Imperial Diet (Holy Roman Empire)

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Seating plan for an inauguration of the Imperial Diet in the Regensburg Town Hall from a 1675 engraving: Emperor and Prince-electors at the head, secular Princes to the left, ecclesiastical to the right, deputies of Imperial Cities in the foreground. Kurien des reichstages des Heiligen Romischen Reiches.jpg
Seating plan for an inauguration of the Imperial Diet in the Regensburg Town Hall from a 1675 engraving: Emperor and Prince-electors at the head, secular Princes to the left, ecclesiastical to the right, deputies of Imperial Cities in the foreground.

The Imperial Diet (Latin : Dieta Imperii or Comitium Imperiale; German : Reichstag) was the deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire. It was not a legislative body in the contemporary sense; its members envisioned it more like a central forum where it was more important to negotiate than to decide. [1]


Its members were the Imperial Estates, divided into three colleges. The diet as a permanent, regularized institution evolved from the Hoftage (court assemblies) of the Middle Ages. From 1663 until the end of the empire in 1806, it was in permanent session at Regensburg.

All Imperial Estates enjoyed immediacy and, therefore, they had no authority above them besides the Holy Roman Emperor himself. While all the estates were entitled to a seat and vote, only the higher temporal and spiritual princes of the College of Princes enjoyed an individual vote (Virilstimme), while lesser estates such as imperial counts and imperial abbots, were merely entitled to a collective vote (Kuriatstimme) within their particular bench (Curia), as did the free imperial cities belonging to the College of Towns. [2]

The right to vote rested essentially on a territorial entitlement, with the result that when a given prince acquired new territories through inheritance or otherwise, he also acquired their voting rights in the diet. [3] In general, members did not attend the permanent diet at Regensburg, but sent representatives instead. The late imperial diet was in effect a permanent meeting of ambassadors between the estates.


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. Initially, there was neither a fixed time nor location for the Diet. It started as a convention of the dukes of the old Germanic tribes that formed the Frankish kingdom when important decisions had to be made, and was probably based on the old Germanic law whereby each leader relied on the support of his leading men.

For example, already under Emperor Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars, the Diet, according to the Royal Frankish Annals, met at Paderborn in 777 and officially determined laws concerning the subdued Saxons and other tribes. In 803, the Frankish emperor issued the final version of the Lex Saxonum.

At the Diet of 919 in Fritzlar the dukes elected the first King of the Germans, who was a Saxon, Henry the Fowler, thus overcoming the longstanding rivalry between Franks and Saxons and laying the foundation for the German realm. After the conquest of Italy, the 1158 Diet of Roncaglia finalized four laws that would significantly alter the (never formally written) constitution of the Empire, marking the beginning of the steady decline of the central power in favour of the local dukes. The Golden Bull of 1356 cemented the concept of "territorial rule" (Landesherrschaft), the largely independent rule of the dukes over their respective territories, and also limited the number of electors to seven. The Pope, contrary to modern myth, was never involved in the electoral process but only in the process of ratification and coronation of whomever the Prince-Electors chose.

The summons for Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms, signed by Charles V. The text on the left was on the reverse side. Summons for Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms.jpg
The summons for Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms, signed by Charles V. The text on the left was on the reverse side.
"Here I stand": Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
19th-century painting by Hermann Wislicenus Luther (Wislicenus).jpg
"Here I stand": Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
19th-century painting by Hermann Wislicenus

Until the late 15th century the Diet was not actually formalized as an institution. Instead, the dukes and other princes would irregularly convene at the court of the Emperor. These assemblies were usually referred to as Hoftage (from German Hof "court"). Only beginning in 1489 was the Diet called the Reichstag, and it was formally divided into several collegia ("colleges").

Initially, the two colleges were that of the prince-electors and that of the other dukes and princes. Later, the imperial cities, that is, cities that had Imperial immediacy and were oligarchic republics independent of a local ruler that were subject only to the Emperor himself, managed to be accepted as a third party.

Several attempts to reform the Empire and end its slow disintegration, notably starting with the Diet of 1495, did not have much effect. In contrast, this process was only hastened with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which formally bound the Emperor to accept all decisions made by the Diet, in effect depriving him of his few remaining powers. From then to its end in 1806, the Empire was not much more than a collection of largely independent states.

