Castle of the Week 9 – Wartburg

The 50 foot high walls of Wartburg Castle sit on a forested 1230 foot outcrop of rock overlooking Eisenach in Thuringia, eastern Germany. The castle is best known as the refuge where Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German in 10 weeks. Eisenach was the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach and it is said that he gained inspiration from the castle. Although it has a few remnants from feudal times, the general outline is from a 19th century reconstruction of the castle in its finest days.

Ludwig the Leaper started construction in about 1067 after finding the spot whilst out hunting. There was a small dispute about the ownership of the land, but Ludwig prevailed and the castle was begun. The oldest part is believed to be the arch of the lower gatehouse, and only entrance, built in 1150. The great hall was begun in 1160 and is one of the finest preserved medieval halls still in existence. The two main towers are the 19th century North Tower and the earlier South Tower which has no doors. A staircase winds round the outside and a grating in the roof is the only access to the inside which was the castle’s prison. Ludwig’s heirs became Counts under the Holy Roman Empire and increased in power and wealth.

St Elizabeth of Hungary, wife of Count Ludwig IV lived much of her life at Wartburg and her story is told in a series of frescoes. She lived from 1207 to 1231 and is the patron saint of many hospitals. Legend says that she would sneak out of the castle at night to take food to the poor against her parents’ and husband’s wishes. Later she built a hospital for the poor just outside the castle gates. She was canonised four years after her death.

After the family died out, the castle was kept in good condition as it guarded the border. It was enlarged in 1500 with some half-timbered buildings including a Gentlemen’s prison.

For 10 months in 1521 & 1522, the castle provided refuge for Martin Luther. He was brought to Wartburg in May 1521 following his excommunication by the Pope and declaration as an outlaw at the Diet of Worms because he would not agree to stop his teachings and writings against the Catholic church. This meant he could be killed on sight by anyone so Frederick the Wise arranged a friendly ‘kidnapping’ and he ended up at Wartburg. During his time there he changed his appearance from pious monk to a Middle Ages knight calling himself Knight George. As a result of his stay, the castle became a powerful symbol of the Reformation

During the 1950s the East German government restored the entire castle to its 16th century appearance. They restored Luther’s room with its original floor and panelled walls and placed Luther’s own bible of 1541, with his hand-written comments in the margins, on a contemporary desk. In 1999 the castle was added to Unesco’s World Heritage List.

The architecture and decoration is largely Romanesque and Gothic,except for some of the rooms that have been renovated. The walls are partly stone and brick and partly wood and brick. Many of the medieval rooms can still be seen today, albeit restored. The knights’ warming room is the oldest room in the castle. This is where they rested during work or festivals. There is also a ladies’ warming room, decorated from floor to ceiling with a Byzantine style mosaic. The cellar now houses medieval pottery, tapestries and stone carvings as well as authentic medieval clothing.

Written by
GillB. Photos courtesy of Matthew Beermann