The Mysterious Habsburg Castle
Oct 24, 2004
Author: William H. Kennedy
In Northwestern Switzerland at the confluence of the Ruess and Aare rivers in an area traditionally known as the Aargau rests the ruins of the Habsburg Castle. This structure is the original home of the oldest continually ruling dynasty in Europe. How this castle came into being sheds light on the origin of the Habsburg family – a dynasty which continues to hold monarchical power to this day. (1)
Most scholars concur that the House of Habsburg emerged from the Eticho family who, by the seventh century AD, were landed gentry in what is now known as Switzerland and who eventually gained prestige by intermarriage with more powerful royal houses. It is speculated that female members of the Eticho clan married into the male line of an unnamed family of peasant farmers who began to gain more and more land around the Rhine. The wealth of this particular farming family grew owing to the trading of crops with Bavaria and northern Italy and their subsequent purchase of more land from these agricultural profits.
The Eticho family originated with Wago, Count of Montreuil (512-?) but only really came into prominence when scion [Adalric] Eticho (645-690) married the Merovingian princess Berswinde and assumed the more aristocratic title of Duke of Alsace. Berswinde was the daughter of Sigebert III, Frankish King of Austrasia (631-656) and sister of Dagobert II (652-679) who assumed the throne of his father after returning from exile in Ireland but was murdered in a bizarre plot involving factions of the Papacy. It was this connection that gave this emerging farming family its initial distinction. (2)
It is interesting to note that the Franks/Merovingian monarchs possessed the title “Holy Roman Emperor” centuries before the Habsburgs were to acquire this imperial designation for themselves. In 469, the Roman Church made a pact with King Clovis I, bestowing upon him the title “New Constantine” and with it “Holy Roman Emperor.” Dagobert II was the last known Merovingian monarch to hold this title. Centuries later his descendents the Habsburgs would reclaim this title and technically retain it even after the fall of the Austrian Empire. (3)
The most reliable document on this early period of the Habsburgs is the Annals of the Muri Monastery. This manuscript was produced sometime in the twelfth century but was only discovered in the sixteenth century. It affords modern scholars a chronicle of the formation of early Switzerland especially as it pertains to the Habsburg rulers. From the Annals we learn that a certain Count Guntram the Rich, who ruled Northern Alsace, somehow lost favor with Emperor Otto I in the year 952 AD. (4)
For unclear reasons the Emperor declared Guntram a disloyal traitor and seized his land and holdings. Count Guntram must have possessed either immense military power or some knowledge which would embarrass Otto or perhaps even threaten the Emperor’s rule. For some unexplained reason, Emperor Otto quickly repealed all charges against Count Guntram and restored all of his properties. Guntram is actually a Merovingian name, as in Guntram Frankish King of Burgundy and Orléans (561–92). (5) Although the two reconciled and all of Guntram’s property was returned, this reputation of disloyalty remained with this family. Part of the Count’s land holdings included the Swiss region of Aargau - a fertile area not far from present day Zurich. It is here that the Habsburg Kingdom would emerge and eventually outgrow its original setting.
In addition to this region in Switzerland Guntram also held considerable holdings in what later became known as Alsace Lorraine. The Habsburgs were to be tied to this cross roads of cultural and political intrigue for a Millennium. Guntram’s son Lanzelin increased his father’s holdings and his successor, Count Radbot was established as a major political figure on par with the older nobility. In 1020 Radbot supplied the land and funds for the construction of a Benedictine Abby at Muri and a convent at the nearby village of Hermetswyl. It is here at the Muri Monastery that the Habsburg family history was chronicled for several hundred years.
The heirs of Count Guntram flourished yet possessed no dynastic title. Lanzelin was referred to as the “Count of the Northern Territories”, a purely geographic designation, and sometimes as the “Count of Altenberg” which was then a mere cow pasture. No monarch or Emperor would bestow upon them a lofty title with some reference to an ancestor or event in antiquity. It is understandable why their contemporaries were slow to acknowledge any formal title for them as their reputation as being ruthless and disloyal still carried over from the reign of Otto I. The fact that Guntram and his early descendants reconciled with the Imperial Throne is moot- this bad reputation remains with this bloodline into the Twenty First century. (6) Also the matrilineal connection with the Merovingians did not carry much weight by the 900’s as this Frankish dynasty had long died out as a political power. Of course the ruling aristocracy could have granted some formal and exalted title based on their Merovingian ancestry but they were most likely seen as being mere parvenu. The older nobility traced their lineage back to the Dukes of Tuscany and Julius Caesar and, consequently, most likely viewed Guntram and his descendants as just nouveau riche upstarts.
