1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Imperial Chamber
IMPERIAL CHAMBER (Reichskammergericht), the supreme judicial court of the Holy Roman Empire, during the period between 1495 and the dissolution of the Empire in 1806. From the early middle ages there had been a supreme court of justice for the Empire—the Hofgericht (or curia imperatoris, as it were), in which the emperor himself presided. By his side sat a body of assessors (Urtheilsfinder), who must be at least seven in number, and who might, in solemn cases, be far more numerous, the assessors who acted varying from time to time and from case to case. The Hofgericht was connected with the person of the emperor; it ceased to act when he was abroad; it died with his death. Upon him it depended for its efficiency; and when, in the 15th century, the emperor ceased to command respect, his court lost the confidence of his subjects. The dreary reign of Frederick III. administered its deathblow and after 1450 it ceased to sit. Its place was taken by the Kammergericht, which appeared side by side with the Hofgericht from 1415, and after 1450 replaced it altogether. The king (or his deputy) still presided in the Kammergericht and it was still his personal court; but the members of the court were now officials—the consiliarii of the imperial aula (or Kammer, whence the name of the court). It was generally the legal members of the council who sat in the Kammergericht (see under Aulic Council); and as they were generally doctors of civil law, the court which they composed tended to act according to that law, and thus contributed to the “Reception” of Roman law into Germany towards the end of the 15th century. The old Hofgericht had been filled, as it were, by amateurs (provided they knew some law, and were peers of the person under trial), and it had acted by old customary law; the Kammergericht, on the contrary, was composed of lawyers, and it acted by the written law of Rome. Even the Kammergericht, however, fell into disuse in the later years of the reign of Frederick III.; and the creation of a new and efficient court became a matter of pressing necessity, and was one of the most urgent of the reforms which were mooted in the reign of Maximilian I.
This new court was eventually created in 1495; and it bore the name of Reichskammergericht, or Imperial Chamber. It was distinguished from the old Kammergericht by the essential fact that it was not the personal court of the emperor, but the official court of the Empire (or Reich—whence its name). This change was a natural result of the peculiar character of the movement of reform which was at this time attempted by the electors, under the guidance of Bertold, elector of Mainz. Their aim was to substitute for the old and personal council and court appointed and controlled by the emperor a new and official council, and a new and official court, appointed and controlled by the diet (or rather, in the ultimate resort, by the electors). The members of the Imperial Chamber, which was created by the diet in 1495 in order to serve as such a court, were therefore the agents of the Empire, and not of the emperor. The emperor appointed the president; the Empire nominated the assessors, or judges. There were originally sixteen assessors (afterwards, as a rule, eighteen): half of these were to be doctors of Roman law, while half were to be knights; but after 1555 it became necessary that the latter should be learned in Roman law, even if they had not actually taken their doctorate.
Thus the Empire at last was possessed of a court, a court resting on the enactment of the diet, and not on the emperor’s will; a court paid by the Empire, and not by the emperor; a court resident in a fixed place (until 1693, Spires, and afterwards, from 1693 to 1806, Wetzlar), and not attached to the emperor’s person. The original intention of the court was that it should repress private war (Fehde), and maintain the public peace (Landfriede). The great result which in the issue it served to achieve was the final “Reception” of Roman law as the common law of Germany. That the Imperial Chamber should itself administer Roman law was an inevitable result of its composition; and it was equally inevitable that the composition and procedure of the supreme imperial court should be imitated in the various states which composed the Empire, and that Roman law should thus become the local, as it was already the central, law of the land.
The province of the Imperial Chamber, as it came to be gradually defined by statute and use, extended to breaches of the public peace, cases of arbitrary distraint or imprisonment, pleas which concerned the treasury, violations of the emperor’s decrees or the laws passed by the diet, disputes about property between immediate tenants of the Empire or the subjects of different rulers, and finally suits against immediate tenants of the Empire (with the exception of criminal charges and matters relating to imperial fiefs, which went to the Aulic Council). It had also cognizance in cases of refusal to do justice; and it acted as a court of appeal from territorial courts in civil and, to a small extent, in criminal cases, though it lost its competence as a court of appeal in all territories which enjoyed a privilegium de non appellando (such as, e.g. the territories of the electors). The business of the court was, however, badly done; the delay was interminable, thanks, in large measure, to the want of funds, which prevented the maintenance of the proper number of judges. In all its business it suffered from the competition of the Aulic Council (q.v.); for that body, having lost all executive competence after the 16th century, had also devoted itself exclusively to judicial work. Composed of the personal advisers of the emperor, the Aulic Council did justice on his behalf (the erection of a court to do justice for the Empire having left the emperor still possessed of the right to do justice for himself through his consiliarii); and it may thus be said to be the descendant of the old Kammergericht. The competition between the Aulic Council and the Imperial Chamber was finally regulated by the treaty of Westphalia, which laid it down that the court which first dealt with a case should alone have competence to pursue it.
See R. Schröder, Lehrbuch der deutschen Rechtsgeschichte (Leipzig, 1904); J. N. Harpprecht, Staatsarchiv des Reichskammergerichts (1757–1785); and G. Stobbe, Reichshofgericht und Reichskammergericht (Leipzig, 1878). (E. Br.)
- For instance, all the members of the diet might serve as Urtheilsfinder in a case like the condemnation of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, in the 12th century.
- The attempt to create a new and official council ultimately failed.
- More exactly, the emperor nominates, according to the regular usage of later times, a certain number of members, partly as emperor, and partly as the sovereign of his hereditary estates; while the rest, who form the majority, are nominated partly by the electors and partly by the six ancient circles.