The beginnings of the town of Wetzlar go back to the 8th century, although the town name is first documented in 1141. The old trade route from Frankfurt to Cologne and Antwerp, the Hohe Strasse, passed through what is now modern Wetzlar, fording the Lahn River where later, in the 13th century, a stone bridge was built. Numerous finds testify to settlements during the Carolingian period.
The beginnings of the town of Wetzlar go back to the 8th century, although the town name is first documented in 1141. The old trade route from Frankfurt to Cologne and Antwerp, the Hohe Strasse, passed through what is now modern Wetzlar, fording the Lahn River where later, in the 13th century, a stone bridge was built. Numerous finds testify to settlements during the Carolingian period. In 897, the Conradian bishop Rudolf of Würzburg consecrated a church to the Divine Savior at the site of the present cathedral. Shortly thereafter the church was assigned to the Marienstift, a lay order. A town with craftsmen and merchants gradually grew up around the church complex. In April 1180, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa confirmed imperial privileges for “his” Wetzlar burghers, and the up-and-coming town assumed the status of an imperial free town. The town was administered by a reeve and a sheriff together with a mayor, aldermen, and a town council. Kalsmut, a Staufer period castle located high above the Lahn River valley, was once inhabited by families of vassals, but it had fallen into disrepair by the 16th century. The largely intact tower of the ancient Staufer castle is now used as a lookout tower.
To this day, the nomenclature of the streets and market places of Wetzlar reflect its topography and mediaeval structures. Names of former trades and professions, commodities, public services and institutions, and religious orders are to be found.
From the 13th century on, Wetzlar was protected by a city wall with five gates and at least nine towers, all of which had to be maintained by the guilds and burghers of the town. In the 19th and 20th centuries, all of the gates and towers were torn down, with the exception of one tower, the Säuturm and one gate, the Karlsmunttor in the suburb of Silhofen. Large original and restored sections of the original town wall still define the old town, beyond which today there is a green belt of urban parks.
Construction of the cathedral was never completed. From the mid-14th century onwards, the up-and-coming imperial free town of the early Middle Ages devolved into an impoverished town unable to fund further work on the church. Contrary to plans, parts of the earlier Romanesque church were not torn down, but left standing, as the north tower and the west facade could not be completed. The money for such a grand edifice just wasn’t there.
When the people of Wetzlar converted to Protestantism, the nave was used for Protestant services while the choir was reserved for the use of the Catholic lay order of the church. The cathedral today is history in stone, commanding the admiration of the modern-day observer.
The economic decline of the late Middle Ages affected the town’s entire population, which withdrew into its walled enclave, allowing settlements outside the walls to deteriorate. During these times of extreme hardship, the town’s citizens, mostly merchants and craftsmen, turned to farming the lands within the town’s jurisdiction.
Sanctuary was given to Protestant Walloon refugees fleeing religious persecution in 1586. This did not, as hoped, bring an economic upturn, but it did encourage religious tolerance. The refugees were able to build new homes in Wetzlar, thus helping to close some of the gaps that had arisen in the economically depressed town. Theirs and the homes of more established families were often finely decorated halftimbered houses. Such houses, however, all too often fell victim to fire. Well up into the 18th century, entire streets were reduced to ashes by hard-to-contain fires.
It wasn’t until 1690 that prosperity finally arrived when the Imperial Chamber of Justice, the supreme German legal court, made Wetzlar its seat. Lawyers and representatives of the nobility from the entire Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation were to be found in Wetzlar, some for short stays only, but others brought their families along and established themselves in the town. Newly built homes, beautiful mansions and other edifices including a Baroque church soon changed the face of the town. These were often ornamented with signs, symbols and other forms of decoration, giving the streets an added flair. The streets were full of people from far and near, and cultural life flourished. Today, the mostly fully stuccoed facades of the buildings of this period provide a charming contrast to the carefully restored half-timbered houses of five centuries.
When the empire was dissolved in 1806, so too was the court, and Wetzlar once again became just another unimportant small town. Only a short time earlier, in 1802/1803, Wetzlar had lost its status as an imperial free town. Now came the loss of its economic base. In 1815, Prussia assumed sovereignty over the town. In the second half of the 19th century, the optics and the iron-working industries established themselves in Wetzlar. This new, industrial Wetzlar expanded well beyond the boundaries of the old city wall, stretching far into the Lahn River valley and the surrounding hills.
The densely built, seemingly intertwined houses of the old town with their characteristic slate roofs, when viewed together with the 700-year-old stone bridge and the stylistically truly unique cathedral, form an unmistakable and unforgettable image.