The history of the Kaiserpfalz of Ingelheim

The significance of the medieval Kaiserpfalz

As rulers had no fixed seat of government in the period from the early to the beginning of the late Middle Ages (around 500-1250 AD), so-called palaces (from the Latin palatium = palace) were of great importance as representative places of temporary rule. Emperors and kings travelled around the empire with their entourage to convene political assemblies, control subjects and land or plan and carry out military operations.

Early Middle Ages - the Carolingian Palatinate (approx. 750-950 AD)

Around 800 AD, Charlemagne built the imposing complex, which is now one of the largest and most magnificent in the whole of Europe. This is how Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer, described it in the 9th century. The architecture of the complex was unique, partly because Charlemagne was inspired by roman-antique villas and palaces when planning it. In this way, he wanted to continue the tradition of great Roman rulers.

Atmospheric visualisation of the Throne Hall (Aula regia) of the Ingelheim Palatinate. Reconstruction: Archimedix GmbH and Holger Grewe.

The Aula regia (throne hall) built in Carolingian times reflects this ancient influence on the architectural style of the Kaiserpfalz. In its architectural decoration and layout, the Ingelheim palace emulated Roman models, such as the so-called Constantine Basilica, which was built in the 4th century as an audience hall for the late Roman emperors in Trier. The remains of the Ingelheim throne hall were uncovered in 2001 and made accessible for the first time.

The foundations of the three-apsidal church were discovered in 2004. It is dated to the 8th or 9th century on the basis of ceramic finds. The small church owes its name to the three semi-circular building ends, known as conches or apses.

The north wing and the large adjoining hall building also date from the Carolingian period. At almost 77 metres long, this complex was one of the largest buildings in the palace complex. A well, the date of which is difficult to pinpoint, and a water basin from the late 8th century are evidence of the Palatinate’s advanced infrastructure. This applies in particular to the Carolingian long-distance water pipeline, which was long thought to be Roman due to its construction. In fact, however, it was one of the most complex structures built by the Carolingians. It transported fresh water underground from a spring near the neighbouring village of Heidesheim over a distance of almost seven kilometres to the Palatinate.

The most striking building in the Kaiserpfalz is the semi-circular building with the so-called Heidesheim Gate. It formed the east-facing, representative main entrance to the palace and gave it the appearance of a fortified town. The semi-circular building had a portico in front of it, as did the adjoining north wing. Due to their position in relation to each other, large inner courtyards were formed between the individual building complexes. This is another recognisable reference to Roman palace architecture, especially as semi-circular buildings were largely unknown in the Middle Ages.

Reconstruction of the so-called Heidesheim Gate of the Ingelheim Palatinate. Reconstruction: Archimedix GmbH and Holger Grewe.

High Middle Ages - the Palatinate of the Ottonians and Salians (approx. 950-1150 AD)

Under the Ottonians in the 10th and early 11th centuries, the Kaiserpfalz of Ingelheim reached its peak as a place of residence and assembly. Several imperial synods were held here and the town established itself as the favoured Easter palace in the Rhine-Main region. This custom lasted until the Salian period. Of the Ottonian emperors, Otto III spent the most time in Ingelheim. As he was still a minor at the time of his coronation, the empresses Theophanu and Adelheid took over the regency. From Ingelheim, the two women maintained close contact with Archbishop Willigis of Mainz. When Otto was old enough, he chose Aachen as his favourite place of residence.

The Palatinate changed its appearance under the Ottonians. Numerous findings from the 10th century bear witness to extensions and renovations. Among other things, the triconch building from the Carolingian period was replaced by an apsidal hall before the year 900, which offered significantly more space.

Older research dated the hall church to the Ottonian period. However, charcoal analyses from the foundations of the church have shown that it must have been built between 1027 and 1154, i.e. during the Salian period. Visitors to Ingelheim today come across the name „Im Saal“ everywhere: the district in which the ruins of the Kaiserpfalz are located is known as the Saalgebiet. This is also where the Saal Church is located, the layout of which reflects the original building. There is also the Saalbrunnen fountain and the street „Im Saal“. The word goes back to the Middle High German word „Sal“, which means „house“ or „residence“. Later it was used to refer to a manor or royal court when the king himself was the lord of the manor.


Late Middle Ages - The Palatinate of the Hohenstaufen and Habsburgs (ca. 1150-1375 AD)

By the time of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the Kaiserpfalz of Ingelheim had long since lost its political and administrative significance. The presence of a Hohenstaufen emperor in the palace can only be documented four times. The „Gesta Friderici Imperii“, written around 1160, describes the planned restoration of the town and how Ingelheim had been neglected for a long time. As the meeting of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and Hildegard of Bingen in 1163 is a myth, there is not a single reliable record of Barbarossa’s stay in the Ingelheim Palatinate. The significance of the once so important site was increasingly limited to territorial politics.

The Heidesheim Gate today: the parapet walk with its battlements and embrasures dates back to the Hohenstaufen period, when the imposing complex was expanded into a castle. Image: City of Ingelheim, Benjamin May.

This change in function was accompanied by a further remodelling, which was even more serious this time: the Hohenstaufen dynasty turned what was once a representative palace complex into a castle used for territorial protection. A defence wall with a moat was added to the Carolingian half-round building and the Carolingian Heidesheim Gate was walled up. The Bolander defence tower, the strongest of the original four fortification towers, was probably also built around this time. It served to secure the south-west side of the palace. The previously open palace complex was sealed off on all sides with high walls, giving it a fortified character for the first time. Towards the south, the area was enlarged and an outer bailey was built, which was also surrounded by high walls. The fortified wall, which today characterises the entire southern monument area, dates back to the Staufer period in its oldest parts and is partially preserved up to a height of four metres together with the Bolander Tower. The Zuckerberg Gate, which formed a small passage through the high and late medieval defence wall, is the only gate from the Staufer period that can be traced today.

Also worth mentioning is the Staufer heating system from around 1200, which was completely smoke-free. It was uncovered in 1997 and only three years later it was conserved in a protective structure and made accessible to the public.

William of Holland took the Palatinate in 1249. A document from 1298 records the stay of the Habsburg Albrecht I of Austria in Ingelheim. Charles VI was the last ruler to visit Ingelheim in 1354. The reason for his visit was the foundation of an Augustinian canon monastery, which took over the palace buildings. In 1375, the entire imperial territory of Ingelheim was pledged to the Electoral Palatinate.

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