Imperial Abbey of Corvey

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Abtei Corvey
Corvey Westwerk 2.jpg
The west gate of Corvey Abbey
Imperial Abbey of Corvey is located in Germany
Imperial Abbey of Corvey
Shown within Germany
Basic information
Geographic coordinates 51°46′41″N 9°24′36″E / 51.778°N 9.41°E / 51.778; 9.41Coordinates: 51°46′41″N 9°24′36″E / 51.778°N 9.41°E / 51.778; 9.41
State North Rhine-Westphalia
Municipality Höxter
Year consecrated 844
Architectural style Romanesque, Baroque
Official name: Carolingian Westwork and Civitas Corvey
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iii, iv
Designated 2014 (38th session)
Reference no. 1447
State Party Germany
Region Europe and North America
Courtyard of Corvey Abbey
Corvey today

The Imperial Abbey of Corvey (German: Stift Corvey or German: Fürstabtei Corvey) was a Benedictine monastery on the River Weser, 2 km northeast of Höxter, now in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. As such, it was one of the reichsunmittelbare abbeys of the Holy Roman Empire from the late Middle Ages to 1792. In 2014, the abbey was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Extent of the territory of the Imperial Abbey of Corvey, map from 1803

Early Years[edit]

It was first founded in 815 among the recently converted Saxons on a site called Hethis[1] by Charlemagne's cousins Wala and Adelard, with monks from Corbie Abbey in Picardy, under the joint patronage of the Emperor Louis the Pious and the abbot of the older foundation, whence the new one derived its name (Latin: Corbeia nova, the "new Corbie"; Old German: Corvey pronounced [ˈkɔʁvaɪ]).[2]

Beginning in 822,[3] the monastery was reconstructed on the present site near the banks of the river Weser. It became "one of the most privileged Carolingian monastic sanctuaries in the 9th-century Duchy of Saxony".[4] A mint was authorized as early as 833[5] though surviving coins date from the early eleventh century. The church was consecrated in 844.[6] In 873-885, the Westwerk that is still extant today was constructed.[7] The site of the abbey, where the east-west route called the Hellweg crossed the Weser, accounted for some strategic importance and assured its economic and cultural importance. The abbey's historian H. H. Kaminsky estimates that the royal entourage visited Corvey at least 110 times before 1073, occasions for the issuance of charters.

Imperial Rights Granted[edit]

A diploma granted by Otto I in 940, the first of its kind, established the abbot, Folcmar, on a new kind of setting. The abbot was granted bannus—powers of enforcement—over the population of peasants that were to seek refuge in the fortress built in the monastery's lands; in return they were expected to maintain its structure, under the abbot's supervision. The workforce under monastic protection was drawn from three pagi, under the jurisdiction of four counts, who, however, were to have no rights to demand castlework from them.[8] "Here then a profitable sanction, which cut across the ordinary competence of counts, was entrusted to the monastery", Karl Leyser notes.

Under the guidance of abbots drawn from the Imperial family, Corvey was granted the first rights of minting coins east of the Rhine (with the exception of Frisia). It soon became famous for its school, which produced many celebrated scholars, among them the tenth-century Saxon historian Widukind of Corvey. From its cloisters went forth a stream of missionaries who evangelised Northern Europe, chief amongst them being Saint Ansgar, the "Apostle of Scandinavia". The Annales Corbenjenses, which issued from the same scriptorium, is a major source of medieval history—spuriously supplemented by the forged Chronicon Corbejense which appeared in the nineteenth century. Unsuspected, in the library lurked books I to V of the Annales of Tacitus.[9] Ninth-century wall-paintings remain on the west end inner wall.

Initial page of the Wernigerode Gospels. A 10th century book illumination from the scriptorium of Corvey Abbey.

Strife and Decline[edit]

In the Investiture Controversy, the abbot of Corvey took a stand with the Saxon nobles against Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. Its abbot Markward (served 1081–1107), "without doubt one of the most important abbots of the thousand-year history of the abbey" (Kaminsky), and his successor Erkenbert (1107–28) saw the abbey through the critical period.

