The Rhine - The centre of power in the middle ages

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and as you travel through it, you cannot help but spot the impressive castles sitting on high cliffs on either side of the river. They are witnesses of a chequered past when the area around the Rhine was a stronghold of power for the medieval emperors.

King Charlemagne of the Franks (768–814) was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome in the year 800, thus reverting to a Roman-style empire. For the next five centuries, the medieval emperors ruled over an empire that covered half of Europe. Bishops, imperial princes, knights, city lords and noble families provided economic, cultural and political backing for the emperor. They were the pillars of his power as his associates, but also as his adversaries or enemies.

According to chronicler Otto von Freising (12th century), the greatest powerhouse of the empire was in the area around the Rhine. Nowhere else were so many cathedrals, churches, castles and towns built up around this period. Many of these original settings are in what is now the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Visiting them is like a trip back in time to glittering audiences with the emperor, bitter power struggles and many an intrigue. The emperors were constantly travelling to forge and reinforce alliances, dispense justice, sign charters and celebrate festivals. There was no other way to rule such a massive empire.

Excursion to the imperial palace in Ingelheim, Rhine-Hesse

Excursion to the imperial palace in Ingelheim, Rhine-Hesse

With insufficient road infrastructure and a lack of storage facilities, it was also not possible to keep a large entourage, including soldiers, supplied with food in one place on a permanent basis. The rulers moved from one imperial palace to another with their courtiers and soldiers in tow.

You can really get a feel for what life would have been like in the medieval court in Ingelheim. The Ingelheim Imperial Palace, which was built during the rule of Charlemagne, was an impressive palace complex with architecture inspired by ancient Roman palaces and featuring a colonnade and seven round towers. It served as the seat of government for a further 21 Carolingian, Ottonian, Salian, Hohenstaufen, Nassau and Hapsburg rulers into the 14th century, with several facelifts along the way. The Aula Regia dates back to the Carolingian period, the single-nave church from the Ottonian era and the Heidesheim tower from the time of the Hohenstaufen rulers.

View of Trifels Castle against the backdrop of the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

View of Trifels Castle against the backdrop of the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

You can also follow in the footsteps of the travelling emperors at Trifels Castle in the Palatinate. Made of sandstone, it towers above Annweiler on a rocky reef. Under the Salians and Hohenstaufens, it was one of the most important castles in the empire and the favourite residence of Emperor Barbarossa. The crown, sceptre and orb of the imperial jewels were kept within its sturdy walls. Replicas of these symbols of power can be seen in the castle’s treasure chamber. The castle also served as the city prison, the most famous inmate of which was the English King Richard the Lionheart.

The Romanesque cathedrals in Mainz, Worms and Speyer have strong links to the German-Roman empire, serving as they did as the venues for coronations, burials and meeting places for imperial and great councils, and are thus known as the three Rhenish Imperial Cathedrals.

More excursion tips for culture lovers in Rhineland-Palatinate:

More information about the cultural highlights in Rhineland-Palatinate

Find out more about the events, exhibitions, sights and destinations of the General Directorate for Cultural Heritage Rhineland Palatinate.

Wegelnburg Castle ruins

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Cathedral of St. Peter

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Speyer Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Stolzenfels Castle

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