louis’ favour after 1315, culminating in a convincing victory at Mühldorf on the Inn on 28 September 1322 when Frederick was captured. As in 1278 at Dürnkrut and 1298 at Göllheim, the Empire’s fate was decided in battle.65

Louis defused the dispute by recognizing Frederick as nominal co-king in 1325, the last time this arrangement was used. Louis also distributed some of the remaining south German imperial lands to Frederick’s relations and allowed them to inherit Carinthia when this fell vacant in 1335. However, Johann of Bohemia now openly opposed Louis over conflicting claims to Brandenburg, which had fallen vacant on the extinction of the Askanier line there in 1320. A further dispute erupted over rival claims to the Tirol in 1346. These problems illustrated both the growing importance of hereditary possessions in the competition for the monarchy and the dangers for kings who insisted on trying to claim vacant fiefs themselves, rather than standing above disputes as impartial judges. France and the papacy backed the Luxembourgs, while renewed excommunication weakened Louis’ legitimacy. In April 1346 five of the seven electors chose Johann’s son Charles (IV) as anti-king. Louis remained politically powerful, but died of a heart attack whilst hunting in October 1347.

Shift of Emphasis under Charles IV

Charles IV was an unscrupulous opportunist, dividing contemporary opinion as sharply as Frederick II had in his day.66 He skilfully held the political balance in the mid-fourteenth century, managing to curb both Habsburg and Wittelsbach influence without driving either into open opposition. Wittelsbach supporters belatedly elected Count Günther von Schwarzenburg as anti-king in January 1349, but he was defeated at Eltville on the Rhine in the third case of the succession being decided in battle, and renounced his title on 29 May in return for an amnesty for his followers. Charles’s confirmation of Wittelsbach possession of Brandenburg reconciled the family to his rule, while their continued partitions hindered any real chance of challenging him later. Both Bavaria and Austria were excluded from the electoral college when this was given definitive shape in the Golden Bull of 1356. The secular votes all went to Charles’s close allies, including the Wittenberg Askanier rather than the Lauenburg branch that had backed Schwarzenburg. However, Charles reconciled Austria by agreeing a hereditary pact in 1364 that eventually provided the basis for the Habsburgs to succeed the Luxembourgs in 1438. However, like Bavaria, in the meantime convenient deaths and further family partitions prevented the Habsburgs from challenging Luxembourg rule.67

Charles’s long reign (1346–78) allowed time to consolidate Luxembourg rule and to shift imperial governance decisively to its new basis in hereditary possessions rather than the imperial lands and church. This was not obvious at the start of his reign when he resumed the Revindication policy with particular intensity to recover assets pawned by Louis IV, only to abandon it for good after 1371. Immediate circumstances provided one reason for this decision. Charles pawned four towns and associated lands, together forming what became known as the Upper Palatinate, to the Wittelsbachs in 1373 in return for their renunciation of claims to Brandenburg, allowing him finally to escheat this as a vacant fief that he granted to his second son, Sigismund. In this way, Charles swopped imperial land to expand his family’s hereditary possessions. He then extended this to other imperial assets, raising 2 million florins, or 48 per cent of all the cash he received from Germany during his reign.68 Although the money was useful, it was simply an added bonus from what was now a long-term strategy to wreck the traditional basis for imperial rule. By stripping the royal title of the means to sustain itself, Charles ensured that his family were the only viable candidates as kings, since only they now had the necessary resources. To this end, he also deliberately alienated the infrastructure built up since 1273 to administer imperial lands. The bailiff rights were pawned or sold to the counts exercising them. In one sense, this continued the Staufers’ policy of expanding the princely elite as a way of ensuring no single family had too much regional power. For example, the Nuremberg bailiwick was sold to that imperial city, but the criminal jurisdiction was detached and sold to the Hohenzollern burgraves, who were also raised to princely status by a special charter in 1363.69

The much-reduced imperial lands remained formally in being, though subsequent emperors accepted the de facto conversion of the earlier mortgages into outright sale. The remnants of the Alsatian, Ortenau and Swabian bailiwicks eventually passed to the Habsburgs, leaving only three villages as ‘free’ directly under the emperor. Old-style itinerant kingship was now clearly impossible.

Meanwhile, Charles developed his family’s lands to a far greater extent than any of his predecessors. Central to his policy was his family’s possession of Bohemia since 1310, because this gave the Luxembourgs royal status, considerable resources and a privileged position within the Empire. Charles deliberately widened Bohemian autonomy, elevating Prague as a distinct archdiocese in 1344, underpinned by the construction of St Vitus Cathedral after 1347 in the Gothic style. Having secured the German throne, he issued 12 charters in April 1348 confirming and extending Bohemian privileges, notably ‘incorporation’ of the kingdom’s various lands together under the corona Bohemiae.70 This allowed Charles to break the practice pursued since Rudolf of partitioning family possessions to accommodate younger sons and thus make the elder appear less threatening to the electors. Silesia, Lusatia and Moravia were all fully integrated within Bohemia, rather than as separate imperial fiefs. Charles’s younger brother Johann Heinrich and his third son Johann were given Moravia and Görlitz respectively in 1373, providing them with both status and resources, whilst keeping them under Bohemian overlordship. Brandenburg had to remain a separate imperial fief, because it had been confirmed as an electorate in 1356, and was needed to maintain Luxembourg influence in the electoral college.71 A separate Bohemian chancellery was established to free Charles from dependence on the imperial chancelleries associated with the ecclesiastical electors. Royal prerogatives were manipulated to redirect east–west trade away from the Danube to the Nuremberg–Prague–Pressburg route, benefiting Bohemia and undercutting his Habsburg rivals. Charles’s measures had their limits: the Bohemian nobles defeated his attempt to revise their country’s law code in 1355. However, his rule there was secure and enabled him to draw on considerable tax revenues.

The Empire’s governance now finally came to rest in a truly magnificent capital. The 41,000-square metres Wenceslas Square was laid out to beautify Prague and promote the cult of Bohemia’s patron saint. The new Charles Square was nearly twice as large, dwarfing anything else in the Empire: Nuremberg’s main square was only 8,500 square metres. The new Prague University – central Europe’s first – was also part of a deliberate attempt to establish the city as a truly European capital.72 The old relationship was now reversed: German princes were expected to come to his new court.

The imperial insignia were gathered together in the new Karlstein (Charles’s Stone) castle, built 30 kilometres from Prague between 1348 and 1365, further underlining how Bohemia was now intended as the basis for permanent Luxembourg imperial rule. The Golden Bull of 1356 fixed Bohemia as the senior secular electorate. Charles’s two-year-old son Wenzel was crowned Bohemian king in 1363 as a preliminary step to securing his recognition as Charles’s successor in the Empire. The new title ‘king of the Romans’ deliberately transformed the election from the choice of the German king to deciding the fate of the Empire. This allowed Charles to overcome potential objections that Bohemia should be excluded from the electoral college on the grounds it was not ‘German’.73Wenzel’s election in 1376 was the first time a successor had been chosen during an emperor’s lifetime since Conrad IV in 1237.

Traditional practices were not abandoned entirely. Charles retained influence within the imperial church and continued cultivating contacts amongst counts and nobles in regions close to the king since the 1270s. These areas still provided 44 per cent of royal servants, compared to 33 per cent from his hereditary possessions, and they likewise received 38 per cent of royal charters, compared to the 20 per cent issued to his direct subjects.74 While Charles now had a fixed capital, he still spent long periods in Franconia, as well as making two extended tours of the western frontier (1356, 1365) and a prolonged progress across the Empire as part of his state visit to France in 1377–8.

