The Restoration of the Imperial graves in Speyer

Burial place of several Holy Roman Emperors

The small German city of Speyer, on the western bank of the Rhine, has a beautiful Roman cathedral. It dates from 1061 and is 147 metres long and 60 metres wide. Underneath the choir there is a crypt, where some of the most famous Holy Roman emperors and kings lie buried, for instance Henry IV (d. 1106) who is known for his quarrels with pope Gregory VII, and Rudolf I (d. 1291), the first Habsburg ruler of the empire. This crypt isn't as old as the cathedral itself, in fact it was built in 1902.

In 1688 the French king Louis XIV laid claim to the Palatinate of the Rhine. The last count palatine had died without an heir and his sister was maried to Louis' brother, the duke of Orleans. But the count had distant relatives and they also pressed their claim. It wasn't long before a war broke out. The French army invaded the Palatinate, spreading destruction through the land. They blew up most of the medieval castles along the Rhine, leaving us with many picturesque ruins, and burned cities like Mannheim and Heidelberg. Speyer didn't escape their attention. On 31 May 1689, French troops broken open the graves of the emperors in the cathedral's choir. They stole what they could and scattered the bones. After that, they set fire to the building.

The cathedral was restored between 1772 and 1784, and the floor of the choir was simply closed, without marking the location of the graves. In 1792 the imperial troops, which had attacked France to crush the French Revolution, were driven back to Germany. The French occupied the west bank of the Rhine, including Speyer. Again, they ransacked the cathedral, which they turned into a warehouse. They withdrew in 1794 and on 19 May 1822 the cathedral was reconsacrated.

In 1898, professor J. Praun from Speyer wrote an article for an historical magazine about the imperial graves in Speyer. He deplored that after all those years, no effort had been made to locate the graves and give the emperors a proper burial. This article came to the attention of emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, who contacted prince-regent Luitpold of Bavaria (Speyer lay in Bavaria in those days). Luitpold conferred with the bishop of Speyer, who agreed to the excavations, and on 27 July 1900 a commission was formed which would lead the search. One of the members was professor Praun. On 16 August 1900 they started digging. At a depth of 58 centimetres they found a large stone plate and the next day they found the coffin of king Philip of Swabia (d. 1208) underneath. To their great joy, it had not been touched by the graverobbers. On 18 August they discovered a sarcophagus, made of red sandstone. It was cracked and contained the skeleton of a large man, as well as some drilling tools left by the French in 1689, who had probably taken the man's skull, which was missing. It was later determined that the skeleton belonged to emperor Henry V (d. 1125). By the end of August twelve graves had been found, some of which were intact. On 3 september 1900 the skeletons were temporarily buried in the choir.

It took some time before the parliament gave the money needed to build the new crypt, but on 28 April 1902 work could begin. The workers found several graves of bishops in the old crypt, though sadly no more graves of imperial family members, and finished work on 12 September 1902. On 19 december 1902 the skeletons were put into lead coffins and buried in the new crypt. Their shrouds and funeral crowns were placed in the Dioceseal Museum in Speyer.

J. Baumann, Die Offnung der Kaisergraber im Dom zu Speyer, Speyer, 1991

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