Imperial Knighthood

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Reichs-Ritterkreis, Johann Stephan Burgermeister, 1721

The imperial knights was in the Holy Roman Empire , the Community of the rich free nobility of one, imperial immediacy ( "immediates") feudal relationship to Kaiser has preserved and poor or recapture.

When the Reichstag became a permanent institution of the imperial constitution in 1495 , however, only the holders of large imperial fiefs (electors, princes, dukes, counts and imperial prelates) received hereditary seats and thus became imperial estates . The knightly owners of the small imperial fiefs, on the other hand, which were mainly located in southern and western Germany, received no such seats and thus no imperial estates. From the middle of the 16th century they joined together in 15 “knight towns” (later called “cantons”) in order to assert their political interests. In 1542 exact registers were created for the members. In 1577 the knight places were grouped into three "knight circles": the Franconian knight circle , the Swabian knight circle and the Rhenish knight circle .

The members are historically known as Imperial Knights , but officially referred to simply as "Knights" (in diplomas occasionally also as "the Imperial Knight"). By inheriting or purchasing such an imperial fief, a noble family could later be accepted into this knightly circle. The (historically often rather coincidental) immediate relationship to the empire placed the imperial knights, as members of the lower nobility, but not above those nobles who were subordinate to a sovereign under feudal law .

With the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the three knight circles were dissolved and the Imperial Knights came under the rule of member states of the German Confederation through mediation . At the end of the Old Kingdom , the imperial knighthood comprised around 350 families with around 450,000 subjects.


Origins and Precursors

Observationes Illustres Juridico-Equestres: Zweyter Part / Worinnen primarily from Des HR Reichs-Ohnmittelbahren Freyen Ritterschetzt In Schwaben / Francken / Rheinstrom and Elsas, 1710
Monument of knightly self-confidence and knightly organization: The Knights' Chapel Haßfurt with the coats of arms of the Franconian and Swabian nobility
Involved in numerous feuds: Franz von Sickingen
The humanist and "Pfaffenfresser" Ulrich von Hutten
Achieved literary fame through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe : The Swabian Imperial Knight Götz von Berlichingen
Eyrichshof Castle near Ebern: The seat of one of the numerous lines of the Barons von Rotenhan ( knight canton of Baunach )

The origins of the imperial knighthood can be found in the noble vassalage of the high Middle Ages. In the south-west of Germany, the Staufer servants / ministers in particular were able to keep themselves free from subordination to more powerful lords after the direct line of the royal family had died out in 1268. As a result, the Habsburgs tried to establish themselves as the dukes of Swabia. Johann Parricida died around 1313 without a successor. Further attempts to restore the duchy failed and the area began to break up into numerous smaller and larger territories. A similar development took place in the former Duchy of Franconia .

The "imperial knighthood" could only develop and assert itself in areas without a strong territorial power. The direct feudal relationship to the empire was mostly the result of the extinction of the original, medieval feudal givers, whereby the upper fief fell back to the empire and its head (and was not reissued afterwards). The descendants of the Reichsministeriales from the High Middle Ages, on the other hand, who had always taken their fiefs directly from the Reich and expanded them over the generations, had for the most part already risen to the rank of count towards the end of the Middle Ages and belonged in the majority - provided the respective family still existed - from 1495 to the imperial estates and thus to the high nobility .

As a forerunner of the knight circles, aristocratic societies had already emerged in the 14th and 15th centuries , who wanted to counter the growing pressure of the neighboring princes with a cooperative organization. However, these societies were banned several times, for example in 1356 ( Golden Bull ) and 1396. However , these leagues continued to exist as social or religious institutions and tournament societies, and their members were later often able to establish themselves in the imperial knighthood.

