As a royal city, Frankfurt was first administered by a governor. However, fairly early in its history, from 1189, it was actually headed by a sheriff, as a representative of the king and chairman of the royal court. In 1220 the office of royal governor was withdrawn, and the sheriff became the sole guardian of imperial rights and the imperial estate, which he administered together with a group of lay judges.
Political power continued to be in the hands of the patriciate, consisting of ministry officials and rich merchants. Like all other citizens, however, these patricians were restricted in their rights. It was not until 1232 that Henry VII renounced his imperial right to match the daughters and granddaughters of Frankfurt citizens with members of his entourage without asking the prospective brides or grooms.
In 1219 Frederick II gave the citizens part of his royal estate for the construction of a second church. In 1323, after the church had been incorporated into a collegiate monastery and the relic of an arm had been purchased, it was dedicated to St. Leonhard. The seal of the city, first in evidence in 1219, was circumscribed with the words „specialis domus imperii“.
At about the same time a number of men and women formed a secular nursing order, founding the Hospital zum Heiligen Geist (Hospital of the Holy Spirit), which still exists as an endowment today. In the 14th century the hospital was taken over by the city, with the staff appointed by the city council.
In 1235 Henry VII donated part of his income to the town for the repairs of a Main bridge damaged by floods. This was when the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) was mentioned for the first time, though it had probably been built as early as the second half of the 12th century.
In 1241 religious fanaticism led to a pogrom against Frankfurt’s Jews who were still living among the Christians near the cathedral. In the First Battle against the Jews most of the 200-plus members of the Jewish community were either killed or expelled. It took until 1255 for Jews to start settling in Frankfurt again.
In 1254, during the Interregnum and after the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, Frankfurt joined the Association of Rhenish Towns, which had been formed in order to secure peace within the empire. In this way, the city demonstrated its increasing independence. From 1266 official records start mentioning city councillors and citizens’ representatives in addition to the sheriff and lay judges. Frankfurt’s First City Charter - a collection of rights and privileges - was recorded in writing in 1297. The office of a mayor was created as a further step towards the citizens’ self-government. From 1311 two mayors, elected by the city council, gradually took over the administrative functions of the sheriffs.
In 1372 the council finally succeeded in acquiring the office of the sheriff, which had been pledged by the emperor, as well as a number of taxation rights and imperial estates (the city woods) which had also been pledged. The total price was 12,800 guilders. Having secured autonomous status, Frankfurt was now directly answerable to the emperor.
The council started keeping records in a Bürgerbuch (citizens’ book) as early as 1312. This is the oldest evidence of the council’s administrative activities. The introduction of a fixed city tax was accompanied by a system of tax administration from 1320 onwards. In 1333 the Emperor Louis granted an extension of the municipal housing area, which led to the building of the Neustadt (New Town) outside the Staufen wall.
The Golden Bull of 1356, promulgated by Emperor Charles IV, was an imperial constitution that specified the procedure of electing the German king and claimant to the imperial crown. The electors were to be three ecclesiastical and four secular princes. The edict confirmed Frankfurt as the place for royal elections.
The dispute about the throne, which followed the death of Louis the Bavarian and the plague in Europe led to the Second Battle against the Jews in 1349. The Scourge Brothers blamed the plague not only on the sins of Christendom but also on its toleration of Jews. Again, Frankfurt’s Jews were expelled or killed.
© Helmut Nordmeyer, Translation: Hugh Beyer