High Nobility of the Holy Roman Empire
All sovereign houses, which ruled in various German lands in the 19th and 20th centuries, descended from the High Nobility (Hochadel) of the Holy Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, there was no clear stratification of nobility in the Empire. One side effect of the Imperial Reform, which began in 1495, was the establishment of three distinct noble groups: the High Nobility, the Imperial Knighthood, and the Territorial Nobility. The Imperial Immediacy (Reichsunmmittelbarkeit), Territorial Supremacy (Landeshoheit), the Imperial Circles (Reichskreise), the Imperial Assembly (Reichstag) and other elements of the Imperial constitution defined the context that made the High Nobility special. Only the High Noble families possessed the Status of the Imperial Estate (Reichsstandschaft).
Territorial Supremacy and Imperial immediacy
By the 16th century, the Holy Roman Empire (das Heilige Römische Reich) had become an elective monarchy headed by a person styled as the Roman Emperor and King in Germany (Römischer Kaiser, zu allen Zeiten Mehrer des Reichs, König in Germanien).
His authority was recognized in the territories of the modern Germany,
the Czech Republic, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg,
Slovenia, Liechtenstein, and in some territories that now belong to
France, Poland, Italy, and other neighboring countries. Practically, the
Empire had become a loose confederation of over 1800 autonomous
"Like the constitutions of
virtually all states large or small before the end of the eighteenth
century, that of the Holy Roman Empire did not consist of a single
document, however long, drafted in a few weeks, months, or even years by
men of a single generation. It was the cumulative product of a
centuries-long history, in which the slow and unspectacular growth of
unwritten practices into habits, and of these into "traditions,” took
their place alongside formally enacted and celebrated statutes, peace
treaties, written and unwritten promises, assurances, and oaths to form a
vast and complicated body of public law. Never subjected to formal
collation or codification except in the privately initiated works of
scholars and teachers of public law, the imperial constitution, so
defined, was vague and even contradictory in many particulars.".
the 13th century, the central Imperial government grew weak, and local
authorities gradually established real political control over their
territories known as Territorial Supremacy / Overlordship (Landeshoheit).
Territorial Supremacy could belong to a duke, a bishop, a count, a city
council, an abbess, a knight, or any other local authority that
possessed the Imperial immediacy (Reichsunmmittelbarkeit),
the direct jurisdiction of the Empire. The only feudal overlord of an
Imperial immediate territory was the Roman Emperor. After the Peace of
Westphalia of 1648, the right of Territorial Supremacy carried many
attributes of sovereignty; however, governments of immediate territories
legally recognized the Imperial suzerainty.
agreements reached in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster
in 1648 formally opened the second epoch. Perhaps the most striking
immediate result of these treaties was their confirmation and
clarification of the rights of territorial supremacy for the estates of
the Empire. Territorial supremacy, originally a collection of individual
rights bestowed by the Emperor on particular estates, now became a
unified, comprehensive, and independent authority, no longer exercised
as a delegated power but accepted as an inalienable attribute of
sovereignty. It is important to note, however, that his supremacy was
still a limited superior authority in law: for the Westphalian
Settlement left certain Imperial institutions, including the Reichstag,
Imperial Circles of the Hoy Roman Empire
The Imperial Registry (Reichsmatrikel) specified
the number of armed men each Imperial immediate territory provided for
the Imperial Army. The list of territories in the Imperial Registry
created in the course of the Imperial Reform of the 1490s became the
base of the system of the Imperial Circles (Reichskreise). In 1500, the immediate territories, which paid Imperial
taxes, were grouped on a regional basis into six Imperial Circles to
oversee the selection of judges into the Imperial Chamber Court. In
1512, four new Imperial Circles were added, and ten Imperial Circles
remained with largely unchanged borders to the end of the 18th century.
"The turbulent reign of Charles V
which saw the religious division of Germany also confirmed the princes’
independence of the Emperor. This led to a further development of the
Kreise; on the one hand, control in local matters passed increasingly
under the jurisdiction of leagues of princes …, on the other hand the
Diet sought a way out of its deadlock with the Emperor by handing over
many of its powers to the Kreise. Thus a marriage of local princely
interest and delegated imperial powers took place which shaped the final
character of the Kreis system. In 1530 a major step in this direction
took place when the Diet decreed the contingents for the Imperial army
be contributed by Kreise, led by a captain elected by each Kreis.… Since
every member of the Reich was now bound to participate in the Kreise to
meet his imperial obligation, the Kreise took on new life. The
culmination of these developments came at the Diet of Augsburg in 1555.
... The Estates of the Empire … also solved the question of internal
public peace and defense by referring them to the Kreise, which became
the effective executive organs of the Diet and the Imperial courts. The
re-organization of the Kreise … provided each Kreis with a military
commander (Kreisobrist) and the war council, selected by the Kreis
members. Their duty was to enforce the public peace in the Kreis”.
