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An Imperial vicar was a prince charged with administering all or part of the Holy Roman Empire on behalf of the Emperor. In the Empire's early centuries, imperial vicars were appointed from time to time to administer one of the Empire's constituent kingdoms of Germany, Italy or Arles. Later, an imperial vicar was invariably one of two princes charged by the Golden Bull with administering the Holy Roman Empire during an interregnum.

The Holy Roman Empire had no fixed law of succession. When a King or Holy Roman Emperor died, if a King of the Romans had not already been elected, there would be no new Emperor for a matter of several months until all the Electors, or their representatives, could assemble for a new Imperial election. During that time, Imperial institutions still required oversight. This was performed by two Imperial vicars. Each vicar, in the words of the Golden Bull, was "the administrator of the empire itself, with the power of passing judgments, of presenting to ecclesiastical benefices, of collecting returns and revenues and investing with fiefs, of receiving oaths of fealty for and in the name of the holy empire". All acts of the vicars were subject to ratification by the elected King or Emperor. On many occasions, however, there was no interregnum, as a new king had been elected during the lifetime of the previous Emperor.

The vicarate came to be associated with two Counts Palatinate: the Duke and Elector of Saxony (who also held the position of Count Palatine of Saxony) was vicar in areas operating under Saxon law (Saxony, Westphalia, Hanover, and northern Germany). The Count Palatine of the Rhine, also an Elector, was vicar in the remainder of the Empire (Franconia, Swabia, the Rhine, and southern Germany). The Golden Bull of 1356 confirmed the position of the two Electors.

Disputes over the Palatine electorate from 1648 to 1777 led to confusion about who the rightful vicar was. In 1623, the Palatine Electorate was transferred to the Duke (and henceforth Elector) of Bavaria. However, in 1648 a new Electorate was created for the restored Count Palatinate of the Rhine, which led to disputes between the two as to which was vicar. In 1659, both purported to act as vicar, but the Saxon vicar recognised the Elector of Bavaria. Later, the two electors made a pact to act as joint vicars, but the Imperial Diet rejected the agreement. In 1711, while the Elector of Bavaria was under the ban of the Empire, the Elector Palatine again acted as vicar, but his cousin was restored to his position upon his restoration three years later. Finally, in 1745, the two agreed to alternate as vicars, with Bavaria starting first. This arrangement was upheld by the Reichstag in 1752. In 1777 the question became moot when the Elector Palatine inherited Bavaria.

During the revolutionary year 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament proclaimed a new German Reich. While they wrote a liberal constitution for the new Reich, they appointed a provisional imperial government, to be headed by an Imperial Vicar. As Imperial Vicar, the parliament chose Archduke John of Austria, a liberal Habsburg and uncle of the Emperor of Austria. John served in this capacity until the collapse in December 1849 of the by now nearly powerless Provisional Central Authority the Frankfurt Parliament had set up.

List of Imperial Vicars 1437-1792

Began Ended Duration Count Palatine of Saxony Count Palatine of the Rhine
9 December 1437
death of Sigismund
18 March 1438
election of Albert II
3 months, 9 days Frederick II, Elector of Saxony Louis IV, Elector Palatine
27 October 1439
death of Albert II
2 February 1440
election of Frederick III
3 months, 6 days
12 January 1519
death of Maximilian I
17 June 1519
election of Charles V
5 months, 5 days Frederick III, Elector of Saxony Louis V, Elector Palatine
20 January 1612
death of Rudolph II
13 June 1612
election of Matthias
4 months, 24 days John George I, Elector of Saxony Frederick V, Elector Palatine
20 March 1619
death of Matthias
28 August 1619
election of Ferdinand II
5 months, 8 days
2 April 1657
death of Ferdinand III
18 July 1658
election of Leopold I
15 months, 16 days John George II, Elector of Saxony Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria
17 April 1711
death of Joseph I
12 October 1711
election of Charles VI
5 months, 25 days Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony John William, Elector Palatine
20 October 1740
death of Charles VI
14 January 1742
election of Charles VII
14 months, 25 days Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria
20 January 1745
death of Charles VII
13 September 1745
election of Francis I
7 months, 24 days Maximilian III, Elector of Bavaria
20 February 1790
death of Joseph II
30 September 1790
election of Leopold II
7 months, 10 days Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria
1 March 1792
death of Leopold II
5 July 1792
election of Francis II
4 months, 4 days
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