Driving across Germany: Bavaria to Baden to Brunswick

Germany’s landscape is wonderfully varied, from steep Alpine peaks to unvaried flatness of the North European Plain. In the summer of 2014, I was lucky to enjoy not one but two research fellowships, in Vienna and Wolfenbüttel, so I took the opportunity of the week between them to rent a car and drive from one end of Germany to the other. Naturally, I stopped off at several sites related to dukes and princes—including princes of Hohenzollern, Baden, Waldeck and Brunswick, and an ecclesiastical prince, the bishop of Speyer. I followed river valleys, the Danube, the Rhine, the Weser, visited important ancient imperial cities like the centre of the judiciary at Wetzlar and an early university at Marburg, and traversed one of the more sparsely populated areas of Germany where my rebellious ancestors defied the state to create a church of their own in the Eder Valley. I also passed a kidney stone in a fabulous castle hotel, which was memorable to say the least. I did this journey in six days, which was really quite rushed, and many sites I only paused at briefly, so a more leisurely trip following this pathway should take more days—but as a general overview of Germany, from south to north, this drive gave me a great feeling for the overall size and shape of the land of my ancestors.

For the first leg of the journey (because rental car companies often make it difficult to pick up a car in one country and drop it in another), I took a train from Vienna to Munich. I had passed a wonderful month in Vienna, my favourite city in the whole world, and had spent days and days exploring every nook and cranny of that fantastically historical city (what’s not to like in a city that focuses most of its attentions on history, music and food?). Now I enjoyed the lush scenery of the northern edge of the Austrian Alps as the train travelled up the Danube Valley, then past Salzburg, and into Bavaria. I spent an afternoon and evening in Munich, and revisited some of the choice spots like the Residenz and the Pinakothek. In the morning I picked up the car and headed due west. I had never driven on a German Autobahn before, so was excited to experience driving on a highway with no speed limit!

It was a nice bright morning, and I took Autobahn 96 west towards Memmingen. I noted the signs to the village of Sontheim (exciting, as a big fan of the American composer), but pulled off at another exit to visit the small town of Mindelheim. It does not receive a lot of visitors, but as a sheer curiosity in the category of ‘princely capitals’, I had to take a look. Mindelheim had been a small lordship in this part of Swabia, partway between the Alps and the Danube, for centuries. It became part of the estates of the duke of Bavaria by the 17th century, then was confiscated in 1704 by the Emperor Leopold following the Battle of Blenheim, not too far away to the north. The victor of this battle (known as the Battle of Höchstädt in Germany), John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was a hero of international standing, and the Emperor wished to reward him with a patch of land that would give him a financial reward, but also a prestigious place of honour within the Holy Roman Empire. So the Lordship of Mindelheim was erected into a principality in 1705, confirmed by the Imperial Diet in 1706. Marlborough was now a Prince of the Empire, with a seat in the Diet, and he added an Imperial eagle to his coat of arms. The principality was only 15 square miles, but brought its prince a revenue of about 2,000 pounds (as estimated by a recent biographer, which is about half a million in today’s money). There is a small castle up on a hill overlooking the town (Mindelburg), and Marlborough visited for a few days in 1713. By the end of that year however, Mindelheim was returned to Bavaria by the Treaty of Utrecht, and although Marlborough was compensated with lands elsewhere, they were not of princely rank. My visit was brief, limited to a quick look at the town square and a cup of coffee and a croissant.


At Memmingen I left the Autobahn. This city has for centuries been at a crossroads between highways leading from north to south, east to west. I headed west on a smaller road and met the Danube at Riedlingen. It is of course a very different river here, compared to the broad queen of rivers I had left two days before. Here it is smaller and swifter, as it cuts through the hills known as the Swabian Alps. I enjoyed the scenery, designated now as the Upper Danube Nature Park, and by lunchtime, arrived at the stunning castle of Sigmaringen.

what a great day to be on a driving tour!

Sigmaringen is one of the largest castles in southern Germany, and has been the seat of one of the branches of the House of Hohenzollern since the late 16th century. The original fortress built on a rock overlooking this bend in the river dates to the 11th century. The castle, and the county that took its name from it, passed through several local noble families until it was acquired by the Habsburgs in 1290, who soon sold it to the regional power, the counts of Württemberg, who granted it to one of their vassals, the counts of Werdenberg, who rebuilt and enlarged it considerably in the late 15th century. After that family died out, the Emperor granted the castle and county of Sigmaringen in 1535 to the counts of Hohenzollern, whose main residence (Burg Zollern) was a bit further to the north.

