Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   
Castles and Fortresses

Medieval Castles and Fortresses

Current to 1 January 2020.

My version of Albrecht Durer's Medieval German Knight with a castle (also known as a Schloss, Berg or Festung).  Oil on canvas, 16 X 20.  (Author's artwork).

Burg Eltz, near the Mosel River, Germany, Oil on canvas, 18 X 24.  (Author's artwork)

 (Author Photo)

Burg Eltz, near the Mosel River Germany.  Of more than 500 castles in the Rhineland Palatinate region this is one of only three to have survived the many wars and destruction in the region mostly intact since the 11th century.  It is a good walk to get to, up and down a number of hills and forest tracks through a beautiful area and a breathtaking view of the castle.  Of the hundreds examined while researching material for the book "Siegecraft", this one, in the author's opinion, is the most interesting of them all.   (Author Photo)

Schloss Bürresheim, Germany.  (Blueduck4711 Photo, 17 July 2010)

Schloss Rhein Pfalz, on the Rhine River, Germany, Oil on canvas, 18 X 24.  (Author's artwork)

Gutenfels Castle on the Rhine River, Germany.   (Author Photos)

Rheinpfalz castle on the Rhine River.  There is a plaque marking this as site General Blucher crossed the ice-covered river with his army during the Napoleonic Wars before 1815.   (Author Photos)

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle (Burg Pfalzgrafenstein) is a toll castle on Falkenau island, otherwise known as Pfalz Island in the Rhine River near Kaub, Germany.  Known as "the Pfalz," this former stronghold is famous for its picturesque and unique setting.  

The keep of this island castle, a pentagonal tower with its point upstream, was erected 1326 to 1327 by King Ludwig the Bavarian.  Around the tower, a defensive hexagonal wall was built between 1338 to 1340.  In 1477 Pfalzgrafenstein was passed as deposit to the Count of Katzenelnbogen.  Later additions were made in 1607 and 1755, consisting of corner turrets, the gun bastion pointing upstream, and the characteristic baroque tower cap.

The castle functioned as a toll-collecting station that was not to be ignored.  It worked in concert with Gutenfels Castle and the fortified town of Kaub on the right side of the river.  Due to a dangerous cataract on the river's left, about a kilometer upstream, every vessel would have to use the fairway nearer to the right bank, thus floating downstream between the mighty fortress on the vessel's left and the town and castle on its right.  A chain across the river drawn between those two fortifications forced ships to submit, and uncooperative traders could be kept in the dungeon until a ransom was delivered.  The dungeon was a wooden float in the well.

Unlike the vast majority of Rhine castles, "the Pfalz" was never conquered or destroyed, withstanding not only wars, but also the natural onslaughts of ice and floods by the river.  Its Spartan quarters held about twenty men.

 (Ulli1105 Photo, 19 June 2005)

Berwartstein Castle (Burg Berwartstein) was the very first castle I have a clear memory of my parents taking us to visit in 1959.  It stands on a rocky mount in southwestern Germany, and was one of the rcok castles that were part of defences of the Palatinate during the Middle Ages.  First documented in 1152, Berwarstein is one of three significant  examples of rock castles in the region with the other two being Drachenfels and Altdahn.  They are most notable because their stairs, passages and rooms are carved out of the living rock to form part of the accommodation essential to the defence of the castle.  Although Berwartstein Castle appears more complete when compared to the ruins of neighbouring castles, it is only a restoration of the original rock castle.  It is the only castle in the Palatinate that was rebuilt and re-inhabited after its demolition.

This was the first castle the author visited as an eight-year old living in Germany in 1959.

Rock cut passageways leading under Berwartstein.  Carved out of the cliff and accessible even today are corridors and passageways which used to be part of the large underground defence network. Although not accessible today, there was once a tunnel from the castle to the village below.  These tunnels were hewn out with hammer and chisel and partly dug through the soil.  (Claus Ableiter Photo).

On our first tour in 1959, a dozen or so of us were asked to join hands to walk through the tunnel as the tour guide only had one light - quite the introduction to castle tunnel spelunking!

I remember my father explaining that the robber knights operating from this castle created a problem for the rulers in the area, so they commisioned one of their best knights to go and sort them out.  He managed to get the best of them, but on reflection decided they had a pretty good scheme going, and so he joined them, taking over the business, so to speak.  Even more remarkable, the fortress was so well defended, the Robber Knight died of old age, quite rare for the profession.  I am going to include some details of this castle, much of which is typical of the many I have explored during our time in Germany (1959-1963, 1979 (tour), 1981-1983, 1989-1992, and several tours in 2005, 2008 and 2016.

