History of the City of Constance
by Christian Schaller
Constance is the largest city on Lake Constance and can look back on two thousand years of history. The Baden-Württemberg city lies directly on the border with Switzerland and impresses with its completely preserved medieval old town with the magnificent cathedral. The city is also famous for the Council of Constance, which began in 1414 and is one of the most important events of the Middle Ages. But even 600 years later, the city on the lake has lost none of its splendour, despite some difficult times.
Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Roman camp on the border to bishopric and imperial city
The area around Constance already offered a favourable traffic location and at the same time a strategic position in pre-Christian times. Today’s Münsterhügel was protected on all sides by water and marshes. Its location on the Seerhein, which connected the upper, western part of Lake Constance with the lower, eastern part, made it relatively easy to cross the huge inland body of water. From here, trade routes led in all directions and, of course, shipping also offered rapid progress. Celts settled here as early as the second century BC. Later, when the Roman Empire expanded and also incorporated the Lake Constance region into the Empire in the course of the Alpine campaign under Emperor Augustus until 15 BC, the Celtic settlement was destroyed. In the following three centuries, the area remained loosely settled and archaeological evidence of several Roman estates can be found in the surrounding area. It was not until late antiquity that a clear break occurred: around 260, the Germanic tribe of the Alamanni conquered the Dekumatland, a roughly triangular area between the Rhine in the west and the Danube in the east, which today roughly corresponds to southern Baden-Württemberg.
Ancient Constance was now no longer located in the heart of the Roman province of Raetia, but became a fortress on the border. Around 300, a mighty stone defensive fort was built here. The name of this fort has been handed down as Constantia and can probably be linked to the Constantinian imperial dynasty of the Roman Empire, which ruled at this time. The camp was intended to guard the crossing of the Rhine against the Alamanni. Over the years, a flourishing civilian settlement developed near the fortress. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the slow fading of Roman administration and culture, Constance fell to the strengthening Frankish Empire in the sixth century. Their ruling dynasty, the Merovingians, had their centre of power in what is now northern France, but they gradually extended their sphere of influence eastwards during this period. The first predecessor of today’s cathedral was probably built on the foundations of the late antique fortress.
Around 585, Maximus, the first bishop, settled in the growing city and founded the bishopric of Constance. The bishop and later Catholic saint Conrad of Constance (900-975) decided to develop the growing city on Lake Constance into a (naturally much smaller and more modest) image of the holy city of Rome – during his reign, new churches and chapels were built and old ones renewed.
Soon the city also profited from long-distance trade. In the Middle Ages, it advanced to become a centre of the linen trade and was situated on important roads between Germany, France, Italy and the slowly emerging Swiss Confederation. The self-confident bourgeoisie won more and more rights from the city ruler, the bishop. In 1192, Constance finally attained the status of a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and was thus only accountable to the Roman-German Emperor. At the height of its power, the city finally had a monumental department stores’ and warehouse built at the harbour in 1388, which was then also to become a venue for the Council of Constance. Held in Constance from 1414 to 1418, the Council was a spectacular major event and continues to shape the city’s cultural consciousness to the present day. The assembly was supposed to end the Great Western Schism, which had existed since 1378 and threatened the unity of the Church. In addition, a thorough reform of the Church was to be negotiated. While the three reigning popes could be reduced to one and the schism thus ended, the urgently needed reforms of the internal church conditions failed.
Renaissance and Baroque: The End of the Imperial City and the Habsburg Period
Constance’s location at the intersection of numerous trade routes and regions became a disadvantage for the city by the 16th century at the latest. World trade shifted to the ports of Western Europe and the Atlantic, and Constance, the “city of canvases”, fell behind. In addition, the imperial city lay at the point of contact between two different systems: In the north, the princely-aristocratic Swabia with its imperial cities and small territories; in the south, the strengthening Confederation, which was dominated by country people and townspeople. Like other imperial cities, Constance wanted to establish its own territory as an autonomous city-state, but this failed. Due to unfortunate alliances and the course of wars, the city was increasingly isolated politically and economically. But the real catastrophe for the city’s history was to come in the course of the Reformation.
After the long-distance trade had ceased, the power of the old patrician families was also extinguished. In the early 16th century, the powerful guild families held sway in the city. Most of the ordinary members of the guilds generally leaned towards the new, Protestant faith. During the years of the wars of religion, Constance tacticked back and forth, but after the final defeat of the Protestants in the Schmalkaldic War in 1547, the city failed to recognise the signs of the times. It self-confidently imposed conditions on the victorious Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and thus completely evaded political reality. The Emperor laid siege to Constance and ended its imperial freedom in 1548.
