In 1245, Burg Rheinfels was built by Diether V. von Katzenelnbogen along the west bank of the River Rhine near the village of St. Goar and served as the primary residence for counts of Katzenelnbogen. It was only a short time before the castle was unsuccessfully besieged between 1255 and 1256 by an army of the Rhenish League of Cities in response to price increases in Rhine tolls. The siege lasted more than two years.

Burg Rheinfels

The Gerstenberg Chronicle stated:

"In the Yeare of Oure Lorde 1255, the Poweres of the Rheynsh cyties with their Masters and other friendes, and possessed of a gode General set off and destroyed the Robber Barons' Castles which had caused so much trouble in the Holy Roman Empire and rose up against us. In this, they desired to do away with the unjust levie of tolls on the Ryne wherein more than LX cyties were Partie to an Alliance. In the same Yeare, they rose up against the Graf von Katzenelnbogen, his castle, called Rynefels, and remained encamped there a whole Yeare and XIV Monthes, but neither could take or destroye the castle."

In the early 15th century, the round keep was raised and extended as a butter barrel tower to 54 meters, the highest known keep of a German castle.

In 1479, the male line of the House of Katzenelnbogen ended, and Burg Rheinfels passed to Heinrich III of Hesse, husband to daughter of Phillip von Katzenelnbogen. Between 1497 and 1527, Wilhelm III von Hessen-Kassel fortified the structure by adding outer defenses beyond the deep ditch in the part of the castle known as Biebernheimer Felde. Approximately 40 years later, between 1567 and 1583, Phillip II von Hessen added a royal residence.

Slightly more than a century later, in December of 1692, the castle was unsuccessfully besieged again by a French Army comprised of 28,000 soldiers. However, the French returned about a century later, on November 1st, 1794, and seized the castle without resistance. The French briefly occupied Burg Rheinfels before destroying the outer defenses in 1796 and its keep in 1797.

In 1812, remains of the castle were auctioned as French state property and purchased by Peter Glas, a businessman from St. Goar who sold shiploads of stone in addition to doors and window frames that would be used in the construction of Ehrenbreitstein Fortress near Koblenz.

The ruins were purchased roughly three decades later, in 1843, by Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. In 1925, the House of Hohenzollern bequeathed the castle to the town of St. Goar, agreeing they would preserve the ruins for posterity.

Castle Highlights

Burg Rheinfels and its massive stone walls represent the largest castle along Middle Rhine Valley between Mainz and Koblenz despite its ruinous state. As a result of its vastness, the best views of the castle may be attained from the River Rhine or the bank opposite the river. The interior of the castle may be visited via two different self-guided tours. With its very tall ramparts and little remnants of interior buildings, it can be challenging to distinguish parts from one another. I highly recommend picking up a map and guide upon entering the castle to avoid getting lost. The entrance gate and Clock Tower, with its giant wooden doors viewed at the beginning of the tour, constitute the castle's single ingress and egress point.

The chapel and adjacent vestry remain intact after over seven centuries and currently serve as a local history museum. The Great Cellar, constructed during the 15th century, may also be visited. Its 12-foot thick walls were used to store wine and provisions. Burg Rheinfels can be explored in half a day. While Burgs Katz and Maus are located directly across the River Rhine from Burg Rheinfels, neither is open to the public. The closest castle on the west bank of the Rhine open to visitors is Burg Schonburg, located down the B9 towards Bingen.