1559 the Diet’s Imperial Coin Ordinance … assigned the Kreise the
regulation of coinage throughout the Empire. With this the formative
period of the Kreis system was completed.”. "In
Franconia and the other areas like Swabia and the Rhineland, which were
predominantly composed of tiny states, the Imperial Kreise took on
important functions as spokesmen and defenders of the small
principalities. In the years 1697-1714 the efforts of the Kreise were an
important factor in the defense of the Holy Roman Empire against French
invasion. The same period saw the fullest internal development of the
Kreis constitutions, and even an attempt by the Kreise to reform the
sagging constitutional structure of the Reich. It was only through a
long evolution that the Kreise acquired their significant position in
the Holy Roman Empire.".
Circles were charged with many important functions including the
allocation of quotas under in the Imperial Registry.
Under the pressure of the seventeenth-century wars against France and
the Turks, the Kreise became the primary agents of Imperial defense.". "In 1681, the Reichstag agreed to entrust the Circles with the responsibility for organizing and maintaining the Imperial Army.". "The
Kreis was really neither a subordinate judicial and administrative
institution of the Empire, nor a mere league of princes, nor a
semi-sovereign corporation in its own right, but an inextricably
confused combination of all three. Its authority limited by varying
pressures from above and below ….".
The local authority that possessed a territory included in an Imperial Circle as a rule had the Status of the Imperial Circle Estate (Reichskreisstandschaft) with the right to sit and vote in the Circle Assembly / Diet (Kreistag).
"The Assembly, or Kreistag, was in fact the chief repository of all Kreis powers.".
the 17th-18th centuries, a new Imperial immediate territory was
created, when a territorial ruler ceded the right of Territorial
Supremacy to another person in this territory.
When the system of Imperial Circles was established, the position of
the King of Bohemia as Imperial Elector had been suspended since the
Hussite wars 1420-1433. Thus, the Bohemian Crown Lands: Bohemia,
Moravia, Silesia, Lusatia, Glatz, etc. were included in no Imperial
2. By the end of the 16th century, many immediate territories had disappeared from in the Imperial Registry for to following reasons:
The Swiss lands lost their connections with the Empire (Geneva,
Lausanne, Wallis, Schaffhausen, St.Gallen, Kreuzlingen, Einsiedeln,
- France annexed some Imperial lands (Metz, Toul, Verdun, etc);
- Secular rulers annexed ecclesiastical possessions during the Church Reformation (Saalfeld, Maulbronn, Königsbronn, etc);
Some Imperial immediate territories were annexed to other territories
when their ruling families became extinct (Hoorn, Wunstorf, Plesse,
Gera, Beuchlingen, Bitsch, Ruppin, Schaumberg (in Austria), Bergen,
Haag, Leissnigk, Landsberg, Losenstein, etc).
3. There were "personalists" in the Circle Assembles:
The Princes of Thurn-Taxis had a vote in the Circle Assembly of the
Electoral Rhine. They contributed money to the Circle as persons because
they possessed no immediate territory in the Circle.
- At the
beginning of the 18th century, the Counts of
Löwenstein-Wertheim-Virneburg and of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rochefort
shared a vote in the Bench of Counts & Lords of the Circle Assembly
of Franconia. When the Count of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rochefort received
the title of Imperial Prince, he also acquired an additional vote in the
Bench of the Secular Princes of the Circle Assembly as personalist.
E.g., the King of Denmark ceded the right of Territorial Supremacy in
Barmstedt to the Counts of Rantzau; the Count of Schaesberg received the
right of Territorial Supremacy in Kerpen and Lommersum;
Imperial Assembly (Reichstag)
Authorities of the Imperial immediate territories that contributed financially to the common Imperial needs could claim the status of the Imperial Estate (Reichsstandschaft). This status was associated with the right to sit and vote in the Imperial Assembly / Diet (Reichstag).
Assembly was the advisory and legislative body of the Empire.
Originally, the Emperors convoked Imperial Assemblies at irregular
intervals. In 1663, the delegates of the Assembly in Regensburg refused
to disband after disposing current business, and the Imperial Assembly
remained in the permanent session until the end of the Empire. The
Imperial Assembly consisted of three Councils / Colleges of Electors, of
Princes and of the Imperial Cities (Reichsstädte).
Initially, many princes claimed the right to elect a head of the Empire. However, the Golden Bull of 1356 restricted this right to seven ecclesiastical and secular princes, which were called Princes-Electors (Kurfürsten). According to the Golden Bull, the Council of Electors
consisted of three ecclesiastical and four secular members. At the end
of the 18th century, there were eight Princes-Electors. They
enjoyed precedence over the other Imperial Estates and additional
judicial powers within their territories. It was legally prohibited to
have more than one Electoral vote for a person; and an Electoral vote
could not be shared by several persons.
The Council of Princes (Fürstenrat)
consisted of two benches / banks. The Grand Masters of the Teutonic
Order and the Order of St. John, archbishops, bishops, abbots, etc., sat
and voted in the Ecclesiastical (Geistlichebank) bench. Hereditary rulers sat and voted in the Secular / Lay (Weltlichebank) bench. In the Council of Princes, greater ecclesiastical and secular Imperial Estates had individual voices (Virilstimmen). Lesser estates were grouped in six colleges, and each college had a collective or curial voice (Kuriatstimme) in the Council. Lesser secular estates voted in the Colleges of Imperial Counts (Reichsgrafenkollegium)
of Wetterau, Swabia, Westphalia and Franconia, lesser ecclesiastical
estates voted in the Colleges of the Prelates of Swabia and the Rhine.
a hereditary ruler had only one voice in the Council of Princes, and
when he divided his possessions, each of his heirs voted separately.