Governance of Imperial Italy

Charles also continued the modest revival of imperial governance in Italy begun by Henry VII in 1311–13 and Louis IV in 1327–8 by undertaking his own Roman expeditions in 1354–5 and 1368–9. All three monarchs went primarily to be crowned emperor, but also to defend imperial prerogatives against papal and growing French influence.75 Their reception depended on circumstances, but only Henry encountered serious opposition. Despite local difficulties, Louis and Charles enjoyed greater support and benefited from the papacy’s absence in Avignon (1309–77). Italians generally preferred the emperor as a more distant overlord to more immediate alternatives like the pope or the Angevin kings of Naples.

The situation had changed considerably since the late Staufer era. The major Italian cities had mostly slipped from being republics to oligarchic regimes. These still sought confirmation of their autonomy, but their leaders now also wanted recognition as hereditary princes and were prepared to pay handsomely. The Visconti in Milan gave Charles 150,000 florins in return for recognition as imperial vicars in 1355, as well as contributing another 50,000 to his coronation expenses. Florence paid 100,000 florins that year, and agreed an annual tax of 4,000 florins that it paid until 1378. Altogether, Charles received an average of 34,000 florins from Italy each year of his 32-year reign, constituting 21 per cent of all the money he obtained from the Empire.76

Charles sold confirmation of civic autonomy and other privileges, but he refrained from the wholesale alienation he practised in Germany. Moreover, like his two predecessors, he was generally careful to distribute his favours fairly evenly. Charles gained prestige from making peace with the Visconti rather than using force to secure Milan as the vital entry point into northern Italy. Wenzel continued his father’s practice of rewarding the Visconti, who were elevated as dukes of Milan in May 1395, repaying the favour four years later when they blocked Wenzel’s rival Ruprecht from entering Italy. However, Charles balanced this by appointing the counts of Savoy as general vicars in Italy in 1372 and integrating their possessions within Germany to secure an alternative route. Sigismund later conferred margravial rank on the Gonzaga, whom Louis had favoured in the 1320s to secure access through their strategic town of Mantua.

No Italian lord felt sufficiently confident to ignore the emperor, who might otherwise favour their local rival. Imperial displeasure could be expressed by placing a city under the ban that could legitimate attacks by its neighbours. Princely ranks bolstered urban despots against their internal opponents, while grants of vicar’s powers enabled them to extend control over their city’s hinterland. Although he did not appear often nor bring many troops, the emperor remained the sole recognized fount of honours. Charles conferred knighthoods on 1,500 Italians at his coronation in 1355.77 Italian cities depended on imperial protection for their merchants trading north of the Alps. The emperor was still seen as someone who could resolve local problems: Genoa voluntarily relinquished autonomy and placed itself directly under imperial authority for 20 years after 1311, because ‘self-rule no longer worked’.78

Structural Problems under Wenzel and Ruprecht

Charles achieved much, but he died in 1378 before completing the transition to imperial governance based on large hereditary possessions. Although far more substantial than those of any previous emperor, Charles’s lands were insufficient to meet all his costs and he was heading towards financial crisis. Meanwhile, his practice of pawning imperial cities, especially smaller ones like Friedberg, was stirring opposition from their inhabitants, who felt their patron was betraying them to rapacious princes.

Wenzel was not the man to meet these challenges. A typical spoilt child of a family on the make, Wenzel was overindulged and inexperienced. He tended to dodge responsibility by going hunting, while his ill health after 1388 was exacerbated by alcoholism. Character flaws were still significant in this period, because personal presence remained an important aspect of imperial governance. Charles’s changes to the feudal hierarchy clearly established the electors as the new super-elite whose support had to be constantly cultivated and managed. Wenzel spent only three years of his 22-year reign outside Bohemia and a third of this time was in Nuremberg, being the imperial city easiest to reach from his kingdom. He failed to visit Germany at all in the critical decade after 1387 and altogether held only four assemblies with the electors and princes. Although he sent representatives to another five assemblies, these were considered poor substitutes by men whose own prestige still rested on their personal proximity to the monarch.

Meanwhile, Wenzel’s own position in Bohemia imploded after 1393. Having already antagonized the senior lords by favouring the lesser knights, Wenzel sanctioned the murder of Prague’s vicar general, John Nepomuk, who had opposed royal interference in the Bohemian church. The lords allied with the Habsburgs and Wenzel’s brother Sigismund and cousin Jobst in May 1394, imposing the latter as governor of Bohemia. The kingdom descended into civil war between Wenzel and Jobst after 1395. Although Wenzel eventually recovered control by 1397, the episode alarmed the electors, who had already convened independently in Frankfurt in July 1394, reviving the practice developed during the later Salian era of meeting without royal permission (see pp. 406–7). Wenzel squandered opportunities for compromise, prompting the electors to name Sigismund as general vicar for the Empire on 13 March 1396. This act challenged Wenzel, who, as king, alone held the right to make such an appointment, but it fell short of deposing him, because general vicars were intended simply to exercise imperial authority in the monarch’s absence from the kingdom. Sigismund had meanwhile become king of Hungary. His defeat by the Turks at Nicopolis in September 1396 prevented him from assuming the position and obliged the electors to move independently towards the full deposition of Wenzel.

The experience of deposing Adolf in 1298 revealed the risks of such a step. The electors demonstrated how imperial political culture had changed since then by carefully choreographing their actions to conform to the new sense of collective responsibility. Further electoral congresses in 1397 and 1399 emboldened the electors to summon Wenzel to meet them in May 1400 to explain his actions. When he failed to appear, the four Rhenish electors assembled at Oberlahnstein on the Rhine on 20 August in the presence of numerous princes and lords. In contrast to the moral arguments used in earlier elections of anti-kings (and the absence of any real case in 1298), the electors cited constitutional grounds for deposing Wenzel because he had failed to fulfil his duties according to the Golden Bull. The four electors convened the next day in nearby Rhense and elected Ruprecht, count Palatine, as German king, leaving Wenzel as king of Bohemia.79

As in 1298, the electors had ulterior motives, since they resented the shift of political gravity after 1348 away from their own region to Bohemia and which they clearly sought to reverse through the choice of one of their own number as king. Ruprecht had the precedent of Louis IV and felt that the Wittelsbachs were rightfully the Empire’s first family. He was also conscious that the Habsburgs were growing stronger and wanted to seize the opportunity to pre-empt them as potential kings. The lengthy, peaceful process of deposing Wenzel contrasted with Henry IV’s violent usurpation of the English throne in 1399 in which he imprisoned and subsequently starved his rival, Richard II.

Contemporaries predicted failure from the start of Ruprecht’s reign. He clung on until his death in 1410, but his authority was restricted to the Middle Rhine, south-west Germany and Bavaria, while Wenzel held Bohemia and enjoyed some support in Germany and Italy. Ruprecht’s reign demonstrates the significance of Charles’s changes to the basis of imperial governance. The Palatinate was too small to sustain royal rule, providing 50,000–60,000 florins annually, whilst revenue from the imperial lands was only 25,000 florins, down from the average of 164,000 florins under Charles. Ruprecht was the first monarch to use the new financial services provided by the banks being founded in Italian and Burgundian cities, borrowing 500,000 florins during his reign. While this kept him afloat, he had little to offer potential supporters. His relative isolation is demonstrated by the fact that two-thirds of his lay advisors were his own subjects or vassals, while no senior imperial nobles sought employment at his court.80

Sigismund: Old Practices in New Circumstances

Charles’s strategy paid off, and the Luxembourgs were able to ride out Ruprecht’s challenge despite being led by the incompetent Wenzel. They were the only candidates at Ruprecht’s death in 1410. Wenzel was ignored, but rivalry between Sigismund and Jobst produced the Empire’s last double election.81 The ongoing papal schism contributed to this, since rival popes backed different candidates. However, Jobst’s death within a few months enabled Sigismund to stage a second, unanimous election in July 1411.

