Descendant of Helena von Dörnberg
Helena, wife of Landgrave Philipp of Hessen's Vice-Regent in Kassel, Rudolf Schenk zu Schweinsberg(1), was born in 1502 to Wilhelm von Dörnberg, Burgmann (castellan) in the towered imperial town of Friedberg, and his wife Margaretha von Carben. (It is not known whether Helena was actually born in Friedberg, but this seems a reasonable assumption.) Helena von Dörnberg's mother was a descendant of the powerful Frankfurt luxury goods merchant and diplomat Johannes Goldstein, in whose palace Emperor Friedrich II was often entertained; while her father was scion of Johann von Döringbergk, one of the nobles sent to Pressburg in 1211 to negotiate the betrothal of Landgrave Ludwig IV. of Thuringia and the future St. Elisabeth Princess of Hungary.
The Frau Statthalterin died on 3 August 1544, aged about 42, while giving birth to her twelfth child (a boy, which also died). As can be seen from the following letters, this tragedy was a blow of almost mortal intensity to Helena's husband, Rudolf. Such indeed was the Vice-Regent's misery that his prince and friend, Landgrave Philipp, wrote him three days after her decease (for the period an extraordinarily short space of time), reminding the Statthalter that he still had a great deal to live for—his children, of which he then had seven living, his friends who cared about him; and adjuring Rudolf to recollect his responsibility as a mortal man to bear his grief with fortitude, "as the Almighty decrees."
Rudolf's calm reply is remarkable: gracious under pressure, considerate toward a well-wisher whose ideal of married life did not embrace monogamy (Philipp had by this time two wives: Christina of Saxony and her former maid-in-waiting, Margaretha von der Saale), and sincere gratefulness for condolences from the Court many of which must surely have been the 16th century equivalent of the modern "In Sympathy" card. In such black hours as these, however, even a bit of tinseled brightness can have its uses.
A graduate of Erfurt nearly contemporaneously with Martin Luther, Rudolf Schenk sought his ultimate surcease in paper, pen and poetry: he wrote on the back of the Landgrave's letter a eulogy to his wife which gives us, over 400 years later, a glimpse of what Helena meant to him, and what sort of a man he must have been to deserve the company of such a woman. Here one sees a humanist education at work, with Jesus Christ placed next to such fabled characters as Crœsus, Irus the proverbial Beggar of Ithaca, and Lucina, Roman goddess of childbearing, who 'turned her face away' from a woman Rudolf Schenk zu Schweinsberg evidently quite deeply loved and mourned.
One may, of course, interpret the eulogy in various ways, but perhaps the most poignant, and truest, of all is the impression given that Helena's last words—perhaps a confession, or the voicing of concerns for her family—remained to echo in her husband's thoughts, forming the core of his poem. Indeed, the Statthalter required no princely inspiration such as he refers to in his letter to Landgrave Philipp to compose this elegant philosophy, compact of the best of pagan and Christian thinking. And it is possible that the eulogy bears more in it of Helena Schenckin than is at first apparent. Did she tell her husband, "I was afraid of this once, now I am not afraid—nor be you"?
From the confines of the tomb, beyond the boundless riddle of death itself, Rudolf was able to sustain that comforting voice, that consoling thought: we all come to this, king and beggar; and it is faith in the life beyond the physical end of all things that makes the world equal, and love real. And if nothing else, the selfless wish of a woman in pain, that her husband not suffer for her suffering nor lose himself in her demise, comes through clearest and best, truly showing us a love that survived the grave.
Of Rudolf Schenk zu Schweinsberg, who lived seven years longer(2), it was written in chronicler Wigand Lauze's Life and Deeds of Prince Philipp 'the Magnanimous' of Hessen [II, p.318]:
"On the 15th day of December , the good and honorable Rudolf Schenk zu Schweinsberg, Vice-Regent in Kassel, took leave of this earth and was commended unto God's grace .... He was a man to be admired, fair and wise, and sympathetic of heart, one who gave encouragement to all persons. His memory shall serve as an example not only to his descendants but to the rest of the aristocracy as well."
1 Rudolf Schenck zu Schweinsberg, scion of an old Hessian family founded by a Ministerialis in the 12th century, was present at the Siege of Darmstadt in 1518 [led by Franz von Sickingen of the so-called 'Knights' Revolt']; he was Hessian Ambassador to several imperial diets, most notably that at Regensburg in 1541, at which Melanchthon and Luther carried on their spirited debate on the subject of transubstantiation. He was also Provincial-Governor of the Werra valley 1537, and served Landgrave Philipp of Hessen as Vice-Regent in Kassel until his death in 1551. He was a grandson of the Marshall of Hessen and diplomat, Johann Schenck zu Schweinsberg, of Castle Hermannstein near Wetzlar, dubbed a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1501.
