Research Subjects: Government & Politics



The Holy Roman Empire’s Imperial Diet: Electoral Votes in 1792

By Stephen Millar

 “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

 - Voltaire, “Essai sur l’histoire generale et sur les moeurs et l’espirit des nations,” 1756

Originally founded by the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the Holy Roman Empire had, by 1792, evolved into a complicated patchwork of large and small sovereign states. Spread out over several European regions, this medieval instution was not governed by an hereditary monarch, but by an elected Emperor (who was later crowned by the Pope) [1].

In theory, the Imperial electoral process allowed any member of the nobility to acquire the title of Emperor; in practice, however, the politically-powerful Austrian Hapsburg family had managed to keep the title for itself since 1438. Responsibility for the election of a future Emperor lay with the Council of Electors (Kurfurstenrat) and the Council of Princes (Furstenrat) within the Imperial Diet. The Council of Imperial or Free Cities cast only an advisory vote.

For the election of the last Holy Roman Emperor in 1792 – in which Franz I, Archduke of Austria was elected as Emperor Franz II – the Diet was composed of:

I. The Council of Electors: 8 votes

II. The Council of Princes: 100 votes

A. Ecclesiastical Bench: 37 votes (30 votes + 7 electoral votes)

       1. Prince-Archbishops and Prince-Bishops
       2. College of the Prelates of Swabia
       3. College of the Prelates of the Rhine

B. Secular Bench: 63 votes (41 ¾ votes + 21 ¼ electoral votes)

       1. Imperial Princes
       2. College of the Imperial Counts of Wetterau
       3. College of the Imperial Counts of the Swabia
       4. College of the Imperial Counts of Franconia
       5. College of the Imperial Counts of Westphalia

III. The Council of Imperial or Free Cities (Collegium der Reichstadt): 1 advisory vote

A. Bench of the Rhine
B. Bench of Swabia

To be eligible for a seat on the Diet, a member of the nobility had to possess land – immediate territories with the status of ‘Imperial Estates’ – within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire (the city-councils of the Free or Imperial cities also had this status). The clerical members of the Ecclesiastical Bench did not possess this land personally (it was the property of the Church). Consent of the Council of Princes was also required for a new member to join its ranks.

Determining the ownership of an electoral vote [called ‘a voice’] within the Diet was an exceptionally-complicated exercise [2]. All of the following permutations were present in 1792:

1. One prince casting one vote (the Duchy of Pfalz-Zweibrucken)
2. One prince casting more than one vote (the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin)
3. Several princes casting one vote (the County of Henneburg)
4. Two different families casting a partial vote (the County of Wolfstein)
5. Two branches of the same family casting one vote (the County of Schwarzburg)
6. Two branches of the same family casting a partial vote (the County of Limpurg)
7. A secular prince casting an ecclesiastical vote (the Duchy of Burgundy)

In addition, several German and foreign princes of the ancient nobility voted in different councils or colleges – usually because they had acquired more than one immediate territory through marriage or inheiritance. In his capacity as Kurfurst zu Braunschweig-Luneburg, King George III of England’s votes were:

1. One vote in the Council of Electors:

1. Kurfurst zu Braunschweig-Luneburg

2. Six votes in the Council of Princes:

1. Herzog von Bremen
2. Herzog von Braunschweig-Celle
3. Herzog von Braunchweig-Kalenberg
4. Herzog von Braunschweig-Grubenhagen
5. Furst zu Verden
6. Herzog von Sachsen-Lauenburg

3. Three partial votes in the College of Imperial Counts of Westphalia  

1. Graf zu Hoya
2. Graf zu Diepolz
3. Graf zu Spiegelberg

Other foreign monarchs who held Imperial titles were Gustavus III, King of Sweden (1771-1792), Christian VII, King of Denmark (1766-1808), Victor-Amadeus III, King of Sardinia (1773-1796) and Friedrich-Wilhelm II, King of Prussia (1786-1797). Wilhelm V, Furst zu Oranien-Nassau, was also Stadtholder of the Netherlands (1751-1806).

In the information given below, one of two styles of dates are given next to the name of the vote-holder: (1775-1806) indicates the dates of his reign; [1775-1806] indicates the lifetime of the vote-holder.

Notes:

[1] After 1508, Holy Roman Emperors dispensed with the Papal coronation; these monarchs were (strictly-speaking) ‘emperors-elect’.

[2] The principle of ‘one noble one vote’ only applied in the Imperial Circles. The Imperial Circles were territories in a common area grouped together. There were ten Imperial Circles: Bavaria, Burgundy, Franconia, Electoral Rhine, Lower Saxony, Austria, Upper Rhine, Upper Saxony, Swabia and Lower Rhine-Westphalia. These Circles were regional diets in which cities and the different ranks of the nobility all had an equal vote.

Sources

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2005

 

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