Sigismund represents an exception to the general trend since 1273.82 He was forced to rely on more traditional methods of fostering consensus, because he lacked a territorial base within the Empire. Although Sigismund had ruled Hungary since 1387, that kingdom’s resources were fully committed to battling the Ottoman advance through the Balkans. Wenzel’s death in 1419 at last gave him Bohemia, but precisely at the point when this kingdom descended into renewed civil war during the Hussite insurrection. Brandenburg was recovered at Jobst’s death, but it had been ruined by the prolonged struggles to control it since 1373 and was transferred to Burgrave Friedrich IV of Hohenzollern in 1415, partly because of the high fees he was prepared to pay, but also to secure the friendship of one of the few important princes associated with Ruprecht’s regime. The Wettin margraves of Meissen were won over by enfeoffing them with electoral Saxony, left vacant by the extinction of the Wittenberg branch of the Askanier in 1422. These deals indicate the growing importance of Brandenburg and Saxony as electorates and helped integrate them with the previously more dominant four Rhenish electors. Finally, Sigismund revived closer ties with the Empire’s remaining free lesser nobility by allowing them to form leagues and so counterbalance growing princely influence in the regions (see pp. 553–7).



Sigismund’s reign saw the beginnings of what later historians called ‘imperial reform’, which culminated in the establishment of new institutions between around 1480 and 1530 collectively giving the Empire its definitive early modern form. This process is difficult to date precisely, because it changed character as it progressed. Like the Ottonians and Salians, Sigismund and his contemporaries conceived reformation largely as renovation, or restoration of an idealized, lost former political order.83 The immediate issues were those that had already loomed large since the Staufers, especially how best to uphold justice and public order, while the trigger was also familiar: helping the papacy put its house in order (see pp. 70–73). However, Sigismund’s intervention to end the Great Schism already differed substantially from early medieval emperors in that he collaborated with the new movement arguing that the church was a collective represented by a general council of bishops. Meanwhile, broader discussions of ‘proper order’ involved new, often radical views on the relationship between society, religion and politics. These desires would erupt violently around 1520, prompting further constitutional revisions to stabilize the Empire.

The timing of reform and especially its shift from renewal to innovation stems from the intrusion of new problems, forcing the Empire’s elite to accept new ways of coping with common threats. These problems were generally similar to those facing other European monarchies: how to overcome civil strife and protect the kingdom against external enemies. The usual response involved concentrating more power in royal hands, backed by a more extensive and efficient network of royal officials. These changes were underpinned by the reworked ideas of Roman law circulating within most of Europe since the twelfth century, which provided arguments favouring royal authority. The Empire did not take this course, despite participating in the discussion of Roman law ideas. One reason was that the changes made since the Staufers had enabled it to retain a lightweight, low-cost form of royal government which no important participant saw any reason to abandon now. Princes and cities enjoyed considerable individual autonomy, but discharged ‘public’ functions at their own expense, freeing the emperor from having to organize and pay for this. The other reason was that the emperor’s main task was considered to be maintaining internal peace, not waging external war. Peace was intended to be permanent, whereas war was always presented as a necessary exception. This meant that apologists for greater royal power in the Empire could not use the fiction employed in France, England and Spain that new taxes were short-term emergency measures. Instead, it remained politically unacceptable to develop centralized institutions capable of sustaining the king’s permanent interference in his subjects’ lives. Regular taxation was equated with ‘eternal servitude’ inimical to ‘German freedom’.84

Pressures for Reform

In contrast to fifteenth-century England, Castile and France, there had been no civil wars in the Empire since Charles IV’s swift victory over Günther von Schwarzenburg in 1349. The subsequent succession disputes in 1400 and 1410 were more sullen stand-offs than full-blown conflicts. Yet serious violence erupted at local and regional level from tensions arising from feudalization and territorialization. The imperial church lands were often the worst affected, because mounting debts forced bishops to alienate property, leading to disputes with their chapters and entanglements with often aggressive secular neighbours. A notable example was the Mainz dispute from 1459 to 1463 triggered by the newly elected archbishop’s refusal to pay an exorbitant fee demanded by the pope to confirm him in office. The pope deposed him and invited the chapter to elect a rival, thus opening the electorate to interference from neighbouring princes who saw an opportunity to seize its property. Unrest continued into the 1470s as the disorder added to social and economic problems, stirring popular protest. Elector Palatine Friedrich I ‘the Victorious’ widened the conflict through additional disputes with other south-west princes and cities.85

The south and west were particularly prone to disorder, thanks to their dense and complex feudal hierarchy that fragmented jurisdictions, creating numerous points for potential friction. The disputes were not ‘private’ wars, but recognized legal practice, since the Empire permitted subjects to seek redress through feuding. This practice had been contained in the past, because feuds generally remained small scale, involving seizure or destruction of property, rather than full military operations. However, feuding increased in intensity and scale as princes waged multiple conflicts using their mediate vassals as surrogates, while many lesser vassals acted on their own initiative to preserve or widen their autonomy. Franconia saw 278 noble feuds between 1440 and 1570, with a peak from 1460 to 1479, followed by a second, lesser one from 1500 to 1509. The proportion of feuds pitting nobles against princes rose from 40 per cent during the first peak to 53 per cent in the second, compared to feuds amongst nobles accounting for only 15 per cent.86Most feuds involved intimidation, arson, looting, cattle rustling and kidnapping, with killings rarely being premeditated since an opponent’s death negated the feud’s purpose of compelling him to admit publicly to being in the wrong. The numerous cases of peaceful resolution are easily forgotten. The cliché of the rapacious ‘robber barons’ was an urban myth, fostered from this period onwards as part of a wider critique of nobility. Burghers themselves waged feuds, also burning villages and destroying crops belonging to hostile lords. Moreover, aristocratic concepts of honour were being embraced by others, spreading the use of the feud: 258 feuds were waged by Bavarian peasants and other commoners between 1450 and 1500.87

However, the overall level of violence did rise during the first half of the fifteenth century, when the disputes among princes in the Rhineland and south-west destroyed 1,200 villages. A further 1,500 villages were destroyed during the Hussite insurrection, which added to an overall perception of mounting disorder.88 The sense of danger was magnified by the emergence of the first serious external threat since the Mongols in the 1240s. The western frontier was disturbed by mercenaries temporarily displaced from the French civil wars in 1444–5, followed by ducal Burgundy’s aggressive expansion after 1468 and the subsequent dispute over its inheritance between the Habsburgs and French kings lasting from 1477 to 1493. Meanwhile, the ‘Turkish menace’ grew after the failure of the last old-style crusade in 1444. The Turks launched their first raid into Krain in 1469, followed by almost annual attacks on Styria after 1471.

Like the feuding, these wars were on an unprecedented scale. Henry VII’s Roman expedition of 1311 involved a royal army of 5,000 men, entirely in line with forces over the previous five centuries. By 1483, the French monarchy could mobilize 50,000, at a point when even the Habsburgs only mustered 18,000 in their campaigns in Hungary. New forms of warfare required a higher proportion of disciplined mercenary infantry fighting in regular formations. By the early sixteenth century, one year’s campaign against the Ottomans was reckoned to cost between 1.8 and 3.6 million florins, while the Habsburgs’ wars against France proved even more expensive, with costs doubling between 1530 and 1550 to reach 5.4 million florins annually.89 Established methods could not cope. Sigismund and Frederick III received occasional substantial one-off payments from their immediate vassals, but the total annual revenue from imperial prerogatives had flat-lined at 25,000 florins since 1400. Several knights declared feuds against Frederick III for failing to pay their salaries, and he was not even safe from his own creditors who, in 1473, seized his horses, temporarily stranding him in Augsburg.

