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  A Time of Feuds - The Counts of Hohnstein and Stolberg (Part 3)

This is the third part of the essay about the Counts of Hohnstein and their main seat, Hohnstein Castle (as well as a few shots of the palace in Stolberg).

(Left: View through a door, with remains of the outer curtain wall and the land beyond)

A number of feudal transactions that gave the Hohnstein family more land and rights (like bailiwicks) can be found in local chartes between 1250 and 1350, but I'll spare you the array of difficult to pronounce German names. :-)

What can be said is that the family accumulated a fair share of lands in the southern Harz and Thuringia, including parts of the fertile Golden Valley (Goldene Aue) between the Harz and the Kyffhäuser mountains. They also established connections - often by by marriage - with other important families; among them the Eppstein who provided Mainz with a number of archbishops (the archbishop who supported Heinrich Raspe was from that family). It's always good to have one of those on your side. *wink*

Not all lands were obtained peacefully. There was a feud with the counts of Klettenberg going on for some years, including the siege and conquest of Klettenberg castle, which resulted in the counts of Hohnstein gaining the Klettenberg fief from the bishop of Halberstadt in 1353. This is a clear sign that the counts of Hohnstein had the more powerful supporters in the feudal game. I could no find a reason for the feud but that is not unusual - those pesky chroniclers tended to leave out the bits historians want to know. Ask Kathryn.

The counts of Hohnstein also got involved in the quarrel between Albrecht the Degenerate and his sons in which they supported Friedrich who fought his father for his heritage. Adolf of Nassau, King of Germans, who had bought the landgraviate of Thuringia from Albrecht, sent troops but they only managed to harass the land without laying siege to the castle.

The family fared less well when another Friedrich (III, nicknamed 'the Stern'), Landgrave of Thuringia sieged and conquered the castle in 1380 (1). It looks like the Hohnstein had got involved in the Star Wars and ended up on the losing side when the landgraves of Thuriniga and Hessia allied against the Star League of disgruntled nobles. The official war had ended when their leader, Otto 'the Quarrelsome' of Braunschweig-Göttingen, made peace (1273), but pockets of resistance continued for some years, fighting for their own aims. They counts of Hohnstein may have been among those. Relations with the landgraves of Thuringia became more strained in the late 14th century.

(Right: Remains of a staircase tower)

The Hohnstein family split into branches a few times, and sometimes those branches were at cahoots. The line of Hohnstein-Sondershausen split off in 1312; when it died out in 1356, the possessions fell to the counts of Schwarzburg due to a heritage confraternity. A few years later the branches of Hohnstein-Lohra-Klettenberg (older line) and Hohnstein-Heringen-Kelbra (younger line) came into being (1373); the younger line split again into Hohnstein-Kelbra and Hohnstein-Heringen (1394). The former lived in Hohnstein Castle though the latter had some rights to the castle as well (2).

We need a little background here: Robber gangs had been a problem during the 14th century. Often they were mercenaries out of employ and sometimes minor nobles with a crumbling castle who thought getting some extra tax from merchants would pay to repair that leaky roof and the lord's dented armour. The counts of Hohnstein had to chase those reivers off their lands several times, or conquer a crumbling castle to deal with the resident robber baron. But in the early 15th century, the problem got worse. The mercenaries were augmented by starving farmers and begging day labourers due to a period of famine; and indebted minor nobles became more frequent as well. One band was becoming infamous, the Men of the Flail (Flegler, from the grain flail they had for banner) led by Friedrich of Heldrungen. They started to plunder monasteries and other insufficiently fortified places, until some leading nobles saw the military potential in that gang and employed them for their own purposes. This led to the so called Flail War.

Thuringia was governed jointly by Friedrich 'the Simple' (with his seat in the Wartburg) and his cousin Friedrich 'the Warlike' who resided in the eastern part, the Mark of Meissen. Friedrich the Simple had married a daughter of Count Günther of Schwarzburg who basically ran the country Wolsey-style. A number of leading nobles were not happy about that, and alliances were established on both sides. Some quarrel about inheritance claims brought Dietrich VIII of Hohnstein-Heringen - siding with Güther - up against Ulrich III and his son Heinrich IX of Hohnstein-Kelbra. Dietrich employed the Men of the Flail who harried the lands in possession of the Hohnstein-Kelbra family (3). They even managed to sneak into Hohnstein Castle and conquered it. Heinrich of Hohnstein escaped - out of a window, wearing nothing but his night shift, it is said - but the assailants took his father Ulrich captive (Sept. 1412). Friedrich of Heldrungen fortified the Hohnstein and held it with his band of rabblerousers.

