Jan von Werth: A Cologne love story

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The rich folklore of Cologne holds another captivating tale: The legend of Jan von Werth and Griet. A story that combines romance, valor, and enduring spirit. The legend tells the tale of a simple soldier who rose to prominence through his bravery, only to find his heart captured by the love of a woman who initially spurned him. With it’s tragic-pointed end, the story could be considered as Cologne’s own Romeo and Juliet, even though being less famous than the Shakespearean tragedy.

Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne (detail). Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne (detail).

The tale of Jan von Werth and Griet

In the legend of Jan von Werth and Griet, the story revolves around unrequited love and missed opportunities. Jan, a 17th-century and a poor farmhand, fell in love with Griet, a maid who aspired for a better match and thus rejected Jan’s marriage proposal. Struck by her rejection, Jan was recruited into the army and went off to war. Through skill, bravery, and fortune, he rose to the rank of a general and achieved several victories.

After a significant victory, Jan returned to Cologne as a hero. During a triumphant parade through the Severin’s gate (Severinstor), he spotted Griet selling fruit at a market stand. Jan approached her, greeted her politely, and reminded her of her earlier words. Griet, recognizing the missed opportunity, responded with regret. Despite their exchange, Jan moved on, leaving their relationship unrenewed.

The moral of this legend is to appreciate what one has and not always strive for more. It also teaches to make the best of the current situation and to seize opportunities when they arise. Values, that deeply resonate with the Cologne mindset.

Jan von Werth as a historical figure

Jan von Werth was not just a character of legend but a real historical figure with a significant impact on military history, particularly during the Thirty Years’ War.

Born in a location called Büttgen (still debated by historians), von Werth’s early life was marked by hardship following his father’s death, leading him to work as a farmhand. His military career began around 1610 when he joined the Spanish army, quickly rising through the ranks due to his valor and skill in battle. His promotions were a testament to his leadership and tactical prowess, eventually commanding the Bavarian “Eynatten” regiment and earning the nickname “The Scourge of the French” for his exploits against Swedish and French forces.

Von Werth’s life was also characterized by periods of adversity, notably his capture in 1638 and subsequent captivity in Paris, which, despite its comforts, highlighted the harsh realities of war. His release in 1642 marked a return to military service, where he continued to demonstrate his strategic acumen. However, the end of the Thirty Years’ War saw his properties confiscated, leading to a quieter life until his death in Bohemia in 1652. His legacy, preserved in part by a banner in the Cologne City Museum, reflects the complexities of his character and career.

Family dynamics posthumously revealed further layers to von Werth’s story, illustrating the personal toll of his life’s endeavors. Married three times, von Werth faced familial strife, particularly regarding his estate, which was eventually divided among his descendants, underscoring the enduring influence of his lineage. This narrative arc, from humble beginnings to military renown, captivity, and familial disputes, paints a detailed picture of Jan von Werth’s multifaceted life and enduring legacy within and beyond Cologne.

Encountering Jan von Werth in Cologne today

Today, the city of Cologne honors Jan von Werth’s tale through a prominent landmark right in the heart of the city: The Jan von Werth Fountain, inaugurated on July 14, 1884, at Cologne’s Alter Markt.

The initiative for the fountain came from the Cologne Beautification Association (Verschönerungsverein Köln), a group of prominent local figures who influenced urban enhancements. In 1883, the association, alongside the city council and artist Wilhelm Albermann, agreed to build a monumental fountain for 20,000 marks. It was decided to depict Jan von Werth not as a cavalryman, to avoid redundancy with another equestrian statue nearby, but rather as an infantryman, highlighting his achievements during the Thirty Years’ War. The construction began in April 1884, and the entire construction was already finished in July of the same year.

The fountain not only honors Jan von Werth’s military success but also encapsulates the story of his unrequited love for Griet. The north and south sides of the fountain depict the city’s fortitude and purity, while scenes from the legend of Jan and Griet adorn its sides, capturing essential moments in their story. The fountain, having survived the bombings of World War II with only minimal damage, ensures that Jan von Werth’s legacy and the legend of his and Griet’s love are preserved to this day and will endure for generations to come.

Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne. Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne.

Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne (detail). Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne (detail).

Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne (detail). Jan von Werth fountain at the Alter Markt in Cologne (detail).


The story of Jan von Werth, a blend of historical valor and romantic tragedy, continues to resonate deeply within the heart of Cologne. Through the legend of his unrequited love for Griet and his remarkable military career, Jan embodies the spirit of perseverance, love, and the complexities of human emotion that are as relevant today as they were in the 17th century. The Jan von Werth Fountain, standing prominently at Cologne’s Alter Markt, serves as a solid reminder of this legacy, inviting both citizens and tourists to reflect on the city’s rich history and folklore.

If you’ve been touched by the tale of Jan von Werth or have similar legendary love stories from your own city, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

References and further reading


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