Castle Plesse (Part 3) - Refuge of a Landgrave / Decline and Rediscovery / Architecture
Castle Plesse was founded some time before 1100 and in use until 1660. During those centuries, the castle underwent several changes to adapt it to the changing ways of warfare (like the addition of musket balistrarias). Most of these were done by the Lords of Plesse. Since often several members of the family shared in the inheritance of the castle and lived there together, we have some inventary lists of buildings and goods that allow to reconstruct the former look of the castle. Even more interesting are some pencil and ink sketches done by Landgrave Moritz of Hesse-Kassel in 1624 (see below). The architecture of the Plesse is thus well documented. Today mostly ruins are left except for the keep, the - partly reconstructed - great hall, and the so-called Little Tower. There are also substantial remains of the chapel and porter's house, and the curtain walls.
Outer curtain wall in the eastern part
Castle Plesse sits on a 300 metres high promontory overlooking the Leine valley and the main north-south running Heerstrasse
(military road), a connection that has been in use basically since the Roman campaigns under Drusus in BC 11. Today the Highway 7 still follows the same route.
The V-shaped promontory of some 50 metres length is connected to the rest of the hill and the Plesse forest on the eastersn side. When the castle was active as a defense structrue, the natural incline between both parts of the plateau was turned into a moat that could be crossed by a drawbridge. During the various changes and expansions of the castle, additional defenses were added and the vulnerable eastern part with the moat and its curtain wall expanded. Today, the moat is partly filled by debris and shrubs, and the walls are ruins albeit pretty impressive ones.
More curtain walls with the remains of a corner tower
One disadvantage of the high situation was accessibility to water. Water veins can be found in a hundred metres' depth, and an inventory from the 16th century mentions a 'deep well', so at some time the residents had dug through the bedrock to reach water, but maybe the first inhabitants relied on cisterns.
That inventory also mentions - among others - a chapel (ruins of it still remain adjacent to the Little Tower), a windmill, a bathing room, a school room (probably for the children of the lord and higher ranking men like the steward), a brewery, and a donkey stable. Besides those, one can find the typical buildings of a castle: the great hall and the 'lord's hall', the scribe's room, kitchens and baking house; housings for the garrison, stables, granaries, the armoury, and a smithy. There is a dungeon, too (underneath the Little Tower; today inaccessible for the public).
Remains of the curtain wall with a breach near the gate
The keep or Great Tower is the oldest remaining building in the castle (for photos see the first post about Plesse Castle). It is 25 metres high and the walls are 4 metres thick. The entrance is now on ground level, but in former times it was on the second storey level of the main hall, ten metres above ground. Access was also possible from a now lost building which is supposed to have been the bower. There is no equally impressive keep in Lower Saxony in the 12th century.
The interior of the tower has been changed in the 19th century; the floors separating the storeys have been dismantled and there's a winding stair leading to the top platform.
(left: view through a small portal to the outer yard overlooking the valley)
From inventories and landgrave Moritz's drawings we know the layout of the almond shaped inner bailey - situated on the outer part of the promotory - and its buildings in the 16th and 17th century. The inner bailey once was filled with various buildings along the curtain wall, forming a yard; a feature typical for most castles, though often only traces of all those buildings remain.
The great hall still exists, albeit partly restored. It was the only one constructed entirely of stone; the other buildings mostly had a first storey of stone and a second (or even third) of half timbered structure. The great hall actually had two halls on the second floor; the first floor held several smaller rooms the use of which can only be guessed at; likely some sort of lord's office among them. The house also had cellars for storage. It was once connected to the keep by a walkway on the second floor. Behind the keep were some timber buildings interpreted as storage places. The lists include some exotic foods and spices like stockfish, figs, cinnamon and others not of local produce.
To the right side of the great hall once stood another larger house with the bath room, guest chambers, and the solar - this was the most representative room judging by the number of shiny goblets of gold and silver, including some ceremonial daggers on display, that have been listed. The Plesse lords probably entertained their most important guests there instead of the larger but less comfortable great hall. Most of these features date to the 16th century; in earlier times the rooms were less well equipped and with smaller windows. Adjacent to the right (western) side of this house were the stables for the horses.
