The little town of Thann lies on the eastern slopes of the Vosges, in the département of Haut-Rhin (Alsace). A historic town which once belonged to the Habsburgs in the Middle-Ages, it is renown for its remarkable Gothic church and the Rangen vineyard and, in fact, it is also the southern gate to the Alsace Wine Route.
According to the legend, the town originated from a miracle attributed to St. Theobald, the Bishop of Gubbio (Umbria, Italy). In 1160, Ubald (or Theobald) saw his death coming soon and promised his Dutch servant his episcopal ring as a reward for his loyalty.
When Ubald died, the servant tried to get the ring off and pulled off the whole thumb. Hiding the precious relic, he set out for his homeland.
In June 1161, after crossing the Alps, he came into Alsace and stopped in a place covered with a large forest of fir trees. Tired, he leaned his pilgrim staff against a tree and fell asleep.
When he woke up he discovered that the staff had taken root. From the Engelbourg Castle, the Count of Ferrette came down to meet the pilgrim. When the Count understood this was a heavenly sign, he promised to built a chapel on the site.
The site where the chapel was later built by the count became the town of Thann and the finger relic of Ubald stayed there to be venerated inside the new sanctuary.
Historically, it was Count Frederic II of Ferette who constructed the Engelbourg Castle to guard the entrance to the Thur Valley. Completed in 1224, it stood for centuries and Its towers were crucial in defending the valley and protecting the people of Thann. And Thann itself developed from the time when the Counts of Ferrette placed a toll at the entrance to the Valley. Travellers who wished to cross the Vosges and the Bussang Pass by this route had to pay a toll to the counts.
In 1618, a massive religious war erupted between the Protestant and Catholic states of Europe.
It became known historically as the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648) and, over the three decades of conflict, chaos, destruction, and famine, 8 million people including 20% of the German population had perished.
Of course the conflict didn’t bypass the Thur Valley.
In 1635 Thann was taken by imperialist forces. A mercenary among those troops described it as a “beautiful city, which lies on a mountain and is strongly fortified.”
The castle greatly suffered from the war, and was occupied by seven different forces between 1633 and 1639 (including Austrian, French and Swedish).
The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 pushed back the French border from the Vosges to the Rhine, and the castle lost its strategic interest.
Thus the King of France, Louis XIV, ordered the destruction of Engelbourg Castle in 1673. Its walls were pulled down, its great halls burned, and the also towers were toppled.
All that was left standing was a mound of rubble, and one section of tower that remained to form the famous L’œil de la Sorcière, literally The Witch’s Eye, as it seems to stare at the roofs in the village and off into the horizon.