The Structure of the Holy Roman Empire

The Empire was made up of sub-units, either territories or people. They can be classified according to several related but distinct dichotomies:

  • allodial and feudal
  • states of the Empire and non-states
  • immediate and mediate lands or people
  • sovereign and subject
  • temporal (secular) and spiritual (ecclesiastic)
  • etc.

These distinctions will be explained below and their relationships explored.

A. Geographical Structure:

External Boundaries of the Empire

The external boundaries of the Empire varied over time. In particular, the western boundary shifted many times eastward, as French kings encroached on the Empire as they enlarged their domains. Thus Provence (1246), Dauphiné (1349), the bishoprics of Metz, Toul, Verdun (1558), Alsace (1648), Franche-Comté (1678), Lorraine (1736), the west bank of the Rhine (1801) were incorporated into France, losses that were eventually acknowledged by the Emperors. There were losses elsewhere: the Swiss cantons, practically independent of their Habsburg overlords since the Middle Ages, were formally set free at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The Empire itself consisted of Imperial lands (Reichsländer) properly speaking, and neighbouring lands. The latter category included Lorraine, Burgundy, and Lombardy. Bohemia was part of the Imperial lands because its king was an elector, but its status as a kingdom was unique within the empire. When the elector of Brandenburg became king of Prussia, he was so only in his lands lying outside of the Empire.

The exact status of Northern Italy within the Empire became rather confused over time. By the 18th century, what remained formally were a collection of imperial fiefs of various sizes: 13 in Lombardy (including the duchies of Milan, Mantua, Monferrat, the principality of Mirandola, the Gonzaga territories), 19 in Liguria, 20 in the region of Bologna (including the duchies of Modena and Ferrara), 10 in Tuscany (the grand-duchy of Tuscany, Piombino, Soramo, Comacchio) and 11 in Tirnisani.

Internal Units of the Empire

The territorial components of the Empire fell into one of the following categories:

  • principalities (Fürstentümer, principatus in Latin), subdivided into
    • electorates,
    • duchies,
    • principalities,
    • palatine counties, margraviats, landgraviats, princely counties (gefürstete Grafschaften)
  • imperial counties (Reichsgrafschaften)
  • free lordships (freie Herrschaften, dominia)
  • ecclesiastical territories (praelaturae)
  • free imperial cities (Reichsstädte)
  • free imperial villages (Reichsdörfer, pagi imperii)

Independently of the above classification, territories can also be classified into feudal and allodial. A feudal territory was held from the Emperor as a fief, that is, by virtue of a certain type of contract. In exchange for enjoyment of the territory, the vassal owed certain duties, and was subject to certain restrictions and oversight of the Emperor. An allodial territory was a territory for which no feudal contract existed. It was subject to the emperor as sovereign but not to the emperor as overlord. A territory was presumed to be allodial unless shown otherwise. The term "free", also applied to certain counties, indicated that the territory was allodial. Major ecclesiastical territories were typically allodial.

Under Maximilian I the imperial states had been organized in Imperial Circles (Reichskreise). The original 6 Circles of 1500 (Swabia, Bavaria, Franconia, upper Saxony, lower Saxony, Westphalia)  were increased in 1512 to 10 (Austria, Rhine, Saxony, Burgundy). The role of the circles was to serve as administrative units in the enforcement of imperial law and order. Each was headed by a prince as Kreisoberst, and regional assemblies called Kreistage were held (which could include territories that were not imperial states).

The Imperial Circles in 1789

This list (based on Arenberg 1951) shows the territories arranged by Reichskreis, with some indication of the relative size of the Kreise.

