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Histories Greatest Castles: Austria

Today we will be taking a look at some of Austria's greatest castles (at least to me). There are more castles than the 10 that I have highlighted here.

This will be the last instalment of Histories Greatest Castles unless it is something that you would like me to continue, please let me know in the comments below if you want me to continue this series.


First off, what exactly is considered a castle?

A castle is a type of fortified structure built during the Middle Ages predominantly by the nobility or royalty and by military orders. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for royalty or nobility; from a pleasance which was a walled-in residence for nobility, but not adequately fortified; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. The use of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls, arrow slits, and portcullises, were commonplace.

European-style castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them and the castles were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as offered protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills, fertile land, or a water source.

Many northern European castles were originally built from earth and timber but had their defence's replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, lacking features such as towers and arrow slits and relying on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences, such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, so devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.

Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live. As a result, true castles went into decline and were replaced by artillery forts with no role in civil administration, and country houses that were indefensible. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles with the construction of mock castles, part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture, but they had no military purpose.

Historians have interpreted the widespread presence of castles across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries as evidence that warfare was common, and usually between local lords. Castles were introduced into England shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Before the 12th-century castles were as uncommon in Denmark as they had been in England before the Norman Conquest. The introduction of castles to Denmark was a reaction to attacks from Wendish pirates, and they were usually intended as coastal defences. The motte and bailey remained the dominant form of castle in England, Wales, and Ireland well into the 12th century. At the same time, castle architecture in mainland Europe became more sophisticated.

The donjon was at the centre of this change in castle architecture in the 12th century. Central towers proliferated and typically had a square plan, with walls 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. Their decoration emulated Romanesque architecture and sometimes incorporated double windows similar to those found in church bell towers. Donjons, which were the residence of the lord of the castle, evolved to become more spacious. The design emphasis of donjons changed to reflect a shift from functional to decorative requirements, imposing a symbol of lordly power upon the landscape. This sometimes led to compromising defence for the sake of display.

Why is history full of castles?

Castles could serve as a centre for local government, administration and justice. They were also used by powerful lords to display their wealth and power through lavish architectural styles and decoration. Castles were not only built and used by the crown. In fact, the majority of castles were granted by the king to his loyal lords and nobles along with large areas of land. In return for these grants, the king expected his nobles to control and administer these lands on his behalf. The castle itself also represented a whole group of people who contributed to its function from constables, masons, blacksmiths and servants to name a few.

So let’s get into the castles!


Burg Hohenwerfen

Building work on Hohenwerfen Fortress was commenced following a dark period of Salzburg’s history. Several periods of political unrest and the investiture conflict made it necessary for the archbishopric to be placed under armed protection. Thus, in 1077 Archbishop Gebhard ordered the construction of three fortresses - Hohenwerfen, Hohensalzburg and Petersberg in Friesach. The original fortifications were probably simple wooden structures. Over the years, extensive development and fortification work was then carried out. It was only in the 15th century that Hohenwerfen reached its current scale.

At the beginning of the 16th century the country was devastated by peasant revolts. Hohenwerfen was obviously taken by surprise by the revolts. Farmers and peasants besieged, plundered, burned and destroyed large sections of the castle. Following the suppression of the revolts, Archbishop Matthäus Lang (1519-1540) commissioned further building work. The damage was repaired and the small bastion, the adjacent Wallerturm watchtower and the hidden staircase erected. The second building phase was initiated under Archbishop Johann Jakob Khuen-Belasy (1560-1586) and modelled on the great Italian fortresses. In the 17th and 18th century the castle was mainly used as a prison.

Following the secularization of Salzburg, from 1803 the castle changed over to Bavarian rule and was allowed to fall into disrepair and ruin. Between 1824 and 1833 Archduke Johann, the emperor’s brother, had the medieval castle repaired and restored for romantic and nostalgic reasons. The castle was then mostly used as a hunting base. In 1898 Archduke Eugen purchased the castle and expanded the complex into a stately home and added a large collection of art and weaponry. In 1931 the main building in the castle complex was completely destroyed by fire. During Nazi rule the castle was used as a military training center and from 1945 to 1987 it was used by Salzburg’s police school. Since 1987 the fortifications have been developed as a tourist attraction.


Schloss Ort

The castle of Seeschloss is not only one of the oldest buildings of the Salzkammergut, but it also has interesting stories to tell, such as the legend of the giant Erla, who is said to have built the castle out of love for the Traunseen Mermaid Blondchen. From the first historically mentioned owner, the knight Hartneid von Ort, to the cruel Count Herbestorff, to the Habsburg Archduke Johann Nepomuk Salvator, has resided here many a dazzling personality. Since 1995, the Seeschloss Ort has been owned by the municipality of Gmunden and is available to the public both as a museum and as a venue. Go on a unique tour of one of the most fascinating buildings of Salkammerguten!


