The Holy Roman Empire in 1700

Holy Roman Empire
Map of the Holy Roman Empire
The Empire in 1700 by Rebel Redcoat

1 Empire or Austria?

1.1 Most of the time it's just Austria

In listing simple facts like which country was allied with another country, or fighting it, the empire poses a problem. The League of Augsburg (1689) and the Grand alliance of the Hague (1701) had the Emperor as a member, but that did not mean that the empire was part of these alliances. The emperor had no authority in the bigger states on the territory of the empire: Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria were almost completely independent 1). This was also true for Austria: For the Archduke of Austria his interests as sovereign of Austria-Hungary superseded those he had as emperor. the bigger states followed their own agenda, and so did Austria 2).

Most of the time it's therefore better to refer to Austria as party to a treaty or fighting in a battle. In negotiation the emperor often only spoke for his state of Austria-Hungary (a.k.a. the Habsburg Monarchy). In fighting the empire's army was most often only that of Austria, paid by Austria. It was often joined by allies, but most of the time these were indeed allies, and not part of an imperial army. Actually an imperial army did exist (cf. below), but that's all the more reason not to call the Austrian Army the 'Imperial Army', or Austria-Hungary 'The Empire'.

1.2 The Empire minus Austria

In imagery Austria, the Emperor and the Empire are closely intertwined. To come to the essense of the empire it's common to subtract all the big states from the empire, but the real key is to subtract Austria too. As long as one thinks about the empire as 'Austria plus Empire' the subject remains intangible. Thinking about the empire as the Empire minus Austria, clarifies the subject.

What's left are some institutions, or organizations of small and very small states. These institutions considered themselves to be 'Imperial' and indeed exerted some authority and power. The actual sovereignty of the emperor was very limited.

2 Imperial Institutions

2.1 The Peace of Westphalia

The peace of Westphalia was seen as an important addition to the constitution of the Empire. The religious provisions of the treaty recognized three religious denominations: Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Each ruler in the empire was allowed to choose his religion, and that of his subjects, who could opt to convert, or to emigrate to a territory of their own religion. This principle 'Cuius regio, eius religio' was so important, because it founded the secular state. Within the borders of a state, the sovereign was responsible for internal affairs, cf. Westphalian sovereignty. The sovereignty of each prince became exclusive: i.e. neither pope nor emperor had any authority within the state's borders.

2.2 The Emperor

The Holy Roman Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Roman Emperors, and therefore to hold the ultimate secular authority. In the internal policy of the empire the religious provisions of the Peace of Westphalia had led to the concept of 'internal affairs' of soverreign states. This severely limited the emperor's authority inside the empire. For all matters of internal sovereignty, the members had become equals.

For external affairs / foreign policy a provision of the Peace of Westphalia recognized the right of the member states to ally themselves with states outside of the empire, the so called 'Bündnisrecht'. This was an explicit reversal of the limits that the Peace of Prague had imposed on this right of the member states in 1635. Officially the member states were not free to use this right against the empire, but they did so anyway. Therefore the emperor also had little authority over the foreign policy of the members of the empire.

The emperor remained the supreme wordly judge in the empire. For certain judicial affairs people could appeal to him. Another authority that the emperor retained was that he could hand out dignities. He could make people a fürst, a knight, a baron, and even an elector. In turn this made them eligible to sit in certain territorial institutions.

2.3 The Electors

The electors of the Empire
Archbishop ofMainzDuke ofSaxony
Archbishop ofKölnMargrave ofBrandenburg
Archbishop ofTrierCount ofCounty Palatine
King ofBohemiaDuke ofHanover (1692)
Duke ofBavaria

The electors were the sovereigns that elected the emperor. During the election they could wrest some privileges from the future emperor. This made the electoral dignity a prized possession, but it was not handed out that often. Even the emperor himself did not succeed in becoming elector of Austria, but had to do with being elector for Bohemia.

2.4 Perpetual Diet of Regensburg

The Perpetual Diet of Regensburg Immerwährender Reichstag was a kind of States General or Etas Généraux of the Empire. The big difference from these was that it held almost no authority. It had been called first in 1663 in order to deliberate on helping the emperor against the Turks, and had become permanent soon after. The member states (including the emperor) were represented in it by 'Commissioners'. In the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg the smaller states generally opposed the ambitions of the electors.

