Barbarossa in Gelnhausen

The German town of Gelnhausen was founded in the twelfth century by the Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa, who built one of his many castles here. Gelnhausen now advertises itself as “The Barbarossa City” and has restored the castle to the extent that you can visit without fearing that beams or rocks will fall on your head as you walk through.

Barbarossa himself, however, could not actually have spent much time in Gelnhausen. He reigned as Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” for thirty-five years, but he seems to have spent most of those years on horseback, trying to preserve order in Germany, maintain control over his rebellious provinces in Italy and negotiate with the Pope.

The Italians were the ones who gave him the nickname Barbarossa, meaning Red Beard.

In later centuries a bizarre controversy arose in Germany about whether Barbarossa’s beard was really red (did they think the Italians were colorblind, or what?) or about whether he actually had a beard at all. To this day there is a saying in German: Um des Kaisers Bart streiten (= to quarrel about the emperor’s beard), which means to waste time arguing about unimportant things.

Around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries there was an even sillier public controversy about the beard of Philipp Reis, a Gelnhausen native who later settled in Friedrichsdorf, forty km to the west, where he taught physics in a secondary school and also invented the telephone, sort of. (See my post: Inventing the telephone in Friedrichsdorf.)

Barbarossa’s castle in Gelnhausen, Germany

For us twenty-first century folks it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to be the “Emperor” of something called the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” from 1155 to 1190.

For one thing, the emperors in those days were elected by a small group of powerful nobles. These nobles had conflicting interests, but in general they didn’t mind if the emperor was an ineffectual figurehead, so most of them were.

Friedrich I Barbarossa was an exception to this. By all accounts he was a powerful, charismatic leader who was even quite popular among the common people because he managed to enforce some semblance of order and security, at least by the standards of the time.

His palace in Gelnhausen was down by the river, not up on a hill like a lot of later castles. It was not intended for defense, particularly, but more as a temporary residence whenever he happened to be in this part of Germany. Its address now is Burgstraße 14, 63571 Gelnhausen.
(GPS 50°11’59.92″ North; 9°11’43.45″ East).

Entrance to the museum at the Kaiserpfalz (Emperor’s Palace)

At the entrance to Barbarossa’s palace there is now a small museum which gives an overview of his life and times.

The emperor in those days did not have a capital city, but traveled around from place to place and tried to have a castle of some sort available at each stop. A visit from the emperor was a mixed blessing, because the town and its people had to pay the costs for his upkeep and that of his court. The townspeople were honored, presumably, to have him come and visit, but relieved when he moved on.

Barbarossa not only traveled around within his empire, he also took part in two Crusades to fight against Muslims in the Holy Land. As a young man, before he became emperor, he took part in the Second Crusade (1147-1149) and at the end of his life, in his late sixties, he was leading a large army in the Third Crusade when he drowned in a river in Turkey in 1190.

Gelnhausen in the year 1200

This model in the Kaiserpfalz Museum purports to show what the town of Gelnhausen might have looked like in the year 1200, ten years after the death of Barbarossa.

Personally I’m a bit skeptical, because I have read elsewhere that the original buildings in Gelnhausen were not half-timbered but were made mostly of stone, to provide secure storage of the merchandise belonging to the many merchants of the town. Half-timbered buildings only came into fashion in the second half of the seventeenth century while the city was being re-built after the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, because it was cheaper and faster to build that way.

Also I have read that St. Mary’s Church was built in several phases over several hundred years. In the model it looks very much like the church we can see today, but I am not convinced that it already looked like that in the year 1200.

St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) from the roof of Barbarossa’s castle

With its tall pointed towers it is sometimes mistaken for a castle, but it’s actually a church — the Marienkirche or St. Mary’s Church, Gelnhausen’s most prominent feature, can be seen from all over the valley, also from the train and from the motorway.

So if you’ve been reading on the train and you look up from your book and want to see where you are, when you see this distinctive church up on the hill you know you are going through Gelnhausen. (Regional trains stop in Gelnhausen, but the ICEs don’t.)

Lately the church has been raising money to replace three of the five bells in the large bell tower. The 680-year-old “Our Father” bell came loose on September 26, 2010, and fell down and was broken. (Fortunately no one was injured, though the church was quite full when this happened.) Two of the other big bells have to be replaced because after only eighty years they are getting worn out; they were made in the 1920s as (relatively) cheap replacements for the original bells that were melted down to make cannons during to First World War.

The two smallest bells are originals from the 14th century and are still in good condition after seven hundred years of service.

In St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche)

A small village church was built on this site in the year 1120, and over the centuries it was gradually expanded.

For over four hundred years this was a Roman Catholic Church, belonging to a nearby convent, but in the year 1543 it became a Protestant church on the basis of a contract with the city of Gelnhausen. Unusually, the transition took place peacefully, so there was no destruction of medieval artworks as happened in many other places.

The Burning Thorn Bush

An unusual feature of the Marienkirche is this modern sculpture of The Burning Thorn Bush (from the Bible, Exodus 3:2 among other places). It seems they wanted a place in the church where they could light candles, but as Protestants they didn’t want to do it under the pictures of any saints or such, so they commissioned this sculpture, installed it in a wing of the church and put a semi-circle of chairs around it.

The Burning Thorn Bush was where Moses saw an angel among the flames, and (“behold” in some translations) he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed.

My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on the town of Gelnhausen, Germany.
See more posts about people going off to the medieval Crusades.

6 thoughts on “Barbarossa in Gelnhausen”

  1. A very interesting read about a town I knew nothing about. Both castle and church sound worth a visit, though I think it’s a shame they’ve put that semi-circle of utilitarian chairs around the striking Burning Thorn Bush sculpture

  2. When I saw Barbarossa, I thought (wrongly as it turns out), Kyffhäuser. Clearly not, but Gelnhausen is worth a visit when my wife and I are next with our daughter near Wiesbaden

    1. Keith, thanks for your visit and comment. I’ve never been to Kyffhäuser, but I know there is a big monument there which has something to do with Barbarossa.

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