Aggstein Castle

The approximately 150 meter long castle was built at the beginning of the 12th century. It is located on a rocky spur about 300 meters above the right bank of the Danube. The castle was successfully besieged and destroyed at least twice during the time of the Kuenringers, which is why only a few foundations on the so-called "Bürgl" date from this time. The history of the castle ruins on the right bank of the Danube goes back to the 12th century. The castle had many well-known owners such as the Kuenringers, Jörg Scheck von Wald or Anna von Polheim-Parz. In 1930 Count Oswald von Seilern und Aspang acquired Aggstein Castle and began the first conservation measures.In 2003 extensive revitalization work makes it possible to visit the castle without any problems today. Sewerage, water pipes, numerous breathtaking viewing bridges and the knight's hall were repaired.


Burg Hochosterwitz

In one of the most beautiful valleys in Carinthia, a 150 meter high limestone cliff rises, which can be seen from all the surrounding mountains and hills. The mountains of Friesach and the Gurktal, the Ulrichsberg, the Magdalensberg, the Gerlitzen and the Villacher Alpe, part of the Karawanken, the highlands of the Duchy of St. Veit and the numerous nearby castles and ruins (such as Mansberg, Taggenbrunn, the Kraiger castles , Nussberg, Liebenberg, Liebenfels and Karlsberg) are part of the view offered to visitors from Hochosterwitz Castle. The castle was first mentioned in a deed of donation from King Ludwig the German from the year 860, when Friesach and several farms were donated to the diocese of Salzburg. Among them was a farm near Osterwitz (curtis ad Astaruizza). The castle is mentioned in the oldest documents, dated between the 11th and 12th centuries, and also during the attacks of the Turkish peoples in the 15th century as a place of refuge for the population. Initially owned by Count Ceizolf von Spanheim, a descendant of the German Emperor Arnulf von Karantanien, known as the first Donor von Osterwitz, the castle remains in his family's possession. After the death of Hans Schenk von Osterwitz on May 30, 1478, the last of his tribe, his property passed to King Friedrich III. return.

In gratitude for the support of the imperial troops in the war against the Turks, on November 22, 1541, Emperor Ferdinand I transferred the lien on the property of Hochosterwitz Castle to Christoph Khevenhüller von Aichelberg, governor of Carinthia. The impressive floor plans of the bastions, which were used as fortresses for the first time at that time, come from Christoph Khevenhüller. They were probably built by Domenico dell'Aglio, one of the most important military architects of his time. After the death of Christoph Khevenhüller in 1557, his eldest son Johann V inherited the lien. He is said to have ordered the construction of the manor house at the foot of the castle hill, as testified by a stone tablet with the inscription "JK 1559". Because of his diplomatic obligations and his residence in Spain, Johann V. Khevenhüller ceded the lien to his cousin Georg Khevenhüller, who bought it on March 18, 1571 from Archduke Charles of Inner Austria. As the privy councilor of Archduke Karl and governor of Carinthia, Georg was at the forefront of the political society of his time.


Schloss Tratzberg

Tratzberg Castle was first mentioned in a document in the 13th century and served as a former border fortress against Bavaria. Emperor Maximilian used Tratzberg as a hunting lodge, but the original fortified castle was completely destroyed in a fire in 1492. The emperor did not rebuild Tratzberg but exchanged the ruins for a castle belonging to the wealthy silver mine owner Tänzel. In 1500, they erected the first late-Gothic part of today's Tratzberg Castle in an unusually magnificent, lavish manner and had it decorated with extraordinarily artistically designed marble, wood and iron work. In 1554, the wealthy Augsburg merchant Georg Ritter von Ilsung acquired the castle, extended and modified Tratzberg, shaped by the zeitgeist of the Renaissance. By inheritance, Tratzberg became the property of the well-known and wealthy Fugger family of merchants, who continued to furnish the castle. The magnificently painted inner courtyard and most of the inventory that has survived to this day date from this period, as do the exquisite Renaissance rooms. After several changes of ownership, there followed a period in which Tratzberg remained uninhabited for almost 150 years. When Count Franz Enzenberg married Ottilie Countess Tannenberg in 1847, the now almost neglected castle became the property of the Counts of Enzenberg, whose private residence it has remained to this day.

To this day it is only thanks to the great commitment of the family that the approx. 6800 sqm large Tratzberg, with its 5000 sqm shingle roof, once again epitomizes a Tyrolean castle of the 16th century and thus one of the most important art and cultural monuments of the country and is open to the general public for viewing.


