Free Cities, Imperial and Otherwise

The free cities of Europe seem to have been one of those odd historical quirks that didn’t arise elsewhere. The first ones go back to the Classical Era of Greece and Rome, and were cities that were founded by a king or prince, and administered by a representative of the monarch, but otherwise governed themselves. A few could coin money. All could defend themselves from interlopers from behind good walls. The pattern continued in the Middle Ages.

Some of the oldest free cities (slightly different from later Imperial Free Cities) were Roman settlements (Cologne, Kempten, Augsburg, Basel). They would later buy or fight their way to free city status, although Cologne never quite made it, leading to ongoing spats between the city and the Prince-Bishops over jurisdiction and taxes. Others developed as foundations made by nobles or abbeys in the 900s-1200s, or were chartered by the Holy Roman Emperors and administered by Vögte (Voigts). The vögte represented the interests of the Emperor and had final say in city management, unless an appeal was made to the emperor himself. These cities took care of their own daily affairs and administration, and had walls. Unless a place had walls and could keep people out for at least two days, it was not a city, most certainly not a free city.

A large number of free cities and Imperial Free Cities date from the 1000s – 1100s. Hamburg, Magdeburg, Lübeck, Rostok, the Hansa cities, were founded or re-founded at this time. Warmer weather with better sea conditions played a role, as did the expansion of Imperial power into formerly Viking-plagued areas. Increasing wealth allowed the cities to buy their freedom. In some cases, if the founder’s family died out, as in the case of Schwäbish Hall, the town became a free city. (Barbarossa wanted the salt revenue, the city wanted freedom, and a bargain was made.) The Imperial Free Cities had seats in the Imperial Diets along with the princes, but their votes counted for less, and so many didn’t actively participate in that part of the Holy Roman Empire’s administration.

When you look at free cities, you will often find that they are based on trade and commerce. All were self governing to a greater extent, all had walls, all had conflicts with magnates (lay or ecclesiastic) who wanted to control and tax them, and all had pretty rigid social stratification based on employment. The Hansa cities* were and are the best known, and Lübeck was the first among equals. Nuremberg too was ruled by the wealthy merchants, the patricians, who made money from metalwork, then weapons, map making, armor making, and engraving (both printed and on objects). Some became city states, but most did not. The numbers waxed and waned as did their collective political power. No major noble liked having a free city in or near his jurisdiction because he could not tax or control them. They provided an option, and some were in some cases amazingly wealthy.

By the 1800s, most cities had lost their independence. The hard times of the 1300s-1400s cost a few their freedom as they sank into debt, or lost population due to plague and war. The wars of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War also took a toll. Napoleon finished off several free cities that did not regain their freedom in the re-mapping of 1815. Without the Holy Roman Empire, being an Imperial Free City meant . . . nothing in legal or economic terms.

*Not all Hansa cities were free cities. London was not. Bruges varied, and even Bruges got cross-wise with Emperor Maximilian, who opted to move the main port to Antwerp. That was the end of Bruges as a financial power.

10 thoughts on “Free Cities, Imperial and Otherwise

  1. I’ve seen places and known people named Vogt, Voith, or similar, mostly in German-settled areas or townships. They sound like regional dialect changes or Anglicized spellings. I’m guessing these were a cross between a provincial administrator and a viceroy, in some manner.

    Is that the City of London, as opposed London town/Londinium? That’s another odd one to read about, how the capital city amalgamated.

    • London is odd. It was a fairly major Roman settlement, then shrank back so much that for centuries people assumed that it had been abandoned completely. Actually, people stayed, but built with wattle and wood, not stone. Once England became a major wool exporter in the 1000s-1100s, royal London gained a Kontor, a Hansa trading post, in the Stahlhof, or Steelyard. That lasted until the Hansa merchants got crosswise with Elizabeth I and she ended their tax privileges and kicked them out. The South Wark and other areas were towns, but could not defend themselves.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson(s)! Trade and ‘something’, usually either seaport or major travel route were critical to the free cities.

  3. Pingback: City states or cities – Janey's blog

  4. If I want to point to this lovely essay from another blog do I just click up above and copy paste? I did, but if that wasn’t the right way to do it please let me know.

    • That’s the easiest way to do it. If you don’t have auto-link, then copy and paste, and add the link by using the “link to” button/function for your particular program.

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