There was a growing recognition that change was necessary. One reason was that many of the enemies were now heretics (Hussites) and infidels (Turks), posing an existential threat that demanded real action. Princes also realized that feuding was undermining their authority. They relied on lesser nobles and mediate vassals both to administer their lands and as surrogates to wage war on their rivals. Unsurprisingly, their subjects found it hard to distinguish between tax-collecting and robbery, and often experienced territorial justice as arbitrary, responding with their own feuds against princely officials.90

It was indicative of the gradual underlying shift to written political culture that reform proposals began circulating as manuscripts from the early fifteenth century. By the 1440s these were becoming longer, more detailed and more practical.91 The most famous is the Reformatio Sigismundi, which appeared during the church council at Basel around 1439, and was first printed in 1476, with three more editions by 1497. Although the author remains unknown, the proposal’s association with the emperor raised its profile. It was the first such text in German and is one of the earliest lengthy political discussions in that language. It is often difficult to follow, because German still lacked the vocabulary to discuss the kind of constitutional issues that had traditionally been debated only in Latin. The choice of German clearly signalled a desire to reach a wider audience, unlike the texts produced during the earlier conflicts with the papacy, which had been position statements intended only to help envoys engaged in face-to-face negotiations. Its concrete proposals were clearly partisan: the author advocated abolishing the imperial church and redistributing its resources to the knights, who were also to be protected from rapacious princes through further constitutional changes.

Leadership of Reform

Despite his association with the document, Sigismund was in no position to lead reform, being distracted by the church councils, the Hussite emergency and Hungary’s defence.92 His death in 1437 ended the Luxembourg royal line and finally opened the door to the Habsburgs, whom Charles IV had recognized as potential heirs in 1364. The recent marriage of Sigismund’s daughter Elisabeth to the Austrian Duke Albrecht V strengthened the duke’s position as sole candidate and he was accepted as King Albert II after an interregnum of only four months in 1437–8. Although not averse to reform, Albert was determined to secure his inheritance in Bohemia and Hungary. He never visited the core parts of the Empire after his election and died of dysentery in 1439 while campaigning in Hungary after a reign of 19 months, aged just 42.93

The Habsburgs’ position as the only viable candidates was confirmed by the acceptance of Albert’s cousin as Frederick III in 1440, despite his not being present at his own election. It was two years before Frederick left Austria to be crowned king at Aachen, and he again stayed in his own lands between 1444 and 1471, except for his imperial coronation journey to Rome in 1452. Understandably, this led to criticism of his being the ‘imperial arch-nightcap’, a pun on the electoral arch-titles suggesting Frederick was asleep on the job.94 In fact he clearly thought of himself as emperor, choosing to style himself as ‘Frederick III’ in sequence after the Staufer emperor, rather than after his own Habsburg predecessor Frederick the Fair, whom Louis IV accepted as co-king. Frederick also retained many of the former Luxembourg imperial servants, but he also conformed to the new pattern of imperial rule that required he secure his own lands before he could see to the rest of the Empire. Unfortunately, he faced considerable opposition from Austrian and Bohemian nobles and had to abandon claims to Bohemia in 1458, only to become embroiled in a dispute with his brother Albrecht VI over Austria between 1461 and 1463, which ruined that land’s finances. Frederick was then distracted by a prolonged dispute with Hungary, which now had its own king and invaded Austria in the 1480s.95

The experience of Wenzel’s deposition in 1400 and Sigismund’s reassignment of the Saxon and Brandenburg titles together contributed to a stronger corporate identity amongst the electors by the 1420s. Taking their cue from the church councils, the electors already proposed themselves as a permanent advisory body for the Empire in 1438–9. This suggestion was not followed up, but their sense of responsibility for the Empire’s welfare grew with Frederick’s apparent uninterest in imperial affairs during the mid-fifteenth century. Trier, Bohemia and Mainz all submitted their own reform proposals, as did other princes like the duke of Bavaria from the 1460s. Count Berthold von Henneberg emerged as the spokesman for reform after becoming elector of Mainz in 1484 and he exploited Frederick III’s desire to secure recognition of his son, Maximilian, as successor to compel greater action on reform. Like many previous Mainz archbishops, Henneberg wanted to cement his diocese’s premier status within the Empire. However, his arguments carried weight because he shared a broad desire to enact viable reforms.96

Frederick III opposed reform as threatening to impose formal restrictions on his prerogatives. He avoided direct confrontation, which risked humiliation if the princes refused to give way, and instead spun out discussions until the electors accepted Maximilian I as king of the Romans in 1486, the first successor to be chosen during an emperor’s lifetime for 110 years and a sign that Henneberg and others genuinely wanted to work with the Habsburgs. Frederick retired to Linz in 1488, leaving Maximilian to manage the Empire. This opened the door to compromise, since Maximilian could now pose as mediator between the princes and his father. Despite misgivings over some aspects of reform, Maximilian continued this policy of brokerage after Frederick’s death in 1493 when he posed as the impartial judge seeking the best solution to the Empire’s problems from amongst the various options suggested by the princes.97

Judicial Reform

Maximilian achieved real success by accepting judicial reform as the price for a viable system of military and fiscal aid at the Reichstag meeting in Worms in 1495. This declared a new imperial public peace which, unlike its medieval predecessors, was expressed as both universal and eternal. Crucially, this consolidated the evolving status hierarchy by charging all holders of immediate fiefs to forswear violence as a means of conflict resolution and instead to combine against all those breaching the Empire’s peace. This reduced mediate vassals clearly to being the assistants of the emperor’s immediate vassals, thus identifying how resources should be controlled and who was to provide them. The new Reichskammergericht of 1495 was created as a joint supreme court of both emperor and Empire, replacing feuding with judicial arbitration. Maximilian developed the Reichshofrat as a separate court solely dependent on him as emperor to resolve disputes involving imperial prerogatives (see pp. 625–32).

The new judiciary obliged the realization of long-held plans for a regional infrastructure to coordinate peace enforcement. This had first been envisaged in Rudolf I’s public peace of 1287 and had been re-emphasized in Wenzel’s peace of 1383. It addressed the demise of the old, large duchies by creating new regions called Kreise (‘circles’) to group the German immediate fief-holders and identify their area of collective responsibility. Unlike the old duchies, the Kreise were collective institutions without a single prince as head. They remained only proposals until 1500, when the smaller fiefs were grouped into six Kreise, with a further four added in 1512 to incorporate the electorates and Habsburg lands. Bohemia and Italy remained outside this structure. The princes accepted incorporation, because they realized their relatively modest resources prevented their playing as prominent a role in imperial politics as the electors, whereas regional politics touched their immediate interests. The Kreise were identified in all imperial legislation after 1507 as the framework for implementing common decisions, including selecting Reichskammergericht judges, enforcing that court’s verdicts, organizing military contingents and regulating exchange rates. These tasks promoted their development, compelling their members to convene their own assemblies and establish their own practices and conventions, all guided by general legislation issued through the Reichstag.98

Fiscal Reform

No real effort had been made since the Carolingian capitularies to fix what the Empire’s inhabitants were supposed to contribute fiscally to common tasks. Medieval emperors maintained registers of royal lands, but otherwise charters specified only the obligations of individual vassals. Peer pressure and the desire to impress helped sustain the size of military contingents assembled for Roman expeditions. The Salians attempted general taxes in 1084, 1114 and 1124–5, but did so amidst civil war, which immediately undermined their legitimacy. Although they received some money from imperial cities, they lacked an infrastructure to collect taxes elsewhere. Likewise, Frederick II’s general tax project of 1241 failed, whereas he was able to collect regular sums from the imperial cities and especially their Jewish minorities.99 As we have seen (pp. 356–65), this was not unduly problematic, because the reworking of feudal obligations around 1230 continued to ensure vassals responded in sufficient numbers for later medieval kings to achieve real objectives.

