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