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Remains of Upper Castle`s Keep in Vilnius

Remains of Upper Castle`s Keep in Vilnius
One part of the castle complex, which was built on a hilltop, is known as the Upper Castle.

The hill on which it is built is known as Gediminas Hill, about 40 meters (43.7 yards) in height and around 160 meters (175 yards) in length.

Archaeological data shows that the site has been occupied since Neolithic times. The hill was strengthened with defensive wooden walls that were fortified with stone in the 9th century. Around the 10th century a wooden castle was built, and since about the 13th century the hilltop has been surrounded by stone walls with towers. During the rule of Gediminas Vilnius was designated the capital city; in 1323, the castle was improved and expanded.

Vilnius Upper Castle ruins
Remains of Upper Castle`s Keep

Pagan Lithuania waged war with the Christian Orders for more than two centuries. The Orders were seeking to conquer Lithuania, stating that their motivation was the conversion of pagan Lithuanians to Catholicism. As Vilnius evolved into one of the most important cities in the state, it became a primary military target. The Castle Complex was attacked by the Teutonic Order in 1365, 1375, 1377, 1383, 1390, 1392, 1394 and 1402, but was never completely taken. The most damaging assaults were led by the Teutonic Order marshals Engelhard Rabe von Wildstein and Konrad von Wallenrode in 1390 during the Lithuanian Civil War (1389–1392) between Vytautas the Great and his cousin Jogaila. Many noblemen from Western Europe participated in this military campaign, including Henry, Duke of Derby, the future king Henry IV of England, with 300 knights, and the Livonian Knights, commanded by their Grand Master. At times during the civil war, Vytautas supported the Orders' attacks on the castles, having struck an alliance with them in his quest for the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Vilnius Gediminas tower
Remaining tower of the Upper Castle

At the time of the 1390 attack, the Complex consisted of three sections - the Upper, Lower and Crooked Castles. The Teutonic Knights managed to take and destroy the Crooked Castle, situated on Bleak Hill (Lithuanian: Plikasis kalnas), but failed to capture the others. During the 1394 attack, the Vilnius Castles were besieged for over three weeks, and one of its defense towers was damaged and fell into the Neris River.

The civil war between Vytautas and Jogaila was resolved by the 1392 Astrava Agreement and Vytautas assumed the title of Grand Duke. During his reign the Upper Castle underwent its most notable redevelopment. After a major fire in 1419, Vytautas initiated a reconstruction of the Upper Castle, along with the fortification of other buildings in the complex. The present-day remains of the Upper Castle date from this era. Vytautas had spent about four years with the Teutonic Order during the civil war. He had the opportunity to study the architecture of the castles of the Teutonic Order and adopt some of their elements in his residence in Vilnius.

Vilnius Castle Complex
Vilnius Castle Complex today

The Upper Castle was reconstructed in Gothic style with glazed green tiling on its roof. The Upper Castle keep hall, on the second floor, was the largest hall (10 x 30 m) within the complex; it was a little smaller than the hall of the Grand Master's Palace (15 x 30 m) in Marienburg, and much larger than the hall at the Duke's Palace in Trakai Island Castle (10 x 21 m). Reconstruction of the castle ended in 1422. The state had made plans to host the coronation of the proclaimed king Vytautas the Great in the castle, which were disrupted by his untimely death.

After the 16th century, the Upper Castle was not maintained, and it suffered from neglect. Until the early 17th century, a prison for noblemen was located in the Upper Castle. It was used as a fortress for the last time during the invasion of the Russians in 1655, when for the first time in Lithuanian history, a foreign army captured the entire complex. Six years later, the Polish-Lithuanian army managed to recapture Vilnius and the castles. Afterwards the Upper Castle stood abandoned and was not reconstructed.

The complex suffered major damage during the World Wars. At this time, only the western tower, known as Gediminas Tower, remains standing. It is a symbol of Vilnius and of Lithuania. Only a few remnants of the castle's keep and other towers survived.