However, the “Counts of the Northern Territories” controlled vast property holdings on both sides of the Rhine. They did not let their roturier reputation deter them from acquiring new properties and marrying into older, established royal lineages. Although they were considered parvenu in their day, Radbot managed to marry Ita, the eldest daughter of the Duke of Lorraine and his brother Rudolf wed Kundigund daughter of the illustrious House of Zollern, the founders of Prussian royal house. From Radbot’s marriage alone, the Habsburgs claimed descent from the dukes of Lorraine, and were related to the dukes of Swabia, as well as the Capetian kings of France. The youngest offspring known as Lonzelin II managed to marry the daughter of the wealthy Count Von Villingen who owned all the property that was later to become the Swiss capital of Zurich. (7)
Count Radbot’s new brother in law was Bishop Werner of Strasbourg - a powerful and strong-willed political figure who held influence with both the Pope and the Emperor. It was this alliance that secured the future of the “Counts of the Northern Territories.” (8)
With so much scattered terrain around the Rhine, it became necessary for Radbot to construct some sort of headquarters for his vast holdings. Count Radbot was well aware of his family’s poor reputation and the fact that his new wealth caused envy amongst the older noble families. For these reasons, Radbot began the construction of a castle in 1020 AD. He chose what was the most central point of all of his holdings in the Aargau which also afforded a strategic advantage in case of attack. The area formed a flat plain from which darted a steep hill known as the Wülpelsberg. This peak measures some 1,682-feet (513-meters) From this location Radbot could have his forces swoop down and defeat an attacking enemy with relatively few soldiers. (9)
The Castle is shaped like a large square tower with a palas (or courtyard) on one side. It is four stories high and possesses steep parapets at the apex of the tower. From the tower one can survey the surrounding area for miles in any direction. From a distance the Castle exudes an intimidating yet majestic mystic. Anyone passing by gets the feeling that someone truly important dwells there. However, the castle does not possess a surrounding defensive wall which was a common feature of fortresses during this period (moats did not come into being until much later) Most fortresses used a boarder wall supported by small turrets to act as a first line of defense against invaders.
It was not for lack of funds that Radbot failed to build this defensive wall. Legend states that shortly after Count Radbot completed his castle he invited his brother-in-law Bishop Warner to inspect the new structure. When the Bishop noticed that the castle was constructed without a perimeter defense he chided his brother-in-law. According to the legend, the Count said he would construct a wall overnight and in a style that the Bishop had never seen. The next morning Radbot showed off his new wall to Werner from a castle window. There surrounding the entire castle was the Count’s garrison mustered like a living wall with mounted Knights stationed at regular intervals as if they were turrets. The story goes that the Count claimed that the loyalty of his soldiers was his best defense. It is said that the Bishop commended him for his trust and faith in his men. (10)
As the Count built the castle he noticed the vast amount of hawks which frequented the surrounding area. Hawks tend to nest near large human habitations where they are able to hunt the rodents who inevitably invade such structures. These birds of prey would also scavenge through the refuse dumped outside dwellings. Radbot took this as a good omen. The hawk was not as esteemed as a noble emblem of political might as the eagle (symbol of the German Emperor) or the falcon (used for hunting by Muslim nobleman) but the hawk was still a stealth bird of prey. As a symbolic representation of this new dynasty, the hawk seemed superb. This bird was a fierce hunter and a good defender of its territory. In a sense the hawk best exemplified this emerging regime. Unlike the majestic and aloof eagle, the hawk was willing to swoop down anywhere and grab whatever it needed. Unlike the falcon the hawk could not be easily trained to subordinate its will to the needs of a hunting master (hawks will often become enraged for no apparent reason and attack their master). This family could not trace itself to the established German Salien or Staufen noble houses and its connection to the Etichos was only matrilineal, hence, the hawk, with its semi wild yet fierce reputation, seemed to personify this up-and-coming royal house.
Whether by decree or by popular consensus the fortress became known as the Hawk Castle or, as in the Old German, “Havichburg.” This popular name of the new fortification was so pleasing to the “Counts of the Northwest Territories” that they adopted it to designate their bloodline. (11) It is unclear exactly when they adopted this title as an official family name but there is a document dated September 29, 1108 in which Otto, the grandson of Radbot, is referred to as the “Count of Habsburg.” The original title “Havichburg” changed spelling over the centuries and was spelt both Hapsburg and Habsburg although the latter spelling is the most commonly used. The current head of the House of Habsburg, Dr Otto Von Habsburg, uses the more popular spelling. (12)
What remains of the Habsburg Castle in our time is only part of the original building. At the height of its glory in the thirteenth century, just before a Habsburg assumed the role of monarch in Germany, the Hawk Castle boasted two new additions, several large throne rooms and a labyrinth of walls and turrets. One unusual feature of this fortress, which still remains to this day, is an indoor toilet. Although rare in medieval times a toilet with a primitive yet effective flush system could be utilized by the Habsburgs and their guests.
