Built by Ottonian rulers in the early 10th century, Merseburg Palace was a preferred residence of German kings in the High Middle Ages. Reestablished by Emperor Henry II in 1004, the See of Merseburg evolved into a spiritual and cultural center on the eastern border of the empire. The cathedral and the bishop’s palace still tower above the city on an imposing plateau on the west bank of the Saale to this day. With its rich architectural and artistic decoration as well as its collection of precious medieval manuscripts, Merseburg Cathedral is one of the most important sites of memory of medieval religious culture.
King Henry I had acquired the comital seat of Merseburg in the early 10th century and turned it into a palace complex for himself and his court. His famous son Emperor Otto the Great founded the new diocesan town of Merseburg in the immediate vicinity of the palace in 968 but it was abandoned after a few years. Only substantial donations from Emperor Henry II and his wife Kunigunde made it possible to officially reestablish the See of Merseburg in 1004. Henry II personally took part in the consecration of the early Romanesque cathedral, construction of which started in 1015. Later canonized, this monarch is revered in Merseburg to this day as a prominent donor.
Early gifts to Merseburg Cathedral included more than just large estates and extensive privileges. The procurement of liturgical books that constituted an important part of the imperial endowments was the foundation for the priests’ work as missionaries and ministers. Exceptional examples of early medieval scribal culture and book illumination such as the Merseburg Incantations are housed in Merseburg Cathedral Chapter Library to this day.
Thietmar (1009-1018), fourth bishop of Merseburg, is known far beyond Germany’s borders as one of the most important historians of the Middle Ages. His high level contacts with the royal family and his intimate knowledge of affairs at court make his chronicle one of the most important sources of the Ottonian era. His tomb slab in the cathedral and the Thietmar-Fountain in the cloister courtyard keep this famous bishop’s memory alive in Merseburg to this day.
One of the most important duties of Merseburg’s clergy into the 12th and 13th century was to missionize and establish an ecclesiastical structure in the territories of the largely heathen Slavs east of the Saale. In the late Middle Ages, Merseburg had supervisory authority over the churches not only in hundreds of villages but also in flourishing centers of trade, above all Leipzig, a center of trade fairs. Given the see’s importance for the region, the powerful Wettins, the Electors of Saxony, attempted to exert influence on episcopal elections and the cathedral chapter in Merseburg from the 15th century onward, thus putting the diocesan territories at the mercy of high politics.
Merseburg flourished once more at the close of the Middle Ages under Bishop Thilo von Trotha (1466-1514). The most important vestige of his nearly fifty-year episcopacy is the impressive architectural ensemble of the bishop’s palace and the cathedral, which dominates Merseburg’s historic downtown to this day. A raven bearing a golden ring in its beak, which is connected to the legend about it, occupies the center of the von Trotha family’s coat of arms.
Whereas the Reformation, facilitated by the influence of the Lutheran-leaning Electors of Saxony, quickly overtook large areas of the diocese, Catholics in the territory of the prince-bishopric of Merseburg directly controlled by the bishop and the cathedral chapter put up fierce resistance for quite some time. This did not cease in Merseburg Cathedral until the death of Bishop Sigismund of Lindenau (1535-1544). The following year, 1545, Martin Luther consecrated a Protestant bishop, Prince George III of Anhalt, in Merseburg Cathedral. The brief intermezzo of the last Catholic Bishop Michael Helding (1549-1561) had no effect on the ultimate success of the Reformation in the See of Merseburg.
In the second half of the 16th century, the bishops were succeeded by so-called Protestant administrators who administered the bishops’ erstwhile temporal domains. The administrators always came from the Saxon Wettin dynasty and strove to annex the See of Merseburg into the Saxon hereditary lands. The Merseburg Cathedral Chapter nevertheless managed to ensure its survival.
Although the remaining Catholic cathedral canons were succeeded only by Lutherans, many of the customs and liturgical practices dating to the Middle Ages were retained into the modern era. The chapter was able to formally preserve its sovereign legal status by continuing to exercise its right to elect its administrators. Between 1657 and 1738, the administrators reigned as the Dukes of Saxe-Merseburg. As a result, the erstwhile episcopal see briefly flourished once again as the ducal capital.
The end of the last cathedral chapters still remaining in Central Germany appeared to be imminent when a large part of their Saxon territories devolved to Prussia after the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The Prussian government quickly realized, however, that the cathedral chapters’ administrative bodies had had been performing a wide range of sovereign duties, including administering justice and running churches and schools, for centuries. Instead of being disbanded, the cathedral chapters were therefore incorporated in the new Prussian provincial government but the chapters’ legal status remained unresolved for over a century. A new and more modern means of existence was not established until 1930 when the institutions were transformed into nonprofit foundations.
In 1935, the last dean of Merseburg Cathedral, Field Marshall August von Mackensen (1849-1945), became the first dean of the newly established Combined Cathedral Chapters based in Naumburg. Since the hitherto formally independent foundations merged into a single corporation in 1994, Merseburg Cathedral Chapter has been part of the Combined Chapters of the Cathedrals of Merseburg and Naumburg and the Collegiate Church of Zeitz.