1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Electors

ELECTORS (Ger. Kurfürsten, from Küren, O.H.G. kiosan, choose, elect, and Fürst, prince), a body of German princes, originally seven in number, with whom rested the election of the German king, from the 13th until the beginning of the 19th century. The German kings, from the time of Henry the Fowler (919–936) till the middle of the 13th century, succeeded to their position partly by heredity, and partly by election. Primitive Germanic practice had emphasized the element of heredity. Reges ex nobilitate sumunt: the man whom a German tribe recognized as its king must be in the line of hereditary descent from Woden; and therefore the genealogical trees of early Teutonic kings (as, for instance, in England those of the Kentish and West Saxon sovereigns) are carefully constructed to prove that descent from the god which alone will constitute a proper title for his descendants. Even from the first, however, there had been some opening for election; for the principle of primogeniture was not observed, and there might be several competing candidates, all of the true Woden stock. One of these competing candidates would have to be recognized (as the Anglo-Saxons said, geceosan); and to this limited extent Teutonic kings may be termed elective from the very first. In the other nations of western Europe this element of election dwindled, and the principle of heredity alone received legal recognition; in medieval Germany, on the contrary, the principle of heredity, while still exercising an inevitable natural force, sank formally into the background, and legal recognition was finally given to the elective principle. De facto, therefore, the principle of heredity exercises in Germany a great influence, an influence never more striking than in the period which follows on the formal recognition of the elective principle, when the Habsburgs (like the Metelli at Rome) fato imperatores fiunt: de jure, each monarch owes his accession simply and solely to the vote of an electoral college.

This difference between the German monarchy and the other monarchies of western Europe may be explained by various considerations. Not the least important of these is what seems a pure accident. Whereas the Capetian monarchs, during the three hundred years that followed on the election of Hugh Capet in 987, always left an heir male, and an heir male of full age, the German kings again and again, during the same period, either left a minor to succeed to their throne, or left no issue at all. The principle of heredity began to fail because there were no heirs. Again the strength of tribal feeling in Germany made the monarchy into a prize, which must not be the apanage of any single tribe, but must circulate, as it were, from Franconian to Saxon, from Saxon to Bavarian, from Bavarian to Franconian, from Franconian to Swabian; while the growing power of the baronage, and its habit of erecting anti-kings to emphasize its opposition to the crown (as, for instance, in the reign of Henry IV.), coalesced with and gave new force to the action of tribal feeling. Lastly, the fact that the German kings were also Roman emperors finally and irretrievably consolidated the growing tendency towards the elective principle. The principle of heredity had never held any great sway under the ancient Roman Empire (see under Emperor); and the medieval Empire, instituted as it was by the papacy, came definitely under the influence of ecclesiastical prepossessions in favour of election. The church had substituted for that descent from Woden, which had elevated the old pagan kings to their thrones, the conception that the monarch derived his crown from the choice of God, after the manner of Saul; and the theoretical choice of God was readily turned into the actual choice of the church, or, at any rate, of the general body of churchmen. If an ordinary king is thus regarded by the church as essentially elected, much more will the emperor, connected as he is with the church as one of its officers, be held to be also elected; and as a bishop is chosen by the chapter of his diocese, so, it will be thought, must the emperor be chosen by some corresponding body in his empire. Heredity might be tolerated in a mere matter of kingship: the precious trust of imperial power could not be allowed to descend according to the accidents of family succession. To Otto of Freising (Gesta Frid. ii. 1) it is already a point of right vindicated for itself by the excellency of the Roman Empire, as a matter of singular prerogative, that it should not descend per sanguinis propaginem, sed per principum electionem.

The accessions of Conrad II. (see Wipo, Vita Cuonradi, c. 1-2), of Lothair II. (see Narratio de electione Lotharii, M.G.H., Scriptt. xii. p. 510), of Conrad III. (see Otto of Freising, Chronicon, vii. 22) and of Frederick I. (see Otto of Freising, Gesta Frid. ii. 1) had all been marked by an element, more or less pronounced, of election. That element is perhaps most considerable in the case of Lothair, who had no rights of heredity to urge. Here we read of ten princes being selected from the princes of the various duchies, to whose choice the rest promise to assent, and of these ten selecting three candidates, one of whom, Lothair, is finally chosen (apparently by the whole assembly) in a somewhat tumultuary fashion. In this case the electoral assembly would seem to be, in the last resort, the whole diet of all the princes. But a de facto pre-eminence in the act of election is already, during the 12th century, enjoyed by the three Rhenish archbishops, probably because of the part they afterwards played at the coronation, and also by the dukes of the great duchies—possibly because of the part they too played, as vested for the time with the great offices of the household, at the coronation feast.[1] Thus at the election of Lothair it is the archbishop of Mainz who conducts the proceedings; and the election is not held to be final until the duke of Bavaria has given his assent. The fact is that, votes being weighed by quality as well as by quantity (see Diet), the votes of the archbishops and dukes, which would first be taken, would of themselves, if unanimous, decide the election. To prevent tumultuary elections, it was well that the election should be left exclusively with these great dignitaries; and this is what, by the middle of the 13th century, had eventually been done.

