Dynasticism not Dualism

Imperial reform had rebalanced the Empire’s governance to accommodate territory as the basis of both imperial and princely power. As the Empire entered the sixteenth century, it remained at the heart of European politics, culture and economic activity. Its flexibility and creativity enabled it to survive early modern Europe’s two greatest challenges: the Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Meanwhile, the era also saw the accession of Charles V, a truly pan-European monarch and arguably the best-remembered Holy Roman emperor after Charlemagne. Charles had already ruled Spain for three years prior to his election as emperor in 1519. His reign saw the co-existence of the Holy Roman Empire, rooted in Europe’s medieval past, and Spain’s expanding colonial empire, suggestive of Europe’s future global dominance. Charles’s decisions in 1558 to partition his possessions and retire to Spain to die both appear to mark the end of an epoch. This is certainly how many historians have chosen to present it, writing subsequent European history as that of nation states, many of which had extra-European colonial empires. The Empire almost disappears in this story, featuring at best as a kind of German adjunct to Habsburg Austria and, after 1648, as the supposed passive object of Austria’s rivalry with the ascending power of the Prussian Hohenzollerns.

This standard narrative discusses the Empire’s governance in terms of a double dualism. The tension between emperor and princes as imperial Estates at the ‘national level’ was supposedly mirrored in each territory by similar conflicts between each prince and his territorial Estates (Landstände), composed of representatives from the mediate nobles, towns and (sometimes) clergy.1 Dualism at the territorial level is generally regarded as ending with the triumph of princely absolutism in 1648, something which was celebrated in Prussian history because it enabled the Hohenzollerns to emerge as the family that would eventually supplant the Habsburgs in Germany. Growing princely power is presented as fuelling centrifugal forces, draining the imperial office and formal structure of any meaning by the mid-eighteenth century, if not before.

This standard narrative reflects its roots in conventional ideas of state-building as a process of centralization, usually attributed to heroic and far-sighted monarchs and statesmen. Earlier chapters have already established that this perspective grossly oversimplifies and distorts the Empire’s richer political development. Likewise, the common understanding of eighteenth-century politics as an Austro-Prussian dualism ignores the lesser territories collectively constituting a larger ‘third Germany’, as well as underestimating the continued significance of the imperial constitution as a common framework – something that the final section of this chapter will return to. Dualism makes more sense when applied to the Habsburgs, whose renewed, rapid territorial expansion between 1683 and 1718 – likewise explored below – expanded their hereditary possessions into a second, dynastic-territorial empire only partially overlapping with the Holy Roman Empire. The increase in Habsburg resources exposed another duality: the growing discrepancy between the constitution and the actual distribution of material power. However, as we shall see both here and on pp. 637–54, this did not render the formal structure wholly irrelevant. On the contrary, the status hierarchy continued to matter a great deal, as already indicated in the discussion of the imperial title (pp.159–63). The real problem was that no one seemed able to bring the formal constitutional order and current politics back into alignment.

Interpretations emphasizing dualism stress tensions and discrepancies. The usual verdict is that territorialization was propelling the Empire inevitably from a loose monarchy towards a federation of principalities. Having failed to reassert stronger monarchy in the 1540s and 1620s, the Habsburgs allegedly lost interest in the Empire beyond the men and money they could extort for their own purposes. This view misses important continuities across time, as well as underestimating how all elements along the status hierarchy remained within a common political culture. The presence of such commonalities should not blind us to the Empire’s serious problems, but nonetheless the commonalities help explain why it functioned amidst wider changes and why it retained meaning for its inhabitants.

Dynasticism was perhaps one of the strongest common practices within early modern imperial politics. One of the most striking aspects of imperial governance at this point is the unprecedented continuity in the imperial office. The period from 1254 to 1437 saw 16 kings and anti-kings from 11 families, while son followed father only once (1378). After 1438, there were no more anti-kings and the Habsburgs provided all but one (Charles VII, 1742–5) of the 18 monarchs. Not only did the Habsburgs last three times longer than any previous royal family (the Staufers, 116 years), but now there was greater continuity with sons following fathers directly eight times, with a further four successions of younger brothers following the premature deaths of reigning older siblings. The succession of a cousin or a nephew, more common in the Middle Ages, now only occurred twice (Frederick III after Albert II; Ferdinand II after Matthias), while the resumption of Habsburg imperial rule in 1745 came through the early modern innovation of dynastic continuity in the female line with the election as emperor of Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis I, former duke of Lorraine.

The Politics of Inheritance

Greater continuity stemmed from the acceptance of male primogeniture as the primary form of inheritance across all levels of the Empire’s society. As we have seen (pp. 356–70), male primogeniture was encouraged through the feudalization of vassalage and had been explicitly endorsed by Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ in 1158 before being confirmed for the secular electorates in 1356. However, we have already noted (pp. 381–2) its slow acceptance and the continuation of partitions that eased the problems of ruling non-contiguous lands by dividing them between relations. This also reduced family tensions by providing for younger sons, improving their marriage prospects. Within princely families, all members continued to share the status of immediacy. The spread of Roman civil law reinforced this from the late twelfth century, because wives gained their husband’s rank and a claim to the means required to sustain this, including during widowhood. The Reformation not only increased the significance of marriage throughout society, but encouraged a return to Old Testament traditions amongst Protestant princes. As family patriarchs, fathers were expected to provide for all children. Duke Ernst ‘the Pious’ of Gotha expressly rejected primogeniture on these grounds in 1654.2

Ernst’s was a relatively late example of partible inheritance. Many families adopted primogeniture between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, even if they subsequently temporarily suspended it, or made exceptions. It was not adopted as a ‘modernizing’ measure, but as a practical response to late medieval imperial politics, demonstrating the advantages of preserving large territorial blocs. Additionally, the leading mediate vassals and subjects increasingly lobbied against partition in order to preserve the tax base and limit princely debt; for example, the count of Württemberg was forced to forgo a planned partition in 1473. Crucially, aristocratic families could adopt the tighter family discipline required by dynasticism, because younger sons and unmarried daughters could still be accommodated in the imperial church. This explains why the closing of this option to Protestants in 1555 proved so explosive (see pp. 122–3). The definitive shift to territorially based imperial governance under the Habsburgs provided a further means to absorb the consequences of primogeniture. Territorial administration relied increasingly on salaried officials, not mediate vassals. Serving the imperial family had always been prestigious, while the Habsburgs’ possession of the most extensive territories also meant they were the Empire’s largest employers, constantly seeking new courtiers, officials and army officers.

The multilayered feudal structure also allowed families to adopt different inheritance practices simultaneously. Immediate fiefs became indivisible by 1582, when the Reichstag ruled that partitions could not be used to create additional votes. Some families continued to divide their lands internally but shared exercise of their associated imperial rights as a condominium. Others assigned or created mediate fiefs within their jurisdictions, as for example Charles IV, who granted Moravia and Görlitz to his younger sons in 1373 (see p. 391). Likewise, Frederick William the ‘Great Elector’ of Brandenburg established a junior Hohenzollern line in 1688 for the eldest son from his second marriage by granting him the former lordship of Schwedt. Surviving for a century, this secondary line provided the senior branch with a useful pool of additional marriage partners to offer other German princes, whilst reserving its own offspring for more prestigious alliances. King Frederick II ‘the Great’, though personally remaining childless, proved skilful in promoting marriages for his relations, whilst ruthlessly refusing to grant them the means to be autonomous princes: he only left two horses in his will to his brother Heinrich.3

Many early modern German princes not only married but kept numerous mistresses. The most notorious womanizer was Augustus ‘the Strong’ of Saxony, who reputedly fathered 355 children.4 Such activities fuelled the contemporary critique of the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century baroque princely courts, but also reflected reduced sexual options following the Reformation’s restriction of marriage to church-sanctioned liaisons. Meanwhile, the formalization of the feudal hierarchy through imperial reform heightened status-consciousness amongst the Empire’s elite. Pressure increased within families to marry only within or (ideally) above their current status as delineated by their formal princely titles. Here we can see just one of the many connections between the Empire’s politics and wider society, an issue that will be explored further in the next chapter. Late sixteenth-century German lawyers developed earlier Italian ideas into the concept of ‘morganatic’ marriage, which conformed to ecclesiastical requirements but was based on a contract circumventing Roman civil law. The bride received gifts and an income, but was denied equal socio-political status. She could not assume her husband’s rank and title, but instead received a new title linked to a real or fictive property granted her. Children from such unions lacked full rights, but remained a ‘dynastic reserve’ like the secondary family lines that could be called upon in the absence of other legitimate heirs to prevent family extinction.

Morganatic marriages became increasingly common with the adoption of primogeniture. Younger sons who were unlikely to inherit the family’s imperial fief often had to accept a bride of lower status. Arrangements were generally flexible, but serious problems usually emerged if the main heir or ruling prince made such a match, since this was regarded as damaging the family’s lustre and hence endangering its position within the imperial status hierarchy. Relations often claimed that as unequal marriage invalidated the prince’s right to inherit, and that could lead to acrimonious disputes, such as that between relations of the prince of Sachsen-Meiningen in 1763. Princes accordingly petitioned the emperor to elevate their wife’s status. The emperor’s powers to do this were restricted by the electoral agreement (see p. 478) of 1742, but remained a way he could influence imperial politics. For example, the already scandal-ridden Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg fell in love with Franziska Theresia von Bernhardin, daughter of a mere baron and already married to one of his chamberlains, whom she later divorced. Carl Eugen petitioned Joseph II, who eventually raised Franziska as imperial countess of Hohenheim in 1774. The affair continued until the duke’s own estranged wife died in 1780. Although the couple married morganatically in 1785 and the duchy’s Lutheran church even agreed to include her in their prayers, Carl never managed to persuade the emperor to raise her as full duchess.5

The Casa d’Austria

The Habsburgs were not more virtuous than the Empire’s other senior families. Many had illegitimate children, including Rudolf II, whose refusal to take a legitimate wife created a succession crisis after 1600.6 Neither, as we shall see, did they exhibit greater family discipline, partitioning their lands with serious consequences on several occasions. These considerations force us to consider why the Habsburgs came to dominate the early modern Empire. There is no simple answer. Rather, their success derived from dynastic and individual biological good fortune (longevity, fecundity, ability), together with favourable circumstances.

Like the other great families of the late medieval Empire, the Habsburgs began as counts who amassed sufficient resources to be serious contenders for the royal title by the mid-thirteenth century. Their relative wealth encouraged them to partition their possessions, with the bulk of their original holdings at the junction of Alsace, Switzerland and Swabia being held by the senior, Laufenburg, line until its extinction in 1415. Count Rudolf, who represented the dynasty’s political breakthrough thanks to his election as king in 1273, in fact came from the junior line. His real contribution to his family’s subsequent success was to use his position as king to secure the Babenbergs’ old duchy of Austria (see pp. 385 and 338). Crucially, Emperor Frederick II had endorsed the Babenbergs’ introduction of a single law code for all Austria in 1237, which reduced the prospect of partition as a way to resolve the long inheritance dispute, lasting from 1246 to 1282, unlike Thuringia, where a parallel contest ended with its being split into pieces between claimants by the early fourteenth century.

Although the Habsburgs were displaced as kings by the Luxembourgs in 1308 and the Wittelsbachs in 1314, they were now in the front rank and were able to consolidate and expand their possessions in return for cooperating with the current monarch (Map 6). Louis IV’s settlement with Frederick ‘the Fair’ saw the family acquire Carinthia and Krain by 1335 despite opposition from rivals, as well as the Tirol in 1363, which rounded out Austria as a large territory between the Alps and the Danube. As with the Luxembourgs, Wittelsbachs and others, the accumulation of fiefs made partition easier since there was more to distribute and Austria split into Albertine and Leopoldine lines from 1379 to 1490 despite a family agreement against this in 1355.7 The Albertine line benefited from the 1364 inheritance pact with the Luxembourgs and provided King Albert II in 1438. His death in turn benefited the Leopoldine line, which provided the emperors after 1440, as well as inheriting the south-west German possessions from the now defunct Laufenburg branch after 1415, though the Swiss areas were definitively lost in 1499. Finally, Maximilian I’s inheritance of the Tirol from another junior line in 1490 provided a significant boost, since this territory had become the main area of silver mining in the Empire, literally allowing the emperor to dig money from the ground.8

At 53 years, Frederick III’s reign was the longest of any emperor and entrenched Habsburg imperial rule despite his many difficulties. His son Maximilian used his position as emperor to intervene in the Wittelsbach inheritance dispute in 1504–5, playing the Palatine and Bavarian lines off against each other to keep both from becoming potential challengers. The fruits of dynastic strategies soon rendered such late medieval practices unnecessary to the Habsburgs’ retention of the imperial title. The web of dynastic marriages spun by Frederick pulled in their spoils as the successive extinctions of the ruling families in ducal Burgundy (1477), Spain (1516), Bohemia and Hungary (both 1526) left Maximilian’s grandsons, Charles V and Ferdinand I, as the heirs to vast additional territories (Map 8). Contemporaries remarked: ‘Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry; for those kingdoms Mars gives to others, Venus gives to thee.’

Dynastic good fortune gave the Habsburgs far more territory than any of their possible rivals at a time when the electors appreciated the need for the emperor to possess the means to defend the Empire from the Turkish menace. However, the additional territory increased Habsburg liabilities, especially as Burgundy was contested by France, whom most of the princes were reluctant to consider a general enemy of the Empire. These tensions contributed to what became the greatest ever dynastic partition: Charles V’s division of Habsburg possessions into Spanish and Austrian branches (see pp. 438–9). The loss of scale was compounded by his brother Ferdinand I’s own tripartite subdivision of the Austrian line in 1564. The main Austrian line extinguished with Matthias in 1619, passing to Ferdinand II as head of the junior Styrian branch. The third, Tirolean, line died out in 1595, but was revived twice to accommodate junior relatives, before being definitively reabsorbed into Austria in 1665.

Throughout, however, Austria itself remained undivided, its special status having been enhanced by Duke Rudolf IV’s forgery of the Privilegium maius around 1358 to expand the genuine privileges granted when Austria was elevated to a duchy in 1156. Responding to his exclusion from the electoral college, Rudolf invented the entirely new title of ‘archduke’ with semi-regal powers, including ennoblement, and appropriately kingly insignia like a crown and sceptre. The symbols angered Charles IV the most, but his rapprochement with the Habsburgs in the 1360s helped entrench Austria’s special status, which Frederick III confirmed in 1453, shortly after his imperial coronation.9 Already Rudolf used his archducal powers to found Vienna University, the Empire’s second and a deliberate response to Charles’s new university in Prague. Austria’s distinct status persisted and the Habsburgs never used their powers as emperor to award themselves electoral rights. Instead, they fostered a sense that Austria was already somehow superior, though the precise ceremonial distinctions were never clarified. Despite considering raising it as a kingdom in the 1620s, they likewise rejected this, not least because they were now already royal thanks to their possession of Bohemia and Hungary, which stayed with Austria in the 1558 partition. The Bohemian and Hungarian constitutions were revised in 1627 and 1687 respectively, asserting that these were hereditary rather than elective kingdoms. The unity of all possessions within and beyond imperial frontiers was expressed in 1703 as the Monarchia Austriaca (see pp. 159 and 162).