This started to change after 1582. The votes in the Council of Princes
became associated with territories rather than individual rulers. When
multiple heirs divided a territory, they shared its vote. When a person
acquired a secular territory whose previous ruler had a voice in the
Council of Princes, he could claim the corresponding voice.
Diet though neither the reason nor exact circumstances which occasioned
it appear, seems, in 1582, to have laid down an entire new rule for the
future. Instead of the number of the secular votes being, as formerly,
uncertain, and sometimes more or less, according to the number of
reigning Princes in a family, as only the persons present were reckoned,
more regard was afterwards paid to the territories than to the persons
themselves; and the number of votes afterwards always continued, as it
happened accidentally to be at the Diet in 1582. If at that time there
were several lines, the same number of votes were to be given in future,
though they became altogether extinct, as in the case of the House of
Brunswick-Luneburg, which was then divided into the lines of Calenberg,
Zelle, Wolfenbuttel, and Grubenhagen. Two of the these lines were soon
afterwards extinct, yet the votes have been still continued in the
College of the Princes. If, on the other hand, a territory, in 1582, had
only one Sovereign, and he left several sons, who divided again, still
there remained but a single vote. This was the case with the House of
Anhalt; as Prince Joachim Ernest, in 1582, was in possession of all
Anhalt. In 1586, in his four sons founded the reigning branches of
Dessau, Bernburg, Cothen, and Zerbst; yet, notwithstanding this, they
reserved but a single vote. If the owners of a territory likewise were
all extinct, after the year 1582, and it came to another Prince, the
former vote was still continued; as was the case directly afterwards
with the Princely Counts of Henneberg in 1583, who at that time became
extinct, and since that, with Pomerania, Leuchtenberg, and several other
countries. Instead of which, the votes of all countries, the owners of
which died before the year 1582, no longer exist; as in the instances of
Carinthia, Stiria, Carniola, Teck, and innumerable other counties.".
was no restriction to own more than one vote in the Council of Princes,
and some rulers accumulated several voices. In
1641, Emperor Ferdinand III attempted to give three new individual
voices to the Prince of Hohenzollern, the Prince of Eggenberg, and the
Prince of Lobkowitz. This met opposition of the Imperial Assembly
because the Eggenbergs and the Lobkowitzs were representatives of the
Austrian Territorial nobility who had no right of Territorial Supremacy
in their possessions. The Imperial Assembly introduced a strict
requirement to for new members of the Council of Princes: they were
obliged to acquire immediate territories in the Imperial Circles.
respect of the new votes which to have been introduced, Ferdinand III
had already declared at the Diet in 1641, that he had admitted the three
new Princes, of Hohenzollern, Eggenberg, and Lobkowitz, to a seat and
voice in the College of the Princes; but he was not able at that time to
accomplish his design, because it was objected against the two last, by
the Electors and Princes, that they were merely subjects of Austria,
and were in possession of no lands immediately held of the Empire; and
neither contributed to the common necessities of the Empire, as members
of a Circle, nor to any Circle itself; without which conditions, no vote
could be admitted in the College of Princes. It was now urged, that
these conditions were complied with; upon which the three new Princes
above mentioned were admitted into the College, June 30, 1653".
this was repeated likewise in the Recess of the Empire (1654); but with
this additional reservation, that those persons who were now admitted
into the College of Princes, without having previously fulfilled what
was absolutely requisite, particularly by procuring territories
immediately held of the Empire, were admitted for this time only, on
account of their personal merit; and that their admission should by any
means tend to the prejudice of any one, or be established as precedent;
and that the seat and voice should not descend to their heirs or
successors, notwithstanding they might in future be provided with such
estates which were held immediately of the Empire, and were suitable to
the rank of Princes".
acquisition of an immediate territory represented in an Imperial Circle,
in most cases gave the right to vote in the Assembly of the
corresponding Circle. A person who acquired the territory had the right
to be accepted as a member of the Council of Princes or a College of
Counts. Mostly, there was a direct correspondence between votes in
Imperial Circle Assemblies and the Imperial Assemblies. Despite
the requirement, several persons, who possessed no such territories,
were admitted to the Council of Princes. They were called Personalists, because they were immediate as persons, not as owners of immediate territories in Imperial Circles.
Original members of the Council of Electors: the Archbishops of Mainz,
of Trier, of Cologne; the King of Bohemia; the Duke of
Saxony-Wittenberg, the Margrave of Brandenburg and the Count Palatine of
the Rhine. During the Thirty Years war (1618-1648) Friedrich V, Count
Palatine of the Rhine, was deprived his status of Elector, and it went
to the Dukes of Bavaria. After the war the eighth Electorate was created
and given to Friedrich V's son (1648). In 1692, the Duke of
Brunswick-Hanover became the ninth member of the Council. In 1777, the
Bavaria ruling House became extinct, and Karl-Theodor, Count Palatine of
the Rhine, inherited Bavaria, and electoral votes of Bavaria and the
Palatinate were merged.
