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 Emperor, and later of the institutions of the Empire such as the
Diet (Reichstag), the Imperial Chamber of Justice and the Aulic
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
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). In today's terms, it would be understood as a limited
form of sovereignty.
2 Advantages and disadvantages
3 Problems in understanding the Empire
4 See also
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):
the seven Prince-electors designated by the Golden Bull of 1356
the other Princes of the Holy Roman Empire
secular: Dukes, Margraves, Landgraves et al.
ecclesiastical: Prince-Bishops, Prince-Abbots and Prince-Provosts.
They formed the Imperial Estates, together with roughly 100 immediate
counts, 40 Imperial prelates (abbots and abbesses) and 50 Imperial
Cities who only enjoyed a 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
High Middle Ages had been
under the direct authority of the Emperor and since then had mostly
been given in pledge to the princes.
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  in 1528 the Dutch province of
Overijssel tried to arrange its submission to
Emperor Charles V
Emperor Charles V in his
Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor rather than as his being the
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
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
Holy Roman Empire
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
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. 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
Holy Roman Empire
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
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 in modern understanding,[clarification
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".
Imperial Diet (Holy Roman Empire)
Free Imperial City
List of states of the Holy Roman Empire
^ Gagliardo, J. G.; Reich and Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763–1806,
Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 4.
^ Lebeau, Christine, ed.; L'espace du Saint-Empire du Moyen-Âge à
l'époque moderne, Presse Universitaire de Strasbourg, 2004, p. 117.
^ Jonathan Israel, "The Dutch Republic:Its Rise, Greatness and Fall
1477-1806", Ch. 4, p. 66.
^ James Bryce (1838–1922), Holy Roman Empire, London, 1865.
^ James Sheehan, German History 1770–1866, Oxford, Oxford University
Press, 1989. Introduction, pp. 1–8.
^ "The Holy Roman Empire: European disunion done right". The
Economist. December 22, 2012. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
Braun, B.: Reichsunmittelbarkeit in German, French and Italian in the
online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, 2005-05-03.
Bryce, James (1865). Holy Roman Empire. London.
Sheehan, James (1989). German History 1770–1866. Oxford: Oxford