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Castles of Estonia

Photo Focus: Rakvere Castle

by Peter Kessler, 17 April 2022


Rakvere Castle, Lääne-Virumaa, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

The native Estonians had a stronghold on what would become the theatre hill in Rakvere, by the name of Tarvanpää. The ancestors of the Vironians had settled here at some point between the third and fifth centuries AD, with the stronghold on the hill protecting the settlement below it.

The coming of the Danes to North Estonia and the Germans to today's southern and central regions changed everything. Although the natives fought valiantly - and almost suicidally at some points - they were forced to give way by superior arms and sheer weight of numbers. Then the Danes and Germans fought each other to try and establish their dominance in the Estonian territories.

In 1226, during his journey to Virumaa the papal legate, Wilhelm of Modena, stayed in the new Rakvere Castle which had replaced Tarvanpää. Under his supervision, peace was agreed between the Danes and the Germans, and land which had been conquered from the Estonians was distributed between the two sides.

Rakvere Castle, Lääne-Virumaa, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

Tarvanpää's settlement had been replaced by the German town of Wesenberg. In the years 1238-1346 it was part of the duchy of North Estonia, with the Danish king's regent ruling from Tallinn.

In the middle of the century the Danes built the first stone fortifications in place of the Estonian stronghold and, by the mid-fourteenth century, there was a Danish-built curtain wall castle on Vallimägi Hill.

Rakvere Castle, Lääne-Virumaa, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

Following the start of the St George's Night Uprising in 1343, Danish vassals in Harju and Viru placed themselves under the protection of the Livonian Order. From 16 May 1343, Rakvere Castle belonged to the Livonian Order. The transition was formalised in 1346 and 1347 when the king of Denmark sold his duchy to the Teutonic Order and the latter, in its turn, sold it to its underlings of the Livonian Order.

The Order remained in command of the castle until July 1558, when the Russians took it from Gert Huyn von Ansteraidt, the Livonian Order's bailiff of the castle, without meeting any resistance.

Rakvere Castle, Lääne-Virumaa, Estonia
Photo © Kersti Hansen

Several of Rakvere's bailiffs were able to climb the career ladder to gain important positions in the Order. For example, in 1410, Hermann Vinken became the land marshal, the secondmost important man in the Livonian Order. The Order also oversaw extensive rebuilding of the castle.

The simple curtain wall castle was turned into a convent building which better served the needs of the Livonian Order as a religious order of knighthood. The convent building was located in the northern part of the castle.

Rakvere Castle, Lääne-Virumaa, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

In the middle of it was a rectangular inner courtyard which was surrounded by wings which served specific purposes, and by various halls which were necessary for community life such as a chapel, a chapter house (meeting hall), a refectory (dining hall), and a dormitory. To the south of the convent building was a forecourt, its walls lined by various workshops, sheds, stables, and other household buildings which served the Order's military needs.

In the first half of the sixteenth century a semi-circular cannon tower (rondel) was built near the main gate in the north-eastern corner of the forecourt.

Rakvere Castle, Lääne-Virumaa, Estonia
Photo © E Tätte

The Livonian Wars saw the castle fall to the Russians who built a new line of fortifications around it, using stones which had been robbed from the houses in the town, and from the Franciscan monastery. In the winter of 1574, the Swedes attempted to conquer the castle without much success until 4 March 1581.

During the Polish-Swedish War of 1600-1629, the castle was partially destroyed by the Polish in 1605, and later by the Swedes. It has lain in ruins ever since. In 1635, the Swedes removed Rakvere Castle from their list of fortresses.

Today the castle grounds hold a permanent display of everyday sixteenth century life.


Five photos kindly contributed by E Tätte, taken in August 2007, and one by Kersti Hansen, taken in August 2020.

Main Sources

Visit Estonia

Rakvere Linnus website

Other Sources

The History of the Baltic Countries - Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia, 2008)

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

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


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