The Reichstag in the Holy Roman Empire

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Dong-Yoon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, July 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. The Early History of the Reichstag
III. The Golden Bull of 1356
IV. Reichsreform in 1495
V. The Reichstag after the Reform
Vi. Conclusion

I. Introduction

            The Diet, or the assembly of representatives of different class, existed in different forms among the European nations in the medieval age. Notable examples were the diet Etats Generaux of France, Staten Generael of the Netherlands, and Riksdag of Sweden. This paper specifically deals with the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, the Reichstag.
            The word Reichstag is a compound of German Reich (Empire) and Tag (1) (assembly, derived from the word tagen). Therefore, the word Reichstag denotes Diet of the Empire. The Reichstag was composed of three collegia (2) : the Council of Electors, the Council of princes and the Council of Imperial Cities. However, these set of collegia and the term Reichstag was not used until 1489. Before 1489, the Reichstag was basically a convention of Reichsstände. (3) However, the importance of the Reichstag over the election of the King dates back to the 9th century when the leaders of the five most important tribes (the Franks, Saxons, Bavarians, Swabians, and Thuringians), later by the main lay and clerical dukes of the Kingdom, finally only by the so-called Kurfürsten (4) elected the King.
            This paper contains information about the Reichstag in the Medieval Age. This paper examines the formation, development, and significant changes of the Reichstag. The details about the development of the Reichstag are only dealt prior to the Peace of Westphalia and are concentrated on 1200 ? 1500, which is an approximate period for the middle ages.

II. The Early History of the Reichstag
            Initially, there was neither a fixed term nor a location for the Reichstag. The history of Reichstag dates back to the time before the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, when there was a strong feud between Franks and Saxons. The Reichstag started as a convention of the dukes of the old Germanic region that formed the Frankish kingdom when important decisions had to be made. For instance, under Charles the Great (Charlemagne) who incorporated the Saxons under the Frankish Kingdom and laid the foundation of the later Ottonian dynasty, the Reichstag was held in Aachen in 802 and 803 to officially declare the laws of the Saxons and other tribes. Also, the Reichstag of 919 elected Henry I (5), duke of Saxony, as the King of the Germans to succeed Charlemagne's Frankish successors on the throne of what had become known as the East Frankish Empire. The Reichstag of 919 marked the end of bitter rivalry between the two large German tribes of the Franks and the Saxons and the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire that lasted until the Napoleonic wars.
            The rulers of the Holy Roman Empire also experienced a significant transition of their dominance over their territories after the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (6) in 962. In the Diet of Roncaglia that took place in 1158, The Emperor wished to establish his rights as the feudal sovereign in the face of the growing independence of trading cities, which had won charters of municipal privilege during the earlier periods of strife between the Papacy and the Empire. The determination of the respective rights of the parties was left to four jurists from Bologna, the home of the great law school founded in 1088. The lawyers' decision favored the Emperor Frederick the First, judging that his rule was by divine right, thus restoring the Imperial rights established during the period of nascent trade under rule of Emperor Otto. The lawyers proceeded to define taxes, tolls, and exactions of various kinds to be imposed on trade. When the Lombard cities rejected such provisions and tried to create a Lombard League, the city of Milan was razed to the ground in 1162. But the cities came to understand the value of a proper alliance post destructionem Mediolani (7). The decisive battle in the continuing struggle was the Battle of Legnano in 1176, where Frederick was defeated, and later forced to renege his rights of sovereignty. The Diet of Roncaglia, after all, finalized the 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 favor of the local dukes.

III. The Golden Bull of 1356
            After the Diet of Roncaglia came the Declaration of Rhense (8). Even though, the election of the Emperor was a set rule prior to the declaration, it was now fixed that the election by all or the majority of the electors automatically conferred the royal title and rule over the empire without papal confirmation. The convened prince-electors decided that "Louis is the rightfully elected King of the Romans, and his legitimate power (in the German kingdom) is not dependent upon the pope's will". However, there should be a clear distinction between the King of Romans and the Holy Roman Emperor. Until 1508 when the Maximilian I. assumed the title of elected Emperor, such distinction remained valid. The Golden Bull of 1356 signaled one of the most important transitions of Reichsta's constitutionality. Before the Golden Bull of 1356, the Reichstag was considered only as a meeting for the local dukes. The members of the Diet were originally the princes, including bishops of princely status. After 1250, the representatives of imperial and episcopal cities were recognized as members of the Diet with many restrictions on voting rights as it was prohibited to vote on the issue of territorial expansion, and at this time the electoral princes, whose duty it was to elect the Emperor, began to meet separately. The division was formally confirmed in 1356.
            In 1356, the Reichstag in Nuremberg headed by Emperor Charles IV. issued a decree titled the Golden Bull of 1356. The Golden Bull explicitly named the seven Kurfürsten (9) who were to choose the King of Romans (10), who would then be crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. The seven prince-electors were, "were archchancellors (11) of Germany (Mainz), Gaul and Burgundy (Trier), and Italy (Cologne) respectively?: Bohemia cupbearer (12), the Palsgrave seneschal (13), Saxony marshal (14), and Brandenburg chamberlain (15) (16) Consequently, the Bull spoke of the rex in imperatorem promovendus, the "king to be promoted Emperor".
            Even though the practice of election had existed earlier and most of the dukes named in the Golden Bull were already involved in the election, and although the practice had mostly been written down in the declaration at Rhense from 1338, the Golden Bull was more precise in several ways. For one, the dukeships of the Electors were declared indivisible, and succession was regulated for them to ensure that the votes would never split. Secondly, the Bull prescribed that four votes would always suffice to elect the new King; as a result, three Electors could no longer block the election, and the principle of majority voting was explicitly stated for the first time in the Empire. Finally, the Bull cemented a number of privileges for the Kurfürsten to confirm their elevated role in the Empire. It is therefore also a milestone in the establishment of largely independent states in the Empire, a process to be concluded only centuries later, notably with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

