Ellwangen Abbey was the earliest Benedictine monastery established in the Duchy of Swabia. According to the monastery chronicles the abbey was established around 764 by Herulph and his brother Ariolf, both documented as Chorbishops of Langres. There is however some evidence that the foundation dates back to 732. The first monks may came from the Abbey of St. Benignus at Dijon.

Ellwangen in its early days was home to Abbots Lindolf and Erfinan, who were respected authors. Abbot Gebhard wrote part of the Life of Saint Ulrich there, but died before completing it. Abbot Ermanrich (c. 845) wrote a biography of Saint Solus. The monk Adalbero was made Bishop of Augsburg in 894. Abbot Liutbert became Archbishop of Mainz, as also did Abbot Hatto (891). Saint Gebhard, Abbot of Ellwangen, became Bishop of Augsburg in 995. Abbot Milo about the middle of the 10th century was one of the visitors appointed for the visitation of the Abbey of St. Gall.

While Emperor Louis the Pious had already placed the monastery under his royal protection in 814, Ellwangen became an Imperial abbey, with the privilege of Imperial immediacy probably granted in 1011 by King Henry II and again confirmed by Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg in 1347.

At the same time however, the conventual life declined and the Benedictine occupation of Ellwangen came to an end in the first half of the 15th century. On 14 January 1460 with the consent of Pope Pius II it was converted into a college of secular Canons Regular under the rule of a provost.

The provost of Ellwangen achieved the status of a Prince of the Empire, who not only ruled over an immediate territory but also held a direct vote in the Reichstag assembly. As the head of a secular college of Augustinian canons, he was the only provost of princely rank in the whole Empire, beside the Provost of Berchtesgaden.

In the late 16th and early 17th century, the Ellwangen territory became one of the main areas of witch-hunting in Germany. In reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the provostry joined the Catholic League in 1609; it was occupied by Swedish troops during the Thirty Years' War in 1632, but again vacated after the 1634 Battle of Nördlingen.

Most of the ecclesiastical buildings still exist, though they are no longer used for religious purposes. In the secularisation of 1802 the abbey was dissolved and its assets taken over by the Duchy of Württemberg. The present-day Late Romanesque St. Vitus Basilica was consecrated in 1233, after a 12th-century preceding building had been devastated by a blaze. Today it serves as the parish church of Ellwangen. A cloister was added in 1467 and in the 17th century the interior was largely refurbished in a Baroque style. From 1737 onwards it was again decorated with further Rococo supplements, among them works by Carlo Carlone. In 1964 the church was elevated to the status of a Basilica minor by Pope Paul VI.

Ellwangen Castle from 1460 on served as the residence of the Prince-provosts, it was rebuilt in a Baroque style about 1726. From 1802 a property of the House of Württemberg it was for a short time the exile of Princess Catharina and her husband Jérôme Bonaparte in 1815/16. The castle is today administrated by the State of Baden-Württemberg, it hosts a museum and a youth hostel.

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