Karlshafen, a Huguenot Town in Germany

The Invalidenhaus, Bad Karlshafen. Photograph by Tony Wilson

The Huguenot Society’s organized tours have, since 1989, visited three towns which, from their foundation, were particular places of refuge for Huguenots. They are Franschhoek in the Cape Province of South Africa, Portarlington in the Republic of Ireland, and Bad Karlshafen in Hesse, Germany. We visited Karlshafen in 1996 and again in 2008.

Karlshafen is named after Karl, the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel (1670 -1730), who welcomed Huguenot and Waldensian refugees to his principality. LIke most of Germany, Hessen-Kassel had been impoverished by the Thirty Years War and left with abandoned villages and ruinous towns. Karl was very impressed by the bustling prosperity of the Netherlands on a visit there, and invited to Kassel the Huguenot Paul du Ry, who had designed the fortifications at Maastricht. Paul du Ry is credited with advising Karl to welcome Huguenot and Waldensian refugees to his principality and to give them generous privileges.

Karl issued his Freedom Concession on 18 April 1685. This was six months before Louis XIV of France revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had brought in toleration of Protestantism. Louis’ Edict of Fontainebleau, issued in October 1685, was the culmination of increasing persecution of French Protestants.

Landgrave Karl followed up with generous tax breaks to refugees, the promise of sites to build houses and various measures of practical aid. In his capital Kassel he created from 1688 a new quarter, the Oberneustadt, to house the Huguenot refugees, and in 1689 Karl laid the first stone of the octagonal Huguenot temple, the Karlskirche. The architect was Paul du Ry. This, like nearly all the centre of Kassel, was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943, but has since been rebuilt with its original shape. As we approached the church in 1996 the bells rang in our honour.

Huguenots arriving in 1699
© DHM, Bad Karlshafen
The Invalidenhaus
© DHM, Bad Karlshafen


In 1699 Landgrave Karl founded a new town at Sieburg where two rivers joined - the Diemel and the Weser. The first building was the Invalidenhaus, erected in 1706 as a home for wounded soldiers. From 1717 the town was known as Karlshafen – Karl’s harbour, or significantly, haven. Karl had great plans for this town as a trading hub. He aimed, by the creation of a canal, to enable goods to avoid the heavy duties imposed by the Duke of Brunswick in Münden. There would be connections to the sea. The harbour was built, the Weser canalized and the new canal started, but it was never finished, advancing only 17 kilometres. The town never became a bustling metropolis, and the crescent shown in the model below was never built. In 1730 the Huguenot apothecary Jacques Galland discovered the salt-laden springs and reported  this to the Landgrave. In 1763 a salt works was built, and from 1838 Karlshafen developed as a spa, using the spring water. Bad was added to the name in 1977, although most locals forego the addition.

The original plan for Karlshafen. © DHM, Bad Karlshafen


The Huguenot refugees were first housed in the neighbouring village of Helmershausen until 37 families could be settled in the first houses ready in the new town. Other Huguenot and Waldensian refugees had been settled round about: as early as 1686 the Huguenot pastor David Clement arrived in the area with around 286 refugees, who were settled in the town of Hofgeismar and in two villages named Carlsdorf and Mariendorf, after Karl and his wife. The village of Schoneburg was founded in 1699 by refugees from the Piedmont and the Dauphiné. A later group of Waldensian refugees settled near Karlshafen in 1722, having come back to middle Germany after first trying to settle in the Duchy of Württemberg, and then wandering far and wide. They named their colony Gottstreu, God the faithful.

In 1996 we heard a sermon about these Waldensians in flawless English from Pastor Jochen Desel, then President of the German Huguenot Society, in the modern Evangelisches Stephanuskirche in Karlshafen. The Swiss cantons, overwhelmed by refugees, had asked the German Protestant states to take them in. Using biblical references to Moses, Pastor Desel likened the travails of the Waldensians to those of the Israelites leaving Egypt. The Waldensian peasants, having fled the mountains of Piedmont, were turned away from Switzerland, Württemberg, Gutenburg, Hanover, Prussia and Denmark, but Landgrave Karl welcomed them.

Pastor Desel took us on a tour of the villages. In the church of Mariendorf is the inscription: “Honore l’Eternel de ton Bien et des Premiers des Jours ton Revenue et tes Greniers seront remplis de l’Abondance.”  [Honour the Eternal One with your wealth, and from the very first days your income and your granaries will be filled to abundance]. Pastor Desel had arrived as a new Dean twenty years earlier in time to rescue the pulpit from an antique shop, leaving its owner the pews. Gottstreu church has pillars made from tree trunks elegantly placed in perfect symmetry, and in the village is a Waldensian Museum, illustrating a simple peasant way of life.

Gottstreu church. Wikimedia Commons


We lunched at Kelze, another place of Huguenot and Waldensian refuge. The restaurant was named after Jean Bonnet, one of the first twelve settlers in Gottstreu. His name is commemorated on a plaque in the village, along with the eleven others.  Over lunch we heard a rendition of the nonsensical doggerel, a mixture of Dauphinois French and German, still sung by girls at the May festival (Kelzer Mayence). Scholars have been trying to decipher the meaning.

We also visited the magnificent Schloss Fasanerie near Fulda in 1996 as guests of the then Landgrave of Hesse, the late Moritz von Hessen-Kassel. He gave us a guided tour of the superb collections, as well as a superb lunch.


The German Huguenot Museum at Bad Karlshafen. Wikimedia Commons


Huguenot heritage is well displayed in two local museums. That of Hofgeismar has a Huguenot section. Among the exhibits are an Italian Protestant Bible, a frame for hiding a Bible and a collection of Danish silver. The German Huguenot Museum in Karlshafen is in an old tobacco factory, restored after it had fallen into ruin. It explains the history of the Huguenots in France and of those who settled in Germany, in particular in Brandenburg-Prussia, Hessen-Kassel and Franconia. There is furniture from the Cevennes, the Huguenot stronghold in France, which was donated by Clement Vasseret, prefect of Nice, whose Huguenot ancestors fled Queyras. Among material about the persecution of Huguenots in France is an order to apothecaries to report any dying Protestants, so that they would not escape the ministrations of the Catholic priests. 

Furniture from the Cevennes. © DHM, Bad Karlshafen


The Huguenot heritage is also kept alive by descendants in the area. In Karlshafen there are still five families descended from the original Huguenot settlers, albeit sometimes with their surnames Germanized. In 1996 we posed for photographs with Herr Gustav Adolf Lantelmé, a cobbler. We also met Mrs Luise Kelly, a leading light in creating the Huguenot Museum.  She showed us a psalter of 1660 from the Cevennes and a portrait of her ancestor Marie Sechehaye, dated 1751. Marie’s father, a pastor, had fled France in 1683 disguised as a coachman. 

Tony Wilson


Further reading

The German Huguenot Museum, Bad Karlshafen -                                                                                      http://www.huguenot-museum-germany.com/huguenots/galleries/huguenot-portraits/s-z/sechehaye-marie-1.php  

The German Waldensian Association - https://waldenser.org/ 

The English Committee in aid of The Waldensian Church Missions - https://www.waldensian.org.uk


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