IV. The Reichsreform (17) of 1495
            Prior to 1489, the dukes and other princes would irregularly convene at the court of the king; these assemblies were usually referred to as Hoftage (18). Only beginning in 1489 was the Reichstag called as such, and was formally divided into several collegia. Initially, the two colleges were that of the Kurfürsten (19) and that of the other dukes and princes. Later, the imperial cities, that is, cities that were reichsunmittelbar (20) and were oligarchic republics independent of a local ruler that were formally only responsible to the king himself, managed to be accepted as a third party. In other words, the Diet was divided into three colleges that met separately: (1) the electoral college of seven lay and ecclesiastical princes presided over by the imperial chancellor, the archbishop of Mainz; (2) the college of the princes with 33 ecclesiastical princes and 61 lay princes, presided over by the archbishop of Salzburg or the archduke of Austria; (3) the college of the cities presided over by the representative of the city in which the Diet met. The college of the cities was separated eventually into the Rhine and Swabian divisions, the former having 14 towns and the latter 37.
            Reichstag was not actually formalized as an institution until the late 15th century. Several important steps in defining the Reichstag were taken during the 15th century. Among these steps, the Reichsreform under Maximilian the First had a significant impact on restructuring the Reichstag. The Reichsreform took place in the city of Worms, and gave the disintegrating Holy Roman Empire a new structure. The reform produced the following : Ewiger Landfriede (21) which established the Reich (22) as a single body of law that excluded feuds as a means of politics between its members; the Reichskammergericht (23), a supreme court for all of the Reich territory, possibly the reform's most far-reaching impact (24); the establishment of six (from 1512 on: ten) Reichskreise (25) for a more uniform administration of the Reich to better execute the Perpetual Public Peace and taxing; a so-called Reichsregiment (26), intended as a replacement of Reichstag, which (Reichsregiment) never managed to gain much influence.

V. The Reichstag after the reform
            One of the most significant changes about the role of the Reichstag came in 1508. Maximilian the First, who is best known for the Reichstag of 1495 and the Reichstag at Worms that reshaped much of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, asked Pope Julius II. to allow him to use the title of Emperor without coronation in Rome. Though the title was qualified as Electus Romanorum Imperator , Maximilian's successors, except for the Charles V., accepted the title. The tradition of Pope crowning the Emperor ended. This event brought more importance to the role of the Reichstag because he whom was elected by the Reichstag or specifically Kurfürsten could at then assume the title of Emperor.
            Significant events that had relevance with the Reichstag came in the 16th century, most notable of which was the Reichstag zu Worms in 1521 (28) which issued the Edict of Worms that declared Martin Luther King an outlaw and a heretic, banning his literature.
            Whereas the past Reichstag did not have a specific meeting, the induction of the Immerwährender Reichstag (29) in 1663 did the Reichstag permanently convene in a fixed location, the city of Regensburg.
            The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which gave the territories almost complete sovereignty and religious freedom for the princes, even allowing them to form independent alliances with other states signaled a great transition not only in the Reichstag, an institution, but also in the Holy Roman Empire. The Treaty formally bounded the Emperor to all decisions made by the Reichstag, in effect depriving him of his few remaining powers. From then to its end in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was not much more than a collection of largely independent states.

