1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Imperial Cities or Towns

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IMPERIAL CITIES OR TOWNS, the usual English translation of Reichsstädte, an expression of frequent occurrence in German history. These were cities and towns subject to no authority except that of the emperor, or German king, in other words they were immediate; the earliest of them stood on the demesne land of their sovereign, and they often grew up around his palaces. A distinction was thus made between a Reichsstadt and a Landstadt, the latter being dependent upon some prince, not upon the emperor direct. The term Freie Reichsstadt, which is sometimes used in the same sense as Reichsstadt, is rightly only applicable to seven cities, Basel, Strassburg, Spires, Worms, Mainz, Cologne and Regensburg. Having freed themselves from the domination of their ecclesiastical lords these called themselves Freistädte and in practice their position was indistinguishable from that of the Reichsstädte.

In the middle ages many other places won the coveted position of a Reichsstadt. Some gained it by gift and others by purchase; some won it by force of arms, others usurped it during times of anarchy, while a number secured it through the extinction of dominant families, like the Hohenstaufen. There were many more free towns in southern than in northern Germany, but their number was continually fluctuating, for their liberties were lost much more quickly than they were gained. Mainz was conquered and subjected to the archbishop in 1462. Some free towns fell into the hands of various princes of the Empire and others placed themselves voluntarily under such protection. Some, like Donauwörth in 1607, were deprived of their privileges by the emperor on account of real, or supposed, offences, while others were separated from the Empire by conquest. In 1648 Besançon passed into the possession of Spain, Basel had already thrown in its lot with the Swiss confederation, while Strassburg, Colmar, Hagenau and others were seized by Louis XIV.

Meanwhile the free towns had been winning valuable privileges in addition to those which they already possessed, and the wealthier among them, like Lübeck and Augsburg, were practically imperia in imperio, waging war and making peace, and ruling their people without any outside interference. But they had also learned that union is strength. They formed alliances among themselves, both for offence and for defence, and these Städtebünde had an important influence on the course of German history in the 14th and 15th centuries. These leagues were frequently at war with the ecclesiastical and secular potentates of their district and in general they were quite able to hold their own in these quarrels. The right of the free towns to be represented in the imperial diet was formally recognized in 1489, and about the same time they divided themselves into two groups, or benches, the Rhenish and the Swabian. By the peace of Westphalia in 1648 they were formally constituted as the third college of the diet. A list drawn up in 1422 mentions 75 free cities, another drawn up in 1521 mentions 84, but at the time of the French Revolution the number had decreased to 51. At this time the Rhenish free cities were: Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, Lübeck, Worms, Spires, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Goslar, Bremen, Hamburg, Mühlhausen, Nordhausen, Dortmund, Friedberg and Wetzlar. The Swabian free cities were: Regensburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, Esslingen, Reutlingen, Nördlingen, Rothenburg-on-the-Tauber, Schwäbisch-Hall, Rottweil, Ueberlingen, Heilbronn, Memmingen, Gmünd, Dinkelsbühl, Lindau, Biberach, Ravensburg, Schweinfurt, Kempten, Windsheim, Kaufbeuern, Weil, Wangen, Isny, Pfullendorf, Offenburg, Leutkirch, Wimpfen, Weissenburg, Giengen, Gengenbach, Zell, Buchorn, Aalen, Buchau and Bopfingen. But a large proportion of them had as little claim to their exceptional positions as the pocket boroughs of Great Britain and Ireland had before the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832.

By the peace of Lunéville in 1801 Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, Worms and Spires were taken by France, and by the decision of the imperial deputation of 1803 six cities only: Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, Augsburg, Frankfort-on-Main and Nuremberg, were allowed to keep their Reichsfreiheit, or in other words to hold directly of the Empire. This number was soon further reduced. On the dissolution of the Empire in 1806 Augsburg and Nuremburg passed under the sovereignty of Bavaria, and Frankfort was made the seat of a duchy for Karl Theodor von Dalberg, elector and archbishop of Mainz, who was appointed prince primate of the Confederation of the Rhine. When the German Confederation was established in 1815 Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen and Frankfort were recognized as free cities, and the first three hold that position in the modern German empire; but Frankfort, in consequence of the part it took in the war of 1866, lost its independence and was annexed by Prussia.

In the earlier years of their existence the free cities were under the jurisdiction of an imperial officer, who was called the Reichsvogt or imperial advocate, or sometimes the Reichsschultheiss or imperial procurator. As time went on many of the cities purchased the right of filling these offices with their own nominees; and in several instances the imperial authority fell practically into desuetude except when it was stirred into action by peculiar circumstances. The internal constitution of the free cities was organized after no common model, although several of them had a constitution drawn up in imitation of that of Cologne, which was one of the first to assert its independence.

For the history of the free cities, see J. J. Moser, Reichsstädtisches Handbuch (Tübingen, 1732); D. Hänlein, Anmerkungen über die Geschichte der Reichsstädte (Ulm, 1775); A. Wendt, Beschreibung der kaiserlichen freien Reichsstädte (Leipzig, 1804); G. W. Hugo, Die Mediatisirung der deutschen Reichsstädte (Carlsruhe, 1838); G. Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte (Kiel, 1844 fol.); G. L. von Maurer, Geschichte der Städteverfassung in Deutschland (Erlangen, 1869–1871); W. Arnold, Verfassungsgeschichte der deutschen Freistädte (Gotha, 1854); P. Brülcke, Die Entwickelung der Reichsstandschaft der Städte (Hamburg, 1881); A. M. Ehrentraut, Untersuchungen über die Frage der Frei- und Reichsstädte (Leipzig, 1902); and S. Rietschel, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der deutschen Stadtverfassung (Leipzig, 1905). See also the article Commune. (A. W. H.*) 

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