My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology
Border Castle and Forester's Lodge - The Altenstein at the Werra
There are several castles named Altenstein or Altenburg in Germany. The one I'm writing about here are a few ruins hidden in a forest near Bad Sooden-Allendorf, on a promontory 350 metres above a rivulet confluencing into the Werra, with no tourists around. But it was one of those border castles between Hessia and Thuringia which has played a role in history, albeit a small one.
The ruins of Castle Altenstein near Bad Sooden-Allendorf
Today, the castle belongs to Thuringia, but during history, it was part of the landgraviate of Hessia most of the time. The Altenstein is first mentioned in 1329 (see below), but it is well possible that the castle was part of the 'eight fortified places' which Duke Albrecht of Braunschweig gave to the margrave Heinrich of Meissen as ransom. The War of the Thuringian Succession
(1) had attracted several nobles who wanted to bite off a chunk of the Thurigian possessions. It didn't go well for Albrecht who was captured by margrave Heinrich. Heinrich of Meissen gave the 'fortified places', which included Eschwege, Allendorf and Witzenhausen, to the young landgrave Heinrich of Hessia (the son of Sophie of Brabant) in 1264, in exchange for other lands and privileges.
Remains of the hall and nothern curtain wall
In 1329, Landgrave Heinrich II of Hessia pawned out the 'new castle' of Altenstein and some villages to the knight Berthold Eselskopf (no idea why the guy was called Donkey's Head) and Hugo from the Mark (2). The mention of the 'nuwe hus Aldensteyn' is interesting because it implies that there has been an old house or castle prior to 1329 which was in need of repair or rebuilding, a task which Berthold Eselskopf and Hugo obviously already had begun to undertake. Landgrave Heinrich promised to refund the expenses of further repairs and new buildings should he redeem the pawn.
How old was the castle at that point and why would Berthold and Hugo put money into its upkeep? As mentioned above, the Altenstein may have been part of Albrecht of Braunschweig's ransom and then would date back to prior to 1264. Another possibility is that the Altenstein was part of the lands of the counts of Bilstein which they sold to Landgrave Heinrich I of Hessia in 1301. Berthold Eselskopf and Hugo of the Mark in that case could have been vassals of the counts of Bilstein and transfered the feudal relationship to the landgrave of Hessia in 1301 (3). We will likely never find out for sure, but one can assume that both Berthold Eselskopf and Hugo (and his wife) regarded the Altenstein as quasi-allodial possession or they would not have invested their own money.
Interior of the ruins of the hall and chapel
It was not unusual for the landgrave of Hessia to pawn out land to trusted vassals because he needed a lot of money. Relations with the archbishop of Mainz, who held lands in the nearby Eichsfeld, were still more than a bit strained, and a place like the Altenstein would be of interest to both.
It looks like the Eselskopf family was busy trying to take advantage of those problems. There are several notes in chronicles and chartes from the 1340ies, all involving members of the Eselskopf and Weberstedt families (the Weberstedt obviously also held feudal rights to the Altenstein; maybe they were the family of Hugo of the Mark's wife Gertrud). Like so often, the chronicles don't specify the crimes, only mention things like 'he shall end the acts because of which he has been seperated from his lord', or 'the aforementioned acts'. No pity with modern historians, those chroncilers. But it seems clear that the Eselskopf and Weberstedt families got involved in quarrels between the landgrave of Hessia and the archbishop of Mainz, and were not always on the side to which they belonged by feudal obligations. They promised in November 1346 that they would not commit 'unjust robbery' but instead would bring the quarrels to the court of the landgrave, to name one example.
Hall and chapel seen from the west
In the following decennies one can trace several financial transactions among the local nobility which all include clauses about the rights of the landgraves to redeem the Altenstein and how do deal with the financial mess that would cause.
