The Arch-preceptory of Alden Biesen

Translation : Andrew Zolnai

The Arch-preceptory of Alden Biesen
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Belgique, province of Limburg

Belgium, province of Limburg, around 20 km South-east of Hasselt and around 15 km west of Maastricht (NL), commune of Bilzen.

The origin of the creation of the Teutonic preceptory of Alden Biesen dates back in 1220, when the Count of Looz, Arnold III(1), and his sister Mechtildis van Are, abbess of Munsterbilzen(2) donated to the Teutonic Order a pilgrimage chapel in Rijkhoven. In that place grew "biezen " (reed in old flemish). Alden Biesen means Old Reeds.

It's at this place that the Knights built their preceptory. The gift of 1220 was followed by several others and Alden Biesen became the main seat of the Teutonic Province of Biesen, which will include over the centuries twelve dependent preceptories(3) in the region of Meuse and Rhin.
Each of them benefitted from income that was used at first to support the fight of the Order in the Holy Land, but also for the conquest of Prussia.

Around 1361, the Teutonic Order left the site of Alden Biesen to settle in the preceptory of Nieuwen Biesen (New Reeds) in Maastricht. The old buildings of Alden Biesen were deserted and almost fell into ruin except the chapel.

Around middle of the 16th century, the Grand Preceptor Winand von Breil(4), undertook to rebuild a magnificent residence onto the ruins of Alden Biesen.
The rebuilding of the castle itself ended in 1566, with the finishing of the great tower.
At the end of the 16th century, the Preceptor Heinrich von Reuschenberg(5) started a policy of religious education to counter the Reformation. He notably created study grants in the University of Cologne and in the Jesuit college of Maastricht. His successor, Edmond Huyn van Amstenraedt(6) continued this project and created a Teutonic College in the University of Louvain. These institutions were recruitment centres for officials and priests of the Order in the region and even beyond.

In the 17th century, as Calvinism reaches the entire region of Utrecht, Alden Biesen remains a Catholic bastion thanks to the actions of the teutonics Preceptors. The medieval chapel is transformed in a church of baroque style. A gallery fitted with a colonnade against the walls of the chapel. This gallery was to be a part of a new hospice for travellers, but it was never built.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the French gardens and the orangery are installed by the Grand Preceptor Hendrik van Wassenaar(7). He also started modernization works of the castle and reassigned several rooms of the castle to change according to fashions of the time. All the successive Grand Preceptors did the same, transforming the castle according to their fantaisies. The last important installation was made in 1786-1787, when the Grand Preceptor Franz von Reischach(8) installed an impressive English park, where one can find monumental trees, exotic shrubs and bushes, fountains and water games, a roman temple replica, a grotto, an hermitage, a chinese temple and many other such folies.

Having survived the two World Wars with little damage, a big fire ravaged the castle in 1971. State property since then, the castle was entierly renovated. Ceded to the Flemish Region after the federation of the Belgian State, it was adapted for use as convention centre, and it hosts a permanent exhibition of the history of the Teutonic Order.

Notes :

(1)Arnoul III is Count of Rieneck (Bavaria) from 1216 to 1221 and Count of Looz from 1218 to 1221. He was son of Gerard II, Count of Looz and of Adélaïde of Gelderland. He died without issue in 1221. The County of Looz was located in the area which is nowadays the Belgian province of Limburg.

(2)Munsterbilzen is a small village located near the Preceptory of Biesen. During the 7th century, St. Landrada founded there an abbey for Benedictine nuns. Ida of Ardennes, mother of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin, first king of Jerusalem, received there her education. The abbey is an imperial domain, and the abbess, princess of the Holy Empire, is sovereign on her lands.

(3)These preceptories were : Gemert near Bois-le-Duc ('s-Hertogenbosch); Siersdorf, in the Duchy of Jülich (around 25km north from Aachen); Bernissem, near Sint-Truiden; Jonge Biesen, in Köln ; Bekkevoort, near Diest; Gruitrode, near Bree; Fouron-Saint-Pierre; Saint-Aegidius or Saint-Gilles, in Aachen; Ordingen, near Sint-Truiden; Ramersdorf, in a suburb of Bonn; Saint-Andreas in Liège and Nieuwen Biesen near Maastricht.

(4)Winand Breil or von Breiel was Great Preceptor of Alden Biesen from 1536 to 1554. He was also preceptor for the provinces af Friesland, Groningen and Overijssel. He dies on January 5th 1554.

(5)Heinrich von Reuschenberg came from a high noble family of the German Empire. He is born in 1528 in the castle of Setterich, on the territory of the city of Baesweiler (20km from Aachen). He enters the Teutonic Order in 1547. He first occupies a secondary place in the preceptory of Maastricht before becoming Preceptor of Ramersdorf in 1551. He becomes also preceptor of several other preceptories in the area before being elected as Grand Preceptor of Alden Biesen in 1577. He occupies this position until his death in 1603.

(6)Edmond Huyn von Amstenraedt was Grand Preceptor of Alden-Biesen from 1605 to 1634. He succeeds Willem Frambach Bock von Lichtenberg, who was in this position only for two years, from 1603 to 1605. Edmond Huyn von Amstenraedt was also the nephew of Heinrich von Reuschenberg.

(7)Hendrik van Wassenaer tot Warmond was Grand Preceptor of Alden-Biesen from 1690 to 1707.

(8)Franz Johan von Reischach was the last Grand Preceptor of Alden-Biesen. He held this position from 1784 to 1794, time when the Teutonic knights were expelled from the "domain" because of popular riots due to the French Revolution.


Plus de ressources sur le Web... More informations on the Web
  1. "Official website of the Arch-preceptory of Alden-Biesen."
Webmaster : Christophe Staf
Translation : Andrew Zolnai
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