My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology

  Castle Plesse (Part 1) - Rise and Fall of the Counts of Winzenburg

Castle Plesse near my hometown Göttingen is a fine example of a typical Mediaeval hilltop castle. Though pretty large for the area and extended over time, The Plesse as it is called, is not as formidable as the Norman castles in Wales, or the Wartburg in Thuringia, but it's also less tourist infected. The manor of the lord has been reconstructed and holds a restaurant, but it's closed on Mondays, so I chose a Monday to visit the place.

BTW This is another rewrite of an older post.

Plesse, the main keep

The rise of the mountain castles falls into a period of internal struggles and changes in Germany. Kings, nobility and high ranking churchmen got into conflicts with each other in the 11th century, which finally led to a stronger position for the latter two, and a weakened king. Castles were not only means of defense, but status symbols. Originally, only the king had the right to build castles; he then gave them to the nobles as fiefs or sometimes allodial possessions, but now whoever had the power and the means built castles. Soon Mediaeval German lords couldn't see a hill without wanting to get a castle up there. *grin* No wonder I have six of them within half an hours driving distance.

Main keep in the centre and the hall to the left

As so often in the Middle Ages, we don't have an exact date when the first castle was erected on the Plesse mountain. The first mention in a charte dates from 1138 and names a Burggraf (Lord Commander) Robert who was commanding the garrison on behalf of Count Hermann of Winzenburg who held the Plesse as fief, but the origins of the castle likely date back to the 11th century, because it shares many features with other hilltop / promontory castles in Thuringia, Lower Saxony and Northern Hessia that have been built in the second half of the 11th century.

(Left: The so-called Little Tower)

It cannot be verified that the Castle Plesse - 'urbs qui Plesse dicitur' (1)- mentioned in a Vita of Bishop Meinwerk of Paderborn is the same as our Plesse. Meinwerk was a member of the House Immeding, an important noble family in the 10th and 11th centuries (Mathilde, the wife of Heinrich the Fowler and mother of Otto the Great, came from that house) who held land in the area. The Vita says that in 1015 he gave the Plesse and 1,100 hides of land to the cathedral in Paderborn, but the name 'Plesse' is ambiguous and the Vita Meinwerci dates from 1160 and therefore could either have confused two places, or deliberately backdated the existence of the castle to cement the claim of the bishopric; it would not have been the first case in history. ;-)

But it seems that Paderborn indeed held rights to the castle. The castle is mentioned in an exchange contract between Emperor Heinrich VI and the bishop of Paderborn dating to 1192, but which was annulled a few years later; and as late as 1326, bishop Bernhard of Paderborn gives "half of the castle and the tower therein" as fief to the Lord of Plesse.

The first owner of the Plesse to appear in a number of chartes was Count Hermann II of Winzenburg-Reinhausen († 1152) who had bits of land spread over a rather large area from the Weser and Kassel, to the lands around Göttingen, and the Harz. His main seat was the Winzenburg near Hildesheim, held as fief from the bishop of Hildesheim. He used the name 'of Plesse' in several chartes which implies that it was one of his more important castles. The above mentioned Lord Commander Robert held the Plesse for him.

Family names in our sense did not exist in the 12th century and the denomination after one seat of a family became common but later. the chatellain Robert signed as comes castelli di Plesse as well as Hermann of Winzenburg sometimes did. They often appear in chartes together, with Hermann the first and Robert the second witness; proof for their close feudal relationship. The use of a single name - Hermann of Winzenburg - is a modern construct to make it easier to keep track of the noble families.

Plesse, outer gate
(The white structure you can see gleaming through the foliage is the reconstructed keep)

It is often difficult to trace the rise of a noble family from documents which still exist, so they seem to appear out of nowhere once they become major players and are mentioned in chronicles, chartes and such. The Counts of Winzenburg are such an example. Hermann I of Winzenburg (1083 - 1138) was the son of Count Hermann of Formbach (near Passau / Bavaria) and Mathilde of Reinhausen (near Göttingen) which casts an interesting light on the scope of marriage connections. When Count Hermann of Reinhausen († 1122) left no male heirs, Hermann of Winzenburg inherited from his mother not only some nice bits of land in Lower Saxony, but also became count of Reinhausen and margrave of the Leine Valley as well as reeve of Reinhausen Monastery. The construction - or, in case the castle is older, a thorough renovation - of Castle Plesse likely falls into this time.