The chaos of the interregnum from 1198 to 1212 showed the way for the new departure; the chaos of the great interregnum (1250–1273) led to its being finally taken. The decay of the great duchies, and the narrowing of the class of princes into a close corporation, some of whose members were the equals of the old dukes in power, introduced difficulties and doubts into the practice of election which had been used in the 12th century. The contested election of the interregnum of 1198–1212 brought these difficulties and doubts into strong relief. The famous bull of Innocent III. (Venerabilem), in which he decided for Otto IV. against Philip of Swabia, on the ground that, though he had fewer votes than Philip, he had a majority of the votes of those ad quos principaliter spectat electio, made it almost imperative that there should be some definition of these principal electors. The most famous attempt at such a definition is that of the Sachsenspiegel, which was followed, or combated, by many other writers in the first half of the 13th century. Eventually the contested election of 1257 brought light and definition. Here we find seven potentates acting—the same seven whom the Golden Bull recognizes in 1356; and we find these seven described in an official letter to the pope, as principes vocem in hujusmodi electione habentes, qui sunt septem numero. The doctrine thus enunciated was at once received. The pope acknowledged it in two bulls (1263); a cardinal, in a commentary on the bull Venerabilem of Innocent III., recognized it about the same time; and the erection of statues of the seven electors at Aix-la-Chapelle gave the doctrine a visible and outward expression.

By the date of the election of Rudolph of Habsburg (1273) the seven electors may be regarded as a definite body, with an acknowledged right. But the definition and the acknowledgment were still imperfect. (1) The composition of the electoral body was uncertain in two respects. The duke of Bavaria claimed as his right the electoral vote of the king of Bohemia; and the practice of partitio in electoral families tended to raise further difficulties about the exercise of the vote. The Golden Bull of 1356 settled both these questions. Bohemia (of which Charles IV., the author of the Golden Bull, was himself the king) was assigned the electoral vote in preference to Bavaria; and a provision annexing the electoral vote to a definite territory, declaring that territory indivisible, and regulating its descent by the rule of primogeniture instead of partition, swept away the old difficulties which the custom of partition had raised. After 1356 the seven electors are regularly the three Rhenish archbishops, Mainz, Cologne and Trier, and four lay magnates, the palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the king of Bohemia; the three former being vested with the three archchancellorships, and the four latter with the four offices of the royal household (see Household). (2) The rights of the seven electors, in their collective capacity as an electoral college, were a matter of dispute with the papacy. The result of the election, whether made, as at first, by the princes generally or, as after 1257, by the seven electors exclusively, was in itself simply the creation of a German king—an electio in regem. But since 962 the German king was also, after coronation by the pope, Roman emperor. Therefore the election had a double result: the man elected was not only electus in regem, but also promovendus ad imperium. The difficulty was to define the meaning of the term promovendus. Was the king elect inevitably to become emperor? or did the promotio only follow at the discretion of the pope, if he thought the king elect fit for promotion? and if so, to what extent, and according to what standard, did the pope judge of such fitness? Innocent III. had already claimed, in the bull Venerabilem, (1) that the electors derived their power of election, so far as it made an emperor, from the Holy See (which had originally “translated” the Empire from the East to the West), and (2) that the papacy had a jus et auctoritas examinandi personam electam in regem et promovendam ad imperium. The latter claim he had based on the fact that he anointed, consecrated and crowned the emperor—in other words, that he gave a spiritual office according to spiritual methods, which entitled him to inquire into the fitness of the recipient of that office, as a bishop inquires into the fitness of a candidate for ordination. Innocent had put forward this claim as a ground for deciding between competing candidates: Boniface VIII. pressed the claim against Albert I. in 1298, even though his election was unanimous; while John XXII. exercised it in its harshest form, when in 1324 he excommunicated Louis IV. for using the title and exerting the rights even of king without previous papal confirmation. This action ultimately led to a protest from the electors themselves, whose right of election would have become practically meaningless, if such assumptions had been tolerated. A meeting of the electors (Kurverein) at Rense in 1338 declared (and the declaration was reaffirmed by a diet at Frankfort in the same year) that postquam aliquis eligitur in Imperatorem sive Regem ab Electoribus Imperii concorditer, vel majori parte eorundem, statim ex sola electione est Rex verus et Imperator Romanus censendus . . . nec Papae sive Sedis Apostolicae . . . approbatione . . . indiget. The doctrine thus positively affirmed at Rense is negatively reaffirmed in the Golden Bull, in which a significant silence is maintained in regard to papal rights. But the doctrine was not in practice followed: Sigismund himself did not venture to dispense with papal approbation.