Matthias had a new archducal crown made in 1616 and it was used in all Austrian homage ceremonies until 1835.10 The crown bore an image of St Leopold, the Babenberg margrave of Austria who was canonized in 1485 and became the monarchy’s patron saint. The choice of image was part of a wider strategy to assert a divine right to rule. A family legend maintained that when Rudolf I was out riding in 1264, he gave his horse to a priest whom he saw carrying a Eucharist. By 1640, this had been rewritten to claim that God had given the Eucharist to the universal church while entrusting the divine right to rule the Empire to the Habsburgs.11 Efforts to forge a common identity based on saints associated with the dynasty failed, as Hungary and Bohemia already had their own traditions.12 However, a consistently dynastic ideology took root under Frederick III and developed with the lavish artistic patronage of Maximilian I and Charles V propagating a sense of a single, common Casa d’Austria, which survived all subsequent partitions.

This ideology was simultaneously imperial and dynastic. Rudolf I was celebrated not just for acquiring Austria but as the king who allegedly restored the Empire after the ‘interregnum’ following the end of the Staufers. Stories repeated the Rudolf motif for later Habsburgs, like Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III, who both supposedly also gave their horses to priests. Meanwhile, ingenious genealogists traced the Habsburgs as descendants of Aeneas, son of Venus and a Trojan royal who led the survivors of the fall of Troy via Carthage to Rome. Thanks to the idea of imperial translation, the line could be continued forward through the ancient Roman emperors, Christian Merovingians, Carolingians, and all the Empire’s other subsequent illustrious rulers.13 The skilful blending of family stories and imperial tradition trumped anything offered by their rivals to present the Habsburgs as the only ones worthy to be emperors.

The relative absence of serious challengers contrasts with the situation in the late Middle Ages. The Reformation opened speculation of a Protestant alternative once Lutherans secured full political rights in 1555. Rumours identified the Danish and Swedish kings as possible candidates, as well as the Protestant electors of Saxony, Brandenburg and the Palatinate. In practice, only Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden represented a serious threat, and he never considered standing in a conventional election, but instead sought to subvert Habsburg rule by forcing his German allies to accept their fiefs as dependent on him rather than the emperor. Any plans to usurp the imperial title died with him in the battle of Lützen in November 1632. Discussion revived as the Saxon, Brandenburg and Hanoverian electors acquired foreign crowns around 1700. While they considered themselves personally worthy of the imperial title, all refrained from seeking it because of the risks this would involve. Prussia’s subsequent development undermined Habsburg imperial management, but none of the Hohenzollern monarchs wanted to be emperor. Only the Bavarian Wittelsbachs attempted this, with disastrous results for themselves and the Empire.14


Governing the Habsburg Lands

The period between Maximilian I’s accession in 1493 and Leopold I’s death in 1705 saw the consolidation and peak of the Habsburg system of imperial governance based on dynastic hereditary possessions. The family’s territorial expansion coincided with the high point of imperial reform around 1520, accelerating and transforming that process. The material power that made the dynasty the obvious choice as emperors, also threatened German liberties. The emperor assumed a Janus-faced position as the Empire’s sovereign and its most powerful prince. The imperial Estates appreciated a strong emperor capable of repelling the Ottomans, and were prepared to relinquish some of their cherished liberties to institutions they believed would bind the Habsburgs to performing their imperial duties. The Habsburgs accepted greater constitutional checks on prerogatives as the price for a more potent infrastructure to mobilize the additional resources from the imperial Estates needed to meet their own ambitions and commitments. The material results of these constitutional adjustments will be explored in the next section, after the discussion here of how the Habsburgs managed the Empire and their own extensive possessions.15

The Habsburgs had no thought of ‘building’ a state or creating a separate Austria. Nonetheless, their actions did distinguish their own territories more clearly as they followed the practice of kings since 1273 by enhancing the autonomy of their own possessions as a base from which to govern the Empire. Their court exemplifies this as it underwent a fundamental transformation under Maximilian I. The consultative functions were detached to the Reichstag, which now provided the main forum for the emperor to negotiate with the Empire’s political elite. Meanwhile, Maximilian greatly expanded the representational aspects along the lines of Charles IV by establishing his dynastic court as a glittering institution projecting his family’s power. Although it continued to accompany the emperor on his travels, the Habsburg court generally remained within the hereditary lands, especially Vienna, except for a prolonged stay in Prague under Rudolf II from 1576 to 1612. While the emperor or his representative attended at least the opening of each Reichstag, his itinerary was also now dictated by meetings of the various provincial Estates, or assemblies, in his Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian lands.16

Elector August of Saxony was the last prince to be enfeoffed with the traditional rituals in the open air in 1566. Thereafter, princes travelled to Vienna to pay homage in ceremonies now held behind closed doors. The symbols were Habsburg rather than imperial. The emperor no longer wore his traditional robes, but instead all participants dressed in black after the fashion of the Spanish court of Philip II. Increasingly, princes sent representatives as proxies, further eroding the old personal feudal nexus in favour of more formalized constitutional relations.17

The court remained a centre for brokerage that was still largely personal, but geared primarily to managing the Habsburgs’ own nobility. Recent studies have demolished the idea of early modern kings as puppet-masters, entangling their nobles in a golden honey trap that disarmed them and rendered them politically harmless.18 Most nobles never attended court, which always contained several competing power centres around the monarch’s consort, relations and other important figures. Nonetheless, the court did focus power and act as a hub for patronage networks linking the royal centre to the localities. It gave firmer form to the kind of politics existing more generally in the Empire since the Carolingians, because the court was now permanent and fixed. Proximity to the king enhanced the prestige of individual nobles and allowed them to cultivate their own clientele. The Habsburgs used this to restructure how they ruled their own lands between 1579 and the mid-seventeenth century. Court and administrative posts were restricted to men who proved their loyalty by either remaining Catholic or converting from Protestantism. The Habsburgs employed their archducal rights and imperial prerogatives to ennoble faithful servants and to confer the prestigious status of imperial nobility on loyal subjects from their Bohemian, Italian and Hungarian lands, as well as from across the Empire. Around fifteen thousand individuals were granted the status of imperial noble between 1500 and 1800, peaking during the crisis years of the 1620s when up to six hundred were ennobled annually, or five times the average across early modernity.19

The Habsburgs also granted titles and positions associated with their own court and institutions. Ferdinand III gave the title ‘court councillor’ (Hofrat) to 400 men across his reign. The court expanded from 400 courtiers in the late fifteenth century to 1,500 people by 1735, while the Habsburg army and administration offered employment to many thousands. Only the Wittelsbachs came close to matching the Habsburg court, briefly, in the 1550s and again around 1700. Most princely courts comprised a couple of hundred people, few of whom were nobles. For example, that in Wolfenbüttel numbered 381 in 1747, but only 20 of these posts were considered suitable for nobles, in addition to the 26 pageboys and 15 ladies-in-waiting. The largest groups were the 81 stable hands and 52 lackeys and messengers.20 Viennese etiquette and architectural styles remained the models throughout the Empire and only Cologne’s electoral palace at Bonn followed the internal layout of rooms used in Versailles. Despite his rivalry with the Habsburgs, Frederick the Great of Prussia used Viennese examples when he remodelled Berlin in the mid-eighteenth century. The Prussian state library, completed in 1786, was a direct copy of plans prepared by the Habsburgs’ leading architect 80 years previously.21

Palatine rights allowed only princes to create lesser ‘patent nobles’ (Briefadel), which permitted commoners to insert the coveted ‘von’ before their surname. The Habsburgs’ possession of Bohemia consolidated their monopoly on creating more prestigious titles, since no other prince had royal status until the Saxon elector became king of Poland. While the Saxons used this to ennoble some of their own subjects, the Hanoverians were relatively sparing in their use of British royal powers after 1714. Only the Hohenzollerns sought to compete seriously with the Habsburgs once they gained a royal title for Prussia in 1700. In 1742 Frederick the Great forced the short-lived Wittelsbach emperor, Charles VII, to declare the validity of Prussian noble titles throughout the Empire, thus adding to their attraction.22

Habsburg administrative institutions grew from their court to handle the expanding business and the family’s desire to demarcate their lands more clearly. Albert II had already separated the Austrian and ‘Roman’ (i.e. imperial) chancelleries in 1438. Maximilian I established his own treasury (Hofkammer) in Innsbruck in 1496 rather than pay Austria’s share of the Common Penny to the imperial receiver at Frankfurt. Further distinctions emerged when Charles V transferred control of the hereditary lands to his younger brother Ferdinand I between 1522 and 1525.23 As with so much of his reign, Charles’s action illustrates the transition to early modernity. Sharing power with Ferdinand as his designated successor resembled the medieval management of the Empire through a co-king. However, Ferdinand’s position was geographically fixed and underpinned by both imperial and Habsburg institutions, whereas Charles remained itinerant, making 40 separate journeys during his reign, half of which was spent outside the Empire, while most of his time within it saw him in Italy or Burgundy rather than Germany.

Charles’s status as king of Spain had already raised concern at his election that he would prove an absentee emperor, especially given previous experience with Frederick III’s reluctance to leave Austria and with Maximilian I, who was accused of spending too much time campaigning in Burgundy and northern Italy. The Reichstag had already imposed a regency council (Reichsregiment) on Maximilian in July 1500 to enable selected imperial Estates to help implement the agenda of imperial reform: uphold the public peace, dispense justice, administer finances and regulate social behaviour. Maximilian managed to get the council disbanded early in 1502, but Charles’s departure for Spain in 1521 led to its re-establishment to share responsibility with Ferdinand I, who made a more serious effort to work with it. The imperial Estates soon tired of their own creation. Its membership was supposed to rotate, but it was always dominated by the electors. Concerned for their own status and ‘freedom’, princes were prepared to accept their traditional subordination to the emperor, but not to their peers. They seized the opportunity of Charles’s return to Germany in 1530 to disband the council. Ferdinand’s election as king of the Romans the next year gave him quasi-regal authority sufficient to act on his own initiative. Meanwhile, the institutionalization of the Reichstag appeared a more suitable forum with which to share power than the narrower council, which was never revived.24

Habsburg administration was reorganized while the imperial and dynastic roles were split between Charles and Ferdinand. In 1527 Ferdinand created an advisory privy council separate from the old Hofrat, which retained judicial functions: a separation of powers enacted around five decades ahead of that in princely territories. Hungary and Bohemia retained their own institutions once they passed to Ferdinand in 1526.25 Ferdinand expanded the remit of the new Austrian institutions once he himself became emperor at Charles’s death in 1558. The Habsburg treasury now received imperial taxes remitted by the Reichspfennigmeister. The Reichshofrat founded by Maximilian in 1497 was revived as a supreme court for cases involving imperial prerogatives, especially those relating to feudal relations. This temporarily absorbed the Austrian Hofrat, while the imperial and Austrian chancelleries also merged, handling correspondence with both the Empire and Habsburg lands. These changes reflected a return to past practice and were intended to save money rather than centralize imperial governance. Now that Ferdinand I combined both imperial and Habsburg authority, there seemed no need for separate institutions. However, the underlying trend was still to distinguish between Habsburg and imperial functions. For example, the 1566 chancellery ordinance separated imperial and dynastic business between two sets of officials in the same institution.

Dynastic and imperial institutions were formally separated by Ferdinand II in 1620, while the Bohemian chancellery was moved to Vienna four years later in an effort partially to centralize management of the Habsburg lands.26 Tensions persisted between the Habsburg and imperial chancelleries and much depended on the personal relations between the emperor and imperial vice chancellor. Like other princes, the Habsburgs found their own institutions often became unwieldy talking shops incapable of swift decision-making, yet staffed by people too important to dismiss. They consequently created a succession of new, initially smaller advisory bodies intended to formulate policy and coordinate the other departments. These inner councils frequently bypassed the imperial chancellery and dealt with important imperial Estates directly, simply through expediency. Miscommunication and duplication of function were common elsewhere in Europe, but they certainly contributed markedly to slow decision-making and poor administration in the Habsburg monarchy into the mid-eighteenth century.

Habsburg Lands and the Empire

The rapid accumulation of dynastic possessions between 1477 and 1526 did not expand the Empire. Those lands already within the Empire remained so: Burgundy, Milan, Bohemia. Those outside were not incorporated within imperial jurisdiction: Hungary, Spain, Sicily, Naples. Meanwhile, Habsburg possessions within the Empire were grouped separately into the Austrian and Burgundian Kreise in 1512, while Bohemia was omitted entirely from the new regional structure. The princes had insisted on incorporation, hoping to extend scrutiny and control over the financial and military contributions from the Habsburg lands through the new common structures. The Habsburg lands always contributed the lion’s share, far in excess of their formal assessments, but Maximilian I and his successors were determined not to allow the princes to direct how they spent their own subjects’ money.

Over time, the Habsburgs came to appreciate the benefits of having incorporated their Austrian and Burgundian lands within the Kreise, since this allowed them to engage in regional politics as imperial Estates as well as emperor.27 After 1558 it also allowed the Austrian branch to retain a hold over Burgundy despite Charles V assigning it to Spain in 1548. Charles had agreed that Burgundy should pay double tax rates (triple if assisting against the Turks), and Spain initially honoured this, though it paid Austria directly rather than remitting the money through the Reichspfennigmeister. Austria’s refusal to treat the Dutch Revolt after 1566 as a breach of the public peace soured relations and led to Spain suspending further payments.28 Nonetheless, Spain also appreciated the utility of retaining its Burgundian territories as part of the Empire, since this allowed it to act as an imperial Estate rather than a ‘foreign power’. Spanish intervention in support of Austria during the Thirty Years War was presented this way to undercut anti-Habsburg Protestant propaganda.

Both Burgundy and Austria only existed as Kreise on paper; neither held an assembly, despite both containing a few minor non-Habsburg members.29 Meanwhile, the imperial police ordinances of 1530 and 1548 exempted Austria from a wide range of laws passed by the Reichstag. The imperial currency ordinance of 1559 granted similar exemptions, while Habsburg subjects were prevented from appealing cases to the imperial supreme courts after 1637. The Peace of Westphalia allowed the Habsburgs to claim all their possessions as officially Catholic, denying their still substantial Protestant minority the rights granted minorities elsewhere by that treaty, except for six ‘peace churches’ established in Silesia.