The centuries-old privileges were revoked and the former Lake Constance metropolis was reduced to an Austrian-Habsburg provincial town – which was to remain so until the end of the Old Empire and beyond. Most Protestants in the city fled south to Switzerland and Constance was vigorously recatholicised.
The disenfranchised imperial city developed into a hopelessly impoverished country town with no prospects. After the Thirty Years’ War and in the beginning of the Baroque era, the councillors, who held office virtually for life, nevertheless oriented themselves towards the absolutist princes and kings of Europe. They developed a representative, albeit comparatively modest, court life. Throughout the early modern period, the craftsmen and guilds mostly pursued agriculture and horticulture in addition to their professions in order to make ends meet. Economic aid and reforms inspired by the enlightened absolutism at the end of the 18th century by the Austrian sovereigns largely failed.
New and Recent History: Constance as part of Baden and Baden-Württemberg
In 1806, Napoleon finally marched into Constance in the course of the Coalition Wars and ended the era as an Austrian-Habsburg country town. The administratively and economically ossified and completely impoverished Lake Constance city was annexed to the newly founded Grand Duchy of Baden, which appointed it the capital of the Lake District. But even in the Biedermeier period that followed, little changed. The city administration acted conservatively and the gap to the liberal circles in the city deepened more and more. In 1821, the approximately twelve-hundred-year-old bishopric of Constance was dissolved.
However, the centuries-long stagnation was finally broken in the second half of the 19th century. In 1862, Baden enacted freedom of trade and ended the pre-modern guild system. In 1863, Constance was connected to the Mannheim-Basel-Constance railway line of the Baden State Railways. The largest city on Lake Constance was able to flourish: the population grew massively,
the medieval walls were demolished, allowing for urban expansions. The harbour basin was enlarged, a city garden was built and numerous modernisations were carried out in all areas of everyday life.
In the period around 1900, Constance finally experienced a brilliant time, which manifested itself in rapid development. Numerous new buildings were constructed, modern electricity was introduced and boundless optimism prevailed. The city was expanded in all directions and tourism boomed. Around 1900, the number of inhabitants rose to over 20,000 for the first time. At the same time, however, industrial development fell behind – only a few manufactories and factories settled in the entire 19th century and until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. The hopes of the citizens of Constance to develop their city into an international transport hub – be it via railway connections or via the navigable Seerhein – also largely failed. In the middle of the century, the idea of monument preservation also developed more and more in Baden. In the course of this, Constance Minster was regothicised and the tower was completed from 1850-1853. From then on, the old church was crowned by two storeys with an attached, openwork tracery spire. The double towers originally planned in the Middle Ages were not built.
After the First World War, the Weimar Republic pushed ahead with socio-political measures such as the urgently needed construction of housing. In addition, a slow opening and change of society began in all areas, which was criticised by church and conservative circles. However, creeping inflation also worsened conditions in Constance. By the end of 1923, for example, almost 30 percent of the population had to be supported regularly by the city. The rise of the National Socialists was nevertheless slowed down in the metropolis on Lake Constance. After the seizure of power in 1933, local politics also quickly reached a dead end, mainly due to the sealed borders with Switzerland. The Second World War covered up many urban problems. Constance survived the war completely undamaged, which in turn had a lot to do with its proximity to Switzerland: the nightly darkening of the city ordered from above was not adhered to, which is why enemy planes mistook the illuminated streets and houses for part of Switzerland and spared them. In 1945, the French army occupied the city without a fight. Constance remained a garrison until 1978. In the decades after the war, efforts were made to develop housing, tourism became an important branch of the economy, and the constant growth of the city necessitated incorporations and new infrastructures. As early as 1966, the University of Constance was founded, which has been an economic and cultural enrichment for the city to this day. In the course of the redevelopment of the old town in the 1980s, the harbour was also redesigned – the warehouse buildings disappeared and a gastronomic-touristic mile developed. With about 85,000 inhabitants, Constance is now the largest city on Lake Constance. In addition to the fantastic views of the lake, the “City of the Council” impresses above all with its preserved medieval streets, dominated by the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral.
- Maurer, Helmut / u. a. (Hg.): Geschichte der Stadt Konstanz. 7 Bände. Konstanz 1989–1995.
- Seuffert, Klaus: Konstanz. Mehr als 2000 Jahre Geschichte. Konstanz 2019.
- Zang, Gert: Kleine Geschichte der Stadt Konstanz. Karlsruhe 2010.
Do you always want to be informed about the latest activities?