The Holy Roman Empire 1493–1618

The origins of the Holy Roman Empire can be seen in the reign of Charlemagne, whose Carolingian territories were the basis of his claim to be the direct successor of the Imperial Caesars. Gradually, however, the structure of the Empire weakened until, in the well-known phrase of Voltaire, it was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire. Three developments between 1493 and 1618 greatly contributed to this process. Attempts to provide a workable constitution failed miserably, leading to political disintegration by 1608. Constitutional crises coincided with the emergence of two sides with strongly opposed religious views, providing the potential for direct conflict. The actual outbreak of war was caused by the situation in Bohemia, badly mishandled by the Habsburgs in the second decade of the seventeenth century.

The constitutional structure of the Empire had already been loosened in the Middle Ages with the growth of regional autonomy within its borders. The major landmark in the rise of individual states was the Golden Bull of 1356, which created seven Electorates within the Empire, conferring the privilege of electing all Emperors on the Archbishops of Cologne, Trier and Mainz, the King of Bohemia, and the princes of the Palatinate, Saxony and Brandenburg. These were the main rulers within the Empire but, also under the ultimate authority of the Emperor, there were, by the fifteenth century, over 2,500 administrative units. These included 2,000 imperial knights, 50 ecclesiastical princes, 30 secular princes, 70 prelates and 66 Free Cities,1 all of whom aspired to independence while, at the same time, expecting to be defended against external enemies and to receive other benefits of association. Unfortunately, the Empire possessed no effective institutions. The central legislature was the Diet (Reichstag); this represented the Electors, princes and Free Cities in three separate Curias, but had no means of enforcing its decisions since the Empire lacked both executive and judiciary. All authorities, great and small, agreed that existing arrangements were unsatisfactory and that certain basic constitutional changes were essential.

The precise nature of these changes was the subject of a prolonged and, at times, acrimonious dispute between, on the one hand, some of the Electors and many of the princes, led by Berthold of Henneberg (Elector Archbishop of Mainz) and, on the other, the Emperor Maximilian I (1493–1519). Berthold's reform party supported the establishment of a supreme court and a common system of taxation, in the belief that these would tighten up the structure of the Empire without increasing the authority of the Emperor. Maximilian, however, as head of the House of Habsburg, had dynastic as well as imperial interests and had no desire to be restricted in any way. Berthold's motive, after all, was to ensure that the resources of the Empire would be used for the benefit of the Empire and that the individual states would be able to exert more influence on the decisions and policies of the Emperor. This was precisely what Maximilian wished to avoid. By marrying Mary of Burgundy in 1477 he had greatly extended the territorial interests of Austria and committed the Habsburgs to a long struggle with France in the future. Naturally he hoped to finance this struggle and the defence of his Burgundian acquisitions with imperial resources. Any constitutional reforms would, therefore, be imposed by him, from above, with the specific intention of bringing these resources more definitely under Habsburg control.

This fundamental disagreement over the purpose of reform ruined any opportunity of establishing permanent institutions. The period between 1493 and 1519 was certainly one of experimentation, and more reforms were introduced then than at any other time in the Empire's thousand-year history. Nevertheless, they reflected the two divergent viewpoints and were far from permanent. At first the reformers had their way. Maximilian, involved in the Italian Wars during the 1490s, had to agree to accept new institu tions in order to obtain the supplies which he so desperately needed. Thus he reluctantly sanctioned an Imperial Cameral Tribunal (Reichskammergericht) at the Diet of Worms in 1495 and the Imperial Governing Council (ReichsRégiment) at the Diet of Augsburg in 1500. The Reichskammergericht was the new judicial branch of the imperial constitution, acting as the supreme court. It consisted of a chief justice and several deputies, all nominated by the Emperor, and twenty judges, the choice of the Electors and the various estates of the Empire. The ReichsRégiment was the executive, again representing the Empire, but this time under the Emperor himself. It operated through six administrative Circles (Reichskreise) and its main functions were to enforce the decisions of the Reichstag and the decrees of the Reichskammergericht. It appeared, therefore, that an effective constitution for the Empire had at last been established, with judicial and executive branches added to the original legislative power.

