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Speyer (formerly known as Spires in English) is a city of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany with approximately 50,000 inhabitants. Located beside the river Rhine, Speyer is 25 km south of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim. Founded by the Romans, it is one of Germany's oldest cities. The first known names were Noviomagus and Civitas Nemetum, after the Teutonic tribe, Nemetes, settled in the area. Around the year 500 the name Spira first appeared in written documents. Spire, Spira, and Espira are still names used for Speyer in the French, Italian, and Spanish languages.

Speyer is dominated by the Speyer Cathedral, a number of churches and the Altpörtel (old gate). In the cathedral, beneath the high altar, are the tombs of eight Holy Roman emperors and German kings.


Before the arrival of the Romans

An important factor in the establishment of a settlement at Speyer was its location on the main European traffic routes along the Rhine. There were only very few locations along the Rhine between Basel and Mainz where banks were high enough to be safe from floods, yet still close to the river. Another advantage was the nearby confluence of the Neckar, 20 km downstream. The Neckar valley stretches southeast towards the Danube. To the west, the low hills between the Palatinate Forest and Hunsrück mountains made for easy access in the direction of modern-day Kaiserslautern and beyond to Gaul. Several ferries across the Rhine near Speyer in the medieval era bear witness to its importance as a crossroads.

5,000-year-old evidence of permanent agricultural settlements around Speyer shows that these advantages did not escape the attention of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Hallstatt culture and La Tène culture peoples. One of the most renowned finds from around 1500 BC is the Golden Hat of Schifferstadt, discovered in a field about 10 km northwest of Speyer, and now on display in the Historical Museum of Speyer. In the second millennium BC, the area of Speyer was settled by the Celtic Mediomatrici. A Celtic grave from around 50 – 20 BC was unearthed in Johannesstrasse. It is considered to be exceptional because Celtic grave sites were very rare in the Palatinate and Upper Rhine area at the time it was made.

Roman times

After the conquest of Gaul by the Romans in 50 B.C. the Rhine became part of the border of the Roman Empire. The Romans erected camps and forts along the river from the Alps down to the North Sea. The history of Speyer began with the construction of one of these camps around 10 BC for a 500-man–strong infantry group and also intended as a base for further conquests to the east of the Rhine. The decisive factor for the location were the wedge-shaped high river banks, of which the tip pointed far east into the floodplain of the Rhine. Thus, the settlement, although right by the river, was safe from floods. Due to the river's extensive meandering such possibilities were very rare between Basel and Mainz. The first fort was erected in the eastern section of today's Maximilianstrasse between the Kleine Pfaffengasse and the Grosse Himmelsgasse. The southern moat was located along the Kleine Pfaffengasse.

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Die Rhine border and settlement area of the Nemetes around late Roman Speyer ("Noviomagus")

With the consent of the Romans under Emperor Augustus the Germanic tribe of Nemetes settled in the region of Speyer; other Germanic tribes from across the Rhine, the Vangiones and Triboci settled in the neighbouring regions of Rheingau and Alsace.

After 20 years, the first fort was replaced by a second one, partially overlapping the former, its northern wall corresponding with the former southern wall of the old fort. Remains of this fort were found in the Jewish quarter. Its southern wall is assumed to have bordered directly at the edge of the high bank, along which, in those days, the Rhine was flowing. To the west and to the north the fortifications were made of a system of walls and moats. The erection of the second fort corresponds with the reorganization of the Roman Rhine frontier after the disaster in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The vicinity to the east and west of the forts attracted civilian settlements (Vicus) which were the impetus for the development of Speyer as a town. The main vicus stretched to the west from Herdstrasse probably as far as Zeppelinstrasse and a smaller one in the east in the area south of the cathedral. As of 30 A.D. there were a number of representative buildings forming a "U" like a market forum, indicating that the vicus very likely already had market rights (ius nundinarum).

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Noviomagus in the Roman Empire

The second fort was again replaced by a third one a little further away from the Rhine between the middle-section of Maximilianstrasse and Ludwigstrasse, yet, some of its area still overlapping the former forts. The reason for the move might have been a flood, lack of space or the need for a renewal. It seems that this last fort was considerably larger than the two former ones. It existed at least until 74 when the auxiliary troops were moved into the newly conquered territories east of the Rhine. Speyer was no longer a border post and lost its military significance. As of 83, it became part of the Roman province of Germania superior. The fort was given up, the vicus was granted self-government and became the capital of the Nemetes area, ‘Civitas Nemetum’, which covered the western Rhine plain of the Palatinate and northern Alsace. Around 150, the town appeared as Noviomagus (New field) on the world map of the Greek Claudius Ptolemaios. The same name is mentioned at the beginning of the 3rd century in the Antonine Itinerary, a road handbook of the Roman Empire and on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a road map from the 3rd century. The name can also be found on milestones along the Rhine. At a central point of the Roman Rhine valley road, Speyer emerged as a representative town and an administrative regional centre. Two main streets crossed in the centre of Speyer. The decumanus, (east-west-street) was 6 – 8 m wide, leading from today's cathedral area along Kleine Pfaffengasse past the Königsplatz further to the west. Along its whole length it was lined with colonnades. A second main street started around today's Hagedorngasse and crossed the decumanus south of today’s Kaufhof (department store). Strong foundations found in the area of the Königsplatz are considered to be remnants of a forum with a temple. The size of a part of a Jupiter (mythology) pillar is similar to a large pillar found in Mainz. Other findings show there were a market place, wide, public buildings, living quarters, temples and a theatre. It is practically impossible to do any digging below street level without striking remnants of this era. The numerous finds, for example the oldest preserved and still sealed wine bottle in Germany, can be seen in the Historical Museum of the Palatinate (Historisches Museum der Pfalz).

