Free and Imperial Cities
FREE AND IMPERIAL CITIES
FREE AND IMPERIAL CITIES. The free and imperial cities (Freie und Reichsstädte) were a privileged elite among the 2,500 or so towns within the Holy Roman Empire. The term "free city" originally applied to towns founded by a bishop that later won self-governance, whereas "imperial cities" dated back to royal settlements established by the emperor or developing under his immediate protection. This distinction lost most of its original meaning by 1500 as the free and imperial cities became characterized by their common status of immediacy (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) under the jurisdiction of the emperor, to whom they paid annual tribute. The other municipalities were all territorial towns (Landstädte) under the authority of their local lay or secular lord, and only indirectly subject to imperial jurisdiction. This crucial distinction elevated the imperial cities to part of the "Imperial Estates" (Reichsstände) that emerged by the 1480s and governed the empire with the emperor through institutions like the Imperial Diet (Reichstag).
No more than one hundred towns ever possessed this special status. Most were concentrated in Swabia and Franconia in the southwest, which had been the centers of the emperor's power at the time of the cities' foundation in the twelfth century. Others developed in the Rhineland and northern Germany, either by escaping the control of local bishops or by emerging independently from below as trading centers that subsequently acquired imperial privilege and protection. Each city was a self-governing commune controlled by a council (Rat) elected by the enfranchised citizens (Bürger). Citizenship had to be applied for and was dependent on paying specific taxes and serving in the urban militia. The latter requirement was used to deny women citizenship from the seventeenth century. Citizens rarely comprised more than a third of the total inhabitants. Generally, the social structure of the imperial cities mirrored that of the territorial towns, with a small proportion of the population owning most of the wealth. Urban trades were organized into guilds that regulated their own affairs under the council's jurisdiction. Many cities experienced violent upheavals in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the guild leaders sought greater representation on the city councils. This process was largely over by 1450, and urban government generally became more oligarchical with the key positions on the council controlled by a semi-hereditary patriciate. Emperor Charles V (ruled 1519–1556) encouraged this trend by rewriting the constitutions of thirty cities, strengthening the magistrates' power, and restricting the franchise.
Many princes resented the cities' autonomy and sought to integrate these dynamic urban centers into their territories. All urban alliances ended in military defeat between the early thirteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries. Although the cities kept pace with advances in military technology, improving their fortifications and acquiring large arsenals stocked with artillery, they could not overcome their underlying weakness. Unlike the northern Italian city states, German cities lacked large surrounding territories and only a few like Nuremberg, Ulm, or Rottweil had sufficient dependent villages to supply their urban populations with food. They depended on trade and exchange to survive. Resistance quickly collapsed once the princes blockaded them. Shortage of food and disruption of trade usually triggered internal tensions, and a faction generally emerged to force the city council to capitulate. More fundamentally, none of the medieval leagues could force their often-scattered membership to pull together. Closer integration in the empire saved the cities and enabled them to ride out the storms of the Reformation. The cities held regular congresses (Reichstädtetage) after 1471 to coincide with the meetings of the emperor, electors, and princes, and acquired voting rights in the new imperial diet by 1582.
Many historians have identified the early Reformation as an urban phenomenon since Lutheranism spread rapidly to many southern and western imperial cities in the early 1520s. Dissatisfaction with Charles V's economic policies and existing trading and cultural links to the south raised the possibility that many cities might "turn Swiss" and leave the empire. Only five actually did this: Basel, Schaffhausen, St. Gallen, Grüningen, and Mulhouse. Others were too far away or fearful of Swiss radicalism. Eleven remained Catholic despite social and economic similarities with those that embraced Lutheranism, while four were officially recognized as biconfessional by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. While this treaty also confirmed civic voting rights in the diet, it placed them as a distinctly inferior third college behind the electors and princes. Civic attendance at the diet declined in the eighteenth century, but the cities remained active in other imperial institutions. The empire was the best guarantee for their autonomy. The imperial courts protected them against the princes and intervened to stabilize their internal politics and finances.
Of the eighty-six cities recognized by the diet in 1521, only fifty-one remained in the late eighteenth century. The general shift of European trade to the Atlantic seaboard in the sixteenth century had little to do with this decline, although it did adversely affect the economy of the remaining cities, as did the Thirty Years' War. The fall in numbers is misleading as the original list included ten smaller cities that reverted to the status of territorial towns to escape imperial taxation in the sixteenth century, and sixteen that were lost to France by 1681. These losses primarily indicate the empire's difficulty in defending its outer perimeter, rather than a weakness of its internal hierarchy. Very few cities remaining within the empire lost their autonomy, and imperial sanction was necessary in each case. Austria itself annexed Constance in 1548, and the emperor permitted Bavaria to seize Donauwörth in 1607. The other cases involved cities that lacked firm foundation for their imperial privileges, such as Erfurt (1664), Magdeburg (1666), or Brunswick (1671), which were all ex-Hansa towns, rather than imperial cities, or Emden and Münster, which were already territorial towns. The empire also acted to preserve the autonomy of the Hanseatic cities Hamburg and Bremen, saving them from Danish and Swedish encroachment in the 1650s and 1660s by recognizing them as imperial cities. The remaining fifty-one cities had a combined population of 820,840 in 1800, of which 150,000 lived in Hamburg alone. Only Bremen and Cologne numbered over 50,000, while the tiny Swabian city of Buchau had only 860 inhabitants. Six imperial cities were retained in the reorganization of the empire in 1803, but only Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck retained political autonomy beyond 1806.
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Peter H. Wilson