Wartburg Castle blends superbly into its forest surroundings and is in many ways ‘the ideal castle’. Although it has retained some original sections from the feudal period, the form it acquired during the 19th-century reconstitution gives a good idea of what this fortress might have been at the height of its military and seigneurial power. It was during his exile at Wartburg Castle that Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German.
The legendary creation of Wartburg Castle is attributed to Count Ludwig der Springer. The first steps in its construction were taken in 1067, following the troubles caused by the Investiture Contest, troubles which encouraged the birth of feudalism. The castle is mentioned for the first time in 1080 as a strategic base, one of the key points in the early years of Ludovician sovereignty. This sovereignty grew more firmly established during the first half of the 12th century. Raised to the dignity of landgraves, the Ludovicians supported the policies of the Stauffen emperors. The building of the palace in the second half of the 12th century illustrates their status as Princes of the Empire. Towards the end of the 12th century, a literary court developed at Wartburg castle, attracted by Landgrave Hermann I, who surrounded himself with poets and musicians. The poetry of Walther von der Vogelweide describes the brilliant society life which gave rise to the episode of the singers’ tourney at Wartburg Castle, a romanticized version of which inspired Richard Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser.
In 1221 Landgrave Ludwig IV, the son of Hermann, married Elizabeth of Hungary. Widowed in 1227, Elizabeth devoted herself to charitable works to which the Landgrave’s family took exception. Driven out of Wartburg Castle with her three children, she founded a hospital in Marburg and lived her life by Franciscan principles. She was canonized in 1235, four years after her death.
Heinrich Raspe IV, the brother of Ludwig IV, succeeded him and, espousing the Pope’s cause, was appointed King of Germany on the initiative of Innocent IV. His death in 1247 ended the Ludovician dynasty.
The Margrave of Wettin, Heinrich von Meissen, took possession of Wartburg Castle. Over the next century, the site was to receive a series of new buildings. The transfer of the seat of power to Gotha and subsequently to Weimar at the beginning of the 15th century marked the beginning of the castle’s decline.
Under the protection of the Prince Elector of Saxony, Martin Luther stayed at Wartburg Castle in secret. Here he devoted himself to literature, producing a considerable body of work attested by his correspondence, from which many letters have survived. It was at Wartburg Castle that he made his translation of the New Testament into German. His exile came to an end in March 1522 and by the end of the 16th century, the memory of Luther was already attracting large numbers of pilgrims.
From the 16th century onwards, the castle was kept more or less in a state of repair: though abandoned as a seat of power, its strategic importance was nonetheless highlighted several times. The events that had taken place there, and in particular the memory of St Elizabeth and of Luther, were also arguments for its preservation, but neglect gradually led to inevitable dilapidation, which was almost total by the end of the 18th century. Goethe paid a visit in 1777 and made a drawing of the ruin which shows only the palace remaining partially intact. The poet suggested the creation of a museum, justified by the ever-growing numbers of pilgrims. After the Napoleonic wars, a national sentiment emerged which revelled in the image of ancient Germany as symbolized by Wartburg Castle.
In 1817, the students’ associations organized an event which set the seal on this tendency, further confirmed by the revolution of March 1848. Wartburg Castle was to remain the headquarters of students’ associations for the whole of Germany.
In the first half of the 19th century, on the initiative of the Grand Duke of Saxony, the entire site was completely renovated: the remains of the palace were raised from their ruins, the curtain wall restored, and the remainder of the buildings reconstructed under the supervision of architect Hugo von Ritgen. The large part necessarily played by assumptions in the reconstruction have rather more to do with the romantic imagination than with historical reality. The involvement of renowned artists such as Moritz von Schwind, particularly in his illustration of the life of St Elizabeth, underlines the symbolic nature of the site.
This allegorical monument was for a short time the object of attention from the Nazi regime, but no event of importance was held there over the period, apart from the subjection of the students’ associations to the principles of the regime.
In 1945, the bombing of Eisenach spared Wartburg, although the castle was later pillaged by Soviet troops. The German Democratic Republic made Wartburg Castle a national monument, major restoration work was carried out, and numerous commemorative ceremonies were held in connection with the religious connotations and symbolic value of the monument.
Since the reunification of Germany, restoration work has concentrated primarily on the interiors and on the problems of preserving the stonework on the palace facades.