The Prince-Bishop

The Prince-Bishop Albero of Trier

Archbishop Albero von Montreuil – Archbishop of Trier in Lorraine from 1131 to 1152 – was an energetic Prince-Bishop involved in the Church reform, imperial politics and territorial rule.

This Prince-Prelate often worked with Pope Innocent II, Pope Eugene II and St. Bernard of Clairvaux to defend the independence of the Church.

He clashed with the Emperors Henry V and Lothar III, and helped elect King Conrad III of Germany to maintain the Church’s freedom.

He lived in the aftermath of the Investiture Controversy of 1076-1122. This conflict between the Church and the German Emperor centered on the question of who should control the appointment of Bishops and invest them with their powers.

The motto of the reform movement was libertas Ecclesiae, or liberty for the Church. Tensions between the temporal and spiritual powers remained high even after the Concordat of Worms in 1122, and Albero quickly established himself as a champion of the papal party.

As a Prince-Bishop, Albero directed the spiritual affairs of the Church in Trier while exercising political rule over the principality. In the latter role, he led and commanded armies of men. His exploits were recorded in Balderich’s Gesta Alberonis, or the Deeds of Albero, which presents a fascinating record of a 12th-century clerical hero, a Bishop who took up arms to defend the territory under his political rule and the privileges of the Church.

Portrait of the famous ministerial Ulrich von Liechtenstein (1200–1275) from the Codex Manesse


Comprising a class unique to medieval Germany, the ministeriales (Latin ministeriales; German Dienstmänner, or men in service) arose out of the uncertainties of the post-Carolingian period, as various German magnates sought to find a remedy for their labor needs in a number of areas, including administration, personal bodyguard, and military operations. Opting against the free nobility, whom they considered too independent and thus less reliable, great churches of the tenth century turned to the unfree peasantry for such individuals. Since the ministeriales were unfree, they remained obligated to serve their lord, but they could also be granted to other lords; yet they were more than mere serfs. They were trained as warriors and endowed with both allods (ceded land) and fiefs from which they supported themselves in a manner similar to feudal vassals. References to such individuals are found at the beginning of the eleventh century in narrative sources, while texts from the 1020s regulate their rights and duties.

Under the Salian kings and continuing into the Hohenstaufen epoch, secular rulers turned to extensive use of ministeriales as well. Conrad II (1024–1039), in his efforts to establish a strong royal authority independent of the lay nobility, relied heavily on the ministeriales, while the growing power and influence of the ministeriales at the courts of Henry III (1039–1056) and Henry IV (1056–1106) caused great antagonism toward the kings by the nobles, which lasted into the reign of Henry V (1106–1125). Yet, despite princely opposition to the use of ministeriales to exclude them from participation in the governance of the empire, the status of the ministerial class improved during the era of the Investiture Controversy and the accompanying civil war. In time, many lay princes and lesser nobles acquired ministeriales as well.

Although the vast majority of the ministerial families remained modestly successful, the career of the imperial ministerial Werner II of Bolanden demonstrates the heights to which some of them rose. This man not only served Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, but he also owed service to forty-five other lords from whom he held property; he possessed seventeen castles, and he was the lord of eleven hundred knights. A descendant of his became archbishop of Mainz in the mid-thirteenth century. Equally successful was Markward of Anweiler, whom Henry VI had earlier manumitted and created duke of Ravenna and the Romagna, and to whom Henry in 1197, just prior to his death, entrusted the regency of Sicily; in short, the future of Henry’s young son Frederick was placed in the hands of this loyal retainer.

After the collapse of the Hohenstaufen empire, the imperial ministeriales formed the unruly estate of the imperial knights (Reichsritterschaft). In many thirteenth-century German dioceses, cathedral canons of ministerial origin openly challenged older families of the higher nobility for the highest ecclesiastical offices. Thus, in Trier we find the family of de Ponte (von der Brücke) competing with the counts of Wied; at Speyer, Conrad of Daun (de Tanne) became bishop in 1233; while at Worms, Conrad of Dürkheim succeeded to the bishop’s chair in 1247. Other members of various ministerial families married into the high nobility; in numerous cases we find them merging into the urban patriciate (ruling class) as well.


