in the history of the Holy Roman Empire
, the princes who had the right to elect the German kings or, more exactly, the kings of the Romans (Holy Roman emperors). Until the reign (1493-1519) of Maximilian I
, however, an elected king was traditionally crowned by the pope before he was called emperor. Initially the electors merely confirmed hereditary succession. After the death of Henry V
in 1125 without direct heirs, the electors set aside the principle of hereditary monarchy, thus strengthening their elective rights. In succeeding years, particularly after the death of Frederick II
in 1250, contests between rival claimants further enhanced the electoral principle. Originally all the princes served as electors, but gradually the right devolved upon a few preeminent princes. After 1257 the number of electors was narrowed to seven, but there was no agreement as to who they were. The frequency of contested elections led Charles IV
to issue (1356) the Golden Bull (so called because of its golden seal), which regulated the procedure of elections and coronations and confirmed the electoral rights of the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the king of Bohemia, the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, and the margrave of Brandenburg. The Golden Bull also imposed the laws of primogeniture and entail on the electoral territories. The electors, who became almost sovereign rulers, formed one of the three colleges of the imperial diet
. They served as a counterforce to imperial absolutism, even though after 1438 only members of the house of Hapsburg
were chosen emperor. The composition of the electors was changed in 1623 when Ferdinand II
transferred the vote of the count palatine to the duke of Bavaria in order to punish Frederick the Winter King
; however, at the Peace of Westphalia (1648) an eighth vote was created for the count palatine. In 1692 a ninth vote (formally recognized, 1708) was created for Hanover; thus the kings of England became (1714) electors. In 1803 Emperor Napoleon I of France radically altered the list of electors. The electoral function disappeared with the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
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