On the night of July 20 to 21 2013 Latvia caught the word spotlight. And that light came from the blaze of the burning castle in Riga. The Medieval landmark of Riga, the Presidential residence, home to Museum of the Latvian National history, Museum of Arts and the Museum of Literature went ablaze from the burning roof. In this hot summer whole Latvia including me followed the events on radio, TV and twitter. The biggest worry for historians was the fate of the Latvian National History museum collection. In the end it was the “lesser evil” as the collection suffered not from the fire, but from the water. The reasons for the fire is still unknown and we are still far to fix all the damage. This post is not only about this fire, but the history of this castle and its future.
Riga was founded in 1201 by German Crusaders who sought to Christianize local pagans. The first crusader castles were built in Ikšķile and Salaspils on 1185 and 1186. They belonged to German Bishops Meinard and Berthold who first lead the crusade. After Berthold’s death in the battlefield his new successor Bishop Albert moved to Riga to establish his new capitol. The very first castle in Riga was the Bishops Court in old city between Jāņa Sēta, Skāŗņu, Kalēju and Kaļķu street. The Bishops Residence was first mentioned on 1207 by Chronicler Henry in the Livonian Chronicle. The small residence was damaged by fire on 1215. On 1234 the Bishop Nicholas gave his stone caste and its surroundings to Dominican Order. Dominicans built a Church of St John (Jānis) on the remains of the castle and the church still stands today.
After giving his castle to Dominicans, Bishop Nicholas moved to his new residence on the right coast of the river Daugava north of the Dome Cathedral. The residence survived until 17th century when it was turned into barn as the Bishop of Livonia was no longer in office since 1563.
The Livonian Order was the branch of the Teutonic Order and wanted to take biggest share of the Riga. Livonia was a confederacy ruled by many Bishoprics and the State of the Livonian Order. Riga was shared by the Archbishop of Riga, the Livonian Order and the Riga Town council. The complicated feudal relations caused a lot of stir even civil war. The first Riga castle for the crusader knights were mentioned on 1225. The castle survived the fire of 1215, however on 1297 when the conflict between the knights and the city of Riga erupted into full-scale war the castle was burned down. The remains of this old castle is seen today as part of the Church of the St George.
The crusader knights however won the upper hand. Riga was forced to give the city walls, the Smiļšu (Sand) tower, and the tower of Saint Spirit with the gates to the order. Also the stables were given to greedy knights. The act of capitulation signed on 1330 stated that Riga must give space around the Tower of the Saint Spirit to Order for its new castle. First part of the castle was finished on 1340. Until 147o it was used as the residence of the Master of the Order. The people of Riga disliked the castle and tried to remove it many times. On 1454 rebels attacked the Out tower and managed to burn it down. However, the knights forced them to give up. However, on 1481 a war started again and the castle was surrounded and sealed off for 10 years. On 1484 after most of the defenders died from famine and plagues the castle surrendered.
Victorious council of Riga ordered to blow up the castle. Holes were dug in the walls, doors broken and filled with firewood and explosives. The castle was sent on fire and the walls and towers were destroyed all together. The Livonian Order was far from giving up. On 1491 the legendary master of the Livonian Order Walter von Pletenberg defeated the Riga auxiliary army near Bukulti. Riga was forced to give up and again recognize the treaty of 1452 that made the Order and the archbishop as the dual rulers of the city.
The new castle had to built on the same spot. And that is the castle we know today. Sources show first signs of the castle building on 1497. According to tradition castle was finished on 1515. It was built for 20 years because city lacked resources and was forced to ask the help from Tallinn. Also local Russian merchants came to help. The master of the Order Water von Plettenberg himself visited castle only once and resided in the Castle of Cēsis. Cēsis was the main base of operation for the order.
On 1558 The Tzar Ivan IV The Terrible invaded Livonia. The last Master of the Order Gothard Ketler was in the castle with 50 man. The Order lost its newly built castle. On 1525 the Teutonic Order to whom Livonian Order were vassals had ceased to exist and transformed into Kingdom of Prussia. On August 2 1560 the Livonian Order was completely defeated in the Battle of Ērģeme. The Polish-Lithuanian allies took the lands of the order for their own. On March 3 1562 the Master Gothard Ketler released Riga from its obligation to the order. On August 5 the representative of king of Poland and Lithuania Sigismund II Nicolai Radzivill was invited to castle. The order ceremonially submitted to the king of Poland and Lithuania for it was the only way how to save Livonia from Russia. The Order ceased to exist and became the property of Polish – Lithuanian commonwealth.