The Reformation threatened Corvey as it did the other ecclesiastical territories in north-west Germany but the abbey did survive somewhat precariously as a Catholic state at the border of Protestant Brunswick and Hesse-Kassel. From the mid-16th century onward, the Prince-Abbot and his monks ran the administration in cooperation with a partly Protestant assembly consisting of three noble families, one town (Höxter) and a prelate. The Prince-Abbot, who had seat and voice in the Reichstag as a member of the College of Ruling Princes, took only a modest part in Imperial affairs, while the home affairs of the abbey smacked of little more than gentry-like estate management.[10]

During the Thirty Years War the abbey was damaged and later demolished. Only the Westwerk remained. In the 17th century, the abbey was reconstructed, incorporating the Carolingian structure.[6]

The school of Corvey declined after the 15th century, but the abbey itself, most of its feudal lands separated from it, continued until 1803, when it was secularized under Napoleonic administration and became briefly part of the Principality of Nassau-Orange-Fulda, then went to Jérôme Bonaparte's Kingdom of Westphalia (1807), then to Prussia (1815); the Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg rebuilt the abbey buildings as a Schloss (palace) which descended to Victor I, Duke of Ratibor, a member of the House of Hohenlohe.

The Kaisersaal of Corvey Abbey

World Heritage Site[edit]

The abbey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014. The site is delimited by the extent of the original Carolingian monastery, of which only the westwork remains standing today.


The Carolingian Westwerk (west front) of the abbey, with its landmark matching towers survives, the earliest standing medieval structure in Westphalia, but the abbey church is now Baroque.

The famous abbey library has long since been dispersed, but the "princely library" (Fürstliche Bibliothek), an aristocratic family library, containing about 74,000 volumes, mainly in German, French, and English, with a tailing off circa 1834, survives in the Schloss. One striking feature of the collection is the large number of English Romantic novels, some in unique copies, for in Britain fiction was more often borrowed than bought, and was read extensively in the lending libraries.[11] The poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben worked as librarian here from 1860 until his death in 1874.[6]

The present owner is Viktor, 5. Duke of Ratibor and 5. Prince of Corvey, Prince of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst-Metternich-Sándor (b. 1964).

See also[edit]


  • Poeschke, Joachim (2002). Sinopien und Stuck im Westwerk der karolingischen Klosterkirche von Corvey [Sinopia and stuccowork in the westwork of the Carolingian monastery church of Corvey] (in German). Münster: Rhema-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-930454-34-1. OCLC 50130269.  Also OCLC 491824148. Proceedings of a conference on the theme "Die karolingischen Stuckfiguren im Westwerk von Corvey : zur Frage ihrer Deutung [Carolingian stucco figures in the westwork of Corvey: on questions about their meaning]", held Nov. 1-3, 1996 at the Institut für Kunstgeschichte [Institute of art history], University of Münster.


  1. ^ The site, Hethis, is not securely identifiable (Hethis, noting Herbert Krüger, "Wo lag Hethis, der Ort der ersten Corveyer Klostergründung?", Mannus 24, Leipzig, (1932:320—32)).
  2. ^ Duden Aussprachewörterbuch (6 ed.). Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut & F.A. Brockhaus AG. 2006. 
  3. ^ Dedication of the new abbey church, September 822. Jahns, Susanne: "The later Holocene history of vegetation, land-use and settlements around the Ahlequellmoor in the Solling area, Germany," Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 15.1 (2006:57-63 ) p. 57.
  4. ^ Leyser, Karl. "Ottonian Government" The English Historical Review 96, No. 381 (October, 1981), p 735.
  5. ^ Hans Heinrich Kaminsky, Studien zur Reichsabtei Corvey in der Salierzeit (Historische Commission Westfalens, Cologne 1972) assembles the documentary history.
  6. ^ a b c Nathan, Carola (August 2014). "Ideenwelt der Karolinger". Monumente (in German). p. 34. 
  7. ^ "Odysseus in der Kirche (German)". Retrieved 17 August 2014. 
  8. ^ Leyser, Karl. “Henry I and the Beginnings of the Saxon Empire” The English Historical Review 83, No. 326 (Jan., 1968), p.9
  9. ^ R.J. Tarrant in L.D. Reynolds, ed., Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford 1983), p 406f.
  10. ^ G. Benecke, Society and Politics in Germany 1500-1750, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1974, pp.102-103.
  11. ^ The library has been discussed as a cultural marker in the record of a symposium at Corvey, Rainer Schöwerling, Hartmut Steinecke and Norbert Otto Eke, Die Fürstliche Bibliothek Corvey: ihre Bedeutung für eine neue Sicht der Literatur des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts,1992, and Werner Huber and Rainer Schöwerling, The Corvey Library and Anglo-German cultural exchanges, 1770-1837, 2004.

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