An Imperial State or
Imperial Estate (Latin: Status Imperii; German:
Reichsstand, plural: Reichsstände) was a part of the Holy Roman
Empire with representation and the right to vote in the Imperial Diet
(Reichstag). Rulers of these Estates were able to exercise significant
rights and privileges and were "immediate", meaning that the only
authority above them was the Holy Roman Emperor. They were thus able
to rule their territories with a considerable degree of autonomy.
The system of imperial states replaces the more regular division of
Germany into stem duchies in the early medieval period. The old
Carolingian stem duchies were retained as the major divisions of
Germany under the Salian dynasty, but they became increasingly
obsolete during the early high medieval period under the Hohenstaufen,
and they were finally abolished in 1180 by Frederick Barbarossa in
favour of more numerous territorial divisions. From 1489, the imperial
Estates represented in the Diet were divided into three chambers, the
college of prince-electors (Kurfürstenkollegium/den Kurfürstenrat),
the college of imperial princes (Reichsfürstenrat) and the college of
imperial cities. Counts and nobles were not directly represented in
the Diet in spite of their immediate status, but were grouped into
"benches" (Grafenbänke) with a single vote each.
Imperial knights had
immediate status but were unrepresented in the Diet.
2 Rights and privileges
3 Imperial Diet
6 See also
7 External links
See also: List of states in the Holy Roman Empire
Map of the Holy Roman
Empire in 1648
Imperial Estates could be either ecclesiastic or secular. The
ecclesiastical Estates were led by:
the three clerical Prince-electors: the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz
Prince-Archbishops and Prince-Bishops as well as Prince-Abbots and
Prince-Provosts of the Empire;
Imperial Prelates, immediate Priors and Provosts;
Grand Masters of military orders like the
Teutonic Knights or Knights
The secular Estates, most notably:
the four Prince-Electors of the County Palatine of the Rhine, Saxony,
Brandenburg and Bohemia, later also Bavaria (replacing the Palatinate)
Imperial Princes including Grand Dukes, Dukes, Counts Palatine,
Margraves and Landgraves;
the Free and Imperial cities.
Until 1582 the votes of the Free and Imperial Cities were only
advisory. None of the rulers below the
Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor ranked as
kings, with the exception of the Kings of Bohemia.
The status of Estate was normally attached to a particular territory
within the Empire, but there were some reichsständische
Personalisten, or "persons with imperial statehood". Originally, the
Emperor alone could grant that status, but in 1653, several
restrictions on the Emperor's power were introduced. The creation of a
new Estate required the assent of the College of Electors and of the
College of Princes (see Reichstag below). The ruler was required to
agree to accept imperial taxation and military obligations.
Furthermore, the Estate was required to obtain admittance into one of
the Imperial Circles. Theoretically, personalist Estates were
forbidden after 1653, but exceptions were often made.
Once a territory attained the status of an Estate, it could lose that
status under very few circumstances. A territory ceded to a foreign
power ceased to be an Estate.
From 1648 onwards, inheritance of the Estate was limited to one
family; a territory inherited by a different family ceased to be an
Estate unless the Emperor explicitly allowed otherwise. Finally, a
territory could cease to be an imperial Estate by being subjected to
Imperial ban (the most notable example involved the Elector
Palatine Frederick V, who was banned in 1621 for his participation in
the Bohemian Revolt).
German mediatization between 1803 and 1806, the vast majority
of the Estates of the Holy Roman
Empire were mediatised. They lost
their imperial immediacy and became part of other Estates. The number
of Estates was reduced from about three hundred to about thirty.
Mediatisation went along with secularisation: the abolition of most of
the ecclesiastical Estates. This dissolution of the constitution of
the structure of the empire was soon followed by the dissolution of
the empire itself, in 1806.
Rights and privileges
Rulers of Imperial States enjoyed precedence over other subjects in
the Empire. Electors were originally styled Durchlaucht (Serene
Highness), princes Hochgeboren (High-born) and counts Hoch- und
Wohlgeboren (High and Well-born). In the eighteenth century, the
electors were upgraded to Durchläuchtigste (Most Serene Highness),
princes to Durchlaucht (Serene Highness) and counts to Erlaucht
Imperial States enjoyed several rights and privileges. Rulers had
autonomy inasmuch as their families were concerned; in particular,
they were permitted to make rules regarding the inheritance of their
states without imperial interference. They were permitted to make
treaties and enter into alliances with other Imperial States as well
as with foreign nations. The electors, but not the other rulers, were
permitted to exercise certain regalian powers, including the power to
mint money, the power to collect tolls and a monopoly over gold and
From 1489 onwards, the Imperial Diet was divided into three collegia:
the Council of Electors, the Council of Princes and the Council of
Cities. Electoral states belonged to the first of the aforementioned
councils; other states, whether ecclesiastical or secular, belonged to
the Council of Princes.
