In the Holy Roman Empire, an Imperial Free City (in German: Freie Reichsstadt) was a city formally responsible to the Emperor only — as opposed to the majority of cities in the Empire, which belonged to a territory and were thus governed by one of the many princes and dukes of the Empire, or the cities that were governed by their bishop.
To be precise, a distinction on paper was made between Imperial Cities (Reichsstädte) and Free Cities (Freie Städte), the latter being a designation for seven important cities each formerly governed by a bishop that had managed to gain independence from their prince-bishop to a degree comparable to the Imperial Cities during the High Middle Ages. They were Basel (date?), Strasbourg (1272), Speyer (1294), Worms (date?), Mainz (1244, revoked 1462), Cologne (1475) and Regensburg (1245). In practice, however, there was little disinction between the Imperial Cities and the Free Cities; the distinctions lay more between rich cities and poor: Lübeck or Augsburg, for examples, were genuinely self-ruling enclaves within the Empire, waging war and making peace, controlling their own trade and permitting little outside interference.
The cities gained (and sometimes lost) their freedom among the vicissitudes of medieval power politics. Some favored cities gained a charter by gift and others were wealthy enough to purchase theirs from a lord in need of cash; some won it by force of arms, others usurped it during times of anarchy; a number of cities secured their freedom through the extinction of dominant families, like the Hohenstaufen.
Free cities might lose their privileges. Some free towns placed themselves voluntarily once more under the protection of a territorial magnate. Some, like Donauwörth in 1607, were stripped of their privileges by the Emperor on genuine or trumped-up offenses, Others were separated from the Empire by conquest: Basel joined with the Swiss Confederation; Besançon passed into the possession of Habsburg Spain; Strasbourg, Colmar, Hagenau and other free cities were seized by the maréchals of Louis XIV.
The most powerful Reichsstädte included Augsburg, Bremen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Lübeck and Nuremberg. In the southwest, which had a more diverse and scattered political structure, many more free cities existed than in the north and in Bavaria, where larger territories had established themselves.
In the later Middle Ages alliances of Free Cities, Städtebunde demonstrated that in unity there is more strength. Free and Imperial Cities were only officially admitted as a Reichsstand to the Reichstag in 1489, and even then their votes were less significant compared to the Benches of the Kurfürsten (Electors) and the Princes. The leagues of cities divided themselves into two groups, or benches, in the Imperial Diet, the Rhenish and the Swabian. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the cities constituted a formal third "college" in the Diet.
The number of Imperial Free Cities varied greatly over the centuries. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica mentions a list drawn up in 1422 with 75 free cities, and another drawn up in 1521 with 84, but at the 1792 Reichstag, a mere 51 cities were left bearing this status, most of them small towns in Swabia. By the reorganization of the Empire in 1803, all of the free cities but six - the Hanseatic cities of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck, and the cities of Frankfurt, Augsburg, and Nuremberg - were eliminated.
Napoléon dissolved the Empire in 1806. By 1811, all of the free cities had been eliminated - Augsburg and Nuremberg had been annexed by Bavaria, Frankfurt had become the center of the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, a Napoleonic puppet state, and the three Hanseatic cities had been directly annexed by France as part of the effort to enforce the Continental Blockade against Britain.
When the German Confederation was established in 1815, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen and Frankfurt were once again recognized as free cities. Frankfurt's freedoms were abrogated, in consequence of the part it took in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and it was annexed by Prussia. The three Hanseatic cities remained as consituent states of the new German Empire, and retained this role in the Weimar Republic and into the Third Reich, although under Hitler this status was purely notional. Due to Hitler's distaste for Lübeck, it was annexed by Prussia in 1937. In the Federal Republic of Germany which was established after the war, Bremen and Hamburg became constituent Länder, a status which they retain to the present day.
Last updated: 08-11-2005 14:53:22