Burg Kreuzenstein

The great importance of the castle and its location are already proven by finds from prehistoric times: thousands of years ago there was a prehistoric ring wall as a fortification at the site of today's location. Research suggests that the first medieval castle was built at the beginning of the 12th century. The name "Grizanstein", first mentioned around 1115, from which today's name Kreuzenstein emerged, may be traced back to one of the first lords of the castle, Dietrich von Grizanestaine from the Bavarian Formbach family. Other assumptions mention a lord of the fortress named "grizzo" or that Cross of St. Severin and thus make the naming of the castle a legendary legend.

Through marriage, Dietrich von Grizanestaine's son-in-law Engelbrecht von Wasserburg became the new lord of Kreuzenstein, whose descendants owned the castle for over a century. In the middle of the 13th century, Kreuzenstein came into the possession of the Habsburgs, who had the castle managed mainly by caretakers and burgraves for more than 250 years. The history of the castle was particularly eventful in the 16th and 17th centuries, with frequently changing owners: including the Bohemian King George of Podebrady (whose troops were commanded by Wenzel Wilczek, an ancestor of today's owners), Count Ferdinand von Hardegg, Baron Johann von Herberstein and Count Karl von Saint-Hilaire, who had the fortifications of the castle expanded into one of the most important bulwarks at the gates of Vienna during the Thirty Years' War.

Probably the darkest hour in the history of Kreuzenstein struck in 1645 in the last years of the Thirty Years' War: Overwhelmed by the superior strength of the Swedish army standing in front of Vienna, Colonel Luckas Spicker, the imperial commander of Kreuzenstein and Korneuburg, surrendered the castle to the Swedish field marshal without a fight Lennart Graf Torstensson, who set up his headquarters here. Pushed back by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm's Austrian troops, the castle was soon abandoned by the Swedes and largely destroyed by explosives during the retreat. In the following decades, the remains of the ruins were used by the local population as building material, so that soon only sparse remains such as parts of the ring wall, the body of the east tower and parts of the chapel were preserved.

As early as 1702, the ruins of Kreuzenstein had come to the family of the last daughter of the Saint-Hilaire family through the marriage of the later Imperial Count and Field Marshal Heinrich Wilhelm von Wilczek. But it was only his descendant, Johann Nepomuk Graf Wilczek, an important figure in Austrian art and culture and a great patron of science and charitable institutions, who began rebuilding Kreuzenstein in 1874, turning the castle into an extraordinary and unique museum of the Middle Ages as it presents itself today.


Schloss Schönbrunn

At the end of the seventeenth century Emperor Leopold I commissioned the Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, who had received his training in Rome, to design an imperial hunting lodge for his son, Crown Prince Joseph, later to become Emperor Joseph I. Replacing the château de plaisance built on this site for the dowager empress Eleonora of Gonzaga in 1642, it was to grow into a palatial imperial residence over the course of the eighteenth century. Schönbrunn Palace is one of Austria’s most important cultural assets, and since the 1960s has been one of Vienna’s major tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors each year. At the 20th session of the World Heritage Committee held in December 1996, Schönbrunn Palace was put on the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites, an institution founded in 1972. Inclusion in this list confirms the importance of the palace and its gardens as a unique Baroque ensemble.


Schloss Schonbuhel

Schönbühel, the former Servite monastery, was founded by a pious noble family who converted to Catholicism in the 1600s. They wished to replicate the event of salvation that had unfolded in Israel, with Golgotha, the Entombment of Christ and the birthplace of Jesus in an “underground Bethlehem”. The monastery became large and well-known as a pilgrimage site, to which believers descended to seek help or forgiveness from Saint Rosalia, patron saint of the plague. Following church reforms during the reign of Joseph II, the number of people taking part in pilgrimages reduced, leading the monastery to finally close in 1980 due to a shortage of new people joining the community. The original depiction of the Flight from Egypt and particularly the Peregrine chapel with frescoes by the famous Baroque painter Johann Bergl are worth visiting. Take the steps carved into the mountain down to the birth grotto with the depiction of the birth of Christ, which recreates the event in Bethlehem. A flight of stairs leads to the river, which seafarers used to ascend to enter the church to pray.


Burg Forchtenstein

The origins of the mighty complex go back to around 1300, when the Counts of Mattersdorf built a new fortification high above the Wulka Valley after the demolition of their castle in what is now Mattersburg. In the keep, which towers over the complex and is one of the oldest walls in the castle, the coat of arms of the Counts of Mattersdorf still adorns the keystone of the Gothic vault. In the middle of the 15th century the male line died out and the castle came into the possession of the Habsburgs for around 170 years, who pledged it to the Counts of Weißpriach and Hardegg. During this time, the castle did not undergo any significant structural changes. In 1622 Nikolaus Esterházy (1583-1645) received the lordships of Forchtenstein and Eisenstadt from Emperor Ferdinand II for the cession of the lordship of Munkács in what was then north-eastern Hungary to the prince of Transylvania, Gábor Bethlen, as a pledge. Just four years later, Forchtenstein Castle, together with the hereditary title, became his hereditary property. During the time of Nicholas, who held the rank of Palatine (Hungarian viceroy) from 1625, the expansion of the bastion belt, the construction of the kitchen, the chapel and new living areas under the master builders Simone Retacco and Domenico Carlone took place.