Hohnstein Castle, the upper bailey

Heinrich of Hohnstein made it to Ilfeld Monastery where he got equipped with armour and a horse, and rode on hidden paths to join Friedrich 'the Warlike' of Meissen, since the other Friedrich ('the Simple') was of no use, being dominated by Günther of Schwarzburg who sided with the other Hohnstein branch. Friedrich in turn assailed the possessions of Friedrich of Heldrungen, conquered his seat, and relieved Hohnstein Castle (sorry for the many Friedrichs here). Friedrich of Heldrungen and some men escaped, but most members of the Flail gang were captured. The nobles had to abjure vengeance; the rest was executed; some of them flogged to death. Günther of Schwarzburg was forced to accept a council that curtailed his influence. The Heldrungen possessions were given to Heinrich of Hohnstein as recompense for the damage the robbers had caused on his lands.

Another shot of the palace interior, with a fire place to the left

Dietrich of Hohnstein first continued to protect Friedrich of Heldrungen, but eventually he was afraid to end up in a nasty dungeon if not dead, being on the losing side in the Fail War. He sold his share of the Hohnstein possessions, including his right to part of the main seat, to Count Botho of Stolberg, and vanished into obscurity (4). Friedrich of Heldrungen lived in the forests until he was killed by a member of his own gang (Sept. 1413).

Obviously, Count Heinrich IX of Hohnstein-Kelbra-Heldrungen (as he called himself after he got that fief as well) kept having financial troubles after the Flail War, since he sold his part of Hohnstein Castle to Count Botho of Stolberg some time between 1423-28, and started a new existence further east, in Brandenburg (5). Thus only the older line of Hohnstein-Lohra-Klettenberg remained in the southern Harz. That line died out in 1539 with the death of Ernest VII, the last Count of Hohnstein.

Interior of the Count's rooms

In 1428. Count Botho of Stolberg got invested with the fief of Hohnstein Castle after Duke Otto of Braunschweig-Göttingen had been confirmed as feudal lord of the castle, due to the ancient feudal relationship between the Welfen family and the castle of Hohnstein at the time of Heinrich the Lion. In fact, the fief had fallen back to the emperor after 1182, so the present feudal transaction was due rather to the political situation in the 1420ies than to actual feudal ties dating back to the 12th century. The position of the elected King Sigismund (last of the Luxemburg line; King of Germans since 1411, Emperor since 1433 (6)) was not strong enough. The post-Staufen elected kings were more dependant on the goodwill of the princes of the realm than their predecessors, often foreigners without large possessions on German soil and caught up in the quarrels of various parties. King Sigismund may have agreed to Duke Otto's claim to gain his support (7). This may explain the situation of Scharzfels Castle as well.


The counts of Stolberg are another case of badly documented origins that sprouted several theories. The most likely one is a descent from the counts of Hohnstein, likely from Heinrich, a son of Elger III. Heinrich of Hohnstein appears as count of Voigtstedt, which was an imperial fief given to the Hohnstein between 1198-1204 and since 1210 signed chartes involving Voigtstedt as Count of Stolberg. A Heinrich of Stolberg accompagnied Landgrave Ludwig IV 'the Saint' of Thuringia on the ill-fated crusade in 1127 where Ludwig died in Italy; and stayed with the emperor Friedrich II on the way to Jerusalem the following year. Since Ludwig had brought with him a contigent of Teutonic Knights, it could be the same Heinrich who appears on their lists as Heinrich of Hohnstein, or his son of the same name (8)

It also would make sense for the Hohnstein to sell the rights to the castle to someone who is somehow related to the family. Private feuds aside, it would mean that the lands remained within a limited group of nobles.

Another shot of the gate house and the Count's rooms from the lower bailey

The counts of Stolberg renovated the castle, adding 'modern' (late 16th century) defenses including an artillery tower, and a Renaissance palace. At that time the castle was one of the largest in the Harz mountains. They promptly got into debt and had to pawn out the castle in 1603. Well, they had another shiny palace in Stolberg.

The castle was destroyed during the Thirty Years War. Imperial troops under the Saxon major Christian Vizthum who garrisoned the castle, put it to fire after they were attacked by the Harz Shooters, a Protestant guerilla force that attacked Catholic mercenary troops and sometimes even castles and fortified positions, thus making the southern Harz almost impassable for the Catholic/Imperial armies. But the Shooters also set up a side trade as robbers and were hated by most local farmers. Yet Gustav Adolf of Sweden, who had come to the aid of the Protestant/anti-Imperial alliance, supported them. Vitzthum may have burned the castle down to avoid the fortified place to fall into the hands of the Protestant alliance (9). The remains of the castle were still used as administrative seat until the new palace was built in nearby Neustadt.