2. - The Archduke of Austria and Duke of Burgundy voted in the Ecclesiastical bench.
- The Abbots of St.Blasien voted in the College of the Counts of Swabia for Bondorf.
In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia secularized several archbishoprics and
bishoprics and assigned them to secular rulers: Magdeburg, Halberstadt,
Minden and Kammin to Brandenburg; Schwerin and Ratzenburg to
Mecklenburg; Hersfeld to Hesse-Kassel; Bremen and Verden to the King of
Sweden. The corresponding voices were transferred to the Secular bench
of the Council of Princes.
3 - E.g., at the end of the
18th century, George III, King of Great Britain and Elector-Duke of
Brunswick-Hanover, had one voice in the Council of Electors, six
individual voices in the Council of Princes, and three shares of the
curial voice of the Counts of Westphalia;
(+1695) had one individual voice in the Ecclesiastical bench of the
Council of Prince as evangelical Bishop of Lübeck and another individual
voice in the Secular bench as Duke of Holstein-Gottorp.
4. In some cases, there was not direct correspondence between votes in Imperial Circle Assemblies and the Imperial Assemblies:
the Hohenlohe family had only two voices in the Assembly of the
Franconian Imperial Circle but six voices in the Franconian College of
- the County of Schaumburg was represented with
two voices in the Assembly of the Imperial Circle of Lower
Rhine-Westphalia, but only with one voice in the Westphalian College of
- the County of Sayn was represented with one
voices in the Assembly of the Imperial Circle of the Lower
Rhine-Westphalia, and with two voices in the Westphalian College of
- In 1722, the Counts of Hillesheim acquired the
Imperial immediate territory of Reipoltskirchen. The Counts voted in the
Circle Assembly of the Imperial Circle of the Upper Rhine, nevertheless
they had no representation in the Imperial Assembly.
rulers, who had individual voices in the Council, were not always
interested in curial votes: e.g., Electoral Saxony did not exercised his
right to vote for Barby, Hesse-Darmstadt for Hanau-Lichtenberg,
Hesse-Kassel for Hanau-Münzenberg, Württemberg for Justingen, etc.
- The Princes of Portia and Piccolomini were admitted to the Council of
Princes with individual voices but never acquired any immediate
- In the Colleges of the Counts of Swabia and
Franconia, there were several Personalists who belonged to the Imperial
Knighthood (e.g., Giech, Neipperg, Rechberg, etc.).
- The Duke of
Württemberg ceded the territory of Welzheim with the right of
Territorial Supremacy to Count Friedrich-Wilhelm of Grävenitz, who was
admitted to the Assembly of the Imperial Circle of Franconia and the
College of the Franconian Counts of the Imperial Assembly. When the new
Duke of Württemberg confiscated Welzheim, the family of Grävenitz
retained the status of the Imperial Estate and voted in the College of
the Franconian Counts as Pesonalists.
Groups of Nobility in the Holy Roman Empire
Noble families who had the Imperial immediate territories and the right of Territorial Supremacy (Landeshoheit) in their possessions belonged to the Imperial immediate Nobility (reichsunmittelbarer Adel). Other nobles in the Empire belonged to the Territorial Nobility (Landsadel, landsässigen Adel), and were subjects of the Imperial immediate Nobility.
Imperial immediate families, which had the status of the Imperial
Estate, i.e., sat and voted in the Imperial Assembly, constituted the High Nobility (Hochadel) of the Empire.
High Nobility consisted of two big sub-groups. Most families, who
belonged to the first sub-group, sat and voted in the Colleges of
Imperial Counts. Each of the four Colleges had only one, collective,
voice in the Council of Princes of the Imperial Assembly. Thus, these
families shared these collective (curial) voices. The second, smaller,
sub-group of the High Nobility had individual voices (Virilstimmen) in
the Council. Families of the second sub-group had the Princely rank and
were divided into the Ancient and New Princely Houses.
Noble houses who had acquired individual voices in the Council of
Princes before 1653, belonged to the most prestigious noble category
called the Ancient Princely Houses (Altfürstliche Häuser).
As a rule, the Ancient Princely Houses possessed big territories, and
had their Princely rank recognized by the end of the 15th century. The Houses, which received individual voices in the Council since
1653, were called the New Princely Houses (Neufürstliche Häuser).
The Imperial Knighthood (Reichsritterschaft),
another group of Imperial immediate nobility, did not have the status
of Imperial Estate. The Imperial Knights enjoyed Imperial immediacy and
the right of Territorial Supremacy. However, lands of the Imperial
Knights were not included in any Imperial Circle, and they did not
contribute financially to the common Imperial needs.
Free Imperial Knights are an immediate corpus of the German Empire that
does not have, to be sure, a vote or a seat in imperial assemblies, but
by virtue of the Peace of Westphalia, the capitulations at imperial
elections, and other imperial laws exercise on their estates all the
same rights and jurisdiction as the high nobility.".
