The history of Vianden Castle

The Fortress of Late Antiquity

The rocky outcrop above the modern town of Vianden was first fortified in Late Antiquity. The excavations carried out at the foot of the Castle Chapel in 1994 led to the discovery that parts of the crumbling masonry of the Late Antiquity tower must have existed in Merovingian times and that this square building, the only surviving structure from the period known as Late Antiquity, was incorporated into the first medieval Castle.

The first fortification was constructed at the beginning of Late Antiquity on the castle hill at an ancient crossroads, where a branch from the great Reims-Cologne Roman road through the Ardennes and the Our valley led to the Sauer valley and ,via Echternach, towards Bitburg and Trier, at that time a thriving metropolis. The fortification was presumably used by the townsfolk as a refuge during this period of constant threat from the Germanic tribes (ca. 275 AD). The few coins and the oldest pieces of pottery date this period to the final decades of the 3rd century AD. Some coins, as well as most of the pottery, can be dated to the era of the Emperor Constantine and the middle of the 4thcentury AD, when the stone fort was built. Examples include terra sigillata items from the workshops in Trier, which were still in operation at the time, and some sigillata vessels with roller-stamped decoration from the Argonne pottery workshops.

After the Vianden fort was abandoned in around 430/440 AD, the Roman Tower seems to have been sufficiently usable for it to remain a decisive element in the subsequent construction periods of the Castle until the High Middle Ages.

The castle in the Early Middle Ages

The phrase “…in monte Viennense cum vinitore…” used when Abbess Irmina of Oerendonated the Villa Epternacus (Echternach) to Bishop Willibrord in 697/698 AD, almost certainly refers to Vianden. The archaeological excavations revealed artefacts from the early Middle Ages across the entire enceinte of the Castle. The finds from excavations in the Bailey proved that parts of Late Antiquity fortification were still in use in the Early Middle Ages. The pottery finds from the Bailey date back to around 700 AD and attest to continuous settlement from then until the Late Middle Ages. However, there are no finds which cover the period between 430 and 700 AD. None the less, it is highly probable that the lower wooden fortification was restored and, along with the supervising ancient stone tower, used again in the Frankish period.

The floor plan with the fortified Gatehouse, as it existed even in Roman times, may be taken as proof for the concept of what the Bailey might have looked like. Only the stone tower was definitely used again in the upper part of the Castle.

The first medieval stone Castle

The first medieval fortification was erected on the rocky outcrop overlooking Vianden in around 1000 AD. The main part of this fortification consisted of an oval ring wall. Thisdefensive wall, which was meticulously reinforced with small slate slabs, was exactly one metre wide. As with the ancient wall, this special building technique enabled the archaeologists to retrace it virtually along its entire length. The old, Late Antiquity ditch also remained in use in this period. The entire internal surface of the fortification was levelled or flattened by backfilling the lower defensive wall with stones and earth. This complex also included a Hall, used for administrative purposes and a Chapel, which was installed in the remains of the Late Antiquity tower. No traces were found of the domesticinfrastructure (well, kitchen, and living quarters) that would have been required for the permanent residence of a noble family. The gate to this fortification is well-preserved. The location of the gate in the north-eastern defensive wall above the sheer rock faceshows that the Castle could be accessed only via a wooden gangway built along the rock wall.

In the early 11th century, a number of solid stone houses were built in the Bailey. In the course of these modifications, the entrance to the Castle was protected by a stoneGatehouse. At the same time, a stone building was added in the southern corner. Unfortunately, the few remnants of the building that have survived in the present-day Bailey are insufficient for us to imagine how this corner fortification might have looked.

The first Residential Castle around 1100

A detailed analysis of the construction joints led to the conclusion that a square Residential Tower was added to the north flank of the fortification around 1100. The length of the old Hall was reduced to the north, and part of its south-western outer wall was demolished. A new outer wall with narrow window openings was built above a horizontal joint that is still clearly visible today. A well-preserved latrine was installed in the middle section of the new wall. In the same construction phase, the long façade facing the interior of the Castle was pierced by a new door opening that slightly offset along the transverse axis. Evidence was found of a kitchen and of the living quarters (fireplace, latrine) of a noble family on the ground floor of the Hall during this period.

The finds, which can be dated to the second extension period, prove that the ViandenCastle complex served as the permanent residence of the noble family from around 1100. Since that time, Vianden Castle has included the three most important structures of a noble castle from the High Middle Ages:

Hall (Aula – symbol of government), Chapel (Capella – ecclesiastical authority) and Residential Tower (Camera – residence). New stone houses were built on the eastern rocky slope of the Bailey during this period. From this point in time at the latest, a narrow path led along the eastern slope. This line of buildings led to the north-eastern tower which protected a nearby gateway that has not survived. The Tower with the trapezoidal floor plan at the eastern end of the ditch may also be dated to the same construction phase.

The Castle in 1170

Vianden Castle was extensively rebuilt in around 1170. The remains of the wooden scaffolding found in the new Residential Tower enabled the construction date to be determined using the technique of three-ring dating (dendrochronology).

As part of this extensive construction work, the impressive Chapel was erected with a decagonal floor plan and a broad Chancel opening wide to the southeast.

At the same time, the old Residential Tower was replaced by a larger one. The extensions to the medieval Hall (Aula) consisted mainly of typical architectural elementswhich were intended to accentuate its dominant character.

