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The Reich Chancellery Wing of the Vienna Hofburg, where the Reichshofrat also met until 1806

The Reichshofrat was, alongside and in competition with the Reich Chamber of Commerce, one of the two highest courts in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation . The Reichshofrat, however, was solely responsible for matters relating to imperial fiefs and imperial privileges and reserve rights. Reichshofrat was also the title of the individual members of this body. Its chairman was the President of the Reichshofrat .

Both courts, Reichshofrat and Reichskammergericht, derived their competence from the German king or emperor , who was the supreme court lord in the empire. The imperial nobility and the imperial cities could only be sued in the two highest courts. Citizens, peasants and lowly nobles, on the other hand, had to be sued in the courts of those princes and cities whose subjects or citizens they were. They could only bring their subjects to trial before the highest imperial courts if they were of the opinion that the courts initially competent for them had made a wrong decision. Then they could assert the flawedness of the lower-level judgments through the procedural types appellation or nullity action. In doing so, they had to comply with the courts' appeal . If these prerequisites were met, the supreme imperial courts reviewed the decisions of the lower courts.


In 1495 the Reich Chamber of Commerce began its work. It was a major turning point in the history of supreme jurisdiction in the Holy Roman Empire. Before that, the highest court in the empire always met in the places where the emperor, who was officially the highest court lord, was staying. Since the Habsburgs had been the Roman-German emperors since the middle of the 15th century , there were problems with this regulation, because the Habsburgs had numerous lands outside the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburg emperors - and thus also the supreme court - were often not present in the empire. In order to remedy this grievance, the high nobility in the Holy Roman Empire, in the Eternal Peace of Worms , enforced against the German king and later Emperor Maximilian I that the supreme court should be relieved of his whereabouts and given a permanent place of jurisdiction in the empire. Maximilian complied with the demand and created the Reich Chamber Court.

However, the emperor remained supreme court ruler in the empire. Even if the Imperial Court of Justice began its activities at a location different from the Emperor and proceeded quite successfully, the Kaiser also continued to turn to the Emperor, who now had the opportunity to refer these cases to the Imperial Court of Justice or to decide himself. Maximilian I was very much committed to the old medieval order, and he had only reluctantly consented to the demands of the imperial estates that the highest court in the empire should be separated from his person locally and organizationally. The fact that legal inquiries were still being made to him prompted him to create his own supreme court in the Reich, which was dependent on his person in terms of location and organization - the Reichshofrat.

The emperor could not and would not take care of all court inquiries personally. The re-establishment of the court council was also in the tradition of the Middle Ages. The hour of birth of the Imperial Court Council was the court rules of Maximilian I of December 13, 1497 / February 13, 1498.

The successor of Maximilian I, Emperor Karl V , stayed for the greater part of his reign outside the realm of the empire and therefore the court councilor of Charles V was mostly not in the empire. Karl's brother Ferdinand was elected German king in 1531 and thus acted de facto as Charles' deputy in the empire. After his election, Ferdinand set up his own royal court counselor, who also acted on behalf of the court in the absence of court counselor Charles V.


The work of the Reichshofrat was not limited to legal disputes. The Reichshofrat was also a political authority that advised and supported the emperor in government and administrative tasks.

At the center of today's research, however, is the judicial activity of the Reichshof Council. Since the Reichshofrat was an imperial authority, its activity initially extended to all matters and areas with which the emperor had to do, i.e. also matters that came from the areas of the Habsburgs that did not belong to the empire. After all, the Habsburgs made all emperors with only one exception until the end of the Old Empire in 1806. Over time, however, the Reichshofrat limited its activities to the territories of the empire. This resulted from the political pressure exerted by protesting imperial estates . Under Emperor Ferdinand II it can be stated that the Reichshofrat only dealt with affairs of the empire.

The Reichshofrat was also solely responsible for the imperial reservation rights in the empire as well as all fiefdom, mercy and privilege matters. This also included the supervision of the printing and press system. The Reichshofrat itself reserved the control of political literature. The Imperial Book Commission in Frankfurt am Main was subordinate to him to control other writings .