The Imperial Knights grouped themselves into three Knightly Circles (Ritterkreise): of Swabia, Franconia, and the Rhine. These Knightly Circles consisted of 14 Cantons.
Emperors could convert an immediate possession of an Imperial Knight to
a territory with the fiscal obligations to the Empire to promote its
owner to the High Nobility.
centuries, several noble families acquired Imperial immediate
territories represented in Imperial Circles, and in this way, they
joined the Imperial High Nobility.
By the end of the 18th century, some High nobles had lost Territorial
Supremacy in their territories. E.g. in 1740, all of the lands of the
House of Schönburg came under the Territorial Supremacyof Electoral
Saxony. However, the Counts and Prince of Schönburg continued to vote in
the College of the Wetterau Counts in the Imperial Assembly.
2. The Ancient Princes at the end of the 16th century:
- The Counts Palatine of the Rhine (the House of Wittelsbach);
- The Dukes of Bavaria (the House of Wittelsbach);
- The Dukes of Brunswick (the House of Welf);
- The Dukes of Lorraine;
- The Dukes of Saxony-Lauenburg (the House of Ascania);
- The Dukes of Saxony-Wittenberg (the House of Wettin);
- The Princes of Anhalt (the House of Ascania);
- The Margraves of Brandenburg (the House of Hohenzollern [Franconian]);
- The Archdukes of Austria (the House of Habsburg);
- The Margraves of Baden (the House of Zähringen);
- The Dukes of Mecklenburg;
- The Dukes of Pomerania;
- The Dukes of Savoy;
- The Dukes of Jülich, Berg, and Cleves (the House of The Mark);
- The Dukes of Brabant, Luxembourg, Limburg and Gelderland (the House of Habsburg);
- The Landgraves of Hesse (the House of Brabant);
- The Landgraves of Leuchtenberg;
- The Dukes of Holstein (the House of Oldenburg);
- The Dukes of Württemberg;
- The Princely Counts of Arenberg (the House of Ligne);
House of Arenberg possessed a relatively small immediate territory and
was elevated to the rank of Imperial Prince only in 1576. The Princely
Count of Arenberg received an individual voice in the Council of Princes
3. Several Imperial immediate territories were
included neither in any Imperial Circle nor in any Knightly Circle:
Dyck, Fagnolle, Homburg, Jever, Kniphausen, Montbéliard (Mömpelgard), Rheda, Saffenburg, Schaumburg [im Rhein-Lahn-Kreis], etc.
4. E.g., in 1791, the Imperial Knight of Sickingen was admitted to the College of Swabian Counts in the Imperial Assembly.
In some cases, nobles without the status of Imperial Estate married
representatives of the High Nobility and inherited their possessions:
- Rietberg by the Princes of Kaunitz;
- Sayn by the Burgraves of Kirchberg-Farnroda;
- Mylendonk by the Counts of Ostein;
- Limpurg by the Counts of Pückler;
- Wiesentheid by the Counts of Schönborn;
- Blankenheim & Gerolstein by the Counts of Sternberg;
- Gronsfeld by the Counts of Törring-Jettenbach, etc.
the 12th century, the sons of Duke Boleslas III of Poland divided the
country. Wladislas received Silesia, and became the founder of the
Silesian branches of the House of Piast. His descendants divided
Silesia, and by the 13th century, there were more than dozen Silesian
dukes. They recognized the Seniority of the Polish Duke in Krakow. In
1291, King Wenceslas II of Bohemia acquired Krakow, and in 1300, he was
crowned as King of Poland. Many Silesian dukes recognized the Kings of
Bohemia as their overlords. In 1335, by the Tractate of Vysehrad the
King of Bohemia gave up his Polish claims, but Silesia remained a land
of the Bohemian Crown.
In 1526, the Bohemian Crown passed to the House of Austria, as Ferdinand of Habsburg became King of Bohemia. "In
Silesia, Ferdinand I and his successors strove to subdue the local
princes by narrowing their free space for an independent policy towards
the Reich. ... Supported by the Bohemian nobility, the Habsburg dynasty
... gradually wore down the prerogatives of other Silesian princes; and
it subordinated the duchies as far as possible directly under the crown.
The Silesian princes saw their position steadily erode. This process
was accompanied and supported by the biological extinction of the native
princely houses, which changed the political map of Silesia heavily ...
like Sagan, Krossen, Öls, Oppeln, Ratibor, Teschen, Münsterberg, gave
their owners the title of Duke, other, like Wartenberg, Trachenberg,
Militsch, Beuthen, Pless, etc., only the title of freier Standesherr .
