Tales from a Hilltop Castle - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Tales from a Hilltop Castle October 23, 2008

Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg's family has owned Burg Herzberg, the largest hilltop castle in the state of Hessen, Germany, for the past 550 years. The castle originally served as an outpost for the knights of Romrod ("The Starter Castle," September/October 2008), but later changed ownership and evolved into such a formidable defensive fortification that throughout its history it was never overtaken.

The baron graciously invited ARCHAEOLOGY's managing editor Eti Bonn-Muller to his castle for a tour of the grounds, with his golden retriever alternately chasing mice and trotting at his side. Afterward, he pulled up a seat at a cozy café near the entrance to the castle; ordered a beer, a platter of wild boar sausage and paper-thin strips of venison--obtained from hunting expeditions in the surrounding forests--along with a basket of dark bread with a slab of butter; and began sharing stories that his ancestors have passed down for generations.


Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg, whose family owns Burg Herzberg, stands at the entrance to his castle. He raises funds for its maintenance and restoration by appealing to the local department of historic preservation and speaking with various governmental ministers and officials. He hopes to renovate and restore the structure, so future generations will be able to enjoy it. (Jens Muller)

How did the castle come into your family?
That's a very interesting story. The Romrods built the old part of this castle in 1272. They already had a castle in a valley, so they wanted to have one on a hill, too. But they only lived here for about 60 years, not more. Then came another family and another, and in the 15th century, my family came here. We have been here for about 550 years. For Germany, that's not very long!

My family came from Thüringen, so they were called the Thüringenbergs. Over time, however, the name came to be pronounced and spelled "Dörnberg." Between 1428 and 1508, Hans, an early Dörnberg, made such a good impression on the duke of Hessen that he was given the position of hofmeister, which is today the equivalent of a federal chancellor. He received this castle and others, as well as villages like Neustadt. Through his services, he later expanded the region of Hessen by nearly a third.

What exactly did he do?
He helped the bishop of Mainz fight against the bishop of Köln, and ultimately they took the bishop of Köln's jurisdiction away. Not only was he a military man, he was also a diplomat. Through diplomacy, he was able take over the dukedom of Nidda, which at the time split north and south Hessen. Bringing the two together was a big coup!

After that, he continued to take over other dukedoms and expand the region as far south as the Rhein, including all the castles along the way that belonged to it. He really brought the south and north parts of Hessen together, made them one. Most of the time he governed and lived in Marburg, where part of his castle and an observatory still stand today. He was an interesting character. There were a lot of interesting characters in my family...


Burg Herzberg commands spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. In medieval times, the knights of the castle protected a well-traveled network of roads in the region used by merchants and the nobility. (Courtesy Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg)

Who else stands out to you?
One of my ancestors fought against Napoleon's brother, Jérôme, king of Westphalia. On his own initiative, he started a fight against him near Kassel, that's why the town is called Knallhutte [literally, "Bang"]! Of course, he was not successful because the weapons that he had were swords, spears, and pitchforks, and they were not good enough against the weapons of the Napoleonic army. So he fled and a warrant was issued for his arrest. First he fled to Hanover, to an acquaintance that was also fighting against Jérôme, and then he fled even further to Russia, where he fought in the military campaign against Napoleon. Eventually he went to London, where he helped the British fight against Napoleon, and that is why today you will find the Dörnberg family seal in a frieze at Westminster Abbey.

He was at the final battle of Waterloo, where he fought along with another Dörnberg. It was there that he accomplished his lifelong goal of defeating Napoleon. He had a fulfilling life. And he grew old. He was 84 when he died around 1840. He had 11 kids.


A wintertime view from inside the castle shows ruins of the old late 13th-century stone structure, foreground left, covered with snow. (Courtesy Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg)

How did you learn so much about your family's history?
Family stories, tales from some uncles and aunts. They've been passed down by the family, from generation to generation.

You should write a book!
Certainly! I want to write a book about this hofmeister Dörnberg, who was the first Dörnberg to own the castle. But I need time to do it! It's a big job.

I'm sure there's a lot to write about...
Indeed. There was also Hermann von Dörnberg, who lived at the time of Martin Luther and studied with him. Once, the duke of Hessen asked him to meet Luther along the road and bring him up to his castle at Wartburg. The duke was open-minded and believed that Martin Luther was knowledgeable and had great ideas, so he wanted to protect him.

