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Narva fortifications and Narva Castle
The Old Town of Narva

Narva fortifications and Narva Castle

(Virtual excursion)


Its favourable location on the border and at the crossing of trade routes has enabled the town and its inhabitants to earn great wealth. However, in wars and conflicts, the location and wealth made Narva the first target. Therefore, most rulers, and Narva has had plenty of them over time, have made their contribution to fortification of the town. It mostly meant supplementing and reconstructing the existing structures but in several times also establishing new fortification systems. Through centuries, enormous resources were invested in fortification of Narva. This, however, could not prevent recurrent conquering of the town. An unconquerable town was actually an ideal at that time, which could even become true at one moment but broke due to development of weaponry (provoked by the town's unconquerability) at the next moment. Narva never achieved the ideal, even worse, it could not keep renewal of its defensive structures up to date. This was also the case in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century, when the extremely powerful bastion system established by the Swedes was, shortly before its completion, conquered by the Russian tsar Peter I. The survived fortifications of Narva are characterised by multi-layerness: fortification types used in different eras due to different weaponry have mixed there. We can also see rather pure-style fortification systems, for example, the bastions constructed by the Swedes. The fact that Narva Herman Castle has retained its medieval look despite the numerous reconstructions and wars is a little miracle. Only thanks to the "miracle" we can nowadays enjoy the extraordinary view on Narva Herman Castle and Ivangorod Castle, which seem to guard each other. There are no more places in the world revealing so clearly the contradiction and rivalry between the Western Roman and Eastern Roman civilisations.

Medieval fortifications

Although the exact age of Narva Castle and the town cause still arguments between historians, they agree on the sequence of events. Firstly, in about the 13th century, the Danes, who had conquered Northern Estonia, built a wooden border stronghold at the crossing of the Narova River and the old road. Under the protection of the stronghold, the earlier settlement developed into the town of Narva, which obtained the Lubeck town rights in the first half of the 14th century. Following several conflicts with the Russians, the Danes started building a stone stronghold at the beginning of the 14th century. It was a small castellum-like building with 40-metre sides and a tower, a predecessor of the today's Herman Tower, at its north-western corner. At the beginning of the 14th century, a small forecourt was established at the north side of the stronghold and, in the middle of the century, a large forecourt was added to the west side, where citizens were allowed to hide in case of wars as the town of Narva was not surrounded by a wall during the Danish rule. In 1347 the Danish king sold Northern Estonia, including Narva, to the Livonian Order, who rebuilt the building into a convent building according to their needs. The stronghold has for the most part preserved the ground plan with its massive wings and a courtyard in the middle. The Herman Tower was also completed at the time of the Order, necessitated by the establishment of Ivangorod Castle by the Russians to the opposite side of the Narva River in 1492. The Order surrounded the town with a wall, which unfortunately has not been preserved (in 1777 there came an order to pull it down). On the basis of descriptions, we know that the wall had four gates: the Viru Gate in the west, the Herd (Karja) Gate in the north, the Old (Vana) Gate leading to the river port in the east and the Water (Vee) or Small (Vaike) Gate in the south. The gates were covered with iron plates and preceded by drawbridges. The town wall with a length of about a kilometre was fortified with at least seven towers. The town wall was surrounded by a moat. Towards the end of the Order's period, the town wall was supplemented, the gates were strengthened by adding foregates, and several medieval wall towers were adapted to use as special cannon towers or rondels, two of which can be seen today in their reconstructed shape in the corners of the castle's western court.