(Franz Photo, 1 Oct 2011)

Armour and stone catapult/cannon balls.  At the age of eight, these were the first I had seen.  I have certainly view a lot more since ;o) 

During the 13th century, feudal tenants, who carried the name "von Berwartstein" inhabited the castle, which they used as a base for raids in the manner of robber barons.  The imperial cities of Strasbourg and Hagenau joined forces against the von Berwartsteins.  Following several weeks of futile attacks against the castle, they succeeded in taking it in 1314, with the help of a traitor.  A large amount of booty and about 30 prisoners were taken to Strasbourg.  The knights of Berwartstein were permitted to buy the prisoners back for a large ransom.  The knights of Berwartstein were forced to sell their castle to the brothers Ort and Ulrich von Weingarten.  Four years later the castle became the property of  Weissenburg Abbey.

The monastery at Weissenburg placed the castle in stewardship and established a feudal system.  This allowed for the dismissal of vassals who became too presumptuous.  Thus the monastery held possession of the castle for some time.  This could have continued indefinitely had the last steward of the castle (Erhard Wyler) not gone too far.  When he began feuding with the knights of Drachenfels, the Elector of the Palatinate took the opportunity to bring the Berwartstein Castle under his control.

Because of his dynastic ambitions, the Elector of the Palatinate wanted to bring all of the Weissenburg estate under his control. To accomplish this, in 1480 he ordered the knight, Hans von Trotha, who was Marshal and Commander in Chief of the Palatinate forces, to acquire to Berwartstein. In this way he could enlarge the property at a cost to the Monastery of Weissenburg. For the quarrelsome knight this was a pleasure to fulfil, since this gave him a chance to take personal revenge on the Abbot of Weissenburg. Years before, Abbot Heinrich von Homburg had imposed a church fine on his brother, Bishop Thilo.  As a starting point for this conquering expedition, this experienced warrior first renovated the castle to improve its appearance. He built strong ramparts and bastions as well as the outwork and tower called Little France castle.

After von Trotha's death, Berwartstein Castle was inherited by his son Christoph and, when he died, it went to his son-in-law, Friedrich von Fleckenstein and remained in the hands of this family for three generations.  During this time, the castle was destroyed by fire in 1591, and, since there is no mention of any attacks, it is presumed that the castle was hit by lightning.  Even though the main sections of the castle were not destroyed by the fire, it stood empty and unused for many years.  In the Peace of Westphalia (1648), Berwartstein received special mention, when it was granted to Baron Gerhard von Waldenburg, known as Schenkern, a favorite of Emperor Ferdinand III.  Since he did not restore the castle, it fell into ruins.

A certain Captain Bagienski purchased the castle in 1893.  In 1922, it was sold to Aksel Faber of Copenhagen, and thus went into foreign ownership.  Since he was seldom in Germany, he asked Alfons Wadlé to be his steward. Later Wadlé he was able to purchase the castle.  

The village of Erlenbach below the castle was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and its inhabitants sought shelter in the castle.  After the war, the roof had gone as well as the woodwork around windows, doors, staircases and other furnishings.  Since the castle was not financially supported, Alfons Wadlé went about the renovation himself.  At first he was only able to do what was essential to protect the castle from the elements.

Berwartstein has an opening on the southeast side of the cliff, commonly referred to as Aufstiegskamin ("entrance chimney").  During the early years of the castle only the rooms and casemates in the upper cliff were complete and the shaft was the only entrance to the castle.  To make it easier to ascend the shaft, a portable wooden staircase or rope ladder was placed into the castle.  In the event of attack, the staircase or ladder was hoisted up into the castle.  This enabled the entrance to be defended by just one man who was supplied with boiling sap, oil or liquid to pour on any intruder attempting to ascend the shaft.  This limited access to the castles inner rooms was probably the main reason it was never conquered during the Middle Ages.  The narrow, almost vertical cliff on which the castle stands, rises to a height of approximately 45 metres.

(H. Zell Photo)

The extremely deep well is one of the castle builders' greatest accomplishments.  The well has a diameter of 2 metres (6 ft) and was hacked out of the rock to the bottom of the valley some 104 metres below.  This was essential to the castle's survival when under siege. 

The historic Great Hall or Rittersaal has a cross-vaulted ceiling. An engraving on the supporting central pillar shows that it dates to the 13th century. The south wall of the hall is made from rock and includes a hewn-out lift shaft used by the knights of Berwartstein to deliver supplies to the table and deliver food and drink from the kitchen above.

