The Info List - Imperial Free City

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In the Holy Roman Empire, the collective term free and imperial cities (German: Freie und Reichsstädte), briefly worded free imperial city (Freie Reichsstadt, Latin: urbs imperialis libera), was used from the fifteenth century to denote a self-ruling city that had a certain amount of autonomy and was represented in the Imperial Diet. An imperial city held the status of Imperial immediacy, and as such, was subordinate only to the Holy Roman Emperor, as opposed to a territorial city or town (Landstadt) which was subordinate to a territorial prince – be it an ecclesiastical lord (prince-bishop, prince-abbot) or a secular prince (duke (Herzog), margrave, count (Graf), etc.).


1 Origin 2 Distinction between free imperial cities and other cities 3 Organization

3.1 Rhenish Bench 3.2 Swabian Bench

4 Development 5 See also 6 Notes 7 References

Origin[edit] The evolution of some German cities into self-ruling constitutional entities of the Empire was slower than that of the secular and ecclesiastical princes. In the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, some cities were promoted by the emperor to the status of Imperial Cities (Reichsstädte; Urbes imperiales), essentially for fiscal reasons. Those cities, which had been founded by the German kings and emperors in the 10th through 13th centuries and had initially been administered by royal/imperial stewards (Vögte), gradually gained independence as their city magistrates assumed the duties of administration and justice; some prominent examples are Colmar, Haguenau
and Mulhouse
in Alsace
or Memmingen
and Ravensburg
in upper Swabia. The Free Cities (Freie Städte; Urbes liberae) were those, such as Basel, Augsburg, Cologne
or Strasbourg, that were initially subjected to a prince-bishop and, likewise, progressively gained independence from that lord. In a few cases, such as in Cologne, the former ecclesiastical lord continued to claim the right to exercise some residual feudal privileges over the Free City, a claim that gave rise to constant litigation almost until the end of the Empire. Over time, the difference between Imperial Cities and Free Cities became increasingly blurred, so that they became collectively known as "Free Imperial Cities", or "Free and Imperial Cities", and by the late 15th century many cities included both "Free" and "Imperial" in their name.[1] Like the other Imperial Estates, they could wage war, make peace, and control their own trade, and they permitted little interference from outside. In the later Middle Ages, a number of Free Cities formed City
Leagues (Städtebünde), such as the Hanseatic League or the Alsatian Décapole, to promote and defend their interests.

Rottweil, c. 1435. Swabian Rottweil
maintained its independence up to the mediatization of 1802–03.

In the course of the Middle Ages, cities gained, and sometimes — if rarely — lost, their freedom through the vicissitudes of power politics. Some favored cities gained a charter by gift. Others purchased one from a prince in need of funds. Some won it by force of arms during the troubled 13th and 14th centuries and others lost their privileges during the same period by the same way. Some cities became free through the void created by the extinction of dominant families, like the Swabian Hohenstaufen. Some voluntarily placed themselves under the protection of a territorial ruler and therefore lost their independence. A few, like Protestant Donauwörth, which in 1607 was annexed to the Catholic Duchy of Bavaria, were stripped by the Emperor of their status as a Free City
— for genuine or trumped-up reasons. However, this rarely happened after the Reformation, and of the sixty Free Imperial Cities that remained at the Peace of Westphalia, all but the ten Alsatian cities (which were annexed by France during the late 17th century) continued to exist until the mediatization of 1803. Distinction between free imperial cities and other cities[edit] There were approximately four thousand towns and cities in the Empire, although around the year 1600 over nine-tenths of them had fewer than one thousand inhabitants.[2] During the late Middle Ages, fewer than two hundred of these places ever enjoyed the status of Free Imperial Cities, and some of those did so only for a few decades. The military tax register (Reichsmatrikel) of 1521 listed eighty-five such cities, and this figure had fallen to sixty-five by the time of the Peace of Augsburg
in 1555. From the Peace of Westphalia
Peace of Westphalia
of 1648 to 1803, their number oscillated at around fifty.[3]