The Renaissance palace of the counts of Stolberg above the town,
on the site of the former Medieaval castle

The castle fell into ruins and for some reason never attraced the interest of people interested in picturesque ruins (like Scharzfels or Plesse). Some efforts to avoid further decay were made in the 19th century, but during the GDR-regime, the castle was left alone. A society to preserve - and research - the remains of Hohnstein Castle was founded in 1990, and since 2001 there's a little restaurant in a restored outbuilding.

Zoom in to the Renaissance palace in Stolberg

1) The website gives the date and event, but without further explanation. The involvement of the Hohnstein family in the Star Wars is the most likely reason; a number of nobles had joined the Star League.
2) It is not specified what those rights entailed, part of the income, residence for some limited time, or other ways to partake in the castle.
3) The Flail War is sometimes presented as a predecessor of the great Peasant War in the 16th century since some of the men were poor farmers looking for a better life. But destroying the land of other farmers to hurt the income of a nobleman is not the way to go for social justice.
4) He may have died a prisoner in Dringenberg Castle in 1417.
5) His son had been captured by the men of the flail during the attack on the Hohnstein. I could not find out what happened to the boy; maybe he was killed, which would explain why the father wanted to move away from a place full of bad memories.
6) Escpecially for Kasia (*wink*): He was also King of Bohemia since 1419. His mother was Elisabeth of Pomerania, granddaughter of King Kasimir III of Poland.
7) It is interesting that the claim of the landgraves of Thuringia was overruled esp. since Friedrich the Warlike rose to Prince Elector of Saxony under King Sigismund. Maybe some castle at the fringes of his lands didn't mean that much to him and he obliged Sigismund to consider it a homefallen imperial fief (which it had been at the time of Barbarossa, after Heinrich the Lion's fall).
8) We have seen several times how fluctuating naming was during the first years when a family took a new main seat.
9) A few years later Vizthum was found on the Protestant side at the battle of Wittstock (1636) where he led the Swedish reserve.

The town of Stolberg seen from the church hill
(It's a typical Harz town spreading along a valley between the mountains.)

Uwe Mosebach: Wo einst die Grafen von Hohnstein lebten. Clausthal-Zellerfeld, 1993
Bernd Schneidmüller: Die Welfen - Herrschaft und Erinnerung. Stuttgart, 2000
Wilfried Warsitzka: Die Thüringer Landgrafen. 2nd revised edition, Erfurt, 2009


  Between Staufen, Welfen, and Thuringia - The Counts of Hohnstein (Part 2)

I have mentioned a few times that the emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and Duke Heinrich 'the Lion' of Saxony and Bavaria, cousins and close allies for a long time, eventually had a falling out that led to Heinrich's exile in England in 1182. Here is a - admittedly short; the events would cover more than one post of their own - introduction to what happened. The events will influence the feudal position of the Ilfeld-Hohnstein family, among others.

One of Barbarossa's main problems was Italy. The cities of Lombardy were technically vassals of the emperor but prefered to ignore that little detail whenever the emperor went back to Germany, Pope Alexander III had excommunicated Barbarossa in good old tradition (1)), and the Normans had conquered Sicily. Barbarossa crossed the Alps no less than five times between 1154 (when he was crowned emperor) and 1177 (when he had to submit to pope Alexander III) to try to sort out the messes. Success varied and overall, those wars cost a lot of money and men, esp. during the malaria epidemic in 1168. Heinrich the Lion had been a faithful follower in the first campaigns, bringing with him a great number of knights (2) and men, but when Friedrich Barbarossa called for the 5th time, he declined.

Hohnstein Castle, remains of the round tower

One reason was that Heinrich had his own interests in expanding his lands eastward (3) and in controlling the unruly Saxon nobility. Heinrich had snatched some rich heritages as homefallen fiefs (among them Stade and Winzenburg) and he continously tried to expand his power over nobles and bishops who'd have prefered imperial immediacy. Thus a veritable league against Heinrich developed, including the margrave of Brandenburg, the landgrave of Thuringia, the margrave of Meissen, the bishops of Magdeburg and Halberstadt, and more. Open war broke out in 1167, and Friedrich Barbarossa had to intervene to reestablish the peace. At that time he still fully supported his cousin Heinrich.