Different angle from the north-west
There was a feud between the counts of Hanstein
- vassals of the archbishop of Mainz - and the Dalwigk family and the counts of Boyneburg who at that time held castle Altenstein for the landgraves of Hessia, which ended with a peace contract in 1377.
The Altenstein was captured by Braunschweigian forces during the Star Wars
between Duke Otto of Braunschweig, the archbishop of Mainz and the landgraves of Hessia and Thuringia. The castle came back to Hessia in 1438 and was given to the Bischoffshausen family who held it until 1643.
The northern curtain wall
Times had changed and now the nobility, often in debt, pawned out their castles to the dukes and princes of the realm. In this case, the Bischoffshausen brothers pawned out the castle with several villages and forests to Landgravine Amalie Elisabeth of Hessia. Which is interesting insofar as for one, the landgraves must have redeemed the pawn at some point, and second, the Bischoffshausen probably held allodial rights to the castle, or it would have been difficult to pawn out the place without agreement of their lord.
The interior was not in a good shape. The booklet about the Altenstein (see footnotes) gives an old list of broken furniture (beds, chests, wardrobes, banks, but also doors and windows) which 'if it was to be used must be repaired'. We don't know if the reeve who was installed in the Altenstein kept the old stuff or brought his own. But such lists show that furniture in bad repair still had a value, or it would not have been mentioned at all and simply thrown out instead.
Remains of the northern dike
The castle was badly damaged during the Thirty Years War. I suppose the forests and fields were the true value of the deal at the time; the Altenstein became the lodging of a forester. At first, the mayor (Schultheiss
) also lived on the Altenstein and court of justice was held there, but the court was moved to Allendorf and the mayor got himself a pretty house in town.
The inner bailey
We can catch another glimpse of the life on the Altenstein in about 1800. At that time, the remaining buildings of the castle were in dire need of an Extreme House Makeover. The forester Wiegand spent years
writing letters to the revenue of Hessia, listing the damage and asking for repair and finances to order repair work himself, but as so often, money was slow in coming.
1799: There were holes in the floor and planks rotten, several parts of the half timbered walls (Gefache
) in the second floor had fallen out, windows were missing (those got replaced pretty fast which was the exception), the well was blocked, the stone water trough broken, the oven in the living room smoked so badly that it was impossible to stay there for long, and one of the gables was on the verge of falling off and taking most of the roof with it. The stable and granary were unusable. In spring 1801, his maid broke through the floor and injured herself badly.
Well, the floor was at least completely renewed with planks after that and Wiegand got a new stone water trough. The smoking oven continued to be an issue, though. It took until 1806 before most of the mess was repaired except for a leaky roof, and that was at least on the to do list. Wiegand got an annual salary of 200 thaler; the repair stuff cost more than 150 thaler, so he could not have paid it off his salary.
The chapel seen from the west
It looks like the forester's lodge got a better upkeep in the 20th century. One can see the main building, the former eastern palas
of the castle, on some old photos from the 1930ies. The rest of the castle were but ruins. The Altenstein became popular as hiking destination, and the forester's wife sold beverages and rented out some rooms.
The remains of the hall seen from the inner bailey
Castle Altenstein belonged to Hessia, but after the exchange of territories in September 1945 between the Sovjet and American zones of occupation, it came to Thuringia in the former GDR. A forester still lived there until 1955; then the building was used as children's holiday home, but lack of money for the upkeep of the house soon led to the first traces of decay, and in 1961, the castle and forester's lodge were abandoned. Since the area belonged to the restricted zone, no one could hike up to the Altenstein any longer. The remaining buildings were torn down in 1973 (there are no traces left today), though the ruins of the castle proper were left alone and only crumbled a bit further, until a group of dedicated people did some renovation work in 2001. Today, the Altenstein is again a fine hiking destination.
Walls among trees and leaves
The promontory on which castle Altenstein sits has steep slopes on three sides, only to the north a dike was dug out; remains of it can still be seen. The castle had a rectangular shape with a palas building and a gate house to the east (which no longer exists) and another hall - sometimes described as keep (4) - with a chapel to the west. The other walls were framed with stables, granaries and other timber buildings which have long since disappeared.