A large part of the later imperial knighthood came from the former ministry of the Hochstifte, the monasteries and the high nobility. In the course of the High Middle Ages, however, many former noble families also submitted to the fiefdom of powerful lords, also in order to be able to obtain further fiefdoms to secure younger sons. Such employment relationships were often very lucrative; the servants achieved high positions at the courts. The feudal relationship to the empire did not stand in the way of the establishment of simultaneous feudal relationships with sovereigns (for other manors). The majority of Swabian knighthood only accepted their order, confirmed by the emperor in 1561, after the territorial powers Württemberg and Palatinate had assured them that they would not withdraw the old fiefdoms they had taken.

In the context of the Reformation in particular, there were violent clashes between the knighthood and the territorial lords. The civil peace ordinances of the late Middle Ages drastically restricted feuds as a means of knightly self-help. Economic difficulties also forced some families to sell their property to the sovereigns.


The imperial knighthood is sometimes referred to as the "mortar of the Old Kingdom". It ensured the emperor a certain influence in the imperial territory and set limits to the ambitions of the surrounding territorial lords. In 1422, Emperor Sigismund therefore allowed the knight associations, which had been illegal until then, and even wanted to include them in a major imperial reform. It was not until the Worms Reichstag in 1495 that the imperial knighthood was recognized as a corporation . At this Reichstag the Reichstag was created as a permanent institution of the imperial constitution by means of a contract between the emperor and the imperial estates and its seats were distributed to the imperial estates. The seats were tied to certain territories , but only the holders of large imperial fiefs, so-called flag and scepter fiefs , i.e. electors, dukes, princes, counts and imperial prelates, were allocated such seats. The imperial knights, whose manors mostly corresponded in size to only average manors that were fiefdoms of a sovereign, received no such seats and thus no imperial estate .

In addition to their imperial fiefs (and sometimes additional fiefs of neighboring imperial princes), the knights were often able to preserve or acquire extensive allodial property (own property). After the bloody suppression of the peasant and civil revolts in the early 16th century, many victims also received high amounts of compensation, which were used to repair the old castles , but more often to build new representative castles . Here there were often excessive demands, which the knights were usually granted. The Würzburg town clerk Cronthal testifies to this fact with the words: "... however, many a house, castle ... was struck far higher, then they were worth the land ... from it they ... got ... nice new castles and palaces ". The Franconian knight Valentin Schott, bailiff at Königshofen in the Grabfeld , wrote in a letter to his sister: “ I am ... - thanks to the stupid farmers for being outraged! - richer than I have ever been because the house and the damage suffered had been damaged too much . ”However, some knights also voluntarily sided with the rebels or were forced to do so. A well-known example here is the "knight with the iron hand", the free imperial knight Götz von Berlichingen , who therefore had to vow compensation of 25,000 guilders to the monasteries of Mainz and Würzburg after the fighting ended.

Numerous knights were awarded the title of baron or the title of count in the 16th and 17th centuries, increasing their rank of nobility. However, this did not result in admission to the imperial estates, because this did not depend on a title, but on the possession of a certain territory entitled to vote. New hereditary seats in the Reichstag were seldom created because they required the approval of the imperial estates, which jealously defended the exclusivity of their prince and count benches. By increasing the rank of nobility, however, the imperial family tied the imperial knights to itself more closely, especially since the charitable subsidia - only initially voluntary - represented an important source of income for the head of the empire. Later, the knight circles negotiated the Charitativsubsidien with the imperial councils. Originally they were only supposed to be paid in times of war and emergency, but later degenerated into a kind of "special tax" that was levied on the knights by the cantons and continued to run in times of peace. The aim was to keep the emperor as patron saint. At the same time, in this way the emperor had a shift at his disposal that was always available for warring enterprises.

That is why the emperor granted his imperial knighthood numerous privileges. Rudolf II issued the “Jus retractus”, a right of pre-sale and repurchase of manors within the knightly circles. This was intended to prevent the (albeit more theoretical) erosion that would have meant the holdings of the imperial knighthood by "taking along" the territories in the case of an imperial increase in status with simultaneous admission to the imperial estates. The “Privilegium de non arrestando” prevented the free knight nobility from being subjected to the jurisdiction of powerful imperial estates.

