To give everyone a break from Merlin fan fiction and sorcery, here is another of my favourite locations that would serve well as a setting for a medieval mystery or a Baroque thriller.
This blog entry isn’t really about a palace or castle but about a town in Northern Germany that is, thanks to its unique location, pretty much a fortress in itself.
The lovely town of Ratzeburg is 950-years-old and is of special significance to me because it was here that my dad grew up, went to school for as long as Hitler & Co would permit, fell in love for the first time (without the permission of despots, ie my granddad) and graduated from his apprenticeship with flying colours.
No fewer than four lakes protect this mini-island-state in the rural district of Lauenburg which, frankly, is one-up-manship on an unprecedented scale, when we think back of our own efforts to build a flat-pack castle with a moat!
Situated in the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein (that bit below Denmark), Ratzeburg was founded in the 11th century, originally called Racisburg, a name that derived from the local Wendish ruler Prince Ratibor of the Polabians. Not content with having such an illustrious name, he managed to acquire the nickname of Ratse…hence the name Ratzeburg.
The town seems a magnet for people with funny names. In 1044 some Christian missionaries turned up intent on converting the local pagan populous to a new-fangled religion that clearly didn’t impress – monk Ansverus and his mates were not popular, which didn’t stop them from building a monastery though.
By 1066 the locals had seen enough of brimstone, guilt and fire and destroyed the monastery in a good old rebellion (people after my own heart). The monks were stoned to death but later generations fell for all that guilt nonsense again and today monuments to the missionaries lurk in two of Ratzeburg’s churches.
Ansverus himself was canonised in the 12th century (no idea what for, presumably for lasting two decades before irritating local pagans so much they rebelled). Ansverus’ relics are reputedly entombed in Ratzeburg Cathedral…a place that should really be famous for having one of the finest roof-repairs in the area…
Thanks to my dad and his colleagues, who scrambled up in their youth and repaired the damage caused by a devastating fire that occurred on 19th August 1893, the verdant copper roof of Ratzeburg Cathedral could sparkle once more and has so far delighted generations of pigeons and tourists alike.
The renovation and restoration took place between 1953 and 1966, so I don’t remember anything about it other than my dad telling me how amazing it was to sit up on the roof and see the island unfold below and to examin the astonishing architecture up close in the tower, where several centuries early roofers had left their marks.
The Ratzeburg Cathedral building works began in 1154 and none other than King Heinrich (Henry) the Lion paid for the the basilica. I have included this amazing feat of medieval engineering in this series on homely northern Castles and Palaces mainly because the Prince-Bishops were in many respects as powerful as kings and their residences reflected this and also because the Ratzeburger Dom/Ratzeburg Cathedral must have been through its unique location like a fortress, accessible only via a narrow isthmus between the lakes.
I call it a homely palace because, unlike the original cathedral interior that was probably dripping in gold leaf and gruesome statues, the now protestant interior of the basilica looks inviting and friendly. Ratzeburg Cathedral is the most important and best preserved example of late Romanesque brick-built basilicas in Northern Germany and you can see the lion, Henry’s symbol, guarding it quite well.
Built entirely in the typical red-brick style that dominates cities and towns in Schleswig-Holstein – my home town Lübeck being another example as Henry the Lion also paid for its cathedral – Ratzeburg Cathedral was for medieval people what I guess some of the steel and glass monstrosities in the City of London are for people today: powerhouses where a handful of puppeteers could decide over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
A Prince Bishopric like this one would have been responsible for attracting trade into the town, would have kept local tradesmen and artisans in business and would have had a huge say in what people where allowed to do, say and think.
Prince-Bishops were sovereign rulers and had a vote at the Imperial Diet, which made them a dangerous person to cross – even for a king. Until 1550 the Cathedral was under Catholic jurisdiction, after that the Protestants took over the reign.
Sadly, what one sees today in Ratzeburg is no longer the medieval architecture that once surrounded the Cathedral. The Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein was always a bone of contention with the Danish Crown and from time to time wars broke out over who should rule and why.
In 1693 the town was nearly totally destroyed, when King Christian V of Denmark and his troops bombarded the town to such an extent that little was left but a pile of rubble. King Christian V saw himself as a better candidate for the throne than any member of the House of Hanover (an aristocratic outfit not unfamiliar to British readers, methinks).
After the Danish left for the hearths of Copenhagen once more, the good people of Ratzeburg rebuilt their town in the baroque style. Sadly, this is not where the town’s troubles ended. At one point it was part of the First French Empire during the Napoleonic Wars and in 1876 it fell under the reign of the Kingdom of Prussia, placing the region and town into the Duchy of Lauenburg, a district that still persists today.
For me, Ratzeburg was one of the very first “holiday” destinations I travelled to. As a baby, my parents took me there in their wee-bubble car during balmy summer evenings.
Allegedly, I would sleep for the entire journey and only wake up the moment my dad parked the car outside the Italian ice-cream parlour that used to overlook one of the lakes. Later, when I was older, we used to buy our ice-cream and stroll along the shores of the lakes. Nearly 52 years on, my love of lakes, medieval architecture and Italian ice-cream is undiminished, although I’ve found out the hard way that only the latter will make you fat.
You’ll find lots of pictures on the town and cathedral on the links listed below. Should you find yourself in this part of Northern Germany one day, the town of Ratzeburg is definitely worth a visit, but I fear the original ice-cream parlour is no longer there.
The official website is in German but below you’ll find an English language flyer.