GRAFSCHAFT [COUNTY] SAYN ... A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Prior to 1871, there was no unified nation called GERMANY.
For a thousand years, this region was instead a patchwork quilt of over 200 feudal margraviates, dukedoms, lesser kingdoms, independent cities and other principalities which made up the HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE. In the medieval period, its collective loyalty to indigenous, ethnic German emperors (such as Frederick I Barbarossa) was usually beyond question. But this was to change.
During the Protestant Reformation, Spanish and Austrian HAPSBURGs assumed the imperial title - and its obligation to defend and protect the Roman Catholic church. The 16th century, of course, was the time of Martin LUTHER, Ulrich ZWINGLI, and John CALVIN. Inspired by the faith of these men, a great many German princes broke with the Pope. Surprisingly, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (a Spanish HAPSBURG) judged the 'defection' of the German princes a far less urgent matter than a threatened invasion by the Turks. Left alone to simmer for a time, the German-speaking heart of the Empire was thus strengthened in its Protestantism, and enjoyed a brief summer of de-facto autonomy.
At length, however, leading Protestant princes (like the HOHENZOLLERNs of Brandenburg-Prussia) found themselves at war with their Roman Catholic overlords. Divided along religious lines, middle Europe finally erupted into the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). France, Sweden, Poland, the Dutch Republic, and Russia were all swept into the maelstrom. In 1633, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden destroyed a 500 year-old German castle - Burg Sayn - and laid waste the surrounding countryside. Famine and bubonic plague added to the depradations of over a million soldiers. Deaths among peasants were higher in rural areas, where no city walls protected them. Perhaps 10-20% of the population died.
In 1648, a treaty known as the Peace of Westphalia ended the carnage. Now each potentate within the Holy Roman Empire was guaranteed the right to decide his or her particular territory's religion. It was Prussia's steady ascendancy under the HOHENZOLLERNs which eventually led to that state's domination of German politics - and (ultimately) German unification. Prussia's rise mirrored the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, which became more and more a fossilized relic of the past. It was finally abolished in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars.
To present a comprehensive history of SAYN-HACHENBURG -- the county in the German Westerwald where our AHLBACH ancestors lived -- would be a major undertaking, far beyond the current author's scope. It is possible, nonetheless, to provide a short historical perspective.
The first stop on our tour must be the website created by the noble SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN family themselves, found HERE. Navigating through its pages, one will find a discussion of this family's long (and admittedly convoluted) history. SAYN is not only a family name, but also a village where the family erected a castle (destroyed in the Thirty Years' War and rebuilt; then destroyed again by the Nazis in 1945, but rebuilt again by the family's descendants). Understand that the name SAYN also referred to the territory which belonged to the family. Marriages often brought in new territorial entitlements, but ... a death with multiple heirs often meant that the family's landholdings were carved into several small pie-slices ... and (groan) renamed. Of course, it was always possible that some slices of the pie might be put back together if brothers or sisters died without leaving children.
Published peerages available online allow us access into the complex world of inherited power and land-and-title-by-birthright. For our purposes, let's focus upon the period where our AHLBACH ancestors actually lived in this region. And let's extend our time frame to better follow what was happening in and around SAYN. For the sake of convenience, we'll examine the years 1600 - 1800.
The first mention of the SAYN dynasty occurs in 1139, when two brothers, Graf (in English, 'Count') Eberhard and Graf Heinrich, are named in a medieval document. In 1606, the county SAYN passed from Count Heinrich IV to his niece, Anna Elizabeth (1572-1608). In 1591, Anna Elizabeth had married Wilhelm III, Count but never ruler of SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN. They had a son: Ernst. When Anna Elizabeth died in 1608, the county of SAYN fell under the control of the SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN branch of the family. That branch of the family had been ruled since 1607 by Count Ludwig II, Wilhelm's older brother.
And here the troubles began. Ernst, Anna Elizabeth's son, had been born in 1592. He was not quite old enough to assume control of SAYN in 1608, when his mother died. His uncle, Ludwig II of SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN, took the reins of power. Ernst was finally allowed to rule SAYN in his own right in 1623. His title is historically designated Graf von SAYN-HACHENBURG-ALTENKIRCHEN, for reasons which will be evident below. Unfortunately, Ernst reigned only nine short years, dying in 1632. At his death, uncle Ludwig of SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN again resumed authority. Ludwig himelf died four years later, in 1636.