The knights enjoyed the special protection of the emperor, but had no access to the Reichstag and were not included in the constitution of the imperial district . From the late Middle Ages on, the imperial knights joined forces in knight leagues, which developed into cooperatives from the first half of the 16th century. They built on the older tradition of the company with Sankt Jörgenschild that was established in the Swabian District, and also took over its cantonal structure. Due to the tax demands of the Reichstag against the Reich Knights in 1542 because of the impending danger from the Turks, the Reich Knights had to create their own precise register, which on the one hand strengthened their position, but on the other hand also guaranteed the emperor that they would fulfill their duties towards the Reich.

That is why the Imperial Knighthood has been organized into a total of 15 knightly towns since the middle of the 16th century, of which fourteen have been grouped into three knight circles since 1577. The knight places have been called knight cantons since the 17th century, following the example of the cantons of the Swiss Confederation . The six cantons of Odenwald , Gebürg , Rhön-Werra , Steigerwald , Altmühl and Baunach (see also list of Franconian knight families ) belonged to the Franconian , the five cantons of Danube , Hegau-Allgäu-Bodensee , Neckar-Black Forest , Kocher and Kraichgau to the Swabian and the three Cantons of Upper Rhine , Middle Rhine (this included e.g. the Wetterau knighthood organized in the Burggrafschaft Friedberg with its seat in the Reichsburg Friedberg ) and Lower Rhine to the Rhenish knight circle . As the 15th canton, the Lower Alsace canton had a special position. The knighthood in Lower Alsace bowed to the state power of Louis XIV in December 1680 , whereby their possessions and fiefs had been subordinated to French sovereignty. Although it still carried the title of free-direct knighthood in lower Alsace , it no longer belonged to the Holy Roman Empire.

An important privilege of the knightly cantons was that they were allowed to raise imperial taxes themselves in their area. In numerous local histories there is the reference "headed to knight canton XY". This is noteworthy for two reasons: firstly, the tax was one of the criteria of state sovereignty and one of the criteria for statehood , and secondly, in the early modern period, tax approval was the most important lever for corporate co-determination as a preliminary stage of democracy .

The Imperial Knights mostly only exercised the lower jurisdiction in their territories , which dealt with everyday crimes such as theft and insults. The high jurisdiction , the “blood court”, was usually the responsibility of the neighboring territorial power. In order to maintain their independence, many of the knights continued to seek good relationships with neighboring princes. Attempts were also made to influence the government of the ecclesiastical principalities and efforts were made to obtain and bequeath seats in their cathedral chapters ; after the Reformation only the imperial knights who remained Catholic did this.

The researchers Helmut Neumaier and Volker Press see the actual beginning of an imperial knighthood only in 1542 (through matriculation and exclusive subordination to the emperor). In 1559 the imperial privilege "against the Landsasserey" was issued. In 1609 the privilege "de non aliendo" followed.

The knight house in Offenburg , meeting place of the Ortenau Imperial Knighthood

Since 1577, meetings of the imperial knighthood called "General Correspondence Days" took place, but the districts and especially the cantons remained much more important due to the strong territorial anchoring of the knights. Each canton had its knight captain and kept its own register (knight register) on the persons and goods belonging to the knighthood. The imperial knighthood was exempt from imperial taxes and billeting, which - especially in the Thirty Years War - remained a rather theoretical privilege. However, she was very often used by the emperor for military service and thereby gained considerable influence in the military and also in the administration of the empire. It provided a significant part of the imperial generals, senior officers and councilors.

A monument to the imperial knighthood, the palace of the imperial knighthood, is located in the Ortenau ( Offenburg ).