2 Rudolf Schenk was buried next to his wife in the St. Martin's or Groß Kirche in Kassel, which some four centuries later did not survive the Allied bombing attacks. The tombs have both disappeared.
Letter from Landgrave Philipp to Rudolf Schenk zu Schweinsberg
By the Grace of God
Philipp Landgrave of Hessen, Count of Katzenelnbogen, etc.
[trans. by Grant Hayter-Menzies]
Councilor and esteemed Friend, we have learned that thy kindly and loving wife hath paid the debt of Nature and is departed in death; to her soul may it please God be gracious and compassionate.
Now in truth, in such grievous loss we grieve not only because of thyself and thy children but also for thy deceased wife, for we have esteemed her an honest woman, and in this way hold for thee and thy children this most gracious sympathy.
And believe our understanding of the sorrow with which thou art laden; but again, the will of the Almighty, in whose hands we all are supplicants, is not to be foreseen. Rather is this a matter for the Almighty particularly to decide; and with superior measure wilt thou be not so burthened with suffering. Thus do we herewith graciously remind thee that thou, as an intelligent man, to thyself and thy children do further harm than thou wilt ever be able to estimate from sorrowing thus so heavily. Be not grieving, rather remove it as much from the spirit as possible, which God decrees, and trust in His judgment. We trust that thou wilt do so, and do assure thee that thou mayst expect our engagement in helping not only with thy children, but thyself as well, to which we are fully inclined.
Dated at Friedwald, the 6th of August, Anno Domini 1544
[Signed] Philipps L.[andgrave] z[u] Hessen sst.
P.[rincipis] C.[ommissione], S. Bing S. sst [secretary].
[In the Landgrave's handwriting] We are inclined to receive one of thy daughters into the service of our wife, and to be a father to thy children. Dated as above.
Philipp Landgrave of Hessen, my hand instead of the Chancellor S. Bing, Secretary, [also] my hand address: Our Vice-Regent in Kassel, Councilor and faithful courtier Rudolph Schenck.
[Note in Rudolf's handwriting] A gracious letter written by my benevolent Prince and Lord after the death of my, Rudolf Schenck's, wife, containing his princely and benevolent consolation to be a father to my children, etc.
[Inscription in Rudolf's Latin hand below the Landgrave's signature:]
Siste gradum quams properes sestine viator et cuius hic semelossa lege.
Letter from Rudolf Schenck zu Schweinsberg
to Landgrave Philipp of Hessen
[trans. by Grant Hayter-Menzies]
Illustrious, most high-born Prince, see, your Grace, my humble, indebted, and sincerest service in all humility, as always. Most gracious lord!
Your Highness' kind condolences, upon learning of my wife's blessed departure, offered to me so graciously, have I received late in the night.
Allow me first, Your Highness, to give thanks for the gracious advice, consolations, and Your Highness' princely offer; I pray God I may live long enough to guerdon your princely grace, your wife, the young lords and ladies and all my benevolent princes and princesses and ladies, whose approbation I in all humility do obediently desire to deserve.
It were better, indeed, to give this concern over to the spirit to fight, which God decrees, and according to His judgment give way to no excess of sorrow. But I cannot but admit that I recall it all in an instant, considering the young untended children who stand about me, crying after their mother: it is difficult to forget.
My saintly wife, whom God now graces, was never given to chatter as women are, nor was she obstinate or unfaithful to me. Rather, in all the time I was married to her she never angered me; she brought up the children to seek and honor God, and to conduct themselves with modesty before all people. Thus I worried little that my children—those God has left me—would be brought to honorableness, and my wife and I both to end our days together in peace.
The Lord has not unjustly applied this intolerable burden that I suffer, in which justice I must trust. Yet God also knows that if only I knew something bad of her, I might be able to forget her absence from my side.
Your Grace's princely consolation and benevolent offer—likewise that from your wife, the high-born princess, my gracious lady, as relayed to me through her steward—I do not refuse; rather, humbly, and with thanks, do I accept it, which gives to me a consolation not lightly held. Pray God, that His omnipotence give me the grace that I by means of His heavenly aid may ask of Him to help me to have patience in this His fair judgment, to overcome and endure with proper faith.
As regards the rest, looking to our sustenance and other things of less moment, that too will the Almighty (to whom we entrust all our sorrows) put aright. His divine, Your Highness' princely, grace, and the counsel and consolation from my other gracious lords and friends, perhaps I may humbly show in return, and offer at Your Highness' gracious command my truly humble service.
Dated Thursday, 7th August 1544
Rudolff Schenck, Vice-Regent, my hand.
