Castle of the Week 107 – Bratislava Castle, Slovak Republic

Bratislava Castle

Bratislava Castle, one of the symbols of the city of Bratislava, is located on the Danube River at the crossroads of two important historical trade routes. Easily recognizable with its nearly quadrangular ground plan and a tower at each of its four corners, the castle is often referred to as an upside-down table.

stones laying out the foundation of the church

The Celts and the Romans were the first to occupy the hill, but it was the Slavs who built the first fortifications and a Christian church at the site in the 9th or 10th century. The Slav fort was taken over by the Hungarians following their victory over the Great Moravian Empire, and it became one of many Hungarian defensive castles. The castle’s location close to the Austro-Hungarian border made it the scene of many battles, both from outside invaders as well as from internal power struggles for the Hungarian throne. Built for defense, the castle withstood many sieges. Even in 1241, when the surrounding territory was occupied after the Tartar invasion, the castle itself remained unconquered. It wasn’t until 1273 when the castle was besieged by the Czech King Otakar II that it was finally conquered.

underground staircase from the old fortifications

Bratislava Castle underwent many revisions in design through the years. A dwelling tower was built in the 13th century. It was quite large, measuring 22 x 22 meters, and was supported by 12 pillars. It had a basement with a cistern and two additional storeys for living quarters. A smaller but taller defensive tower was added soon after the dwelling tower. The defensive tower had a basement and four storeys.

well under the courtyard

In the 15th century, the Emperor and King of Luxembourg, Sigismund, sought a new residence for the Hungarian kings in Bratislava, and redesigned the castle. A new 4 wing Gothic palace was built over the old dwelling tower, and the fortifications were strengthened. One of the walls was 11m thick. 300 workers labored until the exterior was finished in about 1437. A new 85m well was built, reaching down to the level of the Danube. The well remains today, under the courtyard. Work on the interior halted due to internal strife for the throne, and after the death of the Emperor, his widow Barbara was imprisoned in the unfinished castle.

Work on the interior of the castle resumed when preparations were made for Sigismund’s grandson, Ladislaus Posthumus, to live there. Ladislaus’s successor, Mathias Corvinus, preferred living in town to living in the castle, and the castle remained mostly unoccupied through several reigns. During this time there were a number of conflicts between the Habsburgs and Zapolyas, and the castle sustained some damage.

castle walls, Danube River in the background

When the Ottomans won a victory at Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was divided into three parts. The Hungarian plain was under the control of the Turks; Transylvania remained largely autonomous; and the seat of Hungarian rule was moved to Slovakia. The Hungarian Crown Jewels moved to Bratislava (known as Pressburg at the time), and were situated in the southwest tower, the Crown Tower. The Hungarian Assembly met at the castle, and in 1563 the first coronation ceremony was held there.

inner courtyard

The next major changes to the castle occurred about this time. The knights’ hall was removed, and the storeys were leveled up. The interiors were richly decorated with stuccoes and frescoes, contrasting with the exterior which became more austere in appearance.

Natural catastrophes and battles soon took their toll and the castle had to be rebuilt once again, this time acquiring the look that it still has today (even though today’s castle is another rebuilt one). A third floor was added, turrets were built at the four corners, and the central area was cleared for a courtyard. The outside fortifications were strengthened again during this time. One proposal was to make the fortifications into the star-shaped pattern that was very popular at the time, but it was decided against. The interior decorations were refurbished, and as no one stayed there they remained in very good shape.

castle wall and turret, with church foundations in the foreground

In the 18th century Maria Theresa of Austria turned the castle into a Baroque residence, but as Buda was already chosen for the official residence for the Hungarian kings, not all of her plans for Bratislava Castle were implemented. She did add several new buildings, however, such as a riding hall and a minor palace, and also refurbished the interior in the Rococo style. Following her death, Bratislava Castle ceased to be used as a royal residence. In 1783 Joseph II removed the coronation jewels to Vienna, and the castle was renovated once again, this time for a school, the General Seminary. Large halls were subdivided, and the interior decorations added by Maria Theresa were removed. Following Joseph II’s death, the seminary left the castle, and it remained empty for many years.

Bratislava Castle tower

In 1802 the army took over and once again the castle withstood sieges, this time from the French in 1805 and 1809. In 1811, however, the castle burned down. It remained in ruins for the next 150 years, with some of the surviving structures torn down and looted. The army kept control of it until after WWII. In 1946 the barracks were closed and the castle was opened to the public. A lot of plans for rebuilding the castle circulated, but work didn’t begin until 1953. Archaeological investigations were carried out at the same time, and that is when a lot of the information regarding its early history was learned.

Vienna Gate

In 1968 the Law of Czechoslovak Federation was signed at the castle, and the castle housed the state representative halls of the Slovak Socialist Republic. Following the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Slovak government centered in Bratislava. Today the castle houses the State Rooms of the Slovak National Council and exhibitions of the Slovak National Museum.

Bratislava Castle ground plan

Ground plan of Bratislava Castle.

Bratislava Pictorial Guide, by Martin Sloboda.
The Castle of Bratislava, by Stefan Holcík and Tatiana Stefanovicová.

Write-up and pictures by Kester.

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