A Brief History of the Pfalz

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(through 1815)


The area referred to as the Pfalz (or Palatinate, in English) stretches today from Bad Kreuznach in the north to the French border in the south.  It is bounded on the east by the great Rhine River, and on the west by the smallest German state, Saarland.  The Pfalz, which after WWII was joined with a larger area called the Rhineland to make the modern German state of Rheinland- Pfalz, lies in the warmest and sunniest corner of Germany, and half of it is made up of the fertile Rhine River Basin, where famous German wines are made, and even tobacco is grown.  The Pfalz has probably always seemed like God’s little acre.  At any rate people have been living here for the 100,000 years, according to relics and shards that are found everywhere here.  And the history of the conflicts that arose because of the desirability of this land is a complex, and a long one, stretching back as far as recorded history.

Those of us whose ancestors sprang from this soil can count on coming from sturdy stock, because our genes come from the survivors of wars, pestilence, and the misery and hard work of serfdom.  Many emigrants from the Pfalz left in the 1700s, after the devastations of the Thirty Years War, and the War of the Spanish Succession.  These people were largely Protestants, leaving to find the freedom of religion in the New World.  140 years later, the next wave was leaving because times had gotten good again, and the population was swelling in unprecedented numbers.  This time it was the second sons (and third and fourth) who were leaving to seek their fortunes in America.  And we can point with pride to their successes – even if their successes “R” us!

Let us begin this history with the some of the first names and tribes that appear, and then hit the high spots.  I hope this little taste will whet your appetite and send you all burrowing into the history books for more detail. I have taken my info from the Encyclopedia Britannica 1997, and my own translation of a short history of Hayna, the village near Speyer from where my ancestor came, and another history of the equally small village of Ottersheim, where distant cousins originated. Exact quotes are clearly shown.

The Pfalzers of the early, middle and late Stone Age, and the Bronze Age have left us much evidence of their presence and lifestyles.  The first written historical reference, though, comes from the Romans.  Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in the years 58 – 52 B.C. and from then until the year 406 A.D., the west side of the Rhine was part of the Roman Empire.  The Romans, as they did everywhere, built forts and laid roads, and civilized the peoples whom they conquered (according to their point of view, anyway).  At this time there were still Celts living here, but the Germani, as the Romans called the various tribes that lived in the germana libera (the part of Europe on the east side of the Rhine that Julius Caesar claimed was unconquerable, and only worth ignoring) were waiting for any chance to move in and take over.  The history of the Roman occupation of the Pfalz is full of skirmishes and battles of the Romans with the Germani, specifically the Franks, and the Allemanni.  And in 406 A.D. the Germani finally succeeded in crossing the Rhine.  In the summer of 451 A.D., as the Roman’s Western Empire disintegrated, Attila and his Huns (actually a collection of many tribes and peoples) rolled across the Rhine near the mouth of the Neckar, a massive ocean of riders, scorching and burning as it came, ending Roman rule in the Pfalz.

Map of the Rhineland-Palatinate

The Huns’ campaign left the area of the present day Pfalz almost completely depopulated. The  Allemani and the Franks began to move in, simultaneously.  Warfare was the result.  As Fritz Steegmüller describes in his history of Ottersheim, “The deciding battle occurred near Zülpich in the year 500.  During the bitter fighting the king of the Franks, Chlodwig (Clovis) (481-511 A.D.), remembered the God of his Catholic wife, Chlothilde, and swore he would become a Christian if he won the battle.   Sure enough, the fortunes of war gave him the victory.  Soon after, Chlodwig had himself baptized, along with 3000 Frankish nobles, by the Bishop Remigius from Reims. The conquered Allemani were pushed back to the south.”

German recorded history really begins in these times, with the Frankish Merovingian kings, followed in 751 by the Frankish Carolingian kings – the most famous of whom was Karl the Great.  We call him Charlemagne.  This was the beginning of the time of the Holy Roman Empire (which, as someone said, was neither holy, roman, nor an empire).  The Pfalz remained under Frankish rule until 919, when Henry the Fowler, a Saxon, was elected king.  After the Saxons, came the Salic emperors, whose seat was in Speyer for many generations.

denarius of Charlemagne dated c. 812–814 with the inscription KAROLVS IMP AVG (Karolus Imperator Augustus) (in Latin)

How the ruling system in medieval Germany emerged with its dukes, counts and ecclesiastical princes of the Church, is an long, but fascinating chapter, which I must for brevity’s sake leave out here.  (It makes great reading, though.  Look for it in your encyclopedias and history books!)

The Encyclopedia Britannica 1997 has this to say about the formation of the Pfalz (the Palatinate).  “By the 10th Century, the counts palatine were serving as stewards of royal territories in the absence of the Holy Roman emperors. In the 12th century the lands of the counts palatine of Lotharingia (Lorraine) were formed into the separate territory of the (Rhenish) Palatinate. In 1214 the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II granted these lands to Louis I, Duke of Bavaria, of the house of Wittelsbach. This ancient Bavarian dynasty, in one or another of its branches, was to rule the Palatinate through its subsequent history. In 1329, in an internal dynastic settlement, the North Mark of Bavaria was detached from the Bavarian Wittelsbachs and given to the branch of the family which also held the Rhenish territories. The North Mark thereafter was known as the Upper Palatinate. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the counts palatine brought firm rule and prosperity to their lands. They fought for the rights of the German princes against the universalist ambitions of popes and emperors. They won the right to participate in the election of the emperor, a right confirmed by the  Golden Bull of 1356, which made the elector palatine the chief secular prince of the Holy Roman Empire.”  The German name for his title was Pfälzischer Kurfürst.

The word “palatine” comes from French (and originally Latin), meaning “of the palace”.  As you will read when you look into the development of the ruling classes in Germany, there was the king, or emperor (König or Kaiser), and under him the dukes (Herzog), and under them, the counts (Graf).  However, some counts gained enough power and prestige that they were also at court – in the palace, so to speak.  The German variation on this was Pfalz- Pfalzgraf, to be exact.  The land they ruled took its name from their title.

From here we skip to a brief description of the Thirty Years War.  From the EB again, “The Palatinate … adopted Calvinism in the 1560s under Elector Frederick III … (and) became the bulwark of the Protestant cause in Germany.  Elector Frederick IV became the head of the Protestant military alliance known as the Protestant Union in 1608, and led it for two years until his death in 1610.

His son Frederick V’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown in 1619 contributed to the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, a war that proved disastrous to the Palatinate. Frederick V was driven (by the Catholic forces) from Bohemia in 1620 and, in 1623, was deprived of his German lands and electoral dignity (which were given to Maximillian of Bavaria). Catholic troops (French and Spanish) devastated the Rhenish Palatinate. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) restored the Rhenish lands, as well as a new electoral dignity, to Frederick’s son, Charles Louis. The Upper Palatinate, however, remained with Bavaria thereafter.”

Coat of arms of the Town Hayna

The history of Hayna reports, “The Thirty Year’s War did have a destructive effect on Hayna, as this quote from the beginning of the 1700s shows, ‘The village of Hayna was totally ruined in the Thirty Years War, and its population almost wiped out.  The fields are overgrown with trees and bushes.  It was a long time before a few families resettled.’  But this resettlement did not begin until after the end of the war (in 1648) and then progressed very slowly.

The new bishop, Lothar Friedrich, Freiherr von Metternich, elected in 1652, issued a public call for refugees to return to their homes and for foreigners to come and settle around Speyer.  This call was repeated in 1660 and apparently had an effect.  In 1667 Hayna had 77 inhabitants again, of whom a third came from somewhere else.

Unfortunately this positive development did not last very long.  Louis XIV of France declared war on the Elector of the Pfalz in 1673 and the Pfalz once again became the scene of battles and pillaging.  Listen to this moving report from the Bishop written January 9, 1679.  ‘The town of Lauterburg, and the villages around there are in such a desolate and pitiful state that the people don’t even have anything to wear.  Some have run away, and those who remain do not even have bread to eat.’  That this description also applied to Hayna can be seen in the fact that at that time there were only 7 households left.”

King Louis annexed the Pfalz and other lands, extending France’s eastern boundary to the Rhine, reclaiming them as part of the old land of the Gauls.  The next hundred and forty years is another chapter of complex, political maneuvering.  It saw the rise of France to the position of being the dominating country in Europe.  With Napoleon at its head, France controlled everything that went on. (That this in the end had a very positive effect on Germany was actually visible to some of the people at the time, though most only “chafed under foreign rule”.)  This period saw the formal end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.  The incessant levering for power between the emperor and his vassals, and among the vassals themselves,  which had kept Germany virtually in the Middle Ages, was thus brought to a halt.  Plus, the institution everywhere in Germany of the Napoleanic code brought an end to many of the feudalistic laws that had made the life of the common people such a misery.  In the history of Hayna, the author wonders at the fact that in the 1700’s Hayna begins to bloom, and grow in population.  Many of the half-timbered houses that still grace the main street of this quaint village (one built in 1717 by my ancestor) were built in the first half of that century.  Perhaps it was the rule of the French, perhaps just a reaction to the emergence of a stability unknown for hundreds of years.

This era,  like the rest of German history, is replete with complex twists and turns.  But if you were to read only one part on your own, read about this part.  It makes the rest that follows clearer, even into this century.

In 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.  Austria, Prussia, Russia, Great Britain and France redivided Europe along new boundary lines at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815).  Many of the small principalities, duchies, and grandduchies became part of the great kingdoms of Prussia and Bavaria.  In an exchange of territories between Austria and Bavaria (the exact nature of which I have as yet been unable to ascertain), the Pfalz was given to Bavaria, to whom it belonged until the restructuring that occurred after the First World War.

I have to admit that my knowledge of the history of the Pfalz does not go much beyond this last sentence.  My ancestor left in 1847, calling himself a Bavarian (which confused me as much as the same phenomenon with your ancestor probably confused you). And my genealogical research has only brought me to this point in history.  I have tried to touch the main points of Pfalz history, especially as they pertain to our immigrant ancestors.  I hope this helps and that you will look further on your own.  Before I close with a short list of the high points, this quote from H.A.L. Fisher, who once said that history is “one damn thing after another.”

The Years, the Names, the Places

  • 52 B.C. Conquest by Julius Caesar east to the Rhine
  • 451 end of Roman rule in the Pfalz.  Attila’s forces “clear” the area
  • 500 the Franks beat out the Allemanni for control of the Pfalz
  • 12th Century the Pfalz as such is formed into a separate territory
  • 1214 the Pfalz is given to Louis I, Duke of Bavaria, a Wittelsbach
  • 1329 the North Mark is added, and called Oberpfalz
  • 1560s the Elector of the Pfalz , Frederick IV, adopts Calvanism
  • 1623 his son, Frederick V, loses the Pfalz to Max. of Bavaria in 30 Yrs. War
  • 1648 the Pfalz is restored to his son, Charles Louis, but the Oberpfalz remains from then on a part of Bavaria
  • 1652, 1660 the Bishop of Speyer issues a call for people to come and resettle the war-devastated Pfalz
  • 1673 Louis XIV declares war on the Elector, and unofficially annexes the Pfalz, to extend his realm to the Rhine River
  • 1789 French possession of the Pfalz is formally recognized
  • 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon, the Pfalz is given to Bavaria

– Osnabrück, Germany
December 8, 1998
revised January 2000

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