By the end of the 14th century the position of the electors, both individually and as a corporate body, had become definite and precise. Individually, they were distinguished from all other princes, as we have seen, by the indivisibility of their territories and by the custom of primogeniture which secured that indivisibility; and they were still further distinguished by the fact that their person, like that of the emperor himself, was protected by the law of treason, while their territories were only subject to the jurisdiction of their own courts. They were independent territorial sovereigns; and their position was at once the envy and the ideal of the other princes of Germany. Such had been the policy of Charles IV.; and thus had he, in the Golden Bull, sought to magnify the seven electors, and himself as one of the seven, in his capacity of king of Bohemia, even at the expense of the Empire, and of himself in his capacity of emperor. Powerful as they were, however, in their individual capacity, the electors showed themselves no less powerful as a corporate body. As such a corporate body, they may be considered from three different points of view, and as acting in three different capacities. They are an electoral body, choosing each successive emperor; they are one of the three colleges of the imperial diet (see Diet); and they are also an electoral union (Kurfürstenverein), acting as a separate and independent political organ even after the election, and during the reign, of the monarch. It was in this last capacity that they had met at Rense in 1338; and in the same capacity they acted repeatedly during the 15th century. According to the Golden Bull, such meetings were to be annual, and their deliberations were to concern “the safety of the Empire and the world.” Annual they never were; but occasionally they became of great importance. In 1424, during the attempt at reform occasioned by the failure of German arms against the Hussites, the Kurfürstenverein acted, or at least it claimed to act, as the predominant partner in a duumvirate, in which the unsuccessful Sigismund was relegated to a secondary position. During the long reign of Frederick III.—a reign in which the interests of Austria were cherished, and the welfare of the Empire neglected, by that apathetic yet tenacious emperor—the electors once more attempted, in the year 1453, to erect a new central government in place of the emperor, a government which, if not conducted by themselves directly in their capacity of a Kurfürstenverein, should at any rate be under their influence and control. So, they hoped, Germany might be able to make head against that papal aggression, to which Frederick had yielded, and to take a leading part in that crusade against the Turks, which he had neglected. Like the previous attempt at reform during the Hussite wars, the scheme came to nothing; the forces of disunion in Germany were too strong for any central government, whether monarchical and controlled by the emperor, or oligarchical and controlled by the electors. But a final attempt, the most strenuous of all, was made in the reign of Maximilian I., and under the influence of Bertold, elector and archbishop of Mainz. The council of 1500, in which the electors (with the exception of the king of Bohemia) were to have sat, and which would have been under their control, represents the last effective attempt at a real Reichsregiment. Inevitably, however, it shipwrecked on the opposition of Maximilian; and though the attempt was again made between 1521 and 1530, the idea of a real central government under the control of the electors perished, and the development of local administration by the circle took its place.

In the course of the 16th century a new right came to be exercised by the electors. As an electoral body (that is to say, in the first of the three capacities distinguished above), they claimed, at the election of Charles V. in 1519 and at subsequent elections, to impose conditions on the elected monarch, and to determine the terms on which he should exercise his office in the course of his reign. This Wahlcapitulation, similar to the Pacta Conventa which limited the elected kings of Poland, was left by the diet to the discretion of the electors, though after the treaty of Westphalia an attempt was made, with some little success,[2] to turn the capitulation into a matter of legislative enactment by the diet. From this time onwards the only fact of importance in the history of the electors is the change which took place in the composition of their body during the 17th and 18th centuries. From the Golden Bull to the treaty of Westphalia (1356–1648) the composition of the electoral body had remained unchanged. In 1623, however, in the course of the Thirty Years’ War, the vote of the count palatine of the Rhine had been transferred to the duke of Bavaria; and at the treaty of Westphalia the vote, with the office of imperial butler which it carried, was left to Bavaria, while an eighth vote, along with the new office of imperial treasurer, was created for the count palatine. In 1708 a ninth vote, along with the office of imperial standard-bearer, was created for Hanover; while finally, in 1778, the vote of Bavaria and the office of imperial butler returned to the counts palatine, as heirs of the duchy, on the extinction of the ducal line, while the new vote created for the Palatinate in 1648, with the office of imperial treasurer, was transferred to Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) in lieu of the one which this house already held. In 1806, on the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the electors ceased to exist.

Literature.—T. Lindner, Die deutschen Königswahlen und die Entstehung des Kurfürstentums (1893), and Der Hergang bei den deutschen Königswahlen (1899); R. Kirchhöfer, Zur Entstehung des Kurkollegiums (1893); W. Maurenbrecher, Geschichte der deutschen Königswahlen (1889); and G. Blondel, Étude sur Frédéric II, p. 27 sqq. See also J. Bryce, Holy Roman Empire (edition of 1904), c. ix.; and R. Schröder, Lehrbuch der deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, pp. 471-481 and 819-820. (E. Br.) 

  1. This is the view of the Sachsenspiegel, and also of Albert of Stade (quoted in Schröder, p. 476, n. 27): “Palatinus eligit, quia dapifer est; dux Saxoniae, quia marescalcus,” &c. Schröder points out (p. 479, n. 45) that “participation in the coronation feast is an express recognition of the king”; and those who are to discharge their office in the one must have had a prominent voice in the other.
  2. See Schröder’s Lehrbuch der deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, p. 820.