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Medieval Castles of Finland

Updated on October 26, 2012

Discover Finland's medieval past

From the 13th to the 15th century the Swedish rulers of Finland sought to protect their occupation from the rulers of Russian lands in the east, and from the Danes in the south. This is the period when the great medieval castles of Finland were built, and then added to, and it is a measure of their skills that today these great monuments still stand. Come join me on a trip to the most important of these castles, and learn a little of their history.

Turku Castle - Finland's oldest medieval castle

Turku Castle: photo courtesy of
Turku Castle: photo courtesy of

Although Helsinki is now the capital of Finland, this has only been a relatively recent development; in fact, Helsinki is celebrating its 200th anniversary as capital this year, 2012. Before 1812, Turku was the capital, and it is Turku that claims the title of oldest city in Finland. Chief among the landmarks so readily identifiable in Turku is the magnificent castle that stands proudly at the western tip of the city, guarding the mouth of the river Aura.

Turku Castle was founded in the 1280s, built on an island in the estuary, as the administrative centre of the Swedish Crown which held sway over Finland at the time. Although the castle was originally built as a rectangular fort, it had become a closed castle in the early 14th century. Between 1556 and 1563 the castle once again underwent extensive renovations, when the Swedish Duke Johan converted it into a rather beautiful renaissance castle, and those new features remain today.

From the 1630s on, the castle's bailey was the official residence for the Governor General of Finland, until the late 18th century when the office and the Higher Regional Court moved into the town centre. Following the move, the castle was once again remodeled, this time the bailey was converted to a prison and the castle itself into a granary. The prison remained until the 1890s, at which point the bailey was reinvented as the Historical Museum of Finland. Following extensive damage from bombings in 1941, the castle was repaired and opened to the public in 1961.

Today, Turku Castle is preserved as an important part of Finnish cultural heritage, prized as an architectural monument, a museum and also operating as premises for a number of annual cultural events. The permanent exhibitions within the castle feature display collections of ceramics, jewelry, costumes, demotic textiles, furniture and toys, while the Old Guard Room has an exhibition about the Castle's construction history with miniature models. The Bailey has exhibitions about the history of the City of Turku and furnishings of the 16th to 18th centuries, and visitors can also explore the dungeons of the Round Tower and the Money and Medallion Cabinet. Annual events held here include the very popular Medieval Fair, and the Turku Castle Park Festival - last year performers included such diverse musical legends as Tom Jones, Donovan, and Toots & The Maytals!

Häme Castle - A unique redbrick castle with a rich history

Häme Castle at night. Photo courtesy of MEK Finnish Tourism Board
Häme Castle at night. Photo courtesy of MEK Finnish Tourism Board

Located by the shores of Lake Vanajavesi at the northern end of the town now named for it, Hämeenlinna, Häme Castle is unusual in Finland in that is mostly built of distinctive red bricks. The oldest sections of the castle are agreed to date from the end of the 13th century, and it is likewise agreed that it was built as a consequence of an armed invasion of the region by the Swedish Earl Birger, in an effort to link Häme more directly to the Swedish kingdom. The actual date of Birger's 'crusade' is a matter of debate, with some accounts saying 1239, and others 1249.

Originally little more than a fortified camp on an island surrounded by a moat, it developed through the Middle Ages into a residential castle for its commandant. It underwent renovations in the late 1600s following a fire in 1659 which had caused considerable damage, and during the 18th century more modifications were made. These included the addition of a third story, the replacement of the outer walls with new curtain wall buildings, and the removal of two of its towers. More changes were made in the 19th century, when it was reinvented as a prison - designed by architect C.L. Engel, who is also the architect for Helsinki's senate square and the Lutheran Cathedral, among many, many other of Finland's landmark buildings. It remained a prison from 1837 until 1972.

Today, some of the castle's interiors have been partially remodeled in a more contemporary style, and it is maintained by the National Board of Antiquities as a historical monument and museum which houses both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The permanent exhibitions include 'Terra Tavestorum' which displays the prehistory of the Häme region by featuring artifacts discovered over the course of over 100 years of archaeological research; as well as 'The History of Brick', 'The Treasure of Vaaraslahti in Pielavesi', 'Medieval Church Art' and 'The Restoration of the Castle'. Just outside the Häme Castle perimeter visitors will also find Hämeenlinna's prison museum, artillery museum (with pieces dating back to the 15th century), and the regional Historical Museum. The castle is also the site for the annual Medieval Festival of Häme and for the LinnaJazz Festival.

