The Grand Commandery is founded in 1220 by the German Order of the Teutonic Knights. The territory of this order consists of 12 bailiwicks or provinces. Alden Biesen is established as the headquarters of the bailiwick of Biesen, which consists of 12 subordinate commanderies. Owned by the Grand Commander, Alden Biesen is the showpiece of the bailiwick. The castle estate flourishes from the 16th till the 18th century, when the Grand Commandery develops into the luxurious residence we know today.

The French Revolution of 1789 abruptly ends this period. The Teutonic Order is disbanded and the castle complex is sold at auction. When Guillaume Claes purchases the estate, this is the start of two centuries of private ownership and decay. Following the fire of1971, Alden Biesen becomes the property of the Belgian government and today, the Grand Commandery is an international cultural centre owned by the Flemish Community. 

Would you like to learn more about the captivating history of the site and the Teutonic Order?

Timeline of Alden Biesen

1190
1198
1219
1220
1244
1309
1361
1410
1467
1525
1543
1572
1606
1616
1637
1638
1652
1700
1715
1745
1769
1786
1797
1809
1929
1971
2000
2014
  • 1190: In the Palestinian heat

    The German Order of the Teutonic Knights is established in 1190 in Acre (Palestine) as a civilian hospital brotherhood, an initiative of merchants from Bremen and Lübeck. Using ship’s sails, they erect a tent hospital to treat the ill and injured knights taking part in the Third Crusade. To this day, charity remains one of the pillars of the Teutonic Order.

  • 1198: Sword and cross

    Eight years after its foundation and out of necessity for a permanent presence of Christian soldiers in the Holy Land, the Teutonic Order is converted into a monastic order of knights. Though the tasks of mental care and charity are not abandoned, the Order’s new ideal is the struggle against those of another faith. Like the Order of St. John and the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Order is made up of knights and priests. Its members are bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

  • 1219: Violent Crusade in Egypt

    During grand master Hermann von Salza’s reign (1209-1239) the Order’s ranks swell considerably. During that period, the Teutonic Knights, including knights from our regions, join in the Fifth Crusade, a successful campaign against Islam near Damiette, Egypt (1219-1221). As a result, the Order gains notoriety in the Netherlands. The Teutonic Order is granted a number of privileges throughout Europe and donations of land and houses help bankroll its battle at the borders of Christianity. In the Netherlands, gifts also included parishes, chapels and hospitals. Within a very short timespan, the Order becomes a European large landowner, a multinational avant la lettre.

  • 1220: Donation of the pilgrimage chapel

    Arnold III, the Count of Loon and his sister Mechtildis d’Are, the abbess of Munsterbilzen, support the ideals of the crusaders wholeheartedly and in 1220 they donate the pilgrimage chapel in Rijkhoven (Bilzen) to the Teutonic Order. The chapel is built in a place where rush plants (‘biezen’ in Dutch) grow and it is here that the knights of the Order choose to build a stronghold. The gift of 1220 is widely emulated and Alden Biesen develops into the headquarters of the bailiwick of Biesen, with 12 subordinate commanderies  in the Rhine-Meuse area. A commandery is headed by a commander; the Grand Commander resides in Alden Biesen. Initially all revenues are spent on the Crusades but as of the late Middle Ages, the Teutonic Knights use their income to finance a life of luxury.

  • 1244: Jerusalem falls

    In 1244, Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of Christendom, is lost to Islam and in 1291, the Teutonic Order loses its last Palestinian stronghold to the Muslims. As a result, the Order concentrates its presence in the Baltic Sea region, where it has been involved in a struggle against the Prussians and the Lithuanians since 1230. It is here that the Teutonic Order would help to shape the history of the Middle Ages.

  • 1309: A stronghold of knights

    In 1309, the Order establishes the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic Region with Malbork (Marienburg), Poland, as its seat of power. From this stronghold, the Order keeps organising Crusades against pagan Lithuania. This crusader state has its heyday in the 14th century. In the late Middle Ages, taking part in this type of Crusade is the dream of every Western knight. The struggle in the east but also the agricultural crisis of the late Middle Ages, the war raging in the Holy Roman Empire and the misgovernment of various of the Order’s bailiwicks draws increasing numbers of noblemen to the Teutonic Order. Before long, nuns, (half-)brothers and familiars are no longer welcome. From the citizenry only priests are accepted. The international Order of Brotherhood of the 13th century evolves into a federation of regional noble corporations. In the end, the Order becomes a hospital of the German nobility, an institute enabling sons of the old nobility to generate an income befitting their social status.

  • 1361: Exit Alden Biesen!