[Address] The enlightened high-born Prince and Lord Philipp Landgrave of Hessen, Count of Katzenelnbogen, Dietz, Ziegenhain, and Nidda, my gracious Prince and Lord, to be placed in His Grace's own hands.
Eulogy for Helena Schenckin zu Schweinsberg, geb. von Dörnberg
By her husband, Rudolf Schenck zu Schweinsberg
[trans. from Latin: Dr. Wolfgang Strack; trans. from German: Grant Hayter-Menzies]
Born of the Dörnberg, from a House wreathed in ancient honor,
I, Helena, lie here, covered by the tomb.
With most faithful and constant affection have I loved Rudolf Schenck,
The companion, to whose marriage-bed I, as maiden, was given.
With this happy husband I begat
Eleven sons and daughters, pledges of our love.
But then in time of childbirth
Lucina turned her face from me, and delivery came too late.
In midst of the birth pangs the child in misery died,
And the hope of my life could not survive him.
I gave life back to the Lord God, and to the beloved husband
and children bade my last farewell.
In death do I confess that Thy wounds alone, Christ Savior,
Bear all the sins of the world.
With these lessons in mind, I do not fear the end of my joy.
Death as the beginning of life was once horrible to me.
Therefore dry the tears that fall before my mournful burial,
And hear with damp cheeks: what was given was rightly given.
At some time must man suffer the harshness of death,
And it is the universal law, and the fate of mankind, to die.
It matters not whether thou wert Crœsus or the miserable Irus:
All are delivered fairly to the same road.
'Trostbrief Landgraf Philipps des Großmütigen an Rudolf Schenck', Sonderabdruck aus den Quartalblättern des historischen Vereins für das Großherzogtum Hessen. Neue Folge, Band I, Nr. 19 [Gustav Freiherr Schenk zu Schweinsberg, 1895];
Das Haus Hessen—ein europäisches Fürstengeschlecht, by Hans Philippi, Thiele & Schwarz, Kassel 1983;
Der Hessische Marschall—Johann Schenck zu Schweinsberg 1460-1506, by Hans-Georg Freiherr Schenk zu Schweinsberg, Konstanz, who kindly provided me with a copy of this privately printed work;
Copies of the original Trostbrief from the Staatsarchiv Marburg obtained for the author by the kind auspices of Ekkehardt Freiherr Schenk zu Schweinsberg;
Assistance in translating from Latin text by the author’s cousin Dr. Wolfgang Strack of Großen-Buseck, Hessen
Vonn gotts gnadenn Philips Landgrave etc. zu Hessenn
Grave zu Catzenelnpogenn, etc.
Rath unnd lieber getreuer, wir habenn verftanden, das dein freundtliche liebe hausfraw die schold der natur betzalt habenn, unnd todes verfchiden fein sol, wilcher feelen der Almechtig geruhe, gnedig unnd Barmhertzig zusein
Nun ift uns folcher fchmertzlicher abgang in warheit nit allein dein und deiner kinder, fondern auch deins weibs feligen halber leid, dan wirs fur ein erbar weib gehaltenn, tragen desen mit dir und deinen kindern ein gnedigs mitleidenn,
Unnd konnen bey uns wol ermeffen, mit was betrubnus du beladen bist
Dweil aber wider den willenn des Almechtigen, in des hand wir allen stehen, nit zu fechten, fondern dis fach dem Almechtigen zubephelen, und fich umb unwiderspringlicher ding willen mit ubermeffigem leid nit zubeladenn ift
So thun wir hiemit gnedlich erindern, das du als ein vernuftiger man zu deinem felbft und deiner kinder weitherem unheil dich mit ubermeffigem bekomernus, darauß liderlich fchwere zufehl erfolgen mugen, nit befchwereft, fonder fovil moglich die fach auß dem gemuet fchlageft, di gott bephelest, unnd im in feinem urtheil kein zil fetzeft.
Des thun wir uns dir mit gnadenn gewislich verlassenn, unnd du solt dich auch des zu uns verfehenn, wo wir nit allein deinen kindern fondern auch dir mit gnaden und gutem zuerscheinen wiffen, das wir uns des gewislich gneigt unnd willig erfunden werdenn wollen, Dat. Friedwald den 6 Augusti Anno etc. xxxxiiij.
wir wollen auch deiner tochter eyne in unnfer freuntlichen lieben gemaheln frawenzymer nemen, und deiner kinder mit vatter fein, Dat. ut fupra.
Philips L. z. Heffen sst.
S. Bing sst.
Unnserm Stathalter zu Caffell rath unnd Liebenn getreuen Rudolpf Schenckenn
Durchluchtiger hochgeborner furft, E.F.G. fyhen myne underthenige fchuldige und trewwyllige dynst in aller underthenigkhytt zeuvor. Gnediger here!