Although they isolated their lands, the Habsburgs still needed to deal with the rest of the Empire to foster legitimacy and solicit aid. Traditional methods were employed alongside the new institutions developing across the era of imperial reform. Swabia emerged as the area ‘closest to the king’ during the late fifteenth century, because this region was next to the Habsburgs’ original possessions in Alsace and around the Black Forest. Dealings with Swabia showed how the family skilfully employed the opportunities offered by the lengthening status hierarchy. As local lords themselves, the Habsburgs deliberately engaged with their neighbours more as equals to win their cooperation through the Swabian League, founded in 1488, which constituted the cornerstone of what has been termed the ‘Maximilian System’.30 Their methods show how the Empire’s internal structure was still fluid at this point. Frederick III and Maximilian I not only negotiated with those lords and cities who were being invited to the new Reichstag, but also with mediate nobles and towns in the process of forming assemblies (Landstände) in territories that themselves were still taking shape. Although they preferred to cooperate with senior nobles, both emperors were prepared to work with burghers where necessary, and offered cash, privileges, appointments and favourable judicial verdicts to cultivate useful clients.

These methods worked best where the emperor could appeal to a broad cross section of inhabitants, as in the south-west, but they were harder to employ in regions physically further from Habsburg possessions, which were also usually those with fewer lordships or inhabitants. The development of the Kreise gave the imperial Estates an alternative framework for regional cooperation independent of the emperor. Nonetheless, the Habsburgs continued to see a league as a way to forge binding ties to imperial Estates outside the increasingly formalized imperial institutions. This became harder following the Reformation when Lutheran princes and cities combined in the Schmalkaldic League to demand religious autonomy, thereby hastening the demise of the pro-imperial Swabian League, which failed to renew its charter in 1534.

Charles’s victory over the Schmalkaldic League in 1547 at the battle of Mühlberg appeared to offer an opportunity for him to attempt a significant reorganization of imperial governance at the ‘Armoured Reichstag’ in Augsburg the following year. Milan and the western Habsburg possessions were transferred to Spain under the Burgundian Treaty. Meanwhile, Ferdinand remained responsible for Austria, Bohemia and Hungary. All princely alliances were formally annulled, except the defunct Swabian League, which was revived as a new Imperial League (Reichsbund), intended to bind the imperial Estates to the Habsburgs. All imperial Estates were now to pay funds into a central Imperial Military Chest to support an army under Habsburg control. Rather than centralizing the Empire, these measures were intended to provide a clearer division of responsibility, with Ferdinand and Charles’s son Philip looking after the two blocs of Habsburg territory, while the German lands were grouped within the League to manage them more easily. All three elements remained under Charles’s suzerainty as emperor.31

The scheme failed, because Charles tried to move too far too fast. By trying to include all electors in his new league, Charles allowed them to combine against it, using the Reichstag, which was now too well established to be ignored. Charles’s decision to push the measures in person at the Armoured Reichstag made it difficult to compromise without losing prestige. Resistance gathered into the Princes Revolt of 1552, forcing the Habsburgs not only to abandon the Imperial League but eventually to agree the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555.

This outcome exposed the difficulties of managing such an extensive collection of lands, prompting Charles to partition Habsburg possessions through a series of measures between 1556 and 1558. Whereas Frankish nobles retained a sense of a wider empire after the partition in the Treaty of Verdun (843), the connections after 1558 were now only dynastic, with the two Habsburg branches considering themselves a common Casa d’Austria. Spain was imperial through its extensive possessions stretching to the New World, while Austria owed its status to retaining the imperial title in the person of Ferdinand I.

Ferdinand also tried to manage the German lands through a pro-imperial league called the Landsberg Alliance. Formed in 1556, this persisted until 1598, but never included more than nine imperial Estates confined to the south-east.32 The league’s significance lay in its deliberately cross-confessional membership of both Protestants and Catholics. By leading it, Ferdinand signalled the future direction of Habsburg imperial governance: the family justified its continued hold on the imperial title by presenting itself as trustworthy guardian of the common good and the Empire’s internal peace and external security. Ferdinand and his three immediate successors now accepted the Reichstag as the primary forum to negotiate with the imperial Estates, securing substantial financial backing by holding 12 Reichstags between 1556 and 1613.

However, the sheer number of imperial Estates complicated the process of finding a consensus, encouraging a parallel trend to consult the electors, either ahead of a Reichstag or instead of it, as occurred during Ferdinand II’s reign. Charles V’s unprecedented abdication on 3 August 1556 greatly enhanced the electors’ influence, since Ferdinand I depended on their continued support to secure the imperial title ahead of his elder brother’s actual death in September 1558.33 Ferdinand won them over by opposing Charles’s plan to make the title hereditary (see p.165), and by confirming their right of self-assembly. Cooperation continued despite the conversion of the elector Palatine to Calvinism around 1560. The electors accepted Ferdinand I’s son Maximilian II and grandson Rudolf II as kings of the Romans in 1562 and 1575 respectively, on each occasion ensuring the seamless continuity of Habsburg imperial rule.34

Imperial Governance during the Thirty Years War

Rudolf II’s refusal to marry precipitated a succession crisis that deepened with the Habsburgs’ financial and political bankruptcy following the Long Turkish War (1593–1606). Unlike the previous deposition of Wenzel in 1400 orchestrated by the electors, the Habsburgs kept their problems to themselves. Spain backed Matthias as a safer pair of hands than the depressive and reclusive Rudolf. Matthias’s attempt to force Rudolf to transfer power triggered the Brothers’ Quarrel after 1608, which saw both make damaging concessions to the Protestant nobles who dominated their provincial Estates. By May 1611, Rudolf had been deprived of all Habsburg lands and remained under virtual house arrest in his castle in Prague. His death in 1612 allowed Matthias to secure election as emperor, but he was himself childless and ill, and the whole episode seriously damaged Habsburg prestige and influence.35

As we have seen (pp. 121–5; also pp. 564–5), the distraction created a partial political vacuum in the German lands that was filled by the Protestant Union and Catholic League, formed respectively in 1608 and 1609 by the rival Wittelsbach branches of the Palatinate and Bavaria (Map 19). By 1617, Matthias had neutralized the League by compelling Bavaria to admit new members, rendering the organization no longer suitable as a vehicle for its own interests. Meanwhile, the Palatinate’s deliberate disruption of the Reichstag in 1608 encouraged the trend to consult only the three ecclesiastical electors (Cologne, Mainz and Trier) and the generally pro-imperial Saxony.36 The group widened to include Bavaria once that prince received the Palatine lands and electoral title in 1623 as a reward for helping to crush the Bohemian Revolt (1618–20) at the start of the Thirty Years War. Electoral congresses convened in 1627, 1630 and 1636–7. Saxony temporarily defected to the Swedes between 1631 and 1634 to pressure Ferdinand II into reversing his ill-judged Edict of Restitution. Although limited, Ferdinand’s concessions were sufficient to entice Saxony back in the Peace of Prague in May 1635.

Saxony was allowed to annex the former Habsburg provinces of Upper and Lower Lusatia, which it had occupied since 1620 as a pledge that the cash-strapped Habsburgs would refund the cost of its military assistance in crushing the Bohemian Revolt. In return, it accepted Ferdinand’s interpretation of the war as a rebellion, thereby legitimating his expropriation of his opponents’ lands and titles whenever he could defeat them, like the Palatinate. Whereas the Religious Peace of Augsburg had been negotiated openly at a Reichstag, the Peace of Prague was agreed between Saxony and the emperor and then presented to the imperial Estates, who could only accept or reject it. Only Bavaria and, to a lesser extent, Cologne and Brandenburg were able to negotiate special concessions. The exclusion of the lesser imperial Estates fuelled their sense of disenfranchisement. Already, many minor lords and cities had joined the Protestant Union and Catholic League because they believed the existing institutions no longer guaranteed their autonomy amidst the political and confessional tension. The Palatinate especially had played on their resentment, presenting a more aristocratic interpretation of the constitution in the guise of religious parity, since meeting in two confessional corpora offered to level the Reichstag’s hierarchy of three colleges: electors, princes and imperial cities.37

Ferdinand III addressed these concerns after his accession in 1637 in the hope of rallying broad support to end the Thirty Years War on the basis of the Peace of Prague. He held the first Reichstag for 27 years in Regensburg between 1640 and 1641, restoring some trust in Habsburg leadership despite the deteriorating military situation now that France had intervened to support Sweden, while Spain was no longer able to assist Austria.38 Ferdinand’s move inhibited the formation of a clear anti-Habsburg bloc among the imperial Estates, despite the willingness of France and Sweden to support constitutional changes that would indeed have converted the Empire into something more resembling an aristocracy. He avoided his father’s mistake at the Peace of Prague and invited all imperial Estates to the Westphalian peace congress in 1645, rallying most of them to block the more radical revisions proposed by France and Sweden.39

Stabilization of the Empire, 1648–58

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 is usually seen as one of the ‘greatest catastrophes’ in German history.40 Supposedly, the Empire was reduced to a loose federation under the emperor’s nominal presidency, emancipating the principalities from the constitution, now allegedly ‘preserved in aspic’.41 The terms referred to ‘territorial rights’ (ius territorii) and ‘alliance rights’ (ius foedera), but did not in fact grant new powers. Exercise of such rights remained curtailed by imperial law and duty to the Empire, as had been the case before 1618. Awkward constitutional questions were simply postponed until the next Reichstag. Imperial prerogatives remained broadly intact, though the exercise of some of them now clearly depended on consultation through the Reichstag. The repeated reference throughout the treaty to ‘imperial Estates’ further eroded the personal character of imperial politics, best symbolized by the princes’ loss of their earlier right (since Augsburg in 1555) to change their subjects’ religion, which was now fixed by identifying each territory as officially either Protestant or Catholic.42

The presence of France and Sweden as foreign guarantors was probably the least significant of the main set of changes (see pp. 127–8 and 174). Saxony, Bavaria and above all Brandenburg obtained additional land at a point when the war had demonstrated the military potential of the larger territories (Map 9). The Habsburgs secured their core goals, including acceptance of the sweeping redistribution of private property within Austria and Bohemia in the 1620s, which rebalanced the Habsburg monarchy as an alliance between the ruling dynasty and major aristocratic landowners. The consolidation of Habsburg power preserved the Empire as a hierarchy, since no other prince was able to challenge their leadership. Likewise, the electors combined to ensure their continued pre-eminence over the other princes, regardless of the actual distribution of material resources.43

Austrian policy after 1648 was preoccupied with retaining the imperial title and asserting claims to the Spanish succession, given the increasing likelihood of that branch’s extinction, which grew after the accession of the childless and feeble-minded Charles II in 1665. Engagement with the Empire was necessary to both goals, especially as acquisition of Spain’s Italian lands was prioritized. Ferdinand carefully cultivated broad support amongst the imperial Estates, securing the election of his son Ferdinand IV as king of the Romans. Ferdinand III staged a lavish entry into Regensburg in 1653 for his son’s coronation and the opening of a new Reichstag amidst fireworks and opera performances, all demonstrating his family’s continued power despite the recent harrowing war. Additional limits were placed on his ability to create new princes, but more radical attempts to revise the constitution were defeated, and Ferdinand won new support from north German Protestant territories alarmed by Sweden’s ambitions in their region.44

Imperial politics remained open, with various routes for the emperor and imperial Estates to achieve their goals. These options gradually narrowed after the early 1680s without the constitution ever reaching total gridlock. A sense of uncertainty continued with the Franco-Spanish war, which only ended in 1659, as well as Ferdinand IV’s death at just 20 in July 1654, followed by that of his father aged only 48 in April 1657. Ferdinand III had not had sufficient time to secure the election of his second son, Leopold I, as king of the Romans, leading to an interregnum prolonged to 14 months by French interference. The electors not only rejected Louis XIV’s candidacy, but refrained from imposing anything more than minor additional restrictions on imperial prerogatives in return for electing Leopold in July 1658.45

The Permanent Reichstag

Leopold was only 18 when elected emperor and what proved to be his longevity (1658–1705) gave the Habsburgs the stability they needed to achieve their objectives.46 Crucial to Leopold’s success was his willingness to work within rather than against the post-1648 constitutional order. Various attempts to negotiate with the electors and a small Imperial Deputation failed to resolve outstanding security and reform questions, obliging Leopold to summon a new Reichstag when confronted with a Turkish attack on Hungary in 1662.47 Having opened on 20 January 1663, the Reichstag remained permanently in session until the end of the Empire. This was not planned: there were four serious attempts to wind it up before 1741, while no formal sessions were held during 1692–7, 1747–50 and 1780–85 due to political tensions, notably Austro-Prussian rivalry.

Nonetheless, the Reichstag’s permanence exceeded the annual meetings agreed in 1495 and also began much earlier than Britain’s ‘mother of parliaments’, which only became permanent after 1717. England’s Triennial Act (1694) restricted each Parliament to no more than three years, because a permanent assembly was regarded like a ‘standing army’, as a mark of tyranny. This pinpoints the key distinction between Britain’s Parliament and the Empire’s Reichstag. British parliamentarians were representatives elected by enfranchised inhabitants who would lose their rights and influence if the same people remained MPs indefinitely.

The Reichstag was not a parliament, because it represented the imperial Estates, not their populations. There was no prospect of its evolving into a democratic institution without fundamentally altering the Empire’s character as a mixed monarchy and enfranchising inhabitants rather than territories.

The Reichstag remained permanent simply because it proved the most effective forum within which all imperial Estates and the emperor could negotiate, thereby rendering most other consultative institutions redundant. This set the basic pattern for Habsburg imperial governance until 1806. The emperor would seek formal ratification for important measures like declarations of war by negotiating with the Reichstag and, in many cases, also the Kreis Assemblies, especially those in the south and west that enabled him to contact numerous smaller territories. Meanwhile, more informal channels were used to achieve more localized goals, or to speed up formal ratification, by negotiating directly with influential individual imperial Estates through envoys or correspondence. Bilateral and occasionally multilateral alliances were forged with princes, usually to secure additional military support above official obligations. These methods further eroded the personal element in imperial politics, which increasingly assumed the character of multiple written agreements between its different actors.