Olavinlinna - The Pride of Savonlinna

Olavinlinna - photo courtesy of MEK Finnish Tourism Board
Olavinlinna - photo courtesy of MEK Finnish Tourism Board

Although Olavinlinna is a much younger castle than the two described previously, it does hold the distinction of being the northernmost medieval castle in Europe, and is one of Finland's best loved national monuments, as well as being one of the most visited of its tourist attractions. Construction of Olavinlinna began in 1475, under the direction of Erik Axelsson Tott, a Danish born knight of Sweden with the title of Privy Counsellor. Tott had come to the conclusion that a powerful fortification was needed to protect the strategically important region of Savo from Russian attacks, and chose an island in the Kyr̦nsalmi channel in Lake Saimaa as the site. He began by constructing the small triangular main castle, with three sturdy towers that were designed to withstand the cannon of that era, and then added the forecastle. Two more towers would be added; one in the 16th century by King Gustavus Vasa in the forecastle, and another in the 17th century, when more buildings were added in the forecastle. Today, there are three towers РI'm not sure which two were taken down, or even when.

Olavinlinna was always a fortification, rather than a courtly castle, housing men of arms rather than nobility, and played an important part in the many conflicts fought by Sweden and Russia on Finnish soil. For instance, shortly after it had been built Ivan III put his threat of invading Finland into practice and the castle was besieged in both 1495 and 1496, but withstood the siege both times. More sieges followed when Vasa had his Russian campaign between 1555 and 1557, when the castle had a garrison of about 200 men. The castle would eventually come under Russian control during The Great Northern War, from 1714 to 1721, when it was returned to Sweden under the terms of the Treaty of Nystad. However, in 1743 the Treaty of Ãbo cedes south-east Finland, including Savonlinna, to Russia, and Olavinlinna gained a ring of bastions, with the cannon towers made taller.

By 1809 the castle had lost its military significance, as Finland was now a Grand Duchy of Russia, and although a garrison remained stationed there until 1847, for the most part it was used as a prison. By the 1850s, the castle was deserted and fell into decline, even as it had begun to gain a reputation as a tourist attraction. In the 1870s the question of what to do with Olavinlinna had become an issue of the day, due inpart to the damage caused by two fires that had broke out while it had been empty, and the government stepped in to take responsibility for it. Some restorative work was done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the serious work didn't begin until 1961, and was completed in 1975 – just in time for the castle's 500th birthday celebrations!

Today Olavinlinna is world famous, thanks to the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival held in the forecourt every summer. This top-class, and internationally renowned, operatic event attracts tens of thousands of people every year, from within Finland and from all over the globe, and tickets for all the performances are usually sold out months before the event opens. The castle also functions as a museum, housing 2 permanent exhibitions, one on the history of the castle and the region, and the other in the Orthodox Museum displays icons and other religious artifacts both from Finland and Russia.

Finally, my favourite of the Olavinlinna legends concerns a black ram, a statue of which stands proudly in Savonlinna. During a particularly violent assault on the castle, the encircling Russian troops were shooting flaming arrows over the walls into the castle forecourt. One of these fiery missiles landed in the thick wool of a ram that was running free, and the poor beast became enraged and insane as it caught fire. Racing along the parapet, it rose on its hind legs, bellowing out over the walls. The Russian troops saw this flaming beast crowned with huge horns, heard the bestial screams it was emitting, and presumed the poor creature was the Devil itself, raised from Hell and about to attack. They fled in disarray, and feasts were held in honour of the ram that had saved the castle.

Kastelholm - The Ãland Island's greatest treasure

Photo used by kind permission of Arto Teräs Copyright   2001.
Photo used by kind permission of Arto Teräs Copyright 2001.