The rapidly escalating costs and scale of warfare forced the Empire to confront its inherent ‘free rider’ problem caused by numerous vassals avoiding or only partially fulfilling obligations. This proved the most innovative aspect of reform, because it forced those involved to redefine their relationship to the Empire more precisely. Crucially, this occurred as all concerned were rapidly embracing writing in their own territorial administrations and as a means of regulating relations with outsiders. It was quickly agreed that it would be impossible to revive the old imperial lands, and that all fief-holders should assume new obligations expressed in cash terms. The first general tax was agreed in 1422 to combat the Hussites, but foundered amidst opposition from the clergy and cities. Another tax for the same purpose in 1427 proved more successful, thanks to energetic backing from a papal legate who secured clerical support. About 38,000 florins had been raised by late 1429, but compliance was still patchy and no one fully mastered the practical problem of collecting money across such a numerous and socially differentiated population.100

Despite prolonged discussions, this problem was not resolved until the 1495 Reichstag when the establishment of the Reichskammergericht forced those present to agree the new ‘Common Penny’ tax to be collected by the immediate fief-holders and magistrates of the imperial cities. The initial levy raised over 136,000 florins between 1495 and 1499.101 The Common Penny was levied another five times between 1512 and 1551 but was increasingly displaced by the matricular system, which eventually supplanted it as the principal way all common burdens were assessed both at imperial and Kreis level. Introduced in 1422, the matricular system was used a further five times by 1480 to raise troops and money against the Hussites and Turks. Each immediate fief and imperial city received an obligation to provide a fixed quota of soldiers or, from 1486, their cash equivalent calculated according to monthly wages. The quotas were recorded in an official register (Matrikel), with that prepared in 1521 becoming a benchmark for all future assessments.102

The matricular system was preferred because it enabled fief-holders and magistrates to conceal their true wealth. The initial Common Penny proved difficult, because hardly any territories possessed adequate tax registers, as they had few direct levies of their own. Registers were time-consuming to prepare, but their real problem was how they revealed personal and communal wealth to outsiders. Cities were particularly concerned that sensitive financial information would simply add to the desire of neighbouring princes to intrude on their autonomy. Quotas were only loosely related to actual wealth, because they were assigned in roughly descending order according to the titular status of each fief. For example, from 1486 all electors were assessed the same despite their considerable disparities in wealth. Quotas had additional political advantages, since the amounts in the registers were only ever intended as a basic guide and could be summoned as multiples or fractions as the case demanded. The fief-holders and magistrates had to meet the emperor to agree the size and duration of the grant, allowing them the opportunity to influence its use as well. Quotas eased military planning by fixing contingent sizes and also enabled the emperor to see more clearly who was dodging their responsibilities.

Vassals were responsible for raising, equipping, training and maintaining their troops, ensuring that the Empire’s central bureaucracy remained small compared to those of western European monarchies. Frankfurt’s city treasurer was sworn in asReichspfennigmeister in 1495 to receive Common Penny payments remitted by fief-holders and magistrates. The post remained temporary, limited to individual tax grants authorized by the Reichstag, until made permanent in 1543. The Frankfurt treasurer’s responsibility was limited to south Germany in 1557 when a second official was appointed in Leipzig to receive payments from the north. Augsburg and Regensburg were identified as additional ‘towns of deposit’ (Legstädte). The role of Reichspfennigmeister peaked under Zacharias Geizkofler, who expanded it in the late sixteenth century to become the emperor’s chief banker and financial advisor. The remit contracted rapidly after his resignation in 1603 and the post was essentially replaced by the creation of the new position of ‘Receiver of the Imperial Operations Fund’ in 1713, who handled funds voted to support the imperial army.103 A Fiscal’s Office (Fiskalamt) was established in Speyer in 1507 to help the Reichskammergericht prosecute those failing to pay imperial taxes, while a separate branch was established in 1596 to assist the Reichshofrat perform the same function in Italy.104


From Royal Assembly to Reichstag

Displacing the difficult administrative tasks to the territories allowed imperial reform to concentrate on formalizing how the Empire reached collective decisions. This cemented it as a mixed monarchy in which the emperor shared powers with the imperial Estates according to an increasingly rigid status hierarchy. The principal institution was the Reichstag, which combined two previously separate forms of assembly to become the Empire’s main forum for legitimating policies and reaching binding agreements.

As we have seen (pp. 337–9), the Carolingians already held assemblies with important vassals. These are now called ‘court assemblies’ (Hoftage), a term invented in 1980, to distinguish meetings that contemporaries understood as curia, or advisory royal courts, rather than dieta (diets), which generally implied a greater sense of rights for the participants.105 While certain conventions applied over timing and location, assemblies depended on the king to summon them and had no fixed membership. Feudalization contributed to the narrowing of participants to senior vassals and by the fourteenth century only around 20 people attended such assemblies. Meetings were fairly frequent though, with 40 held between 1314 and 1410 together with another 15 between 1381 and 1407 chaired by a royal envoy in the king’s absence.106

The other form comprised meetings held on the initiative of senior vassals. The oldest of these were the assemblies held after the death of kings who left no previously recognized heir. Other so-called ‘kingless assemblies’ were held after 1076, notably to elect anti-kings (see pp. 302–3). The electors held 18 meetings separate from elections between 1273 and 1409, reflecting their growing corporate identity. Sigismund formally recognized the electors as ‘pillars of the Empire’ in 1424, signalling a greater willingness to consult them on common matters. However, tensions resurfaced after 1480 between the four Rhenish electors and their northern and eastern colleagues in Brandenburg, Saxony and Bohemia. These problems frustrated their efforts to exclude others from the right to share decisions with the monarch.107

Development was also slowed after the 1420s by the emperor’s reluctance to attend assemblies himself. Despite the accelerating transition to written communication, participants interpreted the emperor’s absence as undermining the legitimacy of any decisions they might reach, which was, of course, precisely why Frederick III often stayed away. However, the pressure to agree reform encouraged Frederick or his son Maximilian to attend after 1471, while the growing urgency saw nine assemblies between 1486 and 1498.108 The meeting in Worms in 1495 was widely recognized by participants as a milestone and was the first to call itself a Reichstag (imperial diet). The choice of term was deliberate, recognizing the change from the old royal assembly to a new kind of institution, transforming vassals’ duty to offer advice and aid into a right to share in common decisions. While they remained the emperor’s vassals, they now also became imperial Estates (Reichsstände) collectively constituting the Empire with the emperor.109

Frequency and Location

Ten further meetings followed between 1500 and 1518, but institutional development slowed due to Maximilian’s growing preference for more informal meetings with key individuals. The Habsburgs’ need for assistance against the Turks renewed development during the nine meetings between 1521 and 1532. Growing confessional tension prevented the Reichstag reconvening from 1533 to 1540, but eight more meetings were held between 1541 and 1548, entrenching the earlier developments that were consolidated and extended in the session held in Augsburg in 1555 which agreed the Religious Peace.110 In all, 40 to 45 Reichstags were held between 1495 and 1654, depending on the definition of a full meeting, compared to 40 assemblies between 1356 and 1493. Meetings varied in length from five weeks (Nuremberg, 1522) to 10 months (Augsburg, 1547–8).

Meetings under Maximilian I were still linked to the royal itinerary which that emperor resumed in order to engage more fully with the old core areas of Germany, holding 20 assemblies in 15 locations between 1486 and 1518, including four in towns that were not imperial cities.111 Thereafter, Reichstags always met in an imperial city, which was obliged to provide its town hall for the event. Nuremberg was the favoured venue, hosting 15 meetings, followed by Regensburg with 14, ahead of the others by some margin. Nuremberg’s growing embrace of Protestantism encouraged the Habsburgs to favour Regensburg, which was also easier to reach along the Danube from Vienna. All meetings convened there after 1594, except for a brief relocation to Frankfurt in 1742–4 under Charles VII. The Empire was unique in Europe in convening its representative assembly away from the royal capital, contributing to the permanent separation of the ceremonial and representational functions of the monarch’s court from formal political negotiations with his vassals and subjects.