This Dörnberg later went with Luther to Worms, where he was to profess his faith. On the way, he brought Luther here, to Herzberg, where he held his afternoon prayers. They went on to nearby Alsfeld and stayed overnight in the cloister there.

Martin Luther prayed here at the castle?
Yes, there is a small, late Germanic, early Gothic chapel that was part of the original wooden castle that the Romrods built in the mid-13th century. That castle no longer remains. The earth around here is pretty much all that's left. Over time, the wood just rotted and became part of the soil again. It's nice black dirt these days, very good soil for the garden. In the late 13th century, they replaced the wooden castle with a big stone one surrounding the chapel. Later, it was expanded and even more fortifications were added.

The church originally didn't have any furniture. In the olden times, people always stood during the services. In 1661, they built a little bit of furniture, a bar to lean against, and a small balcony to fit more people inside. The chapel today is filled with grave markers that all belong to Dörnbergs. Many of them died from the plague.


The late Germanic chapel with the arched windows, at right, was part of the original wooden castle built by the Romrod family in the mid-13th century. (Jens Muller)

Martin Luther held afternoon prayers in this chapel on his way to Worms, where he professed his faith. He was accompanied by his friend, Hermann von Dörnberg, one of the baron's ancestors. (Jens Muller)
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Martin Luther likely preached from this pulpit. (Courtesy Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg) This plaque commemorates the people who helped rebuild the castle and chapel over the years. (Courtesy Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg) A detail from the plaque shows an angel blowing bubbles, which represents life's transience. (Courtesy Freiherr Jürgen von Dörnberg)
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The grave marker of Emmerich von Dörnberg, who fought in the Last Crusade, shows the knight in full armor, holding a sword and standing on a dragon. The imagery symbolizes his victory over the "non-believers." (Eti Bonn-Muller) In the back of the chapel, a stairway leads to a balcony that was added after 1661 to accommodate more worshipers. (Jens Muller)

Are they buried here too?
No. We only have the grave markers that were brought to the castle around 1922. Before, they were placed in villages around the castle. It was forbidden to bury plague-ridden bodies in the earth near a castle because of the possibility that diseases would spread. As the villages grew up in the 19th century, the grave markers were returned from several places. Some had become parts of buildings, some were built into the bases of bridges.

The oldest grave marker in the chapel belongs to Emmerich von Dörnberg. He fought in the Last Crusade. He is shown in a carving on the marker wearing a customary knight's garment, iron from the feet to the hat. He is holding a big sword with both hands and he's standing on a dragon, which means he's conquered the non-believers.

Were most of your ancestors knights?
The Dörnbergs were a knightly family and throughout history were associated with the military. Many died in service for the king or the emperor, and lived for the fatherland. But the Dörnbergs also enjoyed hunting. It just so happened that a lot of kings and emperors died while hunting because it wasn't safe. It could be very dangerous.

Actually, they had to hunt. That's how they lived. Hunting was really more for the upper-level classes; the farmers and lower-level peasants weren't allowed to hunt. The family and owners lived off the wild animals they hunted. But for them it was also a fun sport. Today there are still many wild boar and deer on the mountain. In fact, the name of the castle was originally Hirzberg" ["deer mountain"]. It is only over time that it was pronounced and spelled "Herzberg" ["heart mountain"].


The castle was originally called Hirzberg, or "deer mountain," because the area was such a good place to hunt. Countless generations of von Dörnbergs have enjoyed the sport over the years. (Jens Muller)


Jürgen von Dörnberg still enjoys hunting on the mountain. He shares venison, wild boar sausage--some sprinkled with paprika--and kartoffelwurst, or potato sausage, a local specialty, with construction manager Jochen Weppler, right, who oversaw the renovation of Schloss Romrod and is now working on Burg Herzberg, and Jens Muller. (Eti Bonn-Muller)

Are there any other meaningful decorations in the chapel?
There are 144 coats of arms from 74 different families [from marriages], which represents my family tree. There is also a memorial plaque wall for those who helped rebuild the castle and the church over the years. The wall commemorates the past by showing a clock's hands frozen on 12, which symbolizes that time has gone by. An angel blowing bubbles near it represents life's transience.

There is also a plaque for children who died of the plague at a very young age, between two and five years old. It's not intended to make us dwell on the past, but rather to think about the fruitfulness of life and remember the protection of angels.