Originally known as Kastelholms slott, the first mention of the Ãland Island's only medieval castle appears in 1388, so it's safe to assume it had been built before then. It was established on an islet surrounded by moats, near the village of Kastelholm, and was held in fief by a succession of Swedish nobles appointed by the King of Sweden from the late 14th century until the 17th century. The castle was embroiled in any number of conflicts during the 15th and 16th centuries, including acts of piracy by the Danes, most notably when Søren Norby, an officer in the Danish navy, captured it in 1505. Soon back in Swedish hands, the future king Gustavus Vasa was particularly fond of Kastelholm, and was known to have hunted the castle grounds before 1556, when he awarded Ãland and the Kastelholm castle in fief to his younger son Duke John. The Duke would visit often, and held his brother Erik the 14th there as a prisoner in 1571. In 1599 the castle saw its last battle, between the supporters of Duke Karl and King Sigismund. Royalty would continue to occupy th castle until 1634, at which time Ãland came under the jurisdiction of the governor of Ãbo, which is now known as Turku.

No longer of military or royal significance, the castle of Kastelholm slowly fell into disrepair, and in 1745 a fire destroyed much of it and left it a ruin. Still, the northern wing of the castle remained in use until 1930, if only as a granary. Other parts of the castle had underwent some renovation from 1890 onwards, and in 1930 the first Ãland Museum of Cultural History was established there. Renovations continued until 2001, and today the complex has been significantly restored. It is one of the most visited tourist sites in the Ãland Islands, and every summer is the site of a medieval festival, featuring dancing, feasting and even a jousting tournament.

Raseborg Castle - Left to rot for 300 years, Raseborg is once again alive

Raseborg Castle - image courtesy of wikipedia
Raseborg Castle - image courtesy of wikipedia

It is believed that Raseborg Castle was built around 1374 by Sweden, under the command of Bo Joninpoika Grip, predominantly as a counter to the Hanseatic city of

Reval, now known as Tallinn, and to exert control over the existing trade route between Novgorod and Lübeck. At the time it was built the castle was surrounded by water, and it was constructed on a glaciated granite upcropping. Today, the castle stands on dry land, although the river still flows past it. It was built in the shape of a horseshoe, with two baileys that connected to it, and a large round tower added to it some time in the late 15th century. At the time of its construction there was an active trading place nearby, Tuna, which later moved to the village of Snappertuna, and the castle became the administrative centre for the province. Historians know that the viceroy Karl Knutsson Bonde kept his court at the castle during the middle period of the 15th century.

Raseborg's importance diminished greatly with the establishment of Helsinki in the east, and with the moving of the province's administrative centre to the town of Ekanäs (Tammisaari) in 1528. Its decline was complete when in 1550 Gustavus Vasa decided that it was of no more military use, and it was abandoned. Raseborg Castle was left to fall to ruin for 300 years or more, until in the late 19th century some restoration work was begun. These restorations continued until the late 1980s when the National Board of Antiquities decided that no further work could be done as there was no information on what the castle's interiors looked like at the time it was in use.

Today, there are floors, stairs and galleries that have been restored, and it is covered by a roof, and the castle enjoys a new life as a cultural centre and tourist attraction. It is open to the public from May until September, with parking facilities nearby, and a café and souvenir shop. Close by is one of the largest open-air theatre stages in Finland, which is home to the Raseborg Summer Theatre; founded in 1966, the theatre performs in Swedish annually in July. The castle also hosts the annual Midsummer celebrations, as well as a Medieval Festival, and summer concerts; all of these are organised under the Raseborg Festival banner. Nearby visitors will find ”Snappertuna ForngÃ¥rd”, a folk museum in an old fisherman's house which can be reached via the lovely ”Kärleksstigen”, or Lovers’ Walk, a forest path.

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      travelerme 5 years ago

      Castles in europe are amazing and something to visit

    • Essentially Ind profile image

      Essentially Ind 5 years ago

      I love the castles............and the old history of castles. :)

    • melissiaoliver profile image

      melissiaoliver 5 years ago

      There are some really beautiful pictures here - this is such an interesting lens, as when you think of Finland you don't necessarily think of castles straight away. Thankyou!

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 5 years ago

      Nice lens, i wish if i could visit them all someday.

    • profile image

      davecurrtis 5 years ago

      The Häme Castle looks amazing especially at night. Great lense!

    • profile image

      Traveller579 5 years ago

      Such a very nice place castle of Finland thanks for sharing.

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      NewUsedCarsSacramento 5 years ago

      Wonderful place...I have never visited their but would love to visit...thanks for sharing this nice lens.

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      crstnblue 5 years ago

      Great job! Thanks for sharing!