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Castles of Estonia

Photo Focus: Narva Castle

by Peter Kessler, 20 March 2022

 

Narva Castle, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

Known variously as Narva Castle, Hermann Castle (after the 'Tall Hermann' tower, a common name in Estonia for high towers), Narva Fortress, or the Hermannsfeste, the castle sits on the west bank of Estonia's River Narva, which forms the modern border with Russia.

The castle was initially established in 1277 by the victorious Danes, having carved out a vice-regency from the native Estonian territories and with some opposition from the German crusaders to their immediate south.

Its first duty was to serve as a residence for the Danish king's vice-regent in North Estonia, with the first stonework either being laid immediately upon its founding or within a few years. It was an important defensive element for the Danes, constituting the gateway to the entire region. It guarded the trade route from the Gulf of Finland to Novgorod and Pskov to the east. However, the early fortress failed to stop a Ruthenian invasion in 1294.

Narva Castle, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Danes extended the castle by surrounding it with an additional ring of walls and erecting the main tower. It was probably also then that the outer bailey was fortified.

The St George's Night Uprising saw the divided Danes lose control of their territories, so it fell to the Livonian Order to put down the natives and, three years later, purchase the territory from the Danes. Narva Castle became their northernmost stronghold. As they themselves were now a division of the Teutonic Order, it can also be claimed that it was the northernmost Teutonic Knights fortress.

Narva Castle, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

The castle gained its present appearance during this period, under the Livonian Order in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. It was significantly expanded, the tower was increased in height, and the north and west wings were added.

The fortifications were so powerful that in 1492 the grand duchy of Moscow, instead of attempting to conquer it, decided to build its own stronghold of Ivangorod on the opposite side of the river.

The fifty-one metre-high Tall Hermann tower offers views across Narva, the nearby Kreenholm factory complex, and Russia's Ivangorod Fortress on the eastern bank of the river.

Narva Castle, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

In 1588, the troops of Ivan the Terrible crossed the river to occupy the town and its castle. It was only recaptured by the now-dominant Swedes thirteen years later, but Swedish power was broken by the Russians at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Badly damaged in the Second World War, the castle was significantly restored in the 1970s and 1980s before opening as a museum, which simultaneously offered a permanent exhibition which now showcases Narva's history, as well as almost a dozen temporary exhibitions.

Narva Castle, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

In June 2020 the castle underwent a thorough restoration, within the framework of the 'Opening the Border Castle Discovery Centre' project. The previously-closed east wing of the castle was opened up to visitors during this work.

The Estonian Museums Festival also takes place in Narva every autumn. As part of this the best Estonian museum exhibitions - which will have temporarily been moved here for the festival - remain open until the end of the year.

 

All photos kindly contributed by E Tätte, taken in March 2007.

Main Sources

Helme, Mart (compiler) - Guide to Castles in Estonia, Kunst, Estonia, 2003

Kiaupa, Zigmantas, with Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, and Gvido Straube (compilers) - The History of the Baltic Countries, AS Bit, Estonia, 2008

Praust, Valdo - Most Beautiful Manors and Castles, Grenader Grupp, Estonia, 2004

Online Sources

Estonian Manors

Narva Museum

Visit Estonia

Medieval Heritage

 

Images and text copyright © E Tätte & P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.