In addition to the Reichshofrat, the Reichskammergericht was also responsible for the following areas and you could choose which court to appeal to: breach of the peace, property protection matters, civil matters, appeals against judgments by sovereign courts, cases of denial of rights and legal delays by sovereign courts.


Right from the start, the Reichskammergericht worked like a real court : It litigated disputes according to the existing procedural rules. Complaints were filed, the defendant was summoned and had to get involved in a dispute if the Reich Chamber of Commerce was competent. The Reich Chamber Court trial aimed to issue a final judgment. It was decided according to the rules of common law .

The Reichshofrat, on the other hand, seems - especially in its early days (with Maximilian I, Karl V and Ferdinand I) - to have performed more mediating activities. From the outset, he has not cared that much about a process in which the parties face each other to conduct a legal dispute. Rather, he tried to mediate to find compromises between the different interests of the parties. The emperor was personally involved in difficult matters (= votum ad imperatorem ).

Because the Reichshofrat was initially more concerned with settling disputes, it did not apply the procedural law applicable to the Reich Chamber of Commerce and the procedural rules of the time so strictly . Influential contemporaries sometimes complained about this. One did not know exactly how the Reichshofrat would proceed and decide in a specific dispute - and therefore could not adjust to it and calculate the procedural risk. But the emperor was reluctant to comply with the demands.

However, from the beginning there were rules according to which the Reichshofrat worked. The first order was the court order of January 13, 1498, followed by the Libell, the reform of the imperial court, state and administrative system of May 24, 1518. King Ferdinand I issued court council orders in 1527, 1537 and 1541, which were based on the Reich Chamber Court process, but left greater freedom. On the other hand, the assessors of the Reichshofrat who delivered the judgments were mostly very well trained in the law of the time.

Since the Reichshofrat was tied to the person of the emperor, its official activity always ended with the end of the term of office of an emperor (in the event of abdication or death). Whenever a new emperor was elected and put into office, the emperor also always called a new Reichshofrat. In the meantime, i.e. in the period after the end of the term of office of an emperor and the beginning of the term of office of the successor, the work of the Reichshofrat was continued on an interim basis under the responsibility of the imperial vicars , i.e. the Duke of Saxony and the Count Palatine of the Rhine. At the end of an emperor's office it was easier for the Reich Chamber of Commerce: unlike the Reichshofrat, it could continue its work undisturbed.

The Reichshofrat was also active for the last time with the final resignation of the imperial crown by Franz II and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. With this imperial act he was extinguished forever.


As is well known, the chief judge was the emperor. With the accession to government, the new emperor appointed his own council, whereby the basic structure was essentially repeated. To this end, Reichshofrat regulations have repeatedly been issued, which describe the structure of the new court in detail.

The Reichshofratsordnung of 1559, one of the most important regulations, provides information on this: According to medieval tradition, there was a ruler after the emperor, also known as the president, who was responsible for the organizational management and supervision of the lay judges. The president was followed by the vice president, whose post was usually occupied by the Reich vice- chancellor . Like the Vice Chancellor, other officials from the Reichshof Chancellery were active in the Reichshofrat, e. B. Secretaries, clerks, etc. Since they were seconded from the Reichshof Chancellery, these officials were appointed by the Imperial Arch Chancellor , the Elector of Mainz . The actual legal decision-making work was done by the assessors. The majority of the assessors decided. Up to 1550 there were around 12-18 members working together. After that the number increased: in 1657 there were 24, in 1711 there were already 30 assessors. With the Peace of Westphalia and the shortly thereafter Reichshofratsordnung of 1654, six were filled with Protestants when the 18 assessor posts were awarded (Art. V, 54 IPO). To the displeasure of the evangelical imperial estates, this did not result in a clear denominational parity in the court as in the imperial chamber court, but this was an imperial concession to the evangelical side.