We also have a few old catapult balls lying around the chapel. Leonardo da Vinci was the main designer of the catapult. There are three good things about a catapult's function: weight, force, and accuracy. The balls were about 350 pounds and could be thrown more than 1,300 feet. They were so useful that even in the Thirty Years War when they already had cannons, catapults were still destructive and accurate. They went through roofs, walls, everything. They did a lot of damage--and they were really quiet!


Catapult balls lie in a corner of the castle's chapel, beneath the Dörnberg family's coat of arms. (Eti Bonn-Muller)


The stones that make up the castle's 16.5-foot-thick walls, built between 1472 and 1500, were so precisely cut that no mortar was used between them. They were designed so that the more they were pounded by attacks from the outside, the stronger they held together. (Jens Muller)

What other defensive structures remain?
This castle was heavily fortified in the 15th century and most elements still stand. The walls around it are on average 16.5 feet thick and there are seven towers. In its entire history, Herzberg was never overtaken because it was so strong and well designed. In the knights' hall tower, for example, the walls are asymmetrical; they're 18.5 feet thick on one side, 11.8 feet thick on the other. They were made to be 30 percent thicker on the outside so they would be more effective during attacks.

The castle also has mortar-less walls. They were built between 1472 and 1500. The stones were so perfectly cut that you can't even get a knife between them. And if something were to hit against them, the pressure of the wall would get even tighter and they would become stronger. The stones were not cut 100 percent on direct right angles, so builders filled the gaps with slate. It was also very common for castles like Herzberg and Romrod to be roofed with slate, not terracotta. It was usually done with castles and forts where people had higher living standards, like royalty.

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A doorway leads out of the knights' hall into a semi-enclosed walkway (center photo), which today is used as a picnic area in the summertime. The author explores the knights' hall tower (photo at right), which was where strategic decisions would be made as the men sat around a large round table. Although the base was constructed in the Gothic style, the roof was done in the Renaissance style, a typical combination throughout the castle. The roof of the knights' hall burned down 250 years ago when it was struck by a bolt of lightning, leaving the interior stonework subject to the elements. (Jens Muller)

Even though we're on a hill, where it was difficult to access water, did this castle have a drawbridge?
There were multiple drawbridges, but they no longer remain. There was one in the old section of the castle and later in the front, with a moat. The castle has a cistern that is more than 230 feet deep. It's made of solid basalt. Herzberg actually sits on volcanic stone, which is found throughout this area in the Vogelsberg Mountains. You can see it all over the grounds.

Strategically, this was a really good place for a castle. Herzberg is the highest and largest castle in Hessen. Important people and royalty came through this area so frequently that it was known as the Herr Strasse ["nobility road"]. There was also a large network of commerce roads that ran from Basel in Switzerland, to Köningsberg in Germany, to East Prussia. Like Romrod, this castle was originally built for protecting these streets; but unlike Romrod, it was always a defensive castle, a well-positioned bastion. And Herzberg was never finished. It was continuously being built. Over time, Romrod lost its meaning--it was torn down and reconstructed as a hunting lodge, a place for pleasure and fun--but Herzberg always remained a real defensive castle. A fort like this, you can't really find anymore, not with such thick walls. They don't exist. This is one of the last ones that stayed this way.

The castle was also a safe haven for the villagers who lived in the surrounding area. It was a refuge where people could bring their cows and horses for safekeeping in war times. There were sometimes up to 2,000 people here with their cattle and livestock! When the siege was over, they would go back to their farms and homes and live their lives again. That was the most important thing.

Was Herzberg ever in any big wars?
In many wars, ja. The strongest war was the Thirty Years War in Germany. For 30 years, all around Germany it was all war: from east to north and west, the soldiers came from everybody--from the emperor and the Swedish and the Danish and the French. It was a very, very serious, horrible war, especially for this region.

Like many other wars, it did not have to happen. Wars are usually done to overpower, but the Thirty Years War was about the Catholics against the Protestants. It was a religious war. The subjects of the empire were Catholic and the northerners were Protestant, like that of the Lutheran believers, as well as the Swedes, who are also Lutheran, and that's how it all happened and this was all very bad for such a castle. The plague spread and people starved. In the end, no matter who it was, the Catholics or the Protestants, they really only wanted one thing, they wanted food. They couldn't penetrate Herzberg, but there was no food here anyway. The owners of the castle, the Dörnbergs at the time, were Protestant, and they were able to defend it. The siege lasted for two years; after two years the Catholics left. They went on to Hannoversch-Munden, which they overtook, but not Herzberg. The fact that the castle held out saved the nearby villages. If Herzberg had been overtaken, the entire region would have become Catholic.