Beginning of the gunpowder era

In 1558 the Russians conquered the town of Narva from the Order, and in 1581 the Swedes conquered it from the Russians. The then chronicle describes in detail how the Swedes with their stunningly "great and fat" cannons shot large holes into the town wall of Narva during two days. Although the introduction of firearms had occurred already during the Order period, Narva's defences had remained almost unmodernised and hopelessly outdated by the gunpowder era. New masters of the town understood this very well. Nearly immediately after the conquer of Narva, a wooden model of Narva Castle was prepared at the command of the Swedish king Johann III, and modernisation work was started. The defence structures constructed followed the medieval location of the town wall, and it was rather strengthening of the existing defences than establishment of new ones. Into the corners of the old town wall, earth-filled towers or basteis, four in total, were constructed instead of the existing medieval towers. The town wall was also fortified with earthwork at the beginning of the 17th century. In the 20s of the 17th century, construction work at Narva defences was begun again. Establishment of bastions, the latest word in defences, was started. Bastions were basically a development of basteis, and bastions (neo-Italian-type bastions according to later determination) with square walls enabled, unlike basteis, better protection of their sides with gunfire. This time the work was also limited to reconstruction of medieval defence structures, trying to make maximum use of the existing fortifications. The medieval town wall was used to serve as wall sequences between the bastions, and basteis were used for building the bastions. During the reconstruction activities, Viru Gate was closed and remained inside the Old Wall (Vanavall) established on it. The Small Coastal Gate (Vaike Rannavarav), also called the Old Coastal Gate (Vana Rannavarav), and the Water Gate (Veevarav) stayed in use. The Herd Gate (Karjavarav), opening to the north, was renovated and additionally fortified with a strong tower and a rondel. This was the end of the period of establishing gun era or modern time fortifications in Narva. Earthwork fortified with limestone walls, called the Christians' Wall (Kristlasvall) has remained from the times. On the territory of the old town of Narva there is a mound, which actually are the ruins of the bastion called the King's Wall (Kuningavall), containing probably basteis that formed the basis of the bastion or even the remains of the medieval tower preceding the bastei.

New bastions

Despite the investments into Narva's defences, made during almost a half a century, the Swedish Kingdom had to admit in the mid-17th century that Narva's defences could not have been able to withstand the quickly developing offensive weaponry. And although leaders of the fortification service, created in 1635, prepared plans for expansion of Narva and surrounding the town with new bastions, the town could actually only deal with fixing the existing fortifications. Construction activity became more intense again in the years 1676-80, when the new Wrangel Bastion was established on the river-facing side, whereas the Coastal Gate (Rannavarav) opening to the east was reconstructed as the New (Uus) Gate, later called the Dark Gate (Pimevarav), and the Herd Gate (Karjavarav) opening to the north was fortified with a separate ravelin-like stronghold. The fortifications were supplemented with batteries built for cannons, one of which was established in the north-eastern corner of the castle, where the Estonian flag is flying today. At a task given by the Swedish king, the fortifications of Narva were inspected by Erik Dahlberg, the then leader of the fortification service and an outstanding military engineer. He, in his critical report, stated that Narva's fortifications were unsatisfactory, and the existing modernisation plans were bad or too expensive. Dahlberg presented his proposals to the king, and one of the proposals was approved by the king in 1683. This was a totally new fortification system: the existing defences based on the medieval town wall remained inside the defence zone planned by Dahlberg and lost their function actually. Of the old zone, only the river-facing side remained on the same line, whereas building area in the north and west direction was expanded. The work was modestly started in 1682 and continued in an increasing tempo year after year until the conquering of Narva by the Russians in 1704. Although the construction work stopped with the beginning of the war, a large part of what was planned by Dahlberg was completed before the war. The establishment of the bastions required unprecedented resources from Narva: during the last years of the work, over 1,500 men worked on the construction, and over 40,000 state talers per year were spent (as a comparison: Tallinn received under 20,000 talers per year, Tartu and Parnu only up to 7,000 talers). The construction of Narva's new bastions cost nearly 900,000 talers in total. Owing to such colossal expenses, Narva obtained one of the most powerful defence systems in the Northern Europe of those days.