(Right: another view of the main keep)

Hermann of Winzenburg-Reinhausen, educated as boy by his uncle, bishop Udo of Hildesheim, was a member of the close entourage of Emperor Heinrich V (2); he accompagnied him to Italy in 1111, and fought for the emperor during the feud with the rebellious Saxon and Thuringian nobles. I won't go into detail here, but after his coronation as emperor, Heinrich V asserted his power more strongly and alienated several high ranking nobles, among them Duke Lothar of Saxony (3) and Landgrave Ludwig of Thuringia. Heinrich won an important miliary encounter and accepted their formal submission, the deditio, during the great diet in Mainz in January 1114 where he married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and Normandy. Lothar, barefoot and in a penitent's robe, threw himself at Heinrich's feet and was received back into grace and his possessions. Ludwig of Thuringia was taken prisoner and put in irons - obviously against prior agreements. Several nobles left the diet in protest; a highly significant action in the Middle Ages.

One may wonder what young Matilda (she was 12 at the time) thought about the events. If she learned to be uncompromising there, she missed the second part of the lesson. Lothar of Saxony turned against the emperor the moment he put a foot in his own dukedom, and easily gained followers in Saxony and Thuringia, among them the bishop of Halberstadt. The sons of the landgrave managed to capture some of Heinrich's men and put them in exchange for Ludwig's freedom.

In February 1115, a battle was fought near Mansfeld (south-eastern foothills of the Harz) which turned out a decisive victory for Lothar. Heinrich's commander Hoyer of Mansfield fell, and Hermann of Winzenburg soon thereafter joined Lothar's alliance. The move is understandable since his lands lay in the sphere of influence of Lothar, and Heinrich V was in no position to defend his former vassal. Saxony was effectively lost to him.

Heinrich concentrated his activities in southern Germany and Italy, and one attempt to support his father-in-law in Normandy, which went wrong when his army met with a larger French one and Heinrich went back home (August 1124; 4). Heinrich died in May 1125 and was succeeded by his old nemesis, Lothar of Süpplingenburg Duke of Saxony. The princes of the realm elected him in favour of Heinrich's nephew Friedrich of Staufen Duke of Swabia.

Second gate with gatehouse

Hermann I of Winzenburg seems to have kept a good relationship with Lothar at first. They were distant relations; Lothar's mother Hedwig of Formbach was a cousin twice removed of Hermann. But eventually, things turned sour. The information I could find was not verifiable in detail, so I'll stick to the basics (5). What we do know is that Hermann assassinated - or had his retainers assassinate - Burchard of Loccum, who may or may not have been his a vassal, but who definitely stood well enough with Lothar for the incident to cause major troubles. The reason seems to have been the buidling of a castle on ground that didn't belong to Burchard, at least Hermann claimed it was his land. What makes it worse is that the murder allegedly took place on sacred ground.

So Lothar called Hermann of Winzenburg to justice at the diet of Quedlinburg in August 1130. Hermann lost most of his fiefs, including the Winzenburg lands which fell back to Hildesheim. Hermann didn't give in so easily and held out against a besieging army in Winzenburg Castle for several months (6). He finally surrendered at the end of 1130 and was held captive in Blankenburg for some time. His sons, Hermann and Heinrich, sought refuge in the Rhineland. That's one of the pieces that didn't become clear to me - maybe they joined Friedrich and Konrad of Staufen who were not happy about Lothar being king (and emperor since 1133).

According to abbot Reinhard of Reinhausen, Hermann was released in 1134 and entrusted with the command of Castle Segeberg in Holstein where he died in 1137/38. Reinhard's text dates to shortly before 1156. There is no other proof for Hermann's activity in Holstein, though, and the unclear date of his death doesn't help.

Plesse Castle, outer curtain wall

But whatever the situation of the family prior to 1138, at that time Hermann II had received at least Castle Plesse back from the bishop of Paderborn, because it is during the following years that he prefers the denomination 'of Plesse' (Hermannus comes de Plessa) to the name 'of Winzenburg' since that fief had not been returned to him.

Obviously, King Konrad III, the first king and emperor of the House Staufen, needed allies to balance the increasing power of the rival House Welfen, and the Winzenburg brothers were on the rise again. Hermann became a vassal of the archbishop of Mainz, married Elisabeth of Austria, a half-sister to Konrad (in 1142; 7), and was in the entourage of the king at times.

Hermann finally managed to receive the Winzenburg fief back from Hildesheim in May 1150, though Bishop Bernhard is said to have put several 'good behaviour'-clauses in the contract. I wish I could get my hands on whatever documents still exist.

