Haapsalu – castle and cathedral of St Nicholas


   Initially small fishing village of Haapsalu, grew to the rank of the capital of the Ösel–Wiek bishopric after 1263, as a result of the destruction of the diocese in Old Pärnu by the Lithuanian invasion. For the first time the cathedral appeared in sources in 1279, until the end of the 14th century its basic shape and defensive walls were erected. The first major shock was the Teutonic invasion during the war with the Bishop of Ösel–Wiek in 1297. The army occupied the castle and cathedral until 1302, however, Haapsalu quickly regained its position and until the sixteenth century continued to play the role of the most important episcopal city. In the second half of the fourteenth century, a large, round baptistry was added to the church, the only example of this type of building in Livonia. The castle in the 14th and 15th centuries was surrounded by a moat and two outer baileys. Additional fortifications were not enough, however, during the war of 1558-1583 when Haapsalu became part of Protestant Sweden. The Catholic cathedral became a Lutheran church and it was called the castle’s church.
In subsequent centuries the political role of the city and the castle decreased, there were no funds for renovation, especially after the fire of 1668, which consumed the roof of the cathedral and most of the castle. The damages were so large that no attempt was made to rebuild it. The church itself, though secured, unfortunately underwent another fire in 1726 and until the nineteenth century it remained in a state of ruin. At that time was destroyed among others, romanesque main portal with the figure of the patron of the temple. The first attempt of renovation took place at the end of the 19th century when the building was secured and a new neo-gothic portal was placed. During the Soviet occupation, the monument fell into disrepair again, for a short time even served as a granary, renovation was carried out only in 1979-1990.


   The castle initially consisted of the northern wing, connected by two curtains of the wall, about 8 meters high, with the church on the south side, and a small four-sided turret protruding in front of the western curtain. After the expansion in the 15th and early 16th centuries, it already consisted of three wings arranged around a rectangular courtyard, which still closed the cathedral church from the south. All three wings had cellars, some of which served as a prison, and others as warehouses for storing food and drinks. The ground floor was occupied by utility rooms and an armory, and on the first and second floors there were the most important representative rooms of the bishop, canons and church officials. In the north-eastern corner there were bishop’s chambers, the northern range was occupied by a large refectory, and in the west there was a chapter house. The third floor served as a granary and had a defensive function by placing guard porches in it. Probably in the 15th century, a 38-meter-high cylindrical tower called Clock Tower was added to the west wing of the main castle. It replaced the older, slender four-sided turret.
   Located on the south side, the cathedral was the largest single-nave medieval building of the Baltic countries with an area of ​​425 m² and a height of 15,5 meters to the vaults. Its architecture combined romanesque and gothic elements. Romanesque features are visible in plant ornaments on pilasters of capitals, and vaults are gothic. The romanesque portal was topped with a gothic wimperg that had a niche with a saint’s figure on the arch. The inner walls were covered with paintings, and the floor consisted of epitaphs of clergy and significant noblemen. The unique round baptismal chapel was built in the second half of the 14th century.
   In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the castle was surrounded by a moat and two outer wards: the older west one and east one from which two additional inner courtyards were separated. The whole covered an impressive area of 134.6 x 121.2 meters. The outer defensive wall was strengthened by quadrilateral and later semi-cylindrical towers. The quadrilateral ones were located in two eastern corners, the two four-sided gate towers were also extended entirely in front of the face of the wall on the north-west and south-west sides. The former led to the town, while the latter connected the outer ward with the suburbs. Two more gates also had an eastern outer ward, one of which was connected with the town and the other with the foreground of the castle in the east.

Current state

   The cathedral and the castle in Haapsalu thanks to the combination of the fortified and monastic features and the combination of the romanesque style with the gothic is a unique object not only in the scale of Estonia, but also all of north-eastern Europe. Although the object has only been partially preserved, the layout of its rooms is clear. It has also been preserved on the almost full-length external defensive wall. The museum is now under the care of the castle museum, which in the preserved cellars and on the first floor has organized numerous exhibitions dedicated to the history and functioning of the Haapsalu in the Middle Ages.

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Alttoa K., Bergholde-Wolf A., Dirveiks I., Grosmane E., Herrmann C., Kadakas V., Ose J., Randla A., Mittelalterlichen Baukunst in Livland (Estland und Lettland). Die Architektur einer historischen Grenzregion im Nordosten Europas, Berlin 2017.

Borowski T., Miasta, zamki i klasztory. Inflanty, Warszawa 2010.
Tuulse A., Die Burgen in Estland und Lettland, Dorpat 1942.