Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

C4. The General Chapter

Rights of the Emperor—Of his Lieutenant—Of the Stuhlherrn, or Tribunal-Lords.

To complete the sketch of the Fehm-tribunals and their proceedings, we must state the rights and powers of the general chapter and of the emperor, his lieutenant, and the tribunal-lords.

The general chapter was a general assembly of the Westphalian tribunal-lords, counts, and schoppen, summoned once a-year by the emperor or his lieutenant. Every count was bound by oath to appear at it. It could only be holden in Westphalia, and almost exclusively at Dortmund or Arensberg. No one could appear at it who was not initiated, not even the emperor himself. The president was the emperor, if present and initiated, otherwise the lieutenant or his substitute.

The business of the general chapter was to inquire into the conduct and proceedings of the different Fehm-courts. The counts were therefore to give an account of all their proceedings during the past year; to furnish a list of the names of the schoppen who had been admitted, as well as of the suits which had been commenced, with the names of the accusers, the accused, the forfehmed, etc. Such counts as had neglected their duty were deposed by the general chapter.

The general chapter was, as we have above observed, a court of appeal from all the Fehm-tribunals. In matters of great importance the decrees of the lower courts were, to give them greater weight, confirmed by the general chapter. It was finally at the general chapter that all regulations, laws, and reformations, concerning the Fehm-law and courts, were made.

The emperor, even when the imperial authority was at the lowest, was regarded in Germany as the fountain of judicial authority. The right of passing capital sentence in particular was considered to emanate either mediately or immediately from him. The Fehm-courts were conspicuous for their readiness to acknowledge him as the source of their authority, and all their decrees were pronounced in his name.

As superior lord and judge of all the counts and tribunals, the emperor had a right of inspection and reformation over them. He could summon and preside in a general chapter; he might enter any court; and the presiding count was obliged to give way and allow him to preside in his stead. He had the power to make new schoppen, provided he did so on Westphalian soil. Every schoppe was moreover bound to give a true answer to the emperor when he asked whether such a one was forfehmed or not, and in what court. He could also depose disobedient counts, but only in Westphalia.

The emperor could even withdraw a cause out of the hands of the tribunals. The right of appeal to him has been already noticed; but, besides this, he had a power of forbidding the count to proceed in the cause when the accused offered himself to him for honour and right; and it was at his own risk then that the count proceeded any further in the business. The emperor could also grant a safe-conduct to any person who might apply for it under apprehension of having been forfehmed, which safe-conduct the schoppen dared not violate. Even when a person had been forfehmed, the emperor could save him by issuing his command to stay execution of the sentence for a hundred years, six weeks, and a day.

It is plain, that, to be able to exercise these rights, the emperor must be himself initiated, for otherwise he could not, for instance, appear where a court was sitting, make alterations in laws with which, if ignorant, he must necessarily be unacquainted, or extend mercy when he could not know who was forfehmed or not. In the laws establishing the rights of the emperor it was therefore always inserted, provided he be initiated, and the acts of uninitiated emperors were by the Fehm-courts frequently declared invalid. The emperor had, therefore, his choice of setting a substitute over the Fehm-courts, or of being himself initiated. The latter course was naturally preferred, and each emperor, at his coronation at Aix-la-Chapelle, was initiated by the hereditary Count of Dortmund. Though Aix-la-Chapelle was not in Westphalia, the law sanctioned this departure from the general rule that frei-schoppen should only be made in that country.

The emperor's lieutenant, who was almost always the Archbishop of Cologne, had the right of confirming such counts as were presented to him by the Tribunal-lords, and of investing them with the powers of life and death. He could also summon general chapters, and preside and exercise the other imperial rights in them. He might decide, with the aid of some schoppen, in cases of appeal to him, without bringing the affair before the general chapter; and he had the power of making schoppen at any tribunal in Westphalia, which proves that, like the emperor, he had free access to them all. Hence it is clear that he also must have been initiated.

The dignity and pre-eminence of the Archbishop of Cologne, when this office had been conferred on him, caused a good deal of envy and jealousy among the lords of Westphalia, who had been hitherto his equals, and who considered themselves equally entitled to it with him. They never let slip an occasion of showing their feelings, and they always had their counts invested by the emperor, and not by the archbishop; nay, there are not wanting instances of their having such counts as he had invested confirmed and re-invested by the emperor.

There now remain only the Tribunal-Lords (Stuhl-herrn) to be considered.

The Tribunal-lord was the lord of the district in which there was a Fehm-tribunal. He might himself, if initiated, become the count of it, having previously obtained the power of life and death from the emperor, or his lieutenant; or, if he did not choose to do so, he might, as we have already seen, present a count to be invested, for whose conduct he was held responsible; and, if the count appointed by him misconducted himself, the Stuhl-herr was liable to a forfeiture of his rights. He was, in consequence, permitted to exercise a right of inspection over the Fehm-courts in his territory; no schoppe could be made, no cause brought into the court, not even a summons issued, without his approbation. There even lay a kind of appeal to him from the sentence of the count; and he could also, like the emperor, withdraw certain persons and causes from his jurisdiction. But as his power did not extend beyond his own territory, the count might refer those causes in which he wished, but was prohibited, to proceed, to the courts in other territories; he might also, if he apprehended opposition from the Tribunal-lord, require him (if initiated) to be present at the proceedings.

The Tribunal-lord, if uninitiated, could, like the emperor in the same case, exercise these powers only by initiated deputies.

The great advantage which resulted from the right of having Fehm-tribunals induced the high lords, both spiritual and temporal, to be very anxious to become possessed of this species of territorial property, and in consequence nearly all the lords in Westphalia had Fehm-tribunals. Even towns, such as Dortmund, Soest, Munster, and Osnabruck, had these tribunals, either within their walls, or in their districts, or their neighbourhood, for it would not have been good policy in them to suffer this sort of Status in Statu, to be independent of their authority.