Then Maximilian took the offensive, altering the whole system to suit Habsburg requirements. Mainly at peace between 1500 and 1508, he no longer needed extra monetary supplies; he benefited also from the untimely death of Berthold in 1504, which deprived the reform movement of its policy maker and chief spokesman. The ReichsRégiment was ended in 1502; in fact, it had already been replaced by the Emperor's own Aulic Council (Reichshofrat), in which Habsburg interests predominated. Recognizing their use, Maximilian retained the Reichskreise and increased their number from six to ten. The executive was now firmly in the hands of the Emperor and the states had lost their hope of increased participation in a central government.


Figure 3. The Holy Roman Empire before 1648

Habsburg success was, however, shortlived. Many of the leading princes were not prepared to accept the new situation and therefore sought the first opportunity to cut back the Emperor's power. Herein lies the root cause of the constitutional crisis confronting Charles V between 1519 and 1556, a crisis the more drastic because Charles tried to press his imperial authority further than Maximilian and precipitated open defiance by many German princes.

At the opening of his reign in 1519 there was some prospect of compromise. Charles V's election followed his so–called ‘Capitulation’, by which he had promised to rule the Empire on the basis of its legal traditions, which could naturally be interpreted by the Electors. The German princes were confident that Charles V could be manipulated more easily than his grandfather and that Berthold's constitutional reforms could be reintroduced. A sad miscalculation! Charles V had more extensive Habsburg interests than Maximilian I: Aragon, Castile and several Italian possessions as well as Burgundy and Austria. In his pursuit of dynastic aims he was hardly likely to allow any weakening of his authority within the Holy Roman Empire. Hence, at the Diet of Worms, in 1521, he startled delegates with the words: ‘It is not our mind and will to have many lords, but one, as it is the tradition of the sacred Empire.’1 Charles was making it absolutely clear that his interpretation of the word ‘tradition’ was not the same as the Electors’.

What, then, would happen to the reformers and their hopes? At first they managed to bring about some sort of compromise solution because of the difficulties which Charles faced in governing all his dominions effectively. The approach most likely to succeed was for Charles to administer his territories as if he owned each individually, without the added burden of the others. Spain was developing a system of councils which could rule the country without difficulty in Charles's absence. A similar arrangement, some argued, was necessary for the Holy Roman Empire. The Diet of Worms proposed to re–establish the ReichsRégiment which Maximilian I had abolished in 1502. This was done, with Charles's stipulation that it should operate only during his absence from Germany, and under the supervision of his own representative. It possessed no executive powers other than those delegated to it by the Emperor and it proved to be of little value. By 1530 it had virtually no functions left and the reform movement had clearly come to another halt. More radical and drastic solutions to the Empire's constitutional problems were now being put forward by both sides.

Charles V was determined to impose his authority by force on any recalcitrant states. Conversely, by the late 1520s, many rulers were adopting a less cautious policy and were prepared, for the first time, to defy the authority of the Emperor openly. The situation had, therefore, changed considerably since the reign of Maximilian, and the catalyst which made this possible was Lutheranism. Many princes seized the opportunity provided by a new faith to proclaim their disillusionment with the existing structure of imperial rule. Charles resorted, in the Schmalkaldic War, to military action; partly to eradicate heresy, but also to reimpose his authority on dissident states like Saxony, Hesse, Brandenburg, Pomerania and Brunswick. The Peace of Augsburg (1555), while dealing with the religious issues, made no attempt to solve the underlying constitutional problem.

