TRAVEL DIARIES: HILDESHEIM – PART I
Thursday, July 8, 2010
BISHOP BERNWARD AND THE OTTONIAN ROMANESQUE
On July 8, 2010, I traveled to Hildesheim, a city located west of the Elbe River, in Lower Saxony, in the district of the same name, about 40 km. southeast of Hannover, and on the banks of the Innerste River, which is a small tributary of the Leine that flows through Hannover. I was there to see the Church of St. Michael’s, one of Bishop Bernwald’s cathedrals. Hildesheim is one of the oldest cities of Lower Saxony, in the North of Germany. In 815 CE, it became the seat of the Bishopric of Hildesheim, established by the son of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious, probably because it was an important market town on the trade route known as the “Hellweg” route, which joined the Saxon lands with the Rhine along an east-west axis. Thereafter, during the rule of the Saxon Ottonian dynasty, Hildesheim, together with the neighboring bishoprics of Halberstadt and Magdeburg, became the central ecclesiastical territory of the Holy Roman Empire under its Saxon and Salian rulers.
THE REIGN OF THE CHURCH
The Saxon dynasty relied for local government on the Church, rather than on the secular hierarchy of counts, because there was in that way no danger of the establishment of hereditary succession, and because the clergy was the educated class, trained to follow the ramifications of policy and competent to deal with the intricacies of legal documents. Finally, local landed interests were scarcely as strong among the clergy as among the laity, though with recruitment to monasteries and cathedral chapters limited in the tenth and eleventh centuries almost exclusively to members of the aristocratic classes, this was not always the case. The Ottonian monarchy and the Church developed a solidarity of interests, the alternative, in an age of violence, being not between a Church free from lay control and a Church under lay domination, but rather between a Church dominated and exploited by dukes and counts, and a Church controlled, freed from oppression, and utilized for the benefit of the kingdom, by the monarchy. The king became rex et sacerdos. (Cf. Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany, Norton, 1984)
Otto I Theutonicorum rex ("Otto the First, King of the Germans")
In pursuit of this consolidation of power, and with the alliance of the Church, the Saxon kings proceeded over the years to increase the power of the Church at the expense of that of the counts, who had ruled these territories as civilian authorities since the time of the Franks. In order to strengthen the Church and make it a more effective instrument of government, the monarchy increasingly adopted the practice of investing bishops and abbots with the powers of counts, conferring whole counties on them, with all the rights and powers of the counts formerly in administrative control. Such grants were made by Otto I to the archbishops of Mainz, Köln and Magdeburg, and to the bishoprics of Speyer, Chur, Worms and Minden. But the culmination of this process was reached under Henry II when, following the rebellion of the counts of Schweinfurt, he created the bishoprics of Würzburg and of Bamberg from the expropriation of the Schweinfurt family estates in 1007. Thus endowed, Würzburg and Bamberg became the two great bulwarks of Germany on the river Main: bulwarks of defense and outposts of Christianity against the Slavs, and also bulwarks of royal government against the refractory nobility within the land.
Henry II, Kunigundis and Bamberg Cathedral
Apart from the work of administration, the churches had to bear out of their revenues the largest share in supporting the royal court, as it wandered from stopping-place to stopping-place through the land. The Church also provided the backbone of the army; 74 percent of the forces for Emperor Otto II’s Italian campaign of 981 were furnished by German abbeys and bishoprics, only 26 percent by the laity. That ratio is eloquent of the part played by the Church in German government by the end of the tenth century, and of its importance for the political work of the monarchy. Less easily measured, but no less important, was its work of civilization and culture, which bound the provinces together around the king, who was ruler of Church and State. The great bishops and abbots of Saxon times, traveling the country in the service of Christianity or king, broke down provincial boundaries, particularly the boundaries between south Germany and the Saxon north, thus contributing in large part to the consolidation of German unity. (Cf. Barraclough, Origins).
Christ’s blessing on Emperor Otto II and the Greek Empress Theophanou Byzantine Ivory in the Musée de Cluny
The town of Hildesheim, a Bishopric since 815 CE, became a Prince-Bishopric (Hochstift) under the rule of Frederick II, Hohenstaufen. As the bishopric prospered and expanded its influence, it came in conflict with the surrounding Guelph Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Henry the Younger of Braunschweig (Brunswick) -Wolfenbüttel struck back in a series of battles known as the Hildesheim Stift Feud, which took place in the course of the years 1519-1523. The outcome was a loss of territory and power for the bishopric, leaving the city open to the disruption of Protestantism. For a far greater crisis would now lead the bishopric to an involvement in the big-power conflict over the succession of the Jülich-Kleve-Berg Duchies, the prelude to the Thirty Years War in Europe.