The diocese is a telling marker of the decline of the Roman Empire, the concomitant rise of Christianity, and the growth of medieval Germany. Originally an occasional unit of Roman civil administration, the diocese was employed by Diocletian (284-305) in his reorganization of the empire when, on top of the existing provincial structure, he added four prefectures and twelve dioceses. As the emperors of the following century adopted Christianity as the sole official religion of the empire, what had been largely an urban religion now necessarily had to expand into the countryside (pagus) to embrace the pagani (pagans) living there. And in the rapidly disintegrating West in particular, bishops came to govern these areas increasingly called “dioceses,” although these were much smaller than those of Diocletian.

The original eight dioceses of what later became medieval Germany were largely defined by the outer limits of Roman occupation, in a line along the Rhine running from Constance to Cologne and including Trier on the Moselle. According to tradition, bishops are attested in all these cities in the fourth century. While it is unclear whether Augsburg had bishops this early, in these cities it is problematical whether bishops continued to rule during the disasters of the fifth and sixth centuries. Continuity does exist from the seventh century onward here as well as in Augsburg, Brixen, and Regensburg. Thereafter the progress was steady and marched pari passu (side by side) with the work of conversion and, increasingly, of conquest conducted by both the Franks and the Bavarians. Thus around 700 Salzburg came into being, and in the eighth century the Bavarian dioceses of Freising, Passau, Würzburg, Eichstätt, and Bremen were founded. In the ninth no fewer than eight new dioceses were created, and at least another ten in the tenth. To provide order for this extraordinary growth, metropolitan or archiepiscopal sees were established de novo (as new) or by elevation of existing bishoprics: Mainz, Salzburg, Trier, and Cologne between circa 780 and 800; Hamburg-Bremen in 848; and Magdeburg by 968. New dioceses continued to be founded into the thirteenth century as expansion into Scandinavian and especially Slavic lands continued. Thus for the Teutonic Knights (Die Deutschorden) Prussia was divided in 1243 into four exempt dioceses whose bishops were completely subject to the order. But elsewhere the outer limits of the German church and empire had already been demarcated by the popes’ creation between circa 1000 and 1164 of archdioceses and primatial (church officials’) sees for Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Significantly, however, the diocese of Prague, created in 973, remained in the province of Mainz until its separation and elevation to an archbishopric in 1344-a clear sign of the special place of the kingdom of Bohemia in the empire.

By 1500 there were about sixty dioceses in Germany. It is difficult to be precise about the number, for much depends on whether one counts exempt dioceses and especially those in the penumbra of the empire (e. g., Metz, Toul, Verdun, Besançon, Breslau). Although German dioceses varied greatly in size, they were on average much larger than those in Italy (where there were nearly 250) or even England (17). Even more distinctive was the fact that from the High Middle Ages about four dozen of them developed into prince-bishoprics whose incumbents ruled both dioceses as bishops and territories (usually called Hochstifte, Erzstifte in the case of archbishoprics) as princes. Dioceses and Hochstifte were never coterminous, and in the case of Constance the bishop ruled the largest diocese and one of the smallest Hochstifte in the empire. This disparity became increasingly significant in the fourteenth and especially the fifteenth centuries with the progressive extension of princely power over the church. In those regions where one form or another of “Reformation” was introduced in the sixteenth century, the “diocese” subject to Catholic bishops came to be effectively restricted to the confines of the Hochstifte until the end of the Old Reich (empire).

BIBLIOGRAPHY Gatz, Erwin, and Clemens Brotkorb, ed. Die Bischöfe des Heiligen Römischen Reiches 1448 bis 1648. Ein biographisches Lexikon. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1996. Hauck, Albert. Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands. 5 vols. in 6, 1911-1929; rpt. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1954. Jedin, Hubert, et al., eds. Atlas zur Kirchengeschichte. Freiburg: Herder, 1970. Bosl, Karl. Die Reichsministerialität der Salier und Staufer, 2 vols. Stuttgart: Hiersmann, 1950–1951. Pötter, Wilhelm. Die Ministerialität der Erzbischöfe von Köln vom Ende des 11. bis zum Ausgang des 13. Jahrhunderts, Studien zur kölner Kirchengeschichte 9. Düsseldorf: Schwann 1967. Schulz, Knut. Ministerialität und Bürgertum in Trier. Rheinisches Archiv 66. Bonn: Röhrscheid, 1968.