the always easy to identify arms of the Hohenzollerns, in Sigmaringen

Count Karl was the head of the senior branch of the Hohenzollern dynasty, known as the Swabian Branch, in contrast to the junior line, the Franconian Branch, who later became much more prominent as electors of Brandenburg, and ultimately kings of Prussia and emperors of Germany. Some sources say the Swabian branch is the junior line—I cannot say for certain, and birth records for the late 12th century are probably pretty patchy, but I am sticking with Medieval Lands, my online genealogy bible for the Middle Ages. Anyway, in 1576, as was normal, the dynastic lands were split between the various sons, and the two main branches of Hechingen and Sigmaringen were created—this division remained for the next 300 years. Significantly, both of these southern branches remained Catholic, while their northern cousins in Berlin became Protestants, and as a reward, and to help maintain a loyal Catholic powerbase in the Chamber of Princes in the Imperial Diet, the Habsburg Emperor raised both of the Swabian branches to the rank of Prince of the Empire in 1623.

the Principality of Hohenzollern (in the 19th century)

They were semi-autonomous sovereign princes until the Holy Roman Empire collapsed in 1806, then part of the new loose German Confederation, until the crisis of 1848 caused the Prince, another Karl, to resign, and the principality was absorbed by Prussia in 1850. The family remained prominent however, mostly through the awarding of the throne of Romania to Prince Karl’s grandson, Karl, in 1866, and the even better prize of the throne of Spain to the elder grandson, Leopold, in 1869. But Leopold was forced to reject the offer, a diplomatic affront that was one of the sparks of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Leopold, Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen

I enjoyed wandering the narrow streets of this lovely little town. I had lunch then visited the outer gates of the castle. It is one of those, like many in Germany, where you can only visit as part of a tour, the tour was only in German, and was not until quite a bit later in the afternoon, so I visited the chapel, which was open, admired the castle’s massive entrance hall, and went on my way—I’ll come back. The castle was mostly burned in 1893 and rebuilt in a late 19th-century eclectic style, though its medieval core and towers remain. The Hohenzollern family still own the property, but use it for tourism and to house their estate offices, preferring to live elsewhere.

my view in front of the castle

The next leg of this journey was the most picturesque of all—the small road meanders alongside the Danube, and occasionally through short tunnels. At most every bend in the river there is a view of a castle or a church perched high up on a ridge overlooking the valley. Famous fortresses here include the Werenweg, one of the residences of the princes of Fürstenberg (another major family in this area, about whom I shall surely write a post soon). There is also the astonishing Kloster Beuren, an ‘arch-abbey’ nestled in the valley floor.

is it safe to take a photo out your car’s front window?
Schloss Werenweg (not my photo!)

When I got to Tuttlingen, despite a strong urge to keep following the river all the way to its source near Donaueschingen (I love finding river sources!), I turned north into a narrow valley and up into the Swabian Alps (or here the Swabian Jura), then west towards the Black Forest. I’ve never explored any of this part of Germany, so I definitely want to come back sometime, but I needed to be in Strasbourg by nightfall, so I pressed on. At some point in the depths of the Black Forest, I pressed a button inadvertently on the car, activating the voice navigation system. I seem to have indicated that I wanted to go to the point where I already was when I pressed the button, and so the further I drove on towards my actual destination, the more insistent the German woman shouted at me that I had to “dreh das Auto um” (turn the car around) and “du gehst den falschen weg!” (you’re going the wrong way!)—or something to that effect. I tried everything to get her to stop, even turning off the car completely, but she was relentless.

I finally arrived (much to my car’s dismay) at the very broad, very grand Rhine River Valley, and crossed the river at Kehl. This is the very same spot where the Archduchess Maria Antonia crossed into France in May 1770 to become the Dauphine (and later Queen) Marie-Antoinette. The handover ceremony was done on a small island in the river, neutral territory, and famously transformed the Austrian archduchess into a French princess, in dress, hairstyle, etiquette. I drove over the Europabrücke, built in 1960, and paused to take a photo.

“just call me ‘Toinette”

I was in Strasbourg to give a talk at the University to postgraduate students, and to take part in a short workshop—so there’s actually a pause in this itinerary, but I will skip that, and return to talk about Strasbourg, and notably about its most influential dynasty, the Rohan prince-bishops who left such a mark on this city and this region, in a separate post. On what I will call ‘Day 2’ here, I drove back across the river into Germany and into the former Grand Duchy of Baden.

