The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times


7 Jan 2013
  Border Castles and Conflicts - Castle Sichelnstein

Like most other minor castles I've posted about, the beginnings of the Sichelnstein are shrouded in obscurity and some names that may have been local legend rather than historical. To make things worse, the main source about the castle, the village website and guidebook, get some basic things wrong like misdating the Battle of the Lechfeld (it took place 955, not 933) and burying Otto the Quarrelsome in the wrong place, so I take the information it provides with a spoonful of salt.

The Saxon nobles Asic and Billing mentioned in Carolingian chronicles (811, 813), who fled from their own people and established local holds in the Frankian lands between Kassel and Göttingen, can not be connected with the later Sichelnstein family.

Remains of Sichelnstein Castle

The first person we can trace with more surety is one Wittilo who fought bravely at the Battle of Riade (933, also known as Battle of Merseburg, against the Magyars). King Heinrich I rewarded Wittilo by granting him the Sichelnstein as fief, and dubbing him. The ceremony took place during a diet in the palatine castle of Grona near Göttingen (nothing much remains of it, alas). This incident is a bit curious. One possible interpretation is that Wittilo was a ministerialis, a member of the legally unfree but still high ranking men serving in administrative functions at the royal court and as heavy cavalry in war. Heavy cavalry secured the victory at Riade which would have given Wittilo his chance to shine. Many ministeriales held fiefs to pay for their armour, but with less rights than freeborn nobles held their lands. An additional dubbing - if it is a realistic scenario; it's a bit too early for an established ceremony - could have meant that Wittilo gained the status of a freeborn knight. In that case he likely took his name of the castle from that time on.

The castle would not have been the present stone-walled building, but fortified by an earth wall and timber palisade, though the trench may have existed already. The houses were likely half-timbered; perhaps on stone foundations.

Sichelnstein, east wall with door

The feudal relationship was renewed under Otto I after Heinrich's death in 936, which means the fief was not allodial and likely indeed came to Wittilo first, and not to some obscure Carolingian ancestor.

The Sichelnstein family has left a few traces in chartes, several of them issued in Corvey monastery, so there may have been a connection (probably younger sons ending up there a few times) but nothing spectacular. When the empress Kunigunde, wife of Heinrich II, founded the Benedictine abbey in nearby Kaufungen in 1017, one Bardo of Sichelnstein was among the witnesses. Today, Kaufungen lies in Hessia, but at the time Hessia didn't exist as political entity (the landgraviate of Hessia was created in 1292); the land was likely crown land.

Walk along the northern curtain wall

The next fact we can prove is that the last of the Sichelnstein line, one Count Bardo, died in 1239 and was buried in Wahlshausen monastery at the Fulda river; the church still exists today. He may have been the same who killed his wife in 1189 but we can't say for sure. The Bardo who killed his wife had to answer at the diet of Fulda where King Heinrich VI (the son of Friedrich Barbarossa) first had him condemned to death but pardoned him to stay a prisoner at the monastery of Corvey. Bardo may have later returned to Sichelnstein, or the Bardo then living there was a relative. But the questionable website makes a mistake when it says that King Heinrich gave the Sichelnstein fief to Heinrich the Lion. The two men did reconciliate at the diet of Fulda after Heinrich the Lion's return from exile, and he was given back the allodial possessions of the Welfen family, but he was not granted any new fiefs. So if he got the Sichelnstein lands and castle, they must have been part of his allodial possession at that point. Because of the paucity of surviving documents, we can't trace the exact time when the Sichelnstein came into the hands of the Welfen

Sunlight sparks on the curtain wall

The Sichelnstein lands were definitely in possession of the Welfen family in 1372, when Duke Otto I of Braunschweig-Göttingen (our friend Otto 'the Quarrelsome') who had inherited the patchwork of Welfen lands in Lower Saxony, fortified the castle during his war with the landgrave of Hessia. Otto's mother was the daughter of Landgrave Heinrich II of Hessia who left no male heirs in direct line, so Otto claimed the lands. But so did several others, esp another nephew of the late landgrave Heinrich, and war broke out. Otto lost that war.

The Sichelnstein remained in Welfen hands. 1379, it was given to Otto's second wife Margarethe of Berg as dowry and widow seat. Margarethe survived her husband who died in 1394, by almost 50 years and lived most of the time in Castle Hardeg, but she visited the Sichelnstein a few times.

The trench at the western side

Later, the castle came into possession of the landgraves of Hessia. Maybe Otto's successors sold it or pawned it out; money was pretty tight in that branch of the Welfen family. It was probably damaged during the Thirty Years War and then abandoned, like so many other castles. Later it was used as quarry by the surrounding villages where you can hunt the stones in various old buildings.