Politics remained asymmetrical, rather than equal as we would have expected if the Empire had truly become a federation after 1648. Princes appeared as petitioners, seeking the emperor’s backing for an elevated status for themselves, their morganatic wives or mistresses, or revisions to their territory’s formal position within the Empire, or other benefits like favourable verdicts in disputes with their neighbours. The goals of princes thus remained specific, and they did not seek generalized constitutional change; indeed, they often protested when other princes received the same kind of favours they sought themselves. Participation in wider European warfare was generally driven by similar desires. Princes overwhelmingly sought connections with other states that were already the emperor’s allies, like Britain and the Dutch Republic, in the hope these would pressure him on their behalf.48

Although the Habsburgs occupied the position of strength, theirs was a difficult hand to play. They remained perennially short of money, and were often unable to pay for the additional military assistance that princes provided. More importantly, the reservoir of desirable honours in their gift was finite. Minor ennoblements and local political backing cost the Habsburgs little, but direct interference in imperial justice risked undermining their prestige and, ultimately, their ability to manage the Empire. Habsburg support was usually limited to applying pressure on the parties involved to reach the desired settlement. Significant status elevations were harder to achieve after 1654 when they needed the Reichstag’s agreement. Leopold became adept at dangling promises that were rarely delivered, at least not in full.

He secured the election of his eldest son, Joseph I, as king of the Romans in January 1690, safeguarding the continuity of Habsburg rule. The election was actively promoted by the archbishop of Mainz, who appeared with five other electors in person to cast unanimous votes. This was a strong endorsement of Habsburg rule amidst a two-front war against both France and the Ottomans.49 However, the constant conflicts after 1672 accelerated the internationalization of imperial politics by widening the number of European powers keen to hire German auxiliaries. France was prepared to pay handsomely for key princes to refrain from participating in imperial defence, adding to the pressure on Leopold as the Spanish succession loomed in the 1690s. He was forced to deliver on promises and elevate the duke of Calenberg (Hanover) to electoral status in 1692, intensifying competition amongst the other ‘old princely houses’. Savoy had to be granted grand-ducal status in 1696, while Austria assisted the Saxon elector, whom the Poles chose as their king the following year. Finally, and fatefully, Leopold agreed to recognize the Brandenburg elector as ‘king in Prussia’ in November 1700 in return for military backing in what became the War of the Spanish Succession within a few months. Each time, he alienated other Habsburg clients and stoked problems for the future.


Imperial Taxation

Wars such as that over the Spanish succession required a level of resource mobilization far in excess of anything undertaken by the medieval Empire. The overall size of European armies rose by 1,000 per cent across the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, or more than three times the rate of population growth.50 Contrary to the received view, the Empire responded quite effectively to this challenge. This is not obvious from the level of revenue accruing from imperial prerogatives, which remained minimal after Charles IV’s dissipation of the crown lands in the late fourteenth century and despite efforts to revive income during the early eighteenth century (Table 9).51

After the initial problems with the Common Penny to fund the Reichskammergericht, the 1507 Reichstag introduced a new tax, called the Zieler because it was to be paid in two annual instalments timed to coincide with the Frankfurt Zielen, or spring and autumn trade fairs. The imperial Estates were assigned quotas, but they were left to themselves how to find the money. Many fell into arrears, but the problem was magnified by the practice throughout the Empire’s population of recording debts long after any realistic prospect of payment. Tax rates were raised in 1720 when the salaries of judges and staff were doubled as part of a wider reform of the court’s administration. The official annual total of the Zieler was now 120,000 florins, or 25 per cent above what was required for salaries. Receipts varied between 78,000 and 139,500 florins annually from 1742 to 1770. Another reform increased the Zieler again in 1776, and within six years the tax was running a healthy surplus, while Brandenburg, which had not paid anything since 1713, resumed payments after 1790 and soon cleared its entire arrears.52

Table 9. Annual Revenue Derived from Imperial Prerogatives, c.1780


  Amount (florins)  

Fines and dues levied by the imperial courts   


‘Voluntary contribution’ paid by the imperial knights   


Dues from imperial cities (13 still paid these)   


‘Jewish Tax’ from the Frankfurt Ghetto   




Far more money was raised on an ad hoc basis for defence using the matricular system introduced by imperial reform (see pp. 404–6). The system could be used to levy troops and/or their cash equivalents, which had been calculated since 1521 using a unit of account called a Roman Month (RM) based on the pay bill of the armed escort envisaged for Charles V’s coronation journey. The nominal value of an RM was reckoned initially at 128,000 florins, but it had already fallen to 68,700 florins by 1576, and to around 50,000 by the eighteenth century.53 Like the Zieler arrears, these reductions reflect flaws in how assessments were assigned. Several imperial Estates already protested in 1524 at their assessments, eventually securing revisions for the period 1545–51 that collectively reduced the official RM by 6 per cent. Further problems crept in as some territories received temporary remissions, such as imperial cities hit by major fires. They often failed to resume paying the higher rates. Meanwhile, the Kreise developed their own registers to raise funds at the regional level. Although based on the 1521 imperial register, the Kreis rates often differed, offering further scope for unauthorized ‘self-moderation’ as individual Estates adjusted their payments to whichever rate was lowest.

These problems were in fact common in Old Europe where taxes relied on registers assigning assessments only loosely correlated with actual wealth. Once compiled, such registers were hard to revise, not least thanks to the vested interest of those who were under-assessed in resisting change. In fact, imperial political culture constrained self-moderation. Smaller Estates were particularly reluctant to challenge the Empire by unilaterally revising their quotas, and by the mid-eighteenth century many accepted that if they wanted a reduction, they would have to submit to a full investigation of their economic and financial circumstances by an imperial commission.54 Even combined with territories leaving the register through French annexation, like Metz, Toul and Verdun, self-moderation only accounted for 15,900 florins, or a quarter of the losses by 1600. Twice that amount disappeared through the removal of minor Estates listed in the 1521 register, which avoided payment by forgoing the status of imperial Estate and accepting mediatization by another territory, such as the town of Lemgo, absorbed into the principality of Lippe. All attempts to persuade the beneficiaries to make up the missing payments were abandoned by 1577, but at least fixing the status of imperial Estate five years later entailed firm acceptance of the assigned burdens. The remaining quarter of the losses derived from the special status of the Austrian and Burgundian Kreise, since these never remitted taxes through the imperial receiver.

In fact, maintenance of the Habsburgs’ imperial role cost their own subjects far more than their official quotas. Maximilian I spent 25 million florins across his reign, mainly to recover Milan as an escheated imperial fief in the Italian Wars. Austrian taxes provided the Habsburgs with between 500,000 and 1 million florins a year, while the Netherlands contributed a further million annually from 1507. Despite these sums, assistance from the Empire was essential and the 2 million florins voted for 1495–1518 represented an important additional source, even if only half the promised amount was actually paid.55Significantly, Maximilian’s 6 million florins of debt were contracted as Habsburg liabilities, reflecting his separation of Habsburg administration from that of the rest of the Empire. Rather than seek amortization through the Reichstag, he and his successors chose to negotiate agreements with their provincial Estates, who raised taxes from Habsburg subjects to pay the creditors. While this necessitated concessions to these assemblies, including religious toleration in the later sixteenth century, it freed the emperor from exposing his own finances to Reichstag scrutiny.

More substantial assistance came in response to the rapid Ottoman advance through Serbia and Hungary after 1521, establishing a pattern persisting into the early seventeenth century. The Habsburgs petitioned each Reichstag for ‘emergency aid’ to cope with the immediate threat, plus ‘permanent aid’ on an extended basis to maintain frontier defences in Hungary. Like other early modern European assemblies, the Reichstag initially refused the latter, recognizing that permanent tax grants would reduce the emperor’s need to summon it again. Instead, it voted fixed grants, which could be drawn on as cash or troops until the allocated amount had been consumed. The total raised during Charles V’s reign is difficult to calculate, because individual Estates often paid after considerable delay, but overall the imperial treasury had received around 4.3 million florins by 1555 (Table 10).56

Although far above what previous emperors had received, this amount still fell far short of Charles’s burgeoning expenses. The 1544 grant provided only 3.7 per cent of the emperor’s war funding across 1543–52, with the bulk raised largely from German and Netherlands bank loans.57 However, the seemingly meagre amount reflected the division of labour within Habsburg governance and the Empire’s international orientation in the interests of peace. The Reichstag only assigned Charles half its 1544 grant and even this was an exceptional case, because it did not feel obliged to back what it regarded as his private war with France. Instead, most imperial aid was directed to Ferdinand, who had been tasked with repelling the Ottomans. The actual scale of assistance was far greater than the official amounts, because it was largely provided as troops were raised, equipped and maintained at the expense of the individual imperial Estates.

Ferdinand’s administrative and financial reforms doubled the revenue he could extract from Austria, Bohemia and his part of Hungary to reach about 2.2 million florins annually by 1560, still far less than the average of 14.2 million that his brother had enjoyed from all his domains, including 6.9 million from the Burgundian lands. Ferdinand spent at least 530,000 florins on his court and administration annually, and between 540,000 and over 1 million on fortifying and defending the Hungarian frontier.58 His debts quintupled to 10 million florins by his death in 1564, excluding another 1.5 million of private debt. The three-way division of Habsburg lands between his sons after 1564 robbed them of any economies of scale, forcing each branch to trade concessions to their provincial Estates in return for taxes amortizing over 10.6 million florins of debts by 1615. Despite being a noted art patron, Rudolf II in fact cut court expenditure, channelling the savings into border defence. Yet despite the provincial Estates doubling their tax grants, Habsburg debts tripled to 32 million florins by 1612, by which time annual revenue had reached only 5.4 million.59

Table 10. Imperial Taxation, 1521–1613





  Actual Payment  


6 RMs  


Turkish Aid  

Troops sent in lieu 1522–6, 1529  


48 RMs  


Turkish Aid  

Troops sent in lieu 1532  


1.5 RMs  


Turkish Aid  



Common Penny  


Turkish Aid  



Common Penny  


Turkish Aid  



Common Penny  


   1/2 for Charles, 1/2 Turkish Aid, equivalent to 12 RMs


Common Penny  




Cash (0.5m fl)  



0.35m fl paid (70%)  



Common Penny  


0.4m fl paid (57%)  



16 RMs  



   1.141m fl paid (69.1%)



0.5m fl cash*  





48 RMs  


Turkish War  

2.922m fl paid (77%)  



12 RMs  



0.7m fl paid (81.2%)  



60 RMs  



3.77m fl paid (82.2%)  



40 RMs  



2.12m fl paid (85%)  



80 RMs  


Turkish War  

   16.57m fl paid (88%)



60 RMs  


Turkish War  



86 RMs  


Turkish War  



30 RMs  


Border Defence  


*equivalent to 7 RMs

This summary of the Habsburgs’ deteriorating financial situation underscores the growing importance of aid from the Empire across the second half of the sixteenth century. The 409 RMs voted for 1556–1603 represented well over five times the sums granted during Charles V’s reign. Despite confessional tension, payment rates rose from around 70 per cent at mid-century to 88 per cent during the last quarter. Additional aid worth 7.5 million florins was secured by approaching the Kreise directly during the Long Turkish War. Altogether, the Habsburgs received 31 million florins for the period 1556–1607, equivalent to 600,000 annually, adding considerably to regular revenue.60 The Reichstag was most generous during the Long Turkish War, but more than a quarter of the money was voted when there were no active hostilities against the Ottomans, thereby coming close to the Habsburgs’ demand for permanent funding (Table 11).

Only the 1608 Reichstag closed without agreeing fresh assistance, while that voted in 1613 together with late payments from earlier grants added another 2 million florins received across 1608–31.61 Arrears totalled 5.3 million florins by 1619, but the regularity of grants before 1608 gave the Habsburgs better credit as emperors than as territorial rulers. The Reichspfennigmeister was able to raise an additional 3.8 million florins as ‘anticipations’ against future imperial taxes, plus a further 1.9 million in long-term loans at only 5 per cent, or way below the extortionate rates that bankers charged French and Spanish kings.62

Table 11. War Funding Raised during the Long Turkish War, 1593–1606


  Amount (million fl)  


Austrian and Bohemian Estates taxes   



Reichstag and Kreis Assembly grants   



Grants from imperial Italy   



Spanish subsidies   









The problem of arrears should also be set against the fact that several territories voluntarily paid extra contributions, which could be considerable: such payments totalled 553,784 florins during 1592–4.63 Above all, the system demonstrated the strength of the collective political culture. The Reichstag voted money for specific purposes, but its accounting system was restricted to recording how far individual imperial Estates met their obligations and it had no control over actual expenditure. Yet, despite their faults, the Habsburgs honoured their promise to spend the money on defending Hungary from the Ottomans.

It is against this background that the financial problems of the Thirty Years War become clear. The controversy surrounding the Bohemian Revolt dissuaded Ferdinand II from summoning a Reichstag, relying instead on requesting support from the Kreis Assemblies and individual imperial Estates, especially the cities, some of which paid considerable sums: Cologne provided 82,830 florins for 1619–31, equivalent to 110 RMs of its matricular quota.64 In an effort to lend these measures greater legitimacy, the emperor obtained the electors’ agreement to a general levy of 96 RMs annually from 1630 to confront the Swedish invasion. A further 240 RMs were sanctioned this way for 1635–8, before Ferdinand III finally recognized that Reichstag approval was essential if these measures were to stand any chance of acceptance, securing another 240 RMs in 1641. Direct approaches to the Kreis Assemblies covered the gap between 1638 and 1640. The payment rate fell far below what had been achieved in the late sixteenth century, because the emperor was compelled to assign receipts from different regions directly to units of the imperial army in their vicinity. This eroded the already fragile distinction between official war taxes and the numerous other exactions imposed by commanders. Already in February 1638, the Franconians complained that these additional costs were two to five times what they owed in RMs and asked to offset further war taxes against what they were paying directly to the emperor’s troops. Nonetheless, payments could still be significant. Official demands on the archbishopric of Salzburg totalled 1,137 RMs across 1635–48, of which 1,334,420 florins or 64 per cent was paid. Given that these sums were far above previous taxes and considering the conditions in which they were paid, this was simultaneously a remarkable achievement and a quantitative indication of the immense misery inflicted by the war.65

The real strength of the imperial fiscal system was demonstrated during 1648–54 when it was used to raise the money to disband both sides’ armies as agreed in the Peace of Westphalia. Despite 30 years of terrible war, seven of the ten Kreise had paid 7.8 million florins to Sweden by 1654, as well as maintaining its army in the meantime at a cost of a further 20.5 million. The Bavarian Kreis raised 753,300 florins to pay off the Bavarian elector’s army, while Mainz, Cologne and parts of the Westphalian Kreis raised 1.2 million to pay off Hessen-Kassel’s soldiers, as well as 375,000 to pay Spain in exchange for its return of the Frankenthal fortress in 1652. The emperor was promised 100 RMs to disband his troops, but other than his lands being exempted from the payments to Sweden and Bavaria, he received little, forcing the cost onto his own subjects. Altogether, the official fiscal structure raised about 30.25 million florins in just six years to disband around 170,000 soldiers and bring peace to the Empire after 30 years of devastating warfare.66