Graf Ernst had two daughters: Ernestine (1625-1661) and Johannette (1632-1701). In 1636, when their great-uncle Ludwig II died, neither were old enough to rule. Suffice it to say that a good deal of wrangling ensued within the various branches of the family. No clear winners emerged. In fact, the seat of power in SAYN-HACHENBURG-ALTENKIRCHEN remained vacant from 1636-1648. It is useful to know that the Thirty Years' War was raging at this same time. Strong military leadership from larger states to defend German soil was far more important that settling a noble family's petty feud.
With the Peace of Westphalia (the treaty ending the Thirty Years' War) came a solution. Ernestine was granted half of the inheritance: the newly-formed county of SAYN-HACHENBURG. Johannette, for her part, was made undisputed ruler of SAYN-ALTENKIRCHEN.
When Ernestine died prematurely in 1661; SAYN-HACHENBURG passed to her three year-old daughter Magdalena Christina (1658-1715). Presumably, Aunt Johannette helped her young niece govern. In 1673, Magdalena Christina married Georg Ludwig, Burgrave of KIRCHBERG. At Magdalena Christina's death in 1715, the title passed to her son, Georg Friedrich, who then became Burgrave of KIRCHBERG and Count of SAYN-HACHENBURG. SAYN-HACHENBURG was administered by the KIRCHBERGs from 1715-1799; then the county briefly passed into the NASSAU-WEILBURG family [1799-1803]. It reverted to SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN-BERLEBURG in 1803. In 1806, the county was either mediatized (see online discussion of GERMAN MEDIATIZATION) or annexed by the Archbishop of TRIER and then mediatized. Either way, in 1806, SAYN-HACHENBURG disappeared forever from the political map of Germany.
SAYN-ALTENKIRCHEN died far more slowly, it seems. It remained under Countess Johannette's personal control until her death in 1701. It then passed successively under the dynastic control of the following families and/or states: SAXE-EISENACH (1701-1741); BRANDENBURG-ANSBACH (1741-1791); PRUSSIA (1791-1803); NASSAU (1803-1866); PRUSSIA (1866-1918). Apparently, SAYN-ALTENKIRCHEN ceased to be only by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
The two SAYNs stood on the right bank of the middle Rhine, in the southern part of Germany's WESTERWALD. Today, this area lies within the modern German state of RHEINLAND-PFALZ [the equivalent English designation for Rheinland-Pfalz is RHINELAND-PALATINATE], although some of its allied territories once extended into the adjacent state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. And though Germany long ago rescinded and annulled all rights and titles of nobility, Princess Gabriela and Prince Alexander zu SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN-SAYN still own and have recently renovated the ruins of their ancestral castle [Burg SAYN] - a major tourist draw.
Students of WWII are probably familiar with the famous BRIDGE ACROSS THE RHINE AT REMAGEN, so vital to the success of the Allies' advance into Germany in March 1945. Approximately 15 miles east of that historic bridge span lies the sleepy village of AHLBACH - our ancestral home. It's a quiet, unassuming place. Here, sheep and dairy cattle graze in the shadow of tall half-timbered barns. Cattails and nettles grow in the black mud oxbows of the local creeks. If a visitor follows the road trimmed with roses and buttercups up the crest of the gently-sloping hill, he/she would soon find themselves in the urban sprawl of downtown FLAMMERSFELD (estimated 2006 population: 1,068). The place is dominated by the old belfry of the rustic, whitewashed church - first organized as a Lutheran congregation in 1561. In 1605, the Calvinist Reformed confession was adopted, thereafter the Flammersfeld flock was part of the Evangelisch Reformierte denomination. With the signing of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) came the split of the old Grafschaft SAYN into SAYN-HACHENBURG and SAYN-ALTENKIRCHEN [SEE THE ALHBACH ATLAS AND GAZETTEER]. It was from the former that the AHLBACHs emigrated to Britain's American Colonies in 1734, but - over time - that fact was forgotten. Only through the patient and painstaking research of the late Carla MITTELSTAADT-KUBASCH, a professional genealogist, was our ancestral heritage rediscovered. She examined stacks of ledgers in the basement of the church parsonage, filled with the names of parishioners long dead. Baptismal registers exist for the years 1669-1891; marriage records for the period 1669-1705 (resuming in 1826 and continuing to 1862); while death entries cover the span of years 1669-1883.
FLAMMERSFELD and its satellite communities [Ahlbach, Gollershoben, Rott, Eichen, et al] are found in today's Kreis Altenkirchen [Altenkirchen District], the northernmost district of the Rheinland-Pfalz. Major cities in the NEARBY RHEINLAND-PFALZ include KOBLENZ, NEUWIED, Hachenburg and AHLBACH ATLAS AND GAZETTEER for detailed maps.
Hans Theis AHLBACH