Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Castles of the Taunus - Part 1




The considerable basin, through which the Main finds its way into the Rhine (with some uncertainty at times, for the lower part of Frankfort was under water in February, 1862), has its horizon broken by hills, by the long-backed Donnersberg or Thunder-Mountain to the south-west; by the lovely Bergstrasse to the south-east, with Melibocus standing out like a promontory; by the Spessart, to the north-east; and by the Taunus, at a shorter distance to the north-west. The outline presented by this range, as seen from the neighbourhood of Frankfort, is remarkably graceful. It ascends with a very gentle sweep from about Friedberg, on the north, culminates in the twin round summits of the Greater Feldberg on the right, and Altkönig on the left,—the latter in appearance, the former in reality the highest of the chain,—slopes off somewhat more rapidly to westward, rising again in the soft waves of the Rossert and Staufen, till it dies away in long elevations in the plain of the Rhine. In front of the main strength of the mountain, or mountains (for the Taunus is in appearance one), stands out independently on a knoll of its own the town and castle of Cronberg; behind it, to the right, and at the top and to the right of a woody, craggy hill, the ghost-like tower of Falkenstein, with a white village creeping up under it; while away to the left nestles behind a hill, the still more imposing Königstein, keeping in the background as if to surprise on approach, midway in height between Cronberg and Falkenstein. These three strongholds form the angles of a triangle, within which lies the heart of the beauty of the Taunus. They lie between those equivocal places, Wiesbaden and Homburg, like Aristotle’s mean of good between two extremes of evil, with a leaning, as it should be, to the lesser. Of them, Königstein is the most majestic, as its name, Stone of the King, implies, Falkenstein the most aërial, as its name, Stone of the Falcon, implies; and Cronberg, the richest and the most finely placed, as its name also, the Crown of the Hill, denotes. If we start from Frankfort by the Homburg railroad, popularly known as the “The road to ruin,” and leave it, as Prudence suggests, before its final terminus, at Weisskirchen, a short walk will bring us to Cronberg.

The most striking peculiarity of this place is its thoroughly southern aspect. Any traveller brought thither blindfold would guess himself, not in Germany, but in Italy. It is like those hill-fortresses so common on the flanks of the Apennines, which existed long before Rome and the Romans were ever heard of, whose origin must be looked for in the pre-historic times, when men or giants built Cyclopean walls; and in whose massive recesses the memories and dirt of two thousand years at least have been treasured up. The climate also is southern, from its exposure, the mountains at the back forming a screen against the north and east winds. Cronberg rises from the midst of a grove of chestnuts, which have grown to a great size in the park near the Frankfort gate, and have much of the grandeur of oaks. The town itself is full of mulberry-trees and white plum-trees, the very pavements of the streets being purple with crushed mulberries, which the people, from their abundance, seem to hold in little estimation. It is a town of fantastic and irregular build, full of quaint gables, and strange court-yards, where the rich browns of the old wood beams contrast with the lush greens of the interspersed trees. So painters love it, and make it a summer residence. in tailless fowls and foul children. As an artistic friend of mine objected to the latter as models when cleaned up for high days, I must suppose that the children are kept dirty for the benefit of the painters; as there are fountains enough to wash them, if their mothers were so minded.

Below the town of Cronberg winds a wooded glen, spreading upwards into a space open and cultivated, and backed by the hill of Falkenstein, and furnishing a good specimen of the distinctive beauty of the valleys of the German hills, as found in the Hartz, Thuringia and Taunus, best expressed by the word idyllic. The great spreading chestnut shades with soft natural lawns under them, numerous though small rills, with peeps of castles through the trees, all belong to the pastoral, not the pastoral of real life, but of the stage. Nor are costumed peasants wholly wanting, though costume in these parts, as everywhere else, is fast becoming extinct under the influence of Manchester and steam. On Sundays and holidays the picturesque contrasts of blue and red petticoats, with bright coloured handkerchiefs over the head, may still be seen about Cronberg. The red handkerchief over the head is universal in the central parts of Franconia. If the cattle were kept loose in the fields as they are in Great Britain, the women would be in some danger from the bulls, assuming it true that red is a peculiarly irritating colour to horned cattle. But, whatever may be the taste of bulls, artists love red in costume, as it contrasts with greens, and carries off the distance, to use an expression which frightened an old lady out of a coach, when travelling with two painters, making her believe them lunatics. It is as well to observe here, that those who go to German mountains north of the Alps, in search of what is called beautiful scenery, will generally be disappointed. The Riesen-Gebirge, in Bohemia, is perhaps an exception, but the most beautiful parts of the Taunus, the Hartz and Thuringia, are not where the mountains are highest, but rather where they are lowest, so as to be mountains at all. The wooded character of these hills detracts from their appearance of height. They seem weighted with a heavy dark green mantle, which prevents their rising towards the sky. The British mountains, with the same number of inches, produce an infinitely grander effect. There are places and times where Snowdon acquires a thoroughly Alpine aspect, and might be six or seven thousand feet high; and a much lower mountain, Moel Siabod, seen through the valley of Dolwyddelan, from the road above Bettws, in certain states of the air, is positively sublime. This can never be said of the aspect of the Great Feldberg, or the Brocken, or Schnee-koppe in Thüringen, mountains which vie with the best of the British in mere height. Except for the sake of saying that one has been there, or seeing the sun rise or set, there can be no motive for ascending these German mountains. After the exploits of the Alpine Club, the former motive would be absurd, for “I have been at the top of the Brocken” would be of a piece with the remark of a stay-at-home Oxonian, who capped the recitals of the perilous adventures of his friends by quietly observing, as he sipped his port, “and I have been to the top of Shotover!” But the Brocken or the Feldberg may be reasonably ascended for the sake of sunsets or sunrises, as there are inns on the tops of both; and an occasional spectre, as all the world knows, to be seen on the former. The peculiar idyllic character of the German hills is principally found in such places as the beechy glens about Eisenach and the Inselberg in Thüringen, in the vale of the Bode, in the Hartz, in the lovely valley of Lorsbach, luxuriant with beech and birch, with hills folding in one another like fingers, and the chestnut glades about Cronberg in the Taunus. Where the pine woods begin the sylvan beauty mostly ends, for the pines are not imposing, and they shut out in a tantalising manner the more distant landscape. The village of Eschborn, about half-way between Frankfort and Cronberg, situated where the plain breaks into undulating ground at the foot of the mountains, is memorable for a battle or considerable skirmish in the middle ages, in which the burghers of the Free city, in German phrase, “drew the shorter,” or in plain English, got the worst of it.

On every side of Frankfort are picturesque watch-towers, at a mile or so out of the town, doubtless erected as outposts, or substantial sentry-boxes, which could even stand a short siege, and whence the approach of any enemy likely to be dangerous to the jealous liberty of the city, could be readily telegraphed. The watch-tower at Bockenheim is one of the most remarkable of these, built as an especial compliment to the lords of Cronberg. From its top the fate of the Cronberg expedition would have been watched. What the immediate source of this particular quarrel was does not appear to be known; but in those times neighbours were always supposed to be on bad terms, when they had no special reasons for being on good. Every man was an Arab, the chief distinctions between western and eastern Arabs being that the former lived in castles, while the latter lived in tents; the former made themselves, by means of defensive armour, into a kind of iron nuts with a human kernel to be cracked by maces and battle-axes, while the latter preferred a costume which did not impede their offensive activities, and trusted more to the sharpness than the weight of their weapons. The religion of both chiefly seemed to consist in swearing—in the former case by the Virgin, in the latter by the Prophet. The chronic feud which existed between all neighbours not bound over by special treaty to keep the peace with each other, was peculiarly bitter in the relations between the idle barons and the industrious Free towns, the heavy butterflies and the bees of those days. Such a quarrel may have had but a slight origin; the lord of Cronberg may have trespassed on Frankfort ground

To seek a hound or falcon strayed;
To seek, good faith, a Frankfort maid:

but, whatever his offence was, the Frankforters took it up seriously. On the morning of the 12th of May, 1389, they marched out at the Bockenheimer gate, two thousand strong, horse and foot. The wood which begins at Cronthal, where are mineral waters and a pleasant inn, would have served to conceal their advance, but the town is not very accessible in that direction, and the wood in those days probably stretched out further in the direction of Frankfort, as is indicated by the immense chestnuts still extant in the park below the Schützenhof, at Cronberg. In this direction is a kind of raised causeway between the valleys, and over this they probably drew near to the town. As soon as the knights of Cronberg were aware of them, they came out to meet them boldly, but without counting the numbers of their enemies. They were worsted and put to flight. The Frankforters took many prisoners, whom they disarmed and sent to their rear. Then they divided the booty, which must have chiefly consisted in arms and the plunder of an adjacent village, and instead of proceeding to besiege the castle, which they could not have done with hopes of success unless they had come provided with heavy guns, which were then in their uncouth infancy, they encamped, and made themselves as comfortable as the circumstances admitted, as is still the wont of the burghers of Frankfort in this nineteenth century. They ate and drank to their heart’s content, and, in a state of lazy repletion, after their usual dinner-hour, they set about returning home at their ease, doubtless with the intention of getting heavy ransom for their prisoners, and having a thorough bout of triumph on their return. The Cronbergers, however, whose castle was the arsenal of the robber nobles of Wetterau, were not disposed to acquiesce in their defeat so easily as the Frankforters in their victory. At the first approach of danger they had sent the fiery cross, or something tantamount to it, to all their friends in the castles round about. They would not have had time to send far, but Königstein and Falkenstein were within a mile or two, and Eppstein within six miles. Their allies kept coming up by squads, and as they came up they followed the Frankforters, and at the village of Eschborn, or Askeburne, came up with them. Then took place a long and hotly contested fight. The Frankforters were four times as many as their enemies; but they had a bad position, the sun was in their eyes, and they had been drinking freely. And the wind as well as the sun fought with the enemy, driving clouds of that fine dust, with which this country abounds, into their faces. Still, however, they held their own, when suddenly a mediæval Blücher appeared on the field in the person of the Count Palatine of the Rhine. This did not improve matters, and the prisoners who had been sent to the rear managed to get arms, while their watchers were watching the combat, and to attack their backs. The banner of the town was taken, as well as 600 prisoners, and a hundred dead bodies of the vanquished, besides dying and wounded, lay on the field. Probably the victors suffered to nearly the same extent, as they did not follow up their advantage. “O Frankfort, Frankfort, remember this battle,” says the chronicle of Limburg. The place is still known as “Haderfeld,” or the field of the strife. The prisoners seemed to have included persons of consequence in Frankfort, as 73,000 florins, an immense sum for those times, were paid for their ransom. The loss of the town-banner occasioned the adoption of new arms by the town, a white eagle on a red field. From an inscription in verse, part of which still remains to be seen in the castle of Cronberg painted on a wall, we find that the Frankforters had taken advantage of a diet, held at Eger, in Bohemia, by the Emperor Wenzel, to consult on establishing a general peace in the country (for there had been an extensive rising of burghers against nobles, in consequence of the successes of the Swiss at Sempach and Näfels); and the same inscription accuses them of having burnt villages, and cut down trees in the territory of Cronberg. They could, however, have had but little time for such operations. If the charge about the destruction of trees was true, vengeance came on the Frankforters in the shape of a whirlwind, on the 6th July, 1862, which destroyed many of the finest trees in the town and its neighbourhood, some of which were supposed to have stood for two hundred years.

Cronberg Castle is very ancient, as may be judged by part of its architecture, especially that of the donjon-tower and the parts near it. As times became more peaceful, new buildings were added, with a view, doubtless, to more commodious lodging, the general style of which, and in particular the gables with curled mouldings, suggest the date of the castle of Heidelberg. The Romans may have had an outpost on the spot, which they were not likely to leave unprotected, as Königstein is probably the site of one of their camps, on the very outskirt of their dominion, and within view of the Altkönig mountain, on the top of which are enormous circular fortifications, attributed to the ancient Germans, or even older Celts, who cared less for the cold, and do not appear to have laid much stress on bathing advantages. The Cronberg family belonged in old times to the lesser nobility, but they were powerful through their connection with the neighbouring dynasties of Hanau, Erbach, Nassau, Ysenburg, Sain, Falkenstein, and others. Eberwein of Cronberg was Bishop of Worms, in 1299; Walter, in 1527, Teutonic Grand Master; and John Schweikand, 1604, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz. In the oldest times the family were named Askeburne (Eschborn), and they assumed the name of Cronberg at the end of the twelfth, or beginning of the thirteenth century. About the same time the family divided itself into two branches, named after their respective crests, the branch with the Wings, and the branch with the Crown. The former deceased with John Eberhard, in 1617, the latter with John Niklas, of Cronberg, who was its last male representative, dying without issue, after having been raised to the degree of Count, in 1704. Cronberg now forms part of the territory of Nassau.