    Around 1361 the Teutonic Order abandons the dangerous and humid region of Alden Biesen. The Order establishes its new seat of the bailiwick of Biesen in the commandery of New Biesen, a safe haven protected by the ramparts of Maastricht. Over the next few decades, a luxurious Grand Commandery is built there. Conversely, the old monastery buildings of Alden Biesen are abandoned to the elements. Apart from the pilgrimage chapel, all ties between the Order and Rijkhoven appear severed.

  • 1410: The Battle of Tannenberg

    In the Baltic region, the surrounding superpowers lay siege to the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights. For the Teutonic Order, the Battle of Tannenberg/Grunwald (Stebark in Poland) between the Order and the forces of Poland-Lithuania in 1410 is the beginning of the end. The Crusader State is heavily taxed but its territorial integrity remains intact. In 1466, the western part of Prussia falls to Poland. Over the next century, the Order loses all its possessions in the Baltic Sea region.

  • 1467: Reorganisation measures in Biesen

    The ostentatious lifestyle of the 15th century knights brings the bailiwick of Biesen to the edge of bankruptcy. Here, too, the old ideals are dead and buried. Gone are the days when the Order’s rich sources of income are allocated to charity. Instead, the knights use the Order’s considerable resources to pay for a life of luxury and beautiful residences, such as New Biesen in Maastricht. In 1467, a radical reorganisation of the bailiwick of Biesen is required. One of the measures limits the number of entries for both priests and knights to twenty, a measure that stays in effect until the late 18th century. Hence the importance of lineage: to be allowed to enter (and be entitled to a portion of the revenues), postulants have to prove they descend from at least four noble ‘quarterings’ or ancestors. Around 1600 this number is increased to eight and, as of 1671, candidates must prove at least 16 quarters. As a result, the considerable wealth of the Teutonic Knights benefits a very limited group of families in the Rhine-Meuse region, and this for several centuries.

  • 1525: The loss of the Baltic region

    Following a hopeless war, grand master Albrecht von Brandenburg subjects to the king of Poland in 1525. He leaves the Order, converts to Protestantism, secularises the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights and is named the first duke of Prussia. In 1561-1562 the Order also loses control of Livonia. With all of its holdings now located in the Holy Roman Empire, the Frankish settlement of Mergentheim becomes the new seat of power. Biesen is the second most wealthy of the Order’s twelve bailiwicks or provinces within the Holy Roman Empire.

  • 1543: Alden Biesen rises again

    In 1543, Grand Commander Winand von Breill, who also held other important offices under Charles V, orders an opulent summer residence built on the tax-free but run-down estate of Alden Biesen. The main purpose of the residence is to showcase its occupant’s high status. The construction in 1566 of the bell tower completes the castle, which is built in the tradition of the moated castles of the late Middle Ages. Work on the outer baileys starts in 1571. Alden Biesen is rising like a phoenix from the ashes but the site would remain a permanent construction site until the 18th century.

  • 1572: Grand Commander Reuschenberg

    Heinrich von Reuschenberg (1572-1603) is a dynamic Grand Commander who navigates his bailiwick through the Eighty Years’ War and the Reformation. His impressive education policy is one of his hobbyhorses. He founds twelve scholarships at the university of Cologne and four at the Jesuit College of Maastricht. In Gemert, he establishes a Latin school with a scholarship system. His successor, Amstenrade, completes the project in 1622 with the establishment of a College of the Teutonic Knights at the university of Leuven. Within the bailiwick of Biesen, these educational institutions are instrumental in recruiting civil servants and priests for the Teutonic Knights. Reuschenberg is deservedly called the second founder of the bailiwick of Biesen.

  • 1606: A new assignment

    With the Crusades well and truly over, the Order has lost its purpose and therefore the reason for its existence. In 1610, grand master Maximilian of Austria gives the Order a new purpose and a new assignment. Before he was appointed commander, every knight of the Order had to take part in three crusades against the Turks of serve three years in a garrison to protect the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Incidentally, most knights went on to become high-ranking officers in the Habsburg or other armies. In this manner, the Teutonic Order indirectly preserves its military nature. Grand masters are usually recruited from a Catholic dynasty (Habsburg, Pfalz-Neuburg or Wittelsbach). The position adds to the grand master’s prestige and fortune and in return, the Teutonic Order is governed and protected by the grand master’s dynasty. This is very important since the Teutonic Order is beleaguered throughout the 16-18th by the absolutist states within whose borders the Order’s many scattered – and often tax-free – possessions are located. Thanks to this royal support, intensive lobbying and a variety of compromises, the Teutonic Order is able to hold its ground until the end of the 18th century.