Main street in Speyer with the Speyer Cathedral in the background

Speyer in the migration period

Roman Speyer was not spared from upheavals in the migration period. With the completion of the Limes in the 1st century AD Speyer was no longer a border town. Flourishing times for Speyer continued after the collapse of the Danube border between 166 and 170 in spite of increasing incursions by Germanic tribes across the Limes. For a while the Romans managed to ward off the attacks of the Alemanni which first appeared in 213.

But as of 260 the Limes could no longer contain the constant onslaught of the Alemanni. The Romans retreated back across the Rhine; Speyer once more became a border town and took in people fleeing from the east. The Alemanni managed to cross the Rhine repeatedly, usually in winter, and in a raid in 275 the town was all but destroyed. Traces of the fires are still visible on excavation sites but it is not known what happened to the population. In 286 Diocletian had the northern provinces reorganized; civil and military administration were separated and settlements rebuilt.

By the 4th century AD the settlement had recovered and a garrison was established. In 352 the Alemanni led by Chnodomar attacked along the whole Rhine front and conquered the territory to the west of the river. The Romans under Constantine II and Julian re-established the Rhine border in a the campaigns of 355. Yet the raids of the Alemanni continued. The settlement was not rebuilt. Instead, Valentinian I had the Rhine frontier fortified and small units, each with their own names, posted in garrisons along the river. In Speyer this happened at least by 369 and it was now called Nemetae. The troops posted in Speyer are listed in a military handbook (notitia dignitatum) as Vindices and the garrison remained at least until 422/423. As a refuge for the inhabitants a stronghold was built on the cathedral hill around 370 with walls 2.5 m strong. Its northern section ran parallel to the northern side of the later cathedral. The southern section corresponded with the outline of the high banks of the Rhine, today the southern wall of the historical museum where a harbour was constructed. During excavations in the 1980s remnants of boats were found there. Other findings within the fortified area indicate that an early Christian community existed within these walls. A first Bishop of Speyer is mentioned for the year 343. The grave sites found in the area indicate that the population outside the fort was still heathen. It also seems that some Alemanni were allowed to settle in the area with the consent of the Romans.

File:Römische Provinzen im Alpenraum 395 n Chr.png
The border town of Speyer (Noviomagus) shortly before the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around 395

In the beginning of the 5th century AD the whole Roman Rhine border disintegrated under the onslaught of Germanic tribes pushing across the river. In 406, pursued by Huns, Germanic Suebi, Vandals and Sarmatian Alans set over the river and also overran Speyer on their way into Gaul. A richly endowed grave of a prince found in Altlussheim near Speyer attests to the presence of Alans, Huns or Eastern Germanic tribes at that time. This invasion was not the immediate end of Roman life and culture in the area west of the Rhine. It is assumed that Romans and Romanized country folk left sooner and that people in the towns held out longer. The Romans tried to hold the border by handing its defence to Germanic Foederati, friendly tribes who settled in the areas west of the Rhine. In the province of Germania superior in the area of Speyer these were the Franks, but they also were unable to prevent invasions such as in 406.

Initially, the tribes crossing the Rhine continued further west into Gaul. As of 450 the acquisition of land for farms can be observed around Speyer. Three such settlements were found at the Woogbach and in the Rosssprung area. From 454 on, the Romans gave up holding the Rhine as a border and the troops of the Speyer garrison were integrated into the Roman army. Immigration of Germanic peoples increased. Thus, the decline of Roman lifestyle between Speyer and Strasbourg proceeded much faster than further north between Worms and Cologne.

Around 475 there was a new small settlement called Winternheim, 2 km south of the fort, right at the edge of the high banks of the Rhine. Surprisingly, this site contained finds from the northern Germanic tribe of the Saxons. Because of similar finds further north near Mainz and Trier it is assumed, that tribes other than Alamanni settled in the area. Winternheim, probably a village of weavers, existed until the 12th century and had its own parish church, St. Ulric. Around the same time another settlement, Altspeyer, developed in the area of today’s main train station, also called Villa Spira. The fort most likely still existed around 500 but the extent of the Romanized population is not known. The population change is reflected in the name of Speyer: antique Noviomagus / Nemetum became medieval Spira, indicating that Latin was no longer spoken.