1740, King Friedrich II of Prussia conquered most of Silesia and began
to style himself as "Sovereign and Premier Duke of Silesia", stressing
that he owned Silesia not as a fief of Bohemia. The House of Austria
preserved only parts of the Duchies of Teschen, Jägerndorf, Troppau, and
Silesia, as other lands of the Bohemian
Crown, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire; however, Silesia was not
included in any Imperial Circle. The Silesian dukes were not Imperial
immediate rulers as their direct overlord was not the Emperor but the
King of Bohemia (even though, since the 16th century, as a rule, the
same person wore the Imperial and Bohemian Crowns). An ownership of a
Silesian duchy gave no right to vote in the Imperial Assembly. However, a
Silesian duke’s standing was closer to the High Nobility than to the
In 1675, the last Silesian branch of the House of Piast became extinct
in the male line with the death of Duke Georg-Wilhelm of Liegnitz and
2. For example, the 18th century titles: Von
Gottes Gnaden Wir Peter in Liefland zu Kurland und Semgallen, wie auch
in Schlesien zu Sagan Herzog, Freyer-Standes-Herr zu Wartenberg, Bralin
3. The lands of Jägerndorf (Krnov) and Troppau (Opava) that originaly belonged to Moravia became considered as the Silesian Duchies.
were two major types of land inheritance customs followed by Imperial
High Nobility. The custom of the first type prescribed that only the
male members of a family could inherit its lands. Only when the last
male representative of the family died then his female relatives could
inherit the lands. Another type of inheritance custom, which mostly
existed in the Western part of the Empire, allowed women inherited lands
despite the existence of male family members.
In the case of the inheritance custom of the first type, lands were considered a common property of a noble family. "...
The premise that a territorial inheritance belongs to a dynasty
collectively gives rise syllogistically to the conclusion that all
members of that house are entitled to a part of that inheritance.". Every male member of the family could claim a share in the common inheritance. "Closely
tied to the idea of dynastic possessions as collective familial
possessions was that of the equality of all legitimately born princes in
any given house."
Sometimes the family members ruled jointly, but in many cases, the male members divided the family's possessions.
partible inheritance was one way of expressing the role of the dynasty
as a whole in its lands many of Germany's princes preferred that their
sons rule their dynasty's lands jointly. Partition was recommended only
should collective government prove unworkable."
few exceptions, German princely houses large and small divided and
redivided their resources throughout much of the early eighteenth
century, several dynasties were never able to reassemble their public
lands, let alone private holdings". "The drawbacks to
partible inheritance seem many, the advantages few. ... and yet, close
examination suggests several reasons why the custom endured long beyond
the Middle Ages. It solved certain practical problems. If a dynasty's
holdings were extensive, partible inheritance was a way of keeping their
administration within the family. Territorial divisions were considered a way of keeping peace among the male members of a dynasty."
"Partible inheritance had deep and sturdy roots in German constitutional
theory, political usage, and even in the human heart."
The Imperial Constitution prohibited only the division of a land associated with the Electoral dignity.
After the 15th century, many noble families in the Empire began to introduce Primogeniture,
the right of the firstborn son to inherit the entire possession. The
Imperial immediate territories were not divided among multiple heirs any
more to avoid weakening the family’s political standing. After the
introduction of Primogeniture, some territorial rulers granted to their
younger sons territories without the rights of Territorial Supremacy
known as apanages. "The conduct of public affairs
allowed no room for sentiment or tradition. ... Such views were
obviously congenial to the consolidation of princely power through the
introduction of primogeniture. ... There was a way to substitute equity
for equality with appanages. In this procedure cadet princes were given
allowances and territorial livings but no effective role in
For example, in Lorraine, Berg, Arenberg, the Mark, Sayn, Saarbrücken,
Hohenlimburg, Gemen, Gronsveld, Virneburg, Wertheim, passed to the
female family members.
2. Many High Noble Houses
introduced apanage branches: Weissenfels, Merseburg and Zeitz by the
Electoral Saxony; Schwedt by Brandenburg; Rheinfels, Philippsthal,
Barchfeld by Hesse-Kassel; Hoym by Anhalt, Biesterfeld and Weissenfels
by Lippe; Sonderburg by Holstein; Köstritz by Reuss, etc. In 1768, Hesse-Homburg, a former apanage of Hesse-Darmstadt, became an Imperial immediate Landgraviate.
Titles of Territorial Dominion
In the Holy Roman Empire, the titles of territorial dominion
did not provide any additional rights to noble families. Nevertheless,
titles were always prestigious because they were associated with a
greater political standing. Since the 10th century, when the Empire
consisted of several tribal duchies, Duke (Herzog / Dux) was the highest non-royal title of territorial dominion. It was followed by the titles of Margrave (Markgraf / Marchio),Landgrave (Landgraf / Landgravius) and Count Palatine (Pfalzgraf / Comes Palatinus). The bearers of these titles usually had the rank of Imperial Prince (Reichsfürstenstand). In the Middle Ages, there was no clear legal definition of the term Prince. It was used mostly as a rank rather than a title of territorial dominion. Medieval chronicles and documents used Princes when they talked about influential ecclesiastical and secular rulers with big territorial possessions. In the 16th century, Prince (Fürst / Princeps) was finally added in the hierarchy of the Imperial titles of territorial dominion below the title of Duke. Some lesser Imperial immediate rulers bore the title of Count (Graf / Comes). In the Middle Ages, the Roman Emperors rarely granted new
titles of territorial dominion, and most nobles were simply called Lords (Herren / Domini). Then all titled nobles in the Empire owned Imperial immediate lands.
the 16th century, the number of grants of Imperial titles of
territorial dominion began to increase manifold. The Roman Emperors,
like other European monarchs of the same period, bestowed Imperial
titles to noble families of all categories, and this diminished the
prestige associated with the titles. The level of devaluation of an
Imperial title was related to its position in the hierarchy of the
The title of Baron, the lowest in the
hierarchy, was granted to a relatively large number of Territorial
nobles and the Imperial knights.
