Where the river Rhine enters a narrow valley below Bingen, there is a small, rocky island midstream on which the Romans built a watchtower, which fell down often and was often rebuilt. In the mid-tenth century, Hatto II, Archbishop of Mainz, had this tower rebuilt and he placed armed men in it, who fired on ships that refused to pay the Archbishop’s toll to pass up and down the narrows. He was an ambitious man, proud and avaricious, who imposed taxes and tolls on the poor people who lived in his archbishopric, building for himself great wealth and influence.
His tower was called the Mauthturm, which means the ‘toll-tower’, but it became known as the Mäuseturm, that is ‘Mouse-tower’, because, some said, it stood like a cat waiting for mice (the ships) and snatched them up in its claws. Others say the name is a corruption of muserie, a type of cannon that was fired at the ships that either refused to pay the toll or tried to sneak past without payment.
|The Mouse Tower|
But there is another legend that accounts for the name. There was a disastrously wet summer in the 960s (accounts vary as to the date) and water stood in the usually fertile fields until the beginning of winter, causing the grain crop to rot in the mud. Food became scarce but Hatto packed his barns with what little grain could be harvested, regardless of the fate of his subjects. Things worsened as winter’s grip took a cold hold and a great famine seized Germany, as bread became a scant luxury. The starving people appealed to their Archbishop for aid, begging for some of the grain stacked in his many well-stocked barns but their appeals fell on Hatto’s deaf ears. In his rich episcopal palace, the heedless Hatto continued to feast in opulent indifference to the fate of his flock.
|The Mouse Tower|
Again and again they appealed to his mercy and again and again they were met with refusal and all seemed hopeless when, against all the odds, Hatto suddenly relented and issued an order that any people who lacked food, or the money to pay for the inflated prices of what little was available, should come to his great barn at Kaub. From the hamlets and farms, the pitiful peasants flocked to Hatto’s bountiful barn, grateful to their bishop and singing praises to his goodness and mercy, thanking God for softening his heart. They packed themselves into his barn until it was so full that no more could fit inside, whereupon the Archbishop ordered his soldiers to bar up the doors and fasten the windows tight. Then he took a torch and set his barn alight, burning all the poor unfortunates inside to death; as they died in agony in the inferno the cruel-hearted Hatto was heard to remark,
“Listen! how the mice are squeaking among the corn. This eternal begging is at an end at last.”
|The Mouse Tower|
When at last the massacre was ended and the barn and its contents reduced to cinders, the contented Archbishop went back to his castle and sat down to a sumptuous feast, stuffing himself with the best that his deep purse could afford. But his self-satisfied satiety was interrupted by a serving man, who brought news that the Archbishop’s barns were being ravaged by a plague of rats and mice and his great stores of grain were all lost to the rampaging rodents. Hatto took to his bed and slept fitfully, more upset at the loss of his riches rather than the innocent lives he had taken so callously, and when he rose on the following morning and looked from his window, he saw that the rats had stripped every scrap of vegetation from the countryside surrounding his castle. Worse yet, he then discovered that they had got into his palace and had eaten his recently completed portrait, leaving nothing but an empty frame on the floor.
|He went off at full gallop|
In a blind panic, Hatto leapt onto his horse and forced it to the bank of the Rhine, where he dived into a boat and rowed madly for the island across the swift, foaming waters and the safety of his tall toll-tower. Mice swarmed behind him, chasing him as he fled, drowning in their thousands as they dived into the river in his wake but with a innumerable flood of them pursuing him onto the rocky island. Hatto crashed into his tower, slamming the great oaken doors and barring them behind himself, hurling himself up the stairs and into the uppermost guardroom.
|The Mice and the Mouse Tower|
It was all in vain, as legions of mice gnawed down the doors, swarmed up the walls, flooded in through the windows, scampered upwards and through the floors, a black, writhing, vengeful mass that invaded the tower and sought out the cowering Hatto. In their thousands they devoured him, gnawing and nibbling, biting and tearing with chisel-sharp teeth until nothing was left of the avaricious archbishop but a pile of white bones.
|Eaten by mice|
That, say some, is why it is called the Mouse Tower. Hatto was an archbishop of Mainz but was really no better nor worse than any other archbishop of his times – he was ambitious and proud, it is true, but the story of burning the barn and the massacre of the peasants has no basis in history.
|Hatto and the mice|
The poet laureate Robert Southey wrote a poem inspired by the legend, God’s Judgement on a Wicked Bishop, first published in the Morning Post of November 27th 1799,
“And in at the windows and in at the door,And through the walls helter-skelter they pour,And down through the ceiling, and up through the floor,From the right and the left, from behind and before,From within and without, from above and below,And all at once to the Bishop they go.They have whetted their teeth against the stones,And now they pick the Bishop's bones;They gnawed the flesh from every limb,For they were sent to do judgment on him.”
And people criticise McGonagall!