The experience of the war rendered continuation of these methods politically impossible, as the imperial Estates were no longer prepared simply to grant money without being able to control its expenditure. Instead, they returned to the methods employed in the 1520s of providing military contingents in lieu of tax. Any cash grants were now geared to supporting collective defence by providing money through a new Imperial Operations Fund (Reichsoperationskasse) to pay the general staff, transport and other centrally incurred costs, while the contingents were maintained directly by the territories that fielded them (Table 12).67

Table 12. Tax Grants during the Permanent Reichstag, 1663–1742






  50 RMs  

      Turkish Aid  

      troops sent in lieu,1663–4  


  50 RMs  

      Hungarian border defence  

      payments from some Estates  


  50 RMs  

      Turkish Aid  

      largely offset by troops in lieu  


  50 RMs  

      Turkish Aid  

      largely offset by troops in lieu  


  0.3m fl  

      Imperial Operations Fund  

         at least 6.52m fl paid (71.7%)


  1.5m fl  

      Imperial Operations Fund  


  0.3m fl  

      Imperial Operations Fund  


  1m fl  

      Imperial Operations Fund  


  6m fl  

      Imperial Operations Fund  


  7.5m fl  

      Imperial Operations Fund  

      largely offset by troops in lieu  


  50 RMs  

      Turkish Aid  

      1.77m fl paid by 1736 (56.5%)  


  6 RMs  

      Repair of Philippsburg and Kehl  

      0.29m fl paid (79.6%)  


  3 RMs  

      Munitions for Philippsburg and Kehl  

      0.04m fl paid (38%)  


  30 RMs  

      Imperial Operations Fund  

      0.35m paid by Jan. 1735  


  50 RMs  

      Imperial Operations Fund  

      less than 50% paid  


  50 RMs  

      Turkish Aid  

      1.3m fl paid by March 1739 (48.6%)  


  50 RMs  

      Turkish Aid  

      little paid  


  50 RMs  

      Gift to Charles VII  

      1.82m fl paid (68%)  

The increasingly complementary distribution of functions across the Empire’s different levels saw growing fiscal activity through the Kreis Assemblies, which raised additional sums, including for their own operations funds. The almost continual warfare between 1672 and 1714 led to these sums becoming virtually permanent additional taxes. Historians are only now grappling with the full scale of this activity, which is recorded in hundreds of account books scattered throughout Germany’s numerous regional archives. The Upper Rhine Assembly voted 1,000 RMs across 1681–1714. Although the value of its Kreis RM declined from 8,900 florins (1681) to 4,100 florins (1704), the amounts were still substantial, especially considering the actual payment rate was about 90 per cent.68Indeed, payments received centrally by the Reichspfennigmeister, or the Imperial Operations Fund, give no indication of the true scale of the Empire’s fiscal-military effort, especially as most of the non-payment was often offset by much heavier expenditure incurred directly by the territories. Indeed, official grants became a way of leveraging more money from territorial subjects, since the Reichstag made payment of imperial taxes binding on all inhabitants in 1654.

This is best illustrated by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), which also saw the Empire’s largest military effort after 1648. The central funds amounted to 9.1 million florins, of which about three-quarters were paid, including this time also by the Habsburgs, who contributed 32 per cent above their official assessment as a political gesture to encourage support for what was largely a war in their private interest. Additional voluntary contributions from the imperial knights, three Hanseatic cities and some clergy netted a further 3.24 million florins.69 By contrast, Austrian military expenditure averaged 20 million annually. However, total expenditure was 650 million across 1701–14, including the cost of the official contingents and additional auxiliaries provided by the imperial Estates, as well as their other directly incurred war expenditure. Only 90 million of this was covered by subsidies from the emperor’s British and Dutch allies. The remainder was divided roughly one-third for the Habsburgs and two-thirds for the remaining imperial Estates, indicating that the latter bore a disproportionately heavy burden. The Empire’s overall effort exceeded Britain’s military and naval expenditure by about 237.5 million florins.70

This effort was not matched subsequently, though the imperial Estates still provided substantial financial and direct military aid during the wars against France and the Ottomans in the 1730s. No further Turkish Aid was paid after 1740, reflecting the declining significance of the original imperial mission. The Reichstag voted 330 RMs to combat revolutionary France during 1793–9, but the strained circumstances meant that only about 5 million florins, or around a third, of the initial 230 RMs were paid.71

Imperial Defence

The Empire’s military effort is perhaps the most commonly derided aspect of its early modern existence. Most nineteenth-and twentieth-century historians measured state effectiveness by martial prowess. The Empire’s apparent incapacity is usually illustrated by its mobilization against Prussia during the Seven Years War. At the battle of Rossbach on 5 November 1757, Frederick the Great crushed a much larger combined Franco-imperial army, inflicting losses of 5,000 compared to 548 of his own troops. The rout and subsequent disintegration of the imperial army (Reichsarmee) led to its being mocked as the ‘run-away army’ (Reiß-aus Armee  ). In fact, imperial troops made up only one-quarter of the combined army, and a third of them were actually the Austrian contingent. The causes of the defeat were multiple and cannot be attributed simply to any supposed deficiencies of the Empire.72

The Empire as a whole never possessed a permanent army, but instead imperial reform created a mechanism to mobilize troops when required for collective defence and internal peace enforcement. Burdens were apportioned between the imperial Estates using the matricular quota system. Legislation issued between 1495 and 1555 established the process by which mobilization could be authorized by the Reichstag for the entire Empire, or by the Kreis Assemblies for their own regions. Further adjustments in 1570 rejected tentative moves across the previous decade towards funding a permanent cadre in peacetime.73 The accumulative effect of these measures was to link official military activity firmly to upholding the eternal public peace. This associated ‘military authority’ (Militärhoheit) with the imperial Estates, since these had been charged since 1495 with maintaining the peace, thus denying such powers to mediate lords and communities whose martial activities came under growing supervision from the territorial authorities. Imperial Estates were identified with powers of command, able to name officers for their own forces, just as they had led forces in person under the previous, more personal, feudal obligations. Nominal supreme command remained reserved for the emperor, but in practice he named several generals. From the mid-seventeenth century the emperor consulted the Reichstag when appointing commanders of common imperial forces, but retained exclusive control of his own Habsburg troops. Princes recruited for foreign powers, most famously Hessen-Kassel during the American Revolution, claiming this as a ‘German freedom’, but that activity remained formally restricted by the proviso that it should not harm the Empire or emperor. Failure to observe this gave Joseph I an excuse to sequestrate Bavaria, Cologne and Mantua during the War of the Spanish Succession.74

Except for financial support in 1544, the Empire refrained from backing Charles V’s wars against France, compelling him to use his own forces and those he secured by appealing to individual princes. The large numbers of German mercenaries serving him in Italy and the Low Countries were paid for by his own revenues and borrowing. Formal collective action remained limited to policing the western frontiers, especially after 1562, to insulate Germany from the civil wars raging in France and the Netherlands. Measures agreed at Reichstags between 1555 and 1570 failed to prevent either side from recruiting German and Italian troops, but otherwise successfully prevented these conflicts spreading into the Empire, except for Spanish and Dutch incursions in north-west Germany after 1585.

Like taxation, the main military effort was directed eastwards as Turkish Aid, reflecting the common expectation that the Empire should remain at peace with Christians whilst fulfilling its duty to repel the Ottomans. Substantial contingents were despatched five times from 1532, culminating in a sustained effort during the Long Turkish War, ending in 1606.75 These were field forces raised for specific campaigns, augmenting troops from the Habsburg lands and much smaller numbers of volunteers from across Europe. Rudolf II opened the Long Turkish War in 1593 with a field army of around 12,000 men from his own lands and 8,000–10,000 from the Empire.76 The only permanent force comprised 20,000 garrison troops guarding the Hungarian frontier after the 1520s, as well as a gunboat flotilla on the Danube.77

Military organization at the territorial level conformed to the imperial structure. Princes and imperial cities maintained small guard units, primarily for status and public order. These provided a professional cadre for contingents sent against the Turks. Peasants were enrolled in territorial militias legitimized by reference to imperial legislation requiring princes to maintain public order and assist the Empire. The militias underwent periodic reorganizations, especially from the 1570s when more systematic drilling was introduced, but they remained comparatively ineffective. Major operations always required professionals, hence the significance of the Empire’s fiscal system to pay them. The Schmalkaldic League and other alliances formed during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries all borrowed directly from the Empire’s quota system in their own mobilization structures.

The Habsburgs tried to fight the Thirty Years War using these structures by claiming that the Bohemian Revolt was a breach of the public peace, while presenting Swedish intervention as a foreign invasion. Throughout, they legitimated their operations by issuing mandates summoning their opponents to lay down their arms and negotiate. Those who failed to respond were branded outlaws to be targeted with punitive action. Habsburg supporters like Bavaria conformed to this approach, since it legitimated their own seizure of lands and titles from the emperor’s enemies.78 Initially, all belligerents tried to fund war from regular taxes, supplemented by foreign subsidies, forced loans and coinage debasement, the latter causing rampant inflation between 1621 and 1623. Most of the emperor’s early opponents were relatively minor princes who lacked either large territories or reliable foreign backers, and were forced to subsist by extorting money and supplies from the areas where their armies were operating. General Albrecht von Wallenstein’s ‘contribution system’, adopted by the emperor’s forces after 1625, attempted to regularize this and extended it on an unprecedented scale. Wallenstein hoped to win the war by awe rather than shock, assembling such overwhelming numbers that further fighting would become unnecessary. Drawing on imperial legislation since 1570, Wallenstein issued ordinances regulating what his troops could demand from local communities, thus entirely bypassing regular tax systems. Subsidies and taxes from the Habsburg lands were now reserved to buy military hardware and other items that could not be sourced locally, as well as servicing the loans on which the entire system increasingly depended.79

Wallenstein’s system suffered from several major flaws, not least the excessively high pay rates he allowed his senior officers and the rudimentary checks on graft and corruption. The numerous abuses feature prominently in contemporary criticism and subsequent historical discussion, but it was their political implications that made his methods so controversial. Wallenstein’s army tapped the Empire’s resources directly without reference to the Reichstag or the Kreis Assemblies. He gave the emperor an army funded by the Empire, but under Habsburg control and used to wage what was really a highly contentious civil war. Whilst contributions sustained the ordinary soldiers, their officers expected larger rewards, not least because they generally raised and equipped their units at their own expense. Wallenstein was already a major beneficiary of the redistribution of property confiscated from Bohemian nobles in the wake of the imperial victory at White Mountain in 1620. Confiscations were rolled out across the rest of Germany following further victories from 1623, with Wallenstein receiving the duchy of Mecklenburg in 1628, sequestrated from its dukes, who had unwisely backed Danish intervention three years before.

Alarmed, the electors combined to force Ferdinand II to dismiss Wallenstein in 1630, reduce the army, and switch to regular imperial taxes that allowed greater scrutiny and control. Sweden’s invasion of the Empire prevented the full implementation of these changes, and prompted Ferdinand to reinstate Wallenstein. Wallenstein failed to defeat the Swedes and was increasingly regarded as a liability in Ferdinand’s efforts to persuade Sweden’s German partners to defect. Wallenstein’s judicial murder in February 1634 demonstrated that the emperor retained control over the army and the loyalty of most of its personnel, but the problem of organizing war remained. Temporary military ascendency allowed Ferdinand to order all imperial Estates to combine their own troops with his as a single imperial army funded by regular imperial taxes. This arrangement was enshrined in the Peace of Prague in 1635, but it failed because the prevailing conditions rendered its financial arrangements untenable. In practice, the emperor had to allow Bavaria, Saxony, Cologne and – to an extent – Brandenburg considerable military autonomy. France and Sweden evolved an effective strategy after 1641, successively targeting pro-imperial territories, like Brandenburg and Bamberg, until they agreed neutrality. This gradually reduced the areas supporting imperial troops, forcing them onto the defensive. Nonetheless, Ferdinand III and his German allies still mustered over 76,000 men in 1648, compared to the 84,000 of his opponents, a significant factor in the emperor’s ability to extract reasonably favourable terms in the Peace of Westphalia.

The overwhelming desire for peace after 1648 led to the disbandment of virtually all forces in the Empire. Only the Habsburgs retained a small permanent army, which they redeployed in Hungary.80 However, the wider international situation compelled further discussion of defence. The emperor’s preferred solution was to return to the late sixteenth-century practice of extended Reichstag grants subsidizing the cost of the Habsburgs’ own army. This was politically unacceptable after the experience with Wallenstein. The electorates and several medium-sized principalities established their own permanent forces during the later 1650s and 1660s. The earlier militias were sometimes revived and adapted as a limited form of conscription providing cheap recruits to augment the professionals. The outbreak of almost permanent warfare on the Empire’s western frontier after 1672 saw these forces expand considerably, creating the first true ‘standing armies’ alongside that of the emperor.81

This forged a new divide in the Empire between the ‘armed Estates’ (Armierten Stände) and their unarmed neighbours. Leopold I relied heavily on the armed Estates who could supply troops fairly quickly during both the Turkish War of 1662–4 and especially in the Dutch War of 1672–9 to defend the Rhine against French attacks. Collective defence became a modified version of Wallenstein’s system as Leopold assigned unarmed territories and cities to provide funds and supplies to support the troops of the armed Estates. Unarmed territories now risked slipping into mediate status under powerful territories like Brandenburg, Saxony, Hanover and the heavily armed bishopric of Münster, all of which tried to formalize their predominance by establishing protectorates. By 1679 it was obvious that the armed Estates intended to deprive unarmed ones of the right to participate in the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies on the grounds they were no longer meeting their obligations to the Empire directly. This threatened to federalize the Empire through the mediatization of smaller territories, shortening the status hierarchy to a collection of large and medium-sized militarized principalities.

