Medieval castles

Besides the hiking trails and scenic viewpoints, the medieval castle ruins are exciting places to see in the Siebengebirge. You can visit three of them in one day – Drachenfels, Löwenburg and Rosenau. Yes, the mountains and the medieval castles have the same name, that’s a bit confusing. Moreover, there is Reitersdorf Castle in Bad Honnef on the bank of river Rhine, at the foot of the Siebengebirge.

Today, the castle ruins are tourist attractions, and it is a bit difficult to imagine the Siebengebirge in the Middle Ages when these castles were built: dense forests all around, dirt tracks rather than broad trails for pedestrians, riders and carriages, fogs, no lights and no inns. It must have been intimidating, especially on foggy days.

Castle Drachenfels

Throughout the Middle Ages, 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. 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-archbishoprics.

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.

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 burgraves

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 pledgle 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.

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. 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.

Castle Löwenburg

The Löwenburg castle was built around 1200 by the Counts of Sayn. Back then, a war for the throne raged between Philip of Swabia, the youngest brother of the deceased Emperor Henry VI, and Otto IV, Welf by his father Henry the Lion and Plantagenet by his mother Matilda of England and his uncle Richard I. Lionheart. As Cologne was Otto’s stronghold, the Rhineland was devastated.

The counts of Sayn stood firmly on Otto’s side. An embittered feud raved between them and Dietrich of Landsberg, a supporter of the Hohenstaufen. Löwenburg Castle was built in those years. Only the marriage between Count Henry III of Sayn and Mechthild of Landsberg round 1215 ended the feud.

The marriage made Count Henry III a powerful member of the high nobility. He became a highly respected man, who stood in contact with emperors and kings and reigned over a large county. The Count and the Countess of Sayn made many religious foundations. Most likely, they didn’t often come to Löwenburg, back then it was only a simple tower. And yet … the Counts of Sayn were knights, and so was their King Otto IV. I am sure that there was knightly life back then on the Löwenburg, although one certainly lived more simply on Löwenburg Castle than in Blankenburg Castle high above the valley of river Sieg or the family seat Castle Sayn iBendorf, Middle Rhine. Could it have been otherwise in years of war and political turmoil?

Count Henry III and Mechthild had no children, and when he died 1247, the county went over to his sister’s family. Hard times began for his widow Mechthild. In his will, the Count had decreed that he could have, among other possessions, Löwenburg castle for her lifetime, but it seems that her husband’s relatives insisted that she gave it to them almost right away. Already in 1248, ¾ of Castle Löwenburg was transferred to them, Mechthild never moved in, and around 1268/69 she gave up all rights on Löwenburg Castle. She died in 1284/85.

The next generation on Löwenburg Castle called themselves “of Löwenberg”, namely Johann I. and Heinrich I. They had the old tower torn down and built the castle whose ruins we see today. In the late Middle Ages Löwenburg Castle went through an eventful history until it fell to the Counts of Berg in 1484.

Rosenau

In the High Middle Ages a little castle stood here for a short time, 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 around 1250. The motives for that have remained in the dark until today.

Castles and Rhine tolls on the Middle Rhine

Our region is located at the northern end of the Middle Rhine Valley, speaking in medieval terms on the southern border of the power of the archbishopric of Cologne. Here, four of the seven prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire – the archbishops of Cologne, Mayence and Trier and the Count Palatine of the Rhine – held territories, and also many regional dukes – the map was a patchwork. The princes and dukes at Rhine had discovered Rhine tolls as a source of revenue, and had toll castles built to make sure that no ship could pass their territory without paying – just think of Pfalzgrafenstein castle at Kaub, built on an island in the Rhine.

Neither the Drachenfels nor the Löwenburg were toll castles. The nearest toll station was Bonn (strictly speaking, Bonn is no longer Middle Rhine), since the days of Archbishop Konrad of Hochstaden .. and it was illegal. Levying tolls was a regal and Emperor Frederick II. had not granted it, so it was illegal, but the Archbishop had long turned sides and supported the Pope in the so-called “final fight” between Pope and Emperor, which was a war of extermination.

Throughout the following decades, the toll station at Bonn was disputed. Any candidate for the throne who needed the prince-archbishop’s vote to be elected granted them the right to levy tolls at Bonn at least for a certain times. But when they changed their policies or even set out to crush the prince-archbishops power, like King Albrecht I did, the toll was prohibited. Eventually, the prince-archbishops had more pull, and in the early 14th century they were granted the right unconditionally and forever. Until Napoleon.

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