Cathedral District (Bremen)

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Remains of the wall of the cathedral castle, discovered at the Domshof during the demolition of the town house in 1909

The cathedral district in Bremen (also known as Domimmunität or Domfreiheit ) was an area of the old town which, since the creation of the bishopric of Bremen, included the cathedral as well as surrounding buildings and episcopal institutions, and over the centuries had a special sovereign and legal position in the city as an “enclave” until it came completely under Bremen administration in 1803.

The cathedral castle

Localisation of fortification rings of the Bremen cathedral castle in the 10th/11th century[1], entered in an elaboration of the Murtfeldt plan of 1796:
purple = presumed course of ditch
yellow = street assumed for the 11th century
orange = slab paving from the 11th century
– — = ring wall proven in the course
x = ring wall localized
o = wall (remains) mentioned
v = ditch localized or proven in the course
u = ditch indirectly mentioned
bright red = cathedral since 1502/22
dark red = cathedral since 1041/1072
dark outline = cathedral around 1000

The beginnings of the cathedral district go back to the foundation of the bishopric and the building of the first Bremen cathedral by Willehad in 789. Initially, the Carolingian settlement core of the place on the Bremen dune and on the banks of the Weser arm Balge was subject to imperial sovereignty, then from the 10th century to archbishopric sovereignty.[2] We know nothing concrete about the nature and extent of a Carolingian fortification that can be assumed with certainty. Adam von Bremen then mentions several fortification undertakings of the archbishops around 1000 and 1020.


Excavations have revealed that until the first third of the 11th century the enclosures took the form of a pointed ditch, which may have included earthen ramparts and wooden palisades. Two pointed ditches were found in several areas, although it is unclear whether they were constructed at different times or as a double ring of ditches. One suspects a single entrance towards the market settlement. The equipping of the cathedral castle with a stone wall was only begun by Archbishop Hermann shortly before his death (1035).[3] The ditches were filled in and the foundations of a wall ring were laid in them. In connection with the wall, Adam von Bremen mentions a large gate against the market (“porta grandis contra forum”), which had been provided with a seven-storey tower according to the Italian model. Under Archbishop Adalbert, however, the gate tower and large parts of the stone wall were demolished a few years later in order to use the stones for the reconstruction of the cathedral, which burned down in 1041. At least the foundations were preserved. Parts were used later, as in the Maria Magdalenen Chapel of the Palatium, or laboriously removed, as in the construction of the Gothic Town Hall.


The ring of fortifications around the cathedral and residential and farm buildings of the episcopal environs, with its traces from various phases, was about 12 m wide and ran (projected onto today’s city map) approximately as follows: Outer edge at the third town hall arcade from the right – interior of the New Town Hall – western third of the cathedral courtyard – interior of the Bremer Bank – Sandstraße near Haus Vorwärts – across Domsheide – along Marktstraße – on the market from the west corner of the Bürgerschaft with increasing distance from its facade – about 12 m west of the north corner of the Bürgerschaft. The latter section was the eastern edge of the market square from the 11th to the 19th century; after the moat was filled in, the building line of a row of houses of the so-called Willehadi block was created here. From these earliest times of the cathedral district, only a few parts of the cathedral dating back to the 11th century have been preserved (in addition to archaeological finds).[3] Remains of the wall standing transversely to the ring wall under the Gothic palatium northeast of the town hall and under Balleer’s House in front of the market place side of the Bürgerschaftsgebäude were at times interpreted as remains of the gate tower, but this is more than doubtful in view of the remains of the gateway found in 2002. It must have been built after the moat was filled in, was paved with stone slabs and was located in front of the later northern wall of the Balleerhaus. From this location it can be seen that in Adam von Bremen’s description “forum” refers to today’s market place.

Teilquerschnitt der Ringmauer im nicht-öffentlichen Teil des Bremer Ratskellers, mit historischer Beschreibung. Teilquerschnitt der Ringmauer im nicht-öffentlichen Teil des Bremer Ratskellers, mit historischer Beschreibung.
Partial cross-section of the ring wall in the non-public part of the Bremen Ratskeller, with historical description.

The cathedral district in the Middle Ages

After the demolition of the Domburg wall, the cathedral district was no longer structurally separated from the rest of the settlement. From 1229 it was enclosed – together with the majority of Bremen’s old town – by the newly built city wall. However, until 1522 the bishops had their own exit from the city via the so-called “Bischofsnadel”, a small gate in the eastern city wall.

With the formation of a citizenry (in distinction to the ecclesiastical officials and subjects) from the 11th century onwards and the emergence of a Bremen city law, there was gradually a separation of the archbishop’s and the city’s spheres of influence. In relation to the city governed by the Bremen council with its possessions, the cathedral district and the archiepiscopal territories outside the city demarcated themselves as areas with their own law and jurisdiction, which were subject to the ecclesiastical administration.

The cathedral and its surroundings in the 16th century

In addition to the cathedral with its immediate outbuildings, the cathedral district included parts of the Domshof, the Wilhadiquartier, the Domsheide, the Sandstraße, the Buchtstraße, parts of the Walls, the Ostertorstraße and the Süsterstraße. In addition to the cathedral, it contained the Palatium (the seat of the archbishop), the Wilhadi Chapel (the parish church of the cathedral congregation), the cathedral school and Athenaeum, and various cathedral curiae (residential and commercial buildings of the cathedral chapter). However, ownership was sometimes quite complex – for example, individual properties away from the area also belonged to the cathedral district, while there were also bourgeois houses directly on the cathedral courtyard, for example. The development of the area remained rather loose until the end of the 18th century – in contrast to the rest of the old town – there were numerous gardens and free plots here.