Today only the lower part of the curtain wall remains, which is still a formidable sight. The interior contains the set up of a wooden stage and can be protected by a canvas roof; the castle is used for concerts in summer.

Seen from the south-west

The castle had once been surrounded by deep trench and only accessible via a drawing bridge that lead to the only gate in the east wall. Parts of the trench can still be seen at the western side of the castle; it still looks difficult to get across.

The groundplan of the castle shows an unusual horseshoe shape with the eastern side being straight and the western front curved. The curtain wall, built of basalt stones from the nearby Staufenberg Hill, still rises to 7-10 metres. Since it has no windows and the first traces of holdings for beams and a fireplace are at 10 metres heigth, the castle must once have been much higher, probably with half-timbered buildings like a palas sitting atop the stone walls like in this example (Falkenstein Castle in the Harz Mountains). Whether or not there had been towers can't be said for sure, but there likely was a battlement at the level of the stone walls since there are remains of arrow slits in some places.

Another view of the walls

The Sichelnstein was not a very large castle, but obviously strong enough to serve Otto the Quarrelsome as basis for his war with Hessia, so it must have looked more forbidding once, and you could cram a garrison inside if the men weren't wild about comfort.

Since the door was locked I could only peek through the grille to get a view of the empty interior. The height may have made up for the limited ground space.
 
Comments:
Gabrielle, thanks for the fascinating post! I've been happy to find Henry the Lion, the Young king's brother-in-law among the historic figures you've mentioned. I have a soft spot for his son, Otto, I admit :-)
 
Once again, great pictures!
 
Kasia, I have a soft spot for Otto, too. I posted a bit about him already, and I have material for more. (I always have material for more *sigh*, what I need is more time to work through it and turn it into posts.)

Thank you, Anerje.
 
Gabriele

Great photos.

Earth Google looks like it has high ground on two sides?
 
Gabrielle, as soon as I find some time and my eye problems disappear (I cannot spend too much time in front of my computer screen these days) I will look for your Otto text :-)

BTW, have you got the English (or German) translation of Otia Imperialia? As it happened it was written by Henry's former chaplain and is a treasure chest full of info concerning the Young King :-)
 
A formidable castle indeed. I'd hate to cross that trench.
I love the name 'Otto the Quarrelsome'!
 
Nice photos, and it looks like you had a nice day for your visit :-)

Is there an obvious reason for the unusual horseshoe shape, e.g. something about the shape of the land? Or maybe whoever first laid out the castle just liked to be different.
It looks as if the curtain wall has been repaired or raised at least once, since the stonework at the top is very different from the lower part. Just wondering if that was a recent repair or if one of the medieval owners remodelled the castle at some stage.
 
Kasia, unfortunately not.

Constance, yeah, making a nice hole in the walls with your trebuchet is only one part of taking a castle. :-)

Carla, I think the shape may have been due to the landscape; that trench in the west has a brook at its bottom - which could have found its way into a man made trench, of course, but it could as well have been there when the castle was built.

The castle was repaired by Otto in the 1370ies but the uppermost layer of stone was party added during an attempt to keep the walls from crumbling further. There are three different sorts of stone and mortar in the wall.
 
Hear, hear! Great pix!
 
Tremendous photos, as ever, Gabriele, the way the sunlight has become a star of the show is beautifully done. My inner pedant wants a word about this parenthesis though:
933, also known as Battle of Merseburg, against the Huns
At that date, surely Hungarians, not Huns? Even the Avars, of whom the word was much used by contemporary sources, were a thing of the past by then, whereas the Hungarians... well, you mentioned the Lechfeld, you know as well as I do!
 
Thank you, I sorta missed that one since the sources keep calling them 'Huns', but they are usually called Magyars in the secondary texts. I'll change that.
 
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.


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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 still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Biographies

European Nobility
Prince Wilhelm Malte of Putbus


Miscellanea

History in Literature and Music

History in Literature

Biographies of German Poets and Writers
Theodor Fontane

Historical Ballads by Theodor Fontane
(Translated by me)
Archibald Douglas
Gorm Grymme
Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford
The Tragedy of Afghanistan

History in Opera

Belcanto and Historicism
Maria Padilla - Mistress Royal
The Siege of Calais in Donizetti's Opera

Not so Serious History

Romans
Building Hadrian's Wall
Playmobil Romans

Mediaeval Times
Kings Having a Bad Hair Day
The Case of the Vanished Wine Cask

Other
Rules for Writing Scottish Romances
Tourist Kitsch in St.Petersburg


Geology

Geological Landscapes

The Baltic Sea
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

The Harz
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in the Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations

Solling-Vogler
Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

The Shores of Scotland
Staffa

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite


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