Leopold realized this would undermine his ability to manage the Empire and he sided with the lesser imperial Estates at the Reichstag to force through a compromise defence reform in 1681–2, establishing a system of collective security lasting until 1806.82 The matricular quotas were revised more clearly on a regional basis, retaining the 1521 register for cash contributions, but assigning new manpower contingents to give a basic rate (Simplum) totalling 12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry. As before, these could be mobilized as a fraction or multiple of the basic quota. The reform succeeded, because it stabilized the status hierarchy without preventing any further change. The right as well as the duty of all Estates to contribute was confirmed. The role of the Kreise expanded to organize contingents from the smaller territories who could combine their soldiers into regiments of broadly uniform size. The smaller territories could still opt to pay cash in lieu, but the money was now to go through the Reichspfennigmeister (later the Imperial Operations Fund) to prevent them being bullied into unequal local arrangements by more powerful neighbours. All imperial Estates were free to maintain additional troops above what they should provide for the Empire, especially as such obligations were on a sliding scale with no theoretical upper limit. However, this did not amount to the ‘law of the gun’ (Canonen-Recht  ) as some critics maintained, because in 1671 Leopold prevented the armed princes from securing the Reichstag’s sanction for unlimited war taxes. Consequently, the legal position remained the one agreed in 1654 that subjects were only obliged to pay for ‘necessary fortresses and garrisons’, thus still allowing some scope for territorial Estates to decide what these amounted to, as well as for the emperor to intervene when they could not agree.83 The armed Estates were also still free to provide additional auxiliaries through private arrangements with the emperor that might advance their dynastic goals. Finally, collective defence remained tied to the established constitutional framework governing decisions for war and peace, thus anchored on the ideal of a defensive war, since only this was likely to secure the necessary approval through the Reichstag.

The collective structure was capable of substantial, sustained effort (Table 13).84 Although the actual Kreis contingents (Kreistruppen) were always lower than the totals agreed by the Reichstag, it should be remembered that the Habsburgs always subsumed their own contribution within their own army, thus accounting for another 30 per cent above the numbers supplied by the smaller territories. Many of the auxiliaries also included men serving in lieu of Kreis contingents, because many princes wanted to keep all their soldiers together in a single force to increase their weight within the grand coalitions against France. For example, such forces accounted for 28 per cent of the auxiliaries provided during the War of the Spanish Succession.

The continuous warfare saw the total number of soldiers maintained by the emperor and imperial Estates rise from 192,000 in 1683 to peak at 343,300 in 1710. The most significant and surprising aspect of this rapid militarization was the disproportionate growth amongst the smaller territories, whose total strength grew by 95 per cent to reach 170,000 men, compared to a 75 per cent increase in the Prussian army to 43,500, and a 62 per cent rise in Habsburg strength to 129,000.85 Thus, imperial defence imposed a heavy burden on the Empire’s weakest elements, but this simultaneously ensured their political survival. The Westphalian and Upper Saxon minor territories used the Kreis structure to organize their own contingents, enabling them after 1702 to break free from onerous arrangements imposed by Prussia, Saxony and the Palatinate, which had previously provided troops to the imperial army on their behalf. In contrast to the almost universal disbandment in 1648, the Westphalian, Upper Rhenish, Electoral Rhenish, Swabian, Franconian and Bavarian Kreise agreed in 1714 to remain armed in peacetime by maintaining contingents at one and a half times the basic quota. Perhaps more surprising still is that militarization remained contained by a highly legalistic political culture (unlike, say, China in the 1920s where warlords created their own provincial armies with little regard to the republic’s formal order). Despite their lands being the most heavily armed part of Europe, the German princes continued to submit their disputes to judicial arbitration through the imperial courts, rather than make war on their neighbours.

Table 13. Imperial Defence, 1664–1714 (annual averages)





  Habsburg Army  


   Turkish War 1662–4   






   Dutch War 1672–9   






   Great Turkish War 1683–99   






   Nine Years War 1688–97   






   War of Spanish Succession 1701–14   






The collective system mobilized 34,200 Kreis troops for the 1735 campaign during the War of the Polish Succession (1733–5) against France, while at least 112,000 recruits and auxiliaries were supplied to the Habsburg army across 1733–9.86 The disappointing outcome of this campaign and the parallel Turkish War (1736–9) combined with political disillusionment with the Habsburgs and the disaster of Wittelsbach imperial rule between 1742 and 1745 to weaken collective defence. Most territories reduced their peacetime forces and several withdrew from military cooperation at Kreis level. This trend was compounded by the underlying shift in the Empire’s internal military balance as the combined strength of the Austrian and Prussian armies expanded from 185,000 men in 1740 to 692,700 fifty years later, compared to the combined total of all other forces that dropped by around 9,000 men to 106,000 by 1790. As we shall see (pp. 637–48), this growing military imbalance seriously threatened the Empire’s continued viability.

Economic Measures

The standard model of European history sees centralized monarchies as incubators of social and economic development. Royal capitals emerged as political, economic and cultural hubs, concentrating wealth and fostering dynamic innovation. Royal authority helped spread uniform systems of law, coinage, tariffs, weights and measures, helping to integrate local and regional economic activity. Localities and groups lost local protection and were compelled to innovate in order to survive within larger market networks. Monarchies reduced the ‘transaction costs’ of doing business by providing a safe environment under the rule of law.87 While there is certainly plenty of evidence supporting this interpretation, it does not mean that other kinds of political order were invariably inferior in fostering economic developments.

For most of the Empire’s history, its most dynamic economic regions were those of the greatest political fragmentation, like Flanders, Brabant and the Rhineland, rather than the larger territories such as those of the north and east. The reasons are complex. A major factor was that the more productive areas were clustered along the major transport route of the Rhine and its tributaries. While this concentration of wealth facilitated a dense, more complex lordly hierarchy, the resulting political diversity did not inhibit further demographic and economic growth. The proximity of different authorities could also encourage innovation and experimentation, such as the founding of luxury goods manufacturing during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.88 The real test was how far the Empire could mitigate the constraining consequences of its internal structure, whilst not stifling the potentially innovative economic aspects.

Economic coordination remained conventional throughout the Middle Ages. Like other monarchs, the emperor’s main task was guaranteeing peace and justice for moral reasons, with any benefits for prosperity remaining secondary considerations. Direct intervention was restricted to what would now be termed investment incentives: privileging particular lords and communities through grants of market, mint, mining, and toll rights, all of which proved significant in promoting urban development. The number of settlements with market rights doubled to 90 across the tenth century, rising to 140 in the eleventh century and reaching 250 in the next. Politics shaped this as much as economics, since episcopal towns were the principal beneficiaries, reflecting the emperor’s reliance on the imperial church. Only 25 mints were active in the Empire before 1140, but the Staufers’ use of regalia as rewards increased this number to 250 by 1197, of which only 28 were under royal control, while 106 were held by spiritual and 81 by lay lords. The total nearly doubled again to 456 by 1270, with the balance shifting to the secular lords, who now operated 277 mints, compared to 152 spiritual and 37 royal ones. This expansion was partly in response to the growing money economy and demand for small change, but largely reflects the shift from the Staufers to the ‘little kings’ who bought support. It also underscores a point to be made in the following chapter that the Empire had a tangible impact on the lives of ordinary inhabitants.89 As we have seen (pp. 369–70), changes in vassalage from the twelfth century contributed to commercialization by opening fiefs and jurisdictions to sale and mortgages.

Royal privileges frequently contradicted each other. One charter might grant toll rights to one lord, whereas another exempted individuals or communities. Only trade-fair rights followed a more coherent development. The Frankfurt fair received special privileges in 1330, followed in 1466 by that of Leipzig, which received 15 more confirmations and extensions by 1770. The imperial charters guaranteed free trade by exempting merchants from tolls and providing special protection for themselves and their wares as they travelled to and from a fair. These competitive advantages enabled them to undercut other markets, in turn attracting further business to Frankfurt and Leipzig. The effective establishment of the eternal public peace by 1525 enabled the Empire to deliver the promised security. The more sophisticated early modern legal culture brought additional benefits. For instance, Leipzig secured a Reichshofrat ruling against its own prince, the elector of Saxony, who was promoting a rival trade fair in Naumburg. Leipzig and Frankfurt both secured injunctions to limit the development of Brunswick as an alternative venue. The two imperial trade fairs complemented each other. Leipzig mainly served the north and east with links to the North Sea and Baltic, while Frankfurt was orientated south and west with connections to Italy and the Mediterranean. Both serviced more regionally focused networks based around subsidiary fairs in other towns, thus providing an economic network mirroring the Empire’s political structure.90

Territorialization provided an additional layer of economic regulation and coordination from the fourteenth century as authorities increasingly assumed the initiative within their jurisdictions and also issued privileges and exemptions. The Reformation added a heightened moral imperative, boosting existing efforts to regulate daily life through ‘police measures’ (see pp. 534–8). Imperial reform strengthened the Empire’s capacity to guarantee general peace and defuse socio-economic tensions. The Reichstag issued general normative legislation in the sixteenth century, providing guidelines that were adapted to local circumstances through incorporation in territorial law codes and regulations. This allowed for diversity of practice within a common system, enabling serious disputes to be resolved through the imperial courts. In this way, imperial institutions maintained a partially free market encompassing a quarter of all Europeans around 1500. Most of the population was legally free to move, though some territories imposed restrictions, notably Brandenburg-Prussia, where in the eighteenth century emigration was equated with military desertion.

Charles V’s dependency on south German and Italian bankers prompted him to oppose the anti-monopoly legislation promoted by electors and princes at the Reichstag after 1519. However, the Reichstag gradually dismantled the canon law prohibition on usury after 1530, extending 5 per cent as the ceiling for all credit arrangements in 1654. Territorial authorities and local communities frequently borrowed at higher rates, but imperial law did curb excessive charges since creditors could not use the courts to enforce them. The 1653–4 Reichstag tackled the lack of credit following the Thirty Years War by giving all debtors a three-year moratorium whilst cutting interest arrears by three-quarters. Special arrangements were made for the devastated Palatinate, which received a ten-year moratorium. These measures protected debtors, but upheld the integrity of the capital market by rejecting calls for repudiation of all liabilities. However, the system remained conservative. Although reduced, old obligations retained their validity and continued to burden future generations – in some cases into the nineteenth century.91

Currency regulation provides a similar picture of partial success on its own terms, but at the cost of sustaining conservative practices. The Reichstag asserted loose overall supervision of mints by making currency debasement a capital offence in 1532, and issuing the imperial currency ordinance (Reichsmünzordnung) in 1524 to regulate exchange rates by establishing an official relationship between the south German gold florin and the north German silver taler. The two coins became official units of account to which all territorial currencies could be related according to their precious-metal content. Politics hampered these arrangements from the start, since the northern territories felt that their currencies were undervalued. Three revisions to the ordinance failed to solve this by 1571, because territories issued coins called ‘florins’ and ‘talers’ but containing varying quantities of precious metal. Regulation was devolved in 1566 to the Kreise, which were considered to stand a better chance of managing the situation closer to the ground and to punish deviations from the rules. Maximilian II undermined collective efforts by unilaterally removing the Habsburg lands from the common framework in 1573 as part of the wider effort to insulate the dynasty’s possessions from scrutiny by the imperial Estates.92

However, the real problem was the conservative attitude to money. All levels of authority clung to the belief that wealth was finite and expressed through bullion. Yet precious metal was both a medium of exchange and an object itself, for example for use in making jewellery. The cost of minting coins could rise above their face value, encouraging their debasement through mixing in inferior-value metal. The regulations were devised before the spread of copper coins as small change in the later sixteenth century. Above all, official rates bore little relation to economic value defined through productivity. Meanwhile, the need for reliable exchange rates grew with the development of deposit banks in Amsterdam (1609), Hamburg (1619) and Nuremberg (1621), which used ‘imaginary’ units of account to facilitate international money transfers.93

The proliferation of mints during the high Middle Ages hindered control. The Reichstag tried in 1603 to limit their number to three or four per Kreis, but in Lower Saxony alone there were 30 in 1617, 12 of which were condemned by the Kreis currency meeting that year for breaching official rules.94 Debasement, or lowering the value of currency, appeared a quick fix to the pressing need to pay soldiers after 1618. The economically weaker belligerents resorted to this in 1619, followed by the Habsburgs two years later. The most notorious operator was the Prague Mint Consortium, composed of politically influential Habsburg officials, including Wallenstein, which issued 40 million florins of largely nominal coin in an operation considered by modern economists to be far worse than the quantitative easing by the European Central Bank in response to the 2008 Eurozone crisis, and precipitating what has been termed the Western world’s first financial crash.95 Bread prices rose 400 per cent in 1621–2, triggering riots and military mutinies.

Like the wider Thirty Years War of which it was part, the financial crisis had been caused in part by deficiencies in the Empire, yet that same structure helped resolve it. Imperial currency regulations provided a recognized framework for concerted action that worked, because most of those involved recognized that debasement was counter-productive. Imperial cities already acted in 1620, followed by more coordinated efforts through the Kreise in 1622–3 that prompted territorial authorities to devalue their currencies by up to 90 per cent whilst recalling debased coins and reminting them at official rates. Most territories had returned to the silver standard by 1623, including for their small change, while copper coins were largely driven from the Empire.

The relatively successful outcome discouraged innovation and the pre-war system remained in place, with territories issuing their own coinage and monitoring entrusted to the Kreise, guided by the existing imperial currency ordinances. Some lessons had been learned, and the resumption of prolonged warfare after 1672 saw swift action from the Kreise against the few territories attempting debasement.96 The Reichstag last adjusted exchange rates in 1738, but again official values did not match market rates, prompting Austria to devalue its own currency. Thereafter, Austro-Prussian rivalry hindered coordination, especially once Prussia followed Austria’s example and devalued below the official rate in 1750. It then issued large quantities of debased coins to subsidize the cost of the Seven Years War (1756–63), while Austria resorted to central Europe’s first paper money by issuing 12 million florins in ‘coupons’ in 1761. Prussia revalued in 1764, but not to the official rate. With both German great powers outside the official exchange-rate mechanism, Bavaria and others left after 1765, leading to the breakdown of cross-regional cooperation through the Kreise. The overall consequences were not too grave. The outcome was the end of efforts to fix rates permanently through imperial law, allowing currencies to fluctuate according to market values. The official legislation continued to offer opportunities to cooperate and to prosecute fraudsters.97

Toll and tariff regulation followed a similar course. Like mints, tolls and tariffs proliferated through royal charters to individual lords and towns, most of whom interpreted the terms fairly broadly to develop a range of income streams. Richard of Cornwall tried to reduce their number in 1269, while Rudolf I banned all ‘unjust tolls’ five years later.98 By that point, numerous authorities possessed such rights without anyone, the emperor included, having universally recognized powers to revoke them. Tolls and tariffs continued to develop in response to locally changing circumstances and the growing need to raise cash rather than just labour and produce from inhabitants. The emergence of the Reichstag and Kreise provided a framework for more effective management at a time when many believed tolls were strangling trade. As part of his election agreement, Charles V promised not to grant further toll rights without the electors’ consent, while the Reichstag added in 1576 that territories required their neighbours’ consent before establishing new toll posts. Financial imperatives led to this being ignored, especially after 1618. Wartime tolls were formally abolished by the Peace of Westphalia, and the peace implementation congress in Nuremberg charged the Kreise with enforcing this. Action failed in some regions, like Lower Saxony and the Electoral Rhine, because no one wanted to be the first to lower tariffs. Elsewhere, leading territories set an example, because they realized tolls were harming lucrative transit trade. Total abolition of internal tolls was rejected, and in 1658 Leopold confirmed the 1576 arrangements. Thereafter, central coordination was limited to official trade embargoes against France during the wars after 1672.