Partial list of the Free Imperial Cities of Swabia
based on the Reichsmatrikel of 1521. It indicates the number of horsemen (left hand column) and infantry (right hand column) which each Imperial Estate had to contribute to the defence of the Empire

Unlike the Free Imperial Cities, the second category of towns and cities, now called "territorial cities"[4] were subject to an ecclesiastical or lay lord, and while many of them enjoyed self-government to varying degrees, this was a precarious privilege which might be curtailed or abolished according to the will of the lord.[5] Reflecting the extraordinarily complex constitutional set-up of the Holy Roman Empire, a third category, composed of semi-autonomous cities that belonged to neither of those two types, is distinguished by some historians. These were cities whose size and economic strength was sufficient to sustain a substantial independence from surrounding territorial lords for a considerable time, even though no formal right to independence existed. These cities were typically located in small territories where the ruler was weak.[6] They were nevertheless the exception among the multitude of territorial towns and cities. Cities of both latter categories normally had representation in territorial diets, but not in the Imperial Diet.[7][8] Organization[edit] Free imperial Cities were not officially admitted as own Imperial Estates to the Imperial Diet until 1489, and even then their votes were usually considered only advisory (votum consultativum) compared to the Benches of the electors and princes. The cities divided themselves into two groups, or benches, in the Imperial Diet, the Rhenish and the Swabian Bench.[9] Toward the end of the Holy Roman Empire, there were 50 such Free Cities, several no larger than small towns:[10] Rhenish Bench[edit]

 Cologne  Aachen Lübeck Worms Speyer Frankfurt Goslar Bremen  Hamburg Mühlhausen Nordhausen  Dortmund Friedberg Wetzlar

Swabian Bench[edit]

Regensburg Augsburg  Nuremberg Ulm Esslingen am Neckar Reutlingen Nördlingen Rothenburg ob der Tauber Hall (today Schwäbisch Hall) Rottweil Überlingen Heilbronn Gmünd (today Schwäbisch Gmünd) Memmingen Lindau Dinkelsbühl Biberach an der Riß Ravensburg Schweinfurt Kempten im Allgäu Windsheim Kaufbeuren Weil Wangen im Allgäu Isny im Allgäu Pfullendorf Offenburg Leutkirch im Allgäu Wimpfen Weißenburg im Nordgau Giengen Gengenbach Zell am Harmersbach Buchhorn (today Friedrichshafen) Aalen Bopfingen

By the time of the Peace of Westphalia, the cities constituted a formal third "college" and their full vote (votum decisivum) was confirmed, although they failed to secure parity of representation with the two other colleges. To avoid the possibility that they would have the casting vote in case of a tie between the Electors and the Princes, it was decided that these should decide first and consult the cities afterward.[11][12] Despite this somewhat unequal status of the cities in the functioning of the Imperial Diet, their full admittance to that federal institution was crucial in clarifying their hitherto uncertain status and in legitimizing their permanent existence as full-fledged Imperial Estates. Constitutionally, if in no other way, the diminutive Free Imperial City
of Isny was the equal of the Margraviate of Brandenburg. Development[edit] Having probably learned from experience that there was not much to gain from active, and costly, participation in the Imperial Diet's proceedings due to the lack of empathy of the princes, the cities made little use of their representation in that body. By about 1700, almost all the cities with the exception of Nuremberg, Ulm
and Regensburg (where by then the Perpetual Imperial Diet
Perpetual Imperial Diet
was located), were represented by various Regensburg
lawyers and officials who often represented several cities simultaneously.[13] Instead, many cities found it more profitable to maintain agents at the Aulic Council
Aulic Council
in Vienna, where the risk of an adverse judgment posed a greater risk to city treasuries and independence.[14]

Weissenburg-im-Nordgau in 1725

Audience of the Reichskammergericht
in Wetzlar, 1750. The Imperial city was saved from oblivion in 1689 when it was decided to move the Imperial Chamber Court to Wetzlar
from Speyer, too exposed to French aggression.

of the free imperial city of Mühlhausen

with its outlying exclaves

Württemberg more than doubled its size when it absorbed some 15 Free Cities (in orange) and other territories during the mediatisations of 1803 and 1806.

