From the earliest, known references to our family, many of the subsequent generations managed to forge advantageous marital alliances with other noble families. This allowed us to settle across the provinces on either side of the Dutch-German border, i.e. Groningen, East Frisia, Overijssel, Guelders and Westphalia, and establish strong, local powerbases. As a result, for many centuries, Ripperdas were closely associated with these provinces and played a key role in local government.
One should be under no illusion about the characters of many of those Ripperda-scions who helped build the family into one of the most powerful in the region. This constant quest for power, wealth and influence, whilst typical for so many noble families of the time, could only happen through ardent politicking, scheming, back-stabbing and worse. It does appear that personal and dynastic aggrandisement came before anything else. The famous Johan Willem, Duke de Ripperda, was the extreme epitome of this quest.
That said, there are certainly plenty of examples of Ripperdas who selflessly stood up for their beliefs, and willingly sacrificed everything they held dear. Wigbolt Ripperda stands out as the heroic defender of Haarlem against the Spanish oppressors, and was executed; numerous Dutch cousins in Groningen and Overijssel who were forced into exile and lost their lands during the Thirty Years War; Georg von Ripperda who was a staunch Bonapartist, which led him to be disowned by the rest of the Ellenburger Ripperdas and struck out of the family records. Friedrich Wilhelm Eduard von Ripperda who tried in vain to avoid a war between Denmark and Prussia, and in doing so, sacrificed his military career; Dorothea von Ripperda who dedicated herself entirely to charitable works and the building of churches; Heinrich von Ripperda-Cosyn who, despite serving as an officer in the Wehrmacht, openly criticised the Nazi regime and was imprisoned, only narrowly escaping execution.
Whether the family originated in East Frisia or in Groningen has been a subject of ongoing debate. More recently, it appears to have become the accepted wisdom that the first Ripperdas may, in fact, have originated from Fivelgo, a historical region in the north-eastern part of Groningen, where they were first mentioned in the 13th century. In any case, we have formally been recognised as belonging to the so-called “Uradel”, a term designating the oldest nobility. In addition, the house of Ripperda was one of the earliest, surviving families to be granted the title of Baron with imperial immediacy (“Reichsfreiherr”). This happened as early in 1474, and the title was re-affirmed for all living Ripperdas and their descendants in 1676. Despite all this, later generations seem to have felt it necessary to falsify old documents in order to lay claim to an even more ancient and illustrious lineage. These forgeries and unreliable genealogies have since been exposed. Interestingly, such dubious practices appear to have been common practice among nobility of the period.
The house of Ripperda had its zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries. From the 18th century onward, however, the family’s position had begun its decline. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Dutch branches had died out; the Spanish branch was well on the way to reaching rock-bottom; and only the German and Austrian branches were still flourishing, albeit without much of the Ripperdas’ old lustre and prestige.
The German Ellerburg-branch and the Austrian descendants of the Boxbergen-branch, became a family of officers and civil servants, without any noteworthy property or estates but with a strict sense of duty and service. Members of the former eventually settled in Denmark where one, last descendant survives today. Unfortunately, William de Ripperda (a.k.a. Bill) died childless, a couple of years ago, which means that this branch is about to die out as well.
Finally, there is the Ripperda-Cosyn branch which had its seat at the Reitzau estate in Silesia, from the late 1700s until 1945. Members of this branch proved to be eternally recalcitrant and restless and, as a consequence, rather more cosmopolitan than most of their landed, noble peers – moving between Silesia, France, Russia, Argentina, Holland and, more recently, Switzerland, Denmark and England. Members of this branch had initially managed to gather significant wealth and property through two lucrative, if controversial marriages. Nevertheless, two World Wars and poor financial management took their toll.
What remains, however, is an undoubtedly rich family history. Today, we are only a handful of surviving descendants, living in Paris, London and Copenhagen. Fortunately, there is still hope that, one day, our number will flourish once again.
Georges-Unico von Ripperda-Cosyn
Paris, 25 January 2016