Emperors and Bishops

Speyer City Hall (Rathaus)

The area of the Palatinate was eventually settled by Franks permanently and became part of the emerging Frankish Empire. With the partition of the Empire among the sons of Clovis I in 512, Speyer fell to the eastern Frankish kingdom of Austrasia. It is assumed that the bishopric succumbed in the migration period and was re-established in the 5th century. First churches and monasteries were built in the 6th and 7th centuries, among them not only the earliest verifiable church of St. Germain, but also a bishop’s church, of which the patrons saints Maria and Stephen were named in 662/664. Administratively, the Franks followed the example of their Roman predecessors and Speyer became the seat of the Speyergau (county) with roughly the same outlines as the previous Roman Civitas Nemetum. Initially, lord of town and county was a Comes (Gaugraf) appointed by the king but through the following centuries the kings passed more and more rights to the bishops. Sigebert III, for example, granted the bishop the tithe of all royal estates in the Speyergau around 650 and the church was exempt from paying taxes to the comes. In 664/666 the bishop of Speyer was granted immunity, a privilege repeatedly confirmed by following rulers, e.g. by Charlemagne in 782.

The economic basis for Speyer’s bishops were their possessions, substantial estates, customs and ferry levies as well as the prerogative of coinage received in the 10th century. The immunity privileges granted to church and bishops confirmed and expanded in 969 by Emperor Otto the Great and by Henry IV in 1061 placed Speyer under the protection, control and rule of the bishops. The increasing power of the bishops and the church lead to repeated tensions with the nobility of the Speyergau and the emperor in which the emerging bourgeoisie was to become a fourth party. Especially the struggle of the town with the bishop and the church was to mark the history of Speyer in the following six centuries.

In 687, the Frankish Empire was re-unified. The Carolingians established a royal palace (Königspfalz) in Speyer which served as a temporary seat of the kings and emperors. Yet, in those years, Speyer was of little political importance. Charlemagne visited Speyer several times and in 838 Louis the Pious for the first time held court in town, the starting point of 50 diets held in Speyer in the following 600 years.

When the Frankish Empire was divided up among the three sons of Louis the Pious in 843, Speyer fell under the reign of Louis the German who was given the eastern Frankish territories, East Francia, which was to become the Kingdom of Germany. With the soon evolving Stem duchies, Speyer then became part of the Duchy of Franconia. In these years many Speyer bishops took part in synods and negotiations in Paris and Rome on behalf of the king. Rhenish Franconia became the cradle of the Salian Dynasty which brought forth four German Kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

The year 1024 marked a decisive event in the history of the town. In Oppenheim near Mainz Konrad II, a Salian from the Speyer district (see Salian emperors), was elected king of Germany, drawing Speyer into the centre of imperial politics and making it the spiritual centre of the Salian kingdom.

Nothing more could express this importance than the construction of the cathedral. The laying of the foundation stone was the decisive impetus for the further development of the town. The cathedral was consecrated in 1061 although only completed in 1111. It was the largest church of its time and, in its monumentality and significance, symbolized Imperial power and Christianity. It became the burial place of eight German Emperors and Kings. With the Abbey of Cluny in ruins, the Speyer Cathedral remains the largest Romanesque church to this very day.

A number of events, decisions and meetings in the following centuries underlined the significance of Speyer in the history of medieval Europe: Henry IV’s departure for Canossa in 1077, the preachings of Bernard of Clairvaux and the beginning of the Second Crusade at Christmas 1146, the extradition of Richard the Lionheart to Henry VI in 1193 or Frederick II’s first journey through Germany in the year 1213.

In 1294 the Emperor granted Speyer the rights of free imperial city, ending the rule of the bishops.

Jewish Community

In the shadows of these historical events, the first recorded Jewish community emerged in Speyer at the instigation of the bishop. It is quite possible that Jews already settled in Speyer in pre-Christian times. In 1084 Bishop Rudiger Huzmann invited Jews to move to Speyer and settled them in the former suburb of Altspeyer (the area of today's train station) which he had surrounded by a wall for their protection. Along with this invitation the bishop granted the Jews rights and privileges which went well beyond contemporary practice. They were confirmed by Emperor Henry IV in 1090 and became an example for Jews' privileges in many cities of the empire. A Jewish quarter soon also developed next to the bishops’ district near the cathedral. Its centre, the Jews’ Court (Judenhof), contained men’s and women’s synagogue and the mikveh. The ruins of the Speyer Synagogue are the oldest visible remnants of such a building in central Europe. The mikveh, first mentioned in 1126, has remained almost unchanged to this day and is still supplied by fresh groundwater.