(Ulli1105 Photo, 19 June 2005)

To the south on the opposite side of the valley from the castle on a spur of the Nestelberg can still be seen the tower of Little France.  This tower was part of an outwork or small subsidiary castle built by the well known knight and castellan of the Berwartstein, Hans von Trotha.  The tower was an important observation post and defensive position, and meant that any attackers would have found themselves caught in a crossfire between the tower and the castle.  The open ground in the valley below between the tower and castle still bears the name Leichenfeld (Corpse Field), a reference to the battles fought here.  There is also evidence of an underground passage between the tower and castle which is no longer accessible today since it has largely collapsed. 

Burghausen Castle in Burghausen, Upper Bavaria, Germany, is the longest castle complex in the world (1.051 km).

 (Werner Hölzl Photo)

Burghausen Castle, founded in 1025, seen from the Austrian side of the River Salzach.  Between 1392 and 1503, the fortifications were extended around the entire castle hill.  When the wor was completed, Burghausen Castle became the strongest fortress of the region.

(Christian Michelides Photo)

Burghausen Castle at night. 

 (I, ArtMechanic Photo)

Nuremberg Castle with a view of the Palas, Imperial Chapel, Heathens' Tower on the left, Sinwell Tower in the middle left, the Pentagonal Tower, the Imperial Stables and Luginsland Tower on the right.  In the Middle Ages, German Kings, (respectively Holy Roman Emperors after their coronation by the Pope) did not have a capital, but travelled from one of their castles (Kaiserpfalz or Imperial castle) to the next.  For this reason, the castle at Nürnberg became an important imperial castle, and in the following centuries, all German kings and emperors stayed at the castle, most of whom did so on several occasions.  Nuremberg Castle is comprised of three sections: the Imperial castle (Kaiserburg), the former Burgraves' castle (Burggrafenburg), and the buildings erected by the Imperial City at the eastern site (Reichsstädtische Bauten).

The first fortified buildings appear to have been erected around 1000.  Thereafter, three major construction periods may be distinguished:

  • the castle built under the Salian kings respectively Holy Roman Emperors (1027–1125);
  • a new castle built under the Hohenstaufen emperors (1138–1254);
  • reconstruction of the Palas as well as various modifications and additions in the late medieval centuries.

The castle lost its importance after the Thirty Year's War (1618 to 1648). In the 19th century with its general interest in the medieval period, some modifications were added.  During the Nazi period, in preparation of the Nuremberg party rally in 1936, it was "returned to its original state."  A few years later, during the Second World War and its air raids in 1944/1945, a large part of the castle was laid in ruins.  It took some thirty years to complete the rebuilding and restoration to its present state.

 (Kolossos Photo)

View of Nuremberg Castle, Tiefer Brunnen (Deep well, small building with gable roof in the middle) and Sinwellturm (Sinwell Tower).  The complex consists of a group of medieval fortified buildings on a sandstone ridge ridge dominating the historical center of Nuremberg in Bavaria, Germany.  The castle, together with its city walls, was considered to be one of Europe's most formidable medieval fortifications.  It represented the power and importance of the Holy Roman Empire and the outstanding role of the Imperial City of Nuremberg.

 (Author Photo)

Wartburg castle overlooking the town of Eisenach in the state of Thuringia, Germany, 27 May 2016.  

 (Author Photo)

Burg Gleichen, Thuringia, Germany.  

 (Author Photo)

Burg Muhlberg, Thuringia, Germany.  

(Author's artwork)

Schloss Hohenzollern, Germany.  Oil on canvas, 18 X 24. 

(A. Kniesel Photo, 1 Nov 2006)

Schloss Hohenzollern, Germany. 

(Author's artwork)

Schloss Heidelberg, Germany, as it might have looked before its destruction.  Oil on canvas, 11 X 14. 

 (Pumuckel42 Photo)

Schloss Heidelberg, Germany, as it appears now (Heidelberg-Schloß, 1 May 2005). 

(Storfix Photo, 16 Oct 2005)

Veste Coburg, Germany.

(I, ArtMechanic Photo, 22 June 2005)

Braunfels Schloss, Germany. 

 (R. Wallenstein Photo, 29 Jan 2006)

Trifels Castle, Anweiler, Germany.  First mentioned in documents dated 1081, this castle was designated as a secure site for preserving the Imperial Regalia of the Hohenstaufen Emperors until they were moved to Walburg Caste in Swabia in 1220.  Richard the Lionheart, King of England was kept a prisoner here, after he was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria near Vienna in Dec 1192 as he was returning from the Third Crusade.  He was handed over to Emperor Henry VI of Hohenstaufen and his period of captivity from 31 March to 19 April 1193 is well documented.  Our family visited this castle often during our postings to Germany.  Its a steep climb. 

