A Little Bit of History
The city of Weitra originated in the early 13th century under Hadmar II of Kuenring and thus is approx. 800 years old. Hadmar came here from Altweitra – a settlement in 2 km distance founded in the mid-12th century, and mentioned in the period of 182-1190 1 as a toll station. In the period between 1201-1208 he relocated his premises from the plain near to the back of a granite hill and had castle and town built here.
The origin of the name "Weitra" is not clear. It could come from the Middle High German (in this case meaning „wide stream”) or from the Slavic (then its meaning is „Spiral Creek”). According to a legend, the original name meant "Vitus' revenge" (= Veitrach, Weitra) referring to a legendary victory of a certain Veit in 628 over pagan armies.
The new settlement was a planned city with a large triangular square in its center and was probably protected by walls since its very founding, which was unusual at this time and underpins the military importance of the town as a border fortress. The largely preserved city walls follow the natural course of the edge of a large rock formation, and was reinforced by the castle and the new, fortified parish church of Peter and Paul, to which the old parish-rights of St. Peter's church at Altweitra were transferred. Weitra became the important strategic center of the territory "Districtus Witrensis" in which the Kuenrings ruled in full sovereignty.
Under the rule of Hadmar's sons Hadmar III. and Heinrich III., the so-called Kuenring"dogs", Weitra was one of their main bases in the uprising against Duke Friedrich II in 1230/1231. In the following years the Kuenring dynasty split up. The dominion of Weitra became the residence of the branch called Kuenring-Weitra that in the second half of the 13th century took the party of King Otakar II of Bohemia. After the victory of King Rudolf of Habsburg over Otakar II in 1278, Weitra was at first only provisorily ruled by the new Habsburg princes, but after the uprising of 1295/1296 in which Leutold I of Kuenring (1243-1312) had played a leading role, she definitely became a part the Habsburg's state.
The dominion of Weitra remained in the possession of the Prince until 1581 and at this time was managed by the princely nurses or pledged to the most powerful noble families of the country, including the Wallseer, the Counts of Oettingen, the Earl of Schaunberg, the Maissauer, Sternberger, Prueschenk-Hardegg, Breuner and the Greiß.
In the 13th century Weitra developed into a town, as the place was already called a town shortly after 1300 in the Zwettler “bear-skin“ chronicle. The legal development of a community of citizens took place during the 14th century: in 1312, a municipal judge is mentioned, in 1341 the City Council, in 1340 the city seal and a mayor in 1397. The oldest known city law originates from 1321. It primarily regulated economic issues, so for instance it was decided that the commercial road should lead through the city, whilst up to then it ran through the Weiherbach valley, where in short time a suburb had arisen.
In the late Middle Ages the Princes of Habsburg supported the important frontier fortress town by granting fair rights and economic privileges. In 1360 in connection with a fair privilege Rudolf IV. awarded the city a monopoly for beer brewing, which was of greatest importance for the economic development of the town. Still in the beginning of the modern age brewing made up one of the citizens' most profitable businesses. In its heyday more than 30 citizens held the so-called "Brewing Justice". Weitra was considered the "Mecca" of Austrian beer brewing. The local brewing guild was said to be the oldest in Austria, and its masters had to take the exams even for brewers from Vienna. Besides the brewing business also trade, in particular salt trade, was very important. Weitra reached the peak of her economic, political and cultural blossom in the first half of the 15th century, whilst the subsequent centuries were characterized by an alternation between economic activity and depression.
By the end of the Middle Ages Weitra was represented in Parliament and reportedly lost this right by 1500. With the loss of this seat a struggle for the rights of the citizens against the respective dominion owner began, which the citizens could only lose. As a reminiscence of the former bourgeois self-consciousness the superb Renaissance-style sgraffito-house still dominates the scene on the town square (Rathausplatz 4), but what again dominates the entire city is the magnicificent castle on the top of the hill built by the imperial chamberlain Colonel Wolf Rumpf, who ruled over Weitra since 1581, first as a fief of Rudolph II, and then as his freehold since 1592. He had the castle built between 1590 and 1606 according to the plans of the imperial architect Pietro Ferrabosco in the very place of the older fortress erected by the Kuenrings. By marriage of his widow with Count Friedrich V. of Fürstenberg-Heiligenburg the dominion fell to the Count and later Prince of Fürstenberg, and since 1755 the castle is held by the dynasty's line Fürstenberg-Weitra. They are still the owner of the castle and its large associated property. At the occasion of the Waldviertel's regional exhibition held here in 1994, the castle was refurbished and opened to the public. The castle's arcaded Renaissance courtyard is roofed by giant umbrellas standing on massive hopper pillars, which creates a wonderful and rain-safe atmosphere for all kinds of cultural and social events; the Castle Museum is dedicated to the history of the city, the brewery museum in the cellars presents the centuries-old beer tradition.
Because of its border position, the city had to suffer repeatedly during wars and upraisings and was repeatedly besieged, for instance by the Hussites (1426), during the Peasants' War of 1596 and also several times during the Thirty Years' War. However, it could successfully resist the attacks of Count Mansfeld (1620), the Croats (1634) and Swedes (1645). In 1741 the city was temporarily occupied by Bavarians and French, in the early 19th century the Napoleonic wars brought about mischief and suffering, and in the 20th century both world wars cost the lives of many of the town's citizens.
For centuries, Weitra has maintained the character of a peasant town with little commerce and industry, although a major textile factory was built in the 19th century at the outskirts of the city. In 1990 this factory was converted into the "Museum Old textile factory" which now gives insight into the history of the Waldviertel textile production as well as into everyday life and into world of factory work around 1900. In the second half of the 20th century, tourism became an important economic factor for the city, as it can offer historical sights and nature, provides health care, informs about the old art of brewing. The Brauhotel was built in close cooperation with the nearby spa village Moorbad Harbach. In one of the smallest brewpubs of Austria tasty house beer is still produced the way it used to in the old days.