Imperial Count

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Imperial Count (German : Reichsgraf) was a title in the Holy Roman Empire. In the medieval era, it was used exclusively to designate the holder of an imperial county, that is, a fief held directly (immediately) from the emperor, rather than from a prince who was a vassal of the emperor or of another sovereign, such as a duke or prince-elector. [1] These imperial counts sat on one of the four "benches" of Counts, whereat each exercised a fractional vote in the Imperial Diet until 1806.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Holy Roman Empire Varying complex of lands that existed from 962 to 1806 in Central Europe

The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also came to include the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.

Imperial immediacy was a privileged constitutional and political status rooted in German feudal law under which the Imperial estates of the Holy Roman Empire such as Imperial cities, prince-bishoprics and secular principalities, and individuals such as the Imperial knights, were declared free from the authority of any local lord and placed under the direct authority of the Emperor, and later of the institutions of the Empire such as the Diet, the Imperial Chamber of Justice and the Aulic Council.


In the post-Middle Ages era, anyone granted the title of Count by the emperor in his specific capacity as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (rather than, e.g. as ruler of Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, the Spanish Netherlands, etc.) became, ipso facto, an "Imperial Count" (Reichsgraf), whether he reigned over an immediate county or not.

Meeting of the Perpetual Imperial Diet in Regensburg in 1640, after an engraving by Matthaus Merian 1640 sitzung-des-immerwaehrenden-reichstags-regensburg-stich-merian 1-1560x1100.jpg
Meeting of the Perpetual Imperial Diet in Regensburg in 1640, after an engraving by Matthäus Merian


In the Merovingian and Franconian Empire, a Graf ("Count") was an official who exercised the royal prerogatives in an administrative district ( Gau or "county"). [1] A lord designated to represent the king or emperor in a county requiring higher authority than delegated to the typical count acquired a title which indicated that distinction: a border land was held by a margrave, a fortress by a burgrave, an imperial palace or royal estate by a count palatine, a large territory by a landgrave. [1] Originally the counts were ministeriales , appointed administrators, but under the Ottonian emperors, they came to constitute a class, whose land management on behalf of the ruling princes favoured their evolution to a status above not only peasants and burghers, but above landless knights and the landed gentry. Their roles within the feudal system tended to become hereditary and were gradually integrated with those of the ruling nobility by the close of the medieval era.

Francia territory inhabited and ruled by the Franks during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Francia, also called the Kingdom of the Franks, or Frankish Empire was the largest post-Roman barbarian kingdom in Western Europe. It was ruled by the Franks during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. It is the predecessor of the modern states of France and Germany. After the Treaty of Verdun in 843, West Francia became the predecessor of France, and East Francia became that of Germany. Francia was among the last surviving Germanic kingdoms from the Migration Period era before its partition in 843.

<i lang="de" title="German language text">Graf</i> historical title of the German nobility

Graf (male) or Gräfin (female) is a historical title of the German nobility, usually translated as "count". Considered to be intermediate among noble ranks, the title is often treated as equivalent to the British title of "earl".

A march or mark was, in broad terms, a medieval European term for any kind of borderland, as opposed to a notional "heartland". More specifically, a march was a border between realms, and/or a neutral/buffer zone under joint control of two states, in which different laws might apply. In both of these senses, marches served a political purpose, such as providing warning of military incursions, or regulating cross-border trade, or both.

The possessor of a county within or subject to the Holy Roman Empire might owe feudal allegiance to another noble, theoretically of any rank, who might himself be a vassal of another lord or of the Holy Roman Emperor; or the count might have no other suzerain than the Holy Roman Emperor himself, in which case he was deemed to hold directly or "immediately" (reichsunmittelbar) of the emperor. [1] Nobles who inherited, purchased, were granted or successfully seized such counties, or were able to eliminate any obligation of vassalage to an intermediate suzerain (for instance, by the purchase of his feudal rights from a liege lord), were those on whom the emperor came to rely directly to raise and supply the revenues and soldiers, from their own vassals and manors, which enabled him to govern and protect the empire. Thus their Imperial immediacy tended to secure for them substantial independence within their own territories from the emperor's authority. Gradually they came also to be recognised as counselors entitled to be summoned to his Imperial Diets.