  • 1616: Amstenrade’s guesthouse

    In 1616, Grand Commander Amstenrade (1605-1634), who also supports the Catholic Reformation, orders construction of the so-called guesthouse of Alden Biesen, where a priest belonging to the Teutonic Order teaches local youths. The term ‘guesthouse’ refers to the fact that the priest also keeps the accounts of the medieval hospice for the pilgrims. At the time, all earnings of the old institution are allocated to charity. Between 1715 and 1716, Grand Commander Schönborn turns the guesthouse into a hostelry for artisans, tradesmen, visitors and foreign staff. Alden Biesen often receives high-ranking guests and therefore also a variety of suppliers. There is never a dull moment, especially when the Grand Commander is staying in Alden Biesen.

  • 1637: Utrecht secedes

    In 1637, the Catholic Teutonic Order of Mergentheim and the Protestant bailiwick of Utrecht go their separate ways after the latter decides that knights can marry. The true cause of the rift, however, lies in the fact that Utrecht insists on stressing the regional character of the bailiwick and wants to do away with the influence on their territory of the grand master of the Teutonic Order. To date, the Bailiwick of Utrecht of the Teutonic Order still exists as a noble and chivalric institution.

  • 1638: A new church for the Teutonic Order

    In the first half of the 17th century, the bailiwick of Utrecht fully converts to Calvinism while under the Grand Commanders Reuschenberg († 1603) and Amstenrade († 1634), the neighbouring bailiwick of Biesen takes on the characteristics of a Catholic stronghold. The new church of Alden Biesen, commissioned by Amstenrade, is an excellent case in point. The baroque church of the Order replaces the old medieval Chapel of Our Lady. For the soft furnishings, Grand Commander Godfried Huyn van Geleen (1635-1657) hires skilled craftsmen from Liège such as Pierre Defraisne and the brothers Leonard and Gilles de Froidmont. A gallery of Tuscan pillars is added to the church and completed in 1635. The apparent aim of this gallery is the creation of a new hospice but it was never used as such because by this time, the Order has limited its charitable tasks to a bare minimum.

  • 1652: Huyn van Geleen’s gate tower

    Towering 30 metres above the moated castle, the impressive gatehouse is not only the former main entrance, it is also the final addition to the estate. The gate tower of 1652, erected by Grand Commander Huyn van Geleen, faces in the direction of Maastricht. The gatekeeper resides in the adjoining Trumpeter’s house, which was built in 1663. Opposite is the Apostle House, built in 1719-1720 by Grand Commander Schönborn to accommodate twelve local poor people but the building never served this purpose.  Paradoxically enough, the edifices built by the Teutonic Order become more and more imposing. These delusions of grandeur are intended to offset the Order’s waning importance.

  • 1700: Wassenaar’s modernisation

    Commissioned by Grand Commander Hendrik van Wassenaar (1690-1709), the French garden and the orangery date back to the turn of the 18th century. The Dutchman is chosen to lead the Order in hopes of winning back the Calvinistic bailiwick of Utrecht. Wassenaar starts with the modernisation of the moated castle, of which his Grand Commander’s office in the castle’s east wing is a splendid remnant. The master builders at the time are architect du Chastillon and master Lambert Engelen. Grand Commanders are also children of the age and as rich noblemen they are fashion-conscious. Over the years, nearly every land commander makes his mark on Alden Biesen, either through interior decoration, renovation or structural alterations.

  • 1715: Schönborn’s nobiliary residence

    Damian Hugo von Schönborn (1709-1743), Grand Commander of both Biesen and Marburg, bishop and cardinal, follows in Wassenaar’s footsteps. In 1715-1716, he transforms the renaissance castle into a nobiliary residence. The west wing of the moated castle is converted into a corps de logis, with the grand staircase in the middle. Large French windows infuse the castle with light. The forecourt is also thoroughly renovated and reinforces the castle’s representative character. Although a building buff, Schönborn is even more invested in the spiritual renewal of his bailiwick than in the outward appearance of the Order. Still, like his predecessors, he is unable to stop the tide of time.

  • 1745: Sickingen’s apartment

    The east wing of the moated castle harbours the apartment of Grand Commander Ferdinand Damian von Sickingen (1743-1749). Dating back to 1745, it adjoins Wassenaar’s office and consists of a salon, a library with Sickingen’s official portrait, a portrait gallery of his relatives and an older ceiling decoration by Liège baroque painter Walthère Damery. Italian plasterers Giuseppe Moretti and Carlo Spinedi are responsible for the lovely plasterwork in the salon. The end result is a wonderful example of Liège rococo. The Grand Commanders have always had a good eye for these things.

