Castle of the Week 109 – Toompea Castle, Tallinn, Estonia

View of Tallinn and the Gulf of Finland from the castle hill

Toompea Castle is located on the limestone Toompea Hill in Tallinn, Estonia. The Gulf of Finland is to the north of Tallinn, and the Baltic Sea is to the west of the country. Tallinn was known by several names over time. In the early years it was Koluvan to the Slavs, Lindanise to the Scandinavians, and then Reval up to the 20th century.

courtyard beside the castle wall

According to the Kalevipoeg, the Estonian national epic, Toompea was the grave mound of an ancient Estonian king, Kalev. Kalev’s wife Linda carried stones in her apron to build the grave mound. At its completion she sat down and cried, her tears forming nearby Lake Ülemiste.

Viru Gate, leading into Old Town

Tallinn’s location at the juncture of East and West made it an important trade center for much of its history. From the 9th to 11th centuries it was a point on the trade route from Scandinavia to Byzantium via the Russian rivers. The oldest written record of Tallinn is from 1154 A.D. when the Arabic geographer Al-Idrisi wrote “Among Astlanda’s towns there is also Qiwri. This is a small town with a large castle.” The castle at this time was a wooden fortification.

towers of the Town Wall

In the early 1200s Christian German crusaders came to Estonia and Latvia. Estonia resisted for 20 years, but finally fell to the Germans’ superior weaponry. At about the same time, June 1219, King Valdemar II of Denmark invaded from the north with his fleet. Legend has it that in the midst of battle, the tide turned in favor of the Danish invaders when a red flag with a white cross (the same as today’s Danish flag) fell from the sky. The Danes were victorious and built a stone fortress on Toompea. The spot where the flag fell is today commemorated with the Danish King’s Garden. The victory of the Danes started what would become 700 years of foreign rule in Tallinn.

Long Leg Gate Tower

German merchants from Gotland came to Tallinn in the 1230s, and the German language and culture dominated until the 20th century. In 1248 the Danish King Erik Plogpenning granted Tallinn the Lübeck Rights, giving it the same legal footing as the medieval German merchant towns. That same year it became a member of the Hanseatic League, which was a group of about 100 merchant cities united to protect their mutual trading interests. Its location made Tallinn very important for trade to and from Russia, and it became one of the greatest towns in the League.

The Germans and Danes became the nobility in Tallinn, subordinating the Estonians. In 1343-45, however, there was an Estonian peasant uprising which resulted in the Danish king selling his Estonian holdings to the Livonian Order in 1346. The Livonian Order was a branch of the Teutonic Knights, and required three oaths of its members: obedience, poverty, and scantiness.

haunted Short Leg Gate Tower

Tallinn had two distinct areas: Toompea – the castle area on the hill, and the town 20-30 meters below. Toompea was encircled with a wall, as was the town. Two roads (Long Leg and Short Leg) connected the two, each with a gate tower that closed every night. The town was ruled by the Town Council under the Lübeck Rights and was a part of the Hanseatic League, whereas Toompea was under its own administrative rule and was the domain of the nobility. One ghost story from Toompea concerns the Short Leg Gate Tower, where a headless monk has been seen a number of times.

Town Wall

The first wall around Tallinn was made of wood. Construction on its stone replacement began in 1310 and took 300 years to reach its final shape. In the middle of the 16th century the Town Wall had 35 towers and was 2.5 km long. At its greatest point the Town Wall had 46 defense towers and was 3 m thick, 16 m tall and almost 4 km long, making Tallinn one of the best fortified cities in Europe. With the advent of firearms the town was further fortified with earthwork bastions and a moat, which lasted until the 18th or 19th century.

Tall Hermann

Tallinn suffered several great fires (in 1288, 1433, 1553, and 1684) and many of the buildings were lost and rebuilt. It could have been worse if not for a law passed in 1410 forbidding the building of wooden houses. The current fortress dates from the 14th or 15th century. Tall Hermann, the great watchtower, was built in 1360-70 and made higher in the 16th century.

Town Hall

During the Livonian War of 1558-1583, with several countries fighting for superiority in the Baltic States, much of the fighting took place in Estonia. Ivan the Terrible invaded in 1558, destroying the Teutonic Knights. Sweden and Poland intervened and pushed the Russians back. Fearful of the Russians, Tallinn and Harju-Viru sought protection from the Swedish king, and surrendered to Sweden in 1561. The northern part of Estonia became the Duchy of Estland and the southern part became Livland. Russia tried to besiege Tallinn twice, for 30 weeks in 1570-71 and 1577, but was unsuccessful and finally had to retreat. During the 150-year Swedish rule, the Lübeck Rights were still in effect.

Toompea Castle façade

Sweden lost Tallinn following the Great Northern War of 1700-1709. After being defeated once by Sweden’s Charles XII, Peter the Great adopted a scorched earth policy and won Estland and Livland. Russian rule lasted until 1917.

map of Toompea

Today the Parliament of the Republic of Estonia meets on Toompea. 26 of the towers and 2 km of the Town Wall remain. In 1997 Old Town was added to the World Heritage List as it has remained largely unchanged since its medieval days. According to legend every autumn a small old man comes to the town gates and asks the guards if the building of Tallinn is finished. When it is, he plans to let loose the waters of Lake Ülemiste and flood Tallinn.

Write-up and pictures by Kester.

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