Probably the most famous Diets were those held in Worms in 1495, where the Imperial Reform was enacted, and 1521, where Martin Luther was banned (see Edict of Worms), the Diets of Speyer 1526 and 1529 (see Protestation at Speyer), and several in Nuremberg (Diet of Nuremberg). Only with the introduction of the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg in 1663 did the Diet permanently convene in a fixed location.

The Imperial Diet of Constance opened on 27 April 1507; [4] it recognized the unity of the Holy Roman Empire and founded the Imperial Chamber, the empire’s supreme court.


From 1489, the Diet comprised three colleges:


The coats of arms of prince electors surround the Holy Roman Emperor's, from flags book of Jacob Kobel (1545). Wapen 1545 Kaiserwappen des Heiligen Romischen Reichs Polychromie.jpg
The coats of arms of prince electors surround the Holy Roman Emperor's, from flags book of Jacob Köbel (1545).

The Electoral College (Kurfürstenrat), led by the Prince-Archbishop of Mainz in his capacity as Archchancellor of Germany. The seven Prince-electors were designated by the Golden Bull of 1356:

The number increased to eight, when in 1623 the Duke of Bavaria took over the electoral dignity of the Count Palatine, who himself received a separate vote in the electoral college according to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia (Causa Palatina), including the high office of an Archtreasurer. In 1692 the Elector of Hanover (formally Brunswick-Lüneburg) became the ninth Prince-elector as Archbannerbearer during the Nine Years' War.

In the War of the Bavarian Succession, the electoral dignities of the Palatinate and Bavaria were merged, approved by the 1779 Treaty of Teschen. The German Mediatisation of 1803 entailed the dissolution of the Cologne and Trier Prince-archbishoprics, the Prince-Archbishop of Mainz and German Archchancellor received—as compensation for his lost territory occupied by Revolutionary France—the newly established Principality of Regensburg. In turn, four secular princes were elevated to prince-electors:

These changes however had little effect, as with the abdication of Francis II as Holy Roman Emperor the Empire was dissolved only three years later.


The college of Imperial Princes (Reichsfürstenrat or Fürstenbank) incorporated the Imperial Counts as well as immediate lords, Prince-Bishops and Imperial abbots. Strong in members, though often discordant, the second college tried to preserve its interests against the dominance of the Prince-electors.

The House of Princes was again subdivided into an ecclesiastical and a secular bench. Remarkably, the ecclesiastical bench was headed by the—secular—Archduke of Austria and the Burgundian duke of the Habsburg Netherlands (held by Habsburg Spain from 1556). As the Austrian House of Habsburg had failed to assume the leadership of the secular bench, they received the guidance over the ecclesiastical princes instead. The first ecclesiastical prince was the Archbishop of Salzburg as Primas Germaniae ; the Prince-Archbishop of Besançon, though officially a member until the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen, did not attend the Diet's meetings.

The ecclesiastical bench also comprised the Grand Master and Deutschmeister of the Teutonic Knights, as well as the Grand Prior of the Monastic State of the Knights Hospitaller at Heitersheim. The Prince-Bishopric of Lübeck remained an ecclesiastical member even after it had turned Protestant, ruled by diocesan administrators from the House of Holstein-Gottorp from 1586. The Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, according to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was under alternating rule of a Catholic bishop and a Lutheran bishop from the House of Hanover.

Each member of the Princes' College held either a single vote (Virilstimme) or a collective vote (Kuriatstimme). Due to the Princes, their single vote from 1582 strictly depended on their immediate fiefs; this principle led to an accumulation of votes, when one ruler held several territories in personal union. Counts and Lords only were entitled to collective votes, they therefore formed separate colleges like the Wetterau Association of Imperial Counts and mergers within the Swabian, the Franconian and the Lower Rhenish–Westphalian Circles. Likewise, on the ecclesiastical bench, the Imperial abbots joined a Swabian or Rhenish college.

In the German Mediatisation of 1803, numerous ecclesiastical territories were annexed by secular estates. A reform of the Princes' college was however not carried out until the Empire's dissolution in 1806.


The college of Imperial Cities (Reichsstädtekollegium) evolved from 1489 onwards, it contributed greatly to the development of the Imperial Diets as a political institution. Nevertheless, the collective vote of the cities initially was of inferior importance until a 1582 Recess of the Augsburg Diet. The college was led by the city council of the actual venue; with the implementation of the Perpetual Diet in 1663, the chair passed to Regensburg.

