Castle of the Week 5 – Schloß Heidelberg

Heidelberg Castle, which is also known as the Red Walled Castle, is built on a 195m (640 feet) high hill called Jettenbühl which overlooks the eastern side of the city in south west Germany. It has beautiful views down into the Altstadt and along the Neckar River. Although now mostly in ruins, it is still possible to see the grandeur of the original buildings, home for five centuries of the Palatine Electors. They were powerful princes who ruled this area of Germany during the period of the Holy Roman Empire. The castle was built between the 14th and 17th centuries, each Elector adding buildings and fortifications so there is no common building style. The west and south mainly consists of plain Gothic structures and the north and east has massive walls from the Renaissance palace decorated with sculptured statues of the Electors. Most of the structure was built of red sandstone which gave it its nickname.

The first castle was built by the Romans in AD40 and occupied by the 24th Roman and 2nd Cyrenaican Cohorts. It was over-run by the Alemans in 260. There are no records of the building after that until the early 15th century.

The Elector Ruprecht III started the building with an unpretentious royal residence and inner courtyard for his own use. Fountain Hall, another royal residence, was built next to this first building by Elector Philipp at the end of the same century. Legend has it that the four granite columns still standing in the courtyard were brought by him from a ruined castle of Charlemagne’s. In the 16th and 17th centuries the palace was enlarged and fortified with barracks, a library, gatetower, thick tower, bell tower, the west wall, ramparts and a prison.

The main building on the west side, a theatre which saw the first Shakespeare performances in Germany, was called the English Building and was constructed a few years later by Friedrich V in honour of his wife who was from England. He also created the world-famous palace gardens. His buildings were among the most original built in Germany at that time, but to have room for the new buildings & garden he reduced the fortifications and had the defensive ditches filled in. The court was one of the most sumptuous in Germany although he was known as the Winter King as he only reigned for one winter. He lost a battle near Prague and, with it, the electorship which passed to Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. This was the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War.

In 1622 the castle (as well as the gardens and city) were destroyed by General Tilly after two months’ siege. The famous Bibliotheca Palatina (3,500 manuscripts and 5,000 prints) was transported over the Alps and presented to the Pope by Maximilian as plunder. In 1649 Elector Karl-Ludwig (Friedrich’s son) could at last return to the castle and he started to rebuild it.

Hardly had it been finished, when Louis XIV laid claim to the castle. The claim was rejected and the War of Succession began. In 1689 the castle was captured and plundered by the French and in 1693 it was almost totally destroyed by them. Elector Karl Theodor started to restore the castle on the old Gothic layout but in a Baroque style so that he could live in it. He built the Old Bridge and Karl’s Gate and his initials (CT) are inscribed on a giant vat called the Heidelberg Tun which can still be seen in the cellars. The wine barrel, which holds 58,124 gallons (220,017 litres), was made in 1751 from 130 oak tree trunks and is 8.5m across and 7m high with a dance floor on top. Almost restored once again, the castle caught fire after a lightning strike in 1764 and almost burned to the ground.

During the next few decades, stones from the ruins were used to build new houses in Heidelberg but this was stopped in 1800 by Count Charles de Graimberg who wanted to preserve what was still left.

In 1848 a German National Assembly was convened at the castle and in 1849, during the Palatinate-Baden rebellion, a revolutionary army was stationed there until they were defeated by the Prussians.

The buildings were partly restored in 1900 and since then the state of Baden-Würtemburg has spent about DM40 million on the upkeep of the remains. In 1934 the King’s Hall was built in a Gothic style and is now used for banquets, weddings, concerts and balls. In summer the courtyard is used for theatrical and operatic performances.

Now it’s largely in ruins but still has examples of medieval, Renaissance and baroque German architecture. One wing houses a pharmaceutical museum and there are often firework displays when all the windows are lit up with red flares to recreate the burning of the castle.

Written by GillB. Photos courtesy of Castles of the World (View from bridge and wine vat) and Scott Davies (ruined tower and inner courtyard)