Hohenstaufen dynasty

The Rhineland in the High Middle Ages. Above, you see from the left to the right: Otto IV’s coat of arms, Henry VI, Philip of Swabia in the fornt of the medieval ruin Löwenburg, the medieval choir run of Heisterbach, Frederick II and Richard I Lionheart.

The archbishops of Cologne were very powerful men, they had the privilege to crown the Kings and were chancellors of the Empire. Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne and Barbarossa’s chancellor, very much influenced the rigid policy towards Northern Italy. After the defeat and demolition of Milan in 1162, he brought the bones of the Biblical Magi as war prey to Cologne.

The Castle on the Drachenfels

In our region, the mountains Drachenfels and Wolkenburg with the castle on top belonged to the archbishops of Cologne. But their supremacy was more and more disputed by the Counts of Sayn from the south and the Counts of Berg from the north. To fortify his position, in 1140 Archbishop Arnold I von Merxheim had given orders to gave order to build a castle on the Drachenfels. In 1167, by the time of Rainald von Dassel, it was finished.


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. After conquering and destroying Milan, Barbarossa took the relics of the Three Kings, and gave them to his chancellor Rainald von Dassel, who was alo Archbishop of Cologne and brought them there. From then onwards, 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.

The Monastery of Heisterbach

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. After a great festivity in Cologne, they were accompanied to England, and good relations between London and Cologne remained. Richard also had to send hostages, among them his nephew Otto, later king Otto IV.

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. The animation above is about him. Thanks to Caesarius, 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 Guelphs 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 the Löwenburg mountain 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. Compared to the Hohenstaufen emperors, only little is reported about him. Otto was a capable warrior, he had learned that from his uncle Richard I Lionheart, but he was not cruel. For instance, he did not exercise the “imperial right” of destroying entire cities for revenge, and often he prohibited plundering and riots. Otto’s mother Matilda Plantagenet was a sister of Richard Lionheart, from the mother’ side he was a grandson of the famous Alienor of Aquitaine. He had grown up at the English court, where his father was in exile, and he was very close to this uncle Richard Lionheart, a patron of the arts and a troubadour. As a boy he had been held hostage for his uncle.

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 the Rosenau mountain, 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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