FREE IMPERIAL CITIES is the ordinary English translation of Freie Reichs-Städte, a technical expression in German history. In Germany, as in other countries of Europe, a considerable number of towns succeeded, in the midst of the dynastic confusion of the Middle Ages, in maintaining or acquiring more or less complete independence of the state or sovereign within whose territory they were situated. This they effected partly by forming defensive leagues with each other, and partly by procuring, in return for service or money, privileges and protection from the successive occupants of the imperial throne. Of these free towns a certain proportion rose by commerce and industry to a position of great influence, and ultimately took rank along with kingdoms and principalities as integral members of the body politic of the empire. They first appear distinctly in this character in the reign of Henry VII. (1308-1313). Their number was continually fluctuating, for their liberties were almost as easily lost as they were with difficulty acquired. Most of them had to maintain a continual conffict by war or diplomacy with the ecclesiastical or secular potentates of their district, and not unfrequently their interests were betrayed by the emperors themselves. Mainz, which in the 13th century was at the head of the Rheinisckes Städtebund, or confederation of the cities of the Rhine, was conquered in 1462, and subjected to the bishops see ; Zwickau, Altenburg, and Chemnitz, put in pawn first by Frederick II. and afterwards by several of the later emperors, thus fell into the hands of the dukes of Saxony; other free cities placed themselves of their own accord under the control of prince or bishop; some, as Donauworth, were deprived of their privileges by the emperors on account of real or alleged offences; others again were separated from the empire by foreign conquest, as Hainault or Hagenau, Colmar, Schlettstedt, Weissenburg, Landau, and Besançon by Louis XIV.; and Basel notably preferred to cast in its lot with the rising confederation of Switzerland. At the diet of Augsburg in 1474 the free imperial cities divided themselves for the first time into two benches, the Rhenish and the Swabian, the former also including those of Alsace, Wetterau, Thuringia, and Saxony, and the latter those of Franconia. They were formally constituted the third collegium of the diet by the peace of Westphalia in 1648. At the time of the French Revolution they still numbered 51,the Rhenish bench comprising Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle or Aachen, Lübeck, Worms, Spires, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Goslar, Bremen, Hamburg, Mühlhausen, Nordhausen, Dortmund, Friedberg, and Wetzlar; and the Swabian bench, Ratisbon or Regensburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, Esslingen, Reutlingen, Nördlingen, Rothenburg on the Tauber, Schwäbisch-Hall, Rothweil, Ueberlingen, Heilbronn, Gmünd, Memmingen, Lindau. Dinkelsbühl, Biberach, Ravensburg, Schweinfurt, Kempten, Windsheim, Kaufbeuern, Weil, Wangen, Isny, Pfullendorf, Offenburg, Leutkirchen, Wimpfen, Weissenburg in the Nordgau, Giengen, Gengenbach, Zell on the Hammerbach, Buehhorn, Ahlen, Buchau, Bopfingen. A large proportion of these towns had then at least as little claim to their exceptional position as the pocket-burghs of England before the passing of the Reform Act. By the decision of the imperial deputation of 1803 (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, Worms, and Spires were assigned to France ; only six, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, Augsburg, Frankfort-on-the-Main, and Nuremberg were allowed to retain their Reichsfreiheit, or, in other words, to hold directly of the empire. On the dissolution of the empire in 1806, Augsburg and Nuremberg were given to Bavaria, and Frankfort was made the seat of Count Dahlberg, the archbishop and electoral prince of Mainz, who was appointed primate of the confederation of the Rhine. On the establishment of the German confederation in 1815, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, and Frankfort were recognized as free cities, and the first three still hold that position in the new German empire ; but Frankfort, in consequence of the part it took in the war of 1866, has been degraded to the rank of an ordinary Prussian town.
In the earlier centuries of their existence the free cities of the empire were under the jurisdiction of two imperial officers, one of whom, the imperial advocate or Reichsvogt, took charge of criminal cases, and the other, the imperial procurator or Reichs-Schultheiss or Schuldheiss, dealt with the civil cases. As time went on many of the cities purchased the right of filling these offices with members of the principality; and in several instances the imperial authority fell practically into desuetude except when it was roused into action by peculiar circumstances, such as a dispute between the citizens and their magistrates. The internal constitution of the cities was organized after no common type; but there were several of them whose privileges were drawn up in imitation of those of Cologne, which had been one of the very first to assert its independence.
See J. J. Moser, Reichsstätisches Handbuch, Tübingen, 1732; A Hänlein, Amnerkungen über die Geschichte der Reichsstädte, Ulm, 1775; A. Wendt, Beschreibung der kaiserl. freien Reichsstädte, Leipsic, 1804; G. W. Hugo, Die Mediatisirung der deutschen Reichsstädte, Carlsruhe, 1838; Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschicte.