Konigstein or Kings Rock is a mighty fortress that towers above the Elbe in Eastern Germany. It is located about an hour’s drive from Dresden and formally served to defend the route into Saxony along the Elbe. It impresses in many ways; the ramparts are 40 metres high and have a circuit of 1.8 kilometres, excluding the out works. The entrance is the strongest I have ever encountered and the manner of construction is most unusual - the fortress is literally carved out of the rock. So strong is the design that it was only the development of “modern” artillery in the late 19th Century that it became obsolete. Most impressive of all is that the castle is still in almost pristine condition, all that is missing are the troops and some of the guns.
The landscape created the perfect site for a castle. Steep hills rise from the river valleys and the highest of these are capped by shear sided tables of hard sandstone. Erosion has cut natural towers and pinnacles from the edges of these so that a strong fortress can be created simply by blocking the few pathways to the summit. The Konigstein rises immediately above a bend in the Elbe and the cliffs are close enough to allow even a trebuchet to dominate the river.
The sheer strength of the 16th Century fortress meant that it was never besieged, although it did play a part in the complex history of the region as an administrative centre, palace and prison.
The earliest written reference to the castle dates from 1233. During the 14th Century the castle consisted of at least three buildings, The Kaiserburg and Mountain House, which are now incorporated into the main range of buildings, and a separate chapel, which is substantially intact and still in use.
During the 15th Century the decision was taken to upgrade the castle into a strong fortress capable of withstanding the artillery of the time. The initial task was to sink a well from the summit of the rock down 152.5 metres to an aquafer capable of supplying 8000 litres of water a day. This is the second deepest medieval well in Europe. In 1589 work began and by 1600 the fortress was essentially complete.
Between 1729 and 1802 further works were carried out including strengthening the entrance, the construction of substantial outworks and upgrading the barracks and armouries. In the late 19th Century it was strengthened further with the addition of inner earthen ramparts, the latest artillery and deep bunkers for storing munitions. Despite this, by the 20th Century improvements in artillery rendered the fortress indefensible and its military function ceased in 1920. Fortunately the buildings continued to be used so we have inherited an almost pristine example of a fortress that bridges the period from the end of the middle ages to the beginning of modern warfare.
A visit to Konigstein
Although it is possible to drive up to the base of the ramparts my son decided to do things the hard way so we started our climb from the small town of Konigstein located on the banks of the Elbe - this gave us a chance to look up to the ramparts of the castle towering far above. The castle was hidden during most of the steep climb from the valley and it first became visible from a about a mile’s distance, as we emerged from the valley. At this point the unusual, if not unique, construction became evident. Many fortresses are perched upon a rock but the builders of Konigstein carved the lower part of the rampart from the rock so that it rose shear and smooth from its base. The natural rock pinnacles have been formed into flanking towers and bastions. The cut rock has a golden colour which makes the fortress visible for miles. The white buildings of the main range contrast strongly with this and my first impression was of a palace or hotel perched on the rock.
The approach takes you under the walls and beneath the outworks to a deceptively simple outer gate, just a gap in the ramparts guarded by a draw bridge and flanking gun port. However any attacker arriving here would have been under fire for a considerable time and would now be standing immediately beneath the main rampart.
Inside the gate a cobbled road curves around the base of the rock and rises steeply to the main entrance. As it rises the extent of the impressive lower outworks becomes apparent, a double line of ramparts and a protruding arrow shaped flaeche at the point. The road passes an outcrop of rock which has been carved into a rectangular bastion, from this point an attacker would have been fired upon from the rear as well as front and side.
At the top the way is barred by two low ramparts set within a narrow gorge, these are typical of the entrance to any artillery fort.
After passing through the first arch the road enters a small courtyard, overlooked by the main ramparts on three sides, and turns through 45 degrees before passing through the second gate.
At this point you are faced by a ditch cut in the rock, with the main gatehouse towering above this. The gate is several meters above the courtyard and reached by climbing a sloping wooden bridge. Beyond the entrance the raod enters a long tunnel, which also slopes steeply upwards and which has several additional gates. The upper half of the tunnel is a long, high, gallery with gun loops set in all four walls so that any attacker, had they managed to get this far, would receive fire for all four sides. The final gate is set at right angles to the tunnel and opens into to a deep trench which finally rises to the summit of the plateau.
At this point the shear size of the fortress becomes evident. It’s not possible to see the far end as this is obscured by a sizable wood and the site has the feel of a barracks rather than a castle.
We did not have time to explore the main range of buildings but took a circuit around the walls and explored some of the other buildings scattered across the plateau. One surprise was finding many original cannon, in very good condition, emplaced in the original batteries, although little remains of the late 19th Century artillery. One oddity is the Friedrich Castle, a Baroque pavilion used by the nobility as a banqueting hall.
A grimmer find was the plague casement, a subterranean chamber where plague victims could be confined until they died or recovered. Plague would have been the biggest threat to this impregnable fortress.
This being Germany, we were able to stop for a good beer and barbequed sausage, en-route.
Our final stops were the treasury and well house. The latter is worth a visit on it’s own. The outer chamber contains a huge treadmill which was used to raise barrels of water. Beyond this is the well chamber. As previously mentioned the well is huge and the well master was obliged to descend to the bottom in a barrel once a day.
Konigstein is located about an hour’s drive south east of Dresden and can also be reached by rail from Berlin. There is a small town at the base of the rock which provides accommodation and has a “road train” for those who want to avoid the climb.
Copyright © 2018 - Mike Adams