Fief System of economic governance during the Middle Ages in Europe.

A fief was the central element of feudalism. It consisted of heritable property or rights granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service, usually given by the personal ceremonies of homage and fealty. The fees were often lands or revenue-producing real property held in feudal land tenure: these are typically known as fiefs or fiefdoms. However, not only land but anything of value could be held in fee, including governmental office, rights of exploitation such as hunting or fishing, monopolies in trade, and tax farms.

The German nobility and royalty were status groups which until 1919 enjoyed certain privileges relative to other people under the laws and customs in the German-speaking area.

Vassal person who has entered into a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch in the context of the feudal system in medieval Europe

A vassal is a person regarded as having a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch, in the context of the feudal system in medieval Europe. The obligations often included military support by knights in exchange for certain privileges, usually including land held as a tenant or fief. The term is applied to similar arrangements in other feudal societies.

A parallel process occurred among other authorities and strata in the realm, both secular and ecclesiastical. While commoners and the lowest levels of nobles remained subject to the authority of a lord, baron or count, some knights and lords ( Reichsfreiherren ) avoided owing fealty to any but the emperor yet lacked sufficient importance to obtain consistent admission to the Diet. The most powerful nobles and bishops (Electors) secured the exclusive privilege of voting to choose a Holy Roman Emperor, from among their own number or other rulers, whenever a vacancy occurred. [1] Those just below them in status were recognised as Imperial princes (Reichsfürsten) who, through the hereditary vote each wielded in the Diet's College of Princes, served as members of a loose legislature (cf. peerage) of the Empire. [1]

<i><i lang="de" title="German language text">Freiherr</i></i> title of nobility in the Holy Roman Empire

Freiherr, Freifrau and Freiin are designations used as titles of nobility in the German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire, and in its various successor states, including Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, etc. Traditionally it denotes the titled rank within the nobility above Ritter (knight) and Edler and below Graf and Herzog (duke). The title superseded the earlier medieval form, Edelherr.

A peerage is a legal system historically comprising hereditary titles in various countries, comprising various noble ranks.

Power and political role

As the Empire emerged from the medieval era, immediate counts were definitively excluded from possessing the individual seat and vote (Virilstimme) in the Diet that belonged to electors and princes. In order, however, to further their political interests more effectively and to preserve their independence, the imperial counts organized regional associations and held Grafentage ("countly councils"). In the Imperial Diet, starting in the 16th century, and consistently from the Perpetual Diet (1663–1806), the imperial counts were grouped into "imperial comital associations" known as Grafenbänke. Early in the 16th century, such associations were formed in Wetterau and Swabia. The Franconian association was created in 1640, the Westphalian association in 1653.

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th to the 15th century

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Count (Male), or Countess (Female), is a historical title of nobility in certain European countries, varying in relative status, generally of middling rank in the hierarchy of nobility. The etymologically related English term, "county" denoted the land owned by a count. Equivalents of the rank of count exist or have existed in the nobility structures of some non-European countries, such as hakushaku during the Japanese Imperial era.

The Wetterau is a fertile undulating tract, watered by the Wetter, a tributary of the Nidda River, in the western German state of Hesse, between the hilly province Oberhessen and the north-western Taunus mountains.

They participated with the emperor, electors and princes in ruling the Empire by virtue of being entitled to a seat on one of the Counts' benches (Grafenbank) in the Diet. Each "bench" was entitled to exercise one collective vote (Kuriatstimme) in the Diet and each comital family was allowed to cast one fractional vote toward a bench's vote: A majority of fractional votes determined how that bench's vote would be cast on any issue before the Diet. Four benches were recognised (membership in each being determined by which quadrant of the Empire a count's fief lay within). By being seated and allowed to cast a shared vote on a Count's bench an imperial count obtained, the "seat and vote" within the Imperial Diet which, combined with Imperial immediacy, made of his chief land holding an Imperial estate (Reichsstand) and conferred upon him and his family the status of Landeshoheit , i.e. the semi-sovereignty which distinguished Germany and Austria's high nobility (the Hochadel ) from the lower nobility (Niederadel), who had no representation in the Diet and usually answered to an over-lord.