View into the Renaissance palace from one of the doors

Unlike Barbarossa, Heinrich had not much at stake in Italy (4) and he may also have worried what would happen if he left that coalition of enemies behind. Barbarossa had already left for Italy for the fifth time and faced so many problems that he retired halfway into the Alps, where he asked Duke Heinrich for succour. They met at Chiavenna in early 1176. According to some chronicles Heinrich asked for the silver mines of Goslar as reward for another military allegiance, but that was something Friedrich could not grant him; the income from the mines was too important. The famous scene where Friedrich knelt before Heinrich cannot be proven, though. It would of course have been a powerful gesture Heinrich should not have ignored, but it is a legend (5).

Great hall of the Renaissance palace

Well, Friedrich Barbarossa went to Italy without Heinrich and his host, and promptly lost the Battle of Legnano, barely escaping with his life. Barbarossa was then obliged to make peace with Pope Alexander III and submit to the pope to have his excommunication lifted (1177). Barbarossa might have put some of the blame for that on Heinrich whose men were sorely missed at Legnano.

But the pressure from the Saxon nobles and bishops, and other princes of the realm increased to a point Barbarossa could no longer ignore their complaints without endangering his own position.

Outer bailey

Another outbreak of an armed conflict started in autumn 1178. Heinrich was commanded to appear at the diet of Worms to defend himself against the accusation of breaking the king's peace, but Heinrich refused to attend because it would have meant that he acknowledged the accusation. He did not appear on further diets, either. According to feudal law, this was disobedience. So his fiefs were confiscated and redistributed among the nobles in opposition to Heinrich (6); he was also condemned to outlawry. Friedrich Barbarossa split the duchies of Saxony and Bavaria to avoid another accumulation of power. The princes of the realm got a very important concession out of the emperor: he promised that he would not receive Heinrich back in his grace, which was his right.

Between the curtain walls

The judgement was executed by military might, since Heinrich didn't stand idly by. After some initial success, the cards turned against him. Friedrich Barbarossa set the nobles an ultimatum: turn their allegiance to him or lose their fiefs. He picked a palatine seat in the Harz (7) for a purpose, I think. Most of the local nobles, including the counts of Regenstein, Scharzfeld and of Ilfeld-Hohnstein, swore their fealty to the emperor. Heinrich's support was crumpling rapidly, even a number of his ministeriales, who had a much closer personal bond than freeborn nobles, abandoned the former duke. In the end, Heinrich performed a deditio at the diet in Erfurt in November 1181. Friedrich Barbarossa returned his allodial possessions to him and likely put a time limit on the exile (8).

The well with the inner gatehouse in the background

So the Ilfeld-Hohnstein got out of the mess with their feudal obligation returned to the emperor (Ilfeld may have been an imperial fief since the time of Lothar of Süpplingenburg, before it came to Heinrich the Lion). What is interesting is that we can trace Elger of Ilfeld as witness on a charte by Ludwig III Landgrave of Thuringia in 1182.

The family kept their imperial fief during the troubles between Staufen and Welfen after the death of Barbarossa's son and successor Heinrich VI in 1197 (the time of the quarrel between the Heinrich's son Otto IV and Barbarossa's younger son Philipp of Swabia, and his successor Friedrich II) and the shift of Staufen interests towards Italy (9). Yet they may have kept an eye out for protection should things go amiss, and the landgraves of Thuringia had become a powerful family. Witnessing a charte is a sign of some sort of relationship.

Gate house and round tower

The Ilfeld-Hohnstein family had grown quite a bit since Elger II got the Hohnstein as fief from Heinrich the Lion in 1178. He and Lutradis had only one son, another Elger (who came of age about 1184, † 1219), but this Elger III had several children with his wife Oda of Magdeburg, who start to appear in local chartes since 1210. The oldest son, Dietrich, lived at the Hohnstein after his marriage. The second son, Heinrich, was a Teutonic knight and among the men who accomagnied the emperor Friedrich II to Jerusalem in 1228; a third son may be identical with the Elger, listed as deacon of Halberstadt, who died in 1237. A daughter, Lutradis, became abbess of Drübeck. Since the family had given up the castle of Ilfeld, the Hohnstein must have been pretty crowded since about 1200. There may have lived up to 60 people there; the family, their retainers and ministeriales, and the servants.

From the time of Elger III on the family took the name of Hohnstein alone. The family can only be glimpsed in historical records, but they seem to have done well in accumulating more land by marriage, and they became one of the powerful families in the southern Harz.