Requirements for newcomers / admission procedure

It was left to the discretion of the imperial knighthood cantons when and whether they accepted into their corporation someone who had been awarded a diploma by the emperor as a “knight of the empire” or a “baron of the empire” and who had not previously appeared in the imperial knighthood register, provided that he was owned (or acquired) imperial-free rule within the canton. Occasionally, newcomers were also accepted as personalists (similar to the personalists on the counts 'and princes' benches in the Reichstag) without having any direct imperial rule. They only got a seat and vote in the convent when they had acquired goods worth at least 6,000 Rhenish guilders; the seat was then not hereditary.

What Johann Kaspar Bundschuh (see below: literature) presented in detail for Franconia applied to all circles of knights and illustrates how the imperial knights saw themselves. A candidate first had to show direct possession of the empire: worth at least 6,000 florins per Rhine. If the value was lower, he had to “tax” 600 guilders (if he was an old nobleman), and 750 guilders as a new nobleman. He had to be “of good nobility” (all eight great-grandparents!). Occasional indulgence in this regard was not excluded. He was not allowed to be subordinate to any sovereign or to be a citizen of a city. Exclusion was threatened for improper behavior, mesalliance , indecent profession, acceptance of civil rights, excessive debts, sale of goods, lack of respect for the board of directors. With the help of an official report to the emperor and his "resolution", an application could be made to abolish the directness of the empire. The sequestration of the goods was not ruled out either.

The new addition required three steps:

1- Reception in consortio equestre

2- Incorporation into the personal register of a specific canton

3- Obtaining the consent of all knight circles

Charitable Subsidia

Imperial Knighthood (Fulda)

Some historians interpret the introduction of the “voluntary” Charitativsubsidien as the actual reason for the formation of the imperial knighthood. In 1542 the imperial estates demanded the use of knighthood to finance the Turkish wars at the Reichstag in Speyer . The knights finally had to give in to the demands, otherwise the imperial estates would have refused the emperor financial aid to the Turks. It was decided to pay the "Charitativ Subsidien" through the knighthood. This required the establishment of a tight organization in order to be able to forcibly collect this aid money from the members if necessary.

For this reason alone, the emperor promoted the development of the cantons by granting special rights and privileges out of self-interest. J. G. Kerner already remarked on this in his "Staatsrecht der Reichsritterschaft" published 1786-89:

The charitable subsidies, which the knighthood paid to the emperor, are, as it were, the pillar on which the entire knightly constitution rests. Through the same the knighthood assures itself ... of the very highest imperial protection and this very highest protection it has up to now in the German Empire ... upheld. "


Despite the direct subordination to the (in fact always Catholic) head of the empire, many of the knights converted to the Protestant or Reformed denomination during the Reformation . Political reasons also played a role here. Especially the servants of the Hochstifte or those families who, in addition to their imperial fiefs or allodial possessions, also had fiefs of clergymen, used the favorable opportunity to loosen their ties to their liege lords. The knights Dietrich († 1526), Wolf († 1555) and Philipp († 1544) from the Gemmingen family , one of the most influential and branching families of the imperial knighthood, were the first knights in Kraichgau to bring young Reformation clergymen to their local churches in Gemmingen (1521), Fürfeld (1521) and Neckarmühlbach (1522) and shaped the Reformation in Kraichgau , which soon spread to the surrounding areas and not least to Württemberg-Mömpelgard . At times, more than 20 persecuted pastors found asylum at the Guttenberg Castle in Gemmingen , of whom Erhard Schnepf , Johann Geiling and others later worked as important reformers elsewhere. According to the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, the population had to adopt the denomination of their masters. This explains the numerous Protestant villages that were surrounded by the former monasteries of Bamberg and Würzburg . However, some imperial knighthood families also returned to the Catholic faith. B. to secure promised foundation pledges or because they entered the service of church princes .

