Reconstruction of the Royal Palace with Upper Castle (watercolour by J. Kamarauskas). 1894
The picture of St. Casimir with three hands, original created in 1520, set in silver at the beginning of 18th century. 1998. Photo by R. Paknys



History and romance
Buried forever

History and romance

Royal Palace. Artist K. Racinskas. Lithograph by M. PsibilskiscinskasThe palace was demolished more than 200 years ago. Archaeological research on the site between the cathedral and Castle Hill started as late as 1987, since a huge museum of the friendship of nations was to be built here. It was then that the first cobbled cellar was uncovered, further layers were found under it, and more cellars behind its walls. The wave of the Sajudis movement was gaining momentum at the time, the public demanded the preservation of historic and cultural monuments, thus the research went on and a castle research centre was established.

According to Tautavicius, the Lower Castle started to acquire its shape in the 13th century. At the beginning it was enclosed within wooden walls, which were later replaced by stone walls that had to withstand enemy attacks. The exact time of the construction of the palace has for a long time been the object of dispute among historians - some assert that right up to the 15th century it was built of wood, while others were of the opinion that in the 14th-15th century the rulers resided in the Upper Castle, since there remain ruins of a palace with a large Gothic hall. Many think that it was the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus (1548-1572) who built the residence in the 16th century. However, according to Tautavicius, it turned out that the palace was built earlier by his father Sigismund the Old (1506-1548).

When in 1544 Sigismund Augustus took over full power in Lithuania, he moved into the palace with his mother, the Italian Queen Bona Sforca. Soon the palace became a centre of European Renaissance culture. Some of the most renowned humanists of the time found refuge here. It was a palace of scientific discussions and literary evenings. Here in Vilnius a famous love story came about. In the garden of the palace secret meetings between the grand duke and the beautiful widow Barbora Radvilaite-Gostautiene took place. It is assumed that they were secretly married in the chapel of the palace garden. In 1548 Barbora was introduced to the Lithuania nobility as the Grand Duchess of Lithuania.

However, in 1551 all the rooms of the palace were decorated in black, the castle and the city were enveloped in sorrow - the King and Grand Duke Sigismund Augustus accompanied the coffin of his beloved Barbora on foot from Cracow, Poland, to Vilnius Cathedral.
The Grand Duke of Lithuania and the King of Poland Sigismund Vasa (1587-1632), and later Vladislav Vasa (1632-1648) often resided in the palace. Here they received foreign envoys, settled home and foreign affairs.

The court of Sigidmund Augustus was famous for its splendour. The papal nuncio B. Bongiovani wrote in 1560 that the king had 180 heavy-calibre cannons, 2,000 horses, and such jewellery as was not to be seen at the palaces of the pope or in Venice. The palace had an immense collection of works of art. The grand duke’s library with about 4,000 volumes was among the largest in Europe. In the first half of the 17th century operas were staged in the palace, and tournaments took place in the courtyard.

In the 16th-18th the palace was made up of four parts which surrounded an irregular four-sided courtyard. In 1610 the palace burnt down, later it was renovated and for more than 40 years used by the rulers.Panoramic viev of Vilnius Castle grounds (from "Theatrum urbium preaaecipuarum" by G. Braun and F. Hohenberg. 1572)
In 1655, the Muscovite army occupied Vilnius and its castles without excessive fighting. The Lithuanian army regained the city in 1660, but the castle fought on for another year and a half, thus Lithuanians fired on it from the city. The Lower Castle was ruined, most of the buildings were burnt, and the cathedral was left with its arches broken, frozen corpses were heaped up in it. The palace, devastated by the army, was burnt down.

The palace stood in disrepair for about 150 years. In the middle of the 18th century about 30 families of townspeople moved into the lower floors. After the third division of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth in 1795, the Russians took over Vilnius. The governor general did not like the sight of the ruins of the palace and thus in 1799-1801 they were demolished.

In 1831 the Czarist authorities installed a fortress here which survived until the end of the 19th century when it was knocked down, and only the arsenal was left which remained as a barracks up to 1960. In this way the name “castle” was gradually erased from people’s memories.

Buried forever

In the opinion of the archaeologist Tautavicius, the earliest archaeological findings in the grounds of the Lower Castle were rough clay ceramics from the 10th-11th century witness to a settlement here. Imported ceramics from the 13th century and amphorae from the shores of the Black Sea were found here for the first time in Lithuania. “Who knows our ancestors used to bring from there - wine or oil,” Tautavicius says. Rarities in Lithuania, copper moulds from the 13th century show that craftsmen lived here as well. Two moulds were found - one of them was used to make round tin brooches, the other to forge small diamond-shaped sheathing.

Starting with the late 14th century, numerous tiles, and the tips of crossbow arrows were found. The latter confirm the frequent attacks of enemies. The layer from the 14th-16th century revealed several well preserved lead seals. Researches believe that they were brought here along with other goods from various cities of East and West Europe. There exists a seal bearing the inscription ‘ARRAS’ with small animals marching across it. Tautavicius believes that it comes from the town of Arras in France, which in the 14th-16th century was famous for its decorative fabrics and carpets. Most likely, the court of the grand duke maintained direct trade contacts with this town, at least from the 15th century.

Ornaments and parts of musical instruments, keys, copper dishes, padlocks, bone needle cases, chessmen - all that has been found in the site of the castle helps the researchers to cast a glance into the depths of history. Step by step they facilitate their attempts to reconstruct the past, which the passing centuries have buried deep under the ground.

From: “Lithuania in the world”, No. 1, 1997

  Lithuanian Art Museum, Fund of Samogitian Culture, Institute of Mathematics and Informatics 
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     Page updated 2006.03.27