The territory of most Free Imperial Cities was generally quite small but there were exceptions, such as Ulm, Nuremberg
and Hamburg, which possessed substantial hinterlands or fiefs that comprised dozens of villages and thousands of subject peasants who did not enjoy the same rights as the urban population. At the opposite end, the authority of Cologne, Aachen, Worms, Goslar, Wetzlar, Augsburg
and Regensburg barely extended beyond the city walls. The constitution of Free and Imperial Cities was republican in form, but in all but the smallest cities, the city government was oligarchic in nature with a governing town council composed of an elite, hereditary patrician class, the so-called town council families (Ratsverwandte). They were the most economically significant burgher families who had asserted themselves politically over time. Below them, with a say in the government of the city (there were exceptions, such as Nuremberg, where the patriciate ruled alone), were the citizens or burghers, the smaller, privileged section of the city's permanent population whose number varied according to the rule of citizenship of each city. To the common town dweller – whether he lived in a prestigious Free Imperial City
like Frankfurt, Augsburg
or Nuremberg, or in a small market town such as there were hundreds throughout Germany – attaining burgher status (Bürgerrecht) could be his greatest aim in life. The burgher status was usually an inherited privilege renewed pro-forma in each generation of the family concerned but it could also be purchased. At times, the sale of burgher status could be a significant item of town income as fiscal records show. The Bürgerrecht was local and not transferable to another city. The burghers were usually the lowest social group to have political power and privilege within the Holy Roman Empire. Below them was the disenfranchised urban population, maybe half of the total in many cities, the so-called "residents" (Beisassen) or "guests": smaller artisans, craftsmen, street venders, day laborers, servants and the poor, but also those whose residence in the city was temporary, such as wintering noblemen, foreign merchants, princely officials, and so on.[15] Urban conflicts in Free Imperial Cities, which sometimes amounted to class warfare, were not uncommon in the Early Modern Age, particularly in the 17th century (Lübeck, 1598–1669; Schwäbisch Hall, 1601–1604; Frankfurt, 1612–1614; Wezlar, 1612–1615; Erfurt, 1648–1664; Cologne, 1680–1685; Hamburg
1678–1693, 1702–1708).[16] Sometimes, as in the case of Hamburg
in 1708, the situation was considered sufficiently serious to warrant the dispatch of an Imperial commissionner with troops to restore order and negotiate a compromise and a new city constitution between the warring parties.[17] The number of Imperial Cities shrank over time until the Peace of Westphalia. There were more in areas that were very fragmented politically, such as Swabia
and Franconia in the southwest, than in the North and the East where the larger and more powerful territories, such as Brandenburg and Saxony, were located, which were more prone to absorb smaller, weaker states. In the 16th and 17th century, a number of Imperial Cities were separated from the Empire due to external territorial change. Henry II of France seized the Imperial Cities connected to the Three Bishoprics of Metz, Verdun
and Toul. Similarly, Louis XIV seized many cities based on claims produced by his Chambers of Reunion. That way, Strasbourg
and the ten cities of the Décapole
were annexed. Also, when the Old Swiss Confederacy
Old Swiss Confederacy
gained its formal independence from the Empire in 1648 (it had been de facto independent since 1499), the independence of the Imperial Cities of Basel, Bern, Lucerne, St. Gallen, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, and Zürich
was formally recognized.