The imperial Régime proved quite unable to deal with any of the crises which arose in the second half of the century. Ferdinand I (1558–64) and Maximilian II (1564–76) concentrated on external threats, ending the Habsburg-Valois struggle and preventing further Turkish encroachments in Hungary. They were, therefore, prepared to let the German states go their own way, fearing that any attempt to apply imperial authority would merely recreate the problems which had forced the abdication of Charles V. Rudolf II (1576–1612), moody, melancholic and unpredictable, was incapable of providing the necessary leadership to reverse this continued decentralization. To make matters worse, the imperial constitution now ceased to function. The ReichsRégiment had already faded into obscurity by 1530. The judiciary, the Reichskammergericht, was seriously weakened in 1598 when the Emperor refused to consult it in an important test case: his decision to remove the Protestant mayor and councillors from their positions in Aachen should have been referred to the Reichskammergericht, but this was ignored and the whole process was initiated in the Aulic Council (Reichshofrat) instead. Finally, the Diet (Reichstag) disintegrated. After the Donauworth Incident, described in the next section, many Protestant states withdrew their representation from the Diet in 1608. It was a measure of the political anarchy within the Empire that two armed camps, the Evangelical Union and the Catholic League, had come into existence by 1609, clearly anticipating the outbreak of civil war.

These alliances were brought about by a deep religious rift within the Holy Roman Empire, as the Reformation and Counter Reformation reacted upon the constitutional difficulties. The first resulting upheaval was Charles V's attempt to destroy Lutheranism within the Empire. This phase was ended, in 1555, by the Religious Peace of Augsburg, but throughout the rest of the century religious problems only intensified; the most important of these were the inadequacies of the 1555 peace, the growth of Calvinism as a more militant form of Protestantism, and the attempts made by a revived Catholic Church to regain substantial areas in Germany and Bohemia under the Counter Reformation.

The Religious Peace of Augsburg, which had been negotiated between Ferdinand and the Lutheran princes of the Empire, was an attempt to draw up a formula for the co–existence of Lutheran and Catholic states. The main principle was cuius regio eius religio, acknowledging the sovereign authority of the princes to determine the religion within their states. This appeared a sensible compromise after the previous conflicts between Catholic and Lutheran rulers. The agreement was complicated, however, by two important details. The first was the Ecclesiastical Reservation (Reservatio Ecclesiastica), which stipulated that any Catholic prelate becoming a Lutheran after 1555 would lose his political authority and that a Catholic successor would be appointed. Further movement towards Lutheranism was therefore excluded from all Church lands. The second was the Declaratio Ferdinandea, a secret guarantee by Ferdinand that freedom of worship would be granted to any Lutheran minorities within these lands. Unfortunately, there were conflicting interpretations of these and other agreements for the next sixty years, and opinions polarized as a result of two test cases.

First, the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne married his mistress and became a Lutheran, intending to introduce a Lutheran Reformation in Cologne. This was clearly a breach of the Ecclesiastical Reservation, all the more serious since the Archbishop was one of the seven imperial Electors. The Pope declared the Archbishop deposed and the Emperor Rudolf II sanctioned the invasion of Cologne and the installation of Ernest of Bavaria as the new prelate. Although the Lutheran states failed to go to the Archbishop's assistance, they acknowledged that the affair created a dangerous precedent, the enforcement of the Ecclesiastical Reservation by military means.

Another important case was the Donauworth Incident of 1607. When the Peace of Augsburg was drawn up Donauworth was a Free City under Lutheran rule. In 1607 the Lutheran majority of Donauworth tried to prevent the Catholic inhabitants from holding processions. The Emperor Rudolf II made a swift decision, allowing Maximilian I of Bavaria to take the city and to restore it to Catholicism. Was this in contravention of the Peace of Augsburg? The Lutherans argued that it was against the spirit of ‘cuius regio eius religio’. The Emperor, however, insisted that there was no legal restraint on his action. Whatever the merits of each claim, the effects on the political situation were serious. The Protestant states feared future encroachments by Bavaria, acting as the instrument of a Counter Reformation Emperor. They realized that the Diet could not prevent this, and consequently many withdrew from it and formed the Evangelical Union in 1608.

