The Veste Coburg
by Claudia Lindenlaub-Sauer
The Veste Coburg, nicknamed the “Crown of Franconia” because of its towering silhouette, is one of the best-known castle complexes in Germany. It lies on a hilltop in the hilly country between the Thuringian Forest and the upper Main Valley and towers over the former Duchy of Coburg, which only became part of the Free State of Bavaria in 1920. It is 464 m above sea level and 167 m above the town of Coburg. Veste Coburg is one of the largest castles in Germany in terms of area, measuring approx. 135 x 260 metres.
The history of Veste Coburg goes back to prehistoric times. Archaeological finds from 1966 prove the existence of a prehistoric settlement between 1300 and the 1st century BC, stone remains from past times are still preserved in the buildings today. The first documented mention of the name “Coburg” dates back to 1056, when Koburk appears by name in a deed of gift from the Polish queen Richeza, a granddaughter of the German Emperor Otto II (955- 983), and she bequeathed her possessions in the area of Coburg and Saalfeld to her brother’s successor, the new Archbishop of Cologne, Anno II (c. 1010 – 1075). The designation mons coburg in a papal bull of 1126 suggests the existence of a slightly fortified hilltop settlement at best for the 11th and 12th centuries. The expansion into a stately castle can be assumed to have taken place in the 12th century, especially as the oldest parts of the core castle with the palace (today’s princely building), stone bower and keep (demolished around 1500) and the outer castle with the Blue Tower date from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Various ruling dynasties now exercised regency over the Coburg area, starting with the Dukes of Andechs-Merania, then the Counts of Henneberg in the 13th century and finally the Margrave Frederick the Austere of Meissen (1332-81) from the House of Wettin. From then on, the castle was the residential castle of this Saxon “local land in Franconia”. Due to the division of inheritance in 1485, the Wettin dominion split into two main branches, the older Ernestine line to Wittenberg and the younger Albertine line to Leipzig and Dresden. The Veste Coburg, together with the Thuringian possessions, came to the Ernestine line.
The strategic location on an important trade route that led from Italy via Nuremberg to Leipzig was probably decisive for the construction of the Steinburg. Furthermore, the extension also seems to be indicative of the change, i.e. the transition from a monastic administrative seat to a secular seat of power in the Bavarian count dynasty of the Andechs Meranians. The castle undoubtedly served as a structural safeguard for customs and sovereign rights as well as a structural manifestation of local power, but not for military control of the road. We must not forget that the size of the Coburg is not functional-military but historical-topographical.
Over the centuries, the Veste was developed into a medieval 2-court castle complex by the respective castle administrators, Vest and Landpflegern, as well as the ruling dukes. Between the middle of the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Veste Coburg was gradually transformed into a state fortress.
When the princely residence was moved to the Ehrenburg in Coburg, the new city palace built by Duke Johann Ernst in 1543-49, the role of the Veste changed and it was now used exclusively as a fortress. Duke Johann Casimir of Saxe-Coburg (1564-1633) made particular efforts to fortify it, so that it was able to withstand the onslaught of Wallenstein during the 30 Years’ War in 1632. It is noteworthy that Veste Coburg was never conquered militarily by force of arms; only through a ruse was it captured by Swedish troops in 1635.
After the fortress had undergone further structural development in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a brief revival after the wars of the 17th century brought back the importance of the old complex, nothing happened for almost a century to halt the structural decline.
stop the structural decay. In 1782, the fortress was finally only suitable for use as a penitentiary and as an insane asylum. The ramparts and moat were levelled and the fortress fell into disrepair. Until the accession of Duke Ernst I (1806), nothing radical happened; it had lost its significance as a fortress and was only a remnant of a better past and a quarry for new buildings. Inspired by the castle restorations on the Rhine, Duke Ernst I had the Veste redesigned from 1838 onwards according to plans by the architect Karl Alexander von Heideloff in the spirit of German castle and knightly romanticism. By 1860, a playful castle backdrop rich in towers, oriels and battlements had been created, whereby the emphasis is on the word “backdrop”, for the redesign basically focused only on visual transformations. In the 19th century, the Veste was redesigned according to the principles of historicism, i.e. according to Romantic ideals, but no value or interest was placed on structural preservation measures, so that in the 20th century, fundamental restoration measures were carried out again, this time in order to make more than purely optical improvements to Veste Coburg.