The title of Count was
positioned above Baron. Most High nobles were Counts. However, there
were many grants of this title to distinguished representatives of the
Territorial Nobility and the Imperial knights.
of Prince retained its original high standing. It was granted to
representatives of all noble groups for very important services to the
Empire and the Emperors. The title was one of the prerequisites to
receive an individual voice in the Imperial Assembly. The Roman Emperors
granted the title of Imperial Prince either to all members of a noble
family or only to its head (the primogeniture grant).
There were only a few Imperial grants of the most prestigious title of Duke.
No new titles of Landgrave, Margrave or Count Palatine was introduced in Germany.
By the end of the Empire, all members of the High Nobility had at least the title of Count.
As an additional favor to its owner, the Roman Emperors might elevate an Imperial immediate territory to the rank of County (Grafschaft), Princely County (gefürsteten Grafschaft), Princely Landgraviate (gefürsteten Landgrafschaft), Principality (Fürstentum) or Duchy (Herzogtum).
1. By the end of the 13th century there were several secular duchies: Bavaria (Bayern), Saxony (Sachsen), Lorraine (Lothringen), Brabant, Limburg, Brunswick (Braunschweig), Lüneburg and Pomerania (Pommern). The Duchies of Franconia (Franken) and Westphalia-Angaria (Westfalen-Engern)
belonged to ecclesiastical rulers. In 14th-15th centuries, the Roman
Emperors granted the Ducal title to several German lands: Gelderland (Geldern) (1339), Mecklenburg (1348), Jülich (1356), Luxembourg (1354), Berg (1380), Cleves (Kleve) (1417), Holstein (1474) and Württemberg (1495).
2. The immediate Margraviates in the Empire: Brandenburg, Misnia (Meissen), Lusatia (Lausitz), Baden, Hochberg, Moravia, Burgau, Antwerp, Istria, Pont-à-Mousson, Nomeny, etc.
3. The Landgraviates in the Empire: Thuringia (Thüringen), Hesse (Hessen), Alsace (Elsass), Lusatia (Lausitz), Sausenberg, Leuchtenberg, Leiningen, the Baar, Stühlingen, Klettgau, Tübingen, Nellenburg, Breisgau, Ortenau, etc.
4. In the 14th century, there were only three Counties Palatinate in the Empire: of the Rhine, of Saxony and of Burgundy.
5. Before the 15th century, only in a few cases, Prince was used as a title of territorial dominion in the Empire (e.g., Anhalt, Wenden, Rügen, and Orange).
In the 18th century, there were several High Noble Houses that traced
their origin from ancient comital families: Castell, Fürstenberg,
Hohenzollern, Holstein-Oldenburg, Leiningen, Limburg-Styrum, Mansfeld,
the Mark, Montfort, Nassau, Schwarzburg, Ortenburg, Öttingen,
Sayn-Wittgenstein, Solms, Stolberg-Wernigerode, Waldeck, Württemberg,
b. Some families received the title of Count
through marriages: e.g., Götterswick (1421 in Bentheim), Runkel (in 1462
in Wied and in 1475 in Leiningen-Westerburg), Reifferscheidt (in
1416/1455 in the Lower Salm), Stein (in "the Forest and the Rhine
Counties,” and in the Upper Salm).
7. The Roman Emperors rarely granted the title of Duchy to Imperial immediate territories:
In 1644, to the Princely County of Arenberg was elevated to the rank of
Duchy (the Princely Count of Arenberg had used the title of Duke of
- In August 1806, the Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg
received the title of Duke of Anhalt from the Roman Emperor (the Prince
had used the title of Duke of Saxony, Angaria and Westphalia);
8. The grants of the title of Count to Imperial immediate families:
- in the 15th century, Hanau (1429), Isenburg-Büdingen (1442), Hohenlohe (1450), Manderscheid (1457), etc.
- in the 16th century, Lippe (1529), Erbach (1532), Hohenems (1560), Schwarzenberg (1599), etc.;
- in the 17th century, Waldburg (1628), Königsegg (1629), Reuss (1673), Schönburg (1700), etc.
