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House of Helfenstein
Coat of Arms of the Counts of Helfenstein from the Epitaph of Adelheid von Helfenstein im Kloster Blaubeuren, 1356)
Country County of Helfenstein
Titles Count
Founder Eberhard of Helfenstein
Final ruler Georg I (Helfenstein-Blaubeuren)/Rudolph II (Helfenstein-Wiesensteig)
Current head Extinct
Founding year Around 1100
Dissolution Helfenstein-Blaubeuren in 1517, Helfenstein-Wiesensteig on 20 September 1627
Ethnicity German
Cadet branches Helfenstein-Blaubeuren, Helfenstein-Wiesensteig

The House of Helfenstein was a German noble family during the High and Late Middle Ages. The family was named after the family castle, Castle Helfenstein, located above Geislingen an der Steige in the Swabian Alb region of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The family held the rank of Graf or Count and was very significant in the 13th and 14th Centuries, but fell into financial difficulties and the family died out by 1627.



Coat of Arms following the marriage of a member of the House of Zimmern to the Countess of Helfenstein, showing the Helfenstein Coat of Arms on the right

The House of Helfenstein used an elephant on their coat of arms. According to one source, the elephant is a type of Namenwappen (German: Coat of Arms from a name), in this case Helfenstein became Elefanten or elephant because of similarity between the sounds[1]. A more fanciful source claims that the elephant comes from the first ancestor of the family, Helfrich, a citizen of Rome in 225 AD, a captain of the 5th Legion of Veterans based in Germany and the Lord of the Fils River. Because his legion had fought against Hannibal four centuries earlier, Helfrich chose an elephant for his coat of arms[2].

While the ancestral castle, Burg Helfenstein, was built around 1100 the family may originate about three centuries earlier. Ulric Helfenstein was appointed Second Provost at an earlier Blaubeuren Abbey by Charlemagne[3] in 800. His son Rudolf was born around 820. On December 12, 861 he founded the church at Wiesensteig. Later he also founded the Cyriasus Abbey in Wiesensteig.[3].

It is possible that the Counts from Vils (Fils) were the ancestors of the House of Helfenstein[4][3] , because in 1060 the Archbishop of Salzburg, Gebhard of Salzburg (from the Counts of Vils) was also known as Gebhard von Helfenstein. This connection is debated.

The first recorded member of the family was Eberhard the Elder, who built the ancestral castle known as Burg Helfenstein (English: Helfenstein Castle) around 1100. Helfenstein castle was located at a key point along the imperial road from Brabant to Italy. This allowed the Counts of Helfenstein to guard and tax travellers and merchants. The city of Geislingen an der Steige grew up at the foot of the castle as a toll collection station and rest stop for travellers[5].

Around 1200 Count Ludwig IV of Spitzenberg (by Kuchen) and Sigmaringen married the heir of Eberhard II (known as the Younger) of Helfenstein, his daughter. Through the marriage to the heir of Helfenstein family, the fortunes of both families were intertwined. The Counts of Spitzenberg were closely allied with the Holy Roman Emperor and had served the Empire in a variety of positions. Ludwig's brother, Gottfried, had marched with Frederick Barbarossa on the Third Crusade and had died on the Crusade in 1190[5]. The Spitzenberg male line died out completely a generation later in 1226. This meant that the Helfenstein lands and the Spitzenburg lands would be combined and Ludwig IV of Spitzenburg became Ludwing I of Helfenstein. He quickly expanded his county, adding numerous holdings in the upper and middle Fils River Valley, on the highlands of the Swabian Alb, in Ulm, in Heidenheim an der Brenz as well as in the Danube River Valley near Sigmaringen and Schloss Sigmaringen.

The next significant Helfenstein count was Ulrich V, who as a member of Emperor Charles IV's household in 14th Century Prague served the Emperor in many ways. The Emperor rewarded him with a marriage, which raised his social status, to the Duchess Maria of Bosnia. Unfortunately, this marriage led to many problems and caused the financial downfall of the Helfenstein family.

The collapse of the House of Hohenstaufen (Kings of Germany from 1138 to 1254) threw southern Germany into chaos. For nearly two centuries, each noble fought against the others. The Helfenstein family joined in on the conflicts. In 1356 Ulrich V (known as Ulrich the Elder) and his cousin Ulrich VI (known as Ulrich the Younger), split the House of Helfenstein into two lines; the Wiesensteiger and Blaubeurer branches. The Wiesensteiger branch inherited the county of Geislingen with Burg Helfenstein, but pledged the entire holding to the Free Imperial City of Ulm in 1382 for a loan. In 1396 the city called for repayment, but the House of Helfenstein owed at least 123,439 Gulden[5] to the city. To repay the loan, most of the County of Geislingen including the ancestral castle and 27 villages or hamlets were given to Ulm.

The Blaubeuren branch lost most of their property to the House of Württemberg in 1448 when Württemberg acquired Heidenheim. In 1450 Württemberg acquired the Wiesensteig holdings from Ulm, but lost those holdings seven years later in 1457. The Wiesensteig lands would later pass to Bavaria from 1642 until 1752. Bavaria had already owned the Blaubeuren lands including Heidenheim from 1450 until 1504, but in 1504 Bavaria gave the Blaubeuren lands to Württemberg.

Following the loss of their lands, the House of Helfenstein lost all political power. The last male member of the family died in 1627 in Wiesensteig, which was the end of this family[5].


  1. ^ Namenwappen. In: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 4. Auflage, 11. Band: Luzula - Nathanael, 1885-1892. ([1])(German)
  2. ^ Chapter One: The Counts von Helfenstein
  3. ^ a b c Kerler (1840). History of the Counts Von Helfenstein. Ulm, Germany: Stettin's Bookstore.   cited on
  4. ^ Oswald Gabelkover: Historia und Beschreibung des uralten Geschlechts der Grafen von Helfenstein von 860 bis 1604, in: Württembergische Geschichte, Württ. Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Cod. Donaueschingen 591, Bl. 109v, 1539-1616
  5. ^ a b c d Helfenstein history
This article incorporates information from the revision as of March 17, 2008 of the equivalent article on the German Wikipedia.
  • Altertumsverein Geislingen (Steige): Helfenstein. Geschichtliche Mitteilungen von Geislingen und Umgebung, 12. Heft, Geislingen (Steige), 1949 (German)
  • Heinz Bühler: Richinza von Spitzenberg und ihr Verwandtenkreis. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Grafen von Helfenstein, in: Württembergisch Franken, Heft 58, 1974 (German)
  • Hugo Glökler: Rund um den Helfenstein. Eine Heimatkunde von Stadt und Bezirk Geislingen-Steige, Geislingen (Steige), 1954 (German)
  • Heinrich Friedrich Kerler: Geschichte der Grafen von Helfenstein - nach den Quellen dargestellt, Ulm, 1840 (German)
  • Karl Putz: Unsere Heimat rund um Geislingen-Steige, Geislingen (Steige), 1935 (German)
  • Wilhelm Karl Prinz zu Isenburg, Frank Baron Freytag von Loringhoven, Detlev Schwennicke (Hrsg.): Europäische Stammtafeln. Stammtafeln zur Geschichte der europäischen Staaten - Schwaben, Band 12, Marburg, 1992 (German)

See also

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