Great Hall (which today houses a restaurant)

The role of Hermann II of Winzenburg in the Northeim heritage troubles can be traced rather well. When Siegfried IV of Boyneburg-Northeim died in 1144 without issue, Hermann's brother Heinrich married his widow Richenza and thus got his hands on the Northeim heritage, the allodial possessions of Boyneburg and the fiefs they held from the archbishop of Mainz. Without that marriage, the next heir would have been Heinrich the Lion, the grandson of Richenza of Northeim (not the same as the widow) and Lothar of Süpplingenburg - their daughter Gertrud had married Heinrich's father, Henrich the Proud of Bavaria.

Heinrich of Winzenburg (also known as Heinrich of Assel after his mother's family) died already in 1146, so Hermann bought the part of the widow's heritage which she could legally dispose of. Which makes me wonder where he got the money from; his own fiefs at the time were not so large. Maybe he had a hand in the salt works in Göttingen or some other source like silver mines. Hermann also was granted the fiefs which Siegfried held from the king (8). The fiefs Siegfried once held from Mainz seem to have been so important to Hermann that he gave the family monastery of Reinhausen in exchange for their grant.

Overall, Hermann II Count of Winzenburg balanced some of the influence of the expanding Welfen in the area which may have been the reason Konrad supported him so strongly.

Gate to the lower bailey

But the return of Winzenburg Castle would not bring Hermann any luck. In January 1152, he and his third wife were murdered in the castle. The men behind it are said to have been the bishop of Hildesheim (one of his retainers was decapitated for the crime) and one Count Heinrich of Bodenburg, who lost a juridical duel and retired, severely wounded, to a monastery. Again, detailed and reliable information could not be obtained.

With Hermann's death, the Northeim-Winzenburg heritage fell to Heinrich the Lion.

The Lord Commander Robert of Plesse had disappeared from the chartes some time ago. At latest in 1150, a Bernhard of Höckelheim had replaced him, first as vassal of Hermann of Winzenburg, but later he held the fief directly from Paderborn. He would found the line of the Noble Lords of Plesse who will get another post.

View from the Plesse

1) The Latin urbs can mean 'castle' or 'settlement' in the Middle Ages
2) The interwebs, as so often, gets things wrong and spreads the information that Hermann I of Winzenburg was landgrave of Thuringia in several linked articles. I could not find anything to support that in my research books. At best we find that, according to Warsitzka, the position of Hermann "came close to that of a landgrave" (p. 54).
3) Lothar of Süpplingenburg, the future Emperor Lothar. He had received the dukedom after the Billung family died out in the male line. Obviously, Heinrich V had thought that a man with less land to his own than the Billung family (where the husbands of two daughters inherited most of the land) would prove more malleable. Turned out Heinrich was wrong there.
4) Heinrich may have hoped for the English throne for himself or a son with Matilda after the sinking of the White Ship in 1120.
5) Not only is the information about Bernhard of Loccum obscure, there is also a mess about the Hermanns of Winzenburg. Obviously, the death of Hermann of Reinhausen in 1122 has been confused with that of Hermann I of Winzenburg (1137 or 1138), so that some texts wrongly ascribe the events to Hermann II of Winzenburg-Reinhausen; a mistake even shared by Warsitzka. Though due to the way those guys called themselves alternately 'of Winzenburg, of Reinhausen, of Plesse' or any combination thereof, the confusion may be excused.
6) Which implies that he did not appear at the diet in person, but was condemned in absentia.
7) Agnes of Waiblingen was both their mother, first married to Friedrich I Duke of Swabia and then to Leopold III of Austria. One of Elisabeth's sisters, Gertrud of Babenberg, married Vladislav of Bohemia, another one, also named Agnes, married another Vladislav, Władysław of Poland. Geez people, get a baby name book. :-)
8) I could not find out whether he got them as direct successor of Siegfried or of his brother Heinrich. In the first case, the fiefs would have fallen home to the king and I'm not sure he kept them for two years. Fiefs were a common way to reward vassals. Or maybe Hermann had to earn them somehow.