Form of Representation

Unlike the medieval assemblies, the Reichstag acquired a fixed membership by 1521, which proved fundamental in determining the status hierarchy. This provided another important contrast with virtually all European parliaments, where representation was tied to social Estates like lords, clergy and commons generally meeting in separate ‘houses’. Representation in the Empire derived instead from the formalization of feudal obligations and consequently was tied to holding immediate imperial fiefs. The decisive factor was how far fief-holders and city magistrates were prepared to accept the new burdens imposed by the matricular system. These could be considerable. Lübeck’s matricular assessment in 1486 was four to six times higher than what it had previously paid in dues to the emperor as an imperial city. Lübeck chose to accept this and was consequently invited to subsequent assemblies, allowing its representatives to assert its new status as an imperial Estate. By contrast, Trier was regularly invited at first because it was a large and rich city, yet its refusal to contribute led to its exclusion later. The rapidity of developments between 1480 and 1520 was not immediately obvious, and many of those involved did not appreciate the consequences of refusal. Yet by 1521 it became clear that acceptance of official burdens confirmed both representation in the Reichstag and the status of immediacy, whereas refusal denied the former and jeopardized the latter. In Trier’s case, the archbishop used the city’s refusal to argue it was no longer ‘free’ but directly subordinate to him and, consequently, should assist him in paying the electorate’s share of imperial taxes.

Tax collection methods further reinforced the hierarchy. Immediate fief-holders and magistrates were already identified in 1427 as responsible for collection, and from 1475 were allowed to recoup their expenses from their subjects. Arrangements introduced in 1507 clarified this further, requiring mediate vassals and subjects to pay to immediate ones, who in turn remitted the money to the Reichspfennigmeister. Finally, the 1543 Reichstag exempted princes from personal obligations to pay.112

In addition to hierarchy, the Reichstag reflected the associational, corporative element in the Empire’s society by grouping the imperial Estates into three colleges, or corpora (bodies), of electors, princes and cities. Religious divisions added two confessional corpora of Protestants and Catholics cutting across all three status groups by the 1520s (see pp. 128–31). Membership was determined by the status of imperial fiefs, so that families holding more than one kind of fief might be represented more than once. Both the electoral and princely corpora were additionally subdivided into lay and spiritual ‘benches’, meaning the clergy did not meet together in a separate house, but were split hierarchically between the three ecclesiastical electors and the other church lords sitting with the princes.

Corporatism was strongest amongst the electors, whose corpus was both the smallest and oldest. Already in 1424 the seven electors agreed not to admit further members, but instead to maintain an exclusive pre-eminence over all other princes. However, they were still acutely conscious of their own internal ranking order, which had been fixed in 1356 and appeared frequently around this time in prints showing the emperor in the middle, with the three ecclesiastical electors to his right as seniors, with Mainz closest, then Cologne followed by Trier, and their four secular colleagues to his left in rank order of Bohemia, the Palatinate, Saxony and Brandenburg (see Plate 21). Despite their determination to exclude others, the electors had to accept changes imposed by the Habsburgs. First, the Ernestine Wettins were punished for leading the Protestant Schmalkaldic League by having the Saxon title transferred to their Albertine relations who had backed Charles V in 1547. The Bavarian Wittelsbachs received the Palatine title under similar circumstances during the Thirty Years War in 1623, though the Palatinate was compensated by a new title ranked eighth in 1648. The Bohemian vote was simultaneously suspended to keep the number of electors to the original seven and ensure there was no possibility of a tied vote in imperial elections. Leopold I rewarded the duke of Calenberg (Hanover) with a further new, ninth title in 1692, prompting an angry response from other old princely houses like those in Hessen, Württemberg, Gotha and Brunswick, who all felt unfairly passed over.113 The Habsburgs skilfully manipulated princely rivalries to secure not only recognition of the new Hanoverian title, but readmission of the Bohemian vote in 1708 to ensure there remained an uneven number of electors. The Palatinate recovered its original fifth title when it inherited Bavaria in 1778, while the eighth title was abandoned. Later adjustments were made as part of the readjustments accompanying the Empire’s demise around 1803–6 (Table 6).

Table 6. Changes in the Electoral College





   Albertine Saxony  

   Ernestine Saxony  


   Bavaria (receiving the 5th title)  

   The Palatinate  


   The Palatinate (new, 8th title)  

   Bohemia (vote suspended)  


   Hanover (vote recognized 1708)  



   Bohemia (vote readmitted)  




   Bavaria (as 8th title)  



   Mainz (vote transferred to the Arch-Chancellor)  



   Cologne + Trier (titles abolished)  








   Salzburg (title transferred to Würzburg)  

*as a new secular grand duchy

The princes consistently resented electoral pre-eminence. Already in 1498, Duke Georg of Lower Bavaria successfully led his peers in obliging the electors to lower their dais at the end of the hall so that they would not sit too far above the princes. The cities were even more obviously inferior, as their envoys were always commoners who were confined to the back of the hall and were obliged to stand during parts of the proceedings whereas the others remained seated (see Plate 26).114

Only 281 of the 402 fiefs and cities listed in the 1521 register actually participated in a Reichstag. The others were already slipping into mediate status through their unwillingness or inability to meet the associated fiscal and military burdens (Table 7). The reductions were greatest amongst the numerous minor ecclesiastical and secular fiefs, which were obliged to share collective votes (Kurialstimmen) rather than exercising full, individual votes (Virilstimmen). Although six prelates ‘turned Swiss’, leaving imperial politics to participate in the Swiss Confederation, including those of Einsiedeln and St Gallen, the others eventually secured two votes, one for the Swabians in 1575 and one for all the rest lumped together as ‘Rhenish’ in 1654. Their numbers remained stable, except for the few who were ‘promoted’ to prince-abbots or prince-bishops with individual votes. Two-thirds of the 143 counts listed in 1521 subsequently disappeared, with half of these through the extinction of their family and the inheritance or sale of their fief to another count. Only eight secured elevation to full prince, but around 50 new counts were created, largely through the Habsburgs granting imperial titles to their own loyal nobles.115 Most remained titular counts without representation, though several like the Kaunitz family bought or inherited counties or imperial knights’ fiefs. The Swabian and Wetterau counts were already well organized by 1500, securing votes soon after, whereas the Franconians, who were the least numerous, secured theirs in 1640, and the Westphalians were finally admitted in 1654.116

Table 7. Reichstag Participation Rates, 1521

Status Group  

  Listed in 1521 Register  





Ecclesiastical Princes   



Secular Princes   









Imperial Cities   






*The Bohemian vote was de facto suspended following the Hussite insurrection until the kingdom was acquired by the Habsburgs in 1526.

