Burg Zelem – a millennial history

The knight’s seat Burg Zelem is hidden in the vastness of the Lower Rhine landscape near Kranenburg on the German-Dutch border on a hill above the Düffel. Settlement in the Düffelgau began in the third to fourth centuries AD, when the Romans built a fort there as a station between Xanten and Nijmegen. The name Zelem or Selhem points to the Saleheim manor house, which was probably located on the site of the later outer bailey, topographically fitted into the high shore of the Selhemmer Meer, where the Rodebeke and the Rönne, which flows out of the sea, flow into the former Waalarm.


Burg Zelem is typologically a three-wing moated castle. The surviving building fabric that has survived, essentially from the first half of the 15th century, was expanded in the mid-16th century in the Renaissance style and reduced to what it is today towards the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century.

The oldest component is the brick-built south-east wing, at ground level to the courtyard, to the outside to the ditch on a high base, one-story south-east wing, which is fortified for the ditch by two three-story corner towers. The internal development and probably also the distant view over the country is used on the long side to the courtyard, almost in the middle, polygonal, towering stair tower with a tent roof. The ground floor windows on the field side and the windows on the upper floors of the towers are designed as half cross-frame windows under relief arches, probably from the time the wing was built (first half of the 15th century). The windows to the courtyard, sliding windows with block frames, date from around 1800. The eaves of the southern corner tower are decorated with a frieze of tendrils with protruding heads. Inside, the cellar vaults with basket-shaped pressed belt arches or ribbon ribs, chimneys on the ground floor, and stone spiral staircases are particularly noteworthy.

The courtyard of the complex is bordered on the south-east and north-east by a large 19th century brick stable and barn building with a gable roof. Northwest of the complex is a large brick barn with a roll-up door on the side. It is already included in the drawing by the Dutch painter Cornelis Pronk (1691-1759) in 1731 and was enlarged towards the west between 1835 and 1862. This is evidenced on Pepperhoff’s cadastral map. During this time, the mighty roof truss was probably expanded as a combination of a scissor truss with a double truss.

The document dated February 22, 1377 with Hermann von Eyll shows that the castle as “Oversten hues” was situated at a higher altitude, also opposite the outer bailey, which was below the main house. Several outer baileys are also mentioned there, the outer bailey that is actually directly in front of it and the adjoining commercial castle, handed down by name as Selemerhof.


Count Balderich von Uplade, who together with his wife Adela had a stone motte built as a residential tower shortly before the turn of the millennium, but which was demolished again shortlyafterwards, laid the foundation stone. They donated these stones for the construction of a Benedictine monastery at St. Martin’s Church in the neighboring village of Zyfflich, which was consecrated in 1003. The oldest, documented reference is today in the National Library of Paris. It is a Zutphen feudal entry, or levy entry of the estates of Echternach Abbey from the early 12th century.


The knight’s seat is probably to be regarded as the ancestral seat of the Count of Zelem, as the successor of Count Balderich of Uplade, and was endowed with its own estates and people. A document from 1374/78 points to this affiliation:…der Lude, die totten vusr. Guede vvan Zelem gehoeren in wilcken recht dat sy dairtoe gehoeren. In another line it says ;mitten koremundigen luden, which means that the feudal lord had the right to choose, when a subordinate died, which piece of cattle had to be rendered as a levy by the new tenant to the associated farm. Since the first half of the 14th century, the series of owners can be determined without gaps on the basis of the listed names. According to this, Dietrich von Horn, Lord of Parwis and pledgee of Kranenburg, was enfeoffed with the property in the first half of the 14th century.

In the fourteenth century, the smaller territorial lords could no longer hold their territory against the more powerful sovereigns, in this case the Counts of Cleves, and entered into a feudal relationship and gave their castle to the sovereign as an open house. They were followed in 1373 by Rutger von Groesbeek, in 1377 by Hermann von Eyll, then by Helmich von Heekeren. At this time the knight’s seat served as an open house of Kleve. In 1414 the estate was taken over by Johann von Alpen, Lord of Hönnepel, then by his son Elbert. Adriane, Elbert’s granddaughter, married Werner von Palant in 1464.

The Palant family held the estate for almost 200 years and built Zelem into the center of a small  dominion in the Duchy of Cleves, into an imposing Renaissance complex, structurally emphasized inits heyday by seven towers. Pen drawings by Jan de Beyer from 1740 and by his teacher Cornelis Pronk from 1731, preserved in the copper engraving cabinet of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, bear witness to this.

At that time, the impressive castle complex had already been in the possession of the von Wylich family for several decades. In 1666, the childless Agnes Maria von Palant had sold Zelem Castle to her cousin and brother-in-law Johann Hermann von Wylich. The coats of arms of both families still adorn the impressive main portal of the staircase tower, whose Latin inscription documents the transfer of ownership in 1464. Baron Carl Adolf Alexander von Hertelfeld auf Liebenburg, a nephew of the last Baron von Wylich auf Diersfort, followed another 200 years later. Towards the end of the 18th century, however, the large complex was already being dismantled. This is evidenced by cadastral maps, which show the condition of Zelem Castle before it was recorded in the original cadastre in 1835.

The political upheavals at the end of the 18th century and the economic reasons associated with them may have been the reason why the castle was reduced between 1835 and 1860 to an ope three-winged complex with adjoining farm buildings, so that it gained the character of a typical baroque complex that still characterizes it today. In 1867, Baron Walter von Esebeck, vice-chief equerry of the emperor in Potsdam, succeeded his childless distant relative. At that time the farm was run by tenants. This did not change when in 1912 the dike count of Keeken, Gerhard Hülskens, acquired the castle and parts of the property belonging to it. It was not until after the Second World War that Kurt Arden, father of the present owner Jochen Arden, once again managed the estate himself, which his father had acquired from the dike count’s widow in 1922. When the ensemble, overgrown with ivy and wild vines, was put up for sale at the turn of the millennium, Jochen Arden acted as buyer vis-à-vis the community of heirs in order to keep the property in the family.

In the course of the thirteen-year refurbishment of the castle complex with the aim of combining modern living standards with the historical inventory, many hurdles had to be overcome. First, the heavily overgrown masonry was freed from ivy growth. Every single stone was repointed to save the exterior walls. The interior restoration of the main house was done carefully, respecting the old fabric of the building. Ceilings were raised to the old level, interior insulation for energy sealing was brought in, all plumbing systems were renewed, and the windows were built according to historical models. The numerous still existing decorations from the Renaissance period could be saved and partially uncovered again. Particularly noteworthy are the star vault and the Renaissance fireplace on the first floor of the east tower. The rescue of the vault caps in the historic castle cellar presented a challenge. In the course of the centuries and the eventful building history, they had shifted and lost stability. With the help of an experienced Aachen church architect, this problem was also solved.

Parts of the old moat were rebuilt. In all private-sector measures, particular emphasis was placed on sustainable refurbishment in harmony with the historic substance of this facility. All of this work was accompanied by the preservation of historic monuments and supported in an advisory capacity by the expert network of the German Castles Association. In order to carefully convert the medieval manor into a modern use, the Arden British Day was created. In September, lovers of classic cars meet there on the green meadows in front of Zelem Castle for a picnic in the style of traditional English events.