History of Oberwesel

View of Oberwesel, Merian

The clergy in Oberwesel

Church of our Lady

Today, we can still get a sense of just how strongly the church and its clerics influenced the religious, social and economic life of townsfolk in the middle ages, by taking a guided tour round the churches and monastery ruins.
Construction work on today’s Church of our Lady (Liebfrauenkirche) began in 1308. Due to the red stone facade, this is also known as the “Red Church”. Particularly worthy of mention is the choir, the liturgical space used by the canon, which here is separated from the nave by a rood screen, a jewel of Gothic craftsmanship. The golden altar is situated in the raised presbytery, and is one of the earliest and most valuable carved altars in the Rhineland region. The impressive baroque organ was built in 1740-1745 by master craftsman Eberhardt, and was later expanded several times.



Church of St. Martin


The Church of St. Martin (Martinskirche, the “white church”) dominates the skyline on the north-west edge of the town. Reconstruction work on this gothic style collegiate church began in 1350. With its vertical apertures reminiscent of arrowslits, the church tower is the most impressive example of ecclesiastical gothic fortification architecture in the Rhineland region. Once inside the former collegiate church, the eye is quickly caught by the richly painted columns and walls. The baroque style high altar dates back to 1682, whilst the side altars are rococo.



Sacristy of Franciscans Abbey

The Franciscans did not begin construction work on their abbey until forty years after opening a convent in Oberwesel. In accordance with the requirements of a Dominican Order, work began in 1280 on an asymmetrical, double-nave church. During the monastery’s heyday, the Order founded a Latin school. The end came during the movement of secularisation under Napoleon, when all church property was expropriated and sold for 4000 francs on 15th November 1803.

Mother Rosa Chapel

The present Mother Rosa Chapel  (Mutter-Rosa-Kapelle, formerly known as Werner Chapel) is actually the choir of an earlier and larger hospital chapel, built on top of the old town wall. When the town was destroyed in 1688/89 during the Palatinate War of Succession, the hospital and church were destroyed. Records of a hospital with church existing in Oberwesel date back to 1305. The original name, “Werner Chapel”, reflects a dark chapter in the history of the town. In 1287, the body of a boy called Werner was found, and the unsolved murder blamed on the Jews living in Oberwesel.

Excerpts from "Eine Zeitreise durch Oberwesel” (“A journey in time through Oberwesel”), available in the tourist information centre for €7.00.

The nobility in Oberwesel

Duke Friedrich von Schönburg

Schönburg castle dates back to the 12th century. In the 13th century, three keeps were added, and the castle was shared by several families. By the time of the Thirty Years War, the castle was already beginning to fall into decay, and in 1689 it was plundered, burned to the ground and destroyed. The last member of the Schönburg family died in 1790, and the ruin again became the property of the Electorate of Trier. After this, the ruin changed hands a number of times, until it was bought by the German-American banker T. J. Oakley Rhinelander of New York at the end of the 19th century, who restored the castle. In 1950, Oberwesel was able to purchase back the castle from Rhinelander’s son.
Few people know, however, that Duke Friedrich von Schönburg served under several European kings as the most renowned military leader of his day, and only avid historians are aware that the victory won by the Duke, who was killed by a stray bullet on 1st July 1690 in the Battle of the Boyne, sparked off a religious feud in Ireland which was to last for more than 300 years.



Fortifications in Oberwesel

“Of all the many hoary towns lining the narrow shore of the Middle Rhine valley, none is so impressive, so intensely mediaeval as Oberwesel..." observed curator Prof. Dr. Edmund Renard back in 1922.  
Of the original 21 fortified towers built along the town wall, 16 exist to the present day. The Bauverein Historische Stadt Oberwesel, (Building Association for the Historical Town of Oberwesel), has made yet another section of the 3km town wall accessible to the public. Starting from the Goldener Pfropfenzieher Hotel, visitors can walk along the wall past Werner Chapel to Schaarplatz Square, enjoying views over the Rhine river. Those who are not afraid of heights can also climb to the top of one of the fortified towers. The Steingassen Tower, a leaning gate tower on the river side of the wall, was restored to original plans and integrated in the publically accessible part of the town wall.