The Grand Duchy of Baden, which evolved into the German state of Baden (and now exists only as half of Baden-Württemberg) is a relatively recent creation, formed in 1806 in the wake of the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. But much of its component parts formed the Margraviate of Baden dating back to the 12th century. I had always assumed that it got its title ‘margrave’ by being on the border (a ‘march’ or mark) between France and Germany, but really, the Rhine Valley has always been a connection zone more than a border, and the cultures of Alsace and Baden have a lot in common in a shared ‘Alemannic’ past. The territory of the Alemanii gradually evolved into the Duchy of Swabia, and as the local noble families fought for control of this duchy (one of the six or so duchies that made up early medieval Germany), one of them, the counts of Zähringen, with their castle perched high above the chief town in the region, Freiburg, emerged and took control. Like many German magnates, they avidly joined in when various emperors flexed their political and military muscle in northern Italy, and were given the March of Verona (the mainland around Venice) to govern—but not for long. They were expelled from Italy, but kept the title margrave and applied it to one of their local castles back home, Baden, and from there the name (which also became the name of the dynasty) was eventually applied to the entire region.

The Grand Duchy at its greatest extent after 1803. This trip focuses on the red bit in the middle: Baden-Baden and Baden-Durlach

Baden, like its name suggests, is a bath, a spa town, called Aquae or ‘waters’ by the Romans as far back as the 3rd century. It didn’t take long to drive here from Strasbourg, and I was allowed to check in early and park the car so I could walk around. It’s a lovely place, and it was a warm summer’s day, so I really enjoyed an aimless wander. There’s an ancient medieval fortress, Hohenbaden, built in the 12th century but a ruin by the 16th. I could see it from the valley floor, but decided against the hard climb up to the hilltop, partly because I assumed I would want to spend more of my time in the Neues Schloss, into which the ruling margraves moved in the late 15th century. I wound my way up the narrow streets of the old town and first visited the Stiftskirche in which generations of the House of Baden are buried.

I just love this look: loungin’ and waitin’ for the Rapture

Reaching the top of the hill, I discovered that the Neues Schloss was closed and inaccessible, even just to peek inside. It had ceased to be the main residence of the Margraves of Baden when they moved their capital to Karlsruhe in the 1780s (more on that below), but remained their summer residence and a place to overlook their growing spa resort town in the 19th century. From 1946 to 1981 it was a museum of the history of the dynasty and the region, but the family sold it in 2003, and there have been plans and delays and plans for a grand re-opening as a luxury hotel ever since. Certainly nothing had happened by 2014 when I was there. Quite disappointing.

My view of the ‘New Castle’ in Baden-Baden
the coat of arms of Baden is also quite simple. I love the gryphons

But the real glories of this town were back down in the valley below. In the 19th century, the Grand Dukes of Baden promoted their former capital as a fashionable spa town. The centrepiece is the glorious Kurhaus, built in the 1820s, which houses a spa, casino and gardens for strolling. And stroll they did. The Lichtentaller Allee is the famous place for strolling, alongside the wonderfully named River Oos. Aristocrats, princes and monarchs came from all over Europe, and diplomats sorted out Europe’s problems each summer while watching horse races and drinking water from one of 29 springs (warm, and with salt and minerals), especially after the railway arrived in the 1840s. By the end of the century, Baden saw about 70,000 visitors each summer. Heavily bombed in WWII, the town then served as the HQ for French occupying forces, and only in the 1980s did it really start to re-emerge as a new ‘it spot’, hosting major international gatherings such as the Olympic Committee and a NATO summit, and in 1998 opened the Festspielhaus, the largest opera and concert hall in Germany. After a lovely dinner overlooking a huge green park and watching more strolling (there’s a lot of that here), I was happy with my day in Baden-Baden—written twice to distinguish it from other towns with that name, but also in an earlier era to distinguish the senior line of the family from its junior lines based in other castles.

So on day three, I wanted to see more of these residences. My first stop was the very grand, and very pink, Palace of Rastatt. The ‘New Castle’ at Baden had been heavily damaged by French troops in the Nine Years War (1688-1697), and so the Margrave, Ludwig Wilhelm, decided to simply move and build elsewhere…down on the plain, where building was less constricted. It is remarkable how really flat this area is, and so suddenly after the hills of the Black Forest in which Baden-Baden is nestled.

Ludwig Wilhelm is one of the most famous members of the House of Baden, known as ‘Türkenlouis’ for his part as one of the leading generals in the Austrian re-conquest of Hungary from the Ottoman Turks in the 1690s. He decided he needed a palace to reflect his stature as a great European general, so transformed an old hunting lodge about 17 km from Baden into a model of the High Baroque (some might say ‘high camp’).