Two main buildings may have been necessary because the castle often was divided between two families (f.e. the Eselskopf and Weberstedt in the 14th century). What can still be seen is a part of the northern curtain wall with remains of the western the hall and the chapel. Not a spectacular ruin, but a charming one.
View from the castle into the valley
1) After the last Ludowing landgrave Heinrich Raspe died without offspring in 1247, the cousins came out of the woodworks. His father, landgrave Hermann I, had been married twice. The daughter of the first marriage, Jutta, wed Dietrich Margrave of Meissen from the Wettin family ; their son was Heinrich of Meissen. A daughter from his second marriage (and sister to Heinrich Raspe) was Sophia, who in turn married Hendrik II Duke of Brabant and became known as Sophia of Brabant. She claimed Thuringia for her son. Her daughter was married to Duke Albrecht of Braunschweig, a reason for him to join the fun. The archbishop of Mainz had interests in the lands as well, which should not come as a surprise.
2) Wikipedia says that Hugo was Eberhard's squire, but the book about the Altenstein doesn't mention that detail. It seems unlikely to me that a lord and his squire would hold equal shares in a transaction. Moreover, Kuno was married, which was unusual for a squire.
3) The book about the Altenstein states this as fact, but cannot offer proof.
4) The walls of the building are only 1,20 metres thick which would be unusually fragile for a keep.
York-Egbert König, Karl Kollmann, Erna Ursel Lange: Der Altenstein 1329-2004 – 675 Jahre im hessisch-eichsfeldischen Grenzland. Eschwege/Heiligenstadt 2004
Wilfried Warsitzka: Die Thüringer Landgrafen. 2nd revised edition, Erfurt, 2009
My blog is celebrating its 12th anniversary this year. This makes it one of the rare species of Neanderthal blogs that survived the rise of Homo Facebookiensis and Homo Instagramis - though I can still find some other Neanderthal blogs on my blogroll.
Standing stones of Stenness, Orkney (visited in 2013)
I tried to teach my layout some modern tricks of flint knapping, but it didn't work out with that odd mix of travel journal and history blog, and the comprehensive archive I've accumulated over the last 12 years. So I only merged some posts - I tended to write more but shorter posts during the first years - and decluttered and restructured the sidebar archives. Plus I added a Featured Posts
item which I will change every 2-3 months. Most modern blogs have those.
View from the Fløyen to Bergen
I've traveled a fair bit during those last 12 years, even if a lot of it took place in my native Germany. But we got plenty of beautiful nature, lots of castles and a number of charming old towns, so I haven't tired of exploring this country yet. But of course, going abroad is a lot of fun.
Honnigsvåg, north of the Polar Circle
One of the most memorable tours was the one I did in April 2011 when I traveled from Copenhagen via Oslo to Bergen and then took the Hurtigruten Cruise
. If you like snow and want to escape the big tourist groups, a spring voyage is the best time.
Another great voyage was the Baltic Sea Cruise
with the MS Phoenix Albatros
in May 2012. The weather was perfect, warm and sunny. Returning to Stockholm where I lived for 18 months in the late 80ies was a trip back the memory lane, and St.Petersburg was just splendid. It was the time of the white nights, which made it even more beautiful.
St.Petersburg in the evening sun
The UK, especially Scotland, never fail to attract me. I've been there serveral times, and the archive shows a number of posts about Scottish history and Scottish castles (or Welsh castles, for that matter).
View from Stirling Castle to the Scottish Highlands
No wonder, with views like this.
So I'll keep traveling, and blogging with those old flint tools of mine, and hope my readers will continue to enjoy my little corner of the internet.