The representation of ecclesiastical princes stabilized with the effective end of their territorialization in the fifteenth century, since they neither acquired additional fiefs nor partitioned their existing ones. Changes prior to 1802 were limited to the two waves of secularizations sanctioned in 1555 and 1648. The former confirmed the mediatization of some bishoprics already under way before the Reformation, while the latter transferred eight senior ecclesiastical fiefs and their associated full votes directly to secular princes. Civic votes declined only marginally through further mediatization. Senior secular votes experienced greater volatility prior to 1582, when the Reichstag fixed the status of imperial Estates permanently with specific fiefs (Map 9). Henceforth, this status would not be extinguished with the end of a princely family, nor could partition create additional votes.117

It remained possible to accumulate votes through acquiring other recognized fiefs, or if the emperor raised a county to a principality. Like the electors, existing princes tried to preserve corporate exclusivity by blocking new members. The emperor remained free to confer the personal status of imperial prince, raising 160 individuals to this rank between 1582 and 1806. However, the status of imperial Estate now clearly depended on possession of a qualifying fief. Of the five counts promoted to prince between 1579 and 1623, only Arenberg received a full princely vote. Thirteen of the 15 new princes created after 1623 secured full votes in 1654, but simultaneously the Reichstag obliged the emperor to agree that further admissions required consent from the princely corpus. Thereafter, only eight new princes acquired full votes, often waiting decades like Liechtenstein, which was only accepted in 1715, while 23 titular princes still sat on the counts’ benches in the late eighteenth century because their fiefs had not been upgraded to principalities.118

Rigidity and Concentration of Power

One reason for this long discussion of the Empire’s status hierarchy is to show both its persistence and growing rigidity by the late eighteenth century. Another is to underscore how the formal structure did not match the territorial distribution of power. Most general discussions of the Empire confuse imperial Estates with ‘territories’, enumerating the latter according to the formal registers of Reichstag votes to suggest there were around three hundred. The formal structure was based on imperial Estates and in fact never recognized ‘territories’. The latter evolved through the accumulation of fiefs in the hands of individual princely families who gradually developed their own administrative structures cutting across the old feudal jurisdictions. However, they never abolished the formal distinctions since their status and representation rested on these, and not their ‘territory’. The actual distribution of power within the imperial church was more closely aligned to the formal structure than amongst the secular Estates, because ecclesiastical fiefs could never be permanently combined. Individual archbishops or bishops might exercise two or more votes through their possession of more than one diocese, but this always remained a purely personal union and did not fuse the fiefs together as a single territory. By contrast, the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Welfs, Wittelsbachs, Wettins and other princely families developed permanent territories combining various levels of representation in the formal structure.

By 1792, the 8 electors held 24 princely votes, including the Habsburgs with 1 electoral vote (Bohemia) and 3 princely votes (Austria, Burgundy, Nomeny), while the kings of Denmark and Sweden each held a princely vote. The 12 old princely families like those in Hessen, Baden and Württemberg together held 25 princely votes, while the 12 new princely families had 13 (Nassau held 2). This contrasted with the more even spread across the imperial church where the three ecclesiastical electors currently also held 6 bishoprics, while the other 18 archbishops and bishops together had 24 sees with full votes. There were 99 counties, but many of these were held by electors or princes. Thus, most of the land and formal representation was concentrated with Austria and Prussia, the 6 other electors and 13 princely families holding 81 per cent of the Empire, plus all electoral and 56 of the 100 princely votes. They formed two large territories (Austria, Prussia) and around 23 medium-sized territories. Another 16.4 per cent of the Empire was split between 151 ecclesiastical and secular lords, generally lacking princely status. Even here, 3 secular new princes, 1 archbishop and 12 bishops held over half of these possessions. The remaining 2.6 per cent of the Empire was split between 51 imperial cities (of which only 45 still sent envoys to the Reichstag) and 400 families of imperial knights, who were excluded from all the Empire’s representative institutions (Table 8).

Table 8. Territory and Formal Status in 1792

Status Group  

  Dynastic Lines  

  Territorial Share (%)  

  Reichstag Votes  




1 e, 3 p, 2 cc  




1 e, 8 p, 1 cc  




1 p  




1 p  

3 Secular Electors*   



3 e, 15 to 16 p, 1 cc  

13 Old Princes   



23 p  

12 New Princes   



12 p  

48 Counts   



4 cc  

3 Ecclesiastical Electors   



3 e  

30 Ecclesiastical Princes   



30 p  

40 Prelates   



2 pp  

51 Imperial Cities   



51 c  

400 Knights, Families   




3 Imperial Villages   






c    civic vote   


cc    share in counts’ vote   


e    electoral vote   


p    princely vote   


pp    share in prelates’ vote   


*Saxony, Palatinate-Bavaria, Hanover

The Kreis Assemblies

The development of the Kreise created a second, regional level of representation as their growing responsibilities required their members to meet frequently by the mid-sixteenth century (Map 7). The status of Kreis Estate was always wider than that of imperial Estate, ensuring that more fiefs were represented in the Kreis Assemblies (Kreistage) than at the Reichstag. The assemblies reflected the differing composition and regional politics of each Kreis. The Bavarian Assembly met as a unified plenary body, whereas that in Swabia began with three benches, adding two more when the minor ecclesiastical and secular fiefs were admitted with full votes – in contrast to their marginalization in the Reichstag. Kreis membership continued to fluctuate, especially through the admission of counts who gained votes for minor lordships not represented in the Reichstag. The emperor could not require a Kreis to admit new members. Status exclusivity also played a role at this level, but generally existing members were willing to admit new ones because this increased the number of overall contributors to common burdens: Westphalia admitted five new members between 1667 and 1786.

The southern and western Kreise were the most vibrant, because of the French threat and because they had the largest memberships, who relied on the assemblies to resolve disputes and organize peace, security and defence. Eighteenth-century Franconia had 23 qualifying fiefs and cities, but 33 actual members because several minor counties and lordships were shared by different princely houses. Its assembly met 322 times between 1517 and 1791, before remaining in permanent session until dissolved in 1806. Bavaria’s material power was balanced by the more numerous smaller members all with full votes in the Bavarian Assembly, which met 85 times between 1521 and 1793. The Lower and Upper Saxon Kreise were dominated by Hanover, Brandenburg and Saxony, whose assemblies no longer convened after 1682 and 1683 respectively, though other forms of consultation continued.119

The Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies were the main forms in what was a wider representational culture that produced other forms during the sixteenth century. The Kreis Assemblies could meet together as a Reichskreistag, while both they and the Reichstag developed committee structures to handle specific judicial, military and financial affairs. Reichstag committees were reorganized as more formalized Imperial Deputations after 1555. The electors enjoyed uncontested rights of self-assembly and convened their own congresses into the mid-seventeenth century, but the Reichstag’s permanence after 1663 rendered most of these other forms superfluous (see pp. 443–5).

Reichstag Procedure

The emperor held the Right of Proposition, allowing him to open the Reichstag by presenting proposals to be discussed. In practice, imperial Estates and even private individuals could petition the directors of the three corpora to place items on the agenda.120Each corpus debated in a separate room, consulting periodically through a process known as ‘correlation’ with the intention of reaching a consensus to be presented as a recommendation (Reichsgutachten) for the emperor’s approval. In practice, envoys often met separately outside the meeting hall. The emperor was free to veto a proposal, request further debate, or approve it as a full decision (Reichsschluß) to be included in the printed ‘recess’ (Reichsabschluß) issued at the close of each Reichstag.

The majority principle evolved separately within each corpus, beginning with the electors, followed by the cities in 1471, and finally for all decisions following Maximilian’s recommendation in 1495. However, reaching a decision was often arduous, because each corpus followed a practice known as Umfrage, inviting each member in strict hierarchical sequence to respond to the imperial proposition. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was not permitted; each member had to voice an opinion and these were often long or deliberately ambiguous. There was no show of hands or other method that might have allowed precise counting. Instead, the corpus’s director had leeway in deciding what the majority was. The process of correlation also lacked firm rules, especially as the overall majority was not decided simply by counting votes across all three colleges. The civic corpus was disadvantaged by the convention that the electors and princes only consulted it once they had agreed between themselves, though the Peace of Westphalia (1648) confirmed their right to participate in correlation.

