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Castles in Finland

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Finland’s political and social history in the medieval period explains why royal or aristocratic castles were not built there as in central Europe. The oldest surviving castles or manor houses date from the second half of the 13th century. The building of castles in Finland was part of a project of constructing defensive and administrative centers throughout the kingdom of Sweden-Finland. Six castles of importance were built in the medieval period, from the second half of the 13th century: Turku, Häme, Viipuri, Raasepori, Olavinlinna and, in Åland, Kastelholma. These were official provincial residences. There were three other residences, now lost: Porvoo, Kokemäki and Korsholma. During the final decades of the 16th century, two castles were built to defend the northern wilderness: Oulu and Kajaani. Only the latter survives, in ruins. Kuusisto, the residential castle of the bishops of Turku, also survives as a ruin.

The importance of castles as main bastions disappeared gradually during the 18th century, and they have been historic monuments since the second half of the 19th century. Extensive renovations have been carried out since the Second World War at Turku, Häme and Olavinlinna castles, the latter where the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival is held. All three castles are owned by the state.

TURKU CASTLE . The founding of Turku Castle on an island at the mouth of the Aurajoki River probably took place about 1280. It was a fortified encampment which was rebuilt in the early 14th century as a castle enclosed by granite walls. In the winter of 1364-1365, the troops of Albrecht of Mecklenburg besieged the castle and burned it. It was rebuilt in the gothic style with vaulted rooms and a chapel. At the beginning of the 15th century it was one of the largest in northern Europe, with 40 rooms. An important renovation was carried out during the reign of Gustavus Vasa (1523-1560) while his son John lived at Turku Castle from 1556 to 1563. An additional story was added for his increasing family; this was destroyed in the bombing of the castle in 1941 and was reconstructed between 1946 and 1962.

HÄME CASTLE . According to oral tradition in the 14th century Eric’s Chronicle, it was founded by the Swedish Jarl (Earl) Birger as a result of a ‘crusade’ to Häme province. The crusade possibly took place in 1239, but the oldest parts of the bulding originate from 1260. It was transformed in the mid 14th century into a residential and defensive castle, using brick as the internal and external surface material – an unusual practice in Finland.

After the Great Northern War (1700-1721) the main bastion was converted into a grain store. A military bakery was also built on the site. During the reign of Gustavus III (1772-1792) the defensive system was modernized. The castle passed into Russian hands in 1808, and in 1836 it was converted into a prison. It was used as a prison until 1953 and during restoration, which was completed in 1988, rooms have either been reconstructed or left in their ruined state.

RAASEPORI CASTLE . The Swedish vice regent Bo Jonsson Grip (died 1386) founded the castle in the 1370’s. It was a main bastion for the province of Uusimaa and its location on the Gulf of Finland took into account the important commercial location of Tallinn on the opposite shore. Karl Knutsson Bonde (1408-1470), who was ruler of Sweden on three separate occasions, occupied the castle from 1465-1467. The castle reached its final form in the 1470’s during the period of the Danish-born knight Lars Axelsson Tott (died 1483), when the partially surviving great accommodation wing with its knights’ hall was completed. In the late 18th century the castle was abandoned and left empty. It had decayed badly when conservation began in the 1880’s. A careful restoration was made in the 1970’s. The ruins and impressive landscape make a fine setting for summer theatrical performances.

KASTELHOLMA . This castle in Åland was also founded by Bo Jonsson Grip in the 1380’s. It was in a good location for monitoring the trade routes of the Gulf of Finland. Built according to practices of central Europe, it comprises a main bastion and an outer ward dating from the late 15th century. The most notable effect of the exterior is made up of the five-story Kuuretorni Tower. After a fire in1619, the outer ward was rebuilt. Åland was a favorite area for royal elk-hunts and Kastelholma became a hunting castle. Its decay began in the 18th century, and a fire destroyed the castle in 1745, after which only the eastern wing was restored, with the rest of it remaining in ruins. The castle is owned by the provincial government of Åland and, with the completion of conservation work it has been used for provincial receptions and as a tourist attraction.

OLAVINLINNA . This is the best-known of the Finnish castles, partly because of its impressive location on the lake system of Saimaa. Since the 1870’s it has been an internationally known travel destination, along with nearby Punkaharju Ridge. Documentation reveals that the castle foundation began in 1475 by the builder Danish-born knight, Erik Axelsson Tott (1418-1841). The location of the castle in Savo was politically significant – its task was to protect the disputed eastern border of the kingdom from Novgorod, which had conquered Moscow. Originally the castle was comprised of three towers, one of which was destroyed, and a palace wing connecting them. It is possible to determine that some of the masons who built the castle came from Tallinn. The Russian Emperor Peter the Great besieged the castle in 1714 and it was forced to surrender. After the peace treaty of 1721 Olavinlinna was returned to Sweden-Finland, but was ceded in the peace treaty of Turku 1743 to the Russians. In the second half of the 18th century the Russian forces added to the castle’s defensive equipment with a chain of bastions.

After the castle lost its importance, it was almost demolished, but instead was restored as early as 1875 on its 400th anniversary. A more thorough restoration was carried out between 1961 and 1975, when it was adapted for ceremonial use. The performance of operas in the castle courtyard began in 1912, and the tradition was revived in the 1960’s. The Savonlinna Opera Festival has become one of the most important cultural events of the Finnish summer season.

KUUSISTO . The ruins of Kuusisto Episcopal Castle are a remnant of the residential castle of the bishops of Turku, which was located about 20-30 km from Turku on an island in a small bay. The building of the castle began in 1317 and it is comprised of a masonry main bastion with a palace wing. It fell into the hands of the state after the Reformation of 1527, at which point King Gustavus Vasa ordered it to be demolished. A royal manor was founded on the site of the castle which, in 1690 became a colonel’s quarters. The main building, built in the baroque style survives, and is now used as a museum.

KAJAANI . The last phase in the development of Finnish castles is marked by the Castle of Kajaani. It was built 1604-1619, located on an island in Ämmänkoski River. The fortification was continued during Count Per Brahe’s (1602-1680) period as Governor General of Finland between 1661 and 1666. The Russians seized the castle during the Great Northern War in 1716 and blew it up. Conservation of the ruins has been carried on periodically since the 1880’s. The important Swedish historian Johannes Messenius (1579-1636) was imprisoned in the castle in 1616, and he wrote the history of the Nordic countries, Scandia Illustrata, here.


Excerpts from an article by Elias Härö, in “Finland – a cultural encyclopedia”

June Pelo


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