(Author's artwork)

Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany.  Oil on canvas, 18 X 24. 

(Cezary Piwowarski Photo, 1 June 2007)

Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany. 

(Author's artwork)

Schloss Lichtenstein, Germany.  Oil on canvas, 8 X 10. 

 (Donald Photo, 4 May 2010)

Schloss Lichtenstein, Germany.

(Author's artwork)

Haut Koenigsburg, Alsace, France.  Oil on canvas, 18 X 24. 

(Meffo Photo, 20 Mar 2010)

Haut Koenigsburg, Alsace, France. 

 (Tobi 87 Photo, 6 June 2009)

The Marksburg (seen from the western riverside of the Rhine) is a fortress above the town of Braubach in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. It is located on a schist rock in a heigth of 160 m. It is the only medieval castle of the Middle Rhine that has never been destroyed. Since 2002, the castle is one of the principal sites of the UNESCO World Heritage Rhine Gorge.  The Marksburg Castle is one of the three with its original elements intact from the 11th century.  It has an extensive collection of medieval artifacts, and is the repository of castle museum books and documents for most of Germany. 

I felt that this specific castle would make a good cover for a book about sieges.

(I, Manfred Hyde Photo, 22 Apr 2007)

Burg Rheinstein on the Rhine River was one of the best restored castles.  Our family first visited this one in 1960, and it is still well maintained.  The castle has an excellent collection of medieval artifacts, fine gardens and steep walks. 

 (Steffen Schmitz Photo, 11 Aug 2012)

Cochem Reichsburg castle on the Mosel River, Germany.

 (Edgar El Photo, 16 Aug 2013)

Cochem Reichsburg castle on the Mosel River, Germany.

(Author Photo)

Burg Maus on the Rhine River, Germany. 

 (Author Photos)

Burg Hohengeroldseck.  Most Canadians who lived in Lahr, Germany, home of Canadian Forces Europe Headquarters and 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group until 1993, will be familiar with the 12th century castle nearby named Hohengeroldseck, and a secondary castle overlooking it, Schloss Lutzelhardt.

 (Lahr Historical Society Photo)

Burg Hohengeroldseck as it appeared before its destruction in the 1600s.  The castle was built ca 1260 as the family seat of the Lords of Geroldseck.  After an eventful history, it was destroyed by French soldiers in 1688.


 (Author Photos)

Lutzelhardt castle, remaining ruins, just above the village of Reichenbach, Germany.

 (Author Photo)

Storchenturm, the only remaining tower of four that formed the corners of the 11th century medieval castle that Lahr was built around.

 (Author Photo)

Schonburg castle on the Rhine River, Germany.  

(DHR Photo, 14 May 2015)

Rheinfels, once the largest castle on the Rhine River, Germany. 

(Berthold Werner Photo, 28 Apr 2015)

Schloss Sigmaringen, Germany.  This castle has an excellent medieval arms and armour collection. 

 (Christian Horvat Photo)

Marienberg Fortress (Festung Marienberg) is a prominent landmark on the left bank of the Main river in Würzburg, in the Franconia region of Bavaria, Germany.  The mighty Fortress Marienberg is a symbol of Würzburg and served as a home of the local prince-bishops for nearly five centuries.  It has been a fort since ancient times.  Most of the current structures originally were built in Renaissance and Baroque styles between the 16th and 18th centuries.  After Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden conquered the area in 1631 during the Thirty Year's War, the castle was reconstructed as a Baroque residence.  After it ceased to serve as residence of the Bishops of Würzburg, the fortress saw repeated action in the wars of the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Festung Marienberg was severely damaged by British bombs in March 1945 and only fully rebuilt in 1990.  Today, it houses two museums.

(Avda Photo)

Marienberg Fortress. 

If you would like to learn more about castles and sieges have a look here:

It has been said that the taking of a fortress depends primarily on the making of a good plan to take it, and the proper implementation and application of the resources to make the plan work. Long before a fortress has been besieged and conquered, it has to have been outthought before it can be outfought. This book outlines some of the more successfully thought out sieges, and demonstrates why it is that no fortress is impregnable.

A siege can be described as an assault on an opposing force attempting to defend itself from behind a position of some strength. Whenever the pendulum of technology swings against the "status quo," the defenders of a fortification have usually been compelled to surrender. We must stay ahead of the pendulum, and not be out-thought long before we are out-fought, for, as it will be shown in this book, "no fortress is impregnable."

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