Ludwig Wilhelm’s tomb back in Baden-Baden. There’s a lot going on here…skeletons, angels, allegories of fame and victory…

The new town also has a very 18th-century feel about it, with orderly, well-laid out streets and a grand central market square. Built between 1700 and 1707, the Palace of Rastatt was not damaged in World War II and so remains one of the best preserved examples of this style of architecture. As the residence of a military commander, it’s not a surprise that most of the exhibits are about warfare, but they also highlight the Congress of Rastatt, held here in 1714, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession between France and Austria. But Türkenlouis had already died, so it was his widow, Margravine Sibylla Augusta, who played host to this important gathering of diplomats.

Sibylla Augusta, born a princess of Saxe-Lauenburg, far to the north, had her own summer residence not too far away, so I drove over to see it: Schloss Favorite. This is one of the nicest princely residences I have ever visited. It was designed to be a summer pleasure palace for the widow (and regent for her young son), and a showcase for her collection of fine things, in particular porcelains. These are still on display. The surface of the outer walls of the castle is an unusual pebble, and the whole thing has a delicate uniqueness of its own. It is a great contrast to the imposingly masculine palace at Rastatt.

Rastatt remained the capital of Baden-Baden until 1771, when the senior line died out, and the lands and titles passed to the junior line, Baden-Durlach. All of Baden was once more united into one territory for the first time since the Middle Ages—but not without some negotiations: during the Reformation, the two branches chose different paths (as these princely houses often did), with Baden-Baden remaining Catholic and Baden-Durlach siding with the Protestant reforms. So when the two branches merged, an agreement had to made that both faiths would be equally tolerated. I drove up to the small town of Durlach, now just a suburb of the much larger town of Karlsruhe, and tried to find evidence of a princely dynasty ruling there. There isn’t much, as they moved their centre of operations to Karlsruhe in about 1715. I decided not to go into the city, so I’ll need to return to this area to see the grandeur of the later Grand Dukes of Baden, their palace (completely rebuilt after World War II) and their tombs. Karlsruhe was a completely new town, built by Margrave Karl III (and it means ‘Karl’s repose’), much closer to river ports on the Rhine, and was one of Germany’s important court capitals until 1918 when the dynasty abdicated. It remained a capital city until Baden was merged with Württemberg after the War and Stuttgart became the capital. But still today Karlsruhe is one of Germany’s main centres of government, as the seat of both the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) and the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof). Excellent long names like these will be seen again on this trip.

It was late afternoon and I had not really had lunch, so in Durlach I wandered around looking for a sandwich shop, then sat in a nice broad square with a lovely round fountain, wondering where the old schloss might have been (this is before I had a smartphone, so travelling was always a bit more of an adventure). Turns out, this square was the very place. There had been an old castle up on the hilltop (the ‘Turmberg’), but when Margrave Karl II moved his capital here in the 1560s, he built a town palace called, quite unimaginatively, the Karlsburg. This, it turns out, was what I was sitting in front of eating my sandwich. Today there is a large neo-classical façade, an adjacent older structure of an interesting ochre hue, and fragments of a stone wall jutting out. Like Old Baden, Karlsburg had been almost completely destroyed by the invading armies of Louis XIV in 1689 (the same armies that so utterly devastated Heidelberg, not too far away). Work started on renovations after the war in 1698 (and there are exist plans intended for a grand new palace), but a new war in 1702, and a dispute with the locals over labour (and perhaps the projected size of the new building), made Karl III, as we’ve seen, move a bit to the west and create a new town altogether. Durlach slid into obscurity and is now just a suburb. The Karlsburg served as a barracks, a museum, and now houses classrooms, local government offices, a performance space, a library…

my photo of the old castle of Durlach, the ruined wall, and the newer Karlsburg beyond

That evening I stayed in a really cute hotel in the middle of the countryside, in wine growing country, the aptly named Weingarten. I had seen Presskopf on the menu before, and understood it was a local specialty, so for dinner (at the hotel, on a beautiful terrace) I had some—of course with some of the local white wine. I didn’t hate it, but it’s not my favourite thing, and the name in English (‘head cheese’) is rather off-putting. Basically, it is meat shaved off of the head of a pig or a cow, and put into gelatin. So why it’s called ‘cheese’ I do not know (apparently in England it is known as ‘brawn’).

