The prince-electors or electoral princes of the Holy Roman Empire — German: Kurfürst (singular) Kurfürsten (plural) — were the members of the electoral college of the Holy Roman Empire, having the function of electing the Emperors of Germany. During and after the 15th century they often merely formalised the elective monarchy into what was in fact a dynastic succession. Formally, they elected a King of the Romans, who became Holy Roman Emperor only when crowned by the pope. Charles V was the last to be actually crowned; all of his successors were merely "Emperors-Elect". Electors were among the princes of the Empire, but they had several privileges (in addition to electoral ones) which were disallowed to their non-electoral brethren.
For a great part of the Holy Roman Empire's history (at least from the 14th century, if not the 13th), there were seven electors, including three spiritual ones — the Archbishop of Mainz, the Archbishop of Trier, and the Archbishop of Cologne — and four lay ones — the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. (The last three aforementioned are also known as the Elector Palatine, the Elector of Saxony, and the Elector of Brandenburg, respectively.) Other electors, added in the 17th century, include the Dukes of Bavaria (referred to as Electors of Bavaria) and the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg (the Electors of Hanover). In the early 19th century, several new electors were created, but they never participated in an election, for the Holy Roman Empire was abolished under pressure from Napoléon Bonaparte on August 6, 1806.
The German practice of electing monarchs began when ancient Germanic tribes formed ad hoc coalitions and elected the leaders thereof. Elections were irregularly held by the Franks, whose successor states include France and Germany. The French monarchy eventually became hereditary, but the German monarchy continued to remain elective. While all men originally exercised the right to vote in such elections, suffrage eventually came to be limited to the leading men of the realm. In the election of Lothar II in 1125, a small number of eminent nobles chose the monarch and then submitted him to the remaining magnates for their approbation. Soon, the right to choose the monarch was settled on an exclusive group of princes, and the procedure of seeking the approval of the remaining nobles was abandoned. The college of electors was mentioned in 1152 and again in 1198. A letter of Pope Urban IV suggests that by "immemorial custom", seven princes — the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, along with the Dukes of the Franks, Swabians, Saxons, and Bavarians — had the right to elect the Emperor. The three Archbishops aforementioned oversaw some of the richest and most powerful sees in Europe, while the four Dukes controlled ancient Frankish territory and held important hereditary offices.
By the thirteenth century, the Frankish and Swabian ducal lines became extinct; their electoral claims passed to the Count Palatine of the Rhine and the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Palatinate and Bavaria were originally held by the same individual, but in 1253, they were divided between two members of the Wittelsbach dynasty. The other electors refused to allow two princes from the same dynasty to have electoral rights, so a heated rivalry between the Count Palatine and the Duke of Bavaria arose. Meanwhile, the King of Bohemia, who held the ancient imperial office of Arch-Cupbearer, asserted his right to participate in elections, but was challenged on the grounds that his kingdom was not German. The Golden Bull of 1356 finally resolved the disputes; under it, the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, as well as the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg held the right to elect the King.
The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster
by Gerard Terborch
The college's composition remained unchanged until the 17th century. In 1621, the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, came under the imperial ban after participating in the Bohemian Revolt (a part of the Thirty Years' War). The Elector Palatine's seat was conferred on the Duke of Bavaria, the head of a junior branch of his family. Originally, the Duke held the electorate personally, but it was later made hereditary along with the duchy. When the Thirty Years' War concluded with the Treaty of Münster (also called the Peace of Westphalia) in 1648, a new electorate was created for the Count Palatine of the Rhine. Since the Elector of Bavaria retained his seat, the number of electors increased to eight.
In 1692, as a result of the inheritance of the Palatinate by a Catholic branch of the Wittelsbach family, which threatened to upset the religious balance of the College of Electors, the number of electors was increased to nine, with a seat being granted to the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became known as the Electors of Hanover (the Reichstag officially confirmed the creation in 1708). In 1706, the Elector of Bavaria and Archbishop of Cologne were banned during the War of the Spanish Succession, but both were restored in 1714 after the Peace of Baden. In 1777, the number of electors was reduced to eight when the Elector Palatine inherited Bavaria.
Many changes to the composition of the college were necessitated by Napoleon's aggression during the early 19th century. The Treaty of Lunéville (1801), which ceded territory on the Rhine's left bank to France, led to the abolition of the archbishoprics of Trier and Cologne, and the transfer of the remaining spiritual Elector from Mainz to Regensburg. In 1803, electorates were created for the Duke of Württemberg, the Margrave of Baden, the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and the Duke of Salzburg, bringing the total number of electors to ten. When Austria annexed Salzburg under the Treaty of Pressburg (1805), the Duke of Salzburg moved to the Principality of Würzburg and retained his electorate. None of the new electors, however, had an opportunity to cast votes, as the Holy Roman Empire was abolished in 1806, and the new electorates were never confirmed by the Emperor.
