The Fortress Hohensalzburg and its Sisters

Hohensalzburg stands as the largest completely preserved castle of Central Europe. It’s one of the oldest too, its oldest walls date to 1077, but over the centuries a succession of Prince Archbishops have added rooms, towers and fortifications to the castle now standing high above above Salzburg (note: high=hoh; even though Salzburg literally means Salt Castle, the name comes from an earlier fortification).

In the eleventh century, afraid that imperial troops were about to invade his principality, Salzburg, Archbishop Gebhard von Helfenstein built three fortresses, all of them guarding strategic locations along the prospective invasion route.

Fortress Hohensalzburg, a towering landmark of Salzburg

Castle and Fortress Hohensalzburg

He built the largest of the three, the fortress Hohensalzburg, in a commanding location on a hilltop, high above the town of Salzburg. Below the castle the road had to pass over a narrow strip of land between moors, mountains and a river. An army would find itself exposed, with little room to maneuver, and without an easy way to take the castle.

Gebhard had reason to fear for his lands. He openly and vociferously opposed the Kaiser in a power struggle between church and state, between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, the last of the Frankish Dynasty.

The two fought over the right to appoint clergy to high office, a fight that would lead to nearly 50 years of civil war in Germany. Traditionally that right belonged to the emperor, but Pope Gregory contended it should be his. At stake wasn’t merely the right of investiture, but control over vast estates held in fief for the emperor by archbishops and abbots.

In the Spring of 1077 the emperor and his army were about to return to Germany from Aquileia in northern Italy. The Kaiser had gone there to seek peace with the pope.  His most direct return route led directly through Salzburg along the old Roman Road through the alps, in the 11th century also a major trade route. Henry IV and his army could spell the end of Gebhard.

The other two fortresses guard mountain passes through the alps.

Fortress and Castle Hohenwerfen

Fortress Hohenwerfen
Image Credit: Memorator via Wikimedia Commons

One of them, Hohenwerfen, stands about 30 miles south of Salzburg  just outside the town of Werfen, across the valley from the famous ice caves. That castle protects the narrow river valley of the river Salzach, which breaks through the alps directly north of the castle. The pass there, Pass Lueg, is the northern gateway through the alps and just about the only good way out of the mountains far and wide. Many armies, including the Romans before Christ and the French under Napoleon, have marched through that gap in the alpine front to enter the lands north of the alps.

Petersberg in Friesach Credit: Johann Jaritz via Wikimedia Commons

Petersburg Ruin by Friesach
Image Credit: Johann Jaritz via Wikimedia Commons

The third of the fortresses, the Petersburg, stands on a hill above Friesach, the second most important city under control of Gebhard. In 1076 Friesach had been attacked and put to the torch by an ally of the emperor. Gebhard, immediately fortified and expanded a castle that already stood on a hill above Friesach. Today Friesach belongs to Carinthia, and Petersburg castle lies in ruins, but both can be visited. The town of Friesach, with many of its old fortifications still intact, sits in a beautiful location. It’s worth a visit for its own sake.

Gebhard’s scheme apparently worked. The emperor returned to Germany by another, more difficult route, and never threatened Salzburg directly. However, the investiture dispute between pope and emperor was far from over. Back in Germany, Henry quickly reasserted his opposition to the pope.  Almost as soon as Hohensalzburg was built, Gebhard was forced to flee into exile. Seven years later Henry officially deposed him and replaced him with an Archbishop of his own, Berthold of Moosburg.

Ironically, Hohensalzburg received its baptism by fire from allies of the pope, Gebhard’s party, in 1084. When the Ersatz Archbishop, Berthold, was laying waste to the estates of Engelbert of Spanheim in Carinthia, a powerful baron and a man of the pope, the baron attacked and conquered Salzburg and tried to take the castle. However, he was unable to penetrate its defenses.

Two years later, in 1086, when Henry lost a decisive battle against the Saxons, Salzburg came once again under control of papal allies. Gebhard returned to Salzburg as archbishop once again. He died two years later, in 1088, at the Fortress Hohenwerfen. No one knows for sure what he was doing there, he may have fled from forces loyal to the emperor. However, I think its fitting he died in one of his strongholds.

So when you visit Hohensalzburg, keep in mind that it doesn’t stand alone. The fortress castle was built along with two others as a line of defense against the emperor. It has gained in size and stature over its 730 and some years of its existence, it has towered over Salzburg all that time, and it has never been conquered by military force.

It still stands as a landmark to power struggles between the Holy Roman Empire and the Church. And from the beginning, for all of its strategic location, with all its walls, towers and impenetrable gates, its always been powerless against politics.

I will say more about the castle and its occupants in future posts, and fill them with interesting stories (I hope), about the people who gave it life.

In the meantime, I’ve embedded a video of Hohensalzburg I found on YouTube. It was produced by Georg Riha and his team several years ago as part of a documentary of Salzburg.  It  tells a visual story, and I believe it conveys an excellent sense of place.