Electorate Prince-archbishopric of Trier

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Regional Research > Historical territory > Electorate Prince-archbishopric of Trier


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The electorate-archbishopric of Trier was one of three very important Rhenish ecclesiastical states in western Germany. Along with his counterparts in Köln and Mainz, the elector-archbishop of Trier was one of the empire's seven electors. While Mainz had the senior position in that its elector convoked the election of a new king (or emperor), the archbishop of Trier, by tradition, was the one charged with actually crowning the elected king, a position of some power in that his theoretical ability to refuse crowning usually allowed him to secure certain concessions from the new monarch.

The historical archbishopric included Metz, Toul, Verdun, Nancy and St. Die (now in France) in the west and areas over the Rhine River up to Giessen. The state (Kurfürstentum) was smaller in the 18th century, the area was divided in several parts (not always connected together).


Augusta Treverorum (Trier) was founded in the course of a reorganization of the Roman Prefecture Galliarum under Emperor Augustus around 16 B.C. at the confluence of long distance roads and waterways. By the year 180, the city was surrounded by a wall and trade, administration and culture boomed, only being interrupted for a short time, when the city was destroyed by Alemanns and Franks in the year 275. Only 12 years later the city, which was now called Treveris was the residence from the emperor. The northern town-gate (Latin Porta Nigra or the black gate), which is 118 feet long, 98 feet high and up to 70 feet broad.

From 293 Trier was the capital city of the West Roman Empire under emperor Diocletian (Latin Diocletianus, Roman Emperor 284-305). Diocletian persecuted the Christians in the years 303-304. His successor, Constantine the Great politically used the Christians against his opponents, and to protect them issued in 313 an edict of tolerance from Milan. Christianity was the religion in the Roman empire after 391.

At one point, with a population of 60-70,000, the Roman city of Treverorum was the largest city (1.1 square miles) in the Empire outside of Rome itself and the fourth largest in the western hemisphere (after Rome, Alexandria and Byzantium (Constantinople)). After the bishopric was established in the 4th century, the city was the capital of Galliarum.

Administration of the Prefecture later departed to Arles and after the emperor's residence moved to Milan, Trier lost its dominance.

Attacks by German tribes around 475 brought the collapse of the Roman military organization. Trier came into the control of the Franks, a Germanic tribe, which under Clovis were converted after their victory over the Alemanns in the year 496 to Roman Christianity.

Trier became an archbishopric starting in 815, following by only fifteen years the coronation of Charlemagne as Western Emperor. After Charlemagne's death, he was succeeded by his third son Louis the Pious (814-840). After his death the Franks were divided in three parts in the Treaty of Verdun 843:

  • Western part = under Charles, the Bald
  • Eastern part = under Lothar, the German
  • Lotharingia = a long, narrow, in-between kingdom including Burgundy and Italy under Lothar

Trier was now a part from Lotharingia, which was divided in the year 870 (Treaty of Mersen) and again in the year 880 (Treaty of Ribemont) between the French and German Carolingian kingdoms. The city whose name was by now corrupted to Trier (or Trèves) was destroyed again in 882, this time by the Normans. Rebuilding was followed by a royal donation of market and mint. In 936, the archbishop of Trier acquired the unwritten right to crown the German king.

In the late 12th century the archbishop became one of the electors, with the title Kurfürst, and the region under his suzerainty became known as the Kurtrier. At its height this constituted over 150 square miles with a population of almost 300,000 people. In 1212 the city of Trier itself gained the status of a Reichsstadt or free city beholden only to the emperor, and not to the elector-archbishop. This is demonstrative both of the rise of the merchant class at that time who were strong enough to evade the taxation of the nobility as well as the financial weakness of the monarchy which needed the cities for the income they could provide. But by the beginning of the 14th century, the city lost this status (probably because of a strong archbishop) for a while, until it could be regained in the 15th century. This seesaw battle continued, however, and in 1580 Trier was made an official kurfürstliche Landstadt as the power of the monarchy gradually faded.

Following the Reformation and surrounded by a sea of protestantism, the archbishopric gradually came under the sway of Catholic France. This occurred mainly because the archbishopric was under threat from Swedish forces during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and France was the only local power who could offer any real protection.

In 1684, on the legally-unfounded pretext of claiming an inheritance in the name of his sister-in-law, the duchesses Liselotte of Orlèans (sister of the last elector from the Palatine) for the territories Germersheim, Lautern, Simmern and Sponheim in the Palatine, King Louis XIV sent the French army over the border. Mainz and Trier fell and the four electorates and the entire Palatine was taken within a few weeks.

Then followed the Palatine War (1688-97). Because the German emperor and the empire did not alone have the power to fight against him (after the liberation from Vienna from the Turkish army) in 1689 the Netherlands, England, Sweden and in 1690 also Spain and Savoy also joined the war against France. France was now isolated and old alliance partners became bitter enemies.

The French war-minister Louvois recalled the French army, which by this time was already in Swabia, the army depredating the undefended country on its retreat. After the conclusion of peace in 1697, France returned all the territories except the Alsace. After the occupations of the Thirty Years War and the destruction of the French wars, Trier had only a population of 2677 inhabitants in the year 1697.

Between 1794 and 1801 all the land west of the Rhine was absorbed by France as her revolutionary armies streamed over the borders. This ended the electorate, which had actually ceased to have real electoral powers since the end of the Thirty Years War. The city of Trier also went to France, remaining under its control until 1814. In 1803 as part of the Reichdeputationhauptschluss, the archbishopric was secularized along with all the other ecclesiastical states. The property to the east of the Rhine became part of the state of Nassau-Weilburg. In 1806 some of that territory was given to the Grandduchy of Berg.

The Peace of Vienna rearrangements of 1815 gave most of Trier, including the city of Trier, to Prussia. The bishopric was reformed in 1821. The rest of the archbishopric was added to Prussia following the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 when it incorporated Nassau.


  • Bistumsarchiv und Kirchenbuchamt Trier, Jesuitenstr. 13b, 54290 Trier, GERMANY

Has records on the Catholic church registers from the former Prussian part of the Rhineland-Palatinate. Bestandsverzeichnis: Günther Molz, Bestand an katholischen Kirchenbüchern im Bistumsarchiv Trier, 1975


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