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History of Dürnstein

World Cultural Heritage Wachau

The charming castle town of Dürnstein, situated in the World Cultural Heritage region of the Wachau, has impressed Kings, Princes and the common people alike ever since the early Middle Ages.

The ruins of the castle are set high above the Danube. Along with the town, its monastery and its strong fortifications, they reflect the glorious period of the Middle Ages. The appearance of this most significant town of the Kuenringers was altered several times throughout history, not only through Propst Hieronymus Übelbacher, who added touches of the baroque to the famous monastery of the Order of St. Augustine („Augustiner Chorherrenstift“) but also through further reconstructions during later periods.

The book "Burg – Stadt - Kloster" ("Castle – Town – Convent"), including a CD, offers a multimedia reconstruction of the medieval town of Dürnstein and is available to buy in our hotel.


King Richard the Lionheart - 3rd crusade

Richard Löwenherz

The imprisonment of King Richard I of England, also called Richard the Lionheart, was a historically significant event at the end of the third crusade. On July 11, 1192, Akkon was conquered by the crusaders of the third crusade, among them Leopold V, the Duke of Babenberg and his army. The troops had already departed for the Holy Land two years before and had been weakened by the long journey and a plague that had afflicted their camps.

The troops of the English King Richard I, which were certainly in better condition, and the army of the French King Philipp II August, also fought in this legendary crusade. Many stories have been told about the incidents that followed the conquest of Akkon and that concern one of the most spectacular blackmail affairs in history. It can be taken for granted, however, that Leopold V of Babenberg was not delighted to see that Richard the Lionheart wanted to share the conquered treasures solely with the French army while the German troops, having patiently waited outside of Akkon, were not rewarded at all. The Duke of Babenberg returned home in 1191. On his way back from the crusade, Richard the Lionheart was caught in a storm and shipwrecked. He was thus forced to travel by land through the regions of his enemies, the Count of Goerz and the Babenbergs. Despite his disguise as a pilgrim, he was recognised by the Duke’s men in Erdberg near Vienna in December 1192 and was taken to the castle of Dürnstein by the Duke’s minister, Hadmar of Kuenring. In January 1193, Leopold took his famous prisoner to the Emperor Henry VI in Regensburg. When the Emperor, however, refused to pay the compensation requested by the Duke, the latter took the English King back to Dürnstein. In mid February of 1193, a significant contract was drawn up in Würzburg, fixing the conditions of Richard’s transfer to the Emperor..

Around Easter of 1193, Richard the Lionheart was taken to Speyer and then on to Trifels, where he was kept a prisoner by Emperor Henry VI. He was finally released in Mainz in February 1194. The ransom money for King Richard’s release can be considered one of the biggest financial transactions throughout the Middle Ages (150,000 Mark Silver; weight: 35 tons). Raising this sum was hard on England and its mainland properties.

A saga

Another, equally popular saga records how preoccupied England was with the fate of its kidnapped king, and how the singer BLONDEL set out to find him. He wandered from fortress to fortress, singing at the foot of each the first verse of a song they had sung together (and known only to them) until, at the walls of Dürnstein, Richard answered him with the second verse of the song from within the depths of his dungeon.

A touching story, which is unfortunately quite untrue. For it was of course known to the English that Richard had been incarcerated and the location of his prison could not remain secret for long. Moreover, there was no reason to keep it secret: storming Dürnstein - or later, Trifels - was all but impossible and, indeed, was not even attempted. Quick contact had to be made with England in any case, so that negotiations over the ransom money could begin. But the knightly figure of ”Coeur de Lion” in the era of Courtly Love and the wandering minstrels cried out for a romantic saga with more than just power and wealth as its themes. Richard Lion-Heart himself composed a poem during his imprisonment, which begins as follows: ”Weak is the voice and halting the words, with which a prisoner can lament his abject misery...”

Not only the troubadours of the English court took charge of the story of the brave king who had been so misused. There is even a historical figure who may well have been the model for the singer Blondel: the knight Jean de Nesles of Artois, famed for his long blonde hair.


The convent of the clares

Clarissenkloster in Dürnstein

In 1289, the powerful Leuthold I of Kuenring donated the House Hager and the Farmstead Schenking to the Convent of the Clares, which he himself had founded. In 1340, the Gothic church with its two naves had been finished. Donations by the Princes, the Kuenringers and the families of the nuns further strengthened the foundation, however, the Reformation and war taxes bore so heavily that the convent had to be dissolved in 1571.

The entire property went to the monastery of the Order of St. Augustine, which was completely reconstructed by Propst Hieronymus Übelbacher. He wanted to adapt it to the architectural standards of his period and thus, many of the original constructions were lost. The spacious cellar in front of the Kremser Gate was enlarged, the sacred adornments of the Church of the Clares were removed, the ridge turret and the high church roof were torn down and the Gothic windows were walled up. Thus, the originally Gothic structure with its two naves was turned into a silo.

Propst Hieronymus financed all of these reconstructions by means of trading with wine and crops. The Clares’ cloister was also torn down and the rooms of the convent started to be used for economic purposes. The Augustinian monastery was dissolved in 1798 and the buildings went to the monastery of Herzogenburg.

In 1820, the Convent of the Clares fell into private hands. Since 1884, the Thiery family owned its spacious rooms and turned the former mariners’ tavern into an exquisite hotel of international reputation, named after the English King Richard the Lionheart, who had been imprisoned in Dürnstein from 1192 to 1193.