King Louis I of Hungary often visited the city of Zvolen, spending time hunting in the surrounding forests. Since the Empty Castle over the city was difficult to access, and its interior too modest, at the end of his life the king ordered to erect a new castle in Zvolen, which was built in the years 1370-1382 on the place of an older manor. It was to perform a residential and representative function for the king and his court. After the destruction of Empty Castle in the middle of the 16th century, the capital of the Zvolen county was also moved here. The castle served this function until 1776, when the office was moved to Banská Bystrica.
The Zvolen Castle belonged to the queens for over a century. The tradition was initiated by Sigismund of Luxembourg, giving it to his wife Barbara. Later it passed into their daughter, Elizabeth, wife of Albert Habsburg. When, after Albert’s untimely death, a civil war broke out on the Hungarian throne, the widow called John Jiskra for help, who made Zvolen its headquarter. He occupied the castle in the years 1440-1462, but castle was besieged in 1447, when the Hungarian governor Jan Hunyady led the offensive against Jiskra’s castles. The next battles took place in 1451, when Hunyade’s army burned the town down, and placed a siege camp in front of the castle. Despite this, it was only in 1462, under the agreement of Jiskra with Matthias Corvinus, that Zvolen returned to the royal hands. After the death of the king, the widow queen Beatrice received it along with the whole county and mining towns, as a supply from Vladislaus II of Hungary. Next, it was owned by another wife, Anna, who gave it to John Thurzo, a mining entrepreneur from Banská Bystrica, as a pledge for the loan. Thanks to Thurzo, the castle was rebuilt and strengthened. In 1522, Louis II donated the fortress to queen Maria Habsburg, who in 1548 gave it to his brother, king Ferdinand I, thus ending the female rule in Zvolen.
Another reconstruction, carried out after 1548 in relation with the Turkish threat, turned the Zvolen Castle into a renaissance fortress. The castle crew was paid by the inhabitants of the mining towns, and the command was carried out by the local zupans. In the second half of the 16th century, the command of one of the military districts was located in Zvolen, and its commander, or captain, lived in the castle. Thanks to its fortifications, Zvolen avoided the havoc by the Turks, who at the end of the 16th century regularly plundered the surrounding villages, reaching all the way to Banská Bystrica. Neither the castle nor the city resisted the Hungarian insurgents. They won Zvolen during the uprisings of Bocskay, Bethlen, Thókoly and Rakoczi. The army of the Rakoczi, retreating in 1708, did great damages to the town.
In 1636 the castle was bought by the Esterhazy family; it remained their property until the beginning of the 19th century. They did not make any significant changes to it, they only rebuilt the chapel and made some small adjustments in the decor. In 1805, the castle was bought by the state, it housed, among others, offices, court, school, barracks and tobacco warehouse. In the years 1894-1906, the object was renovated, at the same time being considered as a monument.
The castle was situated on a flattened elevation of land near the river. Originally it consisted of four, two storey (ground flooor and first floor) ranges forming a rectangle with a closed courtyard in the middle. Inspiration for its construction is seen in the northern Italian representative town castles. Most of the building was occupied by residential and representative rooms, crowned at the top with gable roofs. Defensive fortifications were limited to two quadrilateral towers in the west range, located closer to ferry on the river. Perhaps like the Italian or French castles it were crowned with machicolation on protruding corbels.
At the end of the fifteenth or in the first half of the sixteenth century, the castle received a new ring of walls with four towers and a gatehouse. The shape of this fortifications was similar to a rectangle which southern and eastern sides slightly rounded. Round towers were built on the three corners, and at the fourth, north-east, a gate was located, which was housed in a two-story, square tower, far exceeding the remaining towers. An additional semicircular tower was placed in the middle of the eastern curtain. Behind the gate, on the right, a small courtyard stretched out, from which through the next gate led the entrance to the palace part. Next to the gate, to the inside of the wall was the guard building, reinforced with already mentioned semicircular tower. On the opposite side of the castle, by the southern wall, there was a captain’s house, intended for the commander of the military district.
In the second half of the 16th century, the residential part was raised by two floors and topped with a renaissance attic, and later turrets on the corners were added. In the defensive walls new arrowslits were created and posts for the guns were built, and on the west side, outside the castle, a large cannon bastion was built.
The four wings of the castle formed a closed courtyard, which was entered through the gate in the northern wing. On the ground floor of the castle there were utility rooms and servants’ apartments, the first floor was intended for the king and the court. The whole northern, widest of all wings served for representative purposes, it housed there, among others in the ground floor, a large Knight’s Hall with a vault supported by two pillars and a smaller hall in the east, also topped with a rib vault. In north range there was a gateway passage, directed towards the town. Sedilia was placed on its sides. The rooms on the first floor of the north wing were covered with wooden ceilings, except the vaulted royal chamber, lit by a six-light window. It was adjacent and connected to the east wing of the castle, where the chapel was placed. Its apse extended outside the wall line, and the interior was divided into two levels: the upper one for the king and the court, and the lower one for the service. Originally, it was topped with a rib vault, and its side walls had a series of seats at the bottom. From the level of the floor through the cloister in the courtyard (and, as already mentioned from the royal chamber), one could get to the matroneum on the west side of the chapel, passing further into the balcony surrounding its entire floor. The western wing was solved in a unique way. It consisted of two bays, of which the inner had a row of vaulted arcades. The lighting of the four wings of the castle was provided by large rectangular windows at the level of the floor, pierced both from the side of the courtyard and in external elevations. At the ground floor, only narrow slit openings of a defensive character were used. From the side of the courtyard, some of the rooms were also illuminated by ogival windows closed at the top with trefoils. At the height of the first floor, the courtyard was surrounded by a wooden, gothic gallery with entrances to individual rooms. During the late gothic rebuilding, new saddle-shaped portals with rich painting decorations were used in the grund floors.
Today, the castle is divided into the inner palace part of the fourteenth-century origin, but rebuilt in later centuries, and the sixteenth-century fortifications. Currently, the administrator of the castle premises is the Slovak National Gallery, which displays valuable exhibitions. The permanent exhibition includes replicas of valuable timber sculptures of Master Paul of Levoca, a collection of gothic wall paintings and a selection of works of European fine arts, entitled Ancient European art. In the summer, a theater festival takes place in the courtyard. The castle interiors are open to visitors from Wednesday to Sunday between 10.00 – 17.30 but the last entrance is at 16.45.
Bóna M., Plaček M., Encyklopedie slovenských hradů, Praha 2007.
Stredoveké hrady na Slovensku. Život, kultúra, spoločnosť, red. D.Dvořáková, Bratislava 2017.
Wasielewski A., Zamki i zamczyska Słowacji, Białystok 2008.