Votes were held in right of the states, rather than personally.
Consequently, an individual ruling several states held multiple votes;
similarly, multiple individuals ruling parts of the same state shared
a single vote. These rules were not formalized until 1582; prior to
this time, when multiple individuals inherited parts of the same
state, they sometimes received a vote each. Votes were either
individual or collective. Princes and senior clerics generally held
individual votes (but such votes, as noted above, were sometimes
shared). Prelates (abbots and priors) without individual votes were
classified into two benches—the Bench of the
Rhine and the Bench of
Swabia — each of which enjoyed a collective vote. Similarly, Counts
were grouped into four comital benches with a collective vote each —
the Upper Rhenish Bench of Wetterau, the Swabian Bench, the Franconian
Bench and the Westphalian Bench.
No elector ever held multiple electorates; nor were electorates ever
divided between multiple heirs. Hence, in the Council of Electors,
each individual held exactly one vote. Electors who ruled states in
addition to their electorates also voted in the Council of Princes;
similarly, princes who also ruled comital territories voted both
individually and in the comital benches. In the Reichstag in 1792, for
instance, the Elector of
Brandenburg held eight individual votes in
the Council of Princes and one vote in the Bench of Westphalia.
Similarly, among ecclesiastics, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order
held one individual vote in the Council of Princes and two in the
Bench of the Rhine.
Further information: Quaternion Eagle
Typical representation of the quaternions (Anton III Wierix 1606). The
ten quaternions are shown underneath the emperor flanked by the
prince-electors (Archbishop of Trier, Archbishop of Cologne,
Archbishop of Mainz;
King of Bohemia, Count Palatine,
Duke of Saxony,
Margrave of Brandenburg).
A "Quaternion Eagle" (each quaternion being represented by four coats
of arms on the imperial eagle's remiges) Hans Burgkmair, c. 1510.
Twelve quaternions are shown, as follows (eight dukes being divided
into two quaternions called "pillars" and "vicars", respectively):
Seill ("pillars"), Vicari ("vicars"), Marggrauen (margraves),
Lantgrauen (landgraves), Burggrauen (burggraves), Grauen (counts),
Semper freie (nobles), Ritter (knights), Stett (cities), Dörfer
(villages), Bauern (peasants), Birg (castles).
The so-called imperial quaternions (German: Quaternionen der
Reichsverfassung "quaternions of the imperial constitution"; from
Latin quaterniō "group of four soldiers") were a conventional
representation of the Imperial States of the Holy Roman
first became current in the 15th century and was extremely popular
during the 16th century.
Apart from the highest tiers of the emperor, kings, prince-bishops and
the prince electors, the estates are represented in groups of four.
The number of quaternions was usually ten, in descending order of
precedence Dukes (Duces), Margraves (Marchiones), Landgraves (Comites
Provinciales), Burggraves (Comites Castrenses), Counts (Comites),
Knights (Milites), Noblemen (Liberi), Cities (Metropoles), Villages
(Villae) and Peasants (Rustici). The list could be shortened or
expanded, by the mid-16th century to as many as 45.
It is likely that this system was first introduced under Emperor
Sigismund, who is assumed to have commissioned the frescoes in
Frankfurt city hall in 1414.
As has been noted from an early time, this representation of the
"imperial constitution" does not in fact represent the actual
constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, as some imperial cities appear
as "villages" or even "peasants". E.g. the four "peasants" are
Cologne, Constance, Regensburg and Salzburg. The
Stromburg (or Straburg, Strandeck, and variants) was an unknown entity
even at the time. The representation of imperial subjects is also far
from complete. The "imperial quaternions" are, rather, a more or less
random selection intended to represent pars pro toto the structure of
the imperial constitution.
^ c.f. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Anführung zur Teutschen
Staats-Kunst (1672), p. 669.
^ Hans Legband, "Zu den Quaternionen der Reichsverfassung", Archiv
für Kulturgeschichte 3 (1905), 495–498. Ernst Schubert, "Die
Quaternionen", Zeitschrift für historische Forschung 20 (1993),
^ Jakob Carl Spener, teutsches ivs pvblicvm; oder, des Heil.
Römisch-Teutschen Reichs vollständige Staats-Rechts-Lehre, George
Marcus Knoche (1723), 124f. (note a); the extended list of quaternions
is here traced to Onofrio Panvinio, De Comitiis Imperatoriis (Basel
^ Konrad Bund, Findbuch der Epitaphienbücher (1238)-1928 und der
Wappenbücher (1190)-1801 (1987).
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Quaternionen.
Princes of the Holy Roman Empire
List of Imperial Diet participants (1792)
List of states in the Holy Roman Empire
Estates of the realm
Feudalism in the Holy Roman Empire
Velde, F. R. (2003), Royal Styles
Velde, F. R. (2004), The