Golden Bull

The Golden Bull, a constitutional settlement presented by Emperor Charles IV, reiterated the power of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

Policies decreed in the Golden Bull of 1356 were intended to resolve constitutional problems remaining from the reign of Charles II’s predecessor as Holy Roman Emperor, Louis the Bavarian Louis IV (king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) (r. 1328-1347), also known as King Louis IV of Germany (r. 1314-1347). These problems concerned disputed claims to certain electorates of the Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire , the powers and functions of the electors, and papal prerogatives to decide the validity of elections and confer imperial authority on the elected candidate. [kw]Golden Bull (January 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356)
[kw]Bull, Golden (January 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356)
Golden Bull of Charles IV (1356)
Germany;Jan. 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356: Golden Bull[2860]
France;Jan. 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356: Golden Bull[2860]
Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356: Golden Bull[2860]
Government and politics;Jan. 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356: Golden Bull[2860]
Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356: Golden Bull[2860]
Religion;Jan. 10, 1356, and December 25, 1356: Golden Bull[2860]
Charles IV

Traditionally, the seven electors of the empire chose one of the German princes as king, who then usually went before the pope to be crowned emperor. After an Avignon pope refused to confirm claim to the emperium, the electors issued, in 1338, the Declaration of Rense Rense, Declaration of (1338) and the ordinance Licet juris proclaiming a prince’s election as German king as tantamount to his election as emperor. Although the electors conceded the pope’s right to crown the emperor, they rejected the assumption that the election required papal confirmation or that the emperor’s authority stemmed from the pope.

During the medieval period, the Holy Roman Empire was beset by the intervention of France and the Avignon Papacy. Behind a Papacy seeking to meddle in imperial elections lurked a French monarch who hoped to secure territorial gains at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire in both the Rhoneland and the Rhineland. Thus Emperor Charles IV’ Charles IV (Holy Roman Emperor) German pacification problem was greatly facilitated by serious French losses at the hands of the English in the opening phases of the Hundred Years’ War which broke out in 1337. The mutual desires of both the Avignon popes and the kings of France to benefit at the expense of imperial Germany thus were less threatening because the Avignon popes were henceforward supported by a weakened France. Avignon Papacy (1305-1378)

Deterioration of Louis’s popularity and support after 1338 finally enabled the Papacy to depose him in favor of the Luxembourger, Charles of Bohemia, in 1346. Charles was elected emperor in July, 1346, but was not formally crowned in Rome by a papal legate until 1355, and only upon renouncing interference in Italian affairs.

One of Charles’s basic intentions was to secure internal peace in Germany. He had already quelled one great disturbing element, the disgruntled Wittelsbach Dynasty Wittelsbach Dynasty , by consolidating his own authority in Germany between 1346 and 1354. By strengthening the electoral process, perhaps future schisms might be contained.

Immediately after returning from Italy, Charles summoned a Reichstag, or diet, at Nuremberg. There, he presented proposals for a constitutional settlement clarifying membership in the electoral college and defining the territorial powers of princes governing territories officially designated as imperial electorates. Accepted by the Reichstag, these proposals were promulgated by Emperor Charles on January 10, 1356; together with a supplement approved by the Reichstag of Metz on December 25 of the same year. These acts comprise the Golden Bull, so called after the golden seal affixed to important imperial documents.

To avoid long disrupting vacancies of the throne, the edict provided that the archbishop of Mainz was to communicate with his fellow electors within one month after the emperor’s death and summon them to appear within three months at Frankfurt to choose a successor. Furthermore, subjects of the Holy Roman Empire were required to facilitate safe passage of the electors. To avoid misunderstandings and bickering, electors who failed to appear or send proxies forfeited their votes. To assure results, electors were required to remain in Frankfurt until they named a successor. If they failed to reach a decision within thirty days, they were to be fed thereafter on bread and water. A majority vote constituted a valid election, which would be declared unanimous so as to preclude double elections.

The Golden Bull reaffirmed the right of the seven traditional electoral princes to choose the German king. The decree designated the seven electors by name and bestowed semiregal autonomy, immune from imperial jurisdiction, upon their principalities. All electoral territories were indivisible and retained their vote permanently. In the case of lay electorates, the law of primogeniture was invoked to exclude rival claimants for the same title and its attendant vote. The electors were granted full right to all metal and salt mines on their lands and to the taxes payable by Jews for protection. The electors also could coin their own money. No appeal would be recognized from an electoral court to any higher court of the empire. Finally, the bull forbade the formation of leagues of cities except under the emperor’s patronage.

