We have just spent a long weekend in Regensburg, about which I thought I knew one Big Thing: the Diet of Ratisbon, 1541 (how A-level history still lingers, 50 years on…). But with the aid of some determined mooching about (in a heatwave: 35 degrees every day, and even a 10-minute rainstorm did nothing to reduce the temperature), my primitive German, and a very good guidebook, I found out much more …
(1) Regensburg was a Roman garrison town founded by command of Marcus Aurelius in 179 CE.
The 3rd Italic legion, comprising about 5,000 soldiers, guarded the frontier at the point where the river Regen flowed into the Danube from the north, and islands in the great river made it less of a barrier to possible ‘barbarian’ incursions than it was up- or downstream. The remains of the Porta Praetoria are apparently the biggest surviving Roman structure in Germany, apart from the famous Porta Nigra at Trier. Many of the remaining bits of the medieval wall are supported on Roman footings.
(2) Under the sixth-century dynasty of the Agilolfings, Regensburg was the first capital of Bavaria. They encouraged Christianity, and the city was under the patriarchate of Aquileia (still an important centre of the western church, in spite of consecutive sackings by the Goths, the Huns and the Lombards), until 739, when St Boniface himself created the first bishopric of Regensburg.
Charlemagne conquered the region in 788, and established the city as a location for imperial assemblies or Diets. It became a hub for ecclesiastical and political grandees from across Europe, as well as a trading entrepot.
(3) North of the Danube lies Stadtamhof, formerly a separate town, in which St Katharine’s Hospital was established in the eleventh century. It lies right by the present-day great bridge, and presumably therefore by whatever ferry or crossing preceded it: a sensible precaution to have the sick people of the city at arms’ length. One of its sources of income was a brewery, which still exists today, with a leafy beer-garden alongside the river. (Weissbier research for this article was selflessly carried out, along with photography, by Him Indoors.)
(4) St Jacob’s church was founded as a Benedictine monastery around 1100. It became known as the Scots church for an unlikely reason: when its future became uncertain in 1514, two Scots clerics persuaded Leo X that it belonged to Scotland, and this apparently nonsensical claim (a) worked, and (b) stood the church in good stead in the nineteenth century, when it avoided secularisation by claiming to be British property. The so-called ‘Scots’ Portal’ is an extraordinary mixture of sacred and secular images. (Regensburg is now twinned with Aberdeen.)
(5) The building of the present St Peter’s cathedral was begun in 1273, and completed in the nineteenth century with the two ‘Gothic’ towers.
By contrast, the massive stone bridge across the Danube – a triumph of architecture and engineering – took only six years, from 1135 to 1146.
A chronologically and theologically unlikely local tradition has the builders of the bridge and the cathedral in competition to finish first: the bridge-builder got the Devil to help him. The Devil’s due – the souls of the first three living things to cross the bridge – was undermined by the builder sending across a cock, a hen and a dog, and the Devil’s attempt to destroy the bridge in revenge was frustrated by its devilishly clever construction.
(6) Next to the bridge is the massive Salt Store, now restored as the visitor centre explaining the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (There are several other salt stores, with characteristic steeply pitched roofs, in the city.)
(7) Next to the Salt Store is the famous Wurstkuchl, or sausage kitchen, built in 1615 to replace an earlier cook-shop, demolished to make way for the salt. It still functions as a restaurant today.
On the Bridge Tower, facing across the river, is the statue (a replacement: the original is in the splendid Historical Museum) of Frederick II, who granted Regensburg the status of an Imperial Free City. As in so many portrayals, the Stupor Mundi holds a hawk.
(8) Regensburg was the birthplace of Don John of Austria, of whom there is a statue, and a relief profile on a memorial plaque.
While attending the Imperial Diet in 1546, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was ‘attracted to’ Barbara Blomberg, a city councillor’s daughter, who was hastily married off when her pregnancy was discovered. Her son, then named Jeromin, was taken from her at the age of three, and farmed out among minor courtiers in the Low Countries and Spain, until in 1559 the newly succeeded Philip II recognised his half-brother. Charles had planned for him to enter the church, but his military talent became apparent, and culminated, of course, in the battle of Lepanto (1571). (In the UK, he is regarded as the great hero of the battle, largely thanks to G.K. Chesterton; whereas every right-thinking Italian knows that Sebastiano Venier was the man who did the business.)
(9) From 1663 to 1806, the Imperial Diet sat permanently at Regensburg (having previously been summoned only from time to time).
As a consequence, ambassadors from the Imperial states and from other European countries took up residence in the street which came to be called Gesandtenstrasse (Diplomats’ Street), and some of them are buried in the small graveyard of Holy Trinity church, the first purpose-built Protestant church in the city.
(10) Regensburg saw the first coffee house to be established in Germany, in 1686.
(11) Napoleon Buonaparte stayed in Regensburg in a house on the Domplatz, 24–5 April 1809, his forces having captured the bridge on 20 April. He had of course declared the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire and its Perpetual Diet, and hence the raison-d’être of Regensburg, three years earlier.
(12) Oskar Schindler, Righteous among the Nations, lived in Regensburg from 1945 to 1950.
There is much, much more that we didn’t have time to see (or drink, or eat). It is a beautiful place (see more pictures below), and I’d welcome the chance to go back for more (but not quite as hot next time, please!).