Roman and Mediaeval Vestiges in Tongeren
On my way back, I spent a day in Tongeren, a smaller town that often gets missed by tourists focussing on the Big Three, though it is well worth a visit. It is a nice place with some impressive Roman walls, a must see Roman museum, and a fine Gothic basilica. The sun decided to come back as well, so it was fun to walk around. (No boat tour this time, there are not so many canals.)
The 2nd century Roman wall
Tongeren started out as a Roman municipium
called Atuatuca Tungrorum, a town situated on the crossing of several military roads. It lies futher east than the cities of Ghent
, at the foothills of the Ardenne mountains. But the documented history of the area goes back to this chap who defeated several of Caesar's legions in a place called Atuatuca in 54 BC.
Statue of Ambiorix
Ambiorix, chieftain - sometimes also called king - of the Eburones got his own statue on the market square in Tongeren. Of course, Caesar came back with more legions and conquered the tribes of the Belgae. Ambiorix disappeared into the woods and into legend, and another tribe, the Tungri, gave its name to the settlement that soon grew near a Roman fort.
Another remaining piece of the Roman wall
Like every Roman town, Atuatuca Tungrorum got a town wall. Luckily, some parts of it survive until today, though only the inner ashley and mortar kernel remains; the outer stone blocks went into the Mediaeval town wall, the old Romanesque basilica and other places. It is still impressive, though.
Exhibits in the Gallo-Roman Museum
Rich Gallo-Roman citizens and owners of the villae
soon surrounding the town liked impressive burials. That way, lots of finds have come to light during various excavations. They are presented in the Provinciaal Gallo-Romeins Museum
, together with other finds from the area all the way back to the Neanderthals.
Celtic torques and coins
Of course, there are exhibits from the culture of the Celtic tribes as well, like these gold torques and coins.
The remains of the burials have been moved into the museum, where the colours and decorations can be preserved better than on the original sites of the finds.
Roman tombs in the museum
The museum is located directly beside the Gothic 'Basilica of Our Dear Lady'. That church may be less spectacular than the cathedral in Antwerp or St.Bavo in Ghent, but I liked it better because the interior is unmarred by chubby Baroque angels and Rococo frills. There are also less tourists around.
Basilica of Our Dear Lady
The basilica is based on the foundations of older churches. A cathedral chapter and monastery existed here since Carolingian times. The construction of the present three naved basilica with transept started in 1240 and took until the 16th century, thus the influence of the late Brabantian Gothic is stronger in some parts, like the main tower.
Interior of the basilica
The loveliest part is the cloister which is still Romanesque. It can be accessed via the Teseum
, a museum that displays church treasures and which is located in the former chapter hall and a remaining Romanesque tower. The golden bling is fun to begin with, but it was the cloister where I spent most time, just sitting in the garden and enjoying a quiet moment.
The lovely Romanesque cloister
One should take the eyes off the bling for a bit and have a look at the architecture of the chapter hall and the tower. Next year, a glass floor will show more of the foundations of the older churches that have been discovered during renovations.
Chapter hall of the basilica
Tongeren has a béguinage as well, though it is smaller than the ones in Ghent and Bruges. There is a restaurant hiding in one of the gardens, a modern art exhibition in the chapel and some pretty vistas in the sun. Unfortunately, the little museum that shows the living conditions in one of the houses was closed.
Tongeren once had six town gates, but only the Moerenpoort from 1379 survives. The worst setback of the town, which played a larger role in the Middle Ages than today, was the sacking by the French troops of King Louis XIV in 1677 where large parts of Tongeren were destroyed.
The Mediaeval town wall was built in 1241 after an attack by Duke Hendrik of Brabant. Some of those Roman stones came quite handy for its construction. Parts of the wall luckily survived the French attack from 1677.
The Mediaeval town wall
Today, Tongeren is a place to see for people interested in Roman history, and worth a stop if you like Mediaeval history and architecture as well.