This unfortunate restoration of the 19th century disturbed Duke Carl Eduard so much that from 1906 to 1924 he spent a great deal of time and money on restoring the neo-Gothic castle complex to its former condition. To this end, he engaged the castle researcher and architect Bodo Ebhardt, who immediately had all of Heideloff’s additions removed. His reconstructions were partly based on old historical illustrations or existing buildings, and partly on free designs.
Heavily damaged in the Second World War, extensive repair work had to be carried out after 1945; among other things, the former sheepfold, today’s ducal building, was hit by bombs. In the decades that followed, structural damage to the bastions and courtyards necessitated repeated repair work.
After the last Coburg duke abdicated in 1918, the Veste Coburg came into the possession of the Free State of Bavaria. Until 1998, however, the ducal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha still had the right of residence in the rooms of the castle complex. Today, the former living quarters of the duke and his family, the flats of the guests, and almost the entire rest of the complex can be visited. Whether on your own or as part of a guided tour, there are hardly any limits to what visitors can do and a visit is definitely worthwhile.
The two castle courtyards:
The first courtyard encloses the living quarters of the Hohenstaufen core castle, the princely building, the stone Kemmenate, as well as a guest house and the castle chapel, which directly adjoins the princely building. Here you will also find a well that ensured the supply of the castle even in the event of a siege.
The second courtyard, with its large buildings serving mainly for economic and supply purposes, is evidence of the further expansion of the castle during the Gothic period. Here you will find the Carl Eduard Building, which adjoins the Stone Bower and today houses numerous collections such as the torture instruments, the glass collection, the copperplate engraving cabinet, the cafeteria and the museum shop. Next is the Duchess Building, which was built in 1913 on the site of the old Sheep House and now houses the ducal family’s former collection of carriages and sleighs, as well as weapons, armour and hunting equipment. The Hohes Haus is now home to the administration of the art collections of Veste Coburg, the building was the former armoury of the castle complex, an inscription from 1489 indicates the year of construction. A cistern for further water supply was built here. The path to the Bear Bastion leads to the period of early modern extensions at the time of the Renaissance and the Baroque.
Fürstenbau (Prince’s Building)
The magnificent building is one of the oldest structures at Veste Coburg. The palace of the Staufer period was located on the site of today’s so-called Fürstenbau, but after a fire in 1499 only a few pillars remained inside the building. After reconstruction from 1500 onwards, the building was used for residential purposes during the sojourns of the Wettin sovereigns, and was also later extended by the dukes and as a palace for the electors of Saxony.
The Fürstenbau took on its present form between 1910 and 1920, when it was rebuilt by the Berlin architect Bodo Ebhardt and furnished as a residence for the last reigning Duke Carl Eduard of Saxony Coburg and Gotha. Ebhardt had almost all the walls removed and renovated this part from the ground up. Modern fixtures such as heating and bathrooms as well as complete electrification were to provide the necessary comfort. That is why, although it is the oldest part of the Veste Coburg, it is the most modern building today, which is noticeable, among other things, in the indoor climate. The façade design in the Franconian half-timbered style dates only from a restoration phase between 1906 and 1924. The upper floors date from the time of reconstruction after 1500. In addition to its use as a residential building, the building now also served representational purposes, for example the “Große Hofstube” on the first floor was used as a banqueting hall. On the 1st floor were the guest rooms and the flat of the tutor and court preacher of the ducal family of Saxe-Coburg. On the 2nd floor were the living quarters of the ducal family, and on the 3rd floor above were the rooms and bedrooms of the servants.
The castle chapel was one of the most important buildings in the castle. It was damaged by the fire of 1499 and was rebuilt several times. The current design in neo-Gothic style dates back to the renovation period at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the ratio of the height of the room to the floor space suggests that in the Hohenstaufen period there was a double chapel on this site, as can be seen, for example, in imperial castles in Nuremberg or Eger.
The former castle chapel and parish church was mentioned as early as the 11th century and is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, who are also shown with their attributes on large window paintings. It is directly adjacent to the Fürstenbau, through which one also enters the small church. Above the pulpit is the facade of a swallow’s nest organ supported by an atlatl, designed by Bodo Ebhardt and built in 1923 in a Bamberg furniture factory.
