Castle of the Week 119 – Coburg Castle, Germany
Veste Coburg is in North Franconia and is known as the Franconian Crown. It was never taken by force, and was the seat of government for the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for six centuries. The nearby town of Coburg is also known as the birthplace of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. The origins of Veste Coburg have been lost to time, but it is thought to date back to possibly the 8th century. The first recorded mention was in a deed of gift from 1056, when Queen Richeza of Poland gave the land to her brother, Archbishop Hermann of Cologne. Recent archaeological excavations found a graveyard in the western courtyard dating to the 11th or 12th century. All of the main buildings were completed before 1500, with the bastions added later.
The castle has three rings of walls, varying from 1.2 meters to 6.5 meters thick, and all at 11 or 12 meters in height. There are over 700 windows, and 236 loopholes, which allowed the defenders to shoot arrows while protected behind the walls. The occupying forces of the castle grew greatly during the 16th century. At the beginning of the 16th century, there were 30 men and 10 armored horses (with room for 60 more horses). By the end of the century, the arms had grown to 44 big guns, 1187 small arms, 5299 cannonballs, 41291 rifle bullets, and 514 grenades. Two of the guns, which can still be seen at Coburg, are particularly interesting. Called “death organs”, they were precursors to the Gatling gun. Mounted much like cannon, they have multiple gun barrels on a carriage. One of the death organs has 22 barrels.
In 1525 the castle was attacked during the Peasants’ War. Although the attack was unsuccessful, it spurred them to strengthen their defenses. Starting in 1531 a cistern was built in the western courtyard, the bastions were strengthened, and the dry moat was deepened. They also constructed two 2-storey cellar vaults which were connected to a tunnel leading from the courtyard to the northwest corner of the outer fortifications. In 1547 Duke Johann Ernst moved down the hill to the newly constructed Ehrenburg palace, where the Dukes of Coburg would live until 1918. With the departure of the Duke, Coburg became even more of a fortress. Additional bastions were added in 1614.
During the Thirty Years’ War (starting in 1618) the castle was under the control of Duke Johann Casimir. He wanted to remain neutral during the war, but Coburg was drawn in to the action due to his Protestant ties. In 1632 the Catholic army commanded by General Albrecht von Wallenstein of Bohemia and Maximilian of Bavaria besieged Coburg. A force of about 800 (450 dragoons, 200 foot soldiers, and sundry others) defended the castle from above, and the siege lasted a mere six days.
One famous visitor to the castle was Martin Luther, who stayed there incognito from April to October of 1530, while the Imperial Diet met in Augsburg to discuss his case. The Elector of Saxony attended, but Luther remained behind Saxon lines in the castle. He stayed in the Prince’s Lodgings. A chapel was built in 1530 and was the one in which Martin Luther prayed during his time at the castle. In October he left, joining the Elector.
The castle entered a decline in the late 18th century. In 1782 the armory was turned into a prison. Thirty years later the last of the castle troops were withdrawn, and in 1827 the moat and ramparts were leveled. Not too much later, however, the castle underwent renovations. Duke Ernst I renovated Coburg starting in 1838 with Carl Alexander Heideloff as the architect. They restored the castle to a romantic ideal of what they thought the castle should have looked like in its prime. Old buildings in the courtyard were removed, the chapel was torn down and rebuilt in a neo-Gothic style, and a new gateway tower was built. Their efforts lasted until the early part of the 20th century, when the last duke, Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha engaged the architect Bodo Ebhardt. They removed the new buildings built by Duke Ernst and Heideloff, and restored the castle to its previous state. Even though they sought historical accuracy, they too built new buildings, such as the Red Tower and the Carl Eduard Wing.
Coburg received damage towards the end of World War II, and was repaired. Since the end of the war, the castle has been under the maintenance of the Bavarian Office for the Administration of State Palaces, Gardens and Lakes. Today the castle is reached by a stone bridge built in the 1800s. The castle is host to an art museum with collections of paintings by Lucas Cranach, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Albrecht Dürer.