Österreichischer Kreis - Austrian Circle

Figures: pop: 4.8m, area: 2565 sq mi

Archduchy of Austria County of Tyrol
Duchy of Styria (Steier) Bishopric of Trento
Duchy of Carinthia (Kärnter) Bishopric of Brixen (Bressanone)
Duchy of Carniola Principality of Dietrichstein (Trasp)
County of Gorizia (including Trieste)  


Burgundischer Kreis - Burgundian Circle

Figures: pop: 2.0m, area: 470 sq mi

Duchy of Brabant Duchy of Limburg
County of Hainaut Duchy of Gelderland
County of Flanders Marquisate of Antwerp
County of Namur Lordship of Malines
Duchy of Luxemburg Lordship of Tournai

Note: within Brabant was the Duchy of Aerschot (baronies of Aerschot, Bierbeek, Rotselaer and Héverlé) belonging to the duke of Arenberg.


Kurrheinischer Kreis - Circle of the Rhenish Electorates

Figures: pop: 1.185m, area: 460 sq mi


Electorate of Mainz duchy of Westphalen (owned by Köln)
Electorate of Trier county of Recklinghausen (owned by Köln)
Electorate of Köln Burgraviate of Rheineck
Palatinate Teutonic territories in Koblenz
duchy of Arenberg lordship of Beilstein
county of Nieder-Isenburg  


Hoch-rheinischer Kreis - Upper-Rhenish Circle

Figures: pop: 1.17m, area: 500 sq mi

Landgraviat of Hesse County of Sponheim
Chapter of Fulda Territories of the Princes and Counts of Salm (Salm-Salm, Salm-Kyrburg, Salm-Reifferscheidt)
County of Hanau County of Linange
Lordship of Hanau-Lichtenberg County of Kirchingen (owned by count of Wied-Runkel)
County of Isenburg Lordship of Dachstuhl (owned by count of Öttingen-Baldern)
County of Solms Lordship of Bretzenheim (owned by count of Isenburg)
County of Königstein County of Falkenstein
Chapter (Hochstift) or Bishopric of Worms County of Wartenberg
Chapter or Bishopric of Speier County of Wittgenstein
Provosty of Wissemburg County of Waldeck
Chapter of the Knights at Bruchsal Lordship of Ollbruck (owned by baron of Waldbott-Bassenheim)
Chapter of Strassburg Lordship of Münzfelden
Chapter or Bishopric of Basel Imperial City of Frankfurt
Principality of Heiersheim (owned by Knights of Saint John) Imperial City of Wetzlar
Abbey of Prüm (owned by Trier) Imperial City of Worms
Principalities of Simmern, Lautern, Veldenz (owned by Pfalz-Wittelsbach) Imperial City of Speier
Principality of Zweibrücken Imperial City of Friedberg
Territories of the Princes of Nassau  


Schwäbischer Kreis - Swabian Circle

Figures: pop: 2.0m, area: 730 sq mi

Duchy of Württemberg with Weilsheim and Justingen County of Öttingen (owned by the three lineages of Öttingen)
Marquisate of Baden County of Thengen (owned by prince of Auersperg)
Lordships of Biesensteig, Mindelheim, Schwabeck (owned by Wittelsbach of Bayern) Chapter or Bishopric of Augsburg
Territories of the Princes of Fürstenberg Abbey of Ellwangen
Territories of the Princes of Hohenzollern Abbey of Kempten
Territories of the Princes of Thurn-Taxis Abbey of Lindau
Principality of Liechtenstein Abbey of Buchau
Territories of the Counts of Waldburg Chapter or Bishopric of Constanz
County of Klettgau (owned by prince of Schwarzenberg) Territories of the Teutonic Order
Territories of Princes Fugger Imperial City of Augsburg
County of Hohenems (owned by Habsburg) Imperial City of Ulm
County of Hohengeroldseck (owned by count van der Leyen) Imperial City of Esslingen
Territories of the Count of Königsegg Imperial City of Lindau
County of Bonndorf (owned by Abbey of Sankt Blasius) Imperial City of Kempten
Lordship of Egloff (owned by counts of Traun and Abensberg) Imperial City of Ravensburg
Lordship of Thannhausen (owned by count of Stadion) Imperial City of Memmingen
Lordship of Tettnang and Argen (owned by Habsburg) 24 Imperial Cities


