Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg
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The château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg (German: Hohkönigsburg) is a medieval castle located at Orschwiller, Alsace, France, in the Vosges mountains just west of Sélestat. It is situated in a strategic location on a rocky spur overlooking the Upper Rhine Plain; as a result it was used by successive powers from the Middle Ages until the Thirty Years' War when it was abandoned. From 1900 to 1908 it was rebuilt at the behest of the German emperor Wilhelm II. Today it is a major tourist site, attracting more than 500,000 visitors a year.
The Buntsandstein rock was first mentioned as Stophanberch (Staufenberg) in a 774 deed issued by the Frankish king Charlemagne. Again certified in 854, it initially was a possession of the French abbey of St Denis and the site of a monastery.
It is unknown when a first castle was built; a Burg Staufen is documented in 1147, when the monks complained to King Louis VII of France about the illegal erection by the Hohenstaufen duke Frederick II of Swabia. As Frederick's younger brother Conrad III had been elected King of the Romans in 1138, succeeded by Frederick' son Frederick Barbarossa in 1152, the castle was called Kinzburg (Königsburg, "King's Castle") in 1192.
In the early thirteenth century the fortification passed from the Hohenstaufen family to the dukes of Lorraine, who entrusted it to the local Rathsamhausen knightly family and the Lords of Hohenstein, who held the castle until the fifteenth century. As the Hohensteins allowed some robber barons to use the castle as a hideout, and their behaviour began to exasperate the neighbouring powers: it was occupied by Elector Palatine Frederick I in 1454 and set ablaze by the unified forces of the cities of Colmar, Strasbourg and Basel in 1462.
In 1479 the Habsburg emperor Frederick III granted the ruins in fief to the Counts of Thierstein who rebuilt them with a defensive system suited to the new artillery of the time. When in 1517 the Thiersteins became extinct, the castle as a reverted fief again came into the possession of the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I. In 1633, during the Thirty Years' War which opposed Catholics to Protestants, the Imperial castle was besieged by Protestant Swedish forces. After a 52-day siege the castle was burned and looted by the Swedish troops. For several hundred years it was left unused and the ruins became overgrown by the forest. Various romantic poets and artists were inspired by the castle during this time.
The ruins had been listed as a monument historique of the Second French Empire since 1862 and were purchased by the township of Sélestat (Schlettstadt) three years later. When after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 the region was incorporated into the German Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine, the citizens granted the remnants of the castle to the German emperor Wilhelm II in 1899. Wilhelm wished to create a castle lauding the qualities of the medieval time of Alsace and more generally of German civilization stretching from Hohkönigsburg in the west to (likewise restored) Marienburg Castle in the east. He also hoped it would reinforce the bond of Alsatians with Germany, as they had only recently been incorporated into the newly established German Empire. The management of the restoration of the fortifications were entrusted to the architect Bodo Ebhardt, a proven expert on the reconstruction of medieval castles. Work proceeded from 1900 to 1908. On May 13, 1908, the restored Hohkönigsburg was inaugurated in presence of the Emperor. In an elaborate reenactment ceremony a historic cortege entered the castle, under a torrential downpour.
Ebhart's aim was to rebuild it, as near as possible, as it was on the eve of the Thirty Years' War. He relied heavily on historical accounts, but, occasionally lacking information, he had to improvise some parts of the stronghold. For example, the Keep tower is now reckoned to be about 14 metres too tall. Wilhelm II, who regularly visited the construction site via a specially built train station in nearby Saint-Hippolyte, also encouraged certain modifications that emphasised a romantic nostalgia for Germanic civilization. For example, the main dining hall has a taller roof than it did at the time, and links between the Hohenzollern family and the Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire are emphasized. The Emperor wanted to legitimise the House of Hohenzollern at the head of the Second Empire, and to assure himself as worthy heir of the Hohenstaufens and the Habsburgs.
The castle today
After World War I, the French state confiscated the castle according to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles; since 2007 the premises are held by the Bas-Rhin departement. In 1993, the restored castle was officially designated as a national historic site by the French Ministry of Culture. Today, it is one of the most famous tourist attractions of the region.
For many years it was considered fashionable in France to sneer at the castle because of its links to the German emperor. Many considered it to be nothing more than a fairy tale castle similar to Neuschwanstein. However, in recent years many historians have established that, although it is not a completely accurate reconstruction, it is at least interesting for what it shows about Wilhelm II's romantic nationalist ideas of the past and the architect's work. Indeed, Bodo Ebhardt restored the castle following a close study of the remaining walls, archives and other fortified castles built at the same period.
- Monique Fuchs and Bernhard Metz, The Castle of Haut Koenigsbourg, éd du Patrimoine, Paris, 2001
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- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Schlettstadt". Encyclopædia Britannica 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 340.
- (French) (English) Official website
- (English) Castle history and access
- (French) Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg on Ministry of Culture database
- (French) Ministry of Culture - photos
- Photos of the castle on Google Images
- Location of the castle on Google Maps
- The castle has a Facebook page