Hohenstaufen era

The medieval castle ruins on the mountains Drachenfels, Löwenburg and Rosenau, the church ruins on Mount Petersberg and of course Heisterbach Abbey remind us this time. We meet famous names: Frederick, Henry VI, Richard I the Lionheart of England and his nephew Otto IV, and Frederick II.

Mighty archbishops

Our region belonged to the Archbishopric of Cologne, and the archbishops were powerful men. Here we have a special political configuration of the Holy Roman Empire: the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier were not only high ecclesiastical dignitaries, but also important political actors in the Empire. The acting Archbishop, Rainald von Dassel, was emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s chancellor. Diplomatic missions to him abroad, also to the court of Henry II Plantagenet to win him over to Barbarossa’s side against the Pope. 

And yes, the medieval archbishop of Cologne had to keep his sword and bishop’s staff ready. They reigned over large territories, obtained the right to levy tolls along the Rhine and to build fortifications. Since the days of Archbishop Hermann II. (1036 – 1056), they had the right to crown the kings in Aachen. From the 13th century onward, they were among the prince-electors who had the privilege of electing the monarchs, so we call them prince-archbishops.

The Counts

They also had the say in our region. Since 1118 their castle stood on the mountain Wolkenburg; it was the first castle in the Siebengebirge. But their supremacy in the region was more and more disputed by the Counts of Sayn from the south and the Counts of Berg from the north.

The Counts of Berg were a powerful family, already twice family members had served as archishops of Cologne, and they continued to strive for this position. In those years we meet them only in the northern part of the Siebengebirge region. They were bailiffs of the Benedictine Abbey above the city of Siegburg. and thus also its provostry in Oberpleis (today Königswinter-Oberpleis).

The Counts of Sayn had their homeland in the Westerwald region in today’s Rhineland-Palatinate. When they set out to obtain power and possession in the Bonn area, they got in the Archbishopric’s way. Both sides took up arms.

The Castle on the Drachenfels

To fortify his position, in 1140 the Archbishop Arnold I of Merxheim (EB 1137-1151) gave order to build a castle on the Drachenfels. But his men plundered in the surrounding villages, destroying fields and vineyards. Many of those were owned by the St. Cassius-Stift in Bonn, so its abbot Gerhard of Are insisted that the archbishop transferred the castle to him. But only when the archbishop himself got in trouble, he gave in: In 1149, the St. Cassius-Stiftung became new owner of Castle Drachenfels.

In 1167, by the time of archbishop Rainald von Dassel, it was finished. It was a hilltop castle, well protected by its location and bretèches with machicolations. Attackers could hardly bring up heavy siege equipment; they were also exposed to fire arrows and stones.


Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-1190) was the epitome of the medieval emperor, but he of all people had to learn that, after the Investiture Controversy, the Pope would no longer submit to the Emperor. For many years, Frederick fought against the North Italian cities and the Pope, or both at the same time, to maintain what for him were the rights and the honor of the Empire. Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne and Barbarossa’s chancellor, very much influenced this rigid policy.

After conquering and destroying Milan, Barbarossa took the relics of the Three Kings, and gave them to his chancellor Rainald von Dassel, who was also Archbishop of Cologne and brought them there. From then onward, the Three Kings have attracted many pilgrims to Cologne, a precious shrine was built that we can admire in the Cologne cathedral.

Eventually Barbarossa had to negotiate peace with the Italian cities. Around the year 1254, at the height of the controversy with the Pope, the name of “Holy Roman Empire” appeared in the Hohenstaufen chancelleries. At the end of his life, he joined the third crusade, the so-called “Kings’ crusade” together with Richard I Lionheart (Coeur de Lion) and Philip II. of France. But to see Jerusalem was not granted to him, he died in Anatolia before reaching the Holy Land.

Heisterbach Abbey

Behind the Emperor, Archbishop of Cologne Philipp von Heinsberg (1167-1191) was the mightiest men in the Empire. He even fought the Emperor, and for some time Barbarossa laid an embargo on Cologne and blocked traffic on the Rhine. In 1189, the archbishop called for Cistercian monks to live and work in the Seven Mountains. They first settled on the Petersberg mountain, but left it shortly after 1193 to live in the nearby valley of Heisterbach. Here, they built their great abbey churches. In the Middle Ages, it was the largest in our region, only the Gothic Cathedral of Cologne was bigger and higher.

