The election of a Holy Roman Emperor was generally a two-stage process whereby, from at least the 13th century, the King of the Romans was elected by a small body of the greatest princes of the Empire, the prince-electors. This was then followed shortly thereafter by his coronation as Emperor, an appointment that was normally for life. In 1356, the Emperor Charles IV promulgated the Golden Bull, which became the fundamental law by which all future kings and emperors were elected. After 1508, the Pope recognized election alone to be sufficient for the use of the Imperial title. The last papal coronation took place in 1530.
Although the Holy Roman Empire is perhaps the best-known example of an elective monarchy, from 1438 to 1740, a Habsburg was always elected emperor, the throne becoming de facto hereditary. During that period, the emperor was elected from within the House of Habsburg.
The Königswahl was the election of royal candidates in the Holy Roman Empire and its predecessors as king by a specified elective body (the Gremium). Whilst the succession to the throne of the monarch in most cultures is governed by the rules of hereditary succession, there are also elective monarchies.
There were elective monarchies in several Germanic successor states after the collapse of the Roman Empire during the Migration Period, the Early Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland from 1573 to 1795 (see History of Poland, period of the Aristocratic Republic).
From the 13th century, the right to elect kings in the Holy Roman Empire was granted to a limited number of imperial princes, the so called prince-electors. There are various theories over the emergence of their exclusive election right.
The secular electoral seats were hereditary. However, spiritual electors (and other prince-(arch)bishops) were usually elected by the cathedral chapters as religious leaders, but simultaneously ruled as monarch (prince) of a territory of imperial immediacy (which usually comprised a part of their diocesan territory). Thus the prince-bishoprics were elective monarchies too. The same holds true for prince-abbeys, whose prince-abbesses or prince-abbots were elected by a college of clerics and imperially appointed as princely rulers in a pertaining territory.
- The Prince-Archbishop of Mainz
- Coat of arms of the Archbishopric of Cologne The Prince-Archbishop of Cologne
- Coat of arms of the Archbishopric of Trier The Prince-Archbishop of Trier
- Coat of arms of the Kingdom of Bohemia The King of Bohemia, of the House of Luxembourg at the time of the Golden Bull, but from 1526 onward ruled by the House of Habsburg. The Bohemian crown itself was also theoretically elective, but under the Habsburgs it became hereditary de facto.
- Coat of arms of the Electorate of the Palatinate The Count Palatine of the Rhine, throughout the entire period a member of the House of Wittelsbach
- Coat of arms of Saxony The Duke of Saxony, from 1356 a member of the House of Ascania; from 1423, a member of the House of Wettin
- Coat of arms of Brandenburg The Margrave of Brandenburg, from 1356 a member of the House of Wittelsbach; from 1373, a member of the House of Luxembourg; from 1415, a member of the House of Hohenzollern.
Later additions to the electoral council were:
- Coat of arms of Bavaria The Duke of Bavaria; of another branch of the House of Wittelsbach.
- Coat of arms of Hanover The Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (also known as the Elector of Hanover) of the House of Welf. From 1714 the Duke was also the King of Great Britain.
- Heinrich Mitteis: Die deutsche Königswahl. Ihre Rechtsgrundlagen bis zur Goldenen Bulle. 2. erweiterte Auflage. Rohrer, Brünn u. a. 1944.
- Eduard Hlawitschka: Königswahl und Thronfolge in fränkisch-karolingischer Zeit, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1975, ISBN: 3-534-04685-4
- Ulrich Schmidt: Königswahl und Thronfolge im 12. Jahrhundert. Böhlau, Cologne, etc.. 1987, ISBN: 3-412-04087-8
, (Forschungen zur Kaiser- und Papstgeschichte des Mittelalters. Beihefte zu J. F. Böhmer, Regesta Imperii 7), (Zugleich: Tübingen, Univ., Diss., 1985).
- Gerhard Baaken, Roderich Schmidt: Königtum, Burgen und Königsfreie. Königsumritt und Huldigungen in ottonisch-salischer Zeit. 2nd edn. Thorbecke, Sigmaringen, 1981, ISBN: 3-799-56606-6
(Konstanzer Arbeitskreis für mittelalterliche Geschichte e.V. (publ.): Vorträge und Forschungen 6).
- The Holy Roman Empire at Heraldica.org.