For two centuries the Speyer Jewish community was among the most important of the Empire and, in spite of pogroms, persecution and expulsion, had considerable influence on Ashkenazi culture and the spiritual and cultural life of the town. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism and persecution was no less virulent in Speyer than in other places and with one notable exception the Jewish community shared the fate of most others.

The Yiddish surnames of Spira, Shapira, Spier and Shapiro probably derive from Shpira (?????), the Hebrew name of Speyer.

Emperors, Bishops and urban citizens

In the battle Zülpich 496/497 and another one near Strasbourg in 506 the Franks under their king Chlodwig (Clovis I) beat the Alamanni and Speyer became part of the Frankish Kingdom. The administration was reorganized and Romanized civil servants and bishops from southern Gaul were transferred to the Rhine. The new administrative unit of Speyer was similar to that of the civitas Nemetum.

In 346 AD Speyer was mentioned for the first time as a diocesan town, but Christianity had been suppressed by the heathen Alemanni. Under the Franks, whose king Chlodwig had converted, the diocese was re-established in the 5th century and extended to territories east of the Rhine. Travel routes opened to the west and trade also picked up.

The first churches and monasteries were built in the 6th and 7th centuries, among them not only the earliest verifiable church of St. Germain, but also a bishop’s church, of which the patrons saints Maria and Stephen were named in 662/664. Bishop Hilderic of Speyer is mentioned in the records as a participant of the synod of Paris in 614. St. Germain was to the south of Speyer outside the town and, considering the time, was quite large (length: 19.7 m, width 15.5 m), but its purpose is not quite clear. Another church was St. Stephen on the site of the modern day state archives south of the cathedral, also outside the town. For some time it was the predecessor of the cathedral and the burial site of the bishops. A fourth church was St. Maximus of which the site is not known.

With the establishment of a bishopric and the construction of a bishops castle Speyer became a centre of worldly and spiritual power. Around 650 the Frankish king Sigebert III renewed the tithe from all royal estates in the district for the Speyer church under bishop Principus. The church was also freed of taxes to the county. In 664/666 Sigeberts son, Childeric II, granted ‘’immunity’ to the church of Speyer under bishop Dagobert I. This included a number of income sources and was confirmed to bishop Freido on 25 June 782 by Charlemagne during the Saxon wars.

The granting of privileges was to become an important means of kings and emperors to create loyal supports across the country against the local nobility. The increasing power of the bishops in turn created growing tensions with the ascending bourgeoisie and the county nobility and the emperors. The resulting feuds would shape the history of Speyer for almost six centuries.

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Urban development of Speyer

The Carolingians built an imperial palace in Speyer and Charlemagne came for several visits. In 838 Louis the Pious held court, starting a series of 50 imperial diets in Speyer.

Bishops as lords of the town

See also Bishopric of Speyer.

Lord of the town was the district count (Gaugraf) commissioned by the king. But power gradually shifted to the bishops because of various rights and privileges granted by the king. In Carolingian times Speyer was of no great importance. The Kings only spent a short time there, e. g. Charlemagne in August 774, Lothair I in 841 or Louis the German in 842, but the power of the church in Speyer continued to grow. Apart from the royal privileges, the economic basis for Speyer’s bishops were their possessions, substantial estates, customs and ferry levies as well as the prerogative of coinage received in the 10th century. 8 km around Speyer the bishop owned a complete circle of possessions.

According to scriptures, through the times, there were several cathedrals in Speyer. The first one was built by Dagobert I around 636 for the bishops of Speyer. In the end of the 8th century St. Stephan's was either renewed or totally reconstructed. For 782 there is mention of a cathedral with the traditional name “Church of St. Mary or St. Stephan”. In 846 bishop Gebhard (846–880) consecrated a second cathedral. For 858 there is mention of a “cathedral of the sacred virgin Mary, which stands in the town of Speyer”, “cathedral of sacred Maria, built in the town of Speyer”, or “the before mentioned sacred cathedral”. Other scriptures of 853/54 mention a “cathedral of Speyer”. Therefore the existence of a Carolingian cathedral in Speyer is assumed but remnants were never found.<ref name="Stadt Speyer 1982, p. 206">Geschichte der Stadt Speyer, Vol. 1, 1982, Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart, p. 206 – 209, ISBN 3-17-007522-5</ref>

When Louis the pious died, the empire was partitioned among his three sons. According to the Treaty of Verdun in 843 Speyer became part of East Francia under Louis the German. In the following years Speyer bishops participated in numerous synods and engaged in negotiations in Paris and Rome at the request of the emperor. In 891 bishop Gebhard I received an endowment from King Arnulf for the cathedral foundation. Arnulf died without an heir and kingship passed to the Franconian duke Conrad I. The first major conflict between bishop and count is known to have occurred during Conrad’s reign in 913. Einhard I of Speyer and other bishops supported Conrad I in a struggle with opposing dukes. District count Werner V, progenitor of the Salian dynasty tended to expand his territories at the expense of the church and had the bishop Einhard blinded on 12 March 913. The bishop never recovered and died in 918.

Conrad I was followed by the Saxons Henry I in 919 and Otto I.

On 13 March 949, the Salian Conrad the Red, duke of Lorraine and count of Speyergau, son of Werner V and son-in-law of Otto I, granted bishop Reginald I rights and possessions which included important sources of income for the church, e. g. the right to mint coins, half of the toll, market fees, the “salt penny,” wine tax and other taxes. This decisively strengthened the position of the bishop because already three years before he had received jurisdictional and commercial rights and other taxes. Speyer effectively came under the reign of the bishop. It is also considered a landmark in the urban development of Speyer that the content of the charter of 949 was made public to the clergy as well as to the townspeople.<ref name="hs-sm">Happ, Sabine: Stadtwerdung am Mittelrhein, Böhlau Verlag Köln Weimar Wien, 2002, ISBN 3-412-12901-1</ref> The bishops were also in control of the Speyer Rhine ferries.

Yet, the increase of power had not ended. Otto I also counted on the support of the bishops, expanding a kind of imperial church system. On his campaign in Italy in 969, where he was accompanied by the Speyer bishop Ottgar, he granted ecclesiastical immunity to the church and bishops of Speyer including an own jurisdiction, total control of the mint and tolls. This privilege was confirmed by Henry IV in 1061 placing Speyer firmly under the protection, control and rule of the bishops. Until the 12th century Speyer was one of the most important mints in the empire.

Bishop Balderich (970–986), a renowned academic of his time, founded the Speyer cathedral school after the example of the Abbey of Saint Gall, which was to become one of the most important school in the empire. Bishops and students from this school more and more often took on the roles of an imperial stewards and this reflected the political importance of Speyer, not the modern meaning of the term.<ref name="Stadt Speyer 1982, p. 206"/>

The first wall of the yet small town is confirmed in 969 which was built at the instigation of the bishop. The town covered the area of around 8 – 14 ha between the cathedral and today's Dreifaltigkeitskirche and Webergasse. The suburbs, the nearby village of Altspeyer and the immediate vicinity of Speyer were also under the jurisdiction of the bishop. On the northeastern side a harbour area grew at the mouth of the Speyerbach with adjoining market areas. The economy was picking up, yet the urban development of the town in jumps and strides could not be foreseen. In a dedication to his teacher and predecessor, bishop Balderich (970–986), a pupil of the cathedral school (973–981) and later bishop of Speyer, the poet Walter of Speyer, called Speyer a “vaccina” (cow town). Ottonian Speyer was still largely an agricultural settlement. In 980 the bishop recruited 20 armed horsemen for Otto’s I campaign in Italy. Worms, e.g., recruited 40, and Mainz and Strasbourg even 100 each.

A cathedral school was established in 983.

At the funeral of Henry V, only 150 years later, the English monk Ordericus Vitalis wrote of Speyer as metropolis Germaniae (metropolis of Germany).

Speyer cathedral chapter

File:Heinrich III und Agnes Speyer.jpg
Codex Aureus (Speyer Gospel Book) (1043–1046), Heinry III. and Agnes kneeling before the Virgin Mary and the Speyer Cathedral in the background. This precious work was kept in the chapter library and today is in Madrid.

The Speyer cathedral chapter (Domkapitel, capitulum) was an ecclesiastical corporate body of approximately 30 canons, or clergy ordained for religious duties in the church. The chapter mainly assisted the bishop to govern the diocese, but formed a body distinct from him, with the authority to make its own statutes and regulations. The chapter elected the bishop and ruled the diocese during episcopal vacancies. The chapter eventually became wholly aristocratic in composition and in 1484 the pope decreed that only members of the nobility or aristocracy were to be admitted. The nobility of the city strove to have a family member in the chapter.

The chapter owned property and appointed officials to administer its possessions which were not under the control of the bishop. Henry III, who made several donations of property to the chapter in 1041 and 1046, even specified with the first of these that the bishop was to be excluded from its administration. Each capitular canon (Domkapitular or Domherr, canonicus capitularis) had the right to a prebend (Pfründe) or income and was required to reside near the cathedral church, unless granted leave. Each canon had to perform his duties personally, including choir service. Head of the chapter was originally the cathedral provost (Dompropst, praepositus), the highest dignitary after the bishop. From the end of the 12th century, leadership passed to the cathedral dean (Domdekan, decanus). The chapter was an important factor in the city's economy because it operated various administrative departments (cellar, barn, granary, portal, factory, ornaments, bakery), staffed by cathedral vicars (Domvikare, vicarii) who carried out their duties under the supervision of a capitular canon. There were approximately seventy vicars associated with the Speyer cathedral.

Library of the cathedral chapter

Three libraries were associated with the cathedral: the cathedral library, comprising liturgical books and books forming part of the cathedral treasure, such as the codex aureus, the palace library of the bishop (as of c. 1381 in Udenheim) and the library of the cathedral chapter, the largest of the three. In August 1552 Speyer was occupied by troops of the margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach. They plundered the cathedral and its associated buildings. The margrave had in mind to hand the books to his stepfather and had them brought to the nearby house of the Deutsche Orden. But the books were saved for the library owing the hurried departure of the troops on 24 August. All the known and extant copies of the Notitia Dignitatum, a unique document of the Roman imperial chanceries and one of the very few surviving documents of Roman government, are derived, either directly or indirectly, from the Codex Spirensis which is known to have existed in the library of the cathedral chapter. The codex contained a collection of documents (of which the Notitia was the last and largest document, occupying 164 pages) that brought together several previous documents of which one was of the 9th century. It was lost before 1672.

Imperial Diet and Reformation

In the first half of the 16th century Speyer once again became the focus of German history. For one, this is expressed in the fact that of thirty Imperial Diets held in this century, five took place in Speyer. Since Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses and the Diet of Worms of 1521 creed, reformation and uprisings had become the dominating issues of domestic politics. With this background the Imperial Diet of 1526 convened in Speyer. As always for the host town of a Diet, accommodation and provision for several thousand guests, the elector of Saxony alone travelling with 700 guests and 400 horses, were a challenge for the council, inhabitants and landlords. On the other hand, such events provided a town with considerable earnings.

After the grand opening on 25 June 1526 with processions of princes and envoys to the cathedral and the ceremonious high mass, and after two months of much deliberation, the Diet decided upon matters which happened to be of great importance for Speyer: the Imperial Regiment and the Imperial Chamber Court (Reichskammergericht), next to the Emperor the highest ranking representatives of state power, were both moved to Speyer the following year.

Yet the pressing questions of religion remained unsolved. The ambiguous resolution of the Diet that each estate should behave as it saw fit before God and the Emperor, favoured the expansion of Luther’s doctrines.

In March 1529 the Imperial Diet again met in Speyer (see Diet of Speyer 1529). The argument about religion, conscience and obedience divided the Imperial estates. On 19 April a majority decided to rescind the Imperial resolution of the last Diet in 1526 and to reconfirm the Edict of Worms, passed by the Diet of Worms in 1521, imposing the Imperial ban on Luther and his followers.

This resolution outraged the participating evangelical princes and Imperial towns. On 20 April, they drew up a letter of protest which was rejected by the Diet but then delivered to Emperor Charles V. This Protestation at Speyer sealed the schism of the Christian church and is considered the birth of Protestantism. From this time on the adherents of the reformation movement were called Protestants.

Destruction and decline

Speyer 1637, depicted by Merian

The Imperial town of Speyer chose to side with the Protestants and the 17th century was distinguished by its alliance with the Protestant Union and by the influence of the Catholic League personified by the Bishop of Speyer. In the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War Speyer, walled but hardly able to defend itself, found itself in the range of the often embattled fortresses of Frankenthal, Friedrichsburg, Philippsburg and Landau. Thus the town took on the roles of refuge, military hospital, supply post and troop camp. In addition, it was occupied by Spanish, Swedish, French and Imperial troops in quick succession and it was only in 1650 that the last armies left the town, leaving behind debts, hunger and disease.

Urbain de Maillé-Brézé fought in many battles. He participated in the Siege of La Rochelle (1627–1628). In 1635 he conquered Heidelberg and Speyer, together with Jacques-Nompar de Caumont, duc de la Force, at the head of the Army of Germany.

Again in 1688 troops stood at the gates of Speyer, this time from France. In the “War of the Palatine Succession” (1688–1697) – also called the “War of the Grand Alliance”, the “Nine Years’ War” or occasionally, the “War of the League of Augsburg” the town experienced the greatest and most far-reaching destruction in its history by General Melac: the expulsion of its inhabitants and the whole town put to the torch, including the cathedral with the tombs of the ancient emperors, churches, monasteries, and guild halls. Over 700 houses were destroyed and many towers and gates of the town fortifications were blown up. thumb The Baroque buildings of Trinity Church, the town hall and the town store (Old Mint) were erected in the decades of reconstruction which started in 1698.

After the town had been occupied by Austrian troops, it was taken by French revolutionary forces in 1792 and remained under French suzerainty as a district capital in the department of Mont Tonnèrre (Donnersberg).

With the Napoleonic occupation of large parts of Germany, the achievements of the French Revolution were also granted to the citizens of Speyer. Also, in 1804, the Napoleonic code (Code Civil) was introduced in all German areas to the west of the Rhine annexed by France. Even after the fall of Napoleon and the return of the Palatinate to Germany, the code stayed in place until the introduction of the unified German Civil Code (BGB) in 1900.