2.5 The Reichshofrat

The Reichshofrat was a council created as Hofrat by Maximilian I in 1497/1498 and residing in Vienna from 1527. It advised and supported the emperor in matters of government and acted as a supreme court of justice for the empire. It was presided by the ObersthofMarschall and about 20 councillors (Hofräte). In 1559 the council was renamed Reichshofrat. After the thirty years war the Reichshofrat limited its work to its judicial task and to Imperial matters.

2.6 The Reichskammergericht

The Reichskammergericht was a second supreme court of justice in the empire, paid for by an imperial tax. It had the same judicial competencies as the Reichshofrat, and people could choose at which court they wanted to prosecute somebody. Usual considerations were the vicinity of the court and the religion, with Protestants having an inclination to prefer the court in Wetzlar.

3 The Kreisen

3.1 The Kreisen

In 1500 attempts were made to organise an imperial government with representatives off different parts of the empire. The six electors were obvious representatives. For another 6 representatives six imperial circles or Kreisen were created in the empire. In 1500 these consisted of six large areas that excluded the territories owned by electors. These were Bavaria (not electoral cf. above), Franconia, Upper Rhine, Saxony, Schwaben, Lower Rhine-Westphalia. In 1512 the Burgundian, Kürrhein and Austrian kreisen were added, and Saxony was split into Upper- and Lower Saxony. This made that the electoral territories also became part of a kreis. The lands of the Bohemian Crown were the most notable exception that did not belong to any kreis. The territories of the Imperial Knights in Southern Germany were an exception that made that the Kreisen there were not continuous territories. The kreisen numbered 10 in the final division of 1512.

The attempt to organise an imperial government came to nothing, but the kreisen survived. They were executive institutions for small parts of the imperial constitution. Some of them like Franconia and Swabia developed their own dynamics, and actually functioned on a much wider scale.

3.2 The Franconian kreis

The Franconian kreis was made up of territories roughly equal to the northern part of present-day Bavaria. It was quite balanced between Lutherans and Catholics, Ecclesiastical and wordly states and each comparable in size. The representatives of all these territories sat in 4 benches. The bench of Ecclesiastical Fürsten 3) consisted of Hochstift Bamberg, Hochstift Würzburg, the Bishop of Eichstät and the Hochmeister of the Bailiwick Franconia of the Teutonic order. The bench of Wordly Fürsten intially had the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach (Bayreuth), and the Duke of Sachsen-Meiningen (successor of the Counts of Henneberg). In 1687 these were joined by the Count of Schwarzenberg (Klettgau), and in 1711 Löwenstein-Wertheim joined because he became a Fürst. The third bench was that of the Counts and Lords with a few dozen counts and lords. The fourth bench was the city bench, comprising Nürnberg and the smaller cities of Rothenburg, Windsheim, Schweinfurt and Weißenburg.

The kreis was effective in regulating local currency and markets. In the sixteenth century it even created a free inner market for cereal produce as a reaction to repeated famines. The emperor tried to dismantle this inner market, but failed. The kreis also organized some policing, and even took some action with regard to roads.

The Kreis was also effective in raising an army. In 1681 the Kreis decided to field an army of 5,527 men. It consisted of a Currassier regiment of 520 men, a dragoon squadron of 200 men, two infantry regiments of 1,600 men each and units provided by Bamberg and Würzburg. These marched to the Siege of Vienna. In 1694 the Kreis army was to count 2,904 cavalry and 5,703 infantry. The Kreisobrist (Kreis Colonel) was the commander of this army. Officers were appointed by the Kreis, the regular soldiers were raised by the territories. The kreis directed things like the artillery, judiciary and supplies for the kreis army. The individual territories organized the clothes and arms of the soldiers they raised, which was probably detrimental to the effectiveness of the troops.

Because it was able to effectively field an army, the Franconian Kreis became able to act as a political factor. It made alliances with other kreises, like in the Nördlinger Assoziation. This was primarily meant to counter French plans, but it also went against the interests of the Emperor.

4 Sources

The Franconia kreis was described by Rudolf Endres in Der Fränkische Reichskreis part1 and part 2 at Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte

5 Notes

1) Small exceptions were that they did not rank as fully independent states in diplomatic traffic.
2) In the first partition treaty the Spanish Monarchy was settled on the Bavarian candidate. By refusing any partition, Emperor Leopold let his dynastic interest overrule the interests of the empire, which had little interest in whether a Bavarian or Habsburg prince became King of Spain. His policy towards the kreisen is another example. These could have rejuvenated the empire, but were adverse to his dynastical interest.
3) Fürst is often translated as prince, but it's meaning is different. In Germany the Fürsten were those nobles that held their territory inmmediately from the emperor.