It is not hard to locate Forchtenstein Castle. All you have to do is travel to the tidy village of Mattersburg in the Austrian state of Burgenland. I found myself driving through the village, weaving my way through its cleanly swept, serpentine streets. Suddenly I looked up and amid the forested mountains, there was the castle soaring atop one of the foothills. It was set against a deep blue sky rising above the Rosaliengebirge Mountains. The stout, tiered defensive walls surrounding the castle were noticeable from several kilometers away, as were a couple of its towers shooting skyward. Forchtenstein was already impressive from a distance. I had read prior to my visit that the Ottoman Turks had never been able to take Forchtenstein. It was easy to see why.
A Fortress & A Repository – The Duality Of Forchenstein
Forchtenstein Castle stands 867 feet (264 meters) above Mattersburg and the Wulkatel valley. Overcoming such a stout defensive position was beyond the military prowess of the Turks. Driving up from Mattersburg to the castle showed me why. The climb requires a car to go into the lowest gears to get up the steep, winding grade. It is hard to imagine how a medieval army could scale such heights with their weaponry and equipment intact. There would have been no paved road for use by the Ottoman forces, only a rough track filled with impediments and booby trapped by the Austrians. And if the Turks had taken Forchtenstein what would they have really gained, but a smoldering, dilapidated ruin that would have to be rebuilt and refortified. It never came to that. The cost of conquest was greater than any benefit. This was going through my head as I pulled into the parking lot just outside the castle walls.
Walking across the drawbridge and through the main castle gate I was immediately impressed by the size, scale and structural integrity of the castle. It was fairly obvious that Forchtenstein’s impregnable position had kept it safe from conquest since the first fortress was constructed on the site in the mid-15th century. Formidable and ominous were the two words that came immediately to mind. Here was a hilltop castle par excellence. As I was soon to find out the last three hundred years at Forchtenstein had nothing to do with war and everything to do with one family. The House of Esterhazy dominated the castle’s history. In the process it also became a repository for preservation of the Esterhazy legacy. I witnessed this for myself while touring some – but certainly not all – of the castle’s impressive chambers.
A House For Esterhazy – The Family Wealth
The first owners of Castle Forchtenstein were the Counts of Mattersdorf, a name that sounds a bit frivolous, unlike the location they selected as home for a 50 meter high keep and an adjoining great tower, parts of which are still extant at the castle today. The Counts soon turned to calling themselves by the much more intimidating title, the Lords of Forchtenstein. Despite their seemingly invincible home, this line of Lords could not escape mortality, eventually dying out. Forchtenstein then fell into the hands of the Habsburgs who leased it out for a century and a half before Emperor Ferdinand II gave the partly ruined castle, along with the title of count, to Nikolaus Esterhazy in 1622. Soon thereafter, Esterhazy brought in Italian stonemasons to build up its defenses. Nikolaus’ son Paul continued the building process and began adding Baroque elements to its interior.
Following Paul’s death in the late 17th century and with the Ottoman Turks banished from the region forever, the castle became a princely residence used to store the many treasures acquired by the western line of the House of Esterhazy. To say that the family was wealthy would be an understatement. During several periods the Esterhazy’s wealth actually exceeded that of the Habsburgs, making them one of the richest noble families in Europe. At Forchtenstein I saw for myself the remains of their considerable wealth in two areas of the castle. The Esterhazy Gallery of Ancestors is a Baroque portrait gallery of the family that also includes other treasured items of interest. I also visited the Weapons Collection display, filled with room after room of martial accoutrements from the Baroque and Early Modern periods of European military affairs.
The Castle Of Fear – Faces & Phases Of Forchenstein
It is hard to describe just how many treasured works of art were on display in these exhibits. The amount and variety was astonishing. The exhibits included a family tree that was a stretch of ancestral imagination, a visual representation of the Esterhazy mania for genealogy. The connection with distant forebears was made explicit. Such notorious historical figures as Attila the Hun were portrayed in all their glory. Such a potential ancestor seemed patently absurd, but the intended meaning was clear, the Esterhazy’s had sprung from the roots of ancestral greatness. The most interesting painting for me had nothing to with an Esterhazy or their supposed forebears. Instead it was of all people, Vlad the Impaler. The Esterhazy’s had acquired the only painting ever to portray Vlad from head to toe. All other paintings showed only his upper body. The sheer novelty of the painting left me staring at it for quite some time. It also served to remind me of the sheer brutality of medieval life and warfare. That could easily be forgotten among all the Baroque treasures housed in Forchtenstein, but the castle’s notorious black tower (now white) at its center was a frightening reminder of what once went on at the castle.
Forchtenstein had once been named the “castle of fear.” This was because those imprisoned in the castle would often be subjected to acts of sadism in one of the castle’s multiple torture chambers. One of the worst tortures involved being starved of food and water while strung upside down over the aptly named “Pit of Oblivion.” This would occur until death ensued. The Forchtenstein that exists today seems far removed from this world. The elegance and history on display is a paean to the House of Esterhazy, but one would do well to remember that the family first gained its wealth and acclaim as well as Forchtenstein Castle from their martial exploits.