Charles IV.

(Library of Congress)

The Golden Bull, seeking to eliminate papal interference in imperial elections and politics, stipulated that a simple majority of the seven votes conferred unqualified authority as emperor from the moment of an emperor’s election. Designation of the count palatine of the Rhine and the duke of Saxony as regents during any interregnum automatically excluded the pope’s claim to act as vicar in such a period. These constitutional procedures of the Golden Bull thus ended the pope’s authority in German affairs. They were Charles’s response to his earlier exclusion by the Papacy from Italy.

The Golden Bull of 1356 had several far-reaching effects on subsequent German history. In the first place, the Holy Roman Empire, by its prior withdrawal from Italy, abandoned its universalism so that by the second half of the fifteenth century it became popular in the Germanies to speak of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Charles IV designed the Golden Bull to strengthen his external position with respect to the pope. Also, recognition of the electors’s sovereignty created a conservative force contributing to maintaining peace among the German states.

The edict did much to undermine the emperor’s internal position, however, because it made the electoral princes the first estate of the empire. Almost immediately, the nonelectoral princes claimed the same sovereign rights, including the principles of indivisibility and primogeniture, enjoyed by the electors. Thus in 1359, Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg Rudolf IV of Habsburg arbitrarily bestowed upon his house the so-called major privileges. Among other things, these privileges made the duchy of Austria Austria an archduchy independent of the empire with the Habsburg lands indivisible. Other states, such Wurtemberg, Lippe, and Baden, soon did the same, adopting the principles of primogeniture and the indivisibility of principalities as well as privileges preventing recourse from electoral courts to the imperial Hoffgerticht. By 1500, most princes managed to consolidate their territorial authority at the expense of the emperor and the local aristocracy. Thus Charles, in his quest for peace, acknowledged the division within Germany and the futility of attempting to maintain a centralized monarchy. The electors of the Holy Roman Empire became upholders of the status quo, working with the emperor to preserve peace within the empire.


The Golden Bull, while containing some innovations, actually legally confirmed historical developments dating from the late eleventh century. Its effect was to accelerate further development of German particularism, thus blocking all attempts to unify Germany until well into the nineteenth century. It can be asserted that historical experiences following the Golden Bull were so firmly rooted in the German memory that they “constituted an iron framework, a mold” so firm that it shaped subsequent German efforts to deal with contemporary problems as late as 1939. The Germany of the First Reich, the Holy Roman Empire, had a direct impact on the attitudes of the late Second and Third Reichs.

Not only did the Golden Bull contain provisions that related to international conditions impinging on Germany but also its ultimate impact was international as it encouraged a shift in the medieval theory of world government. Since 962, the emperor and pope had been, in theory, twin depositories of God’s authority exercised through states. In breaking the imperial and papal interdependence, the ideal of Charlemagne and Otto was relinquished in favor of a secular justification for sovereignty, a move facilitating rationalization of the later system of the authority of states that emerged fully in the seventeenth century.

Further Reading

  • Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Origins of Modern Germany. 3d ed. Oxford, England: B. Blackwell, 1988. Probably the most useful account of German history in the English language.
  • De Booulay, F. R. H. Germany in the Later Middle Ages. London: Athlone Press, 1983. Includes a brief description of the Golden Bull, its purpose, and its result.
  • Detwiler, Donald S. Germany: A Short History. 3d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. A broad survey of German history from antiquity through the twentieth century.
  • Ferguson, Wallace K. Europe in Transition, 1300-1520. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. This study of the Renaissance contains discussions of the background to the Golden Bull.
  • Kitchin, Martin. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Emphasizes cultural as well as political history; easy reading.
  • Schulze, Hagen. Germany: A New History. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Comprehensive history of Germany that begins with a chapter on the Roman Empire and German lands.
  • Scott, Tom. Society and Economy in Germany, 1300-1600. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, this book surveys the political, social, and economic history of late medieval and early modern Germany.
  • Waugh, W. T. “Germany: Charles IV.” In The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 7, edited by J. R. Tanner et al. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1932. Discusses the constitutional problems that Charles IV attempted to resolve in the Golden Bull.