Opposite the great hall was the main kitchen with its storage rooms; a bit further west another house of rather representative architecture which started out as a house for a younger son who often lived in the castle with his family due to the joined heritage, but was renovated in the middle of the 16th century and then served as widow's seat. The bower seems to have come out of use at that time. Next to it is the porter's house (the outer wall still exists), followed by the chapel and the Little Tower, the baking house and a gate to an outer yard (maybe this was a quieter place for the women to enjoy the view), and then we're back to the stables.
Inner gate, seen from the way into the inner bailey
Sections of the curtain walls still exist. The inner gate leads to a way between curtain wall and the outer wall of ther porter's house as additional defense, before the inner bailey is reached.
There would have been buildings in the outer bailey as well, but no traces of those remain except for some foundations near a corner tower which is also partly preserved (see photo above). The tower covered the defense of the moat. The outer bailey spread over the inner part of the promontory which gently sloped upwards to the east. Interestingly, there was a set of walls that partitioned the ground into two areas, the bailey proper and an undefined ground. Maybe it was used as training ground for the quintaine
and other knightly pursuits that would need more room than a bailey yard could offer.
The outer gate has been changed considerably during renovations in the 18th and 19th centuries. It once was a much more formidable defense structure.
Outer gate, seen from the upper bailey
When Dietrich IV of Plesse died without male heirs in 1571, the fief fell back to the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. His clerks made a list of the goods and income of the castle which amounted to 4,000 thalers per annum. Dietrich's widow, who kept interfering with the business of the Hessian bailiff living on the Plesse, was married off (1). There were some troubles with Welfen claims as well which only enriched the lawyers, but the landgrave never agreed to any exchange with other castles offered by the Welfen dukes of Calenberg-Göttingen.
It would turn out to be a wise decision. Landgrave Moritz of Hesse-Kassel (Maurice the Learned, 1572-1632) who joined the Protestant party during the Thirty Years war, had to flee his lands and found refuge on the Plesse in 1624. It was at that time he made several ink sketches of the castle and plans for changes which never came to be. The castle was besieged in 1626; supplies were short, the place was crowded with refugees, the garrison sullen and badly paid. But the attackers did not succeed in taking the castle due to the lack of heavy artillery.
Negotiations between Moritz and the line of Hesse-Darmstadt (who, despite being Protestant had joined the Catholic army because of some inter-family feud) led to the abdication of Moritz in favour of his son, Wilhlem V; the garrison was granted free retreat (1627). They left behind 15 canons of unspecified size, 142 muskets, plus several barrels of powder and other ammunition.
Closeup of an embrasure in the arcades; a 17th century addition
Castle Plesse remained with the line of Hesse-Kassel but was finally abandoned in 1660; the seat of the bailiff moved to the village of Bovenden in the valley. As usual, it served as quarry for the surrounding villages.
The landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel became the Electorate of Hesse as result of the meditatization and secularization of landed possessions due to the recess of the Imperial Diet (Reichsdeputationshauptausschuss
*grins*) in 1803. In 1817, the Plesse was given to the Kingdom of Hannover in exchange for other castles (2). In 1866, both the Electorate of Hesse and the Kingdom Hannover were annexed to Prussia after they lost the Austro-Prussian War.
Herbal garden behind the porter's house (3)
In the late 18th century, interest in the picturesque value of old ruins grew, and soon the Plesse became a favourite excursion destination for students from Göttingen (and proabably the place of some clandestine duels and secret political meetings as well). But it also attracted visitors from further away. An inn was established in 1830.
This interest put an end to the stone quarrying as early as 1780 when the landgrave of Hesse forbade any action that would further destroy the ruins by punishment of 5 thalers. First restoration work took place in 1821, and got a boost when the King George V of Hannover (aka Prince George of Cumberland, grandson of George III of the United Kingdom and Hannover) and his queen, Marie of Saxe-Altenburg, visited the place in 1853. Most of the present look of the castle goes back to the renovations undertaken at their request. Luckily, the job was done before Hannover was annexed, because Prussia would not have given the money.
Since 1945, the Plesse is in possession of the County of Lower Saxony; a Friend's Association exists since 1978. Archaeological surveys and renovation work go on until today.