The Reichshofrat often set up commissions (on this, and in particular for commissions on debt settlement, see Debit Commission ). In order to resolve a legal dispute, the court had to determine what had really happened, as it does now. This was done by way of evidence. The Reich Chamber Court had to request local judges to act as commissioners for the evidence procedure. These commissioners had only a very narrow area of ​​responsibility, namely the implementation of the narrowly defined evidence procedure. The Reichshofrat had it easier: he could set up a commission ex officio or at the request of the parties to negotiate the legal dispute in full on the spot (not just the taking of evidence on a specific point requiring evidence). The Reichshofrat Commission then had to report to the Reichshofrat when it had negotiated the entire legal dispute. The latter then made a decision based solely on the comprehensive Commission report. This procedure was much more effective, because the on-site commission could and had to do everything at once on occasion and was freer than the Reich Chamber of Commerce as far as the procedural execution of the procedure was concerned. In addition, the Reichshof Council commissions had the power to settle a legal dispute amicably and thus bring about a decision.

The representatives of the Reich estates at the Reichshofrat were the Reichshofratagenten .

Relationship to the Reich Chamber of Commerce

For the most part, there was no competition between the Reich Chamber Court and the Reichshofrat. It is true that both courts had jurisdiction over the same legal matters, and when the trial in one court did not go well or stalled, one tried to appeal to the other court. However, there was often exchange and cooperation between the two courts. However, there were also cases where competition arose. This was also taken up by contemporary journalism and because of this, the assessment persisted for a long time that such a competitive relationship existed between the two courts. However, recent research shows that this was far less the case than previously assumed.

Which court to turn to depended on many factors. One such factor was proximity. The Reichshofrat was often outside the Reich with the Kaiser, so it was sometimes easier to appeal to the Reich Chamber of Commerce, which soon found its permanent seat in Speyer and later in Wetzlar. If the emperor was in the empire, however, the requests that were brought before the Reichshofrat also increased. When an emperor enjoyed a great reputation, the Reichshofrat was also called on more frequently (for example, the Hofrat Emperor Charles V in the middle of the 16th century). Beliefs also had an influence. The emperor was considered to be the guardian of old-faith (= Catholic) Christianity. Therefore, during the Reformation, the protesting imperial estates tended to appeal to the imperial chamber court. One suspected more open-mindedness here. Protestant members of the Imperial Court Council were also appointed under Emperor Maximilian II .

The role of the Reichshofrat as a court and arbitration body grew especially since the 17th century. The religious disputes, for example, were an important turning point. At the Reich Chamber of Commerce - and left alone by the Emperor and the Reich - these highly political disputes could not be dealt with well, and judicial activity even came to a standstill for a time. The inglorious treatment of religious disputes made the Reich Chamber of Appeal less important. In addition, as already described above, the Reichshofrat was more flexible with regard to the arrangement of the legal process. The trials usually did not last as long as the trials of the Reich Chamber Court, which was strictly bound by the procedural law of the time. And the Reichshofrat often used commissioners to resolve disputes who negotiated at the place of the disputes, while the Reichskammergericht always met at its place of jurisdiction in Speyer or Wetzlar .

Resolution and current state of research

With the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the activities of the Imperial Court Council also ended.

The majority of the files are now in the House, Court and State Archives (HHStA) in Vienna. The Academy of Sciences in Göttingen has initiated a project in cooperation with the Austrian Legal History Commission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the House, Court and State Archives, which aims to make this archival treasure usable for all humanities and cultural studies. With the so-called “Old Prague Files”, the “Antiqua” and the “Denegata antiqua”, the long-term project makes around a third of the judicial files of the Imperial Court Council from the 16th and 17th centuries accessible. A total of more than 20,000 new processes are to be recorded in the individual inventory volumes. The individual cases are described in detail. Enclosures of particular source value are also recorded. A runtime is specified for almost every process . Information on the order signature and the scope of the files complete the list. Detailed indices help to find meaningful files for the respective questions. The inventory volumes are published under the title “Die Akten des Kaiserliches Reichshofrat (RHR)” by Erich Schmidt Verlag .