VI. Conclusion
            For the span of six centuries, the Reichstag experienced much of the transformation in its institutional structure. From the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire when it was only an assembly of dukes, the Reichstag transformed itself into an important decision making institution, yielding greater influence over the selection of Kings.
            The changing role of the Reichstag, however, also implies the changes in the structure of the Holy Roman Empire. The Reichstag had a comparatively low level of influence during the earlier period of the Holy Roman Empire when the territories were under a strong influence of the Emperor who granted fiefs to local dukes and princes, as the Reichstag at time was usually referred as Hoftage. But as time went, the notion of property started to replace more ancient forms of jurisdiction. During the period of the Great Interregnum of 1254 to 1273 when the multiple elections for the election of the Emperor took place and no set Emperor existed, what was left of Imperial authority was lost, as the princes were given time to consolidate their holdings and became more independent rulers over their regions. It was during this period that the territories began to transform the territories into the predecessors of modern states. After the Golden Bull of 1356 which fixed some procedures and rules of how the king, the electors, and the other dukes should cooperate in the Empire, the Emperors, however, neglected the old core lands of the Empire and mostly resided in their own lands. Without the presence of the king, the old institution of the Hoftag, the assembly of the realm's leading men, deteriorated. Since the rules of the past no longer adequately described the structure of the time, much discussion emerged in the 15th century about the Empire itself. With the Kings' presence the Reichstag established itself as a legislative body of the Empire, initiating the Reichsreform of 1495. The Reichstag persisted, not as an institution under the heavy influence of the Emperor, but an institution that guaranteed sovereignty of individual states.
            This paper examined the development of the Reichstag in the Medieval Age. The development of the Reichstag did not only concern the development of itself. At one time, it marked the separation of the Empire from the influence of the Papacy, and at other times it also meant the weakening of the influence of the Emperor over the territories as exemplified in the Peace of Westphalia. The development of the Reichstag had an enduring and significant influence over the structure and history of the Holy Roman Empire. Because it was an institution that represented the Empire, intended to check against the powers of the Emperor, and guaranteed sovereignty to participants in its later years, it carries significance in history. The Reichstag itself as a central institution that reflect upon the interests of its constituents, the Imperial High Court that prevented arbitrary decisions of the Emperor, and many other notions and institutions that spawned from the Reichstag marks it as one of the important representative bodies in history that deserves attention.


(1)      Tag also means day, which was used to represent a meeting in German
(2)      Meaning joined by law, a term applied to any association with a legal personality
(3)      Imperial estates
(4)      Prince-electors
(5)      Henry the Fowler
(5)      The establishment of the Holy Roman Empire is marked with the anointment of Otto I the Great
(5)      After the destruction of Milan
(5)      Also called Treaty of Rhense, 1338
(5)      Prince-electors
(5)      Latin: Rex Romanorum, Imperator futurus meaning Emperor to be
(5)      Archbishop
(5)      The King of Bohemia
(5)      Count Palatine of the Rhine (the Elector Palatine)
(5)      The Duke of Saxony (the Elector of Saxony)
(5)      The Margrave of Brandenburg (the Elector of Brandenburg)
(5)      Bryce ,James, The Holy Roman Empire (1978) quoted after article: Holy Roman Empire, from Wikipedia
(5)      The Imperial Reform
(5)      From German Hof meaning "court"
(5)      Prince electors
(5)      Immediate cities (Imperial immediacy), in German called Reichsunmittelbarkeit, abbey or territory was under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Imperial Diet, without any intermediary liege lord(s)
(5)      The Perpetual Public Peace
(5)      Common German variant of the Holy Roman Empire
(5)      Imperial Chamber Court, Imperial High Court
(5)      Reichshofrat (Court Council of the Empire) originated during the Middle Ages as a paid Council of the Emperor, it was organized in its later form by Maximilian I in 1497, as a rival to the Imperial Chamber Court, which the Diet had forced upon him
(5)      Imperial Circle Estates
(5)      Imperial Regiment, council of regency
(5)      Elected Emperor of Romans
(5)      The Diet of Worms
(5)      The permanent Imperial Diet


Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2008.
1.      Article : Imperial State, from Wikipedia,
2.      Article : Charlemagne, from Wikipedia,
3.      Article : Declaration at Rhense, from Wikipedia,
4.      Article : Diet of Roncaglia, from Wikipedia,
5.      Article : Fritzlar, from Wikipedia,
6.      Article : Golden Bull of 1356, from Wikipedia,
7.      Article : Holy Roman Emperor, from Wikipedia,
8.      Article : Holy Roman Empire, from Wikipedia,
9.      Article : King of the Romans, from Wikipedia
10.      Article : Maximilian I the Holy Roman Emperor, from Wikipedia,
11.      Article : Prince-elector, from Wikipedia
12.      Article : Reichstag (institution), from Wikipedia
13.      Article: The Diet, from Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol 9 p. 86
14.      The Fletcher School, Tuft. "Treaty of Westphalia." MULTILATERALS PUBLICATION os. 26 June 2008.