The Imperial cities also divided into a Swabian and Rhenish bench. The Swabian cities were led by Nuremberg, Augsburg and Regensburg, the Rhenish cities by Cologne, Aachen and Frankfurt.

For a complete list of members of the Imperial Diet from 1792, near the end of the Empire, see List of Reichstag participants (1792).

Religious bodies

After the Peace of Westphalia, religious matters could no longer be decided by a majority vote of the colleges. Instead, the Reichstag would separate into Catholic and Protestant bodies, which would discuss the matter separately and then negotiate an agreement with each other, a procedure called the itio in partes . [5] The Catholic body, or corpus catholicorum , was headed by the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz. [6]

The Protestant body, or corpus evangelicorum , was headed by the Elector of Saxony. At meetings of the Protestant body, Saxony would introduce each topic of discussion, after which Brandenburg-Prussia and Hanover would speak, followed by the remaining states in order of size. When all the states had spoken, Saxony would weigh the votes and announce a consensus.

Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of Poland, but the Electorate itself remained officially Protestant and retained the directorship of the Protestant body. When the Elector's son also converted to Catholicism, Prussia and Hanover attempted to take over the directorship in 1717–1720, but without success. The Electors of Saxony would head the Protestant body until the end of the Holy Roman Empire. [6]

Collection of records

After the formation of the new German Empire in 1871, the Historical Commission of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences started to collect imperial records (Reichsakten) and imperial diet records (Reichstagsakten). In 1893 the commission published the first volume. At present the years 1524–1527 and years up to 1544 are being collected and researched. A volume dealing with the 1532 Diet of Regensburg, including the peace negotiations with the Protestants in Schweinfurt and Nuremberg, by Rosemarie Aulinger of Vienna was published in 1992.