The Wars of Liberation against Napoleon and the restructuring of the European states at the Vienna Congress in 1815 again changed the structures of power in the Palatinate and Speyer. Once again it stood in the limelight of “big politics” when Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Emperor Francis I of Austria, and King Frederick William III of Prussia met in Speyer at the allied headquarters on 27 June 1815.

Citizens and civil servants

Old Speyer City Gate "Altpörtel"

In 1816 Speyer became capital of the district of the Palatinate. The area had been given to the Kingdom of Bavaria after the Congress of Vienna as compensation for Salzburg, which had been ceded to Austria. It was only on 1 January 1838 that the name “Pfalz” (Palatinate) was officially introduced for the area.

This growth in administrative importance brought numerous authorities and thus people into the plagued town which had suffered from depopulation during the occupations. In the first half of the 19th century the population doubled. A number of construction projects brought business and prosperity and the first residential quarters appeared outside the ancient city walls. The Rhine harbour was extended by 1837 and by 1847 Speyer had been linked to the railway network. There were social and charitable institutions such as work and educational institutions for girls, a charity club for the Jewish community and a hospital. Regarding education, the town had numerous educational institutions making it the best-structured school system in the Palatinate.

Apart from the modern legal system introduced by the French, the Palatinate population had become accustomed to more liberal attitudes than their German compatriots to the east of the Rhine. This continuously led to tensions with the Bavarian king and government. The initially liberal-minded king failed in reinstating press censorship, which he himself had abolished just shortly before. Thus, the liberal and democratic trends of the ‘Vormärz’ (March, 1848) turned Speyer into a regional centre for newspapers and the press with such renowned publications as the “Speyerer Anzeigeblatt” and the “Neue Speyerer Zeitung”. Renowned sons of the town at this time included the artist Anselm Feuerbach (*1829), the poet Martin Greif (*1839) and the artist Hans Purrmann (*1880).

After the Revolution of 1848 had been crushed many of its proponents fled the country and many others preferred to emigrate. With the administration dependent on Bavaria the Restoration and petty bourgeois mentality had quite a level playing field in Speyer. The liberal Speyer papers soon perished. In Munich, the Palatinate was considered to be defiant and the reins were held very tightly, to be somewhat loosened only towards the end of the century.

The 20th century

File:Rheinbruecke Speyer A61.jpg
Motorway A61 crossing the Rhine near Speyer

The Wilhelmian era provided Speyer with numerous stately new buildings: In commemoration of the Protestation of 1529 the neogothic Gedächtniskirche, or Memorial Church (height: 105 m), begun in 1890, was consecrated in 1904, with financial support from Emperor William II and from Protestants all around the world. The event gave cause for considerable criticism in a town characterized by a Catholic cathedral and bishop. In reaction, only a few metres away, the Catholics built the twin-tower Saint-Joseph’s Church (height 92,5m). Together with the 4 towers of the cathedral and the Altportal these two churches dominate the skyline of Speyer.

Between 1906 and 1910 the Historical Museum of the Palatinate was erected. With the neighbouring building of the district archives, the Protestant Consistory of the Palatine Church, the Humanistic Grammar School and the Bishop’s seat built around the same time, the cathedral square received a character which it has kept to this very day. Another building of the Wilhelmian period worth mentioning is the train station. With the end of World War I and the occupation of the west bank of the Rhine in 1918, French troops once again occupied the town.

As early as the end of 1918 the French occupational forces under General Gérard supported a movement under the leadership of Ludwig Haass which called itself “Free Palatinate.” This was one of several separatist movements in the French occupation zone on the left bank of the Rhine. In early summer of 1919 the Free Palatinate attempted a putsch in Speyer for an autonomous Palatinate. This attempt failed miserably, especially because of the resistance of the deputy chief administrator, Friedrich von Chlingensperg (1860–1944), who could count on the support of the majority of the Palatinate parties. After a few hours the poorly planned coup was aborted.

However, the call for a free Palatinate was not yet dead and Speyer was to remain the focus of such endeavours. Only a few years later, voices were again raised to separate the Palatinate from Bavaria. Among these was former prime minister Johannes Hoffman, who unsuccessfully tried to separate the Palatinate from Bavaria and form an independent state within the Empire on 24 October 1923, while Munich was being rocked by civil-war-like conditions.

At the same time more radical separatist groups were forming with the goodwill of the French, who still occupied the left bank of the Rhine. In a coup in Aachen on 21 October 1923 under Hans Adam Dorten, the “Rhenisch Republic” was proclaimed in the north of the occupation zone. Starting in November 1923, separatists occupied several towns in the Palatinate and also raised the green, white and red flag. On 10 November the rebels stormed the government building in Speyer.