The 1424 assembly in Nuremberg agreed that decisions were binding even on those who failed to attend and this spread to the later Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies. The rule had to be repeated, notably in 1512, because it broke the earlier convention allowing lords to demonstrate disagreement by absenting themselves or leaving an assembly early. Insistence on binding decisions encouraged a new form of delaying tactic, also facilitated by the transition to written political communication. Whereas the spiritual and lay lords were individuals expected to represent themselves, the imperial cities were communes that already provided written instructions for their envoys in the fifteenth century. Likewise, the imperial abbesses were excluded on gender grounds from attending in person and had to send a male official. Indirect representation opened the door to Hintersichbringen, or referring back to absentee masters on the grounds of inadequate instructions, allowing an imperial Estate to dodge awkward issues without openly opposing them. The practice was already criticized in 1495 when it was tacitly agreed to restrict referring back to genuinely important issues. The imperial proposition was generally now published in advance to force Estates to provide effective instructions. However, envoys remained bound to their masters, unlike the Reichskammergericht judges, who swore loyalty to the court, and referring back remained justifiable if circumstances changed during a Reichstag session, as occurred relatively often.

These practices help explain the slow pace of imperial politics, which later generations have often been quick to censure. The primary function of the Reichstag and the Kreis Assemblies was to legitimate political action. Imperial reform created a mass of documented decisions and recorded precedents, translating what had often been customs into written laws that remained uncodified and that might offer several potentially competing arguments.121 Participants were concerned to find the ‘right’ basis for common action, since this would encourage more effective compliance with decisions. There was a tendency to leave difficult matters unresolved to allow time to chivvy dissenters, rather than risk the disruption that might ensue if they were coerced. As with justice, politics in the Empire was more about managing than resolving problems and was in many ways more realistic and often more humane than methods employed in other countries. It was not necessarily less ‘modern’ than the practices of some later systems: the practice of shunting difficult matters to committees where they might be hijacked by special interests is, for example, just as characteristic of contemporary US politics. Like Congress, the Reichstag was also a venue for political theatre, offering the opportunity to address a wider public, rally support, and legitimate what were initially merely opinions and claims.

Attendance and Status

Changes in the form of attendance at the Reichstag is one of the most visible manifestations of the broader shift from medieval to early modern political culture in the Empire. Emperor Frederick III appeared before the royal assembly in Augsburg in May 1474 dressed in full imperial robes, enthroned, with a drawn sword of justice to pronounce a verdict condemning the elector Palatine for breaching the peace.122 The emperor or a close male relative generally attended at least the opening of each Reichstag until 1653. Leopold I appeared in Regensburg in 1664, a year after the opening of what proved to be a permanent or ‘eternal’ Reichstag. Thereafter, emperors were represented by an official known as the ‘principal commissar’: 4 of the 13 men holding this post between 1663 and 1806 were prince-bishops, with the others all being secular princes, though usually from the ‘new’ houses. Commissars maintained large staffs to reflect their status as the emperor’s representative. The last, Carl Alexander von Thurn und Taxis, was accompanied by in 1806 307 people, compared to the ten or so assisting most other envoys.123

Princely attendance was already patchy in the fifteenth century. Even at the well-attended 1471 assembly, 36 of the 81 invited princes failed to show up, while 37 of the 89 cities did not send representatives. Around 15 to 30 of the 60 to 70 princes attended the Reichstags held from the 1480s to 1550s.124 Confessional tensions caused Protestants to stay away from the 1520s, reflecting the persistence of the earlier practice of voicing disagreement through absence. However, the Reichstag was too important to be ignored, and absentees now sent envoys instead. Although the 1608 session was famously disrupted by a walk-out orchestrated by the elector Palatine, all Protestant princes sent representatives to the next meeting in 1613, while the Lutheran but pro-imperial rulers of Hessen-Darmstadt and Pfalz-Neuburg attended in person.125 Practicalities also encouraged a shift to indirect participation. It was expensive and often inconvenient to attend in person, especially now that the Reichstag remained in session far longer than medieval assemblies. The general acceptance of the validity of written communication and the development of the reliable imperial postal service were added incentives to rely on envoys instead.

The shift to the new forms of representation increased general identification with the Empire since discussions and decisions were transmitted to wider audiences through written and printed material, in contrast to medieval royal assemblies where decisions were often reached discreetly beforehand and then ritually enacted by a relatively small number of participants (see pp. 337–9). However, in contrast to the relatively loose procedural rules, writing fixed status with ever greater precision. Whereas feudalization identified different status groups, the matricular registers now ranked their individual members in sequence. The practice of Umfrage acted this out in the assembly rooms. The ranking order was already ossifying by the 1480s, but despite the reams of lists, protocols and other documents, the complex feudal and institutional order defied neat classification. The different character of representation in the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies created anomalies, while faulty record-keeping could provide arguments to make changes. This accelerated the erosion of presence culture, since it was often easier to remain absent and pretend that a status dispute did not exist.126

Thus, the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies displayed the fundamental paradox of the early modern Empire. They assumed institutional shape with ‘modern’ practices like recognized procedure, written records and published outcomes, but their development was accompanied by appeals to ‘old custom’ (Alte Herkommen) to defend privileges and immunities based on past precedent.127 This makes it hard to draw general conclusions about imperial reform. Older scholarship is predictably negative, arguing that dualism between the Habsburgs and princes stalemated reform, leaving development only ‘partially modernized’ by 1555.128 This critique has some substance. Attempts to fix the status order more precisely merely made its discrepancies more obvious. For example, both Brandenburg and Pomerania insisted on the Pomeranian ducal title and coat of arms. Lorraine was recorded in the matricular register, but never paid and was also a vassal of the French king. Imperial political culture relied on accepting rather than rationalizing these anomalies. Over time, though, friction from the numerous inconsistencies hindered collective action by providing excuses for non-compliance. For this reason we should not mistake status disputes as trivial. Yet their persistence to the very end also belies the traditional interpretation of the Empire as moribund, since the issues still mattered. Nor did they prevent hard work. Even the supposedly lethargic Frederick III remained locked in debate for 12 hours without food or drink at the 1471 assembly. Sessions frequently began at 4 a.m. and continued till the evening. The Reichstag’s permanence after 1663 allowed for shorter formal working days, but envoys remained busy outside these hours with informal negotiations, correspondence, and what would be termed today ‘public relations’ like entertaining diplomats and writing memoranda for publication.129 As we shall see (pp. 445–69), these activities produced real change, shifting imperial politics from symbolic gestures like mandates against blasphemy or injustice to concrete action over defence, crime, religious controversy and economic affairs.

Moreover, the remit of the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies was far broader than those of most European assemblies, which were limited to debating royal policy and deciding how far to back it with taxes. In addition to indeed doing this, the Empire’s institutions worked out policy implementation, including specialist tasks like military regulations, exchange rates and law codes.130 They also proved sufficiently robust to absorb the shocks from the Reformation without the violence experienced in France and the Netherlands. Although unable to prevent the Bohemian Revolt that caused a devastating civil war between 1618 and 1648, the same framework ultimately still provided the means to resolve that conflict and stabilize the Empire.

Nonetheless, the Empire merely modified existing institutions rather than developing new ones after the mid-sixteenth century. It failed to combine the legitimacy of governance with political power to forge a modern government. Instead, power and legitimacy remained separate. The emperor, Reichstag and other institutions remained accepted as legitimate, but lacked the means to implement decisions, leading some historians to categorize the Empire as a ‘political system’ rather than a state.131 However, others have drawn attention to the complementary character of the Empire’s development, which grew much more pronounced with imperial reform.132 The territories did not develop in opposition to the emperor, but as part of the Empire’s overall evolution. Rather than seeking to displace the territories, imperial reform incorporated them as the Empire’s infrastructure. Thus, imperial institutions served to find and legitimate common policies, while the territorial administrations implemented them. The system cohered, because no element could dispense entirely with the others. It is the task of the next chapter to see how these structures fared during the three centuries of Habsburg imperial rule.

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