Locations of Imperial Diets

754 Quierzy-sur-Oise Pepin the Short Donation of Pepin to Pope Stephen II
777 Paderborn Charlemagne First Diet on Saxon soil, Duke Widukind refused to appear
782 Lippspringe Charlemagne Division of Saxony into Gaue under Frankish Grafen (counts)
788 Ingelheim am Rhein Charlemagne Deposition of Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria
799 Paderborn Charlemagne Charlemagne clears with Pope Leo III his installation as Emperor
806 Diedenhofen Charlemagne Division of the Carolingian Empire among Pepin of Italy, Charles the Younger and Louis the Pious
817 Aachen   
826Unknown Invitation of the Sorbs
829 Worms   
831 Aachen   
835 Diedenhofen Louis the Pious  
838 Speyer Louis the Pious  
872 Forchheim Louis the German  
874 Forchheim Louis the German Discussion and regulation of inheritance
887 Tribur   
889 Forchheim Arnulf of Carinthia  
892 Forchheim Arnulf of Carinthia Preparing a War against the Slavs
896 Forchheim Arnulf of Carinthia  
903 Forchheim Louis the Child Execution of the Babenberg Rebel Adalhard
907 Forchheim Louis the Child Council about the Magyar attacks
911 Forchheim  Election of Conrad of Franconia King
914 Forchheim Conrad of Franconia War against Arnulf I of Bavaria
919 Fritzlar   
926 Worms Henry the Fowler  
952on the Lech meadows near Augsburg Otto I  
961 Forchheim Otto I  
967 Ravenna Otto II  
972 Quedlinburg  Otto I celebrated his son and Theophanu Byzantine princess' marriage and a plenty of foreigners came to celebrate with them. Hungarian envoys came to request mission priests. [7]
976 Regensburg   
978 Dortmund Otto II War against France in the Autumn
983 Verona  Election of Otto III
985Unknown End of the usurpation of Henry the Wrangler
993 Dortmund Otto III  
1018 Nijmegen Henry II Preparing the Battle of Vlaardingen
1030 Minden Conrad II  
1066 Tribur   
1076 Worms Henry IV  
1077 Augsburg   
1098 Mainz Henry IV  
1105 Ingelheim Henry IV  
1119 Tribur Henry IV  
1122 Worms Henry V  
1126 Speyer Henry V  
1146 Speyer Conrad III Decision to participate in the Second Crusade
1147 Frankfurt Conrad III
1152 Dortmund, Merseburg Frederick I Barbarossa  
1154 Goslar  
1157 Bisanz Frederick I Barbarossa  
1158 Diet of Roncaglia near Piacenza Frederick I Barbarossa  
1165 Würzburg Frederick I Barbarossa  
1168 Bamberg Frederick I Barbarossa, Henry VI  
1178 Speyer Frederick I Barbarossa  
1180 Gelnhausen Frederick I Barbarossa, Henry VI Investiture of the Archbishop of Cologne with the Duchy of Westphalia
1181 Erfurt Henry VI Exile of Henry the Lion
1188 Mainz Henry VI  
1190 Schwäbisch Hall Henry VI Abolishment of the Duchy of Lower Lorraine
1193 Speyer Henry VI Trial of Richard I
1196 Frankfurt Henry VI  
1205 Speyer Philip of Swabia  
1213 Speyer Frederick II Frederick has his uncle, Philip of Swabia, who was murdered 1208 in Bamberg, interred in the Speyer cathedral
1235 Mainz Frederick II  
1273 Speyer Rudolf I  
1287 Würzburg Adolf  
1309 Speyer Henry VII
1338 Frankfurt   
1356 Nuremberg Charles IV Issuance of the Golden Bull
1379 Frankfurt   
1384 Speyer   
1389 Eger Wenceslaus Peace of Eger
1414 Speyer Sigismund
1444 Speyer Frederick III
1487 Speyer Frederick III
1487 Nuremberg Frederick III  
1488 Esslingen Frederick III Formation of the Swabian League
1495 Worms Maximilian I Imperial Reform; Common Penny in the wake of the Swabian War
1496/97 Lindau   
1497/98 Freiburg   
1500 Augsburg   
1505 Cologne  Arbitration ending the War of the Succession of Landshut
1507 Konstanz   
1512 Trier, Cologne  10 Imperial Circles
1518 Augsburg   
1521 Worms Charles V Diet of Worms, ban of Martin Luther, Edict of Worms
1522 Nuremberg I  
1522/23 Nuremberg II  
1524 Nuremberg III  
1526 Speyer I  Diet of Speyer, suspension of the Edict of Worms
1529 Speyer II  Diet of Speyer, reinstatement of the Edict of Worms, Protestation at Speyer. Proclamation of the Wiedertäufermandat condemning Anabaptists
1530 Augsburg   Diet of Augsburg presentation of the Augsburg Confession
1532 Regensburg Constitutio Criminalis Carolina
1541 Regensburg   
1542 Speyer   
1542 Nuremberg   
1543 Nuremberg   
1544 Speyer   
1548 Augsburg   Augsburg Interim
1550/51 Augsburg   
1555 Augsburg   Peace of Augsburg
1556/57 Regensburg Ferdinand I  
1559 Augsburg   
1566 Augsburg   
1567 Regensburg   
1570 Speyer  The infantry of the Empire gained a comprehensive military code
1576 Regensburg   
1582 Augsburg   
1594 Regensburg   
1597/98 Regensburg   
1603 Regensburg   
1608 Regensburg   
1613 Regensburg   
1640–41 Regensburg   
1653–54 Regensburg Ferdinand III The Youngest Recess (Jüngster Reichsabschied, recessus imperii novissimus)
1663–1806In the Reichssaal
of the Regensburg town hall
as the Perpetual Diet
See list  

See also

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  1. Klaus Malettke, Les relations entre la France et le Saint-Empire au XVIIe siècle, Honoré Champion, Paris, 2001, p. 22.
  2. John H. Gagliardo, Reich and Nation. The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763–1806, Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 22–23.
  3. John H. Gagliardo, Reich and Nation. The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763–1806, Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 22–23.
  4. History of the Reformation in Germany, page 70, by Leopold von Ranke.
  5. "Peace Treaties of Westphalia (October 14/24, 1648)" (PDF). German History in Documents and Images. In religious and all other affairs in which the estates cannot be considered as one body, and when the Catholic estates and those of the Augsburg Confession are divided into two parties, the dispute is to be decided by amicable agreement alone, and neither side is to be bound by a majority vote.
  6. 1 2 Kalipke, Andreas (2010). "The Corpus Evangelicorum". In Coy; Marschke; Sabean (eds.). The Holy Roman Empire, Reconsidered. Berghahn. pp. 228–247.
  7. "Hóman-Szegfű : Magyar Történet".