Peninsula Castle (Great Castle) ruins

Kęstučio str. 4, Trakai

Extended map view

Trakai Peninsula Castle (the Great castle) stands in the town of Trakai, 100 m to the north of the beginning of Karaimų St at the end of Kęstučio St on a peninsula between Lakes Galvė and Bernardinų in the territory of the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Cultural Reserve. On the northern promontory is a small wooded hill called Aukos (Victims’) Hill. In the western and north-western part the castle is cut off from the town by the remains of a defensive ditch or fosse. Fragments of a mid-nineteenth-century park survive on the castle territory.

Construction work on the castle was begun by Prince Kęstutis around 1350-77. It is mentioned in the List of Rus’ian Towns (compiled 1387-1392). This castle was part of a defensive ensemble that guarded Trakai and Vilnius that was attacked by the Teutonic Order and ruined in 1382, 1383 and 1390.

Research on the castle began in 1854 when W. Tyszkiewicz, a member of the Imperial Archaeological Commission excavated Aukos Hill from which, in the opinion of certain researchers, work had begun on building the Peninsula Castle. Unfortunately when 582 m² were excavated in 1962 no earlier finds were made, apart from the ruins of the cellars of the renaissance grand-ducal residence which was built before the seventeenth century.

At present an area of some 3,500 m² has been excavated in the Peninsula castle. During archaeological research it was discovered that work began on building the castle after a wood was felled and great labour was expended on dealing with the soil in the territory of the front bailey. During this stage a fosse 12-14 m broad was dug to separate the castle from the town on the southern and north-western side and another fosse around 15 m wide to separate the southern bailey from Aukos Hill. To flatten the castle bailey its edges were filled with a layer of soil up to 2.3 m deep. On the eastern and western edges of the bailey and around Aukos Hill and the second bailey embankments were filled with gravel and clay. There were wooden defences on top. In the preliminary phase of the castle’s existence it had no towers, apart from an entrance tower in the southern brick wall during the first phase of construction to cut the castle off from the town.

Taking into account defensive needs the embankments with wooden palisades were changed for brick walls with corner towers and fosses strengthened with brick support walls. It seems that when the Teutonic Order besieged the castle in September 1385 it was already built of brick because sources record how the walls were bombarded.

In the early fifteenth century a two-bailey defence complex was built covering around 4 ha and having eleven towers of various sizes. The castle was cut off from the town by a deep moat. The plan and structure of the castle were determined by people’s ability to use difficult natural conditions for their own defence needs.

The front bailey in the southern part of the castle, according to research data, was defended by seven towers. The towers were linked by walls of around 10 m in height. All the towers were quadrangular and built of stones and bricks. The first floor was built of stone with the gaps filled with bricks and crushed stone. Bricks were used to form spaces for windows and doors and build the corners and to decorate the upper storey walls. The bricks are laid in Gothic style. The joists between the storeys were wooden.

The three largest towers formed the most important south-western flank from the town side. The towers measured 15 x 15 m with walls on the first storeys of a width of 3.8 – 3.4 m. The best preserved southern tower is supposed to have been five storeys high. It is the only one in the castle corners to have had buttresses. It is thought that the ruler dwelt on the top floors.

The south-eastern flank separating the southern and eastern parts of the castle has smaller towers measuring 10 x 11 m with walls 2.5 – 2.8 m thick. The present northern tower was built on the ruined and burned foundations of the tower.On the northern flanks there used to be smaller intermediary towers at a distance of 30-40 m from the corner towers. They were 7.8 – 8 m in area with walls that were 2.2-2.4 m thick.

The front part of the castle was separated from the second bailey and Aukos Hill by a defensive moat which had a bridge. Aukos Hill was girt by a defensive ditch with small brick walls. The second bailey and Aukos Hill were protected by the castle walls with three towers.

For a long period the castle bailey was not built up and the garrison lived in the towers.

Research shows that there were three clear stages in constructing the Peninsula Castle:
• the first stage saw the building of a guard-type castle, ca 1375-83, probably;
• the second stage saw the formation of the front castle with seven towers and defensive walls (end 14 cent.)
• during the third stage the front part of the castle was finished and curtained with walls.

Work began on building up Aukos Hill and this stage can be associated with Grand Duke Vytautas reconstruction of the castle before the Treaty of Melno (1422) that ended the wars with the Teutonic Order.

There is not much information about the use of the castle after the death of Vytautas (1430). We do know that building work was interrupted by squabbles over the succession to the throne of the Grand duchy. We know that Grand Duke Žygimantas Kęstutaitis (1432-1440) lived there and that it was in this castle that he was murdered on Palm Sunday (March 20) 1440.

The castle lost its significance. In the early 16 century it was a place where high-ranking prisoners were held and plots of land began to be carved off for donations to noblemen. After 1655 buildings that were seriously damaged during the war with Muscovy were left derelict and unused. In the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries a few single buildings appeared near the walls and at the end of the eighteenth century the castle became home to the Dominicans who began to build their church.

Interest in the castle grew after 1817 when the Vilna Gubernia surveyor, STR. Velikorodov, measured out the southern tower and prepared a sketch of it. The 1827 Atlas of Castles of the Vilna Gubernia presents a plan and sketch of the castle that were made in 1826 when the tsar commanded the old buildings of the Russian gubernias to be surveyed and described. When preparations were under way in 1838 to publish a supplement to the old buildings’ atlas the Trakai surveyor I. Wroblewski made three sketches of the castle. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Peninsula Castle and nearby wooden buildings were sketched by V. Gumiński and in 1872 by the artist E. Andriolis. After the Germans occupied Trakai during the Great War, German specialists came to research the castle and write several articles about how best to preserve it. In 1928 the engineer W. Girdwejn drafted a plan of the Peninsula Castle and under the leadership of J. Borowski he strengthened the northern tower and cleared away the debris from other towers. In 1930 before the visit of the Polish president the castle bailey was tidied but this work did not continue for lonstr. Only on the initiative of the Vilnius conservationist S. Laurenc was the castle declared a national monument in 1933. After Lithuania took the Vilnius District from Poland in 1939 care for the castle was taken over by the Vytautas the Great Cultural Museum (Kaunas) which in 1940 drew up a work agenda for the castle for 1941-49 but after the Soviet Union and Germany went to war this work was not begun. Work continued only in 1953 when the eastern tower was restored partially. In 1953-61 the remains of the castle were recorded, conservation and restoration projects were drawn up and work in these areas began and are still being continued according to the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Reserve directed maintenance and use programme as approved by the Lithuanian minister of culture in 2000.

A dossier was drafted on Dec. 10 1996 and Protection Regulation 81 was drawn up on July 5 2002. At present work is under way on drafting a detailed plan for the Trakai island and Peninsula Castles Cultural Reserve. The castle is the property of the Lithuanian Republic and lies in the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Cultural reserve.

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