Imperial immediacy

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Document signed by the Abbot of Marchtal, "immediate and exempt" Marchtal Immediate and Exempt 1748.jpg
Document signed by the Abbot of Marchtal, "immediate and exempt"

Imperial immediacy (German : Reichsfreiheit or Reichsunmittelbarkeit) 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 ("immediate", in the sense of "without an intermediary") authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, and later of the institutions of the Empire such as the Diet (Reichstag), the Imperial Chamber of Justice and the Aulic Council.

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 in 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 Complex of territories in Europe from 962 to 1806

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.

Free imperial city Self-ruling city that enjoyed Imperial immediacy

In the Holy Roman Empire, the collective term free and imperial cities, briefly worded free imperial city, was used from the fifteenth century to denote a self-ruling city that had a certain amount of autonomy and was represented in the Imperial Diet. An imperial city held the status of Imperial immediacy, and as such, was subordinate only to the Holy Roman Emperor, as opposed to a territorial city or town which was subordinate to a territorial prince – be it an ecclesiastical lord or a secular prince.


The granting of immediacy began in the Early Middle Ages, and for the immediate bishops, abbots and cities, then the main beneficiaries of that status, immediacy could be exacting and often meant being subjected to the fiscal, military and hospitality demands of their overlord, the Emperor. However, with the gradual exit of the Emperor from the centre stage from the mid-13th century onwards, holders of imperial immediacy eventually found themselves vested with considerable rights and powers previously exercised by the emperor.

As confirmed by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the possession of imperial immediacy came with a particular form of territorial authority known as territorial superiority (Landeshoheit or superioritas territorialis in German and Latin documents of the time). [1] [2] In today's terms, it would be understood as a limited form of sovereignty.

Peace of Westphalia Peace treaty ending the European Thirty and Eighty Years Wars

The Peace of Westphalia was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster, largely ending the European wars of religion, including the Thirty Years' War. The treaties of Westphalia brought to an end a calamitous period of European history which caused the deaths of approximately eight million people. Scholars have identified Westphalia as the beginning of the modern international system, based on the concept of Westphalian sovereignty, though this interpretation has been challenged.


The Prince-Bishop of Liege, member of the Imperial estates, enjoyed Imperial immediacy and therefore could negotiate and sign international treaties on his own, as long as they were not directed against the Emperor and the Empire. Frontispice page of treaty between France and Liege.jpg
The Prince-Bishop of Liège, member of the Imperial estates, enjoyed Imperial immediacy and therefore could negotiate and sign international treaties on his own, as long as they were not directed against the Emperor and the Empire.

Several immediate estates held the privilege of attending meetings of the Reichstag in person, including an individual vote (votum virile):

Prince-elector members of the electoral college of the Holy Roman Empire

The Prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire, or Electors for short, were the members of the electoral college that elected the Holy Roman Emperor.

Golden Bull of 1356 manuscript

The Golden Bull of 1356 was a decree issued by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg and Metz headed by the Emperor Charles IV which fixed, for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. It was named the Golden Bull for the golden seal it carried.

Princes of the Holy Roman Empire

Prince of the Holy Roman Empire was a title attributed to a hereditary ruler, nobleman or prelate recognised as such by the Holy Roman Emperor.

They formed the Imperial Estates, together with 99 immediate counts, 40 Imperial prelates (abbots and abbesses), and 50 Imperial Cities, each of whose "banks" only enjoyed a single collective vote (votum curiatum).

Further immediate estates not represented in the Reichstag were the Imperial Knights as well as several abbeys and minor localities, the remains of those territories which in the High Middle Ages had been under the direct authority of the Emperor and since then had mostly been given in pledge to the princes.

Imperial Knight

The Free Imperial knights were free nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, whose direct overlord was the Emperor. They were the remnants of the medieval free nobility (edelfrei) and the ministeriales. What distinguished them from other knights, who were vassals of a higher lord, was the fact that they had been granted Imperial immediacy, and as such were the equals in most respects to the other individuals or entities, such as the secular and ecclesiastical territorial rulers of the Empire and the Free Imperial cities, that also enjoyed Imperial immediacy. However, unlike all of those, the Imperial knights did not possess the status of Estates (Stände) of the Empire, and therefore were not represented, individually or collectively, in the Imperial Diet.They tended to define their responsibilities to the Empire in terms of feudalized obligations to the Emperor, including personal service and strictly voluntary financial offerings paid to the Emperor himself.

The Imperial Villages were the smallest component entities of the Holy Roman Empire. They possessed imperial immediacy, having no lord but the Emperor, but were not estates. They were unencircled and did not have representation in the Imperial Diet. In all these respects they were similar to the Imperial Knights. The inhabitants of Imperial Villages were free men.

High Middle Ages Period in European history from 1000 to 1250 CE

The High Middle Ages, or High Medieval Period, was the period of European history that commenced around 1000 and lasted until around 1250. The High Middle Ages were preceded by the Early Middle Ages and were followed by the Late Middle Ages, which ended around 1500.

