History of the castle and fortress
The convent building of Kuressaare castle is the only medieval fortification in the Baltic States that has not undergone considerable alterations and due to that is an internationally important architectural monument. The architectural style, modesty, strictness, grand and monumental beauty offers you not only an aesthetic experience but also many-sided historical information – contact the sense of the past and experience the Middle Ages.
The construction of the stronghold was closely connected with the Estonians’ fight against the German feudals. In 1227 the last Estonian county – Saaremaa surrendered to the German crusaders. A small feudal state was formed of Läänemaa and the West- Estonian islands in the years 1228-1234: it was Saare-Lääne (Oesel-Wiek) Bishopric with the territory of about 7600 sq. km. The centre of the bishopric was Haapsalu since 1265. The impact of the foreign rule on the island was not so strong and the islanders maintained some privileges. Despite the fact there were constant uprisings and rebellions, one most widely-spread in 1260. Soon after making the rebels surrender the other local feudal state, the Livonian Order, that possessed East-Saaremaa and island of Muhu, started building Pöide fortification. It is possible that the oldest stone fortification in Kuressaare – the castell type stronghold for the bishop was built at the same time – in the first half of 1260s. The first documented data about Kuressaare castle originate only from 1380s.
The convent type architecture of the castle is due to its function: it was the administrative centre of the district, it was possible to gather a group of people there (conventus – get together) and it offered shelter in case of an uprising or war. Convent type buildings are characteristically regular, strict, reclused; a well-defended entrance takes into the inner yard, surrounded by the four wings of the building.
Kuressaare castle remained the residence for the bishops of Saare-Lääne Bishopric until the beginning of the Livonian War. At the end of the XIV and the beginning of the XV century the castle was surrounded by a new mighty 625 m long and 7 m high belt of walls, erected around the old belt of walls dating from the XIII century. The necessity to improve the defence of the castle was due to the invention and usage of firearms. The old parts of the walls have been preserved in the new earthwork and bastions even today. In the middle of the XV century the wall was made higher and cannon towers were built. The most powerful was the Cannon Tower on the Northern Bastion from about 1470, restored in 1971-72.
In 1559 Bishop Johannes V Münchhausen sold his property in Saaremaa (Oesel) and Kurland to the Danes. At the beginning of the XVII century as the cannons became more powerful, the medieval stronghold built of stone had to be built into a new type of defence fortification. The Danes modernized the defence systems of the castle. The work began in about 1600 and lasted till 1640. Using the old belt of walls, they erected a mighty system of earthwork with bastions and encircled it with a 30 m wide moat, filled with seawater.
On the ground of Brömsebro peace treaty in 1645 Sweden took possession of Saaremaa. There is no information about the number of inhabitants in the castle during the reign of the bishops, but some figures date from the later period. During the fiscal year of 1618/1619 the castle employed 47 different clerks and servants, 50 mercenaries; 36 soldiers and 8 armourers among them. In 1623 there were 116 cannons in the castle. In 1645, in the state of war the garrison was considerably bigger: when the Swedes took over, there was an army of 850 mercenaries and 800 peasants.
In 1684 the Swedes once more modernized the fortification system of the castle. Already in 1676 the main gate was moved from the Cannon Tower to its present place and the first ravelin was founded at the place of the present hotel. Using the principles of the French fortification, engineers E. Dahlberg and P. Essen drew up a project, on the basis of which new mighty bastions and ravelins were erected, and they have preserved up to the present day. The construction work stopped in 1706 and the eastern seaside ravelin remained unbuilt.
On September 15, 1710 the Swedish garrison, ravished by the plague, surrendered to the Russian army with no resistance. The Russian garrison left in the spring of 1711. They blew up the wings of the bastions, the Cannon Tower, some of the vaults of the convent building and the interior of the Defence Tower. After that the convent building was left to its fate for about half a century.
In 1762 the south-western and north-western parts and in 1806 the north-eastern and south-eastern parts got a new roof, new vaults were erected in the cloister of the main floor. The demolished upper floors of the Defence Tower were taken down in 1791. Some of the rooms were used for storing grain in the XVIII and in the first half of the XIX century. In 1783 the convent building was excluded from the list of the fortifications. At the same time the earthwork, bastions and ravelins were actively being reconstructed.
After the third division of Poland and the conquest on Finnish territories by Russians (1809) Kuressaare castle lost its military importance. After Russia founded Bomarsund castle on just-occupied Ĺland islands and in the vicinity of the Swedish capital, Kuressaare was once and for all excluded from the list of the fortifications of the Tsarist Russia in 1836. A year before the castle had been sold to the Knighthood of Saaremaa for 3,000 roubles. In 1868-1878 there was a poorhouse in the building situated in the yard. During 1904-1912 the convent building was renovated by architects W. Neumann and H.Seuberlich. The two upper floors of the Defence Tower were constructed anew; the window frames in the cloister of the main floor were restored and the wall between the chapel and the festive refectory rebuilt; some of the doors were relocated and windows widened; new ovens and staircases were built; stone plates with the coats-of-arms of the local noblemen were mured into wall of the cloister. The main floor was re-designed to serve as the office and the festive rooms of the knighthood; a bank and an archive were installed in the basement, a museum was situated on the upper floor.
In 1968 extensive restoration works were started and carried out on the basis of the plan made by K. Aluve. First they restored a part of the north-eastern earthwork, a part of the walls of the eastern bastion and the Cannon Tower. The renovation of the convent building lasted for more than ten years, because the aim was to restore the medieval looks and give it the functionality of the present day. The most fundamental work was the restoration of the original roofs and the defence gallery, building the new intermediate ceilings, building a concrete staircase into the Defence Tower and re-shaping the widened windows.
The second phase of the restoration work was to renovate the fortress and expose it as an example of the development of the defence constructions during different periods in the XIV-XVIII centuries. By now the Northern Bastion with its entrance and a bridge, 1/3 of the exterior and 2/3 of the interior walls and all the XVIII century buildings of the garrison have been renovated and the moat cleaned.