1) and 2) Unfortunately, I could find neither the name of the widow's new husband, nor which other castle(s) were involved in the exchange.
3) This was not the original spot, which would have been closer to the kitchen, but the association decided to have one for the tourists, and the place has a good micro-climate.
U. Elerd, M. Last (editors): Kleiner Plesseführer, Bovenden 1997
Castle Plesse (Part 2) - The Lords of Plesse
I've mentioned in this post, that Bernhard of Höckelheim replaced Robert as Lord Commander of Castle Plesse in about 1150. At that time he must have held the castle as fief from the counts of Winzenburg - first from Hermann and after his death in 1152 from Hermann's nephew Otto (the son of his brother Heinrich of Assel). When Otto died without surviving offspring in 1170, the fief fell back to the bishop of Paderborn. It was then granted directly to Bernhard and his brother Gottschalk of Höckelheim. They are called 'edelfrei' which means they were of free men of noble birth and not ministeriales (1) and carried the title comes de Plesse (2) since 1183. Today they are known as Edelherrn von Plesse - Noble Lords of Plesse.
Plesse, remains of the outer wall
The Höckelheim family was probably around longer, but documentary evidence can only be traced to the father of Bernhard and Gottschalk, Helmold von Höckelheim (1079-1144). His descendants moved their main seat to Castle Plesse from which they took the name, but the family retained the Höckelheim possessions (some 20 miles south of the Plesse) where they founded a monastery in 1247. But it were the lands around the Plesse, villages that today are in the commute distance of Göttingen, like for example Bovenden and Eddigehausen, that gave the family their main income. The lords of Plesse also began to accumulate other lands in the area between Hannover and Kassel which they mostly loaned out as fiefs. Overall, they seem to have done well money-wise.
The biographies of some members of the family can be traced in more detail, among them a son and a grandson of Bernhard of Plesse (1150-1190), and a son of Gottschalk of Plesse (1167-1190).
Another shot of the Little Tower
A connection with the von Plessen
family in Mecklenburg is possible, but not proven; though the first of that name to appear there holds one of the main names of the family - Helmold of Plesse; he went east as vassal of Duke Heinrich the Lion some time before 1186.
Another founding candidate is a Helmold von Plesse(n) who appears in chartes in Mecklenburg 1247-1283 and was the custodian of the underaged sons of the Duke of Mecklenburg, though his geneaological relation to the Plesse family has never been firmly established. There was
a connection to the east with the crusader Helmold II von Plesse (see below), and the family states the relation on their website (4). It is indeed curious that Count Gunzelin of Schwerin, of Mecklenburgian nobility, and the Lords of Plesse appear as witnesses on chartes side by side (fe. in Osterode in 1265).
Castle Plesse, the Great Hall
Helmold II (3) of Plesse, born 1191 as son of Bernhard of Plesse and Kunigunde of Hennenberg, can first be found in the retinue of Emperor Otto IV during his official ride through the realm as king and his subsequent journey to Italy (1209).
When several bishops, among them Bernhard of Paderborn, liege of the Plesse lords, started a crusade in Livonia in 1211, Helmold of Plesse led a contingent of Livonian Brothers of the Sword and fought in what is today Latvia and Lithuania to christianise the pagan tribes there. He also witnessed chartes involving the Hansa League in Gotland and their trade in Reval (today Tallinn).
Helmold II of Plesse died in 1236, likely in the Battle of Saule (against the Samogitians, Curonians and other Baltic tribes) which was the first large scale defeat of a German order in the east. So many of the Brothers of the Sword died in the swamps that day, their grand master Volkwin of Naumburg included, that the order was disbandend and merged with the Teutonic Knights. Helmold died childless.
Outer gate seen from the inside
Helmold III (5) was the son of Poppo of Plesse (1209-1255 ?), a brother of Helmold II. He established the family burial in the chapel of the monastery in Höckelheim, the ancient seat of the family. We don't know where the members of the family have been buried before, likely either the chapel in castle Plesse, or the village church in Höckelheim.
Helmold had quarrels with the monasteries in Osterode and Walkenried
about rights to a forest and tithes from some villages. The juridical quarrel with Walkenried about the forest dragged on for almost 20 years and left behind a bunch of documents, but the Plesse family lost it in the end.
