Administration of the Empire

Learning Objective

  • Explain the relationship between the Holy Roman Emperor and the other German nobles

Key Points

  • The Holy Roman Empire was made up of many small principalities that were governed by local rulers who had authority over their land that mostly superseded the power of the emperor.
  • The emperor could not simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the empire; his power was severely restricted by the various local leaders.
  • The power of the emperor declined over time until the individual territories operated almost like de facto sovereign states.
  • The Imperial Diet was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire and theoretically superior to the emperor himself; it included positions called prince-electors who elected the prospective emperor.
  • After being elected, the King of the Romans could claim the title of “Emperor” only after being crowned by the Pope.



An imperial estate in the Holy Roman Empire.

Peace of Westphalia

A series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire.

Imperial Diet

The general assembly of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire that emerged from the earlier informal assemblies, and the legislative body of the empire.


The Holy Roman Empire was not a highly centralized state like most countries today. Instead, it was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots, and other rulers, collectively known as princes. There were also some areas ruled directly by the emperor. At no time could the emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders.

From the High Middle Ages onwards, the Holy Roman Empire was marked by an uneasy coexistence with the princes of the local territories who were struggling to take power away from it. To a greater extent than in other medieval kingdoms such as France and England, the Roman emperors were unable to gain much control over the lands that they formally owned. Instead, to secure their own position from the threat of being deposed, emperors were forced to grant more and more autonomy to local rulers, both nobles and bishops. This process began in the 11th century with the Investiture Controversy and was more or less concluded with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Several emperors attempted to reverse this steady dissemination of their authority, but were thwarted both by the papacy and by the princes of the empire.

The Emperor’s Loss of Centralized Authority

After the reign of Otto I, the centralized power of the emperor began to fade and local rulers, as well as the Catholic Church, gained more and more power in relation to the emperor. Eventually, the emperor held little authority over the empire and the territories began to function more like modern nation-states. The Hohenstaufen dynasty, which started in 1125, and especially Emperor Frederick I, represented both a final attempt at unified power and the beginning of the dissolution of that power.

Despite his imperial claims, Frederick’s rule was a major turning point towards the disintegration of central rule in the Holy Roman Empire. While concentrated on establishing a modern, centralized state in Sicily, he was mostly absent from Germany and issued far-reaching privileges to Germany’s secular and ecclesiastical princes. In the 1220 Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis, Frederick gave up a number of regalia in favor of the bishops, among them tariffs, coining, and fortification. The 1232 Statutum in favorem principum mostly extended these privileges to secular territories. Although many of these privileges had existed earlier, they were now granted globally, and once and for all, to allow the German princes to maintain order north of the Alps while Frederick concentrated on Italy. The 1232 document marked the first time that the German dukes were called domini terræ, owners of their lands, a remarkable change in terminology as well.


The Holy Roman Empire, 12th century. The Hohenstaufen-ruled Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Sicily. Imperial and directly held Hohenstaufen land in the empire is shown in bright yellow. This map shows the patchwork of relatively autonomous principalities that made up the Holy Roman Empire.

The shift in power away from the emperor is revealed in the way the post-Hohenstaufen kings attempted to sustain their power. Earlier, the empire’s strength (and finances) greatly relied on the empire’s own lands, the so-called Reichsgut, which always belonged to the king of the day and included many imperial cities. After the 13th century, the relevance of the Reichsgut faded, even though some parts of it did remain until the empire’s end in 1806. The Reichsgut was increasingly pawned to local dukes, sometimes to raise money for the empire, but more frequently to reward faithful duty or as an attempt to establish control over the dukes. The direct governance of the Reichsgut no longer matched the needs of either the king or the dukes.

The “constitution” of the empire still remained largely unsettled at the beginning of the 15th century. Although some procedures and institutions had been fixed, for example by the Golden Bull of 1356, the rules of how the king, the electors, and the other dukes should cooperate in the empire much depended on the personality of the respective king. It therefore proved somewhat damaging that Sigismund of Luxemburg (king 1410, emperor 1433–1437) and Frederick III of Habsburg (king 1440, emperor 1452–1493) neglected the old core lands of the empire and mostly resided in their own lands. Without the presence of the king, the old institution of the Hoftag, the assembly of the realm’s leading men, deteriorated. The Imperial Diet as a legislative organ of the empire did not exist at that time. The dukes often conducted feuds against each other—feuds that, more often than not, escalated into local wars. The medieval idea of unifying all Christendom into a single political entity, with the church and the empire as its leading institutions, began to decline.

Imperial Diet

The Imperial Diet (Reichstag) was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire and theoretically superior to the emperor himself. It was divided into three classes. The first class, the Council of Electors, consisted of the electors, or the princes who could vote for King of the Romans. The second class, the Council of Princes, consisted of the other princes, and was divided into two “benches,” one for secular rulers and one for ecclesiastical ones. Higher-ranking princes had individual votes, while lower-ranking princes were grouped into “colleges” by geography. Each college had one vote. The precise role and function of the Imperial Diet changed over the centuries, as did the empire itself, in that the estates and separate territories gained more and more control of their own affairs at the expense of imperial power.

King of the Romans

Another check on the emperor’s power was the fact that he was elected. A prospective emperor first had to be elected King of the Romans by the prince-electors, the highest office of the Imperial Diet. German kings had been elected since the 9th century; at that point they were chosen by the leaders of the five most important tribes (the Salian Franks of Lorraine, Ripuarian Franks of Franconia, Saxons, Bavarians, and Swabians). In the Holy Roman Empire, the main dukes and bishops of the kingdom elected the King of the Romans. In 1356, Emperor Charles IV issued the Golden Bull, which limited the electors to seven: the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Duke of Bavaria and the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg were given the right to vote as the eighth and ninth electors, respectively. Additionally, the Napoleonic Wars resulted in several electorates being reallocated, but these new electors never voted before the empire’s dissolution. A candidate for election would be expected to offer concessions of land or money to the electors in order to secure their vote.

After being elected, the King of the Romans could theoretically claim the title of “Emperor” only after being crowned by the pope. In many cases, this took several years while the king was held up by other tasks; frequently he first had to resolve conflicts in rebellious northern Italy, or was quarreling with the pope himself.


Pen-and-ink miniature of the seven prince-electors. The prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as “King of the Romans,” and he would later be crowned emperor by the pope.

Imperial Estates

The number of territories in the empire was considerable, rising to about 300 at the time of the Peace of Westphalia. Many of these Kleinstaaten (“little states”) covered no more than a few square miles, and/or included several non-contiguous pieces, so the empire was often called a Flickenteppich (“patchwork carpet”).

An entity was considered a Reichsstand (imperial estate) if, according to feudal law, it had no authority above it except the Holy Roman Emperor himself. The imperial estates comprised:

  • Territories ruled by a hereditary nobleman, such as a prince, archduke, duke, or count.
  • Territories in which secular authority was held by a clerical dignitary, such as an archbishop, bishop, or abbot. Such a cleric was a prince of the church. In the common case of a prince-bishop, this temporal territory (called a prince-bishopric) frequently overlapped with his often-larger ecclesiastical diocese, giving the bishop both civil and clerical powers. Examples are the prince-archbishoprics of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz.
  • Free imperial cities, which were subject only to the jurisdiction of the emperor.