A Virtual Tour through Mediaeval Bruges
The weather turned into a mix of sunshine and clouds during the days I spent in Bruges, but despite the dramatic appearance of some of those clouds, it never rained.
A tour on the canals is very popular
Bruges has even more canals than Ghent
, so one of the first things I did was to take a tour on the water, which was almost as crowded as the roads. A bicycle taxi proved the fastest way to get to my hotel. (Ghent has recently closed its old town for most cars which makes walking the narrow lanes easier.) And this is Bruges in April; in summer you'll better get a Nimbus 3000 to move around. *grin*
Old houses at the canals
There are a lot of old houses along the canals, and bits of green wherever it manages to grow. It is a lovely way to explore Bruges. I got a bunch of photos and will post more of them in a separate post some day; this one shall show you most the highlights of Bruges, also those not along the water.
There are a lot of bridges
There are a lot of bridges as well. When you stand up to take a photo over the heads of the other people in the boat, you need to watch out for those and duck in time, because most of the bridges are very low. In the Middle Ages, cogs could reach the former Water Hall at the market place, but on the smaller canals, transport was done by barges.
When the sun disappeared behind a layer of grey clouds, the vista reminded me a bit of the 19th century Bruges desribed in George Rodenbach's novel Bruges-la-morte
(published 1892) with its grey houses, dark waters and mists. At that time, the town had lost its connection with the sea due to silting of the Zwin river, and the industry didn't take hold like fe. in Antwerp
But today, tourists enliven the picture in most places even on a dreary day. Though there are spots where few tourists go (and miss out on some pretty and interesting places).
Sometimes the sun came out
And when the sun came out, the canals were a most lovely place. This charming spot can be found behind the choir of the Church of Our Dear Lady, Bruges' main church (more below).
Cloth Hall with belfry
Bruges has its Cloth Merchants' Hall with a high belfry, too, dating to the 13th century. It is 83 metres (272 feet) high and can be ascended by 366 stairs. The view from top is probably spectacular, but I don't like heights and I didn't fell like ascending 366 stairs, either. Plus, those vistas never come out as grand on photos. In summer, people sometimes wait for an hour and more to get inside, because the number of people allowed in the tower is limited.
Pretty old houses at the Market
The belfry dominates the market square, but on the opposite side is a row of pretty old houses, another postcard motive.
Under those green sunshades hides a whole row of restaurants with yummy, albeit somewhat expensive, Belgian food. Yes, I did try the famous mussels and loved them.
The hall of the Provincial Court at the market
The third side of the market square is framed by the Hall of the Provincial Court, an 19th century Neo-Gothic building erected on the site of the old Water Hall, a roofed-in harbour in the Middle Ages.
The well in the foreground shows the figures of Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel, two men who led a Flemish uprising and successfully fought against the French occupants at the batte of Kortrijk, also known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs, in 1302.
The old town hall
The oldest square in Bruges is called Steen
, after the castle that once stood there. The town hall - now its outstanding feature - was completed in 1421. It is the oldest example of a minicipal building in the Brabantine Gothic style in Belgium. The town halls of Ghent and Leuven followed its example.
Town hall, interior: the great hall
The interior was restored about 1900 in the Gothic revival style. The two halls were joined into one and the ceiling renewed with some Gothic looking beam constructions. The murals show scenes from the history of Bruges.
Holy Blood Chapel, interior
The Chapel of the Holy Blood started out as a two storeyed chapel adjacent to the old castle. In 1150, Thierri of Alsace, Count of Flanders, returned from the second crusade with a relic of the Holy Blood; until today one of the most venerated relics in Catholic Flanders. It is presented in a famous procession every year.
The upper chapel was transformed in Gothic style in the 15th century, and altered again in the 19th, this time in Gothic revival style. The chapel is now a - to my taste - overdecorated mix of styles. It is also full of tourists.