Ernst von Bayern, Prince Bishop of Köln and of Hildesheim
The bishopric of Hildesheim established the Catholic Wittelsbachs, rulers of Bavaria, in the center of Lower Saxony. Hildesheim’s involvement in the events that would lead to the Thirty Years War was initiated when Ernst von Bayern, a Bavarian prince and scion of the Wittelsbach family, was chosen as Bishop of the See at age nineteen, in 1577. Hildesheim had become a Protestant state in 1542, and only the cathedral and a few other buildings remained in imperial (Catholic) hands. Several villages around the city remained Catholic as well. A conflict, subsequently known as the Cologne (Köln ) War (1583-88), or “Sewer War” (see the illustration below), soon followed, a contest aimed at testing the principle of ecclesiastical reservation which was a provision of the Peace of Augsburg (1555) between Catholic and Protestant powers in Germany. This principle excluded, or “reserved” the ecclesiastical territories of the Empire from the application of the rule of cuius regio, eius religio (“whosoever rules, his religion”) as the primary means of determining the religion of a territory or city. It stipulated, instead, that if an ecclesiastical prince converted to Protestantism, he would resign from his position and not force the conversion of his subjects. In 1582, the bishop of Köln converted to Protestantism, but refused to resign, and hence the war was on. A faction of the cathedral Chapter in Köln, supported by the Catholic party, chose the young Bishop Ernst of Bavaria as Prince-Bishop of Köln, and the triumph of the Catholic party in this war consolidated his position. The result was the consolidation of Wittelsbach authority in the northwestern German territories and in a Catholic consolidation on the lower Rhine which has lasted until this day. Protestant Hildesheim became a part of the Catholic territories controlled by the Dukes of Bavaria.
The capture of Godesberg during the Köln War in 1583.
Godesberg was a fortress a few kilometers from the Elector's capital city of Bonn which was taken by storm in late 1583 after a brutal month-long siege. When Bavarian cannonades failed to break the bastions, sappers tunneled under the thick walls and blew up the fortifications from below. The Catholic Archbishop's forces still could not break through the remains of the fortifications, so they crawled through the gardrobe sluices, and hence the name of the conflict, Sewer War.
Etching in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam
Since the very beginning of the Reformation the Wittelsbach court in München had proved very calculating in weighing which side it was on. Reasons of state kept them on the side of the Roman Catholic Church. In exchange, they demanded of the Roman Curia the grant of a series of strategic bishoprics to Wittelsbach family relatives, regardless of the prescripts of Canon Law. Thus the Wittelsbachs obtained the bishopric of Hildesheim in the heart of the lands of the Guelphs, and over the years from 1580 to 1763, Köln, Münster, Paderborn and Liege remained in almost permanent occupation by Wittesbach bishops. Thus the ruling family of Bavaria became the most powerful rulers not only in south-east Germany, but also in north-west Germany, where in 1613 the duke of Jülich-Berg allied himself by marriage to the Bavarian Wittelsbachs. Most of this expansion was the work of the Great Elector, Maximilian I.
Maximilian I Wittelsbach, Elector of Bavaria (1573 -1651)
The Wittlesbachs ruled over the Hildesheim territories of Lower Saxony, in the middle of the Braunschweig lands until 1761. At the time of the annexation and secularization of the German cities and bishoprics in 1803, a process known as the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss (formally the Hauptschluss der außerordentlichen Reichsdeputation, or "Principal Conclusion of the Extraordinary Imperial Delegation") Hildesheim lost its statehood, and the territory was given to Prussia. Despite a short period of Hannoverian rule, Hildesheim would remain a part of Prussia until the First World War.
Sebastian Vrancx, Soldiers Plundering a Farm during the Thirty Years’ War (1620)
The point of this long digression is to bring to light the rich and varied pattern of startling political history that formed the city of Hildesheim throughout its long trajectory of conquest and destitution. From the inception of its written history, the plain of northern Germany had been ruled by the Church from nodes of civilization and culture such as the town of Hildesheim, with its great cathedrals, its monasteries and abbeys, along the trade routes. The empire of Catholicity embraced all of these foundations, as it also informed the soldiers that would periodically disturb the peace of the town, claiming the territory and its subjects for one prince or another. But the wars over religion which followed the German Reformation in the early sixteenth century marked an abrupt end to that period of Catholic dominion and cultural universality. Short and abrupt wars, succeeding each other almost uninterruptedly, terrorized the town and its people and the territories of the ancient cathedral city for a hundred years. The faith of the people was changed by command from one day to the other. Many emigrated; most submitted. The hegemony of the Wittelsbachs enabled the town to survive the Thirty Years War without a mayor calamity. In the end, Hildesheim was swallowed up, like the rest of North Germany, by the Kingdom of Prussia. But the treasures of its Romanesque past, of the period when all of Germany was part of a universal Catholic Church, remained intact. Until, that is, the American and British bombing attacks of 1945.
St. Michael’s after the bombing raids of March, 1945
Like Hannover to the North, Hildesheim was heavily damaged by air raids in 1945, especially on March 22 of that year. Although it was of little military significance, two months before the end of the war in Europe the historic city was bombed as part of the Area Bombing Directive designed to undermine the morale of the German people. 28.5% of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed and 44.7% damaged. The centre of the old city, which had retained its medieval character until then, was almost leveled. In the aftermath of war, as in most other German cities, priority was given to rapid building of badly needed housing, and concrete structures took the place of the destroyed buildings. Fortunately, most of the major churches, including St. Michael’s, now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, were rebuilt in the original style soon after the war. Reconstruction of St. Michael’s was begun in 1950 and completed in 1957. Valuable historical and artistic objects and materials had been hidden during the war in the basement of the city wall.
The Ottonian Church of St. Michael’s today
[CONTINUED IN PART II]