Soon after calling my historical blog “Dead Emperors’ Society” – which started life as a students’ joke between friends – I realised that it doesn’t live up to its name much. The subjects of my posts are sometimes emperors, and true, they are invariably dead, but so far there hasn’t been much necrophilia (except for one hazy picture of Wilhelm II’s tomb in this post).
Until now. Because this week, on the return trip of our family holiday around Switzerland, the French Alps and Alsace, we made a stop at Speyer (or Spires) on the Rhine. This lovely town was a capital of sorts of the Salian dynasty – the family that supplied the Holy Roman Emperors between 1027 and 1125. Four of them (and another four from later dynasties) lie buried in the crypt of Speyer Cathedral.
The cathedral, the largest Romanesque one in the world since Cluny was destroyed, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. Because of its situation in the Rhine valley, and because the town doesn’t have many high rise buildings (except for a technology museum with a Lufthansa Boeing 747 mounted on a stick) the cathedral can be seen from far afield. As it would have been in the Middle Ages, again, except for the Jumbo.
The cathedral is huge, and completely dominates the quaint town centre. French troops destroyed it to such an extent during the Napoleonic wars (as they did, in fact, destroy Cluny) that it was no longer considered fit for religious service. At one point in the early nineteenth century, plans were even made to tear it down. Then a series of restorations set in – some less fortunate, some more so, until the cathedral ended up with a western facade that is reimagination of what its romanesque front must have looked like when it was built.
The cathedral has thus been externally complete since the late 1960s – but of course such a work of art is never finished, and fortunately, neither are the funds available for arts and culture in Germany. In 2012, the cathedral opened the next stage in its revenge on Napoleon: the Emperor’s Hall in the Westwork. Joining that, as a great public attraction, a new spiral staircase was built inside the south tower. Reaching 60 meters high, from the viewing platform at the top you get a great view of the Rhine valley, the hills of the Rhineland-Palatinate, and Heidelberg and the foothills of the Black Forest in the distance. It almost competes with the view of the eight dead emperors’ tombs down in the crypt…