Electors and Guilds – Was Trier a Free Imperial City?

(1307 to 1580)

  • Trier 1548. View of the city by Sebastian Münster. Photo:  City Archives, Anja Runkel.
    Trier 1548. View of the city by Sebastian Münster. Photo: City Archives, Anja Runkel.
  • The old loading crane (1413) bears witness to brisk trading traffic on the Moselle in the Late Middle Ages.
    The old loading crane (1413) bears witness to brisk trading traffic on the Moselle in the Late Middle Ages.
  • The Steipe at the Main Market (2nd half of the 15th century) was a structure of civic pride, a place for entertaining guests of the city.
    The Steipe at the Main Market (2nd half of the 15th century) was a structure of civic pride, a place for entertaining guests of the city.
  • The Protestant reformer Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587).
    The Protestant reformer Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587).
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In the 13th century, the status of prince-elector evolved in the Holy Roman Empire. From the very beginning, the Archbishop of Trier was a member of this circle of seven princes who exercised the right to elect the German king. Probably the most important of the Trier electors was the Archbishop Balduin of Luxembourg, who ruled from 1307 to 1354. Balduin, on the imperial level an adroit advocate of his dynasty, the House of Luxembourg, is considered the creator of the Trier electoral state, as he increased the territory’s size and introduced efficient administrative structures.

The Trier college of aldermen, which originally exercised a judicial function as judges, evolved into a city council in the 14th century with political duties. At this time, the craftsmen organized in the guilds asserted their influence in this panel. A tax list from 1363 shows that the weavers and the cloth makers were the most prominent trade, followed by the vintners and the tanners. Evidence from the tax list suggests a large population of around 10,000 inhabitants for the Late Middle Ages.

The city aspired to emancipation from the rule of the archbishops in the Late Middle Ages. This self-assurance was expressed in, among other structures, the stately Steipe at the Main Market and in the founding of the university in 1473. Under Emperor Maximilian I, an Imperial Diet convened for the first time in Trier in 1512. This event was to serve as further evidence for the status of a free imperial city as claimed by the city. In 1580, however, the Imperial Court decided against the city’s petition for a status answerable only to the Holy Roman Emperor. Trier remained the capital of the Electoral State of Trier.

Meanwhile, Trier was not spared the conflict in Germany brought about by the Reformation and religious schism. In 1522, the city had to defend itself against the siege by troops of the imperial knight Franz von Sickingen. In 1559, the Calvinist Caspar Olevian, born in Trier-Olewig, attempted to win his home city for the Reformation. He quickly found a great number of followers; even influencial townspeople professed the new faith. However, after the intervention of Archbishop Johann von der Leyen, a majority of the city councilors declared for retaining the Catholic faith. Whoever refused to disavow Protestantism was forced to leave the city. 

Text: Ralph Kießling
Literature: Gabriele Clemens/Lukas Clemens: Geschichte der Stadt Trier, Munich, 2007

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