A common toll and tariff policy was hindered throughout by the complexity of the Empire’s internal structure, not only within Germany but between it and Burgundy and Italy. However, later imperial Germany also lacked a uniform customs system before 1904, while internal tariffs were scarcely uncommon in pre-modern Europe. England’s unified system was exceptional. France’s internal toll stations employed 20,000 revenue officers, who still treated Lorraine as a separate country after its formal annexation in 1766.99The real problem lay not with imperial institutions, but how the larger territories embraced fashionable economic thought known as ‘cameralism’, which encouraged economic autarky. Local producers were to be protected by tariffs and promoted by state subsidies, while other measures attempted to shape social behaviour and encourage greater thrift, piety and obedience. Some aspects of cameralism advocated greater centralization at the territorial level. However, a major goal remained to preserve the corporate social order and resolve its problems. Thus, toll policy also reflected this. For example, only five of the nine toll posts on the Elbe river in Bohemia were state operated, with three run by municipalities and one controlled by nobles.

Cameralist measures were frequently counter-productive, but they appeared to work better in larger territories, raising anxiety amongst their smaller neighbours that they were economically as well as politically disadvantaged. The Kreis structure offered opportunities for micro-territories to coordinate activities, especially because many economic issues directly affected public order. For example, the Swabian Kreis organized police sweeps against vagrants, control measures during epidemics, and price regulation in times of dearth. Its 1749 road ordinance allowed it to compel cooperation from landowners who were not Kreis members to help maintain highways across the region.100

Overall, imperial and Kreis coordination remained only partially effective, while the positive aspects of political diversity did not apply to all economic sectors. For example, cameralism intensified competition where territories in close proximity produced and sold similar goods. This could stimulate innovation, while fear of losing business might curb the desire to raise tariffs. However, many activities were largely fixed, like water transport, forestry, mining and their associated capital equipment. For example, barges developed for one river trade could not necessarily be used to transport goods on another waterway. Much of the Rhine and Elbe trade relied on transporting heavy bulk goods, especially timber, which remained the main item in both quantity and value into the 1820s, but also iron ore, stone and agricultural produce like grain, wine, fruit, hemp and wool. All these items were unsuited for road transport, making it hard to use alternative routes to waterways.

Consequently, by the eighteenth century there were 32 toll stations on the Rhine and 35 on the Elbe, most of which were operated by different lords. Their owners had little incentive to reduce rates to boost trade, because they already enjoyed a captive market. Tolls added nearly 60 per cent to the cost of salt just travelling between Cologne and Frankfurt, while it was cheaper to take wine up the Main to Frankfurt and overland to Kassel for shipment down the Weser instead.101 It was precisely these kinds of problems that the imperial framework should have resolved by providing the forum to reach a mutually beneficial solution, yet all talks failed, because too few authorities were prepared to forgo local advantages, and there was no mechanism to compel them. Only thanks to French pressure after 1795 were the Rhine toll stations reduced to 12 with published rates within a common system called the Octroi under Franco-German administration. Simultaneously, a start was at last made on dredging and straightening the river. The successor states retained the Octroi after 1815 until the last Rhine toll was abolished in 1868.


A Second Habsburg Empire

The Empire’s last century is often written of as a prelude to the ‘struggle for mastery in Germany’ between Austria and Prussia.102 This story of rivalry often marginalizes the other German territories as bystanders or victims. Imperial institutions seem powerless or irrelevant. Yet the century began with unprecedented imperial power.103 By the time of Leopold I’s death in 1705, the Habsburgs had surmounted the financial and military crisis triggered by Bavaria’s and Cologne’s defection to France in 1703 during the opening stages of the War of the Spanish Succession. Imperial authority had been reasserted through the sequestration of Bavaria and Cologne, as well as Mantua, Mirandola and various other Italian fiefs that had also ill-advisedly sided with the French candidate for the Spanish throne, Philip V. The electors not only confirmed this, but readmitted the suspended Bohemian electoral vote in 1708. The new emperor, Joseph I, pursued a separate war against the papacy in 1708–9, ignoring the electors’ protests.104More significantly, the Habsburgs seemed on the cusp of securing the entire Spanish inheritance as Leopold’s younger son was installed as Charles III in July 1705 with British, Dutch and Portuguese backing.

The situation began to unravel as the allied powers wrecked the opportunity of a negotiated settlement by insisting France help them evict Philip V from the part of Spain he still controlled. Joseph I’s premature death in April 1711 raised the prospect of the reunification of Spanish and Austrian lands under a single Habsburg once his younger brother was elected Emperor Charles VI. Britain and the Dutch Republic opposed this, cutting a separate deal with France at Utrecht in 1713 to abandon the costly war on compromise terms. Philip V received Spain and its overseas possessions, but surrendered Burgundy and most of its Italian lands to Austria. Although Charles received Reichstag backing for another campaign, he was compelled to accept these conditions at the Peace of Rastatt in 1714.

The outcome was a deep personal disappointment for Charles, but in fact completed the dramatic transformation of Habsburg power under way since the successful relief of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. Sensing a chance to recover all of Hungary, Leopold had continued fighting the Ottomans despite the opening of a separate western front with the outbreak of the Nine Years War (1688–97). By 1699, he had captured Transylvania as well as Hungary, while Serbia was also conquered during a further Turkish War (1716–18). Habsburg control was also now more secure, as Joseph’s forces crushed the extensive Hungarian revolt of 1703–11 at the extraordinary cost of 500,000 dead.105 Total Habsburg hereditary possessions more than doubled by 1720 to reach 739,500 square kilometres, shifting political gravity as two-thirds of this lay outside the Empire. The Habsburgs now had two and a half times as many subjects as in 1648, with their Italian lands populated by twice as many people as in Austria. Overall, Habsburg possessions equalled the Empire’s entire extent, making them a European great power in their own right.106

As with the earlier expansion of 1477–1526, the new acquisitions were not incorporated within the Empire, heightening the dualist character of Habsburg rule and reflected in a sharper separation in 1709 of the imperial chancellery from its Austrian counterpart, which was now clearly the superior institution. It took several decades for the implications of this to become fully apparent. The Habsburgs were already the imperial family, so their territorial acquisitions did not immediately challenge the Empire’s status hierarchy. Their additional resources allowed them to expand patronage of princely and aristocratic houses in the Empire. The career of Carl Alexander of Württemberg provides a good example. From a junior branch of the Lutheran family ruling Württemberg, Carl Alexander had little chance of inheriting the ducal title. He converted to Catholicism in 1712 whilst in Habsburg military service, thereby firmly identifying himself with the dynasty, which appointed him governor of newly conquered Serbia seven years later. Having unexpectedly inherited Württemberg in 1733, he repaid Habsburg patronage by providing substantial military support during the War of the Polish Succession. However, Carl Alexander also expected to be rewarded with minor territorial concessions and the long-standing Württemberg goal of elevation to electoral status.107

His demands reflected the growing competition amongst the princes stoked by Leopold’s distribution of favours in return for support over the Spanish succession. By 1720, the Empire contained four royal families alongside the Habsburgs: the Saxon Wettins (Poland), Hanoverian Welfs (Britain), Brandenburg Hohenzollerns (Prussia) and Savoy (Sardinia). Although French pressure obliged Charles VI to restore the Wittelsbachs in Bavaria, none of that family’s branches acquired a crown despite their heavy involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Utrecht conference completed the trend initiated at Westphalia in the 1640s of excluding non-sovereign entities from international diplomacy. Of the imperial Estates, only Prussia and Savoy were allowed to participate. Post-1713 Europe consisted primarily of the winners who mutually recognized the sovereign status of one another.

The Empire meanwhile preserved those who failed to secure recognition, including relatively weak elements like the imperial cities, alongside much larger entities such as Bavaria and the Palatinate. All elements remained bound within a common order guaranteeing their autonomy and status, which would evaporate if the Empire were dissolved. They paid at least lip service to formal norms, since to do otherwise would discredit their own position and hand advantages to local rivals.108

Prussia and the Empire

The power of established norms is demonstrated by Prussia’s behaviour after its elevation to a kingdom in 1700. Prussia’s emergence as the emperor’s most dangerous vassal is usually explained by reference to the continuous line of healthy, able rulers since the ‘Great Elector’ Frederick William. His son and successor was dismissed by his own grandson, King Frederick II, as a ‘theatre king’ whose elevation as King Frederick I was simply part of an alleged obsession with irrelevant ceremony.109 In fact, Frederick I increased the army by a third to total 40,000 men by his death in 1713, making the accession of Frederick William I less of a ‘break in style’ than commonly assumed. Nonetheless, Frederick William I’s cuts in court expenditure and ruthless military expansion are generally interpreted as creating the tools employed aggressively against Austria by his son Frederick II after 1740.

Military power was crucial to Prussia’s influence, but any explanation is incomplete without reference also to its place in the Empire. Even after the inheritance of ducal Prussia in 1618, two-thirds of Hohenzollern land was within the Empire, as were all further gains until 1740. The Hohenzollerns were major beneficiaries from the Peace of Westphalia, which secured them half the disputed Jülich-Cleves inheritance, half of Pomerania, and several secularized imperial church lands. Although individually small, these territories were more densely populated and produced higher per-capita tax revenues than ducal Prussia: by 1740, three-quarters of the Hohenzollerns’ 2.4 million subjects were also inhabitants of the Empire.110

These possessions were already over twice as large as Bavaria or Saxony by 1648, but their full potential remained to be developed. Brandenburg’s soil was poor, while much Hohenzollern territory remained in relatively isolated parcels scattered across northern Germany. The Great Elector applied considerable pressure on the Estates of each territory to grant higher taxes during the 1650s, but this became harder to achieve from the 1670s as Leopold I vetoed unlimited war taxes and the imperial courts threatened to intervene.111 Subsequent Hohenzollern rulers preferred to leave the tax structure unchanged rather than unpick the bargains they had struck with their various provincial nobilities and towns. Significant reform was continually postponed until Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon in 1806 made change unavoidable. Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover and to a lesser extent the Palatinate and even Münster all enjoyed similar revenues and maintained large armies roughly comparable to Prussia’s until 1700. The Bavarian and Saxon courts continued to outshine Prussia’s, further concealing the growing discrepancy in real power that developed after 1700.

The real significance of ducal Prussia lay in its position outside imperial jurisdiction. Skilful diplomatic and military manoeuvres during the Northern War (1655–60) secured international recognition of Prussia’s full independence from Poland, though it took some time for its provincial Estates to accept this.112 It placed the Hohenzollerns alongside the Habsburgs as the only imperial princes with sovereign land outside the Empire, and provided the basis for the Hohenzollerns’ subsequent elevation to royalty. However, their political gravity remained in northern Germany. Frederick I was crowned king in the Prussian capital Königsberg, but Berlin remained the centre of Hohenzollern government. Frederick and his next two successors continued developing Berlin as a city of European importance. Their behaviour was identical to that of the House of Savoy, which remained based in Turin in Piedmont rather than relocating to Sardinia; this provided the basis for its royal title after 1720. Prussia and Sardinia remained subordinate adjuncts in contrast to the other German princes who acquired crowns, including the Hanoverians and Saxon Wettins, whose electorates assumed secondary status to Britain and Poland. Savoy’s ambitions lay south of the Alps, so its royal status did not disrupt the hierarchical order in Germany, especially as the Savoyards deliberately disengaged from the Reichstag to avoid ceremonial difficulties after 1714. Additionally, Savoy was underpowered compared to Prussia and was not in a position to challenge Austria until well into the nineteenth century.113

By contrast, the Hohenzollerns were deeply embedded in the Empire both geographically and constitutionally. Moreover, their royal status was less certain: they were only kings ‘in’ Prussia, whereas the Savoyards were kings of Sardinia, which had long been recognized as a kingdom. Considerable doubt existed whether Leopold I really possessed the authority to raise Prussia to a kingdom, especially since that territory’s incorporation into Poland had been both more recent and more secure than its earlier ties to the Empire. Unlike over-mighty vassals during the Middle Ages, the Hohenzollerns were not challenging the Habsburgs for the imperial title, but instead sought recognition as a second powerful dynastic-territorial monarchy with equivalent status and autonomy to Austria.

Frederick I immediately pushed for ceremonial changes to assert this, quickly souring relations with Austria. Already in 1705, Habsburg ministers regretted the award of royal status to the Hohenzollerns, and diplomatic relations were temporarily broken off after 1707, despite the continuing military alliance against France.114 Despite the problems, Frederick secured a partial exemption for all Hohenzollern fiefs from Reichskammergericht jurisdiction in 1702. Such privileges were not uncommon, as we shall see (pp. 626–7). What is more significant is that the Hohenzollerns did not push for more uniform autonomy like the Habsburg lands, but instead continued to treat each of their possessions as distinct so as not to forgo even comparatively minor rights and influence associated with them. The Austrian lands were far larger than Hohenzollern territory before 1715, but they only had a single vote in the Reichstag, while the Habsburgs exercised a further vote for Burgundy, plus Lorraine’s vote until 1738. The Hohenzollerns instead kept their possessions distinct to maximize representation both in the Reichstag and in the Westphalian and Upper and Lower Saxon Kreis Assemblies.

Formal political influence was important, because the Hohenzollerns could not compete with Habsburg informal patronage. Although large, the Hohenzollern army and court lacked the prestige and the number of well-paid appointments the Habsburgs could offer, while the emperor had much wider powers of ennoblement. The Hohenzollerns also remained second-class participants in the dynastic marriage market, with their choice of partners largely restricted to middling Protestant princely families, such as the Brunswick Welfs. Representation in the Reichstag provided a platform to rally support to block uncongenial Habsburg measures, as well as to legitimate Hohenzollern policy on a wider stage. This proved particularly important to Prussia’s military expansion during the wars after 1672 when its involvement was sanctioned through the system of imperial defence, allowing it to forge ties with numerous minor territories that paid Prussia to field their contingents to the imperial army. These opportunities ended with peace in 1714, which also cut off Anglo-Dutch subsidies precisely as Frederick William I was expanding his army further, forcing him to introduce conscription by 1733 to reduce military expenses.115 Although now more than twice as large as the army of any other German principality, Prussia’s forces remained within the system of collective security, contributing a contingent during the War of the Polish Succession. Prussia also adhered to the constitutional requirement to notify other imperial Estates when shifting units from one part of its scattered possessions to another, and generally complied more closely with the obligation to pay for accommodation and transport during transit than either Austria or Saxony.

