As thick as three thieves

One day, Kaiser Frederick Barbarossa gave his trusty squire a pretty impressive present: Eltz Castle. This proud building for a proud knight stands on a rocky outcrop on the edge of the Eifel, just five kilometres from the Moselle. In 1150, Rudolf von Eltz was the first to bear the name of the castle and pass it down to his descendants. This has been the way for 34 generations now, with an uninterrupted line of succession from the Middle Ages to the present.

But it was a hair’s breadth, or even an heir’s breadth, from falling apart. In 1268, the ruling line was split: Rudolf’s three great-grandsons all claimed ownership, but instead of fighting over it, they agreed a truce. The heirs agreed a deal so that they could all live together in the one castle.

From that point, there were three lords of Eltz: Elias, whose family crest depicted a golden lion; Wilhelm, who had a silver lion on his coat of arms; and Theoderich, known as the one with the buffalo horns. The brothers now ruled the area together and shared the castle at Eltz among themselves.

You can still admire the building and the towers where they lived today, and marvel at the fact they managed to forge an alliance that lasted so long. Over time, the three lines added their own surnames to the castles, brought in by marriage to their wives. So, at some point, the one with the golden lion became Eltz-Kempenich, the silver lion became Eltz-Rübenach and the one with the buffalo horns became Eltz-Rodendorf. Their living quarters still bear these names today.

The Eltz Castle near Wierschem, Eifel

The Eltz Castle near Wierschem, Eifel

If there was something to discuss, the Kempenichs, Rübenachs and Rodendorfs met up in the knights’ hall. It was and remains the largest room at Eltz, an imposing structure with a long table, suits of armour, an open fire and a couple of notable symbols. They are easy to overlook, but the tour guides point them out, transporting visitors of all ages back to a time when a lot of straight talking was done here.

One of them is the fool’s mask. The court fool was allowed to say anything; he literally enjoyed the privilege of fools. In the knights’ hall, this privilege applied to everyone. Everything the Eltz families had to discuss was laid on the table bluntly and openly. The second important symbol is the rose. This represents confidentiality: nothing said in the knights’ hall could be repeated elsewhere.

The silver lion on a coat of arms near the Eltz Castle, Eifel

The silver lion on a coat of arms (probably Eltz-Rübenach) near the Eltz Castle, Eifel

Interior of the Eltz Castle near Wierschem in the Eifel

Interior of the Eltz Castle, Eifel

The truce held for centuries. If there were problems, they were resolved as they occurred. There was only one instance in more than 500 years when a family member killed another: in 1372, Johann von Eltz of the buffalo horns killed Heinrich of the golden lions. Otherwise, they were as thick as thieves, despite the power-hungry Bishop of Trier and all other attackers.

The power-sharing came to an end in 1815. The Eltz-Kempenichs had inherited from the Rodendorfs 30 years earlier, now they also took over from the Rübenachs. This meant Eltz Castle was once again owned by a single family, and nothing has changed since.

It is a family tale that holds modern families in its thrall. They listen in fascination as they are guided through the walls of Eltz Castle, which captures the imagination with its towers, hatches and armouries.

More leisure tips for culture lovers in the Eifel region:

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