The New Princely Houses (1653-1803)
The list of admissions in the Council of Princes with an individual voice in 1653-1803:
-Hohenzollern-Hechingen; Eggenberg (in 1717, the voice became extinct); Lobkowitz;
-Salm (in 1738/1739, the voice passed to Salm-Hoogstraten);
-Piccolomini (in 1656, the voice became extinct);
-Nassau-Hadamar & Nassau-Siegen (the voice passed to Nassau-Diez);
-Nassau-Dillenburg & Nassau-Diez;
-Portia / Porcia (in 1665, the voice became extinct);
-East Frisia (in 1744, the voice passed to Electoral Brandenburg);
-Fürstenberg-Heiligenberg (in 1716, the voice passed to Fürstenberg-Mösskirch);
-Waldeck-Eisenberg (in 1692, the voice became extinct);
-Churchill-Marlborough (in 1714, the voice became extinct) (Note 2);
-Lamberg (in 1714, the voice became extinct) (Note 2);
The Imperial immediate territories that the New Princely Houses
acquired in Imperial Circles to meet the admission requirements:
- Gradisca in the Imperial Circle of Austria by Eggenberg;
- Sternstein in the Imperial Circle of Bavaria by Lobkowitz;
- Tarasp in the Imperial Circle of Austria by Dietrichstein;
- Thengen in the Imperial Circle of Swabia by Auersperg;
- Leuchtenberg in the Imperial Circle of Swabia by Lamberg;
- Mindelheim in the Imperial Circle of Swabia by Churchill-Marlborough;
- Schellenberg-Vaduz in the Imperial Circle of Swabia by Liechtenstein;
- Eglingen, and then Sheer-Friedberg in the Imperial Circle of Swabia by Thurn-Taxis.
the time of their death, the Princes of Piccolomini and Portia had not
acquired any immediate territory and their voices became extinct.
During the War of the Spanish succession Elector and Duke of Bavaria
was banned by the Roman Emperor. His possessions, the Landgraviate of
Leuchtenberg and the Lordship of Mindelheim, were given to allies of the
Emperor. The family of Lamberg received Leuchtenberg (1708). The
Lambergs, which belonged to the Austrian territorial nobility, were made
Imperial Princes in 1707 and were admitted to the Council in 1709 as
Langraves of Leuchtenberg.
John Churchill received Mindelheim and
an individual voice in the Council of Princes. John Churchill was a
British nobleman that had been made Duke of Marlborough. After the War
both Leuchtenberg and Mindelheim went back to Electors-Dukes of Bavaria.
Bavaria received back the voices of Leuchtenberg in the Imperial
Assembly and in the Circle of Bavaria, and the voice of Mindelheim in
the Circle of Swabia. The lordship of Mindelheim lost its voice in the
Imperial Assembly. Bavaria restored the individual voice of Mindelheim
in the Council of Princes only in 1803.
Elevation of the Imperial immediate territories
- in 1436, the Counties of Cilli and Ortenburg to Principality
- in 1495, the Lordship of Steinfurt to County (for the Bentheim house)
- in 1532, the Lordship of Erbach to County
- in 1538, the Lordship of Zimmern to County
- in 1576, the County of Arenberg to Princely County
- in 1576, the County of Montbéliard (Mömpelgard) to Princely County
- in 1623, the County of Hohenzollern to Princely County
- in 1628, the Lordship of Wolfegg to County (for the Waldburg house);
- in 1628, the Lordship of Zeil to County (for the Waldburg house)
- in 1629, the Lordship of Königsegg to County
- in 1641, the Lordship of Neustadt to the Princely County of Sternstein (for the Lobkowitz house)
- in 1643, the Lordship of Esterau to the County of Holzapfel / Holzappel
- in 1644, the Princely County of Arenberg to Duchy
- in 1650, the Lordship of Barmstedt to the County of Rantzau
- in 1664, the Lordship of Thengen to Princely County (for the Auersperg house)
- in 1664, the County of Fürstenberg to Princely County
- in 1665, the Lordship of Thannhausen to County (for the Sinzendorf house)
- in 1671, the County of Schwarzenberg to Princely Landgraviate
- in 1679, the Lordships of Winneburg and Beilstein to County (for the Metternich house)
- in 1685, the possessions of the family of Geyer-Giebelstatt to County
- in 1689, the County of Klettgau to Princely Landgraviate (for the Schwarzenberg house)
- in 1707, the Lordships of Wartenberg, Sembach, Wachenheim, etc. to the County of Wartenberg
- in 1710, the County of Schwarzburg to Principality
- in 1712, the Lordships of Kerpen and Lommersum to County
- in 1719, the Lordship of Schellenberg and County of Vaduz to the Principality of Liechtenstein
- in 1757, the County of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg to Principality
- in 1770, the Lordship of Fagnolles to County (for the Ligne house)
- in 1772, the County of Hohenlohe-Neuenstein to Principality
in 1774/1777, the Counties of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst to the Duchy of
Oldenburg (for the Holstein-Gottorp house)
in 1787, the Lordships of Scheer and Friedberg to the Princely County of
Friedberg-Scheer (for the Thurn-Taxis house)
- in 1803, the possessions of the House of Waldburg to the Principality
in 1803, the Lordships of Babenhausen, Boos and Ketterhausen to the
Principality of Babenhausen (for the Fugger house)
- in 1803, the Lordship of Ochsenhausen to Principality (for the Metternich house)
- in 1804, the Lordship of Egloff to the Principality of Windisch-Graetz
- in 1804, the Lordship of Edelstetten to Princely County (for the Esterházy of Galántha house)
- in 1804, the Lordships of Krautheim and Gerlachsheim to Principality (for the Salm-Reifferscheidt house)