When the Habsburgs were called to a greater destiny in Germany and Vienna where they became the Holy Roman Emperors the castle gradually lost its importance. When Rudolf Von Habsburg was offered the Imperial Throne of Germany in 1273 the Hawk Castle was pretty much abandoned. Ironically, Count Rudolf was presented the Imperial Throne because his family was still relatively new to the political scene. The Emperors had traditionally been of the House of Staufen but recent conflicts with the Vatican caused the last Emperor to be excommunicated and, it is suspected, killed by the Pope. The ensuing years were tumultuous in Germany and the Pope wanted social order restored. However, he dared not reinstate some scion of the Staufens to the throne.
The reigning German princes did not want political power consolidated with the Staufen line, nor did they trust one another with autocratic power. The Habsburg dynasty seemed perfect in that they were now connected enough to standard nobility to be acceptable while still being politically naive. In this sense the Pope and the Germanic nobility thought they could outwit and control the Habsburgs for generations to come seeing as the current “Count” was a meager arriviste at best. They were sorely mistaken. It turned out that Emperor Rudolf, believed to be a minor and uncommitted monarch who ruled the quiet regions in northern Switzerland and Alsace, turned out to be a manipulative, cogent and even somewhat ruthless ruler.
Emperor Rudolf was not the codfish aristocrat that the Pope and Germanic nobility hoped he would be. As a means to avoid conflict, Emperor Rudolf replaced all of the former Imperial staff with his own courtiers from Alsace. Fearing the Pope, the new Emperor made public concessions to the Papacy while setting up an elaborate spy network to find out the inner workings and policies inside the Vatican. However, the first Habsburg Emperor really showed his mettle when war broke out with King Ottocar of Bohemia who somehow decided that he should be the Holy Roman Emperor.
The “Impoverished Swiss Count”, as Rudolf was known by the Bohemians, crushed Ottocar’s entire army in a few decisive battles. To add to his victory, Emperor Rudolf learned that King Ottocar was himself killed in the final skirmish. This meant that the Emperor now possessed all the lands in Ottocar’s domain as well as all territories owned by the Bohemian monarch’s heirs and relations. In the zenith of his reign in 1278, Emperor Rudolf did what the Pope and Germanic Princes feared most – it was their worst nightmare come true. As a means to cement his hold on the hereditary territories of Austria, Styria, Carinthia and the southern German and Swiss regions, Rudolf had each of his six daughters marry the heirs of these principalities.
In order to stop any future usurpers, Emperor Rudolf enacted the “to joint hands” form of inheritance – a legal dictate which stated that all Habsburg males, despite patrimony, inherited all lands and titles from their father despite any wills to the contrary. (This would aid the family many centuries later when the male line of Habsburgs died out and they took the name “Habsburg Lorraine” as their official designation.) Consequently, all future grandsons would rule their respective domains. One of Emperor Rudolf’s own son’s would theoretically assume the throne and his bloodline would control Europe on both the local and imperial level. These marriages and the new inheritance laws merged the Habsburg’s destiny with that of Europe for, it seems, all time.
Ironically, with all of these new land holdings and titles, the Habsburgs never seemed to look back at their original ancestral fortress which gave them their dynastic title. They even abandoned the hawk as their descriptive Heraldry, eventually choosing the double headed eagle as their official escutcheon. A later scion built the “New Hawks Castle” overlooking a lake in Switzerland but this structure functioned more as a summer palace and lacked the symbolic potency of its ancient namesake.
Eventually the Hawk’s Castle became the bureaucratic office building of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was given over to two families who filled the role of courtiers. By 1400 these two families of administrators died out and the Habsburgs themselves showed no interest in their former home. The castle was sold to the Von Wohlen family but they lost possession when the Republic of Bern seized it after winning a war against the German Emperor in 1457. (13)
Five years later the Bernese government realized that the castle required expensive upkeep and decided to sell it to a wealthy merchant named Segesser. For unknown reasons Segesser sold it to a group of nuns from Koenigsfelden who allowed the castle fall into great disrepair. The Bernese government warned the sisters that they should renovate the structure but refused to fund the project believing that the Pope should assume financial responsibility for the historic fortress. The convent eventually dissolved and the Bernese government was forced to take back full possession of the Habsburg.