Not only the imperial knighthood, but also the imperial cities in the south-west of Germany, which were also imperial direct, mostly turned to the Reformation, so that religious alliances were formed between the imperial knighthood and the urban districts. When Ferdinand II tolerated the annexation of the free imperial city of Donauwörth by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, the knighthood also feared encroachments by the Catholic territorial powers on their territories.

During the Thirty Years' War prevented both Ferdinand II and his son Ferdinand III. the neutralization of the denominational question aimed at by the imperial knighthood, whereas the imperial general Wallenstein always endeavored to keep the imperial army non-denominational and to wage the war as an imperial action against constitutional breaches and rebellion, but not as a religious war. However, after Wallenstein had subjugated the empire, Ferdinand II issued the edict of restitution in 1629, thus alienating the evangelical imperial estates. The Franconian knight cantons in particular rigorously suppressed all Catholic activities in their areas of influence after the Swedish invasion. After the peace treaty of 1648, this conflict intensified.

For these reasons, some knights urged the cantons to strive for the imperial estate as a corporation of imperial knights, which was also granted to the imperial cities. Bourgeois " pepper sacks " were preferred to noble knights. However, there was no final agreement between the cantons on this question, which was discussed up to the Correspondence Day in Esslingen (1688).

In the 18th century, questions of faith took a back seat and the risk of small-scale territorial disputes, such as had existed before the great wars of the 17th century, hardly existed. Many imperial knights were in high civil or military service of the emperor or the surrounding territorial princes. Among the leading figures of the imperial knighthood families were many who were trained administrative lawyers and managed their property according to modern criteria. The last general director of the imperial knighthood was Karl Friedrich Reinhard von Gemmingen (1739-1822). He was Minister of Justice at the court of the Brandenburg-Ansbach Margrave Karl Alexander , became General Director of the Imperial Knighthood in 1790 and represented it as a deputy at the last extraordinary Imperial Deputation .


In 1802/03 the mediatization of the imperial knighthood, which had previously been imperial, began. In the reorganization of the empire in the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss 1803, the imperial knighthoods, in contrast to the clerical principalities ( secularization ), were actually spared. As early as the winter of 1802/1803, however, the territorial states of Bavaria and Württemberg tried to take possession of the neighboring, mostly fragmented and small areas of the Imperial Knights with transfer and transfer patents. In the autumn of 1803, most of the 300 or so imperial knights' estates were actually incorporated into the so-called " Rittersturm " by their larger neighbors. The measures were described by Emperor Franz II as illegal, but due to the balance of power in the empire he was in fact unable to reverse them. In 1806, with the end of the empire, the imperial knights were finally mediated. The Rhine Confederation Act sanctioned the unilateral measures of the territorial states in Article 25.

State of research

Despite the fundamental research by Volker Press (1939–1993), most of which were published in the form of articles in various historical journals, the constitutional phenomenon of the imperial knighthood has not yet been adequately researched. Of all the forms of rule of the old empire, this is the most difficult to grasp conceptually. To this day, the origins and foundations of free knighthood in particular are discussed controversially. The renowned lexicon of the Middle Ages already remarks on this: The assumption sometimes expressed that the imperial knighthood was wholly or predominantly borne by families of the former imperial ministry does not apply ... (Volume 7, p. 636).

The more recent literature deals mainly with the knighthood of individual areas or knight cantons directly from the empire. There is much more reliable literature about the rural (dependent) lower nobility .


