Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806) were elected by a set circle of prince-electors. Among them were both secular electors as well as the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne.

In principle promotion in the ranks of the Roman Catholic church was possible also for commoners also back then. E.g. clearly not all abbots or ordinary bishops where from the (high) nobility, although I assume most archbishops were.

So do we know if all the archbishops who served as (ecclesiastic) prince-electors during the centuries of the empire's existence belonged to noble families by birth (as would seem likely) or were there exceptions (as would seem possible on the face of it)?

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    I spent a lot of time trying to track down your answer, but all of my searching led to dead ends, with no definitive answer gleaned. It appears that little is known of some of the first Archbishop-Electors. I was trying to track down historical details on each archbishop from the three electorates (Mainz, Trier, and Cologne). Particularly in Trier, it seems that John I could very well have been from a 'common' class but little information is available. Here is a great resource discussing actions of the Archbishops: books.google.com/…
    – Courtny
    Feb 28, 2014 at 17:23
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    Thx for your effort! Yes, e.g. this 1881 publication by Bavarian Academy of Science says that he may have been of common descent ("vermutlich bürgerlicher Herkunft"). If you want to post your own findings about John I (1190–1212) as an answer, I'd be happy to upvote: I would not have been able to locate the document without your lead.
    – Drux
    Feb 28, 2014 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


The three ecclesiastic electorates; Trier, Cologne, and Mainz have well documented lists of the Archbishop-Electors who served and at what times. The majority of them in the latter period of the Holy Roman Empire are indeed of noble descent.

However, John I of Trier is presumably to have been of commoner descent, as stated in this 1881 publication by Bavarian Academy of Science.

John I (German: Johann I.) (c. 1140 - 15 July 1212) was the Archbishop of Trier from 1189 until 1212.

From what little is known, John originated from the region around Speyer. In 1173 he appears listed as an archdeacon of Speyer and the provost of St German-Stiftes. From 1186 until 1189 he was the chancellor of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. In September 1189 he was appointed the Archbishop of Trier. Bishop John increased the possessions of the archdiocese during his time by gaining several countships and castles.


John I - The Catholic Encyclopedia

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    +1 but the bold part currently exaggerates evidence a bit: the document states that John I was presumably ("vermutlich") of commoner descent.
    – Drux
    Mar 1, 2014 at 11:03

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