Imperial Abbey of Corvey

Corvey, Germany

The Imperial Abbey of Corvey or Princely Abbey of Corvey was a Benedictine abbey. The site is located along the Weser River on the outskirts of Höxter where the Carolingian Westwork and Civitas Corvey were erected between AD 822 and 885 in a largely preserved rural setting. The Westwork (monumental, west-facing entrance) is the only standing structure that dates back to the Carolingian era, while the original imperial abbey complex is preserved as archaeological remains that are only partially excavated. The Westwork of Corvey uniquely illustrates one of the most important Carolingian architectural expressions. It is a genuine creation of this period, and its architectural articulation and decoration clearly illustrate the role played within the Frankish empire by imperial monasteries in securing territorial control and administration, as well as the propagation of Christianity and the Carolingian cultural and political order throughout Europe.

The first abbot of Corvey was a cousin of Charlemagne, Adalard of Corbie. Ansgar, who later became the 'Apostle of Scandinavia', founded the abbey school in 823. The abbey library was established with works from Corbie, augmented by the output of the local scriptorium. In 826, Corvey became an independent abbey, dedicated to Saint Stephen. In 833, it was granted the right of coinage within the Franconian realm, as the first place east of the Rhine.

The first stone church was consecrated in 844. In 873-885, the Westwerk that is still extant today was constructed.

Corvey thus became famous for its school, which produced many celebrated scholars. From its cloisters went forth a stream of missionaries who evangelised Northern Europe.

In the Investiture Controversy, the abbot of Corvey took a stand with the Saxon nobles against Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. The abbey also participated in attempts to reform the Catholic Church during the 11th century. It was the dominant theological centre in the region and established numerous subsidiary abbeys. A final period of prosperity followed under the leadership of Wibald (abbot from 1146–58). At that time, the Westwerk was reconstructed in the High Romanesque style, and the Carolingian three-tower set-up was replaced with twin towers. By the mid-12th century, a substantial town had grown up around the abbey.

In 1265, the neighbouring town of Höxter, jealous of its nearby rival and its Weser bridge, allied itself with the Bishop of Paderborn and their troops destroyed the town of Corvey and damaged the abbey. The town never recovered and over the following decades reverted to a small village. This event marked the beginning of the long period of decline of the abbey.

The Reformation threatened Corvey as it did the other ecclesiastical territories in north-west Germany but the abbey did survive somewhat precariously as a Catholic state at the border of Protestant Brunswick and Hesse-Kassel.In 1634, during the Thirty Years War the abbey was sacked by Imperial troops who also laid siege to Höxter. It was later demolished. Only the Westwerk remained. It took decades for the local area to recover from the devastation of the war. After Christoph Bernhard von Galen, Bishop of Münster became prince and administrator of the abbey in 1665, reconstruction began. The Carolingian church was replaced by a Gothic building, with the exception of the Westwerk. Under von Galen"s successors Christoph von Bellinghausen (1678–96), Florenz von der Felde (1696-1714) and Maximilian von Horrich (1714–22) the other substantial Baroque buildings still there today were erected.

In 1803, the prince-bishopric of Corvey was secularized under Napoleonic administration and became briefly part of the Principality of Nassau-Orange-Fulda. The Bishopric of Corvey continued to exist until 1825. Landgrave Victor Amadeus rebuilt the abbey buildings as a Schloss (palace).

The famous abbey library has long since been dispersed, but the 'princely library', an aristocratic family library, containing about 74,000 volumes, mainly in German, French, and English, with a tailing off circa 1834, survives in the Schloss. One striking feature of the collection is the large number of English Romantic novels, some in unique copies, for in Britain fiction was more often borrowed than bought, and was read extensively in the lending libraries. The poet and author of the Deutschlandlied, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, worked here as librarian from 1860 until his death in 1874. He is buried in the church graveyard.

The abbey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014. The site is delimited by the extent of the original Carolingian monastery, of which only the westwork remains standing today.

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Corvey 10, Corvey, Germany
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Founded: 844 AD
Category: Religious sites in Germany
Historical period: East Francia (Germany)

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