In the little square cemetery of Cronberg, outside the Frankfort gate, there is to be seen in the midst of other monuments not worthy of remark, the figure of a knight in the beautiful armour of the sixteenth century, kneeling before a crucifix. The knight is of the size of life, and the crucifix also of large size, both standing together on a square pediment about five feet in cubic measure. The whole monument is of red sandstone, and in August, 1862, the neck of the knight was encircled with a collar of everlasting flowers. The new appearance of the work is striking, but to be accounted for when we know that it is a restoration of the much-defaced original, which must have been a very creditable work of art. The original was much injured by exposure to the weather, and, in fact, the figure was thrown down by some strangely mischievous person or persons rather more than thirty years ago. In 1834 it was set up again as it is now, but the metal inscription was lost, though its burden is still preserved by tradition, and expresses the piety and resignation of the buried knight.

The name, however, is irretrievably gone, though the date, 1573, remains. It is supposed by Usener, the author of a work on the castles in the neighbourhood of Frankfort, to have been the monument of Caspar of Cronberg, one of that generation who received back their patrimony from the Landgraves of Hesse. They had lost it as follows:—The Cronbergs had become connected by marriage with the Sickingen family. A lineal representative of this family is still said to inhabit a small farm close to the romantic ruins of the castle held by his ancestors on the Rhine. The head of the Sickingens was devoted to the cause of the Reformation, and drew on himself the wrath of the great military prelates who lived about the Rhineland. So Richard, Archbishop of Treves and Elector, Ludwig Elector and Count Palatine of the Rhine, and Philip the Magnanimous of Hesse, appeared in arms before Cronberg October 2lst, 1522. Their whole muster with which they were attacking Sickingen was said to amount to 30,000 men. In Cronberg itself there was only a younger member of the family to command, and to form a garrison, only twenty knights, sixty footmen, and thirty peasants impressed for the defence from two subject villages, who were, however,—according to a contemporary chronicler,—only “unhandy, lazy, obstinate louts.” The townsmen could only furnish 160 fighting men. Cronberg, however, held out from Saturday, the 21st of October, to Wednesday, the 25th, although it had been pounded with artillery, some of which had the honour of being pointed by the Serene hand of the Landgrave of Hesse, and had stood the brunt of balls said to have weighed ninety-five pounds. That the force with which these balls were propelled could not have been equal to their weight may be concluded from the fact, that only one man was killed, and the castle little damaged. Cronberg was, however, frightened into surrender by so proportionately overwhelming a demonstration. The allies took common possession of it, bought the interest of some of the family (probably belonging to the Catholic branch with the Wings) who were neutral, and finally passed it to Hesse. After the Reformation it lapsed again, or was ceded to the ancient family.

If this be the monument, as Usener supposes, of Caspar of Cronberg, he, being of the Wing branch of the family and a Catholic, would have been refused a tomb in the now Protestant town church, and the small Catholic church in the castle had become full of the graves of his ancestors. Perhaps he may have deemed himself unworthy of resting with his ancestors, having, though a Catholic, sided with the Reformers, and this might account for the character of the monument, and especially the attitude of the knight, which is one of deep contrition and earnest prayer.

In both the Catholic and Protestant churches are figures of the knights of the house of Cronberg, many with their ladies beside them, and their dogs at their feet. The armour of the knights tells of the ages in which they lived; the ladies too are remarkable for their hooded head-dresses, which allow only the face to be seen, and give these matrons a nunlike appearance.

One of the apparently most ancient figures in the Catholic church. The comparative rudeness of the work strikes the observer, as well as the great development of arms and chest as compared with the legs, a disproportion which could scarcely have been actual, or may have been exaggerated as an expression of knighthood, which was not accustomed to develope its calves by pedestrianism. The wings on this worthy’s helmet resemble ribs of beef. The present position of these figures could hardly have been the original. They were, doubtless, recumbent at first, afterwards taken up, and built into the walls of the churches for the sake of convenience. Amongst the most noted sufferers in effigy were Hardmuth, the friend of Luther, and son-in-law of Sickingen, and his wife. They reclined on a sarcophagus, surrounded by an open iron screen, in the Protestant church, all of which was taken away to make room for some seats. This is said to have been the work of a clerical Vandal at the end of the last century. In another instance, in the Catholic church, the knight is not only upright in the wall, but half concealed by the woodwork of the vestry. Germany appears to have had the full benefit of the taste of what is called the churchwarden period in England, the deliberate and cold-blooded vulgarity of which seems to have effected more ecclesiastical mischief in its long duration than any outburst of fanatical violence, or the normal devastation of war.