Obernstraße, Free City
of Bremen, 1843

Frankfurt, c. 1911. After more than 600 years as a Free City, Frankfurt
am Main was annexed to Prussia
in 1866

With the rise of Revolutionary France in Europe, this trend accelerated enormously. After 1795, the areas west of the Rhine were annexed to France by the revolutionary armies, suppressing the independence of Imperial Cities as diverse as Cologne, Aachen, Speyer and Worms. Then, the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleonic Wars
led to the reorganization of the Empire in 1803 (see German Mediatisation), where all of the free cities but six — Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Frankfurt, Augsburg, and Nuremberg
— lost their independence and were absorbed into neighboring territories. Finally, under pressure from Napoleon, the Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire
was dissolved in 1806. By 1811, all of the Imperial Cities had lost their independence — 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 its effort to enforce the Continental Blockade against Britain. Hamburg
and Lübeck with surrounding territories formed the département of Bouches-de-l'Elbe, and Bremen the Bouches-du-Weser. When the German Confederation
German Confederation
was established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, and Frankfurt
were once again made Free Cities, this time enjoying total sovereignty as all the members of the loose Confederation. Frankfurt
was annexed by Prussia
in consequence of the part it took in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The three other Free Cities became constituent states of the new German Empire
German Empire
in 1871 and consequently were no longer fully sovereign as they lost control over defence, foreign affairs and a few other fields. They retained that status in the Weimar Republic
Weimar Republic
and into the Third Reich, although under Hitler it became purely notional. Due to Hitler's distaste for Lübeck[18] and its liberal tradition, the need was devised to compensate Prussia
for territorial losses under the Greater Hamburg
Act, and Lübeck
was annexed to Prussia
in 1937. In the Federal Republic of Germany
Federal Republic of Germany
which was established after the war, Bremen and Hamburg
became constituent states, a status which they retain to the present day. Berlin, which had never been a Free City
in its history, also received the status of a state after the war due to its special position in divided post-war Germany. Regensburg
was, apart from hosting the Imperial Diet, a most peculiar city: an officially Lutheran city that nevertheless was the seat of the Catholic prince-bishopric of Regensburg, its prince-bishop and cathedral chapter. The Imperial City
also housed three Imperial abbeys: St. Emmeram, Niedermünster and Obermünster. They were five immediate entities fully independent of each other existing in the same small city.


Rothenburg in 1572 

Lubeca urbs imperialis libera – Free Imperial City
of Lübeck 

See also[edit]

Free city (antiquity) Imperial immediacy List of Free Imperial Cities Lübeck
law Royal free city


^ Whaley, vol.1, p. 26. ^ John G. Gagliardo, Germany under the Old Regime, 1600–1790, Longman, London and New York, 1991, p. 4. ^ This figure does not include the ten cities of the Décapole, which, while still formally independent from 1648 to 1679, had been placed under the heavy-handed 'protection' of the French king. ^ 'Territorial city' is a term used by modern historians to denote any German city or town that was not a Free Imperial City. ^ Gagliardo, p. 5 ^ Examples of such cities were Lemgo
(county of Lippe), Gütersloh (county of Bentheim) and Emden
(county of East Frisia). ^ Joachim Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 250, 510, 532. ^ Gagliardo, pp 6–7. ^ All the cities of Southern Germany (located in the Swabian, Franconian and Bavarian circles) belonged to the Swabian bench, while all the others belonged to Rhenish bench, even cities such as Lübeck and Hamburg
that were quite far from the Rhineland. ^ The cities are listed according to their voting order on the two benches of the College of Towns of the Imperial Diet of 1792. G. Benecke, Society and Politics in Germany, 1500–1750, Routledge & Kegan Paul and University of Toronto Press, London, Toronto and Buffalo, 1974, Appendix III. ^ Whaley, vol. 1, pp. 532–533. ^ Peter H. Wilson, The Holy Roman Empire, 1495–1806, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, p. 66 ^ Whaley, vol. 2, p. 210. ^ Whaley, vol. 2, p. 211. ^ G. Benecke, p. 162. ^ Franck Lafage, Les comtes Schönborn, 1642–1756, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2008, vol. II, p. 319. ^ Franck Lafage, p. 319–323 ^ Lubeck, Europe à la Carte


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wood, James, ed. (1907). "article name needed". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne. 

v t e

of the Holy Roman Empire

Alliance of ten Imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire
in the Alsace region 1354-1679