A fortified walkway, which was supported by high arches and ran along the field side of the medieval defensive wall, served as a link between these buildings (Residential Tower, Hall, Chapel). The Hall’s architectural features exemplified the most up to date fashions. For example, the outer side, facing the Courtyard, was decorated with a sandstone blind arcade. Three arches of this arcade have been preserved, despite numerous subsequent alterations. The upper floor of the Hall building was completely redesigned as part of this construction work. A large open Hall was built here, so that this prestigious building, which was marvellous example of the period, could now definitely be described as a Great Hall (Palas). The main façade facing the Courtyard side probably also had openings of this kind. This provides evidence that a Great Hall (Palas) on the upper floor existed in the 12th century. A second building had been built bythe early 12th century: a large, three-storey tower-like Residential Building. The walls of this Residential Building have survived up to the eaves, with some minor alterations. This Tower was connected to the Hall by a wall walk which did not require an arched construction to support it in this section of the wall.

The structural analysis confirms the presence of a shield wall, which protected the interior of the Castle, at the corner of the new Residential Building on the north side. The third building constructed when the Castle was redesigned in the early years of the 12thcentury is the Chapel. The location of this religious building on the top of the promontory and its decagonal interior floor plan with an apse-like Chancel show that the person who commissioned the building was very keen on monumental architecture.

In the lower sections, the outer walls opposite the rock face were pierced at intervals by several niches and chambers corresponding to the arcades along the battlements. The vault was supported by pillars in the corners of the nave and by six heavy pillars along the central aisle which were interconnected by arches and demarcated a rather narrow central area. The height of the wall walk and a wide landing above the rock prove that the Chapel originally had two storeys. The upper floor should, however, probably be interpreted not as a Chapel but rather as a gallery-like walkway the height of the open room of the palas-like Hall building. No clear evidence of a possible connection between the upper floors of the Hall and the Chapel could be found during the restoration work.

The Castle at the beginning of the 13th century

In the early 13th century, fundamental structural changes were made to the Count of Vianden’s residence. In the first construction phase, a new Great Hall (Palas 10 m x 30m) was built on the north-eastern side of the rocky plateau. Above the old ditch from the late Roman period, a spacious cellar was dug out of the rock. At the same time, the upper floor of the Chapel was adapted to reflect the Romanesque style of this period. These two large buildings, one secular, one religious, were connected by a monumental Gallery; several trefoil-shaped openings still survive. All these central buildings are arranged in a line, with their main façades facing northeast. The residential buildings – which are only partly preserved – face southwest. Two important finds made it possible to date the construction period of the three main buildings fairly precisely: wooden scaffolding was recovered in the Upper Chapel, together with the remnants of a richly decorated cornice; the tree rings in the timber used for this scaffolding dated to 1196. A second tree-ring analysis of a massive chimney beam in the outer gable of the newGreat Hall (Palas) indicated that it dated back to 1203. On the basis of these two dates, we may assume that the major extension work began with the Chapel in the late 12thcentury and was completed shortly after 1200 with the new Great Hall.At the same time, or perhaps a few years later, a Tower with an octagonal floor plan was built in the Bailey at the southern end of the rock spur. This Tower continued the architectural line of buildings (the Great Hall, the Gallery and the Chapel).

The ring wall of the outer Bailey is pierced by a gateway with rich ornamentation that reflects the importance of the complex. A second pedestrian passage (Postern) with decorative elements led into the Bailey and replaced the old entrance which was used solely by persons walking from the village. This architectural concept is testimony to the distinct sense of monumental architecture of the person who commissioned the building. It makes Vianden Castle into a “stately homerather than a defensive structure. This last great Romanesque phase was doubtlessly commissioned by Frederick III, a faithful vassal of the Hohenstaufen Emperors.

The Castle between the late 13th and the early 17th centuries.

Vianden Castle was rebuilt in Gothic style around the middle of the 13th century. The Great Hall, the Gallery and the Chapel were adorned with tall stepped gables. The Residential Tower was extended, and another Residential Building, the “JülichApartments“, was added on the north-western corner of the Great Hall. This group of buildings was also crowned with high Gothic roofs. At the same time, two more towerswere added to the north-west Bastion. It was at this point that Vianden Castle took on its characteristic silhouette which dominates the skyline. During this reconstruction work, all the ceilings of the main buildings were vaulted.

The ring wall of the Bailey was extended to the southwest so as to provide better protection for the Castle Gateway. This major conversion work was carried out under Henry I, Count of Vianden and Namur. An engraving by Matthäus Merian shows Vianden Castle shortly before 1620. By this time, almost three centuries had passed since the last great construction period which marked the zenith of the political power of the Counts of Vianden.

The Castle in the early modern period and demolition

Towards the end of the 13th century, the House of Vianden became a vassal of the Counts of Luxembourg and soon lost its important role. After the death in 1417 of the last descendant of the Vianden line, Countess Marie of Sponheim and Vianden, the County (along with the Castle) became the property of the Ottonian branch of the Orange-Nassau family. When the Vianden dynasty died out, the buildings lost their importance, and most of the state rooms were converted into large storage facilites(early 15th century). By the first half of the 17th century, when two new residential buildings, referred to in the source texts as the “Nassau Quarters”, were built for the Stewards in the central part of the Castle, Vianden had long since lost its power and political significance. During the gradual decline of this former nobleman’s residence, all the medieval buildings of the Bailey were razed to the ground and replaced by new agricultural and craft buildings (Stables, Locksmiths’ Workshops, Brewery, Watchmen’s Houses). The Castle lost its last vestige of glory in August 1820 when it was sold at public auction to Wenzel Coster, a citizen of Vianden. After acquiring the Castle, the new owner immediately began to demolish the buildings and sell off the materials (especially the roof timbers and the lead an the copper used for the gutters).

Merian 1643


Rédaction / Dessins: John Zimmer
Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg
Service des Sites et Monuments nationaux, Luxembourg