Henry VI

Back then, Henry VI (1190-1197), son and successor of Frederick I. Barbarossa, was on the throne. During his short reign, he became more powerful during his short reign than all his predecessors. After marrying the Norman princess Constance, he was entitled to inherit the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, and in 1195 he succeeded in conquering Sicily and was crowned in Palermo. Henry VI was the Emperor who held king Richard I Lionheart of England prisoner for more than a year; the Robin Hood movies take place in those years. Finally in 1194, Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine brought the incredibly high ransom money and Richard was released.

Caesarius of Heisterbach

The most famous monk of Heisterbach is Brother Caesarius, who lived there from 1198 to 1240, was a well known chronicle writer. Thanks to him, we know quite a lot about the lives of the monks in those days: they prayed, built their church and tilled their soil. Already soon they had more than they needed for themselves, and so they could feed the poor in times of need. Caesarius wrote about a great famine in 1198 when 1.500 people found help at the monastery’s gate.

The war for throne (1198-1208)

Emperor Henry VI died very early in Southern Italy, probably from malaria. His sudden death left the Empire in chaos, even anarchy. His young son Frederick was only two years old, his widow Constance broke with the Hohenstaufen and the Empire. Soon, a civil war broke out in Germany between Otto IV of the Welf family and Philip of Swabia from the Hohenstaufen family. Otto’s claim was supported by the Pope and his Royal relatives in England, Philips by the French king. Since Cologne was Otto’s capital, the Rhineland was devastated.

The castle on the Löwenburg

An embittered feud raved between the Counts of Sayn, supporters of the Guelphs, and Dietrich of Landsberg, a supporter of the Hohenstaufen. In those times of fighting, around 1200, the castle on Mount Löwenburg was built. Only the marriage between Count Heinrich III. of Sayn and Mechthild of Landsberg ended the feud.

Otto IV (1198-1215)

When it seemed that Philip had won and the war was over, he was assassinated in 1208. During the following years, Otto reigned as king and from 1209 on as emperor.

But when Otto resumed the Hohenstaufens’ policy and went for Southern Italy and Sicily, the Pope broke with him and now supported Frederick of Hohenstaufen who lived since his childhood in Sicily. Again, a civil war broke out (1212-1215). For some years, neither Otto nor Frederick won. Finally, Otto supported his uncle John Lackland of England against the king of France, and suffered a crucial defeat in the battle of Bouvines in 1214. Soon, the way for Frederick was open.

Frederick II

In 1215 he was crowned King in Aachen, in 1220 Emperor in Rome. Frederick II. fascinates – be it by his personality, be it by his way from orphan in Palermo to Emperor convinced of the imperial ideal. Already in his time they called him Frederick II “stupor mundi” (astonishment of the world) because of his extraordinary knowledge of languages, philosophy, astronomy, mathematical, natural sciences and also of foreign cultures, especially the Arab culture. He spent most of his life in Southern Italy, which was his home. Here he draw up his legislative work and wrote his famous falcon book “De arte venandi cum avibus”, and here he constructed his castle Castel del Monte.

In Germany, he yielded greater powers to the dukes so that they got to be lords of the territories, a crucial change of policy since from now on, the Kings’ power declined more and more, giving way to a period of political instability (Interregnum) and soon a monarchy in which the real power was with the dukes.

This so curious and open minded Emperor draw up very rigid laws against heresy, and condemned those found guilty to be burnt on the stake, because for him, heresy it was not only a crime against the Church, but a crime against the Crown. Count Heinrich III von Sayn, the Lord of the Löwenburg, was a highly respected noble and a courageous man, and yet he was accused of the heresy in 1233 and almost was burned on the stake. Heinrich could save himself because he was a mighty man and could appeal to a regular court in the cathedral of Mainz, eventually, he was found innocent.

The castle upon the Rosenau

In the High Middle Ages, a little castle stood on top of Mount Rosenau, but only little is known about it. Obviously it was built in great haste within a few years. Since 1222 Dietrich of Dorndorf, a lower aristocrat, called himself Dietrich Count of Rosenau. He died in 1243, and still in the same year his family sold the castle Rosenau to the nearby Monastery of Heisterbach – just to be torn down about 1250. The motives for that have remained in the dark until today.

End of the Hohenstaufen dynasty

During the reign of Frederick II., the conflict between the Emperor and the Pope culminated in tragic way, the so-called “final fight” was a war of extermination, in vain German nobles including Count Heinrich III von Sayn tried to mediate. Frederick II died in December 1250 in Castel Fiorentino. The Pope’s hatred followed him beyond his death. His sons Manfred and Konrad and his grandson Konradin died in battle, fighting for their inheritance. Southern Italy was lost for ever.

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