Palatine Nikolaus' son, Paul I (1635-1713), after the expansion and conversion of the Eisenstadt Palace, began to extensively adapt the fortress above the Wulka plain. Forchtenstein Castle experienced its most significant expansion with the expansion of the high castle in the second half of the 17th century. Wall paintings with political and genealogical content in the inner courtyard, decorative and allegorical wall paintings in the interior rooms, entrance portals with religious sculptural decorations, a baroque equestrian statue showing Paul I, who was princely in 1687, and a crocodile more than two meters long were the ingredients for power and rank and to demonstrate political positioning. With the death of Prince Paul I Esterházy in 1713, the purpose of the fortress changed due to political and military-historical changes. Forchtenstein Castle now served as a safe for the valuables and curiosities of the treasury and as a depot for military equipment. In the 1870s, the princely master builder Ferdinand Mödlhammer raised and renewed the roof structure and renovated and renovated the interior. The castle continued to be the seat of the general cash office and the archives and, since the Congress of Vienna, was one of the first museums in the Habsburg Empire. In 1887 the baroque castle chapel was restored by Franz Storno in the style of historicism.

In the 20th and early 21st century there were no significant conversions or extensions, but the repair and maintenance of the historic cellar vaults for contemporary use as event rooms, the creation of a viewing bridge and the careful restoration of the wall substance and the roof area.


Schloss Laxenburg

In 1306, Lachendorf (today's Old Castle with its chapel and the associated dominion rights) came directly into the hands of the Habsburg princes. The Laxenburg palace complex was therefore the palace complex that was owned by the Habsburg family for the longest time. In 1338, Duke Albrecht II made a donation to the chapel of St. Mary in the Old Castle. The time of Duke Albrecht III brought a decisive step on the way to the formation of a residence. Laxenburg was certainly more important to him than Vienna; His active building activity at the castle is documented by many reports and by concrete details in the calculation book of Stephan Rokendorfer, the burgrave of Laxenburg. Albrecht had the castle rebuilt and decorated with statues from the old castle on the Leopoldsberg; In addition, pleasure gardens and animal enclosures were created. In addition, in 1388 he founded a market called "Lachsenburg" next to the castle, which initially retained the name of "Lachsendorf". For a while, both names were used side by side, until the new form of the name finally prevailed in different spellings. Under Albrecht V (II) (1397-1439) there was still a princely court in Laxenburg, but in the second half of the 15th century the place was caught up in the internal and external struggles of the epoch of Friedrich III. (1415-1493) involved. From 1485 to 1490 the castle was occupied by the troops of the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus.

Under Maria Theresa (1717-1780), the imperial court itself became the largest client in Laxenburg. The external reason for this was initially the various plans to regulate the numerous watercourses in the area of ​​the town and castle. In this context, several relevant projects were created by the engineer Jean Baptiste Brequin de Demenge, Captain of Laxenburg Castle, by Jean Pierre Beaulieu and by the famous mathematician P. Joseph Liesganig (1719-1799). According to the special interests of these professionals, these designs included canals with locks and hoists for boat trips, waterfalls and fountains. The oldest surviving parts of the palace park were also created under Maria Theresia, such as the Waldstern with the Green Pleasure House. The other motive for the empress's building work in Laxenburg was her constantly growing family, which could no longer be accommodated in the premises of the old palace in a manner befitting their status. Therefore, in 1756, the Blue Courtyard and a few town houses were acquired from Daun. The building was subsequently adapted by the court architect Nicoló Pacassi. With the new construction of a theatre, the dining room and outbuildings, an extensive complex was created.

Today, the buildings managed by Schloss Laxenburg Betriebsgesellschaft mbH house a number of institutions, such as the Film -Archiv- Austria in the old castle and in the forester's house and, above all, the IIASA ( International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) , which was founded in 1972 and has been in use since 1973 Laxenburg is based. It occupies the main wing of the Blue Court on the Schlossplatz side, including the former kitchen wing and silver collection, as well as the Grünne House. At the same time, the Conference Center Laxenburg rents out the historic rooms of the dining hall wing and the palace theater to interested parties for a variety of events.


I hope you enjoyed today's post on just some of the castles in Austria. I was going to include a video in this post as well but couldn't find one that I liked enough, that highlighted some of the castles above.


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