"Speyer – the pearl of Palatinate and Europe" Top 5 Page for this destination Speyer by Trekki
Speyer Travel Guide: 317 reviews and 1,060 photos
The early days and centre of Holy Roman Empire during the century of Salian Emperors
You might wonder why I call Speyer not only the pearl of Palatinate but also of Europe. Its cathedral is listed UNESCO Heritage since 1981, but does that make a town a pearl? Maybe, but I am referring to the town’s history and its significance for many centuries. This significance is something not many foreign visitors to Germany seem know. If I compare for example the degree of popularity or awareness of German town Trier with Speyer, then Speyer is definitely lesser known. This is sad, given the charm and the lovely atmosphere of the town and the many interesting museums and sights to see, in addition to the cathedral.
With a history dating back to Bronze Age, Speyer and its surroundings is one of the oldest German towns. An important artefact from this time is the so-called Golden Hat of Schifferstadt of approx. 1300 B.C.. It was found in a village nearby and is on display in the Historical Museum of the Palatinate. Later Speyer was an important settlement during Roman times; the Romans also introduced wine to the region. And then followed the many centuries of Holy Roman Empire, when Speyer was centre for many of the emperors. The cathedral is burial ground for eight emperors and empresses and three kings of this empire. And this is why the town received accolade by UNESCO in 1981, making it the second German UNESCO heritage after Aachen and its cathedral.
Compared to the cathedrals of Mainz and Worms, both also famous centres during the Holy Roman Empire, I definitely prefer Speyer’s cathedral. This because it has a special “setting” with the huge forecourt, separating the cathedral from or unifying it with the town. Anytime when I am in Speyer, I have this certain very intense feeling of spirituality. I feel very tiny and the cathedral, its setting and its surroundings fill me with awe.
After having been in Speyer quite often during my childhood, I returned in July 2006, for a short visit with colleagues from Brazil. But this visit already made me curious to see more. Since then I was here approximately 40 or 50 times (I stopped counting), especially since almost each of my weekend tours into Palatinate ends in Speyer and I have learned a lot more about this fascinating town.
Speyer's very early history begun around 1st century, when Germanic tribe of Nemetes have settled in the region; it was called Civitas Nemetum. During Roman times the name changed into Spria after little river Speyerbach which flows into Rhine River here.
The settlement didn't have much of a significance, but this changed after 1024 when Salian Konrad II was elected king, following Heinrich/Henry II. He decided to start building a cathedral in Speyer: as to express his power and deep religiousness. Speyer’s Cathedral was not only planned to be a big church, it should become the biggest church of the Occident. However, building such a monumental cathedral involved time so at the time of Konrad II’s death in 1039, only the eastern part of the cathedral was finished. He was buried inside the cathedral; his wife Gisela, who died four years later, was buried next to him.
Heinrich/Henry III, Konrad's son, continued the constructions, but expanded the originally planned dimensions: the total length of the Cathedral should now be 134 metres. It should be the most extraordinary building of these days. But also Heinrich III did not live long enough to see the cathedral being finished; consecration took place in 1061, five years after his death.
Heinrich III's son, Heinrich/Henry IV, eternally connected to Canossa, even felt a larger need for representation than his forefathers did. He decided to tear down part of the cathedral to build it higher and larger. These extensions were meant to demonstrate the proof of his divine appointment, in other words: emperor power over papal power. This eventually led to disputes between the powers: Heinrich IV was banned by the pope, which marked more or less the beginning of the Investiture Controversy. He had to walk to Canossa to apologise to Pope Gregory VII and the ban was lifted. However, this didn’t end the controversy and only Heinrich IV’s son, Heinrich/Henry V, eventually settled the disputes by segmenting rights and decisions between emperor and pope. This was more or less also the time, when no further enlargement or additional demonstration of power was made to the cathedral. All in all this period in history is really fascinating because it set courses for so many events and developments that took place in later periods. I will describe more about it separately.