The next morning I headed just a few miles up the road to Bruchsal, the palace of the Prince-Bishops of Speyer. Like Rastatt, this was a ‘new build’ following the devastations of the French army in the Nine Years War, and the appearance of the building is similar, a mixture of French high baroque with something a bit more Rhenish. The bishops of Speyer—a city on the other side of the Rhine from here—had for centuries maintained an urban residence near their cathedral, and a rural retreat located just across the river at Udenheim. Feeling threatened by militant Protestants in the early 17th century, Bishop Philipp Christoph von Sötern fortified Udenheim and renamed it after himself, Philippsburg. This fortress, at a strategic spot on the Rhine, became a key target for the French, and was actually occupied by them for much of the century. The bishop of Speyer had to look elsewhere and settled in Durlach, a few miles to the east. It had been site of a royal residence way back in the 10th century, but had been episcopal property since the 11th. In 1716 it became the formal residence of the prince-bishop, and starting in about 1720, a grand new palace was created by Cardinal-Bishop Damian Hugo von Schönborn.

if you build a palace, you should definitely have yourself painted into the decorations

In the 19th century, after the secularisation of church lands, Bruchsal became part of Baden and served as a dowager residence, a barracks, a military hospital and a storehouse, then was badly damaged by fire during the Second World War. It was mostly reconstructed but the decision was taken to restore only some of the interiors as a glittering baroque palace, and others on more modern lines—today it houses two museums, one on local history and one showcasing a fascinating collection of German music boxes and other mechanical toys. It was a lovely space to spend a morning, with coffee in the gardens, then I headed out, drove the few miles to the west to find whatever I could of Philippsburg—a must see for me, since I had read so much about it in my studies of the reign of Louis XIV, as one of the great fortresses of Europe. Well, there is nothing to see. Even understanding how it might once have guarded this part of the Rhine is difficult to perceive, since the river is no longer anywhere near here—you do see high earth embankments alongside a swampy ‘Altrhein’ where this bend of the river used to flow before it was straightened in the industrial era. After the famous sieges of the wars of Louis XIV, Philippsburg had once again been the setting for another huge siege during the Napoleonic Wars, after which the French ordered the fortress completely dismantled. Literally nothing remains, or at least not that I could find that day.

Imperial forces under Duke Charles of Lorraine attack the French entrenched in the fort at Philippsburg, 1676
the Altrhein at Philippsburg today

So with wistful thoughts about the impermanence of history, I hopped back into the car and set off on another leg of zooming on the Autobahn, due north past Mannheim and Darmstadt and Frankfurt. I had visited this part of Germany—Franconia—before, so I zoomed past and continued my more local tour about 60 km north of Frankfurt, to see what I could find in another remnant of the old Holy Roman Empire, in the city of Wetzlar. This town was a moderate-sized free city of the Empire from the 12th century, but had suddenly become much more prominent following the destruction of Speyer by the French as seen above. For not only was Speyer the seat of the prince-bishop, it had also been the seat of the supreme court of the Empire, which after 1689 was relocated to Wetzlar. Like the wonderful long name of the supreme court of modern Germany noted above, this small town suddenly had to make calling cards that included the word Reichskammergericht—and today’s tourism office has to deal with an even longer word on their pamphlets, the Reichskammergerichtsmuseum!

Literally the ‘Imperial Chamber of Law’, this court attracted lawyers from all over Europe and changed the nature of the town, from a market town to a town of erudition. So as I walked around the town—laid out on some pretty steep hillsides, and sitting in a picturesque curve of the River Lahn—I saw loads of signs for literary disciples following the life story of Goethe, who came here as a trainee lawyer, and was inspired to write his first novel, one of the first of the new style of German literature, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in 1772. I was personally more taken by the extremely colourful graffiti I found all over the town, playing on the town’s imperial past, with animations of a Holy Roman Emperor dressed in 18th-century costume in various silly settings, like feeding the chickens or performing in a rock band. I think it is Emperor Francis I, modelled on the statue nearby of the Römische Kaiser, a former theatre and dancehall.

vroom vroom!

After a nice lunch on the terrace in front of the former supreme court building—probably the least imposing building in the world; you would never guess it had housed one of the three most important organs of power in the 18th-century Empire—I wandered along the riverside, looked up at the ruins of a medieval castle built by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (the ‘Reichsburg’), then hopped back in the car for a short drive north to Marburg.

the former Reichskammergericht chancellery

Marburg is famous as one of the ancient seats of higher learning in Germany and as one of the cradles of Lutheranism. I parked my car on the banks of the Lahn (the same river I’d seen in Wetzlar) and headed up the fairly steep hillside on which this town was built. It had been one of the capitals of the old principality of Hesse, since the 1260s, and became a pilgrimage site for one of its early princesses, St Elizabeth of Hungary. She made this town her home, and a centre for caring for the sick, and was canonised very soon after her death in 1231. The St Elizabeth Church is still a major tourist site, though her remains were removed by Catholics during the Reformation. It’s a great example of high Gothic architecture, as indeed is much of this entire town, having been spared from the destruction of the two world wars.

