Duke Julius

My drawing of a portrait of Duke Julius aged 60

Braunschweig and the Dukes

When you learn about the history of medieval Braunschweig, you quickly become aware of a recurring theme, namely the antagonistic relationship between the citizens of the town and the dukes who ruled over the local region. Originally, these latter (beginning with our old friend Henry the Lion) had lived in Braunschweig itself, but as the city grew ever more wealthy, so it became less and less inclined to have overbearing dukes meddling in its affairs.

In the 15th century, fed up with being disrespected by the Braunschweigers who were supposed to be their subjects, they upped sticks and moved to a smaller, less important town within their duchy called Wolfenbüttel (which, for those who don’t know it, is a delightfully sleepy little half-timbered gem, well worth a visit if you are ever in the area). Reading the history of this period, I was struck by just how independent Braunschweig became – I think I had vaguely assumed that in “times of yore”, the monarchs were always at the top of the tree, with a fixed hierarchy of subjects beneath them, from courtiers down to grovelling peasants. But this was far from being the case, and not only in Braunschweig. There were many towns across the Holy Roman Empire* that were essentially self-governing, answerable only to the Emperor himself. (Hamburg and Bremen are the only two of these cities that have preserved their political autonomy to the present day.) Although Braunschweig did not officially number among these so-called Free Imperial Cities, it strove for a comparable level of autonomy, and indeed achieved this to some extent. From the 13th century, there were separate councils in each of the town’s five districts, as well as a combined council which represented the interests of Braunschweig to the outside world. Councillors were in charge of matters such as taxation, military defence, and forming alliances with other regions. It wasn’t exactly democratic, since the positions of power were dominated by a small number of elite families; still, the system of governance at this time was very different to the absolutism that, as we shall see, would come to define a later era of the town’s history.

The dukes didn’t help themselves by being perpetually broke (too much military campaigning and high living), forcing them to hand over many of their privileges to the city council in exchange for desperately needed cash, thus putting the citizens in an ever stronger position. However, this didn’t change the dukes’ conviction that Braunschweig rightfully belonged to them, which led to bad-tempered negotiations every time a new duke came to power, and meant that the Braunschweigers suffered the not inconsiderable inconvenience of being put under siege at frequent intervals. But more of that in the next post on Gesche Meiburg.

Duke Julius, 1528 – 1589

So, we’ve established that there was generally no love lost between the dukes and the Braunschweigers. But what of our Duke Julius? Despite his decidedly gruff and humourless appearance, it turns out that he was rather a great guy, standing out from his mediocre/spendthrift/warmongering ancestors on account of his prudent governance and progressive policies. Here in my lecture notes, I have scribbled down the following words to describe his character:  Pflichtbewusstsein (having a sense of duty),  Frommigkeit (piety) and Ordnungsliebe,  literally meaning a love of order – what a wonderfully German word that is.

He didn’t have a straightforward path to power. As a third son, he was never expected to succeed his father Henry the Younger as Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. But then his two older brothers were killed in battle, and suddenly he was heir to the throne, a prospect which appalled his father – Julius was lacking in the traditional masculine qualities considered fitting for a prince and in his father’s eyes, he was not leadership material. He had a physical disability and apparently preferred reading French chivalric romances to going out hunting, which sounds fair enough to me. To make matters worse, he had converted to Protestantism, much to the dismay of his staunch Catholic father. But the Duke’s schemes to produce an alternative heir came to nothing, and so it was indeed his unloved son Julius who succeeded him on the throne following his death.

When he came to power, he had his work cut out. He took over a dukedom that was heavily indebted and where the Catholic faith still prevailed. So his to-do list at the start of his reign might have read:

1) Introduce Reformation
2) Pay off Dad’s debts
3) Sort out “Braunschweig question”

He wasted no time in carrying out the first of these tasks, and was also very successful in his attempt to achieve the second aim. A central component of his economic policy lay in the development of mining in the Harz mountains (these days a popular region for hiking in the otherwise mostly flat Northern half of Germany, easily reachable on the train from Braunschweig), and he built roads and canals for transporting the mined goods. But crucially, he recognised that the key to creating economic growth lay in fostering learning. To this end, he founded what would become one of the most important universities in the German-speaking world, the University of Helmstedt, where protestant clergy and future officials could be trained. Students could live on-site, which was a modern idea for the time (what did a 16th century halls of residence look like, I have to wonder? Did students decorate their walls with improvised collages featuring portraits of Martin Luther and perhaps a few saucy broadside ballads?). Duke Julius also founded a number of schools for both boys and girls. As such, he is an early example of a ruler who recognised that education was all important when it came to securing a successful future for his land. And the results of his policies were striking – by the end of his reign, not only had all debts been repaid, but there were 700,000 Thaler (silver coins) in the state coffers.

University of Helmstedt, copper engraving from 1654

Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to endear him to the good folk of Braunschweig – the long-running disagreements continued, although negotiations did bring about a compromise, which included such specific provisions as the Duke being permitted to enter the town on horseback, but not at night and not accompanied by an unduly large retinue. But the aggro continued – for example, when the town built new city gates, it adorned them with its own lion emblem rather than the ducal coat of arms. Julius expressed his annoyance at this by imposing road tolls and high customs duties, leading the citizens to declare that they would rather have the Turks in town than a Duke of Braunschweig.

To return to the portrait, it is interesting to note that with his plain, dark-coloured attire, Julius looks more like a merchant or businessman than a Renaissance ruler in the traditional mould. The image tells us he is more interested in sensible governance than militarism or the glitzy trappings of power. However, I am intrigued by the fact that in 1581, Julius purchased an Italian palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice – a gorgeous building still standing today, apparently now home to a museum on Richard Wagner, who died there many centuries later. I have a wonderfully incongruous image in my head of this stern, sober German swathed in his dark robes, sitting on an ornate Renaissance balcony in the Italian sunshine and gazing out at the Grand Canal. Perhaps he decided that the purchase had been a frivolous mistake, because he sold the palace only two years later.

Ca'Vendramin Calergi on the Grand Canal in Venice, once owned by Duke Julius

* This was the empire of German-speaking states roughly covering what is now modern Germany and Austria. The name is quite misleading as it had little to do with Romans or even Italy, but I haven’t got time to explain that here – maybe I will cover it in a future post. Just go with me on it for now.

Braunschweigisches Biographisches Lexicon, H.-R. Jarck, 2006
Braunschweig: Kleine Stadtgeschichte, Dieter Diestelmann,
Braunschweiger Stadtgeschichte, Richard Moderhack, 1996
Germania, Simon Winder, 2010
Lecture “Herzog Julius geht stiften” given by Professor Gerd Biegel at the Institut für Braunschweigische Regionalgeschichte


  1. It's fascinating that Julius bought that Italian palazzo. And I love the word Ordnungsliebe!


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