The leader of the separatists was Franz Josef Heinz (1884–1924) from Orbis near Kirchheimbolanden, member of the district council for the Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP). He proclaimed the “Autonomous Republic of the Palatinate.” While the new government was getting itself established, resistance was already being organised on the opposite side of the Rhine. On the evening of 9 January 1924, 20 men who had crossed over the frozen Rhine stormed the “Wittelsbach Court,” a hotel-restaurant in Speyer, where Heinz was dining and shot him, an aide and an uninvolved third person. A monument still exists in the Speyer cemetery to two of the paid murderers who died in a shoot-out after the assassination. In 1929 and still under French occupation the town celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Protestation. The following year Speyer celebrated the 900th anniversary of the founding of the cathedral under Bavarian suzerainty.

Postal stamp commemorating 2000 years of Speyer

The seizure of power and the "Gleichschaltung" (forcing into line) by the Nazis in 1933 also took place in Speyer. The Speyer Synagogue was burnt down 9 November 1938 (on the night known as Kristallnacht) and totally removed soon after. With the beginning of the “Thousand Year Reich”, once again the Jewish population was expelled from Speyer and most of them were killed. Speyer escaped the great bombing raids of World War II; one of the few bombs falling on the town destroyed the train station. Speyer was taken by the American army, but not before the bridge over the Rhine was blown up by the retreating German army. Until the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, Speyer was in the French occupation zone and once again became a garrison town of the French. General Charles de Gaulle took a military parade in front of the cathedral. With its establishment on 30 August 1946, Speyer became part of the new federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz).

In the economic upswing of the 1950s and 1960s Speyer expanded considerably: new residential and commercial areas were developed, schools, administrative buildings and hospitals were built. After much debate, the main street (Maximilianstrasse) along with some smaller side streets was turned into a pedestrian zone.

For the 2000-year celebration in 1990 the main street, the cathedral district and some parts of the medieval town were elaborately renovated with a new design and Speyer has developed into one of Germany’s important tourist centres.


  • In 10 BC, the first Roman military camp is established (situated between the town hall and the episcopal palace).
  • In 150, the town appears as Noviomagus on the world map of the Greek Ptolemaios
  • In 346, a bishop for the town is mentioned for the first time.
  • In 1030, emperor Conrad II starts the construction of Speyer Cathedral, today one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
  • In 1076, emperor Henry IV embarks from Speyer, his favourite town, for Canossa.
  • In 1084, establishment of the first Jewish community in Speyer
  • In 1294, the bishop lost most of his previous rights, and from now on Speyer is a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • In 1349, the Jewish community of Speyer is totally wiped out
  • Between 1527 and 1689, Speyer is the seat of the Imperial Chamber Court.
  • In 1526, at the First Diet of Speyer, interim toleration of Lutheran teaching and worship is decreed.
  • In 1529, at the Second Diet of Speyer, the Lutheran states of the empire protested against the anti-Reformation resolutions (19 April 1529 Protestation at Speyer, hence the term Protestantism.)
  • In 1635, Marshall of France Urbain de Maillé-Bréze conquered Heidelberg also Speyer, together with Jacques-Nompar de Caumont, duc de la Force, at the head of the Army of Germany.
  • In 1689, the city was heavily damaged by French troops.
  • Between 1792 and 1814, Speyer was under French jurisdiction.
  • In 1816, Speyer became the seat of administration of the Palatinate and of the government of the Rhine District of Bavaria (later called the Bavarian Palatinate), and remained so until the end of World War II.
  • Between 1883 and 1904, the Memorial Church is built in remembrance of the Protestation of 1529.
  • In 1947, the State Academy of Administrative Science was founded (later renamed German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer).
  • In 1990, Speyer celebrated its 2000th anniversary.

Main sights

  • Altpörtel – Old town gate
  • Gedächtniskirche (Speyer) – Memorial Church
  • Jewish courtyard – Remnants of medieval Synagogue and intact mikve
  • Technikmuseum Speyer – Transportation Museum
  • Historical Museum of the Palatinate

Twin towns – sister cities

Template:See also Speyer is twinned with:

Notable natives

  • Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682), German physician, alchemist, precursor of chemistry, scholar and adventurer
  • Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880)
  • Carl Jakob Adolf Christian Gerhardt (1832–1902)
  • George Waldbott (1898–1982)
  • Karl Haas (1913–2005), German-American music educator
  • Henry Villard (1835–1900)
  • Hans Purrmann (1880–1966)
  • Alfred Cahn (born 1922)
  • Gabriel Kney (born 1929)
  • Christoph Bechmann (born 1971)
  • Elias Harris (born 1989), German international basketball player
  • Edgar Stern (born 1926), Author of The Peppermint Train, A Journey Through a Jewish-German Childhood

See also

  • Technikmuseum Speyer
  • German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer
  • Speyer line



External links

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Template:Germany districts rhineland-palatinate Template:Germany tourism Heidelberg area