The people of Riga once again rose to fight against the new Polish rulers. However, after many years Riga was taken over. The Castle was used for local Polish administration and visited by king Stephan Batory himself. On 1617 when war with Swedes attempted to capture Riga, the castle was not much of a help. Castle was in rotten state and citizens of Riga had to support it themselves to keep it from capture. Many parts of the castle were ruined. The siege failed, but on 1621 the Swedish king Gustav Adolphus II again attacked Riga it was guarded only by 25 men. Only by promising great reward two additional companies were added to the defenders. Castle was taken by Swedes and then recaptured until 1622 Swedes finally took over it.
Swedes choose the castle as the general governor residence for the conquered Vidzeme province. On 1656 Russians invaded Vidzeme and bombed Riga with cannons. The General Governor Magnus Gabriel Delagadi was hurt by the exploding barrel while standing on castle bastion. During the Great Northern War on 1700-1710 Riga was under heavy siege. While the castle itself a little, a nearby Swedish stronghold suffered a heavy explosion. On 1710 Riga surrendered to Russians.
Swedes had made a lot of improvements and modern fortifications around the castle. Riga along the castle lost its medieval feel. On 1713 when the new Russian rulers established the province of Riga, the castle again became the residence of the governor. The castle church was turned from Lutheran to Orthodox. Castle was shared both by army and the civil authorities. Russians added many outbuildings to the castle. During the 18th century castle was restored many times. The clock tower was replaced because the old one was too unstable. Because of the administrative reforms by Empress Katrina II the bureaucracy needed more space and the castle experienced many changes in its interior. The outside looks also changed adding more modern look.
The Napoleonic invasion on 1812 and the unfortunate burning of the Riga suburbs, forced local authorities to modernize Riga even more. Castle was again renovated. On 1817 in front of the castle the Victory column was established. The General Governor marquise Filip Pauluchi took great care to improve the castle. His successor Karl Magnuss von der Palen continued to remake his residence. Many other General Governors were involved in constant repair and modernization works. After all old walls and fortifications were completely removed castle was no longer military important. For many years the castle was the center of the General Province which had special status. Then on 1879 the special status for the Baltic province was removed. Castle became a property of the Riga town council. It was still used by the Governor of Vidzeme province. On 1910 Tzar Nicolai II was the last Russian Emperor to visit the castle. When the First Word war came to Latvia, the castle was still used by the last governor of Vidzeme who fled the city on August 1917. After that the German army staff occupied the castle.
On November 18 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. German army was still residing in the castle. Soon they were changed by the Bolsheviks, however on May 1919 German Landeswerh took the city back. After the German defeat on June, the Latvian national provisional government returned to Riga. The flag of Latvia was raised on the main tower. On November 1919 when Riga was besieged by the Army of Bermont, the castle suffered artillery damage. After they were defeated, the castle was used by State office and the Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis. On August 6 1920 the leaders of the Baltic States held first meeting.
From August 6 1922 the castle became the residence of the first president of Latvia Jānis Čakste. He lived there until his death on 1927. Castle became the symbol of the Latvian presidency. His two successors Gustavs Zemgals and Alberts Kviesis moved their working office to other room and left the old Jānis Čakste office untouched. On 1929 the Swedish king Gustav V paid visit to Latvia and resided in the castle during his visit. The guard of honor was placed at the castle gates.
On 1936 Kārlis Ulmanis who had taken over the country by coup on 1934, installed himself as president. However, Kārlis Ulmanis only worked in the castle and lived in his mansion. He only lived there during his last months of rule. Castle was also used by Presidential Secretariat, official state newspaper “The Governmental Herald” and the Museum of Arts, Museum of History and the State Archive. State Archive later moved to Slokas street. Castle was in rotten state after the war. New repair works begun to make castle as the first building of the state. The Tzarist attributes were removed and replaced with national symbols. When Kārlis Ulmanis came to power his ambition was to build more Latvian Riga. On 1938 a new symbolic tower called “The Tower of Three Stars” was built to celebrate the 20 years of independence. Castle became more Latvian folk styled and there is no telling how far Ulmanis would go in his desire to scourge out the foreign past from Riga.
