From the 13th century onwards, the Prince-Electors had the privilege of electing the King of the Romans, who would be crowned by the Pope as Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was the last to be a crowned Emperor (elected 1519, crowned 1530); his successors were elected Emperors directly by the electoral college, each being titled "Elected Emperor of the Romans" (German: erwählter Römischer Kaiser; Latin: electus Romanorum imperator). In practice, all but one Emperor (Charles VII from the House of Wittelsbach) from 1440 onwards came from the Austrian House of Habsburg, and the Electors merely ratified the Habsburg succession.
The dignity of Elector carried great prestige and was considered to be second only to that of King or Emperor. The Electors had exclusive privileges that were not shared with the other princes of the Empire, and they continued to hold their original titles alongside that of Elector. The heir apparent to a secular prince-elector was known as an electoral prince (German: Kurprinz).
The German practice of electing monarchs began when ancient Germanic tribes formed ad hoc coalitions and elected the leaders thereof. Elections were irregularly held by the Franks, whose successor states include France and the Holy Roman Empire. The French monarchy eventually became hereditary, but the Holy Roman Emperors remained elective, at least in theory, although the Habsburgs provided most of the later monarchs. While all free men originally exercised the right to vote in such elections, suffrage eventually came to be limited to the leading men of the realm. In the election of Lothar II in 1125, a small number of eminent nobles chose the monarch and then submitted him to the remaining magnates for their approbation.
Soon, the right to choose the monarch was settled on an exclusive group of princes, and the procedure of seeking the approval of the remaining nobles was abandoned. The college of electors was mentioned in 1152 and again in 1198. The composition of electors at that time is unclear, but appears to have included representatives of the church and the dukes of the four nations of Germany: the Franks (Duchy of Franconia), Swabians (Duchy of Swabia), Saxons (Duchy of Saxony) and Bavarians (Duchy of Bavaria).
A letter of Pope Urban IV suggests that by "immemorial custom", seven princes had the right to elect the King and future Emperor. The seven have been mentioned as the vote-casters in the election of 1257 that resulted in two kings becoming elected.