The town wall of Oberwesel - an exciting story

For many years, the “Bauverein Historische Stadt Oberwesel” (Building Association for the Historical Town of Oberwesel) has been restoring the mediaeval fortifications in Oberwesel, with the support of the Rhineland-Palatinate government and others. Thanks to them, it is now possible for citizens and visitors to walk along large sections of the town wall. A walk along the wall can be an exciting journey into the past.
Artists and poets have long been fascinated by the townscape of Oberwesel, dominated as it is by the two collegiate churches and the gates and towers of the town wall. A few lines from the travel diary of the French dramatist Victor Hugo will suffice to prove the point: "Oberwesel is particularly scarred by the wars of the Middle Ages. The old town wall is riddled with holes from canon balls and bullets. As on an old parchment, one can decipher dents made by the heavy iron balls fired by the Archbishops of Trier, the bullets from the muskets of Louis XIV, and the grapeshot from our own revolutionaries. But today, Oberwesel is more like an old soldier turned wine-grower. Its red wine is excellent.”
The town wall attracts not only tourists and artists, but also historians. It has been researched by experts in a number of fields for many years. Back in 1922, Prof. Dr. Renard came to the conclusion that, "Of all the Middle Rhine town fortifications, those in Oberwesel are the most extensive, the proudest and the best preserved." In an expert report, the Rhineland-Palatinate State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments wrote: “The mediaeval fortifications in Oberwesel have been largely preserved; they number amongst the most significant and best preserved mediaeval fortifications in the Federal Republic of Germany.” They form an essential part of the historic legacy which has made the Middle Rhine valley a UNESCO world heritage.”

Gold and silver coins

Gold coins

Many gold and silver coins have been minted in Oberwesel. As a country town in the archdiocese of Trier, (Ober)Wesel was awarded the right to mint coins before 1370, retaining this right up to the end of the Middle Ages. A Rhenish monetary treaty dating from 1372 reaffirms (Ober)Wesel’s right to mint coins.
According to the 1372 Rhenish monetary treaty, drawn up between Cologne and Trier, the Electors granted the former free city of (Ober)Wesel the right to set up a mint for the Electorate of Trier, as the then southernmost country town in the archdiocese of Trier. Here in the mint in (Ober)Wesel, large numbers of guilders, schillings, and groschen were minted and circulated as official currency. As Koblenz guilders and (Ober)Wesel guilders are mentioned in the same treaty as being of equal value, they must have been minted there before 8th March 1372. This must thus have started in 1371. From this point in time, coins were in circulation which were marked as coming from the mint in (Ober)Wesel.
The first guilders from (Ober)Wesel bear the legend:
CONO. = Kuno von Falkenstein 1362 – 1388 Elector of Trier.
The Münzgasse - “mint street” - has been around in Oberwesel for many years. It bears its name in memory of the official Electorate of Trier mint in (Ober)Wesel, which produced guilders, schillings and groschen throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. A large number of gold and silver coins from the (Ober)Wesel mint can be viewed in the State Museum in Trier. The oldest guilder I saw in the State Museum was the no. F 12, B1 and F3 dating from 1372. Further exhibits show coins dating up to 1477.
Description of the obverse side of the coin: the first guilders portrayed St Peter under the arch of the gate to heaven, on a capital. In his right hand, he is holding a cross vertically next to himself, and in the left he is shouldering a key. The gate of heaven is depicted as an arch decorated with battlements, and with two tower-like edifices at the sides, resting on narrow pillars with window openings. These pillars, or towers, each have on the outer side a small house on a protruding pedestal, making the explanation of this being a depiction of the gateway to heaven more likely. Outer grooved circle, inner filament circle.
Description of the reverse side of the coin: round trefoil with inserted points, formed from a thicker outer line and a finer, inner, beaded line. Three clover-leaf shaped points in each outer corner. In the centre, a divided shield with the Trier cross and Minzenberg coat of arms.
One guilder = diameter 23mm - 3.510g
CONO^ AREP TREVEN = Kuno Archbishop of Trier
Inscription on the reverse side of the coin:
NOVA WESAL MONETA = New Wesel currency.
Even after the four Rhenish  Electors founded the first Rhenish Monetary Union, the guilder remained the only currency of equal value for all partners. The (Ober)Wesel groschen had long been in circulation as accepted currency further down the Rhine river. The value in the Mainz and Palatinate states according to the treaty of 1385 was = 11 hellers.  The guilders were worth 18 schillings or 20½ groschen or 240 hellers.
Purchasing power: In the 14th century, one guilder had a gold value of 8-10 RM. In 1930, the average wage of a craftsman would be approx. 0.36 RM. However, since gold then cost ten times what it does today, the purchasing power of a guilder was of course ten times higher than it would be today. The higher purchasing power can be seen in the following chart:
In 1485, a fatted ox costs 4 guilders.
A guilder was worth 18 schillings or 20½ groschen or 240 hellers.
1 guilder = 13.25kg butter Two hellers = one pound of meat
1 guilder = 60.00kg meat Eight hellers = one pound of ham
1 guilder = 900 eggs Nine hellers = one pound of butter
The last coins I found in the State Museum of Trier from the (Ober)Wesel mint were dated 1477, Film 10, picture = 10. This does not necessarily mean it was the last coin to be minted in the (Ober)Wesel mint. 
Author: Rudolf Henrich • Langgasse 5 • 55430 Oberwesel
Verification: Prof. Noss • State Museum Trier