At the same time, there were classes of "princes" with titular immediacy to the Emperor but who exercised such privileges rarely, if at all. For example, the Bishops of Chiemsee, Gurk, and Seckau (Sacken) were practically subordinate to the prince-bishop of Salzburg, but were formally princes of the Empire.

Advantages and disadvantages

Additional advantages might include the rights to collect taxes and tolls, to hold a market, to mint coins, to bear arms, and to conduct legal proceedings. The last of these might include the so-called Blutgericht ("blood justice") through which capital punishment could be administered. These rights varied according to the legal patents granted by the emperor.

As pointed out by Jonathan Israel [3] in 1528 the Dutch province of Overijssel tried to arrange its submission to Emperor Charles V in his capacity as Holy Roman Emperor rather than as his being the Duke of Burgundy. If successful, that would have evoked Imperial immediacy and would have put Overijssel in a stronger negotiating position, for example given the province the ability to appeal to the Imperial Diet in any debate with Charles. For that reason, the Emperor strongly rejected and blocked Overijssel's attempt.

Disadvantages might include direct intervention by imperial commissions, as happened in several of the south-western cities after the Schmalkaldic War, and the potential restriction or outright loss of previously held legal patents. Immediate rights might be lost if the Emperor and/or the Imperial Diet could not defend them against external aggression, as occurred in the French Revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The Treaty of Lunéville in 1801 required the emperor to renounce all claims to the portions of the Holy Roman Empire west of the Rhine. At the last meeting of the Imperial Diet (German : Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) in 1802–03, also called the German Mediatisation, most of the free imperial cities and the ecclesiastic states lost their imperial immediacy and were absorbed by several dynastic states.

Problems in understanding the Empire

The Holy Roman Empire in 1789. Each of these states (different colours) on the map had a specific set of legal rights that governed its social, economic, and juridical relationships between the state and the emperor, and among the states themselves. HRR 1789 EN.png
The Holy Roman Empire in 1789. Each of these states (different colours) on the map had a specific set of legal rights that governed its social, economic, and juridical relationships between the state and the emperor, and among the states themselves.

The practical application of the rights of immediacy was complex; this makes the history of the Holy Roman Empire particularly difficult to understand, especially for modern historians. Even such contemporaries as Goethe and Fichte called the Empire a monstrosity. Voltaire wrote of the Empire as something neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire, and in comparison to the British Empire, saw its German counterpart as an abysmal failure that reached its pinnacle of success in the early Middle Ages and declined thereafter. [4] Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke described it in the 19th century as having become "a chaotic mess of rotted imperial forms and unfinished territories". For nearly a century after the publication of James Bryce's monumental work The Holy Roman Empire (1864), this view prevailed among most English-speaking historians of the Early Modern period, and contributed to the development of the Sonderweg theory of the German past. [5]

A revisionist view popular in Germany but increasingly adopted elsewhere argued that "though not powerful politically or militarily, [the Empire] was extraordinarily diverse and free by the standards of Europe at the time". Pointing out that people like Goethe meant "monster" as a compliment (i.e. 'an astonishing thing'), The Economist has called the Empire "a great place to live ... a union with which its subjects identified, whose loss distressed them greatly" and praised its cultural and religious diversity, saying that it "allowed a degree of liberty and diversity that was unimaginable in the neighbouring kingdoms" and that "ordinary folk, including women, had far more rights to property than in France or Spain". [6]

Furthermore, the prestige of the Emperor among the German people outweighed his lack of legal and military authority. One need find no better proof of this than the fact that the constitution of Germany remained little changed for centuries, with hundreds of tiny enclaves co-existing peacefully with much larger and often greedy and militaristic neighbors. Only external factors in form of the French military aggression during the Thirty Years' War and the Revolutionary period served to alter Germany's constitution. Napoleon's overthrow of the Empire in favor of his puppet Confederation of the Rhine was a deep moral blow to many Germans. The cringing attitude of the princes and their avaricious behavior during the mediatizations embarrassed the people and, however much they despised the Empire's weakness, it was still a great and old symbol of Germany. Such symbolism was revived in 1848, when the so-called Provisional Central Power of Germany chose 6 August 1848, the 42nd anniversary of the end of the Empire, as the day the soldiers of Germany should swear oaths of loyalty to the new situation (see Military Parade of August 6th), as well as the German Empire of 1871 referred to as The Second Reich.

See also

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  1. Gagliardo, J. G.; Reich and Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763–1806, Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 4.
  2. Lebeau, Christine, ed.; L'espace du Saint-Empire du Moyen-Âge à l'époque moderne, Presse Universitaire de Strasbourg, 2004, p. 117.
  3. Jonathan Israel, "The Dutch Republic:Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477–1806", Ch. 4, p. 66.
  4. James Bryce (1838–1922), Holy Roman Empire, London, 1865.
  5. James Sheehan, German History 1770–1866, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989. Introduction, pp. 1–8.
  6. "The Holy Roman Empire: European disunion done right". The Economist . December 22, 2012. Retrieved January 8, 2016.