The Loyal Wives of Weinsberg

21 December 1140, the siege of the Welf Castle Weinsberg in Franconia ended with a victory of the Staufer King Conrad III, who was taken at his word by the “loyal wives”.

“Im Jahr elfhundertvierzig, wie ich's verzeichnet fand,/ galt Königswort noch heilig im deutschen Vaterland“ (In the year eleven hundred forty, as I have found it noted down, a king’s word was considered holy in the German fatherland, Adalbert von Chamisso, “Die Weiber von Weinsberg”, a reaction to the Prussian King William III’s broken promises of democratisation.)

Lovis Corinth’s drypoint “Die Weiber von Weinsberg” (1894)

It was probably the chronicles of Conrad III’s uncle Bishop Otto of Freising who interpreted the life and times of the King of the Romans as being full of signs for the end of the world and called the rule of Conrad’s nephew and successor Frederick Barbarossa a “time of laughter” in contrast to the “time of tears” before. The bad reputation stuck with King Conrad and he was, in fact, a bit of a luckless ruler, leading the Second Crusade that ended in a disaster, being the only ruler of the Holy Roman Empire who was not crowned emperor as well, because he could not leave his domains due to the continuous quarrels with his unruly princes, first and foremost the infamous conflict with the House of Welf that the first ruler of the House of Hohenstaufen had to struggle through, a signature feature of the times, when a king’s reign was far more shaped by personal allegiances, symbolic communication and rituals and a consensual rule, involving the mighty families and old tribes than in the days of absolutism centuries later. During one of these conflicts, the Staufer Conrad laid siege to the Welf castle of Weinsberg in southwestern Franconia, 30 miles north of Stuttgart.

Zacharias Dolendo’s (1561 - 1601) Northern Renaissance interpretation of the loyal wives

The army of relief that Count Welf VI, the champion of his house, lead from Bavaria to Franconia had already defeated the men of the House of Babenberg, King Conrad’s newly appointed rulers of the region, and their war cry “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy) was for the first time changed to “Hie Welf!” (Here come the Welfs) – Conrad’s men-at-arms answered with “Hie Waiblingen!” (Here come the men of Waiblingen, the Staufer’s ancestral seat), rallying cries that would sound through Germany and Italy for the next centuries and inspire the Italian parties of the Guelfs, at first loyal to the pope, and the Ghibellines, originally the emperor’s party. The men of Waiblingen, however, were victorious on that day, and Castle Weinsberg surrendered. Conrad had a mind to put its garrison to the sword, but allowed the womenfolk to leave and take with them what they held dearest and could carry on their shoulders. Thus, they shouldered their menfolk and Conrad, true to his word, let them all go.

Moritz von Schwind’s (1804–1871) late Romantic rendition of “Konrad III. und die Weiber von Weinsberg“

The story of the “Treue Weiber von Weinsberg”, the loyal wives, and Castle Weibertreu (wifely loyalty) was allegedly recorded for the first time around 1200 in the lost Royal Chronicles of Cologne. 300 years later, the Swabian humanist and historian Johannes Nauclerus incorporated the tale in his “World Chronicle” and from then on, it gained immense popularity in the German states and experienced various artistic interpretations with the dawn of the Romantic age, from Bürger to the Brothers Grimm as well as in the visual arts up to the days of Alfred Kubin.

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