Halfway up the hill, I passed another Gothic church, the parish church of St. Marien, which houses some of the tombs of the landgraves of Hesse-Marburg. Crowning the hill is the castle itself, seat of the dynasty until its capital moved back to Kassel at the end of the 16th century. It was the site of the Colloquy of Marburg, 1527, hosted by the Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous, who ardently wished to prevent a further split amongst reformers by inviting Luther and Zwingli to his castle to debate the finer points of the reform movement—others in attendance included Martin Bucer and Philipp Melanchthon—but it was ultimately a failure, and the Zwinglians continued to push for a more rigorous reform of the Church. It felt amazing to be in such an important historical spot. Today the castle is part of the University of Marburg, a space for its exhibitions and grand events. University buildings are scattered all over the hillside and as the town spills down into the river valley, and aside from theology, there are reminders in bookshop windows and theatre advertisements that this was also once a great centre of German Romanticism and the collecting of folklore by local scholars such as the Brothers Grimm.

climbing up to the castle
the Colloquy Chamber, Marburg Castle

Having seen quite a lot of wonderful sites today, I was ready to settle in for a quiet night, and was excited to see the room I had booked in a castle a bit further north, Schloss Waldeck. On this last short drive, I paused only to note excitedly my swift passing (yes, I got a ticket later in the mail) through the small village of Münchhausen, though I later read that this village had nothing to do with the famous Baron (whose family came from further north, near Hanover). Through some genuinely good luck, I had nabbed a fairly cheap room high in the tower of this medieval fortress-hotel: I marvelled at the view as the sun set in the west over the Edersee (a man-made lake made from the Eder river) and a hilly region that forms the natural frontier between Hesse and Westphalia. Through some genuine bad luck, however, my kidneys decided that this would be the best place to get rid of some excess crystalline material. After writhing on the floor in agony for nearly an hour, contemplating whether I should call the local hospital, or perhaps my German family in not-too-far-away Paderborn, or simply letting myself expire, I passed out, and woke up the next morning covered in sweat slumped in a chair. That was an experience I do not wish to repeat.

the view from my window, Waldeck Castle

So, bright and early, feeling miraculously revived, I had breakfast on the terrace of this castle. Perhaps it was the spirit of my ancestors who had healed me, for, just a few miles to west in the Eder river valley, in the gentle hills of the tiny principality of Sayn-Wittgenstein, a group of rebellious Pietists broke with the state Lutheran Church in 1708 and baptised each other as ‘brothers’—there would be no hierarchies for them. They called themselves ‘The Brethren’ and eventually were forced to migrate to Pennsylvania where they became known as ‘Dunkers’ because of their preference for adult baptism. I had visited the site of the baptism in the Eder, the tiny village of Schwarzenau, a few years back, to participate in the 300th anniversary commemorations, which were even attended by the current Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein himself (imagine my excitement!). But today, I needed to continue heading north, as I was due at my next destination that evening.

The castle in which I had stayed overnight—for better or for worse—was a mighty fortress built in the late 13th century to house and defend the family of the counts of Waldeck. It was in fact, shared by its different branches, which is an interesting idea, though each branch also had its own seat at a different castle, and by the 16th and 17th centuries they had mostly left this place as an old and uncomfortable residence. It served as a barracks, then a women’s prison, and since the 1920s has housed a museum of the local town and district as well as a restaurant and hotel.

the inner courtyard-terrace

The senior branch of the counts of Waldeck moved their residence a few miles to the north, to Arolsen, in 1655. Arolsen had been a medieval nunnery, secularised during the Reformation, and would be completely rebuilt as a baroque palace in about 1715. The town was laid out anew as well, as another good example of an orderly, regimented town fashionable in the Enlightenment—it is so symmetrical in design that the checkered pattern of the town on one side of the castle is mirrored by the same pattern of the gardens and forests on the other. The town would serve as the government of the principality (raised from a county in 1712), even after the fall of the monarchy, until the ‘Free State of Waldeck’ was dissolved in 1929. The castle of Arolsen is extremely yellow, and some shades of Orange, to play up its close links with the House of Orange (due to the marriage of Princess Emma with King William III of the Netherlands in 1879, and her tremendous popularity as Regent in the 1890s); and it is still lived in today by the princely family. It houses one of the best preserved princely libraries in Germany.

Schloss Arolsen
Queen Emma as Regent for her daughter Queen Wilhelmina, 1890

The Waldeck family traces its origins all the back to the early days of the Holy Roman Empire, at first known as the Schwalenbergs, and certainly have Saxon (rather than Franconian or Swabian) origins, as identifiable by their regular use of the name Wittekind (after the legendary ancient king of the Saxons), from the founders of the dynasty right up to the current holder of the princely title. They were entrusted by early emperors to guard the Upper Weser valley, and the borders between Saxony and Westphalia (in fact this area used to be called ‘Ostphalia’). This would later be a zone of conflict between the dukes of Brunswick to the east and the bishops of Paderborn to the west (and the Waldeck family included several bishops there themselves).

