Imperial vicar

Coat of arms of Augustus III of Poland as vicar of the Holy Roman Empire

An imperial vicar (German: Reichsvikar) was a prince charged with administering all or part of the Holy Roman Empire on behalf of the emperor. Later, an imperial vicar was invariably one of two princes charged by the Golden Bull with administering the Holy Roman Empire during an interregnum.


The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy, not a hereditary one. When an emperor died, if a king of the Romans had not already been elected, there would be no new emperor for a matter of several months until all the electors, or their representatives, could assemble for a new imperial election. During that time, imperial institutions still required oversight. This was performed by two imperial vicars. Each vicar, in the words of the Golden Bull, was "the administrator of the empire itself, with the power of passing judgments, of presenting to ecclesiastical benefices, of collecting returns and revenues and investing with fiefs, of receiving oaths of fealty for and in the name of the holy empire". All acts of the vicars were subject to ratification by the elected king or emperor. On many occasions, however, there was no interregnum, as a new king had been elected during the lifetime of his predecessor.[1]

The vicariate came to be associated with two counts palatinate: the duke and elector of Saxony (who also held the position of count palatine of Saxony) was vicar in areas operating under Saxon law (Saxony, Westphalia, Hanover, and northern Germany); the count palatine of the Rhine, also an elector, was vicar in the remainder of the Empire (Franconia, Swabia, the Rhine, and southern Germany). The Golden Bull of 1356 confirmed the position of the two electors.[1]

Disputes over the Palatine electorate from 1648 to 1777 led to confusion about who the rightful vicar was. In 1623, the Palatine Electorate was transferred to the duke (and thenceforth elector) of Bavaria. However, in 1648 a new electorate was created for the restored Count Palatine of the Rhine, which led to disputes between the two as to which was vicar. In 1657, both purported to act as vicar, but the Saxon vicar recognised the elector of Bavaria. In 1711, while the elector of Bavaria was under the ban of the Empire, the elector palatine again acted as vicar, but his cousin was restored to his position upon his restoration three years later. In 1724, the two electors made a pact to act as joint vicars, but the Imperial Diet rejected the agreement. Finally, in 1745, the two agreed to alternate as vicar, with Bavaria starting first. This arrangement was upheld by the Imperial Diet at Regensburg in 1752. In 1777 the question became moot when the elector palatine inherited Bavaria.[1]

In 1806, Emperor Francis II abdicated the imperial throne and also declared the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire itself in the wake of defeats by France and the defection of much of southern and western Germany from the Empire to join the new Confederation of the Rhine. His decision to declare the dissolution of the Empire as well as to abdicate was apparently partially designed to forestall an interregnum with rule by the imperial vicars, which he feared might result in the election of Napoleon as emperor.[2]

List of imperial vicars, 1437–1792

Interregnum began Interregnum ended Duration Duke of Saxony Count Palatine of the Rhine
9 December 1437
death of Sigismund
18 March 1438
election of Albert II
3 months, 9 days Frederick II, Elector of Saxony Louis IV, Elector Palatine
27 October 1439
death of Albert II
2 February 1440
election of Frederick III
3 months, 6 days
12 January 1519
death of Maximilian I
17 June 1519
election of Charles V
5 months, 5 days Frederick III, Elector of Saxony Louis V, Elector Palatine
20 January 1612
death of Rudolph II
13 June 1612
election of Matthias
4 months, 24 days John George I, Elector of Saxony Frederick V, Elector Palatine
20 March 1619
death of Matthias
28 August 1619
election of Ferdinand II
5 months, 8 days
2 April 1657
death of Ferdinand III
18 July 1658
election of Leopold I
15 months, 16 days John George II, Elector of Saxony Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria
17 April 1711
death of Joseph I
12 October 1711
election of Charles VI
5 months, 25 days Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony
(Augustus II the Strong)
John William, Elector Palatine
20 October 1740
death of Charles VI
14 January 1742
election of Charles VII
14 months, 25 days Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony
(Augustus III of Poland)
Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria
20 January 1745
death of Charles VII
13 September 1745
election of Francis I
7 months, 24 days Maximilian III, Elector of Bavaria
20 February 1790
death of Joseph II
30 September 1790
election of Leopold II
7 months, 10 days Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria
1 March 1792
death of Leopold II
5 July 1792
election of Francis II
4 months, 4 days

Imperial vicar for particular provinces

In the Empire's early centuries, imperial vicars were appointed from time to time to administer one of the Empire's constituent kingdoms of Germany, Italy or Arles. This was in fact a different office.

The position of vicar in Imperial Italy was conferred to the Count of Savoy by Emperor Frederick II in 1226. In the second half of the 14th century, Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor made permanent Frederick's decision and associated it to the title of Duke of Savoy. In 1556, given that France occupied the Savoyard states in 1535–1536, Emperor Charles V intended to transfer the position to Philip II of Spain with his abdication but Philip's requests to receive the title were denied by Charles's successor Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor.[3][4][5] Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy used the Imperial vicarship in order to recover the dynastic possessions in 1557-1559 and move the Savoyard capital to Turin. Furthermore, he and his successors exercised the title to assert a formal primacy among Italian imperial princes (although this was also claimed by the ruler of Tuscany who held the unique title of Grand Duke) and to present themselves as champions of Italian liberties up to the 1800s.[6] In 1624 the office of the general commissioner respectively plenipotentiary was created for Imperial Italy, which factually took over the original tasks of the imperial vicariate, which had only been a titular vicariate since Charles IV.[7]

In the absence of an emperor, the right to appoint vicars for provinces was exercised by the pope. This is not to be confused with the ecclesiastical office of vicar.


  1. ^ a b c "the Holy Roman Empire".
  2. ^ Peter H. Wilson, "Bolstering the Prestige of the Habsburgs: The End of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806," The International History Review, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), 730-736
  3. ^ Anderson, M. S. (September 25, 2014). The Origins of the Modern European State System, 1494-1618. Routledge. ISBN 9781317892762 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Parker, Geoffrey (June 25, 2019). Emperor: A New Life of Charles V. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300241020 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Braudel, Fernand (September 4, 1995). The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Volume II. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520203303 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ Wilson, Peter H. (September 4, 2016). Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674058095 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Runschke, Florian (2019), "Das Generalkommissariat in Italien von 1624-1632. Auftrag, Arbeit und Akzeptanz der ersten beiden Amtsinhaber". Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken (in German). 99: 214 (online).