There is a big tree in the parking area near the entrance to the castle. It was planted at the end of the Thirty Years War, in 1648. It's more than 350 years old. Today, it's a protected monument and every year a group comes from the country and cuts off the dry wood. It needs to be well kept, otherwise it could dry out and fall down.


At the entrance to Burg Herzberg is a massive tree, right, which was planted in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years War. Today, it is protected as a national monument. (Jens Muller)

What other wars took place here?
The Thirty Years War was really the worst one. Later there was the Seven Years War, a big one where the French, the Bavarians, and the Germans all had interest. It went back and forth. At that time, the French had many successful campaigns. It was also at that time the Heidelberger castle was destroyed by the French. They came all the way here, to nearby Hersfeld, where they set fire to a local church, but yet again were not able to overtake Herzberg. That was around 1760.

One could also say there was another war in the 14th century, also a very large one. It was started by the so-called Sterne Bund [Star Alliance], a group of landowners and knights that did not like the duke exerting power into their lives. At this time, life was very difficult. So these towns and castles got together and created this alliance. The duke of Hessen was so upset by the group that he overtook other small castles and tried for three months to penetrate Herzberg, but was not successful. Still today you will see that a lot of family and town seals have a star, which shows that these people were part of the Sterne Bund. At that time, the Lizberg family occupied Burg Herzberg. They called themselves the "Lords of Herzberg" and were the head of this alliance; they started it.

When did the castle stop being used for defensive purposes?
By 1668, the fort was no longer considered necessary and it was no longer well maintained. At that time, there was a commander here who had about 80 men. He approached the duke of Hessen and said, "I don't know where we should sleep anymore. The rain is coming through the roof. The castle is in a very bad state. Now that raises the question, do you want to keep up the castle or let it go?" The duke said it wasn't needed anymore, so all of the weapons were taken out and brought to a depot in Giessen.

And for a while there was very little here. But then Napoleon came by on his way to the battle of Leipzig. This whole area was a throughway. He noticed that Herzberg was totally intact and thought it would be too dangerous to leave it "as is" behind him. That made him feel too uncomfortable, so he wanted to destroy it. But he realized that dismantling the thick walls would be too much work. Apparently, there was not enough red wine there [laughs]! So instead, he had all the wall openings and windows closed up. It was really only after World War II that we started opening up the windows for the first time since Napoleon left.

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Burg Herzberg was founded in the mid-13th century by the knights of Romrod, who built a simple wooden castle and intimate chapel on the grounds and used the fort as an outpost for protecting an important merchants' road network. In 1272, the Romrods replaced the wooden castle with a stone one, whose remains can be seen tantalizingly poking through the ground in the middle of the castle. Beginning in the 15th century, the castle was further expanded and fortified with thick walls. The family privately excavated the area in 1921, but found no "treasures." (Eti Bonn-Muller)

Has any archaeological work ever been done here?
In 1921, it was excavated privately. In those times, it was possible to make it private. Nowadays, it's not possible. But they didn't uncover any real treasures.

Would you like to have archaeologists come in and do work here someday?
Well, it would be nice, but it's too expensive and nobody has so much money. If you have a good connection with Microsoft, Bill Gates or so, you could ask him!

I'll see what I can do...In the meantime, what about the other parts of the castle? Could you tell me about some interesting spaces that weren't used for warfare?
The kitchen had a grill, baking oven, and stove. Instead of cooking directly over the fire, they would create a fire with coals, which they placed in multiple stoves. That way, they could make different meals for big banquets. They prepared the food upstairs. It was very common to have the kitchen as far away as possible from the rest of the buildings because of fires.

Also, in one of the towers there was a court where a judge sat. There was an exterior staircase going up the tower so that they could use more space inside it. That tower was built in 1472. The court served the region that was under the jurisdiction of the castle. There were no death sentences here. It was just for simple crimes--if somebody stole money, if they had to go to jail for the night. The next higher middle and upper courts were in Kassel, some 60 miles away.


