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Castle romanticism in the Basel area (2): Landskron

The history of the ruin of the Landskron castle in the French Leymen valley almost reads like a historical thriller – even a troop of monkeys once roamed these ruins.

By Nicole J. Bettlé

The Landskron castle

Situated along today’s border between France and Switzerland, the Landskron was a disputed object between major ruling powers right from its construction. Even Emperor Maximilian I and Napoleon Bonaparte, two of the most eminent rulers of European history, set their foot on the castle hill between Leymen and Flüh (canton of Solothurn). However, it was not just them and many other aristocratic families that owned the Landskron.

Strive early on
The founders of the Landskron are believed to be members of the Münch family. They allegedly built the castle around 1259 and shortly afterwards ceased the feudal rights to the counts of Pfirt and the barons of Rötteln. However, the foundations were probably laid in the 11th century already. The earliest detailed information, on the other hand, about its history, only goes back as far as the 13th century. During this period the split feudal rights constantly lead to arguments about ownership. Around 1297 a feud arose between the count of Pfirt and the brother knights of Viztum of Basel who were descendants of the barons of Rötteln and the Münch family.

After the last member of the Rötteln family died without heir in 1316 ,the margrave of Hachberg received their feudal rights. The share by those of Pfirt on the other hand went to the house of Habsburg-Austria in 1324. In 1461 the last of the Münchs died. The family’s legal claim went to the Reich von Reichenstein family. In 1504 the margraves of Baden acquired the feudal rights of the castle. But not only before that, even for centuries afterwards, many a lord and ruler attempted to secure ownership over the castle.

Power struggle about a border castle
Throughout the centuries the Landskron changed hands many times, going from one local aristocratic family to another. It was also often at the centre of conflicts between different powers. The Landskron even wrote some chapters of Swiss history during the 15th and 16th century. In 1648 Solothurn, for example, seized the border castle, having to surrender it only a few months later, however.

The view towards the Blauen

In 1499 the Helvetic Confederation, by being victorious in the famous “Battle of Dornach”, won the Swabian War (aka “Swiss War”). It was an important win as it laid the foundation for an independent cultural and legal development of Switzerland. In its wake Solothurn once again tried to gain possession of the Landskron – which at that time was close to its territory. However, it ended in failure again.

Being accustomed to success, the confederation saw no reason to give up. The Landskron went into the hands of the Margrave of Baden in 1504. But in 1515 Solothurn acquired the dominion of Rotberg and thus became an immediate neighbour to this border castle in upper Alsace. It was a political move with consequences.

During the Swabian War the Confederation had already fought against the house of Habsburg-Austria and against the Swabian League. With the purchase of the Rotberg by Solothurn, the Landskron and its surrounding area once again became a bone of contention between the powers. Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg intended to finally stem the Confederation’s expansionism. For that reason he supported the Reichs of Reichenstein. Under their guidance, the Landskron was converted into a fortress between 1515 and 1518.

More than half a century later the Baslers tried their luck. In around, 1570 the Reich family wanted to sell the castle to Basel. However, Habsburg-ruled Austria refused to give its approval. Ten years later the Habsburg family finally relented and signalled their willingness to give its blessing to a sale of the Landskron. However, Basel had lost its interest. The heyday of castles and the court knight culture had become a thing of the past. Wealthy townspeople and guilds had become the political movers and decision-makers.

Information about the castle is available in three languages.

The power struggle continued
Even between the 17th and the 19th century the Landskron continued to be a bone of contention and a theatre of war. Between 1618 and 1648, the Thirty Years War cut a swathe of devastation through Europe. In 1639 the Landskron, without a fight, went first into the hands of Sweden and then to its French allies. With the Peace of Westphalia, it was decided that the feudal rights should be returned to the Margrave of Baden; however, France refused to surrender the castle. It took until 1663 that the castle’s rightful owner was paid off with a fee. And the Reich family only received compensation in 1665.

Under the new French command, the Landskron once again was converted, by Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1670-90). It became a garrison and military transhipment point. A state prison was added as well. There are numerous legends about its most prominent inmate, who went by the name Bernard Duvergez de Suobardon, from Louisiana. The young captain, son of a French engineer and born in New Orleans in 1737, was arrested and incarcerated in 1769, following orders by King Louis XV. Bernard had allegedly insulted leading state minister Etienne-François de Choiseul during a banquet.

Very soon the rumour started to spread that a woman had apparently been the reason for the dispute between courtier and bon vivant Duvergez and the minister. According to legend, she had been looking for her lover for twenty years before finally finding him imprisoned at the Landskron and organising his escape. In reality, however, there was no romantic happy-ending for Duvergez. After more than 20 years in prison he died, mentally deranged.

In around 1790, a military hospital was added to the Landskron. However, its existence was short-lived. In December 1813 the castle became the site of a battle between Napoleon’s troops and the allied Bavarians and Austrians. After firing on the fortress for three consecutive days they seized it on Christmas Day. Afterwards, the Landskron was looted and then damaged by a major fire in February 1814. Around the end of June that year the conquerors added insult to injury by blowing up the castle. Having turned from castle to ruin the Landskron was then auctioned off and exploited as a quarry. It was the Reinach-Hirzbach family that stopped the border castle’s complete destruction when they bought it in 1857.

Hard to believe, but monkeys once roamed these ruins.

An item of French-Swiss history
That the Landskron had been such a highly contested symbol of power can be explained with its extraordinary position. Even today you still have a breathtaking view from its high tower all over Alsace, towards the Vosges, the Black Forest and the Upper Rhine Plane. France finally discovered the castle’s historic value and named it a “Monument historique classé” (listed building) in 1923. However, one of its later owners did not quite agree with its classification as a cultural object and settled a troop of monkeys on the Landskron in 1970.

When the Landskron went up for sale again in 1980, some people wanted to prevent further vandalism and damages to the castle. As a result they founded the joint French-Swiss association “Verein Pro Landskron” in 1983. It succeeded in purchasing the ruin in 1984 and had it then comprehensively renovated. Between 1988-89 and 1998-99 renovations were done for almost two million Swiss Francs.

On good days the view from the Landskron can be stunning

Already during the 1980s, the “Verein Pro Landskron” had around 1’000 members who vigorously made the case for keeping the Landskron preserved for future generations and for making it available for cross-border activities. Included among these activities are very popular medieval festivals. The next two festivals at this ruin will be held in 2019. Until then, you can visit the Landskron any day, and without having to pay an entry fee.

Coming from Basel, one way to approach the Landskron is travelling with BLT tram number 10 to the stop Flüh Bahnhof. From there a path via “Steinrain” and “Tannwaldweg” leads to the castle, taking around 30 minutes and across the green border. For those in a rush (and in good physical shape) there are steep stairs at the “Steinrain” leading to the castle. For those who prefer a more leisurely approach (i.e. not on foot) can drive their car to the parking situated just below the castle. From there it is just a five-minute walk up to the Landskron.

You can find additional stories about castles here:
“When a Country Castle Was all the Rage” (The Basel Journal, 3/2014, pp 6-13)


Proofreading/editing of the English text by Andi Curran
All pictures © 2017 Copyright TBJ/Martin Pütter 

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