The symbol for Waldeck is a eye-catching 8-point star

In 1692, with the death of Georg Friedrich of Waldeck-Wildungen, a field marshal of the Dutch Republic, the line of Waldeck-Eisenberg remained as the only branch, and unified the lands into one county, raised as seen above by the Emperor into an Imperial principality in 1712. Georg Friedrich had in fact already been raised to the rank of prince of the Empire, 1682, but this was a personal title only, so the 1712 creation solidified the ascent of this family to the very top of the imperial hierarchy. Their case for this elevation had been assisted by the augmentation of their state by the addition of the county of Pyrmont, a bit further to the north, and it was to Pyrmont that I headed in the late morning.

Pyrmont had been a separate county from the late 12th century, its fortress built by the archbishop of Cologne as ‘Peters Mount’ to defend his duchy of Westphalia. But it really took off later as a spa town, visited for its ‘miracle springs’ as early as the 1550s. By the 17th century it belonged to the counts of Waldeck who developed it as a tourist destination, in particular from the 1720s when gambling rooms were opened, alongside ballrooms and long tree-lined alleys for healthy strolling. Famous royal visitors included George I of England, Peter I of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia. Its main broad avenue, pedestrianised and lined with boutiques, is still lovely to walk down, with its central bathhouse, ‘Der Hyllige Born’, or ‘Holy Spring’, dominating one end. I had a nice lunch, then looked at the very pink, very baroque, small schloss, an old moated castle rebuilt in about 1710 to house the princes on their summer visits to their spa resort. It’s a nice place, if a bit too pink and mignon for me.

Bad Pyrmont
Schloss Pyrmont

The family’s later history is not so rosy: called Princes of ‘Waldeck und Pyrmont’ after 1712 to recognise the two component parts of their state (not contiguous), they somehow survived the absorption of most of the smaller German states in the period 1803 to 1815, and were a separate component state within the German Empire of 1871. None of the imperial princes survived the fall of the monarchies in 1918 with their power intact, but the Waldeckers did retain much of their private fortune (perhaps as close kin to the House of Orange, as noted above, but also the royal family in Great Britain, as Emma’s sister Helena had married Leopold, Duke of Albany, the youngest son of Queen Victoria). The last hereditary prince, Josias, was one of those high-ranking German aristocrats who saw the Nazis (wrongly as it turned out) as potential restorers of their former authority, though he went further than most and became extremely close to the regime—as a clear signal, his eldest son’s godfathers at his baptism in 1936 were none other than Hitler and Himmler. Prince Josias became a high-ranking SS officer, in charge at one point of the Buchenwald camps, and at another of the military police in occupied France. After the war he was arrested, imprisoned, but later pardoned by the Minister-President of the State of Hesse. His son, Prince Wittekind, understandably kept a lower profile in developing his career, and served with distinction in the army of the West German Republic, one hopes as a bit of dynastic atonement.

I was now in the State of Lower Saxony, which used to be the Kingdom of Hanover, and before that the hodgepodge of principalities governed by the House of Brunswick. In the late afternoon, I left Pyrmont and drove cross-country and past the small cities of Hameln (famous for its pied piper) and Hildesheim (one of the ancient prince-bishoprics which once governed so much of Germany), until I reached my destination, the sleepy town of Wolfenbüttel, where I would be spending the rest of the summer.

I will certainly do a full blog piece on the House of Brunswick (aka Guelph, aka Hanover), but to finish off this rather epic journey, I will add a tag for the final day of having the benefit of a rental car, which was due to be returned in Hanover at the end of one more day. I decided to overshoot Hanover at first, and visited the sleepy town of Celle, seat of another Brunswick principality.

The Brunswick lands in the 19th century: Wolfenbuttel in yellow and Luneburg/Hanover in orange. Waldeck is at lower left (and Pyrmont is the small green F-W)

By the 17th century, there were two main branches of the House of Brunswick—one of the oldest and most powerful princely families in Germany, always nipping at the heels of the reigning imperial dynasties, but obtaining the throne only once, with Otto IV in the early 13th century. There was the senior branch at Wolfenbüttel and the junior branch based in Lüneburg and later in Celle and Hanover. The castle in Wolfenbüttel is by far the most dominant structure in the town, rebuilt in the late 16th century as a Renaissance palace. It today houses a museum and a high school.

Wolfenbuttel Schloss. Of course there are bicycles everywhere…this is Germany!