Bastions from inside and outside

The Swedes could complete six bastions and also a bastion-like fortification Spes (Hope), which was situated in front of the south wall of the castle. There was no time for the Swedes to reconstruct Wrangel Bastion into Pax (Peace) Bastion, and, although the latter name has been adopted by the inhabitants, it is still the original Wrangel Bastion with only the name changed. A half-bastion called Justitia (Justice), planned to the north-eastern corner, could not be completed. Of the five ravelins designated for protection of the bastions, only two were built. The west gate planned between Triumph and Fortuna (Fortune) could not be built either, and it was completed only in 1822 at the time of the Russian rule. The gate was located on the same spot from where visitors from Russia enter the town also today (as the new gate was called the Gate of Peter I, it also gave the name to the Peter's Square). Narva's bastions have high and powerful front walls or faces, as characteristic of the Dahlberg's system. In the walls of the bastions there were vaulted tunnels or casemates for defenders of the town. Casemates in Narva bastions (except for Gloria Bastion) have two floors, are 2 metres wide and 2-2.5 metres high. Light reaches the casemates through embrasures, located at every 7 meters, with wider holes for cannons and narrower holes for guns. At every embrasure starts a ventilation shaft with the purpose of directing gun smoke out of the casemate. The outer walls of the casemates are about 3 metres thick, and they were also protected by earthwork situated opposite to the moat, hindering cannon fire from being aimed directly against the bastion wall. The bastions had tunnels and casemates in a total length of 1.5 kilometres. The bastions established were surrounded by a moat, which was dry, typical of modern time fortifications, enabling defenders of the town to place soldiers on the defence line in front of the bastions. A new gate - the King's Gate (Kuningavarav) was built in the north direction, and it became the main gate to the town (in the 18th century it was started to be called the Imperator's Gate). The Water Gate (Veevarav) and the New Gate (Uusvarav, later the Dark Gate) were the other surviving gates. By today, the riverside bastions Pax (actually Wrangel), Victoria and Honor are the best preserved bastions, and also well-preserved are Gloria Bastion at the end of Vestervall Street, Fortuna Bastion in the south-western corner of the castle and the south wall of Triumph Bastion near the Peter's Square. Fama has not survived, although a careful observer may notice references to the lost bastion in the town scenery. On the external walls of Honor, Victoria and Gloria Bastions, one can also today see entrances to casemates but these are in danger of collapse at present.

6. …up to the present day

Although the Swedes gained victory over the Russians in the first conflict of the Great Northern War near Narva in 1700, it was not enough to win the war. In 1704 Peter I was back under Narva and started bombing fortifications of the town to prepare breakthrough from the east coast of the river. After 10 days of bombing, the escarpwall or facade of Victoria and Honor bastions collapsed, and the Russians took the town by storm on 9 and 10 August. The reason why bastions still imposing with their size could not defend the town was the location of Narva by the river. Due to the river, earthwork could not be established in front of the bastions, which made their high and powerful stone walls defenceless against directly aimed gunfire. Eric Dahlberg, a military engineer who designed the bastions, probably also realised that but there was no better solution. Russia, victorious in the Great Northern War, conquered Estonia, and Narva, remaining in the inland, lost its actual strategic importance as a result. Although Narva remained in the list of Russian fortifications as a fore-fortification of St. Petersburg for one and a half century, there was no real military need. However, bastions that had suffered in the Great Northern War were renovated, and ravelins left uncompleted by the Swedes were completed. When Narva was finally removed from the list of fortifications in 1863, the town could initially do nothing with the bastions assigned to it. Only establishing of a park on Victoria Bastion by the river was started, and the park was later called the Dark Garden (Pimeaed) after the Dark Gate (Pimevarav) situated next to it. The Dark Gate was demolished after 1875. Establishing a park on a defence was actually not an original idea as the same was done by many towns and cities in Europe (Wurzburg, Vienna, Augsburg, Mainz, and also Tallinn and Tartu). It may be even ironical that the fate of Narva and its fortifications was the harshest in the warfare of the 20th century. Soviet aviation attack in March 1944 completely destroyed Narva's Baroque old town, and constant gunfire demolished Narva Castle's convent building, the Herman Tower and rondels in the western forecourt. Ivangorod Castle was not in a better state: it was shot by the Germans with their cannons. Renovation of Narva Castle was begun in the 1950s, that of Ivangorod Castle in the 60s, and actually work in both castles is still continuing. The bastions Victoria and Pax have also undergone reconstruction. Today Narva's former military objects serve the town's inhabitants and visitors: the Narva Museum is situated in the castle, and the park established on the bastions is a beloved walking and recreation area.




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