There were repeated disputes between the archbishop and the council about various rights and competences concerning the area. In particular, the cathedral courtyard on the border between the city and the archbishop’s territory was the subject of several disputes, for example in 1592 when the city had large quantities of material stored here for the expansion of the fortifications or in 1636 when the council erected two pillories in front of the palatium.[4]

After the Thirty Years’ War

Map of the Hanoverian possessions in Bremen from the year 1750

In 1638 the cathedral became Lutheran, while the council and the urban communities had turned to the Reformed (Calvinist) confession since 1581. In the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, sovereignty over the secularized territory of the Archdiocese of Bremen (the former bishopric of Bremen), which included the cathedral district, fell to the Kingdom of Sweden as the Duchy of Bremen, which could henceforth assert financial and legal claims here. The cathedral was thus an enclave in the city in two respects: as a Lutheran congregation in a Reformed environment and as a Swedish possession on Bremen territory. This was not changed by the First Bremish-Swedish War (1654) and the Second Bremish-Swedish War (1666), after the settlement of which the existing legal status quo was fixed. Due to this imprecise regulation, there were also several complaints from the Swedish side about the use of the cathedral courtyard by the council, which used the area as a parade ground for the citizens’ companies and had guards posted here. However, the accusations were always dismissed with the reference to the fact that the area was a loca publica civitatis (‘public urban area’), were rejected.[5]

The Swedish crown, which established the administrative seat of the newly created Duchy of Bremen-Verden in Stade, used its possessions in Bremen primarily as a source of revenue. Thus, Charles XI had the estates in the cathedral district separated into structural estates (ecclesiastical property) and intendant est ates (royal property) and divided the revenues accordingly. After brief interruptions by Danish sovereignty (1676-1679 and 1712-1715), the area came to Elector Hanover in 1715. At that time, many buildings in the cathedral district were already dilapidated, as little investment had been made.[5] It was not until the end of the 18th century that the condition of the area improved through the renovation and new construction of various buildings. One of the last administrators of the Hanoverian possessions in Bremen was Adolph Freiherr Knigge (from 1790 to 1796). In 1794, G. H. Buchholz produced a very detailed map of the Hanoverian possessions in Bremen with the plan of the houses owned by the Electorate of Hanover in the Free City of Bremen.[6]

Bremen sovereignty

With the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, Bremen finally received undivided sovereignty over the possessions in the cathedral district in 1803, which meant a considerable financial gain for the city. 160 buildings in the area were sold, and the remaining approximately 45 were divided up after a lengthy dispute between the council and the cathedral parish.[7] Subsequently, numerous properties in the area were redeveloped. For example, the former bishop’s residence, the Palatium, in the direct vicinity of the town hall, was replaced in 1818/19 by the town hall as the new seat for authorities and post offices and as the headquarters of the town guard.

See also

  • Cathedral Freedom

Individual references

  1. Frank Wilschewski: Die karolingischen Bischofssitze des sächsischen Stammesgebietes bis 1200, Michael Imhof Verlag 2007, ISBN 978-3-86568-127-0, chap. II ( p. 14-29), Bishop’s seat at Bremen

  2. Peter Johanek: Die Stadt und ihr Rand. Böhlau Verlag, Cologne/Weimar 2008, ISBN 978-3-412-24105-6, p. 171.
  3. a b
    Thomas L. Zotz, Lutz Fenske: Die Deutschen Königspfalzen: Repertorium der Pfalzen, Königshöfe und übrigen Aufenthaltsorte der Könige im deutschen Reich des Mittelalters. Ed.: Max Planck Institute for History. Volume 4. Vandenhoeck& Ruprecht, 2000, ISBN 978-3-525-36513-7, p. 188 .

  4. Wilhelm Lührs: The Domshof. History of a Bremen Square. Edition Temmen, Bremen 1987, ISBN 978-3-920699-87-5, p. 11.
  5. a b
    Wilhelm Lührs: The Domshof. History of a Bremen Square. Edition Temmen, Bremen 1987, ISBN 978-3-920699-87-5, p. 18.

  6. Herbert Schwarzwälder: View of Bremen. No. 195. Bremen 1985.

  7. Wilhelm Lührs: The Domshof. History of a Bremen Square. Edition Temmen, Bremen 1987, ISBN 978-3-920699-87-5, p. 37.


  • Wilfried Helling: Dorf und Domburg als alter bremischer Siedlungsbereich. In: Der Aufbau, Verlag Wiederaufbau, Bremen 1999.
  • Wilhelm Lührs: The Domshof. History of a Bremen square. Hauschild Verlag, Bremen, 1987, ISBN 978-3-920699-87-5
  • Manfred Rech: Gefundene Vergangenheit, Archäologie des Mittelalters in Bremen. Bremer Archäologische Blätter Beiheft 3, Bremen 2004, pp. 38-59.
  • Herbert Schwarzwälder: Das Große Bremen-Lexikon. Edition Temmen, Bremen 2003, ISBN 3-86108-693-X.
  • Rudolf Stein: Das vergangene Bremen – der Stadtplan und die Stadtansicht im Wechsel der Jahrhunderte. Hauschild Verlag, Bremen.