The Rise of the Counts of Bentheim

The Princely House of Bentheim consists of two dynastic lines, both residing in the Münsterland region – the “Princes of Bentheim and Steinfurt”, owners of Castle Bentheim, and the “Princes of Bentheim-Tecklenburg”, whose ancestral seat is Rheda.

Circa 1100 to 1553

1050 First mention of a place called "Binithem" in the tithe revenue registers of Werden Abbey (today part of the city of Essen).

1116 Emperor Lothar III conquers Castle Bentheim, presenting it to his brother-in-law Otto of Salm-Rhieneck

1146  Subsequent to a feud with the Bishop of Utrecht, the Castle comes to Count Dietrich VI of the House of Holland.

Around 1160 the castle walls are raised, construction of the tower of St. Catherine’s Church and of the Castle keep.

1394  Bernhard, the last Count of Bentheim from the House of Holland, founds Frenswegen Cloister. Following his death, the Castle and County come to the dynasty of the Lords of Gütterswyk.

1487 The "Everlasting Contract of Inheritance" determines the union of the Counties of Bentheim and Steinfurt. 

Actually, in these early times, it is not quite correct to refer to a County (Grafschaft) of Bentheim as we know it today with its current territorial borders. Essentially, its realm of influence will not have extended beyond the Castle and the court rights in Schüttorf and the outlying settlements along the Vechte River lowlands. The countryside was an unpopulated wasteland consisting of great expanses of heath and impenetrable moor areas. 

The ecclesiastical structure of the County of Bentheim in the Middle Ages divided the territory into two halves. The northwest part, the Lower County, including Neuenhaus, Veldhausen, Emlichheim und Uelsen, was under the jurisdiction of the Utrecht Diocese, whereas the so-called Upper County, including Bentheim, Schüttorf and Nordhorn, was part of the Münster Diocese.

At the turn of the 11th to the 12th century, together with Bishop Burchard of Münster, the castle lords of Bentheim were apparently faithful followers of the Salian Emperor Heinrich V. The intended levying of a general imperial tax by the Emperor caused a revolt among the Westphalian and Saxon aristocracy, however. Civil war broke out, directed against Heinrich V. In 1115, as the war progressed, the insurgents, led by Count Friedrich of Arnsberg and the Saxon Duke Lothar of Süpplinburg, who would later himself become emperor, attained a major victory in the Battle at Welfesholze near Mansfeld in the eastern Harz Mountains. In the wake of this, they destroyed the castles loyal to the Emperor ranging from the Harz Mountains to the northwestern region of Germany, including the Domburg Castle in Münster.

In 1116, Duke Lothar of Süpplinburg captured Castle Bentheim, sacking and plundering it. Most likely, the last of the Northeim Dukes, Otto the Younger, was killed during the course of the pillage. The destroyed castle was apparently rebuilt again soon thereafter, coming into the possession of Lothar’s brother-in-law Otto of Salm-Rhieneck. 

In 1146 it came to an armed conflict between Otto of Rhieneck and the Bishop of Utrecht regarding ownership rights in the Twente region. During this feud, Otto and his army of knights were defeated near Ootmarsum and brought to Utrecht as prisoners. After a short time, he was released, though he had to accept that his castle was under the feudal tenure of the Utrecht Diocese until 1190. 

The bishop claimed for himself the residential tract of the Castle and a chapel that had been built there. Two years later Otto in turn got involved in a military conflict again in connection with his possessions along the Middle Rhine. At this time his only son and heir was murdered by Hermann of Staleck while in captivity. It was through the inheritance of Otto’s daughter, Sophie of Rhieneck, that the Castle and rule subsequently came into the possession of the Counts of Holland, whose branch line called itself after Castle Bentheim from this point on.

Around 1200, the Bentheim territory, to date consisting largely of the Castle and the estate at Schüttorf, expanded with the purchase of the country court at Uelsen, the area around what is Niedergrafschaft today. Thus, the prerequisite for forming a self-contained territory was given.

In the 12th and 13th century, the Counts of Bentheim made repeated efforts to extend their territory into the adjacent Dutch area by acquiring the offices of the bailiff in Twente and Drente, as well as taking over Coevorden as burgraves. The territorial expansion against the Münster and Osnabrück dioceses was less successful. For a short period, the Counts of Bentheim were able to achieve significant growth of power for the first time when they inherited the County of Tecklenburg in the second half of the 13th century. Soon the inheritance was to be divided again, however, and the position of the worldly lords in north Westphalia was thus, considerably weakened again. The influence in the Netherlands was clearly reduced around 1300 as well. 

It is not so easy to define the Bentheim territory in the 12th and 13th century, since it was only during these times that the lords began to delineate their territorial borders. Granted, the Lords of Bentheim began claiming their titles as counts, but most likely this only referred to their origin within the dynasty of the House of Holland. It was not until the 14th century that the territory they ruled could legitimately be referred to as a County of the Holy Roman Empire. Further castles and cities (Neuenhaus and Nordhorn) were now founded and extended systematically with the intention of protecting its sphere of control. Around 1400 the borders of the territory were largely defined, and except for slight changes, still remain much the same today.

Towards the end of the 14th century, the Counts of Bentheim stemming from the House of Holland died out, and the inheritance fell to a nephew, Everwyn von Güterswyk. The lords of Güterswyk had their ancestral seat on the right bank of the Lower Rhine near Dinslaken. To the Bentheim legacy, the Lordship of Steinfurt was added through marriage in 1420, which was to be bound to Bentheim by inheritance contracts from this point on. In 1486 Count Everwin II was granted Bentheim as a fiefdom by Emperor Friedrich III. Thus, for the first time, the county was officially recognized as an imperial fief.

Tracing the History, continued

The Counts of Bentheim as Sovereign Princes

Dungeon stairs in Bentheim Castle

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