To prevent fires, medieval cooks used coals that were heated in a separate area of the castle. They later placed the coals in multiple stoves to prepare big banquets. The castle's kitchen is still used today during medieval festivals. (Courtesy Freiherr Jüergen von Dörnberg)

What is the story of the castle's more recent history?
In 1786, it was the beginning of a bad time for the castle. It had been closed up by Napoleon and no one from the family was living here. People could no longer make a living as a knight. Men had to find other types of work. Either they went into the military, like Hans, who fought against Jérôme, or they got jobs with the government in public offices. Some of them received high government positions. Others became clerics, but not the Dörnbergs. Although in earlier times there were members of the family who became clerics, it was at this time that they felt it was beneath them. So instead, they went into areas like the diplomatic corps.

But the castle still belonged to the family. One Dörnberg became a county supervisor in Siegen, another became one in Fulda, and then a great grandfather was a high officer in the church government--not a clerical position, but an official in the church in Köningsberg, East Prussia. That's why I was born in Köningsberg. But the whole family estate was here [around Herzberg]. There were two castles, various homes...the property was managed through a commission where everyone in the family owned part of the estate--not individual items, but an overall percentage. At the time, it was considered the ideal way to manage a family property.

What happened to Herzberg in the 20th century?
Early in the century, between 1876 and 1901, the castle was completely open and many local people came here to take stones for their houses and properties. It was like a quarry. It happened to many hilltop castles.

But later, during the first and second World Wars, the forestry service was established. It was a part of the family's governing body. A forest ranger took care of the castle. He lived here and watched over the fort--and made sure no more stones were taken. But other than that, there was nothing here. My father occasionally came from East Prussia to check in with the forest ranger. He would go hunting as well.


The von Dörnbergs rent out a small structure at the entrance to the castle, to the left of the timber-frame building, to a couple who run a small café. (Jens Muller)

Did you ever come here as a child to see the castle, too?
We came here in 1944 because my mother was from a family that lived nearby. Germans were forbidden to leave East Prussia because the leadership was against it. But we escaped. So really, I grew up here. Nearby, about 10 miles away, there is another small estate; that's where my mother was from, so we moved there.

But then we soon had to leave because some American soldiers saw our big house. They loved big houses at the time because they needed places for their companies to stay. We had to leave the house in two hours. We had to leave the whole house. We stayed first in a nearby village and then afterwards, step-by-step, slowly over the years, we wound up coming back here.

The Americans never occupied the castle itself?
No, it was too uninteresting for them. But it was from this estate we had two hours to leave. We practically had to leave everything inside and this American company went in and destroyed it all. They burned everything, including the really beautiful furniture, for heating--they were too lazy to chop wood! They threw everything into the fireplace, including pieces of Baroque furniture. And they also did something that for us today is very irresponsible, but they didn't understand what they were doing. The entire estate was filled with beautiful porcelain. Most of it came from Berlin. There were plates, for example, that were worth 2,000 Euros each. They used them once, but then they didn't want to wash the dishes, so they just threw the dirty plates out over the wall behind the house!


A door opens onto the path leading out of the castle. (Eti Bonn-Muller)

We kids, we used to gather bails of straw and lay them down behind the wall, trying to catch the flying plates. But naturally, a lot of them broke. Maybe about 20 percent we saved and we brought them back to where we living. In general, though, personally, the Americans were very nice. We always had very good memories of them. One time--I think I was five or six years old--I had a sharp piece of porcelain that I had collected and tucked in my back pocket. I accidentally sat down on it [winces]. I still have the scar on my ass! But the Americans came by and sewed me up. They took care of everything. They even gave me a big jar of pancake mix. I was so hungry that I started eating it directly out of the jar. For three weeks, I had such a bad tummy ache [laughs]! Oh!

I understand that you enjoy spending summers at the castle these days. What is your favorite space here?
There is one tower that we are now renovating with financial assistance from the government. It's very nice because when you sleep there, in the summer, it's very impressive to see the sun rising and setting from one room to the next. It's also very impressive in a thunder-and-lightning storm. The rain comes, and the storm goes, and the birds are flying around. It's fantastic!

It's incredibly special to come from a family with such a long and rich history. How does that make you feel?
What can I say? It's my family. I'm happy. I feel a great sense of tradition.

Does it make you feel more connected with your country's history?
Well yes, it's all connected. The history of Hessen is our family.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America