Like most medieval castles, Heidelberg Castle was built in stages reflecting its owner’s needs and status. Originally constructed by the bishops of Worms, the castle passed into Karl Hohenstaufer’s possession with his inheritance of the Rhine-Frankish territories in 1155.
As Konrad consolidated his holdings, the town of Heidelberg became the territories’ center and his family seat. He enhanced the castle’s ramparts and stone walls to protect the growing town. Inside the stone perimeter, he ruled his lands from his wooden residences and administrative center.
By the thirteenth century, the Hohenstaufer dynasty was emerging as a political power power in the old German Empire. A succession of Counts Palatine undertook to renovate and expand the castle to reflect the family’s rise in status.
Rupriecht III, after acquiring the title of king in 1400, added an almost square courtyard and three stone buildings used for residences and administration purposes. His successor, Ludwig V, finished the stone buildings, and expanded the castle’s fortifications.
Heidelberg Castle now boasted a mighty defense tower, a broad deep moat, and a new entrance. The entrance had a gate tower and a drawbridge. The stone buildings’ elaborately carved exteriors displayed the wealth of the Hohenstaufer family. Striking among the carvings were sixteen gilded figures representing various mythological heroes and noteworthy Counts Palatine. Ludwig V’s likeness claimed a central position among the figures. As an emphasis of his high rank in the German Empire, his coat of arms sported the imperial apple.
Elector Friedrich (1548-1556) changed Heidelberg Castle from a fortress to a Renaissance Palace with the addition of the Hall-Of-Mirrors Building and the Hortus Palatinus garden complex. The Hall-Of-Mirrors Building was a modern sovereign apartment and an ornate chapel.
Friedrich V, married to James I’s daughter Elisebeth Stuart in 1603, used his construction to emphasize his close ties with the English monarchy. His English Building was built in the Gothic style, so popular in England at the time. The completion of this building marked the high point of Heidelberg Castle as a palace. Friedrich V’s successor, Karl Ludwig, contented himself with repairing the buildings and collecting artwork and furnishings to decorate the interior.
With territorial wars and the decline of the Counts Palatine in the late 1600’s, Heidelberg Castle suffered two devastating occupations by the French. In 1688-89, the French dynamited the Thick Tower and parts of the outer wall. Although the castle was hastily repaired, it was recaptured again in 1693. This time the destruction by the occupying French army was so great the successive Counts Palatine removed their family residence to Dusseldorf rather than rebuild the castle.