Founding cities

Haguenau Colmar Wissembourg Turckheim Obernai Kaysersberg Rosheim Munster Sélestat Mulhouse

Other cities

Landau Seltz


v t e

Free imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire

By 1792

Aachen Aalen Augsburg Biberach Bopfingen BremenH Buchau Buchhorn CologneH Dinkelsbühl DortmundH Eßlingen Frankfurt Friedberg Gengenbach Giengen GoslarH HamburgH Heilbronn Isny Kaufbeuren Kempten Kessenich Leutkirch Lindau LübeckH Memmingen Mühlhausen MülhausenD, S Nordhausen Nördlingen Nuremberg Offenburg Pfullendorf Ravensburg Regensburg Reutlingen Rothenburg RottweilS Schwäbisch Gmünd Schwäbisch Hall Schweinfurt Speyer Überlingen Ulm Wangen Weil Weißenburg in Bayern Wetzlar Wimpfen Windsheim Worms Zell

Free Imperial Cities as of 1648

Lost imperial immediacy or no longer part of the Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire
by 1792

BaselS BernS Besançon Brakel Cambrai Diessenhofen Donauwörth Duisburg Düren Gelnhausen HagenauD Herford KaysersbergD KolmarD Konstanz LandauD Lemgo LucerneS Mainz Metz MunsterD ObernaiD Pfeddersheim Rheinfelden RosheimD St. GallenS Sarrebourg SchaffhausenS Schmalkalden SchlettstadtD SoestH SolothurnS Straßburg Toul TurckheimD Verden Verdun Warburg Weißenburg in ElsaßD ZürichS

D Member of the Décapole H Member of the Hanseatic League S Member or associate of the Swiss Confederacy

v t e

Designations for types of administrative territorial entities

English terms

Common English terms1


Insular area Local government area Protected area Special
area Statistical area

Combined statistical area Metropolitan statistical area Micropolitan statistical area

Urban area




borough Metropolitan borough


Federal capital Imperial capital


state Autonomous city Charter city Independent city Incorporated city Imperial city Free imperial city Royal free city


Autonomous community Residential community


Administrative county Autonomous county Consolidated city-county Metropolitan county




Overseas country


Overseas department


Capital district City
district Congressional district Electoral district Federal district Indian government district Land district Metropolitan district

Non-metropolitan district

Military district Municipal district Police district Regional district Rural district Sanitary district Subdistrict Urban district Special


Census division Police division Subdivision


municipality County

Norway Nova Scotia Regional county municipality

Direct-controlled municipality District
municipality Mountain resort municipality Neutral municipality Regional municipality Resort municipality Rural municipality Specialized municipality


Autonomous prefecture Subprefecture Super-prefecture Praetorian prefecture


Autonomous province Overseas province Roman province


Administrative region Autonomous region Capital region Development region Economic region Mesoregion Microregion Overseas region Planning region Special
administrative region Statistical region Subregion


Biosphere reserve Ecological reserve Game reserve Indian reserve Nature reserve


Federal state Free state Sovereign state


Capital territory

Federal capital territory

Dependent territory Federal territory Military territory Organized incorporated territory Overseas territory Union territory Unorganized territory


Census town Market town


Charter township Civil township Paper township Survey township Urban township


Autonomous territorial unit Local administrative unit Municipal unit Regional unit


Economic zone

Exclusive economic zone Free economic zone Special
economic zone

Free-trade zone Neutral zone Self-administered zone

Other English terms


Alpine resort Bailiwick Banner


Block Cadastre Circle Circuit Colony Commune Condominium Constituency Duchy Eldership Emirate Federal dependency Governorate Hamlet Ilkhanate Indian reservation Manor


Muftiate Neighbourhood Parish Periphery Precinct Principality Protectorate Quarter Regency Autonomous republic Riding Sector


Shire Sultanate Suzerainty Townland Village

Administrative Summer



Agency Barony Burgh Exarchate Hide Hundred Imperial Circle March Monthon Presidency Residency Roman diocese Seat Tenth Tithing

