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Imperial cities in the Holy Roman Empire, 1648
In the Holy Roman Empire, a free imperial city ( ) was a city formally ruled by the emperor only — as opposed to the majority of cities in the Empire, which were governed by one of the many princes of the Empire, such as dukes or prince-bishops. Free Cities also had independent representation in the Reichstag of the Holy Roman Empire.

There was distinction on paper made between Reichsstädte (Imperial Cities) and Freie Städte (free cities).Imperial Cities were those formerly ruled by secular princes. As vassals of the Emperor, they paid taxes to the Emperor and had to supply troops for his military campaigns.

Free Cities were those formerly ruled by a prince-bishop. They were not required to pay Imperial taxes or raise troops except during a Crusade, and had other additional rights and privileges (which varied greatly among them). The Free Cities gained independence from their prince-bishops during the High Middle Ages. They were Baselmarker (1000), Wormsmarker (1074), Mainzmarker (1244, revoked 1462), Regensburgmarker (1245), Strasbourgmarker (1272), Cologne (1288), and Speyermarker (1294).

But over time, the difference became more and more blurred so that the "Free and Imperial Cities" were collectively known in the Diet as "Free Imperial Cities". What mattered more was the difference in wealth: rich cities, such as Lübeckmarker or Augsburgmarker, were genuinely self-ruling enclaves within the Empire. They waged war and made peace, controlled their own trade and permitted little interference from outside. In the later Middle Ages, many Free Cities formed Städtebünde (city leagues), such as the Hanseatic League. (Some members of these alliances were never Free Cities and joined with the permission of their territorial rulers.)

The cities gained (and sometimes lost) their freedom through the vicissitudes of medieval power politics. Some favored cities gained a charter by gift. Others purchased one from a prince in need of cash. Some won it by force of arms, others took it during times of chaos. Some cities became free through the extinction of dominant families, like the Hohenstaufen.

Free Cities also lost their privileges. Some voluntarily placed themselves under the protection of a territorial magnate. Some, like Donauwörthmarker in 1607, were stripped of their privileges by the Emperor for genuine or trumped-up reasons. Some were sold by the Emperor, such as Mühlhausenmarker, Duisburgmarker, and Offenburgmarker.

Free and Imperial cities were not officially admitted as a Reichsstand to the Reichstag until 1489, and even then their votes were usually considered only advisory compared to the Benches of the Kurfürsten (Electors) and the Princes. The leagues of cities divided themselves into two groups, or benches, in the Imperial Diet, the Rhenishmarker Bench and the Swabian Bench. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the cities constituted a formal third "college" in the Diet. The most powerful Free Cities included Augsburgmarker, Bremenmarker, Cologne, Frankfurtmarker, Hamburgmarker, Lübeckmarker, and Nurembergmarker.

The number of Free Cities varied greatly over the centuries, as did their geographic distribution. In general, there were more Free Cities in areas where there were many small domains than than in areas where individual princes held large territories. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica mentions a list drawn up in 1422 with 75 free cities, and another drawn up in 1521 with 84. Territorial consolidation gradually shrunk the number to the 51 cities present at the 1792 Reichstag towards the end of the Empire. Most were in the southwest and Franconia, some in the north and west, none in the east. Some were former members of the Hanseatic League.

In the 16th and 17th century, a number of Free Cities were separated from the Empire due to external territorial change. Henry II of France seized the free cities connected to the Three Bishoprics of Metzmarker, Verdunmarker and Toulmarker. Similarly, Louis XIV of France seized many cities based on claims produced by his Chambers of Reunion. That way, Strasbourgmarker and the ten cities of the Décapole were annexed. Also, when the Swiss Confederacy gained its independence from the Empire in 1648, the Swiss Imperial Cities of Baselmarker, Bernemarker, Lucernemarker, St. Gallenmarker, Schaffhausenmarker, Solothurnmarker, and Zürichmarker left the Empire as cantons of the confederacy.

With the rise of Revolutionary France in Europe, this trend accelerated enormously. First between 1789 and 1792 the areas west of the Rhine were annexed by the revolutionary armies ending the long tradition of free cities as diverse as Cologne, Aachenmarker, Dürenmarker, Speyermarker and Wormsmarker. Then, the Napoleonic Wars led to the reorganization of the Empire in 1803 (see German Mediatisation), where all of the free cities but six — the Hanseatic cities of Hamburgmarker, Bremenmarker, and Lübeckmarker, and the cities of Frankfurtmarker, Augsburgmarker, and Nurembergmarker — were eliminated. Finally, Napoléon dissolved the Empire in 1806. By 1811, all of the free cities had been eliminated — Augsburg and Nuremberg had been annexed by Bavariamarker, Frankfurt had become the center of the Grand Duchy of Frankfurtmarker, 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 Bouches-de-l'Elbe, and Bremen the Bouches-du-Weser.

When the German Confederationmarker was established in 1815, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen and Frankfurt were once again made free cities. Frankfurt was annexed by Prussia in consequence of the part it took in the Austro-Prussian Warmarker of 1866. The three Hanseatic cities remained as constituent states of the new German Empiremarker, and retained this role in the Weimar Republicmarker and into the Third Reich, although under Hitler this status was purely notional. Due to Hitler's distaste for Lübeck and the need to compensate Prussia for its territorial losses under the Greater Hamburg Law, it was annexed to the latter in 1937. In the Federal Republic of Germanymarker which was established after the war, Bremen and Hamburg became constituent states (Länder), a status which they retain to the present day. Berlinmarker, which had never been a free city in its history, also received the status of a state after the war due to its status in divided post-war Germany.

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