Presidents of the Imperial Court Council 1526–1806

The office of the President of the Reichshof Council was filled as follows:


  • Oswald von Gschliesser: The Reichshofrat. (= Publications of the Commission for the Modern History of Former Austria 33), Vienna, 1942.
  • Peter Leyers: Reichshofratsgutachten to Kaiser Josef II. 1976 (Bonn, University, legal dissertation, 1976).
  • Eva Ortlieb: Reichshofrat and Reichstag. In: Thomas Olechowski , Christian Neschwara , Alina Lengauer (eds.): Basics of Austrian legal culture. Festschrift for Werner Ogris on his 75th birthday, Böhlau Verlag Wien, 2010, ISBN 978-320578628-3 , pp. 343–364 ( limited preview in Google book search).
  • Wolfgang Sellert: Process principles and Stilus Curiae at the Reichshofrat. In comparison with the legal basis of the Reich Chamber Court procedure (= investigations into German state and legal history. NF Vol. 18). Scientia-Verlag, Aalen 1973, ISBN 3-511-02838-8 (also: Frankfurt am Main, University, habilitation paper, 1970).
  • Wolfgang Sellert (Ed.): Reichshofrat and Reichskammergericht. A competitive relationship. (= Sources and research on the highest jurisdiction in the Old Kingdom. Vol. 34). Böhlau, Cologne et al. 1999, ISBN 3-412-01699-3 .

to individual epochs and aspects:

  • Thomas Dorfner: Mediator between head and limbs. The Reichshofratsagenten and their role in the proceedings (1658–1740) (= negotiating, proceeding, deciding. Historical Perspectives, Vol. 2) . Aschendorff, Münster 2015, ISBN 978-3-402-14656-9 . (also: Münster, University, dissertation 2014).
  • Stefan Ehrenpreis: Imperial jurisdiction and denominational conflict. The Reichshofrat under Rudolf II. 1576–1616. (= Series of publications by the Historical Commission at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. Vol. 72). Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 2006, ISBN 3-525-36065-7 (also: Bochum, University, dissertation, 1998).
  • Susanne Gmoser (edit.): Chronological list of the Reichshofräte according to Oswald von Gschlusser. Vienna, June 2014 (pdf,
  • André Griemert : Jewish lawsuits against imperial nobles . Trials at the Reichshofrat in the reign of Rudolf II and Franz I Stephan. (Old Reich library, vol. 16), De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Berlin / Munich / Boston / Massachusetts 2014, ISBN 978-3-11-035282-5 .
  • Eva Ortlieb: On behalf of the emperor. The imperial commissions of the Reichshofrat and the settlement of conflicts in the Old Kingdom (1637–1657). (= Sources and research on the highest jurisdiction in the Old Kingdom. Vol. 38). Böhlau, Cologne et al. 2001, ISBN 3-412-12400-1 (Also: Münster, Universität, Dissertation, 1999).

specifically on the research history and the files (chronologically):

  • Leopold Auer: The archive of the Reichshofrat and its significance for historical research. In: Berhard Diestelkamp, ​​Ingrid Scheurmann (Hrsg.): Securing peace and granting rights. Bonn / Wetzlar, 1997, pp. 117-130.
  • Arthur Stögmann: The indexing of case files of the Reichshofrat in the house, court and state archive in Vienna. In: Mitteilungen des Österreichisches Staatsarchiv 44, 1999, pp. 249–265.
  • Gerd Polster: The electronic recording of Wolf's repertory for the trial files of the Reichshofrat in the house, court and state archives. In: Communications from the Austrian State Archives 51, 2004, pp. 635–649.
  • Edgar Liebmann: Imperial and Territorial Jurisdiction as Reflected in Research. In: Anja Amend, Anette Baumann , Stephan Wendehorst, Siegrid Westphal (eds.): Judicial Landscape Old Reich. Supreme jurisdiction and territorial jurisdiction (= sources and research on the highest jurisdiction in the Old Kingdom. Vol. 52). Böhlau, Cologne et al. 2007, ISBN 978-3-412-10306-4 , pp. 151–172 - overview of the reception of the Reichshofrat in (legal) historical research of the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Tobias Schenk: A development project for the files of the Imperial Imperial Court Council. In: Archivist . Vol. 63, 2010, pp. 285-290.

Web links

Commons : Aulic Council  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Reichshofrat  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

to the files:

further individual sources:


  1. Cf. edition and translation of the contract texts on the Acta Pacis Westphalicae website, here: Section Weblinks
  2. Michael Hochedlinger, Petr Mata, Thomas Winkelbauer: Administrative History of the Habsburg Monarchy in the Early Modern Era, Volume 1, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2019, p. 316.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on October 26, 2005 .