The ruin of the medieval donjon on Mount Drachenfels is a landmark of Königswinter and the Siebengebirge. You can go up there, and enjoy the breathtaking view across the Rhine valley. Today we only have the donjon and some of the inner walls left, and it is a bit difficult to imagine how it was like back then in the Middle Ages when this castle was built.
Let us go back to the High Middle Ages, early Hohenstaufen era. The Archbishops of Cologne 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.
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.
Building the castle
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, Drachenfels Castle 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.
The St. Cassius-Stift charged ministeriales to run their castle. These group of people were unfree nobles, they appeared in Barbarossa’s time, took over administrative tasks and also held military responsibilities. On the Drachenfels we meet a man called Godart, his name addition “of Drachenfels” meant that he worked on Drachenfels castle, not that he owned it. But this arrangement turned out expensive, so around 1200, the St. Cassius Stift granted the castle as fiefdom to their ministeriales, receiving a part of the income in return. Around 1225, the first burgrave Heinrich of Drachenfels is mentioned in historical sources. Burgrave sound similar to landgrave, but while a landgrave was a member of the high nobility, a burgrave belonged to the lower nobility.
Stones from the Drachenfels for the cathedral in Cologne
The burgraves of Drachenfels lived through heights and depths. In 1248, Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden had laid the foundation stone for the new Gothic cathedral in Cologne. A good time for the burgraves of Drachenfels began. The trachyte of the Drachenfels was the perfect stone, and in 1273, the burgrave and the Cologne Cathedral chapter signed a treaty on quarrying trachyte from the Drachenfels for the cathedral – an enormous project that quickly brought the burgraves a considerable fortune.
15 years later, they were involved in the regional war of the Limburg Succession between the Archbishop Siegfried II of Cologne and Duke John I of Brabant, and suffered a terrible defeat in 1288 in the Battle of Worringen. The Archbishop himself and his allies, the burgraves of Drachenfels, Wolkenburg and the Count of Löwenburg, were taken prisoner by the Count of Berg and had to pledge loyalty to him. The Archbishops’ supremacy in the Rhineland was gone, and so was their hold on the city of Cologne, and they never recovered.
Godart of Drachenfels
The burgraves on Drachenfels Castle did recover. In the late Middle Ages, at the time of the Luxembourgers, we meet the probably most famous burgrave of the Drachenfels, Godart, he had made a fortune with the trachyte from the Drachenfels. An anecdote says that he always wore a ring with a precious stone – a piece of trachyte of the Drachenfels!
Large areas on the left bank of the Rhine belonged to him, that’s why we call them still today “Drachenfelser Ländchen”. The Archbishop of Cologne was highly indebted to him, and in 1425 he had to pawn the Wolkenburg mountain with the castle on its top and the village of Königswinter to him.