Bayrischer Kreis - Bavarian Circle

Figures: pop: 1.198m, area: 1200 sq mi

Archishopric of Salzburg Abbeys of Nieder- and Hoch-Munster
Provosty of Berchtesgaden Chapter or Bishopric of Passau
Electorate of Bavaria County of Ortenburg
Chapter of Freysing with Werdenfels County of Sternstein (owned by prince Lobkowicz)
Chapter of Regensburg Free City of Regensburg
Abbey of St Emmeran  


Frankischer Kreis - Franconian Circle

Figures: pop: 1.1m, area: 485 sq mi

Bishopric of Bamberg County of Reineck (owned by count of Nostiz-Rieneck)
Bishopric of Würzburg County of Erlach
Bishopric of Eichstädt Lordship of Limpurg
Territories of the Teutonic Order at Mergentheim Lordship of Reichelsberg (owned by count Schönborn)
Principalities of Ansbach and Bayreuth (owned by Prussia) Lordship of Welsheim (owned by Württemberg)
County of Henneberg (owned by various houses of Saxony) Free City of Nürnberg
County of Schwarzenberg with Lordship of Seinsheim (owned by prince of Schwarzenberg) Free City of Rothenburg
Principality of Hohenlohe Free City of Windheim
County of Castell Free City of Schweinfurt
County of Wertheim Free City of Wissemburg


Hohersächsicher Kreis - Circle of Upper Saxony

Figures: pop: 4.0m, area: 2000 sq mi 

Electorate of Brandenburg Principality of Sachsen-Meiningen
Electorate of Saxony Principality of Sachsen-Hildburghausen
Swedish Pomerania (Pommern) County of Schwarzburg
County of Mansfeld (owned by Brandenburg and Saxony) County of Stolberg and Weiningerode
Principality of Sachsen-Weimar Territories of the Princes of Reuss
Principality of Sachsen-Gotha Principality of Anhalt
Principality of Sachsen-Coburg Chapter of Walkenried


Niedersächsicher Kreis - Circle of Lower Saxony

Figures: pop: 2.25m, area: 1280 sq mi

Duchy of Magdeburg (owned by Prussia) Chapter of Lübeck
Principality of Halberstadt (owned by Prussia) Free City of Hamburg
Duchy of Braunschweig Free City of Bremen
Territories of the Elector of Hannover Free City of Lübeck
Bishopric of Hildesheim Free City of Goslar
Duchy of Holstein Free City of Mühlhausen
Duchy of Mecklemburg Free City of Nordhausen


Westphalischer Kreis - Westphalian Circle

Figures: pop: 2.3m, area: 1250 sq mi

Territories of the Elector of Hannover County of Virnenburg (owned by prince of Loewenstein-Wertheim)
Territories of the Elector of Brandenburg County of Kaunitz
Duchies of Jülich and Berg (owned by Wittelsbach of Pfalz) County of Pyrmont (owned by prince of Waldeck)
Bishopric of Müster County of Gronsfeld (owned by count Törring)
Bishopric of Osnabrück County of Reckheim (owned by prince of Anhalt-Bernburg)
Bishopric of Paderborn Lordship of Anholt (owned by prince of Salm-Salm)
Bishopric of Lüttich (Liége) Lordships of Winneburg and Beilstein (owned by count of Metternich)
Abbey of Corvey County of Blankenheim and Gerolstein (owned by count of Limpurg)
Abbey of Malmédy Lordship of Witten (owned by count of Plettenberg)
Abbey of Stavelot Lordship of Gimborn (owned by count Wallmoden)
Abbey of Werden Lordship of Wickeradt (owned by count of Quadt)
Abbey of Essen Lordship of Mylendonk (owned by count of Ostein)
Abbey of Cornelimünster Lordship of Reichenstein (owned by count Nesselrode)
Abbey of Thorn Lordship of Kerpen (owned by duke of Arenberg)
Abbey of Herford County of Schleiden (owned by duke of Arenberg)
Territories of the Princes of Orangen-Nassau County of Hallermund (owned by count of Platen)
County of Wied Free City of Köln
County of Sayn Free City of Aachen
County of Schaumburg-Lippe Free City of Dortmund
County of Bentheim  


Other Territories of the Empire

The Circles did not include all territories of the Empire: notably, Bohemia (pop: 2.9m, area 982 sq mi), Moravia (Mähren; pop: 1.2m, 468 sq mi), Lusatia (0.45m, 180 sq mi) and a number of others totalling 0.25m and 200 sq mi.