By 1553 the castle was in shambles, and the Bernese authorities spent a great deal of money to restore the outer walls of the original castle and tear down several of the later additions. For a time the Habsburg was used as a storage facility for the local government. However, by the 1700’s the castle was once again neglected and became feral. At various times it was inhabited by wandering gypsies, itinerate farm hands and vagabonds. According to a Swiss tour guide the castle operated as a house of ill repute which serviced the various soldiers that happened through the area during the Napoleonic Wars. (14)
In 1804 the castle was turned over to the Canton of Aargau after the Swiss territories were redistributed under Napoleon. Occasional restorations were conducted over the years but the only major efforts at reviving the castle came via the Swiss government in 1949 and again in 1987. What remains in our time is a large section of the original castle with some rooms still intact. Most of the additions and turrets were removed over time, exposing much of the original edifice. The tower with its imposing parapets can still be seen and a great deal of the adjourning palas remains unfettered. (15)
Even with the decay the Habsburg Castle remains an impressive and imposing structure. Its exterior peers out from the hill top and one can imagine Count Radbot gazing out beyond the Rhine where the Frankish and Germanic Kingdoms laid waiting.
Surprisingly, hawks are rarely if ever seen in the precinct of the castle anymore. One local legend states that the birds disappeared after the Habsburg Emperor was deposed at the conclusion of World War I. It is also believed by some that the hawks will only return when the Habsburgs are restored to their rightful place as the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.
(1) Contrary to popular belief the Habsburg Empire did not entirely end when President Woodrow Wilson dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 at the end of World War One. Currently HSH Prince Hans Adam II of the Imperial Principality of Liechtenstein is a Habsburg and a ruling monarch. Hans Adam has strong ties to the Vatican and is a prominent member of right wing Catholic groups like Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta. In October 1999 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, ruled that Prince Hans Adam had violated the human rights of a nominee for a position in an administrative court when he rejected him for suggesting that the Supreme Court, not the prince, should have final constitutional authority. Hans Adam has been at odds with the more democratically-minded Liechtenstein legislature for some time – he seems to yearn for the days of Imperial Autocracy. See: "http://www.firstlink.li/eng/regierung/jahreszahlen.htm" l "1938"
for an online photo of the Habsburg Castle see:
(2) See: "http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/2444/Wago.htm"
(3) See: "http://2005.dragonkeypress.com/articles.index.shtml
(4) Holzer, Hans; The Habsburg Curse, Double Day & Co. New York 1973 p. 6
(5) See: "http://www.bartleby.com/65/gu/Guntram.html"
(6) Holzer; p. 7 – 9.
(7) Holzer; p. 8 –9.
(8) Holzer; p. 8-9.
(9) Holzer; p. 9-10. See: www.comptons.com/encyclopedia/ARTICLES/0075/00817408_A.html#P1A1
(10) Holzer; p. 9.
(11) Holzer; p. 10.
(12) Dr Otto Von Habsburg is the current titular Head of the House of Habsburg. Von Habsburg was born in Reichenau, Austria on November 20, 1912 as the eldest son of Archduke Karl and Princess Zita von Bourbon-Parma, who in 1916 became the Emperor and Empress of Austria, King and Queen of Hungary. The Archduke and Crown Prince Otto of Austria (he is known as Dr. Otto von Habsburg in his political life in the EU) resided in Austria until his father’s renunciation of power in 1919.
On November 11, 1918 (Armistice Day), Emperor Karl was obliged to renounce the Austrian throne; however, he never abdicated, he only relinquished power. After Austria rejected him, he planned to reign as king of Hungary, whose anointed and crowned sovereign he was. Then the new Hungarian parliament asked Karl for his renunciation of the scepter of St. Stephan. Again, the young Hapsburg monarch refused to abdicate. As Zita put it, “One cannot forfeit one’s ancestral rights!” Hence, Karl announced, "I am voluntarily abandoning power." Hence, the last Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Emperor never renounced any of his formal titles – he merely conceded rule of law. Technically, Dr Otto Von Habsburg still retains the titles of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Jerusalem – a fact he neglects to mention at European Union meetings. See: "http://www.proeuropa.gr/habsburg.html"
(13) Holzer: p. 15.
(14) Interview with author in Zurich Switzerland 10/18/96
(15) Holzer: p. 16.