There’s an argument that says Vienna’s city walls were really built during the Third Crusade at the siege of Acre (1191) in what is now Israel. Oh yes, there’s a story there…
- First city walls date back over 800 years
- City fortifications partly destroyed by Napoleon
- Completely destroyed by the 19th-century authorities to create real estate
- You can still see remnants around the city centre
- See also: The Ringstrassen | Historical photos of Vienna
The history of the city walls
So, back in Acre in 1191…
After the crusader victory, there was a bit of an argument about ranks and rights that ended unpleasantly when England’s King Richard I (the Lionheart) ordering the banner of Leopold V (Duke of Austria) to be pulled down from the ramparts of the conquered city.
Leopold left in a huff, presumably leaving the English to snigger and gloat at the backs of the departing Austrian soldiers. Which was probably not such a good idea as it felt at the time.
A little later and Richard is on his way home to deal with his rebellious brother John. With the French ports closed to him, he put ashore near Venice and made his way overland.
Unfortunately for Richard, this route took him through Austria. Probably not a great tactical move that. You can guess what happened next.
Travelling incognito in a small group, the English king raised the suspicions of the locals by using an unfamiliar gold coin while staying in an inn near Vienna (or so the story goes). Leopold promptly threw him in prison, no doubt accompanied by sarcastic comments about whose flag is flying now.
Leopold turned Richard over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who ransomed him off for a sum so unfeasibly large that England had to introduce a special tax to pay it.
Leopold’s share of the bounty built the first true city walls (Ringmauer) of Vienna, the successor to the Burgmauer that enclosed the early medieval settlement.
The Duke’s finder’s fee also built the city walls of Enns. And the city walls of Hainburg. And the town of Wiener Neustadt. And the city mint. So, yes, it was a lot of money.
Those walls were three times the previous size and served Vienna well until the Turkish siege of 1529 highlighted their shortcomings; they were subsequently enhanced and replaced by new fortifications across future decades.
The new walls did pretty well, holding fast, for example, at the famous 1683 Ottoman siege.
Then Napoleon arrived.
The French Emperor wandered into town in 1809 without much resistance. And, like a spoilt teenager, he knocked down a bit of the walls when he left.
By the second half of the 19th century, nobody really believed the huge fortifications and the area (Glacis) kept clear before them had any meaningful military value.
The Glacis became more or less a park area, the walls a nice spot for an evening stroll. Both took up a lot of prime real estate in a rapidly-growing city.
In 1857, the Emperor ordered the dismantling of the walls, and freed up the Glacis for construction, leading to today’s Ringstrassen boulevard and the many city palaces and other wonderful buildings that flank it.
Where to see the city walls
There is hardly anything left of that old Ringmauer. What you do see are a lot of names that hark back to the fortifications.
Tor means gate in German. And so, for example, subway stations like Schottentor and Stubentor remind us of where gates into the city were once located.
Bastei means bastion, and such streets as Mölker Bastei, Stubenbastei and Schottenbastei owe their names to their original purpose.
A few remnants of the walls still exist. For example:
- Stubentor: there’s a preserved section of the wall on the west side of the station, with the previous position of the fortifications also marked in the paving
- Ruprechtskirche: parts of this church date as far back as the 11th century, and below it you can still see parts of the old city wall it was built above
- Mölker Bastei: I’m not sure how original the brickwork is, but you can at least get a good feel for the proportions of some of the fortifications. One of Beethoven’s old residences sits on top of it
P.S. The ransom money didn’t do Leopold much good personally. Since crusaders enjoyed a kind of diplomatic immunity at the time, the Duke’s actions against Richard saw him excommunicated by the Pope, and he died soon after at the end of 1194.