Prussia deliberately encouraged the immigration of Huguenot and other Protestant refugees after the 1680s to increase its population. Although on a far larger scale, such measures were not unusual in the Empire. The Hohenzollerns meanwhile remained within the Empire’s broader religious order. Attempts to rally support against the Habsburgs by fanning Protestant fears failed to enable the Hohenzollerns to displace Saxony as leader of the Corpus Evangelicorum and instead temporarily discredited the Prussian king as a troublemaker (see p. 130).

Likewise, numerous territories were earmarked as potential future acquisitions by Frederick William I and his son, but selection was guided by dynastic claims and, before 1740, mainly targeted minor principalities that would increase Prussian influence in south Germany. No attempt was made to seize these by force. Instead, Prussia tried to tighten its grip through protectorate rights and buying out rival claimants. Its first two kings were obliged to accept several setbacks, notably in 1722 when Charles VI annulled a favourable inheritance treaty painstakingly negotiated with Prussia’s Hohenzollern relations in Bayreuth.116 Even comparatively minor imperial Estates withstood Prussian bullying before 1740. That changed in June of that year with the accession of Frederick II, a man who held the Empire in contempt and – unlike his predecessors – was prepared to use force to achieve his goals.

The War of the Austrian Succession

Frederick did not have long to wait for an opportunity. Charles VI’s death on 20 October 1740 extinguished the Habsburg male line and opened the question of the Austrian succession. Powers hostile to the Habsburgs ignored their earlier recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction revising Habsburg inheritance law in favour of Charles’s daughter, Maria Theresa. With a large army and full treasury, Frederick was able to act first, already deciding just nine days after Charles’s death to attack, despite having no claims on Habsburg territory beyond largely lapsed rights to small parts of Silesia. Silesia was not only large, populous and industrious, but its capture would prevent Saxony establishing a land bridge to Poland.117 Prussian troops crossed the frontier on 16 December 1740, deliberately confusing the local Habsburg authorities by claiming they were occupying Silesia to safeguard it for Maria Theresa.

This step determined Frederick’s policy for the rest of his reign. It is important not to read subsequent events with the benefit of hindsight, especially as Frederick fostered an image of himself and his kingdom as ‘great’.118 Despite Austria’s near bankruptcy, demoralized army and elderly statesmen, Frederick’s action was extremely risky. The Habsburgs had defeated every challenger since the sixteenth century. Frederick’s ambitions nearly came to an end just a few months into his invasion when he fled the battle of Mollwitz in April 1741, narrowly avoiding capture by the Austrians. Although his army went on to win, he came close to capture or death in several later battles. Had this been the case, it is almost certain that his relations would have made peace on disadvantageous terms, just as Sweden had done when a bullet ended its great power status by killing King Charles XII at the siege of Frederiksten in 1718. The actual outcome for Frederick proved very different. By December 1745, Prussia had compelled Austria to cede Silesia and Glatz, increasing its territory to over 161,000 square kilometres with 4 million inhabitants. Prussia now had nearly a third more territory than Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover and the Palatinate combined, and the equivalent to four-fifths of their total population. Already apparent before 1740, the material discrepancy now carried real political weight, as Austria had meanwhile defeated Bavaria by 1745.

Wittelsbach Imperial Rule, 1742–5

Whereas Frederick sought additional territory to bolster Prussia’s European status, Bavaria’s elector Carl Albrecht made a bid for the imperial crown in the manner of the late medieval struggles to rule the Empire (pp. 377–96). Bavarian intervention paradoxically demonstrated the success of Habsburg methods since 1438. Although able to secure election as Charles VII on 24 January 1742, the Bavarian elector was unable to establish stable imperial rule. Meanwhile, Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis Stephen, were able to survive on the considerable resources of the Habsburg lands, supplemented by Anglo-Dutch support.119 Bavaria was already weak and only managed to launch its bid for Habsburg possessions eight months after Prussia’s invasion of Silesia, a move that caused considerable disquiet amongst the other electors and contributed to a 15-month interregnum. Loyalty to the Habsburgs remained strong amongst some middling and many minor imperial Estates. The Bavarian elector eventually triumphed over Francis as the Habsburg candidate thanks to massive French and Prussian pressure combined with discontent over the last decade of Charles VI’s reign and concern at Austria’s great power interests.120 The Austrian army entered Munich two days after Charles VII’s election, amply demonstrating Bavaria’s incapacity to sustain imperial rule. Bavarian revenue in 1742 was only 1.9 million florins compared to expenditure of 6.48 million, of which 4.5 million went to the army, which still totalled only 25,000 soldiers, many of whom were hastily pressed militiamen. France supplied 8.8 million florins in aid, but Bavaria’s debts had climbed to over 32 million by the time of Charles’s death in 1745.121

Despite his deteriorating military situation, Charles VII’s initial reception was fairly favourable. Fifty princes and counts attended his coronation in person on 12 February 1742, while representation at the Reichstag improved as several Estates sent envoys after long absences. The Reichstag voted assistance which, when combined with contributions from the imperial knights, provided 3 to 3.5 million florins across Charles’s reign.122 This did not, however, constitute formal endorsement of his war with Austria, which was regarded as a private matter, with the Reichstag adopting a position of official neutrality. The south and western Kreise mobilized troops to uphold this until 1748. Charles was forced to make concessions to win support. Fifteen counts were raised to princely status, with some of them providing troops for the Bavarian army. More significantly, Charles granted Prussia ceremonial distinctions matching Austria’s status, including according Frederick II the title of ‘majesty’, enabling him to become king of rather than merely inPrussia. Prussian support was retained by recognizing its possession of Silesia as a sovereign duchy, raising doubts as to whether it still belonged to the Empire, while Spanish cooperation was purchased through conceding plans for a new kingdom to be created from Austria’s possessions in northern Italy.

Meanwhile, the other electors were mollified by revisions to the emperor’s electoral agreement in 1742, confirming that they were no longer personally obliged to seek confirmation of their fiefs at the start of each reign. More damaging still, Charles offered to renounce claims to Austria and Bohemia if Bavaria was recognized as a kingdom. When that failed, he proposed ending the war at the expense of the imperial church in a new wave of secularization. Although intended as secret, details of these negotiations were soon leaked by his enemies, exposing Charles’s inability to deliver his promise to be the ‘small man’s emperor’ favouring the minor imperial Estates against the two German great powers.123 By 1744 it was clear that Charles’s fortunes depended on how far Frederick II was willing to back him. Charles’s death on 20 January 1745 enabled his son, Maximilian III Joseph, to cut a deal with Austria, supplying troops in its ongoing war with France in return for an Austrian withdrawal from Bavaria.124

Austro-Prussian Rivalry

Frederick II secured international recognition of his possession of Silesia as the price for accepting Maria Theresa’s husband as Emperor Francis I in 1745 and refraining from opposing Austria in the remaining three years of war against France and Spain. Contemporaries perceived the period 1740–45 as a significant break with the past. Francis was only Habsburg by marriage and appeared the junior partner to Maria Theresa, who retained exclusive control of her hereditary lands. The division between imperial and Habsburg rule continued when Joseph II succeeded his father as emperor in 1765. Although Maria Theresa conceded co-rule to her son, he granted her ceremonial precedence ahead of his own wife at the Habsburg court, symbolizing how imperial affairs had slipped into a secondary consideration in Habsburg policy, and sharpening the distinction between kaiserlich referring to the emperor and reichisch relating to the Empire. Already, Austrians talked of travelling ‘to the Empire’ as if it were a foreign country. The importance of the Habsburg lands is expressed by the imbalance in paperwork, with the Austrian state chancellery producing 259 volumes of records in the period 1745–1806, compared to only 25 for its imperial counterpart.125

Nonetheless, all senior Habsburg figures, including Maria Theresa, were convinced that the loss of the imperial title in 1740 had been a disaster and were determined to rebuild their influence in the Empire.126 They found some support, because the experience of 1740–45 had exposed the dangers of a weak emperor (Charles VII) and confirmed there was no viable alternative to Habsburg rule. Austria and Prussia together held half the Empire, excluding imperial Italy. Even when combined with the earlier loss of Naples and Sicily to Spain in 1735, Austria possessed a substantial empire of its own (Map 10). The disparity with other German principalities widened with the damage inflicted on Bavaria and Saxony during the War of the Austrian Succession. Contemporaries were increasingly aware of these material differences through a better understanding of statistics and more accurate information.

Austrian policy was governed by the desire to punish Prussia and recover Silesia, both considered necessary to restore the Habsburgs’ international standing. Diplomacy constructed a powerful coalition that included France and Sweden as guarantors of the Peace of Westphalia, as well as Russia, which hoped to annex Prussia itself. Fearing attack, Frederick the Great launched a pre-emptive strike in August 1756, planning to seize Saxony as a base from which to fight. Prussian troops also moved into Mecklenburg during 1757 to block a potential Swedish advance. Both actions played into Habsburg hands, since Frederick’s invasion of two Lutheran territories undermined his propaganda that he was defending constitutional liberties against Catholic Habsburg tyranny. His clear breach of the public peace appeared to provide Austria with the legal basis to sequestrate his lands, as it had done with its opponents during the Thirty Years War.127

The majority of imperial Estates were prepared to back collective military action to restore peace, but not to achieve Austria’s goal of dismembering Prussia. Frederick’s successful defence against years of poorly coordinated attacks enabled him to make peace in 1763 on the basis of the pre-war status quo. The Empire was the only belligerent to achieve its official war aim, forcing Prussia to evacuate Saxony and Mecklenburg.128 Yet Prussia was the real victor, since its survival against seemingly impossible odds confirmed its status as a great power. Frederick built the huge showpiece Neues Palais in Potsdam to prove his country’s potency despite having just fought a costly war.

However, Prussia remained vulnerable, having only escaped defeat thanks to British aid and the fortuitous change of ruler in Russia leading to that country’s exit from the war early in 1762.129 Although allied to Russia after 1764, Frederick was conscious how quickly Russian troops had conquered east Prussia itself in 1757, holding it until peace was established six years later. Aware that he could not rely on international allies, Frederick refined his dealings with the Empire. His criticism of the Empire was only published long after his death, whereas his policies after 1763 show skilful use of the constitution to disrupt Habsburg imperial management and prevent Austria mobilizing the still considerable resources of the minor territories against Prussia.130 Prussia now presented itself as defender of German liberties against Habsburg tyranny as a way to block Joseph II’s attempts to reform imperial justice after 1765.

However, dynasticism proved the most explosive issue. Prussia had long-standing claims to the lands of the Franconian Hohenzollerns that merged into the margraviate of Ansbach-Bayreuth in 1769. Meanwhile, a Bavarian succession crisis loomed as Maximilian III Joseph had no son to succeed him. Dynasticism had shifted since the early eighteenth century in line with the generally more materialist approach to imperial politics. Although his father and grandfather had expended considerable effort to secure Ansbach-Bayreuth, Frederick was prepared to swop his claims if Saxony would cede the more strategically located Lusatia to strengthen his hold on Silesia. Meanwhile, Joseph II tried to persuade the Palatine Wittelsbachs to cede their claims to Bavaria in return for having the far richer, but from an Austrian perspective strategically vulnerable, Netherlands instead.131

Towards a Polish Future

The prolonged negotiations from the mid-1760s saw these territories assessed in terms of size, revenue and population, rather than their formal status as imperial fiefs. The discussions were interrupted by a civil war in Poland that led to the First Partition of that country, by Austria, Prussia and Russia.132 Frederick II gained Polish Prussia, thereby finally linking Hohenzollern Prussia to Brandenburg, while Austria seized Galicia. Poland’s fate exposed the risks for the Empire if Austria and Prussia continued their collaboration. Henceforth, the third Germany of smaller territories was stalked by the spectre of a ‘Polish future’.

Both great powers needed time to digest their Polish gains, while Maximilian III Joseph’s sudden death in December 1777 opened the Bavarian succession issue before Joseph II had clinched a deal with the Palatine Wittelsbachs. Emperor Joseph overplayed his hand, bullying Elector Carl Theodor into accepting poor terms without securing prior support from his French allies, who preferred to fight Britain in the American War of Independence. Frederick rejected Austrian proposals in April 1778, instead forgoing the Ansbach-Bayreuth inheritance since this would not balance Joseph’s potential gains in Bavaria. Prussia rallied Saxony to fight under the banner of defending the Empire’s constitutional order in the brief War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9). Both Prussia and Austria made great efforts to secure wider support in the Empire, without success. The war exposed serious deficiencies in both the Austrian and Prussian armies, but Frederick managed to do sufficient damage to oblige Joseph to abandon his exchange plans beyond annexing a small slice of eastern Bavaria.133

Joseph then outflanked Frederick by forging an alliance with Russia, which abandoned cooperation with Prussia in return for a freer hand in dealing with the Ottomans in south-east Europe. Isolated without an international ally, Frederick returned to leading an obstructive opposition in imperial institutions. He was greatly assisted by Joseph’s many mistakes, including continuing Austria’s insistence that princes follow the old enfeoffment ceremonial. Joseph quietly dropped this in 1788, allowing princes to seek confirmation by letter like the electors. Joseph caused another minor scandal by issuing 140 so-called Panisbriefe during 1781–3, entitling Habsburg officials to free accommodation in the remaining imperial monasteries. This allowed Frederick to attack him for misusing imperial prerogatives, especially as these ‘meal tickets’ were issued unsystematically, while it was far from clear whether they could still be applied to religious houses that no longer had full immediacy or had become Protestant institutions. Meanwhile, Joseph alienated many ecclesiastical princes by curtailing their spiritual jurisdiction over Habsburg lands, and by aggressively promoting his siblings within the imperial church.134

Frederick corralled several medium-sized and minor territories into the League of Princes (Fürstenbund) on 23 July 1785, which eventually grew to 18 members.135 This was certainly not part of any Prussian mission to unify Germany, but was simply a tactical device to hinder Habsburg management of the Empire. His nephew and successor, Frederick William II, abandoned the League once Prussia escaped international isolation through an alliance with Britain in 1788. Within a year, France had descended into revolution, while one year later Joseph was dead and had been succeeded by his younger brother, Leopold II. The Empire’s last 16 years would be dominated by the difficulties of attempting reform amidst an existential war. Before we can assess how far it stood any chance of success, we need to turn to the broader question of how its constitutional order was anchored in its social structures.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!