Like no other castle complex in Germany, Veste Coburg is a visible record to the evolution of military technology in castle construction from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. It provides a symbolic document to the important function of the castle in political, and particularly religious, clashes. As a refuge for Luther during the Augsburg Diet, it stands as a symbol of sovereign protection during an early stage of the Reformation. The extraordinary importance of Veste Coburg as a place of remembrance for the Reformation is manifested in the Luther Rooms that have been preserved, and in the historicising new construction of the Luther Chapel in the early 20th century.
Veste Coburg is a concentric castle built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It stands on an offshoot of the southern Thuringian Forest in Franconia. Its development and form, however, are significantly influenced by its ownership, from 1353-1918, by the Electorate of Saxony, the heartland of the Reformation. Dominating the surrounding landscape and visible at a great distance from all sides, its silhouette (‘Franconian Crown’) is created by the high roof of the late mediaeval armoury, the three towers and the buildings grouped along the curtain wall. The fortifications with outer defence wall and their striking, semi-circular shell towers were built around 1430, during the time of the Hussite Wars. They offer a visible sign of the impact that religious conflicts down through history have had on the architectural form of the castle.
The ‘Luther Chapel’ built at the site of the former castle chapel, with its neo-Gothic architectural decoration inside, is another testimony to the vibrant culture of remembrance of Luther’s stay at Veste Coburg as an outstanding place of the Reformation period.
Found in documentary evidence dating back to the 11th century, Veste Coburg, in 1353 the complex changed hands to the House of Wettin. As a result of the division of the family into two branches in 1485, it gained in importance through regular use by the court of Saxon electors.
Martin Luther resided at the fortress from April to October 1530. The reformer was on his way to the Diet of Augsburg in the company of Elector John the Steadfast. But he was left behind in the fortress, the nearest place in the Electorate of Saxony to the imperial city of Augsburg, because the onward journey would have placed the reformer – now excommunicated and accused of outlawry – in considerable danger. The fortress provided the reformer with protection and a privileged lodgings at the same time.
From the 17th century, the castle has developed into a central place of Luther commemoration. Duke Ernest I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1784-1844) in particular sought to commemorate the fortress’ role in the promotion of Martin Luther and the Reformation, and to make the fortress a museum of representation and remembrance while combining the building’s historic collections and making them publicly available. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the castle was transformed, each time in a manner that reflected the spirit of the times. After the end of the monarchy in Germany, Veste Coburg became the property of the Free State of Bavaria. Transformations inside some of buildings of the western castle courtyard in the interest of optimum use by the Art Collections of Veste Coburg followed in the 1960s.
Veste Coburg offers an impressive architectural testimony to the architectural, political, social and spiritual environment in which the Reformation developed: Here, the castle’s central role in political and denominational conflicts becomes structurally tangible in a unique way, for instance in the installation of the High Bastion, in the aim of increasing the defensive capability of the castle. The esteem for the castle in later years, as an authentic place in the life and work of Martin Luther, led to the preservation of the ‘Lutherstube’ – a late mediaeval wooden parlour with a residential function and thus an important architectural witness to this era – and to the installation of the Luther Chapel. The extensive historicist reshaping of the castle took place against this backdrop as well.
Veste Coburg recalls a phase of special importance to the history of the Reformation. The reading of the Augsburg Confession before Emperor Charles V in 1530 was an attempt to arrive at an understanding in the effort to reform the Church; the text itself still provides the most important confessional basis of Lutheranism. The rejection by the Emperor introduced a decisive turn in the history of the Reformation. The ideas Luther laid out in writing during his sojourn at the fortress are still considered milestones in the development of the Protestant denomination. Even in the 16th century, soon after Luther’s death, the first visitors began to arrive at the fortress, asking to see Luther’s living quarters. Over the centuries, and to a greater extent in the 19th century, the Coburg ducal house cultivated the remembrance of Luther’s connection with the fortress; testimony to this includes the installation of a ‘reformer’s room’ and the ongoing efforts to establish a Luther monument.