B. Political Structure:

Sovereignty of the Empire

The motley and variable collection of powers and rights held by rulers of territories within the Empire were collectively known as sovereignty (Landeshoheit, Landesherrlichkeit, Landesobrigkeit, Landesfürstlichkeit, jus territoriale). This covered a number of substantially different rights:

  • regalian rights, held from the Emperor, such as the right to dispense justice, collect taxes and tolls, mint coins, exploit mines, etc
  • right of enfeoffment: the ability to have knights in one's service and call them to war
  • seigniorial rights and feudal rights.

These rights were possessed to varying degrees, and there were disputes over who was sovereign and who wasn't. Definitive signs of sovereignty were the right to collect taxes, the receipt of homage from the inhabitants, the existence of local estates representing knights, prelates and cities; and above all jurisdiction in first instance and appeal in civil cases. Curiously, jurisdiction over criminal cases, and even the ability to impose death sentences (Blutbann) was not in of itself a sign of sovereignty. Jurisdiction included not just the ability to rule in particular cases, but also the ability to publish general rules, in other words legislate. The legislative ability was somewhat constrained by the overall framework of imperial legislation which it could not contradict, but the latter served mainly to complement the local legislation.

Sovereignty was considered to be bestowed by the Emperor, and its possession to result from an investiture by the Emperor. This was true of imperial fiefs, which were themselves granted by investiture, but also of allodial lands. The right to receive the investiture was nevertheless attached to the land, and could not be denied by the Emperor.

Sovereignty was exercised: by hereditary lords, by elected prelates, by municipal governments. It could pass by inheritance, testament, investiture, infeoffment, or even sale or lien. Its possession or enjoyment did not require noble status. It could be owned jointly in condominium.

Immediate and Mediate Status

Whether or not an individual, an institution or an area was directly subject to the emperor's authority defined the status of "immediate" and "mediate" subject of the Empire (reichsunmittelbar, reichsmittelbar).  This distinction has nothing to do with being noble or commoner: for example, a number of high officials in the imperial courts and the chancery were immediate, whether noble or not.  The status of immediate subject was also distinct from that of state of the Empire: there were many immediate territories that were not states of the Empire, and there could be states that were not immediate. Examples of tiny immediate territories include the villages of Goschheim and Seenfald near Schweinfurt, the four villages of Kahldorf, Petersbach, Biburg, and Wangen, some farms in Upper Swabia, etc. The status of immediate subject of the emperor could be held by an institution, such as the Schoppenstuhl in Aachen.

Knights of the Holy Roman Empire

The Knights of the Empire (Reichsrittern) were nobles whose direct overlord was the Emperor, remnants of the medieval Edelfrei and Ministerialen who never achieved status of upper nobility. To protect their rights, they organized themselves into three unions (Partheien) in the late 15th century and into a single Corpus in 1577, and fought hard to win recognition. Their immediate status was recognized at the Peace of Westphalia. They never gained access to the Reichstag, and were not considered Hochadel.  In 1650 they organized themselves into three circles, subdivided into cantons:

  • Swabian Circle: 668 territories, pop: 0.16m, 70 sq mi (cantons: an der Donau; im Hegau, Algau & am Bodensee; am Neckar, am Schwarzwald & and der Ortenau; am Kocher; im Craichgau)
  • Franconian Circle: 702 territories, pop: 0.2m, 80 sq mi (cantons: Odenwald; Gebürg; Röhn-Werra; am Steigerwald; an der Altmühl; an der Baunach)
  • Rhenish Circle: 0.09m, 40 sq mi (cantons: Oberrheinstrom; Mittelrhein- & Unterrheinstrom)