Gerd Althoff: Heinrich V (1106-1125), in: Bernd Schneidmüller/ Stefan Weinfurter (ed.), Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters. Historische Portraits von Heinrich I. bis Maximilian I. (919–1519), Munich 2003, p. 180-200
Gerd Althoff: Lothar III. (1125–1137), in: Bernd Schneidmüller/ Stefan Weinfurter (ed.), Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters, p. 201–216
Gerd Althoff: Konrad III. (1138-1152), in: Bernd Schneidmüller/ Stefan Weinfurter (ed.), Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters. p. 217-231
Wolfgang Petke: Stiftung und Reform von Reinhausen und die Burgenpolitik der Grafen von Winzenburg im hochmittelalterlichen Sachsen, in: Peter Aufgebauer (ed.): Burgenforschung in Südniedersachsen, Göttingen 2001, p. 65–96.
Wilfried Warsitzka: Die Thüringer Landgrafen. 2nd revised edition, Erfurt 2009
I had no idea you had so many castles! They seem to be dominated by 1 single round keep. They seem to be in good condition as well - most Welsh castles are ruins. Is there any reason why the stone keeps are in such good condition? I'm thinking they've obviously been repaired over the years - but even so, they look very good.
Anerje, in some cases the keep has been restored because it's usually a) the most impressive feature, and b) the one least used as quarry (the walls and such are more easily accessible to get at the stones). But we do indeed have a LOT of castles. Often there's nothing more than some mossey stones and overgrown dikes, so when I go castle hunting, I usually look for those with a bit more left to photograph.
Thanks for the explanation Gabriele - yes, the Keep always looks impressive, so bound to be restored. Congrats on bringing the best to your blog!
Wait a minute... I must have missed something, but I know what :-) The missing link is Konrad III, the brother-in-law of our Władysław Wygnaniec [the Exile]. I thought he was Friedrich's predecessor? Or perhaps the Friedrich you've mentioned is not Barbarossa?
Kasia, you got your Friedrichs confused. ;-) The Friedrich in this essay is Friedrich II Duke of Swabia (also known as Friedrich the Oney-Eyed). Konrad III was his younger brother. Friedrich Barbarossa was Friedrich of Swabia's son, Konrad's nephew. Konrads own sons were too young so Friedrich Barbarossa was elected as king. I had no idea there is a Polish connection again.
OK, so I checked the mess, lol. The mother of Friedrich of Swabia and Konrad, Agnes of Waiblingen, was married twice. First with Friedrich I of Swabia with whom she had, among others, above named sons. Second with Duke Leopold III of Austria with whom she had a soccer team worth of children, too. One of the daughters, Gertrud of Babenberg, married Władysław of Bohemia King of Poland. The Elisabeth married to Hermann II of Winzenburg was her sister, so there's Polish connection indeed.
No, Gabriele, I meant Agnes von Babenberg. She was the wife of Władysław the Exile,. the eldest son of Bolesław III Krzywousty [the Wrymouth]. She was Konrad's half-sister, to be precise, and indeed her mother was Agnes of Waiblingen (her father the aforementioned Leopold). The Gertrude you've mentioned was married to Vladislaus II King of Bohemia (he was not the king of Poland). Agnes and Gertrude were, among others, sisters of Otto of Freising. To make the things even more confusing they had half brother and brother named Konrad (so two Konrads, each by different father :-)). God, I feel dizzy :-D
PS Both Konrad III and later Frederik Barbarossa supported Władysław the Exile's claim to the Polish throne. Władysław and Agnes sought refuge at Konrad's court in Germany after they were defeated by Władysław's younger half-brothers. Konrad unsuccessfully invaded Poland. Frederick was more efficient, as usual :-) But in the long run his victory bore no fruit (he could not have known that after coming to terms with the inruly Poles he was leaving Poland with empty promises- the High Duke Bolesław the Curly turned out be the actual winner). Władysław the Exile lived out his days in Germany, but his sons did return to their native land to rule over Silesia. Perhaps you have heard about one of them, Bolesław the Tall, who fought together with Barbarossa in Italy and won his name by defeating a giant Italian knight.

Now that I think about it, it occurs to me that Bolesław the Tall and Frederick Barbarossa had the same grandma, Agnes of Waiblingen :-) Wow!
Fine, so we got two sisters both married to a Wladislaw, one in Bohemia and one in Poland. :-) No wonder the quick online glance I did messed that up.

I don't have books about Polish history, though maybe I should find a reliable one in German or English, to back up the internet (which I don't like to use for research except for some reliable sites).
Not that I'm boasting, but you can trust me. I wrote a post about Frederick and his Polish expedition ( a lot of research involved), besides Władysław the Exile and his younger half-brothers are my favourite figures in the history of Poland. I think I have already mentioned them in one of my previous comments on your blog, but don't worry, I won't dwell on it :-) I know how confusing it can be. Both, the history of Germany and history of Poland at the time are very complex, don't you think?
Oh, I trust you on this. What I meant is some material that would allow me to cross-check other Polish history I keep coming across. You see how closely the nobles were related, lol, and Germany and Poland shared a border for long times.
Gabriele, this was a very interesting read. Is there a ruined castle or form of keep on the site of the Winzenburg fiefdom? I recall reading that there used to be a symphony concert or some type of music festival held there annually.

Bob Winzenburg, North Mankato, Minnesota USA
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The Lost Fort is a travel journal and blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, Flanders, and the Baltic Coast. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, and some geology, which are illustrated with lots of photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)