The lodge of princes also bears witness to the medieval world view with the well-known order of the estates. Since the princely family stood above the clergy for many centuries, the priest had to look upwards during the sermon to confirm this status. Martin Luther also preached here several times during his stay at Veste Coburg in 1530. There are numerous legends about every castle, including the famous reformer’s stay in the venerable rooms of the complex. During the landmark Imperial Diet in Augsburg, Luther found a place of refuge in Veste Coburg from which he could follow the negotiations in Augsburg and stay in contact with Melanchton through lively correspondence. He came to Coburg in the entourage of the Saxon duke and lived in the castle for six months. He was accompanied by his friend Veit Dietrich and protected by the knight Hans von Sternberg. Although Luther often complained about the draughty old castle and was often ill, his stay in the fortress was fruitful for his further work. Numerous literary works were written, more Bible translations were written and original writings and letters by Luther still exist today, including a letter to his son Hänschen. The Coburg dukes soon began to build up the so-called autograph collection, which is now accessible in the Coburg State Library.
In 1530, while Luther was busily reading in his study room in the Veste Coburg, the devil in the form of a rat tried to disturb him. But he recognised the devil and in his anger threw a stool at the rat. Since one of the animal’s legs was shattered by the violent throw, it sought revenge. At midnight it crept into the church and ate its way into the pulpit lining behind the hourglass. When Luther preached in the church the next day, he set the hourglass to finish his sermon after the sand had run out. But since the devil kept turning the hourglass after an hour had passed, Luther preached until the sun set. When it began to dawn in the church and Luther saw the empty church, he noticed the rat. He struck at the animal with his fist and it jumped down to the pulpit in one leap. Since the devil wanted Luther to preach himself to death by continually turning over the hourglass, he now has to turn the clock over forever, according to Luther’s curse. Under the chapel is the former crypt and other rooms, which are currently not open to the public. The stone bower now adjoins the princely building at a right angle.
Today, this contains the large court room, a former banquet hall, the Luther rooms, the hunting marquetry room, the painting collection and the original kitchen in the basement, which now houses temporary exhibitions. The term “bower” comes from the Latin “caminata”, which means a room with a fireplace. It is also referred to as “high bower”, “white bower”, “bear’s den” or even “prince’s den” in the sources. In the Middle Ages, this area was primarily reserved for the female members of the ruling family.
The Stone Bower is a winged building that separates the two castle courtyards and is designed in the late Gothic style; it is an addition of the early 14th century and thus not an original part of the late Romanesque castle. The stone bower was unfortunately also affected by the fire of 1499; the previous building was still made of wood and burnt down at Christmas. The rectangular building of the bower was constructed between 1501 and 1504. In the 17th century, a passage was created through the stone bower into the other castle courtyard, which was closed again in the 19th century. During the renovations in the 19th and 20th centuries, few changes were made to the Stone Bower; among other things, a new roof truss was inserted under Ebhardt, and a stone stair tower was built on the west façade (economic castle courtyard). The attic was given two converted storeys, some of which were made into guest rooms for residential purposes, and a connecting building led to the former battlement, which today houses a weapons exhibition entitled “Gebt Feuer” (Give Fire). In 1901, a late medieval Pietà was inserted into the niche of the outer wall.
From the Luther Room, a battlement leads north from the small courtyard formerly used as a bear pen to the first floor of the congress building (completed in 1923), where the spacious congress hall itself contains some decoratively used collection items and above which the copperplate engraving cabinet was established.
Numerous prominent visitors have been guests here, the old castle has been the scene of many exciting romances and dramas over the centuries, and right up to the 20th century the Veste Coburg experienced a chequered history.
Today, the castle complex houses the art collections of Veste Coburg. They are among the most important collections of art and cultural history in Germany and can largely be traced back to the art holdings of the Coburg dukes. The museum includes a copperplate engraving cabinet, a collection of hunting weapons and glassware, as well as a collection of chariots and sleighs and countless suits of armour and other works of art. Among the works of art, paintings by Lucas Cranach and Old German painters such as Dürer, Grünewald, Holbein, as well as sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider or Adriaen de Vries are particularly noteworthy. Many cultural offerings complement the visual collection, and there are exciting things for young and old to discover. Interactive and educational offers for school classes and families provide an exciting excursion destination even in rainy weather. Furthermore, there is even the possibility to celebrate a child’s birthday in the former splendour rooms and to find a dragon as knight and princess and to make a tambourine to the sounds of medieval music and to dine as in former times.
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