Rights and privileges
Electors were among the rulers of the States of the Empire, but enjoyed precedence over the other princes. They were, until the 18th century, exclusively entitled to the style Durchlaucht (Serene Highness). In 1742, the electors became entitled to the superlative Durchläuchtigste (Most Serene Highness), while other princes were promoted to Durchlaucht.
As rulers of States of the Empire, the electors enjoyed all the privileges of the other princes, including the right to enter into alliances, autonomy in relation to dynastic affairs and precedence over other subjects. The Golden Bull recognised certain additional rights belonging to the electors. For instance, electors were granted a monopoly over all mines of gold, silver, and other metals within their territories, to tax Jews, to collect tolls, and to mint money; these powers belonged to the Emperor in the other territories, and princes who wrongly assumed them could be deprived of their status. Thus, the electors were among the most powerful princes in the Empire. Electors also enjoyed several judicial powers within their territories. Their subjects could be not be tried in the imperial courts, and appeal from their courts lay only in cases where denial of justice was claimed.
After the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire in August of 1806, the electors continued to reign over their territories, many of them taking higher titles. The Dukes of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony made themselves Kings, as did the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who was already King of Great Britain; meanwhile, the Margrave of Baden elevated himself to the Grand-Ducal dignity. The Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, however, retained the meaningless title "Elector of Hesse", thus distinguishing himself from other Hessian princes (the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and the Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg). In 1866, however, the Elector of Hesse was dethroned under Otto von Bismarck's plan for German Unification.
The electors, like the other princes ruling States of the Empire, were members of the Reichstag, which was divided into three collegia: the Council of Electors, the Council of Princes, and the Council of Cities. In addition to being members of the Council of Electors, several lay electors were therefore members of the Council of Princes as well by virtue of other territories they possessed. In many cases, the lay electors ruled numerous States of the Empire, and therefore held several votes in the Council of Princes. In 1792, the King of Bohemia held three votes, the Elector of Bavaria six votes, the Elector of Brandenburg eight votes, and the Elector of Hanover six votes. Thus, of the hundred votes in the Council of Princes in 1792, twenty-three belonged to electors. The lay electors therefore exercised considerable influence, being members of the small Council of Electors and holding a significant number of votes in the Council of Princes. The assent of both bodies was required for important decisions affecting the structure of the Empire, such as the creation of new electorates or States of the Empire.
In addition to voting by colleges or councils, the Reichstag also voted on religious lines, as provided for by the Peace of Westphalia. The Archbishop of Mainz presided over the Catholic body, or corpus catholicorum, while the Elector of Saxony presided over the Protestant body, or corpus evangelicorum. The division into religious bodies was on the basis of the official religion of the state, and not of its rulers. Thus, even when the Electors of Saxony were Catholics during the eighteenth century, they continued to preside over the corpus evangelicorum, since the state of Saxony was officially Protestant.
Illustration of electors deliberating
The individual chosen by the electors assumed title "King of the Romans", though he actually reigned in Germany and Austria. The King of the Romans became Holy Roman Emperor only when crowned by the pope. On many occasions, a pope refused to crown a king with whom he was engaged in a dispute, but a lack of a papal coronation deprived a king of only the title Emperor and not of the power to govern. The Habsburg dynasty stopped the practice of papal coronations. Since Charles V, all individuals chosen by the electors were merely "Emperors-Elect".
The electors were originally summoned by either the Archbishop of Mainz or the Archbishop of Trier within one month of an Emperor's death, and met within three months of being summoned. During the interregnum, imperial power was exercised by two imperial vicars. Each vicar, in the words of the Golden Bull, was "the administrator of the empire itself, with the power of passing judgments, of presenting to ecclesiastical benefices, of collecting returns and revenues and investing with fiefs, of receiving oaths of fealty for and in the name of the holy empire". The Elector of Saxony was vicar in areas operating under Saxon law (Saxony, Westphalia, Hanover, and northern Germany), while the Elector Palatine was vicar in the remainder of the Empire (Franconia, Swabia, the Rhine, and southern Germany). The Elector of Bavaria replaced the Elector Palatine in 1623, but when the latter was granted a new electorate in 1648, there was a dispute between the two as to which was vicar. In 1659, both purported to act as vicar, but the other vicar recognised the Elector of Bavaria. Later, the two electors made a pact to act as joint vicars, but the Reichstag rejected the agreement. In 1711, while the Elector of Bavaria was under the ban of the Empire, the Elector Palatine again acted as vicar, but his cousin was restored to his position upon his restoration three years later. Finally, in 1745, the two agreed to alternate as vicars, with Bavaria starting first. This arrangement was upheld by the Reichstag in 1752. In 1777 the question became moot when the Elector Palatine inherited Bavaria. On many occasions, however, there was no interregnum, as a new king had been elected during the lifetime of the previous Emperor.