On 1940 Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Kārlis Ulmanis stayed in his castle until July. He was then deported and never returned. The new invaders looted the castle riches and vandalized the national symbols. Soviet occupiers stayed in the castle until February 1941. After that it was turned into Palace of the Soviet Pioneers. During the German occupation it was used by German reichcommisariat. When Soviets returned it was again turned into Pioneer palace.
The Soviet Youth Pioneer organization was the Soviet version of the Hitlerjugend. Soviet symbolism was added and rooms revised for youth purposes. However, many of the nationalistic themed paintings were not removed and destroyed. In empty places soviets did added “ideologically correct” paintings. On 1956 Soviets installed central heating. Meanwhile the State History museum also came back to castle. The Museum of Arts moved to Valdemars street. A new addition was the Museum of Foreign arts and the Museum of the writer Jānis Rainis. On 1962 in the castle square a statue of Pēteris Stučka the Latvian Bolshevik leader on 1918-1920 was placed.
On November 11 1988 a great event took place. A flag of the Republic of Latvia was raised on tower of Saint Spirit. This marked the beginning of the great change. After Soviets finally left Latvia, the castle of Pioneers was renamed as the Castle of Riga students. Then on June 7 1993 it was decided that castle must once again became the residence for the president of Latvia. The Castle was visited by president of Poland Lech Valensa and Bil Clinton from US on 1994. On November 1994 the Presidential office came back. On June 12 1995 the Presidential banner was raised.
Museum of the National History of Latvia and Museum of Foreign Arts remained. The Museum of Rainis was renamed to museum of the Latvian literature. The Soviet years had left the castle in rotten state. The restoration of the castle was one of the main issue for years. National symbols were returned and attempts on restoring the old look were made. However, the castle still needed major restoration. There were rooms with visible cracks, falling plastering and failing electric installations. Castle was divided into “safe zones” and “unsafe zones”.
However, three presidents Guntis Ulmanis, Vaira Vīķe Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers worked there and welcomed foreign guests. Then on 2012 finally a major restoration works begun. Presidential office with president Andris Bērziņš moved to the House of Blackheads in Old City center. All the museums including the Museum of History still remained in their place and planned to move on 2014. Also since the Museum of the National Arts on the Valdemar street was also under reconstruction it was temporary placed inside the castle.
On July 20 2013 at 18:45 the restoration workers finished their work and left the castle. The Military Police was responsible for the castle security. Then on 22:21 first calls for firefighters about the burning castle roof were made. It was made not by castle security, but by simple bystander. A huge crowd gathered to see terrific blaze. The castle roof was burning with a open flame. Firefighters sent large amount of resources. However, the Soviet built water pump failed and broke down. Firefighters had hardships approaching the castle because of the complicated position of the castle. They were also unable to get water from river Daugava because a private yacht blocked the place. Helicopters were intended to be sent, but never came. One firefighter was hospitalized. At 1:00 the open flames were finally brought down. A dramatic pictures of the flag of Latvia amidst the flames terrified everyone. Army Corporal Alvis Brūveris went up the tower and rescued the flag. Next day another Private First Class Aldis Dortāns took the flag to its old place.
The fire left a hole in the roof and gravely damaged the fourth and third floor. The Presidential Office suffered the most damage, the representative halls were burned. The museums who were located at the lower floors escaped the main flames, but were spilled with water. None of the collection items were actually destroyed, but suffered damage. A temporary roof has only been set up recently. The National History Museum is closed for uncertain time. Its undergoing repair works. Here you can see the damage caused to the museum.
In this long story you might noticed one detail. All other previous castles of Riga suffered from fires. But, this castle had never experienced a serious fire incident in its century long history. Bullet fire, invader vandalism and other calamities could not destroy the castle. However, not even this one fire was not too strong enough to completely end the story of the Castle of Riga. As long there will be people who will care for its historic and symbolic importance the castle will stand for centuries.
Caune Māra. (2001) Rīgas pils. Rīga. Zinātne.
Caune, Andris, Ose, Ieva. (2004) Latvijas 12. gadsimta beigu 17. gadsimta vācu piļu leksikons. Rīga. Latvijas Vēstures institūta žurnāls.