Wartburg Castle in Eisenach was not selected for its size, beauty, political or military importance, although it certainly has its share of all of these. Its inclusion is merited as a historical site in connection with Martin Luther. While Luther threw down the gauntlet to the Papcy in Wittenberg, it was Wartburg Castle that harboured him when he was a fugitive from the Church in 1521 and 1522. Wartburg was the birthplace of the German Bible, which Luther translated in 1522 in order to pass the time. It was also the site of medieval minstrel’s contests which were popularized later on in the works of Richard Wagner. Wartburg Castle is possibly Germany’s most popular castle outside of the Rhine and Bavaria regions.
Wartburg Castle was begun in the 10th century as a residence for the ruling nobles of the Thuringia province of Central Germany. As early as the 1200s, Wartburg seems to have had a knack for finding its way into the spotlight. In 1207 the semi-legendary Sangerkrieg, or minstrel’s contest, took place here. This contest was immortalized in Wagner’s opera Tannhauser and featured some of the most prominent European singers and musicians of the age. A few years later, Wartburg Castle became the residence of St. Elizabeth, a Hungarian princess who became famous throughout Christendom for her charity.
Wartburg’s most famous chapter began in 1521 following the Diet of Worms. After failing to persuade the Catholic Church of the necessity for reform, Martin Luther was excommunicated and branded a criminal by both the Church and the Emperor. Fortunately Luther had a strong supporter in Prince Frederick of Saxony, who ostensibly took Martin Luther into custody and then hid him away in secret in Wartburg Castle under the pseudonym Junker Jorge. Luther remained in Wartburg Castle for the better part of a year, from May 1521 until March 1522.
Although he was there by choice, he did not realistically have the option to leave, and his stay amounted to a house arrest. Eager to pursue his new life’s work in promoting his new style of Christianity, Luther spent almost all of his time at Wartburg translating the New Testament of the Bible into German, thus making Wartburg the birthplace of the vernacular Bible which had previously only been written in Latin, Greek or Hebrew. In the ensuing chaos of the Protestant Reformation, Wartburg was a point of contention between the Catholic and Lutheran forces all the way through the Thirty Years War.
Wartburg’s military and political importance waned in the 18th century when Eisenach was incorporated into the Duchy of Saxony-Weimar. It was weakened even further by the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the unification of Germany under Prussia in 1871. Wartburg also witnessed Germany’s dirst democratic assemblage in 1817, when hundreds of students came to honor several important historical anniversaries and discuss governmental reforms. Their vision was briefly realized in 1918, when Germany’s noble families were forced to leave their ancestral estates. Wartburg Castle was largely restored to its original medieval glory in the 1960s.
The imposing Wartburg Castle was built in stages over the course of seven centuries. The typical first view of Wartburg, which includes several Romanesque buildings as well as the late medieval half-timbered Knight’s house, is something of an architectural mish-mash. Because most of the buildings back up sharply against a steep hill, only part of the castle is enclosed by the outer wall. The only access into the castle is via a drawbridge by the main gatehouse that leads into the outer courtyard. The structures within Wartburg are unusual in that while they originate from numerous periods, almost every building in the castle is original. Immediately next to the main gate is the Knight’s Building, which was used to house less important knights and occasionally prisoners. Behind that is the Bailiff’s Lodge, where Martin Luther stayed hidden under the guise of Junker Jorge. His rooms have been partly preserved and are the historical highlight of Wartburg.
The inner courtyard is protected by a second gatehouse. The inner castle includes most of the oldest and most important buildings, including several towers, the stables and the royal apartments. The latter is now a museum displaying the ducal affects. The main building is the Grand Hall which dates back to the 12th century. Within the Grand Hall is the Hall of Minstrels, where the famous Tannhauser competition took place in 1207. The Grand Hall also includes an extension of the museum in the adjoining ducal apartments.
Wartburg Castle is located above the town of Eisenach approximately 70 miles northeast of Frankfurt 140 miles southwest of Berlin. It is open daily except on December 25 and January 1. From March to October the castle is open from 8:30am-5:00pm; and from November to February from 9:00am-3:30pm. Admission is E6.50 for adults (discounts for students, senior citizens and handicapped). Children 6 and under are free. Web: www.wartburg-eisenach.de (official website).
In general, the castles of Central Germany are some of the most interesting historically. The other castle most closely associated with the life of Martin Luther is Wittenberg Castle, where he first challenged Church authority with his 95 Thesis. A few years later, Marburg Castle was the meeting place of Martin Luther and the Reformation’s other key leader, Ulrich Zwingli. Perhaps the region’s darkest and most intriguing castle is Wewelsburg Castle, located near the site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Wewelsburg was the site of numerous witchcraft trials in the 1600s. It was also the headquarters of the SS during the Nazi period, and was dubbed Himmler’s Camelot. Also nearby are Braunfels Castle, Harburg Castle, Veste Coburg and Wernigerode Castle.