Across the park is a grand 19th-century building that houses a magnificent 17th-century treasure, the Duke August Library, the real jewel in the crown and the reason I was here, to spend three months working with this library’s collections—Germany supports academic research in a way we can only dream of in the UK, with support here from the State of Lower Saxony, but certainly also aided by the fact that super wealthy companies Volkswagen and Jägermeister are both located nearby. Wolfenbüttel is also an idyllic place to study as it is entirely quiet (in fact quite dull!) and has lovely parks and waterways (lots of canals!), and one of the best preserved collection of half-timbered buildings in Europe. Because the major industrial investment in this region was a few miles to the north in the city of Brunswick (Braunschweig), that town was heavily bombed in the Second World War, leaving this town almost completely intact and its world-class library spared.

The Duke August Library

The town of Brunswick had been jointly ruled by both branches of the dynasty, but after 1753, became the residence and capital of the senior branch, who took the name of simply Duke of Brunswick, since the junior branch were by now firmly called the Dukes of Hanover—and in fact, were of course even better known as the Kings of Great Britain and Ireland, since 1714. Since the year of this drive was, in fact, 2014, I was excited to visit the special exhibits being put on in Celle and in Hanover itself, so after fully checking out the delightful monstrosity of an old building in which I would spend the summer (with the wonderfully eclectic name of ‘party-evening-house’, though really meaning ‘end of work’ or ‘retirement’ house), I headed out in the morning to drive to Celle.

My home for 3 months, the Feierabendhaus, charmingly dumpy, and perhaps haunted?

Skirting around the city of Hanover I drove across a landscape that was very different to any I had seen thus far on this trip: quite flat, with lots of small canals and waterways. These feed into the River Aller, a main tributary of the Weser. Further to the north, and something I really want to explore someday, the flatlands turn into the wild Lüneburger Heath before merging with the broad Elbe valley and the megacity of Hamburg. Celle (or in an older style, Zelle) had been built on the Aller by the Brunswick-Lüneburg dukes when they left their old seat in Lüneburg in order to be closer to their more southerly lands such as Hanover and Göttingen. Like Wolfenbüttel, the old castle at Celle was rebuilt as a Renaissance palace in the 16th century, then modernised in a baroque style in the 1670s. It was mostly abandoned however, after 1705, as the dynasty consolidated into one single branch, based in Hanover, though it was famously used as a prison for the disgraced Queen of Denmark, Caroline Matilde, 1772-1775, since she was the sister of the ruler of Hanover, King George III.

Celle Schloss
The Brunswick coat of arms–the duchy of Brunswick itself has two gold lions on red (similar to England); Luneburg adds a blue lion with red hearts (similar to Denmark); and there’s a white horse on top

The exhibition here about the 300th Anniversary of the union of Great Britain and Hanover was really nicely done and I spent much of the day here. There are also extensive gardens (and the ubiquitous white horse sculptures—the white horse being the symbol of the Hanoverian dynasty), and nice places for lunch in the town. I also visited the main church of Celle, St. Marian, with lots of princely tombs to admire, including, notably, one for poor Caroline Mathilde, and indeed for the other famously disgraced consort from the Hanoverian dynasty, Sophia Dorothea, the wife of King George I, who was never allowed to set foot in her husband’s new British domains due to her ‘indiscretions’ with Count von Königsmarck (who lost his life as a result) in 1694.

The Guelph monument in the city church of Celle

These scandalous events had taken place at the ducal court in Hanover, and I made the short drive there in the late afternoon to return the car. Before heading back by train to Wolfenbüttel, I paused in the city centre to look at the old ducal palace, the Leineschloss, unfortunately completely destroyed in the Second World War, which is now the seat of the Landtag of Lower Saxony, the successor state to the Kingdom of Hanover (which had been proclaimed by the British sovereign in 1814, but absorbed by Prussia in 1866). That summer, I would come back frequently to explore this fascinating small city, and in particular to visit the newly restored marvel that is the gardens of Herrenhausen, just outside of town (thank you again, Volkswagen!). For the 2014 celebrations, there were five interlinked exhibits: at Celle, at Herrenhausen, two in Hanover, and one in Marienburg (as well as one at the Royal Collection in London). Marienburg is the 19th-century fantasy gothic castle south of Hanover which I did not visit, partly put off by the high prices of the castle tours and of the exhibition—it is the current residence of the House of Hanover (Prince Ernst August). But I was pleased to end this tour by celebrating once more the events of the Hanoverian Succession 1714, as they had once been celebrated, perhaps, by the inhabitants of the Principality of Mindelheim where this driving tour began…

a shop window in Hanover, celebrating 1714-2014

(photos mostly my own; some from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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