  • 1769: The Tithe Barn and the Riding School

    Between 1769 and 1775, Grand Commander Caspar Anton von der Heyden named Belderbusch (1766-1784) orders builders to demolish the transept of the forecourt that connects the two outer baileys. Along that same axis, two classicist buildings are erected: the Riding School and the Tithe Barn. This opens up the moated castle to the landscape, giving the castle complex the layout it has kept until this day.

  • 1786: Reischach’s landscape park

    The English Park marks the final phase of the centuries-old castle architecture of the Teutonic Order in Alden Biesen. In 1786-1787, Grand Commander Franz von Reischach (1784-1807) commissions this landscape park from garden architect Ghislain-Joseph Henry from Dinant. It consists of a slope, monumental trees and exotic shrubs, a grass lawn, serpentine paths, water features and a few follies like the Roman Minerva temple, Tatar cottages, a little Chinese temple, a cave, a ruin and a hermitage. From a historical point of view, not just the garden but the whole of Alden Biesen would eventually turn into a paradise lost

  • 1797: Sold at auction!

    In 1794, the inevitable French revolutionaries make their appearance in the Rhine-Meuse region. They put the knights and priests of the Order to flight and confiscate Alden Biesen and all of the other holdings of the Order. In 1797 the estate is sold at auction in Maastricht to Guillaume Claes, a resident of Hasselt. Alden Biesen loses its international character and the privatisation foreshadows the decline that follows. The building complex deteriorates visibly and its interior furnishings are sold without scruples. After WWII, the site appears lost to posterity.

  • 1809: Dissolution by Napoleon

    On 24 April 1809 and with a single stroke of his pen, Napoleon Bonaparte dissolves the Teutonic Order in all the states of the German Confederation of the Rhine. The Order only survives in the Habsburg patrimonial lands. With the demise of the Donau Monarchy in 1918, the entire Teutonic Order appears dead in the water.

  • 1929: A thorough reform

    A thorough reform of the Order is successfully completed in 1929. The Chivalric component is disbanded and the Order is converted into a purely ecclesiastical institution of priests, nuns and   familiars who pursue the goals of the Teutonic Order. These branches are henceforth placed under the supervision of a priest grand master, with the Order’s seat now located in Vienna.

  • 1971: Purchase and fire

    On 8 March 1971, a chimney fire burns the moated castle to the ground. On 5 July, the Belgian government nevertheless upholds its earlier decision in principle to purchase Alden Biesen. The downside is obviously the necessity to carry out a thorough restoration. The large-scale restoration that follows and the estate’s international character make Alden Biesen what it is today: a European cultural landmark owned by the Flemish Community.

  • 2000: Grand master Bruno Platter

    In 2000 Bruno Platter is elected the 65th grand master of the German Order of the Teutonic Knights. He now heads an Order with branches in Germany, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It is an order that pursues spiritual, parochial, pedagogical and charitable goals. Today, the Order consists of 90-odd friars and priests, over 200 nuns and some 700 familiars (of which several dozen in Belgium).

  • 2014: The historic site is alive and kicking!

    Today, Alden Biesen is one of the largest heritage sites in Flanders with thousands of visitors each year. The centre targets an international, national and local audience. The historic and European appeal of Alden Biesen is complementary with the Grand Commandery’s erstwhile significance. Teeming with life, Alden Biesen can look forward to a future as interesting as its past.

    Today Alden Biesen is known for its European connection as well as its historic, contemporary, cultural and tourist activities. In addition, the centre has also built a reputation as a top location for conferences and meetings.

Bibliography and library

Over the years, Alden Biesen has built an impressive collection of photographs, books and documents detailing its own history and operation. (Amateur) historians, members of the press and other interested parties can visit our library and multimedia centre in Alden Biesen. Meanwhile, we are working to make all this information available online as well.

Please go to http://www.librarything.com/catalog/AldenBiesen for the current online collection.

Personal information
Intrests

Alden Biesen

Welcome to Alden Biesen

A magnificent heritage site, an international culture and conference centre and a tourist draw:

The Grand Commandery Alden Biesen has more than one ace up its sleeve. Originally built by the Teutonic Order, it is now one of the largest castle estates of the Euregion.

Alden Biesen falls under the Culture, Youth, Sports and Media department of the Flemish Government.

Discover the history of Alden Biesen

The history of the Grand Commandery Alden Biesen dates back to the 13th century Crusades. In 1190, brave knights founded the German Order of the Teutonic Knights. Alden Biesen was the principal town of a bailiwick or province of this Teutonic Order. For centuries, the castle housed the Grand Commander, a powerful man who governed the province of Biesen. Hence the name: Grand Commandery Alden Biesen.

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