Outer gate seen from the inside

The connection with the landgraves of Thuringia remained: one Elger of Hohnstein, probably a son of Dietrich I, was the confessor of the last Ludowing landgrave, Heinrich Raspe. Heinrich Raspe had been named regent for the underage Konrad IV, son of Friedrich II, in Germany (while Friedrich was busy in Italy). But several years after Friedrich II got excommunicated a second time in 1239, Heinrich Raspe switched to the pro-papal and anti-Staufen coalition in 1245. It is difficult to find a reason for this (10) though maybe it was religious scruples due to the excommunication of Friedrich II (11). Heinrich Raspe was elected king, but by a clerically dominated group of nobles under leadership of the bishop of Mainz (who had changed sides as well), and by the support of the pope. Heinrich fought Konrad in one battle but died, maybe of a wound gotten in that battle, only 9 months after he became king, in February 1247.

Another view of the remains of the palace, seen from the outer bailey

Heinrich Raspe had died childless. But there were several candidates from the female line who wanted the lands and the landgraviate. The result was the War of the Thuringian Succession (1247-1264) between the Margrave of Meissen from the Wettin family, Sophie of Brabant, and the archbishop of Mainz. In the end, Heinrich Margrave of Meissen got the landgraviate of Thuringia and the Thuringian / Saxon possessions, while Sophie's son, another Heinrich, got the newly created landgraviate of Hessia.

The Hohnstein family played their cards well. With the lack of Staufen protection and an array of elected kings who never even visited Germany (12), an imperial fief was prone to get snatched. They decided to stick with the landgraves of Thuringia and took the fief from the Wettin family. The counts of Hohnstein became one of the important vassals of the new line of Thuringian landgraves and gained a number of fiefs and rights during the second half of the 13th century, the peak time of the family.

Remains of a tower with round windows

1) I leave out the additional problems caused by a schism. The counterpopes (Victor IV and Paschalis III) supported Barbarossa, but in the end Alexander turned out the more powerful and Friedrich had to deal with him.
2) One source mentions 1,200 heavily armoured horse. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is clear that Heinrich's support was important.
3) His war against the pagan Slavic tribes had been given the full rights of a crusade in 1147.
4) He had a feudal claim on some Italian lands from his great grandfather (Welf aka Guelph IV), but that problem had been solved in 1154.
5) Complete with half a dozen contradictory variants. It only appears in chronicles that were written long after the event.
6) Heinrich lost his status as prince of the realm and was no more than a freeborn noble.
7) Werla, which no longer eixists.
8) After his promise to the nobles, that was about the best Barbarossa could do. While it has long be held in research papers that the emperor was glad to be rid of the second most powerful man in the realm and orchestrated Heinrich's downfall, newer books and essays see his role more moderate, victim of the nobles more than perpetrator. The concessions Barbarossa made towards the nobles and bishops indeed give an argument to the latter.
9) According to the Hohnstein website.
10) Kaufhold, p. 324 (see below).
11) One may wonder what role Elger of Hohnstein played in the affair. He was a highly educated cleric, had spent some time in Paris, and he could likely argue with the best of them. Heinrich Raspe was a religious man, so a confessor will have had a good deal of influence. The fact that Friedrich II could not agree to all claims of Pope Innocent IV during the peace negotiations cast a bad light on the emperor (though politically he was right to refuse).
12) Except for Richard of Cornwall, who at least spent some time in the towns at the Rhine.

The well

Odilo Engels: Die Staufer. 9th revised edition, Stuttgart, 2010
Karl Jordan: Heinrich der Löwe. Munich, 1979
Manfred Kaufhold: Die Könige des Interregnum - Konrad IV, Heinrich Raspe, Wilhem, Alfons, Richard (1245-1273), in: Bernd Schneidmüller/ Stefan Weinfurter (ed.): Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters. Historische Portraits von Heinrich I. bis Maximilian I. (919–1519), Munich 2003, p. 315-339
Uwe Mosebach: Wo einst die Grafen von Hohnstein lebten. Clausthal-Zellerfeld, 1993
Ferdinand Oppl: Friedrich Barbarossa, in: Gestalten des Mittelalters und der Renaissance, Serie der WBG. Darmstadt, 1990
Bernd Schneidmüller: Die Welfen - Herrschaft und Erinnerung. Stuttgart, 2000
Wilfried Warsitzka: Die Thüringer Landgrafen. 2nd revised edition, Erfurt, 2009

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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)