Frankfurt has regularly served as the site of the election since the fifteenth century, but elections have also been held at Cologne (1531), Regensburg (1575 and 1636), and Augsburg (1653 and 1690). An elector could appear in person or could appoint another elector his proxy. More often, an electoral suite or embassy was sent to cast the vote; the credentials of such representatives were verified by the Archbishop of Mainz, who presided over the ceremony. The deliberations were held at the city hall, but voting occurred in the cathedral. In Frankfurt, a special electoral chapel, or Wahlkapelle, was used for elections. Under the Golden Bull, a majority of electors sufficed to elect a king, and each elector could cast only one vote. Electors were free to vote for whomsoever they pleased (including themselves), but dynastic considerations played a great part in the choice. Electors drafted a Wahlkapitulation, or electoral capitulation, which was presented to the king-elect. The capitulation may be described as a contract between the princes and the king, the latter conceding rights and powers to the electors and other princes. Once an individual swore to abide by the electoral capitulation, he assumed the office of King of the Romans.
In the 10th and 11th centuries, electors often acted merely to confirm hereditary succession in the Saxonian, Franconian, and Staufen dynasties. After these lines ended in extinction, the electors began to elect kings from different families so that the throne would not once again settle within a single dynasty. For a short time, the monarchy was elective both in theory and in practice; the arrangement, however, did not last, since the powerful House of Habsburg managed to secure succession within their dynasty during the fifteenth century. The Habsburg Archdukes of Austria (and later Kings of Hungary and Bohemia) were all elected kings from 1438 until 1740, when the archduchy was inherited by a woman, Maria Theresa. The House of Wittelsbach came to power for a short period of time, but in 1745, Maria Theresa's husband, Francis I of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, became King; all of his successors were also from the same family. Hence, for the greater part of the Empire's history, the role of the electors was largely ceremonial.
The Arms of Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria, Arch-Steward and Prince-Elector
Each elector held a "High Office of the Empire" and was a member of the (ceremonial) Imperial Household. The three spiritual electors were all Arch-Chancellors: the Archbishop of Mainz was Arch-Chancellor of Germany, the Archbishop of Trier was Arch-Chancellor of Italy, and the Archbishop of Cologne was Arch-Chancellor of Gaul and Arles. The King of Bohemia held the office of the Arch-Cupbearer, the Elector Palatine that of Arch-Steward, the Elector of Saxony that of Arch-Marshal, and the Elector of Brandenburg that of Arch-Chamberlain. When the Duke of Bavaria replaced the Elector Palatine in 1623, he assumed the latter's office of Arch-Steward. When the Count Palatine was granted a new electorate, he assumed the position of Arch-Treasurer of the Empire. When the Duke of Bavaria was banned in 1706, the Elector Palatine returned to the office of Arch-Steward, and in 1710 the Elector of Hanover was promoted to the post of Arch-Treasurer. Matters were complicated by the Duke of Bavaria's restoration in 1714; the Elector of Bavaria resumed the office of Arch-Steward, while the Elector Palatine returned to the post of Arch-Treasurer. The Electors of Hanover, however, continued to be styled Arch-Treasuers, though the Elector Palatine was the one who actually exercised the office until 1777, when he inherited Bavaria and the Arch-Stewardship. After 1777, no further changes were made to the Imperial Household; new offices were planned for the Electors admitted in 1803, but the Empire was abolished before they could be created.
Many High Officers were entitled to use "augmentations" on their coats of arms; these augmentations, which were special marks of honour, appeared in the centre of the electors' shields (as shown in the image on the right) above the other charges (in heraldic terms, the augmentations appeared in the form of inescutcheons). The Arch-Steward used gules an orb Or (a gold orb on a red field — illustrated on the right). The Arch-Marshal utilised the more complicated per fess sable and argent, two swords per saltire gules (two red swords arranged in the form of a saltire, on a black and white field). The Arch-Chamberlain's augmentation was azure a sceptre per pale Or (a gold sceptre on a blue field), while the Arch-Treasurer's was gules the crown of Charlemagne Or (a gold crown on a red field). As noted above, the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Hanover styled themselves Arch-Treasurer from 1714 until 1777; during this time, both electors used the corresponding augmentations. The three Arch-Chancellors and the Arch-Cupbearer did not use any augmentations.
The electors discharged the ceremonial duties associated with their offices only during coronations, where they bore the crown and regalia of the Empire. Otherwise, they were represented by holders of corresponding "Hereditary Offices of the Household". The Arch-Cupbearer was represented by the Cupbearer (the Count of Althann), the Arch-Steward by the Steward (the Count of Waldburg), the Arch-Chamberlain by the Chamberlain (the Count of Hohenzollern), the Arch-Marshal by the Marshal (the Count of Pappenheim), and the Arch-Treasurer by the Treasurer (the Count of Sinzendorf).
- Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, another contemporary elective monarchy
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