Calvinism was the main inspiration behind the defensive organization of the Protestant states. More aggressive from the start than Lutheranism, Calvinism made rapid headway in Germany between 1556 and 1618, and was certainly regarded as a greater threat by the Catholic Church than Lutheranism during this period. Calvinism had not been acknowledged by the Peace of Augsburg and therefore, technically, its spread was in violation of the 1555 settlement. The first German ruler to adopt Calvinism was the Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, and Heidelberg became the centre of German Calvinist doctrinal development. From the Palatinate Calvinism spread to the former Lutheran areas of Nassau, Hesse and Anhalt. Naturally, the Catholic states regarded Calvinism as a menace, particularly since it had already established itself firmly in the northern Netherlands and was inspiring the Dutch in their revolt against Catholic Spain. Nor were the Lutherans prepared to accept what they regarded as an intruder. Poor relations between Calvinist states (like the Palatinate) and Lutheran states (like Saxony) prevented close Protestant co-operation against the revived power of Catholicism until well after the turn of the century.

The Catholic revival in Germany was one of the manifestations of the Counter Reformation and was centred on Bavaria, with the full sanction and support of the Emperor and the Pope. Three Bavarian dukes pursued a systematic policy of uprooting any form of Protestantism within Bavaria, of enforcing Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy, and of preparing Bavaria as an instrument for the Catholic reconquest of Protestant Germany. Albert V (1550–79) destroyed internal opposition and imposed rigid censorship. William V (1579–97) and Maximilian I (1597–1651) enforced all the decisions of the Councils of Trent and adopted an increasingly aggressive policy towards Bavaria's Protestant neighbours. They prepared Bavaria for the leadership of the Catholic states (under the ultimate authority of the Emperor) and Maximilian I was one of the main instigators of the Catholic or Holy League of 1609, which countered the Protestant or Evangelical Union of 1608. Unfortunately, the Bavarian example encouraged the Emperors Rudolf II and Matthias to turn their attention to Bohemia. The result has been aptly described as ‘Imperial Armageddon’.

Political anarchy and religious divisions within the German parts of the Empire were made more dangerous by the deteriorating situation in Bohemia. Every series of crises has its potential flashpoint, whether it be Berlin, Sarajevo or Prague. The Bohemian Revolt, which started the Thirty Years’ War, was primarily a nationalist and religious opposition to Habsburg rule and to attempts to tighten up on the administration of Bohemia. The policy pursued by the Emperors was, on the whole, shortsighted and insensitive. In 1609 the threat of a Protestant revolt against Rudolf II's attempts to spread the Counter Reformation in Bohemia forced the Emperor to grant his Letter of Majesty, guaranteeing limited toleration to a section of the Bohemian Protestants. Gradually, however, the Bohemian religious problem became entangled with incautious political manoeuvres. Matthias, who was childless, favoured the candidacy of Ferdinand of Styria for the imperial succession. The usual formal procedure was to gain the election of the candidate as King of Bohemia by the Bohemian estates. This was done in 1617, but in a singularly tactless manner; the Bohemian estates were pressurized into electing Ferdinand, and there was considerable resentment in Prague about the loss of their normal electoral rights and powers. Feelings reached a new peak when, in 1618, Matthias issued a series of decrees withdrawing charters for Utraquist (Protestant) Churches, ending the appointment of non–Catholic priests and banning Protestant meetings. The immediate result of this was the Defenestration of Prague and the Bohemian Revolt against Habsburg rule in 1618. In 1619 Ferdinand was deposed as King of Bohemia. When Frederick V of the Palatinate was elected in his place, the struggle spread into the volatile centre of Germany and was directed against the Emperor, the Counter Reformation and the Catholic states, such as Bavaria, which acted as their agents.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!