Helmold III also signed a Contract of Support with the dukes of Braunschweig, Albrecht I and Johann I (sons of Otto the Child
) in April 1258. He got 30 marks silver in order to support the dukes - who were not his lieges and thus had to grant him some other advantage. The most interesting clause is Helmold's promise, or willingness, to support the dukes even against his relatives. Since the descendants of Bernhard and Gottschalk so far had ruled their possessions in union, those precautionary agreements may point at some political disagreement within the family (esp. with Gottschalk II from the younger line). In the long run, the pro-Welfen course continued and the lords of Plesse remained in the entourage of the dukes; later in particular the Calenberg line.
Remains of one of the buildings in the outer bailey
The son of Gottschalk and a (unnamed) wife of the Dassel family, Gottschalk II, married Benedicta of Everstein
, adding another knot in the net of local family relationships I'm presenting on my blog. She was a granddaughter of Albert (Albrecht) II of Everstein who had married Richenza, cousin of the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa; her mother was Agnes of Wittelsbach. Gottfried of Plesse thus married into the high ranking nobility.
Their son, another Gottschalk (1238-1300) bought the parts of the heritage of the older line, the descendants of Bernhard, in 1284, thus his line would become the sole heirs of castle Plesse and the surrounding lands from that time on.
Outer curtain wall with remains of a corner tower
At some point the connection to the liegelords, the bishops of Paderborn, seemed to have become defunct, because the lords claimed the Plesse to be an allodial possession (a reichsunmittelbares Lehen
). In 1447 the family - the brothers Gottschalk, Dietrich and Moritz (Maurice) - became vassals of the landgrave of Hessia for the Plesse and 'all adjoining lands and possessions belonging to it'; probably because they needed a protector in a time with increasing feuds along the borders between Hessia, Thuringia and the Welfen lands in Lower Saxony. Chosing Hessia over the prior Welfen connections also marks a considerable turn in political alliances. Paderborn didn't intervene.
The last member of the Plesse family, Dietrich IV of Plesse, died in 1571 and the fief fell back to the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. The Mecklenburg line, if it is connected to the Lord of Plesse, survives until today.
The Plesse Lords held the castle for 400 years and lived there most of the time. Most of the structures and buildings visible today, or reconstructed according to old paintings and other sources, have been added by that family.
Curtain wall corridor with arcades, seen from the inner bailey
1) The status of the ministeriales, a group typical for the German nobility, is a tricky one. There are some discussions going on abbout their exact role and genesis. Here is a simplified version: They rose from a class of unfree people already in Merovingian times and held important offices (like steward or marshal). In Carolingian times a number of unfree men were given arms to join the heavy cavalry, or a fief to enable them to buy those arms. But compared to freeborn nobles, they had less rights. Their number and importance increased in the 12th century, where a lot of legally unfree people held fiefs and fought as knights (miles in Lartin sources). And because of that they were considered nobles as well - we have to distinguish between legal and social classes here. The king (that is, the realm), the Church, and an increasing number of great nobles had ministeriales. Ministeriales gained more rights, and some of them had more land and played a more important role than many freeborn noblemen. In the 13th century the border between freeborn nobles (Edelfreie) and ministeriales became blurred to an extent that both classes merged.
2) Latin comes was an administrative title, meaning a military commander, and is used more widely than the noble title of 'count'. Usually, the Plesse family is refered to as Edelherren - Lords of Plesse.
3) Not sure where the count as Helmold III on some websites comes from since there is only one other Helmold in the family prior to him, but the correct number is Helmold II.
5) He too, is misnumbered as Helmold IV.
U. Elerd, M. Last (editors): Kleiner Plesseführer, Bovenden 1997
Josef Fleckenstein: Rittertum und ritterliche Welt, Berlin 2002
Werner Hechelberger: Adel, Ministerialität und Rittertum im Mittelalter (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte 72), München 2010
Detlef Schwennicke: Zur Genealogie der Herren von Plesse, in: Peter Aufgebauer (ed.) Burgenforschung in Südniedersachsen, Göttingen 2001; page 113–125.