  • Johann Kaspar Bundschuh : Attempt of a historical-topographical-statistical description of the immediate Freyen imperial knighthood in Franconia according to its six places. Ulm 1801.
  • Gisela Drossbach / Andreas Otto Weber / Wolfgang Wüst (eds.): Seats of the nobility - rule of the nobility - representation of nobility in Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia . Results of an international conference in Sinning Castle and Residence Neuburg a. d. Danube, 8. – 10. September 2011 (Neuburger Kollektaneenblatt 160/2012), Neuburg a. d. Danube 2012. ISBN 978-3-89639-897-0 .
  • Dieter Hellstern: The knightly canton Neckar-Black Forest, 1560-1805. Investigations into the corporation constitution, the functions of the knight's canton and the member families. (Publications of the Tübingen City Archives, Volume 5) H. Laupp'sche Buchhandlung, Tübingen 1971, ISBN 3-16-831621-0 .
  • Johann Georg Kerner: General positive constitutional law of the immediate free imperial knighthood in Swabia and on the Rhine. 3 vol., Lemgo 1786–1789.
  • Johann Mader: Imperial Knighthood Magazine, Volume 1–13. Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1780–1790. ( Digitized from vol. 13 )
  • Helmut Neumaier: “That we have no other head or temporal authority appointed by God”. Place Odenwald of the Franconian Imperial Knighthood from the beginnings to the Thirty Years War (= publications of the Commission for Historical Regional Studies in Baden-Württemberg. Series B: Research; Vol. 161), Stuttgart / Berlin / Cologne: Kohlhammer, 2005. ISBN 3-17- 018729-5 .
  • Volker Press : Nobility in the Old Empire - collected lectures and essays (early modern research; 4). Tübingen 1998. ISBN 3-928471-16-3 .
  • Volker Press: Emperor Karl V, King Ferdinand and the emergence of the imperial knighthood . (Lecture on February 8, 1974), Wiesbaden: Steiner 1976.
  • Volker Press: Imperial Knighthood. In: Adalbert Erler u. a. (Ed.): Concise dictionary on German legal history, Vol. 4, Berlin 1990, Col. 743-748. ISBN 3503000151 .
  • Christopher Freiherr von Preuschen-Liebenstein: Imperial direct sovereignty in Osterspai on the Rhine. In: Nassauische Annalen Vol. 118 (2007), pp. 449–456.
  • Karl H. Roth von Schreckenstein: History of the former free imperial knighthood in Swabia, Franconia and on the Rhine river. Vol. 1–2, Tübingen 1859–1871.
  • Kurt Freiherr Rüdt von Collenberg: The imperial direct free knighthood. In: Deutsches Adelsblatt 1925, p. 106ff.
  • Joachim Schneider: Late medieval German lower nobility - a landscape comparison (monographs on the history of the Middle Ages, volume 52). Stuttgart 2003. ISBN 3-7772-0312-2 .
  • Sylvia Schraut : imperial aristocratic self-assertion between a befitting lifestyle and careers in the imperial church. In: Walter Demel (Hrsg.): Adel und Adelskultur in Bayern (Journal for Bavarian State History. Supplement; 32). Beck, Munich 2008, pp. 251-268.
  • Cord Ulrichs: From Lehnhof to Imperial Knighthood. Structures of the Franconian lower nobility at the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period (quarterly for social and economic history / supplements; 134). Stuttgart: Steiner 1997.
  • Wolfgang Wüst : Reformation and confessionalization in the Frankish imperial knighthood. Between territorial modernization and patriarchal politics. In: Journal for Bavarian State History 95 (2002), pp. 409–446.
  • Carl von Rotteck, Carl Theodor Welcker: Das Staats-Lexikon. Encyclopedia of all political sciences for all classes , 12th volume, 3rd edition, Leipzig 1865, pp. 434–440: Reichsritter online in the Google book search

Web links

Wikisource: Imperial Knighthood  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Knightly Cantons of the Holy Roman Empire  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Imperial Knighthood  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Werner Hechberger : Nobility, ministerialism and knighthood in the Middle Ages . Munich 2004, p. 41.
  2. Michael Puchta: Mediatization "with skin and hair, body and life": The submission of the Imperial Knights by Ansbach-Bayreuth (1792–1798) , Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2012, ISBN 978-3-647-36078-2 , p. 33, Preview in Google Book Search
  3. Volker Himmelein, Hans Ulrich Rudolf: Alte Klöster - Neue Herren , exhibition catalog, volume 2, Thorbecke, 2003.