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Central Europe

Holy Roman Empire: Imperial States, Circles, & Diets

by William Willems, 29 June 2024

Although a date of creation for the concept of imperial states within the Holy Roman empire seems to be unknown, that concept certainly appears to have been in place by the late twelfth century AD, before being formalised in AD 1560.

The new system of imperial states replaced the more typical division of German lands into the old Carolingian stem duchies. Those duchies dated to the early medieval period and the break-up of the Carolingian empire.

The stem duchies were retained as the major divisions of German lands under the Saxon and Franconian emperors, but they became increasingly obsolete during the early high medieval period under the Hohenstaufens. They were finally abolished in 1180 by Frederick Barbarossa.

His preference was for more numerous territorial divisions. Unfortunately this idea, perhaps being tidy and reasonable at its start, would lead to the empire containing a maze of hundreds of states and territories.

An imperial state (a 'Reichsstand') formed a legislative division of the Holy Roman empire from the twelfth century until the empire's dissolution in 1806. Each one came with imperial representation and the right to vote in the imperial diet (the 'Reichstag').

Imperial states could be either ecclesiastic or secular. Rulers of these states were able to exercise significant rights and privileges, and they enjoyed 'imperial immediacy' ('Reichsfreiheit'), meaning that the only authority above them was the Holy Roman emperor himself. They were therefore able to rule their territories with a considerable degree of autonomy.

Map of Germany AD 962
Germany in AD 962 may have had its new emperor to govern those territories which are shown within the dark black line, but it was still a patchwork of competing interests and power bases (click or tap on map to view full sized)

As the ruler of an imperial state, a prince-bishop also enjoyed 'imperial immediacy' and wielded the same authority over his principality as any secular prince, such as a duke or a margrave, also having a seat and a vote at the imperial diet.

The imperial diet was the empire's deliberative body. It was not a legislative body in the contemporary sense though. Its members, the imperial states, envisioned it more as a central forum in which it was more important to negotiate than to decide.

The imperial diets replaced meetings by the nobility and higher clergy which had been the norm during the Carolingian empire period. Diets were held as the occasion arose - during royal progresses, or court journeys - to make decisions which affected the goods of the state.

From the twelfth century onwards, the emperor definitively called the imperial diet to meet in an imperial or episcopal city within the imperial frontiers. From 1250 the representatives of imperial and episcopal cities were recognised as members of the diet, and at this time the electoral princes, whose duty it was to elect the emperor, began to meet separately.

This division was formally confirmed in the 'Golden Bull' of Charles IV (1356), which established the number of electoral princes at seven.

An imperial circle ('Reichskreis') was a regional grouping of the imperial states. Although arranged as a means of organising a common defence policy and imperial tax collection, the circles were also used as a means of organisation in the imperial diet.

All circles had a regional diet (a 'Kreistag') of which all territories in the circle were participants, although not all states in the circles had a seat in the imperial diet.

From 1489, those imperial states which were represented in the diet were divided into three chambers: the college of prince-electors (the 'Kurfürstenkollegium' or 'Kurfürstenrat'); the college of imperial princes (the 'Reichsfürstenrat'); and the college of imperial cities.

More lowly counts and other nobles such as barons were not directly represented in the diet in spite of their 'immediate' status, but were grouped into imperial count benches ('Grafenbänke') with a single vote each. Imperial knights had immediate status but were not represented in the diet.

The system generally worked well, despite the ever-increasing size of the empire's number of states as it reached its end in 1806.

Map of Germany AD 1560
Shown here is a map of the imperial German territories around 1560, with each of the imperial circles, some of which showed reduced traces of the former stem duchies (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Duchess Sophia of Hessen

During the final break-up of the stem duchies in the thirteenth century, Duchess Sophia led the fight to secure the various Hessian lands as a unified landgraviate for her son, Henry of Brabant, otherwise known as Henry 'the Child' due to his young age


Main Sources

Bijsterveld, Arnoud-Jan - Bisdommen, kapittels, kloosters en kerken in de Volle Middeleeuwen (2015, in Dutch)

Biographie nationale, Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des Beaux-arts de Belgique (Bruxelles, 1897, in French)

Daris, Joseph - Histoire du diocèse et de la principauté de Liége (1890-1899, in French)

Demarteau, J E - Liège et les principautés ecclésiastiques de l'Allemagne occidentale. Les relations de Liège avec Aix, Cologne et l'Empire - La fin (Tome XXVIII, 1899, in French)

Kurth, Godefroid - Notger de Liége et la civilisation au Xe siècle (Tome I et II, 1905, in French)

Magnette, Félix - Précis d'histoire liégeoise (1924, in French)

Marchandisse, Alain; Kupper, Jean-Louis; Vrancken-Pirson, Irène - La destruction de la ville de Liège et sa reconstruction (1996, in French)

Wahle, Eugène - Liège et ses bonnes villes (Ed, 1980, in French)

Online Sources

Catholic Encyclopaedia

Dupuis, Henry - Notger and his time (Université Liège, in French)

Grandjean, Joseph - Histoire de la Principauté de Liège (in French)

Les Belges, leur histoire (in French)

Liège Révolution (in French)

Schooyans, Michel - Archives de l'Université Catholique de Louvain (in French)

Williot, Germaine - Le Prince Evêque de Liège - Origine du pouvoir princier dans la principauté de Liège (in French)



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & William Willems. An original feature for the History Files.