In the Holy Roman Empire, Landeshoheit or superioritas territorialis was the authority possessed by the immediate lords within their own territories. It was possessed by all imperial estates and imperial knights. It has often been conflated with sovereignty, but while it "carried with it nearly all the ingredients or attributes of true sovereignty, [it] was legally distinct from it, and was everywhere in Germany admitted to be so."

Thus the reichsständische imperial counts pegged their interests and status to those of the imperial princes. In 1521 there were 144 imperial counts; by 1792 only 99 were left. The decrease reflected elevations to higher title, extinction of the male line, and purchase or annexation (outright or by the subordination known as mediatisation) by more powerful imperial princes.

In 1792 there were four associations (benches) of counties contributing the votes of 99 families to the Diet's Reichsfürstenrat :

  1. the Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Association of Imperial Counts, with 33 members
  2. the Wetterau Association of Imperial Counts, with 25 members
  3. the Swabian Association of Imperial Counts, with 24 members
  4. the Franconian Association of Imperial Counts, with 17 members

By the Treaty of Lunéville of 1800, princely domains west of the Rhine River were annexed to France, including imperial counts. In the Final Recess of the Imperial Delegation of 1803, those deemed to have resisted the French were compensated with secularized Church lands and free cities. Some of the counts, such as Aspremont, were generously compensated. Others, such as Leyen, were denied compensation due to failure to resist the French.

By 1806, Napoleon's re-organisation of the continental map squeezed not only all imperial counts but most princes out of existence as quasi-independent entities by the time of the Holy Roman Empire. [1] Each was annexed by its largest German neighbor, although many were swapped by one sovereign to another as they sought to shape more cohesive borders or lucrative markets. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sought to turn back the clock on the French Revolution's politics, but not on the winnowing of Germany's ruling dynasties and myriad maps. The imperial counts and princes were compensated for the loss of their rights as rulers with largely symbolic privileges, gradually eroded but not extinguished until 1918, including Ebenbürtigkeit ; the right to inter-marry with Germany's (and, by extension, Europe's) still reigning dynasties, [1] a prerogative most reichsunmittelbar families had enjoyed prior to mediatisation. A few counties had been elevated to principalities by Napoleon. Most of these were also mediatised by the Congress of Vienna. A few of their dynasties held on to their sovereignty until 1918: Lippe, Reuß, Schwarzburg and Waldeck-Pyrmont.

Status of Imperial count

Patent awarding the title of Imperial Count to Baron Anton Schenk von Stauffenberg, by Emperor Joseph II, 1785 Reichsgrafenstands-Diplom Schenk von Stauffenberg 1785.jpg
Patent awarding the title of Imperial Count to Baron Anton Schenk von Stauffenberg, by Emperor Joseph II, 1785

Those counts who received their title by letters patent from the emperor or an Imperial vicar were recognized within the subsequent German Empire as retaining their titles and rank above counts elevated by lesser sovereigns, even if their family had never held imperial immediacy within the Empire. A comital or other title granted by a German sovereign conferred, in principle, rank only in that sovereign's realm, [1] although usually recognised as a courtesy title elsewhere. Titles granted by Habsburg rulers in their capacity as Kings of Hungary, Archdukes or Emperors of Austria were not thereby Reichsgrafen, nor ranked with comparable precedence even post-1806.

Titular imperial counts usually had no role in the ruling of the Empire, although there were exceptions. Sometimes, when a prince wished to marry a lady of lower rank and have her share his title, the Emperor might elevate her to Imperial countess or even princess (often over the objections of his other family members), but this conferred upon her neither the same title nor rank borne by dynasts, nor did it, ipso facto, prevent the marriage from being morganatic.

References and notes

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Pine, L.G. (1992). Titles: How the King became His Majesty. New York: Barnes & Noble. pp. 49, 67–69, 74–75, 84–85, 108–112. ISBN   978-1-56619-085-5.

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