St.Basil's Chapel, interior
The lower chapel, known as St.Basil's Chapel, was never changed and therefore kept its Romanesque style. Regular readers of my blog know that this is my favourite style in architecture, so I really enjoyed this beautiful example. The place was much quieter, too.
Tower of the Church of Our Dear Lady, seen from one of the canals
The tower of the Church of Our Lady is the second tallest brick tower in the world. It rises to 122.3 metres (401 ft.). The cathedral was erected in several stages from the 13th to the 15th century; its dominating style is Gothic.
Unfortunately, the tower was pretty much the only part not scaffolded in right now. Most of the interior is not accessible due to renovation work, either.
Michelangelo's Madonna with Child
What can be seen is the church's most famous treasure (and they charge the full fee for it even during renovation); the Madonna with Child sculpted by Michelangelo in 1504. Merchants from Bruges bought it during the artist's lifetime and gifted it to the town.
I almost missed it. The madonna is a small part of a huge Baroque altar setting with pillars of black marble which I walked right past because I'm not a fan of that style. I had to ask a guide where the statue was hiding.
Old St.Johns Hospital
St. John's hospital dates back to the 11th century and was expanded during the Middle Ages, eventually incorporating a monastery and a convent. Further wards were added in the 19th century. It was a place where the sick too poor to pay for private treatment by a physician, including pilgrims and travellers, were cared for. It was in use as hospital until 1977. Today, the buildings house a congress centre and museums.
Béguinage Ten Wijngaerde, the inner court
Of all the béguinages in Flanders, the one in Bruges is the most beautiful, especially in spring when the narcisses on the central lawn are in bloom. It was founded in 1245 by Margaret of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders and Hainaut. Fun fact aside: she had a few too many sons from two marriages, which led to a nasty little succession war.
Most of the pretty white houses date to the 16th - 18th century. Beguines lived there until 1927, since then it is a convent of Benedictines, and a place of quiet despite the tourists (most of them respect the signs that ask for silence).
The Ghent Gate
is one of the remaining gates of the Mediaeval town fortifications. The town walls date to 1297 (little of them remains), but several of the gates are from the early 15th century, including the Ghent Gate. It includes a little museum which unfortunately was closed for lunch; and I didn't have the time to return.
Jerusalem Chapel, interior
One of the places missed out by the busloads of tourists is the Jerusalem Chapel and the town manor of the Adorne family, who some may know from the Niccolò
series by Dorothy Dunnett. A member of the Adorne family - which had moved from Genua to Bruges in the 13th century - commissioned the chapel in 1470. An existing chapel was altered to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem Chapel, the crypt
The main room with the stone altar and stone-carved calvary is flanked by two staircases leading to a second floor with another altar. Hidden behind the stairs is the entrance to the crypt which in turn leads to a narrow corridor and a small room with an imitation of the holy sepulchre.
There were no other tourists around and I found the chapel to be a nice and peaceful place. Some rooms of the former manor house include a small museum about the Adorne family.
House Ter Beurze
The place in front of the inn run by the family van der Beurze
was used as stock exchange market since the 14th century, when purely financial transactions were introduced from Italy. The family also worked as brokers and agents for visiting merchants. The house and square gave the name to the German word for stock exchange market - Börse. The house with its Gothic façade dates to 1493, though the inn existed since 1276.
Seven houses in seven different styles
Bruges is a town with lots of old houses, often with crow step gables or decorated façades in late Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque style. The ones in this photo represent seven different styles; the houses just happened to end up in a row.
Crow step gabled brick houses
A number of houses are made of brick and reminded me of Lübeck, like the ones in the photo above.
Bruges is a town that is best explored by walking around a lot, also outside the main tourist paths (and a boat tour on the canals, of course).
Van Eyck Square
The Jan van Eyck Square lies on the site of the former toll stop for ships visiting Bruges. At that time the canal, crossed by a bridge, ran all the way to the market. Part of it has been covered in the 18th century, thus creating the square. Today, the pretty vista is included in the boat tours.