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 States 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.
Imperial States could be either ecclesiastic or secular. The ecclesiastical states were led by:
- the three clerical Prince-electors: the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier;
- 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 Hospitaller.
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) and Hanover.
- 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 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 Imperial Stately Personalists. 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 state was required to obtain admittance into one of the Imperial Circles. Theoretically, personalist states were forbidden after 1653, but exceptions were often made.
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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; furthermore, a mediatized state (that is, a state that came to be under the authority but not the sovereignty of a foreign power) could cease to be an estate. From 1648 onwards, inheritance of the state was limited to one family; a territory inherited by a different family ceased to be a state unless the Emperor explicitly allowed otherwise. Finally, a territory could cease to be an imperial estate by being subjected to the Imperial ban (the most notable example involved the Elector Palatine Frederick V, who was banned in 1621 for his participation in the Bohemian Revolt).
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 (Illustrious Highness).
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 silver mines.
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.