E.F.G. gnedige droiftschrifft, szo e.f.g., noch erfarunge mynes wybs feligen doittlichen abgangk, mir gnediklichen gethain, hab ich nechten spadt in aller underthenikeytt entphangen.
Bedanck geygen e.f.g. mich erftlich des gnedigen furftlichen raydts, troifts und erbeytthens, wyl gott trewlich bytten, mich szo lange leben zwloßen uff das das umb e.f.g., derfelben gemahell, jungen hergen und freylin, alle myne g. furften, furftin und freylyn ich undertheniklichen und in allem gehorfam vordynen mögen.
Woll auch gern dey fach ufs dem gemuet fchlagen, dey gott bephelen und ime in fynen urtheyln keyn zeyll fetzen:
Szo ift abber dyß myr ein follicher vorluft, des ich augenblicklich erinnertt, in anefehung der jungen unerzoigen kyndergen, dey umb mich stehen, lauffen, nach irer mutter fraigen, der ich fey benommen weynende fehe, fchwerlich zuvorgeßen.
Es ift auch myn weibe felige, der gott gnade, (: one rome zwfchriben :) nytt nach artt vyler wyber fchweczhaifft, myr wydderfpennigk, aber untrew gewefen, fundern hoitt mich dey zitt ich fey ehelich gehabtt, neyhe erzornett, dey kynder zw gotts ehere und zucht woll erzoigen, fi alßo geygen meniklich mytt befcheydenheyt alßo zwhalten gewoift, das ich weinigk forge gedraigen, szo myr dey gott geloifzen, dey kynder alle folten zw ehern mytt weniger muhe brocht worden fyn und wyr beyde unfer leben rewheigk geendett haben.
Gott hoitt mich abber nytt unbyllich (: wey ich forge :) mytt differ by nahe unlidlichen ftroiffe gefucht, dan ich disser dinge meher zw gott den mynem wybe seligen vorhoifft haben foltte. Woltte (: daz weyfz gott :) das ich was boses von ire woiste, domit ich disses ires abscheydtts deftobas vergeffen möchte.
E.F.G. abber, g. here, furtflicher droit und gneddiges erbytthen, derglichen dan auch e.f.g. gemahell, dey hochgeborne fürftin, myne gnedige fraw, durch irer f.g. hoiffmeyfter, myr auch hoitt thun loifzen, wylliche ich nytt abfchlaige, fundern undertheniklichen mytt dankfagunge und erbeythen etc., wy obgemelt anneme, geben myr warlich nytt geringe, fundern droiftliche zwvorficht.
Zw gott der hoiffunge, fyn almechtekeytt werde myr dey gnade vorlyhen, das ich vormyttelft fyner gottlichen hylffe, neben dem allen fyn almechtikeytt erbytten möge, myr by disser myner anligenden byllichen ftroiffe gedultt zw haben, das ich dey mytt rechtem glawben erdraigen und ubberwynden möge. Und daz ander, daz dey narunge, etc. bedrifft und geringer ift, fyner almechtikeytt (: dohene fich alle forge zwlegen gebörtt :) heymftellen und fyner gottlichen, e.f.g furtflicher gnaden, unnd ander myner g. herren und frunde rait, hoilffe, troifte und forderunge vorhoiffen, wyllichs e.f.g. in antwortt undertheniklichen anzeyge und e.f.g. mich mytt erbeyttunge myner underthenigen trewen dinfte zw gnaden bephelen. Datum Donnerftag den 7 Augusti Anno 1544.
Statthaltter etc. sst.
Dornberga generata domo stemmata prisca
En Helena hoc busto contumulata regor.
Fido dilexi constanter amore Rudolphum
Schenckum cui socio sum data virgo toro.
Et cum iucundo peperissem undena marito
Pignora, filiolos filiolasque prius.
Post Lucina mihi postremum parturienti
Obstitit, & partus est remorata meos.
In medio nixu miserabilis occidit infans
Spesque meae vitae nulla superstes erat.
Retribui vitam domino, dulcique marito
Postremum dixi pignoribusque vale.
Mortis in articulo tua vulnera Christe redemptor
Sum confessa homini tollere sola scelus.
His instructa modis non laeti vincula pavi.
Introitus vitae mors mihi saeva fuit,
Siste igitur lachrymas mea tristia funera plang[ere],
Et cessa madidis solvere iusta genis.
Experiunda homini semel inclementia mor[tis]
Communis lex est sors hominique mori.
Nec refert Croesus fueris ne, an sordidus Irus.
Calcandum ex aequo est omnibus illud iter.