Non-English or loanwords


Amt Bakhsh Barangay Bezirk Regierungsbezirk Comune Frazione Fu Gemeinde Județ Kunta / kommun

Finland Sweden

Län Località Megye Muban Oblast


Okrug Ostān Poblacion Purok Shahrestān Sum Sýsla Tehsil Vingtaine


Commote Gau Heerlijkheid Köping Maalaiskunta Nome

Egypt Greece

Pagus Pargana Plasă Satrapy Socken Subah Syssel Zhou

v t e

terms for country subdivisions


Muhafazah (محافظة governorate) Wilayah (ولاية province) Mintaqah (منطقة region) Mudiriyah (مديرية directorate) Imarah (إمارة emirate) Baladiyah (بلدية municipality) Shabiyah (شعبية "popularate")

Second / third-level

Mintaqah (منطقة region) Qadaa (قضاء district) Nahiyah (ناحية subdistrict) Markaz (مركز district) Mutamadiyah (معتمدية "delegation") Daerah/Daïra (دائرة circle) Liwa (لواء banner / sanjak)

City / township-level

Amanah (أمانة municipality) Baladiyah (بلدية municipality) Ḥai (حي neighborhood / quarter) Mahallah (محلة) Qarya (قرية) Sheyakhah (شياخة "neighborhood subdivision")

English translations given are those most commonly used.

v t e

French terms for country subdivisions

arrondissement département préfecture subprefectures

v t e

Greek terms for country subdivisions


apokentromenes dioikiseis / geniki dioikisis§ / diamerisma§ / periphereia nomos§ / periphereiaki enotita demos / eparchia§ / koinotita§


archontia/archontaton bandon demos despotaton dioikesis doukaton droungos eparchia exarchaton katepanikion kephalatikion kleisoura meris naukrareia satrapeia strategis thema toparchia tourma

§ signifies a defunct institution

v t e

Portuguese terms for country subdivisions

Regional subdivisions

Estado Distrito federal Província Região Distrito Comarca Capitania

Local subdivisions

Município Concelho Freguesia Comuna Circunscrição


Cidade Vila Aldeia Bairro Lugar

Historical subdivisions in italics.

v t e

Slavic terms for country subdivisions


dzielnica gmina krai kraj krajina / pokrajina městys obec oblast / oblast' / oblasti / oblys / obwód / voblast' okręg okres okrug opština / općina / občina / obshtina osiedle powiat / povit raion selsoviet / silrada sołectwo voivodeship / vojvodina županija


darugha gromada guberniya / gubernia jurydyka khutor obshchina okolia opole pogost prowincja sorok srez starostwo / starostva uyezd volost ziemia župa

v t e

Spanish terms for country subdivisions

National, Federal

Comunidad autónoma Departamento Distrito federal Estado Provincia Región

Regional, Metropolitan

Cantón Comarca Comuna Corregimiento Delegación Distrito Mancomunidad Merindad Municipalidad Municipio Parroquia

Ecuador Spain

Urban, Rural

Aldea Alquería Anteiglesia Asentamiento

Asentamiento informal Pueblos jóvenes

Barrio Campamento Caserío Ciudad

Ciudad autónoma

Colonia Lugar Masía Pedanía Población Ranchería Sitio Vereda Villa Village

Historical subdivisions in italics.

v t e

Turkish terms for country subdivisions


il (province) ilçe (district) şehir (city) kasaba (town) belediye (municipality) belde (community) köy (village) mahalle (neighbourhood/quarter)


ağalık (feudal district) bucak (subdistrict) beylerbeylik (province) kadılık (subprovince) kaza (sub-province) hidivlik (viceroyalty) mutasarrıflık (subprovince) nahiye (nahiyah) paşalık (province) reya (Romanian principalities) sancak (prefecture) vilayet (province) voyvodalık (Romanian provinces)

1 Used by ten or more countries or having derived terms. Historical derivations in italics. See also: Census division, Electoral district, Political division, and List of administrative di