Over the course of time, Speyer became a free imperial city: it was responsible to the emperor only – and not, as before, governed by territory dukes. It also meant it could hold Imperial Diets. Among these, the second one held in 1529 became famous because it lead to the Protestation at Speyer, where Protestants claimed the end of the imperial ban against Martin Luther and his theses. Later, in 1893, Gedächtniskirche, Memorial Church, was built in memory of this protestation.
From the century of Salian times until 1689 Speyer had quite a prospering life; the constructions of the cathedral attracted a lot of craftsmen, merchants and others to town, and the town expanded yearly. In 1570, Speyer had 68 town gates and towers, 38 churches and chapels, and more than 800 civil houses.
However, as we say in German – no godly can live in peace if his neighbour does not like it - in 1689 Speyer became victim of French ”Sun” King Louis XIV’s idea of annexing Palatinate in the War of Palatinate Succession. Liselotte von der Pfalz married Louis’ brother. After the death of her own brother Karl II in 1685, Louis XIV claimed to have inherited Palatinate. Liselotte objected, Louis sent troops, devastated villages and killed people. During this war, Speyer endured the biggest destruction in its history: French troops set the village on fire in May 1689. After this, no building was undamaged – 800 houses, 8 churches and 5 convents were left in ashes.
French Revolution until today
In 1697, some citizens and the bishop returned to their badly wounded homeland and started to rebuild the cathedral. This needed time and discussions about style and dimensions. Eventually, in 1770, Ignaz Michael Neumann, son of famous baroque builder Balthasar Neumann, could convince with his plans. The western part of the cathedral did not have towers during this building phase but the baroque façade was richly decorated with statues and ornaments.
Then followed French Revolution and the region became target during the riots of Napoleon end of 18th century. Again Speyer was badly destroyed. Destruction of the cathedral could be avoided though but the whole interior was destroyed. After Napoleon’s political end and the reorganisation of Europe during the Congress of Vienna, Palatinate was incorporated into the Kingdom of Bavaria, with Speyer capital of “Bavarian Palatinate”. Now the cathedral gained importance again. King Ludwig I of Bavaria, grandfather of King Ludwig II, commissioned the rich interior decoration with large frescoes in Nazarene style painted by Bavarian Johann Baptist Schraudolph. Speyer’s cathedral was all over painted inside though the majority of frescoes were removed during restoration back to Romanesque style mid 20th century. However, after extensive restoration of the removed frescoes (yes, removed with a special technique!) they are on display since October 2012 in the so-called cathedral’s Emperor’s Hall. Since there are fascinating connections with his paintings and the Throne Room in Neuschwanstein Castle, and since more paintings have been renovated in the meantime and are on public display, I write about these separately. The cathedral’s redesign under King Ludwig I also had an impact on the exterior: the western façade received the face we still see today, by architect Heinrich Hübsch.
You might understand now why I call Speyer a pearl of Europe, given this very turbulent history that had so much impact on politics in empires and the church during many centuries. Walking through Speyer today will definitely give you this feeling of walking through a grand history book. And it definitely will capture with its charm.
So let me show you one of my most favourite towns in Germany :-)
My contribution about Speyer on @Virtualtourist, status, November 2013:
I am in the process of completely revising this page, especially considering that I started to write the majority of reviews back in 2004 when my English was sloppy and definitely not appropriate.
All pictures have been taken by me, if not marked otherwise.
Please do not use any of them without my permission.
The same applies for my writings here.
- Pros:Stunning cathedral, fascinating museums, e.g. Historical Museum of the Palatinate, lovely hotels and restaurants, marvellous old town centre, very friendly people, exciting markets and events
- Cons:Simply nothing !
- In a nutshell:History, UNESCO heritage, the most beautiful cathedral, charme and Mediterranean flair :-)
- See All How late is it ? And make sure……
- Illuminated Altpörtel – ah, what a sight
- See All Charming backstreets all over in town
- Open bookstore on a Sunday !
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