Island Castle of Trakai

By MSW Add a Comment 26 Min Read
Island Castle of Trakai

The most successful example of exporting the castle-building skills of the Teutonic Order may be seen at the island castle of Trakai in Lithuania. Begun by Grand Duke Kestutis, Trakai was completed by his son Grand Duke Vytautas the Great. Taking advantage of a period of truce between Lithuania and the Order, the Order’s stonemason Radike was sent to supervise the construction. Trakai is like a miniature Marienburg situated on a tiny island.

Town located in a lake region 23 kilometers (14 miles) southwest of Vilnius; 2007 population: 5,400. Trakai is historically significant as the residence of medieval Lithuanian rulers, who often lived there even after the establishment of Vilnius as the country’s capital in the early 14th century. Trakai was the island castle of Grand Duke Kestutis and his son Vytautas and the center of a principality that occupied most of central Lithuania. An early 15th-century account of the town and castle were provided by the Burgundian traveler Ghillebert de Lannoy. In the early 16th century, Trakai lost importance as a political and military center, especially after the construction of the royal residence in Vilnius during the reign of Sigismund II Augustus; the town and castle were substantially destroyed during the Muscovite invasion of 1655-1666. Trakai was part of Poland between 1920 and 1939.

In 1951, restoration of the island castle was begun, and much of the former ducal residence was rebuilt, serving as a site for historical exhibits and artistic performances. The island castle of Trakai and its picturesque environs are visited by hundreds of thousands of domestic and foreign tourists every year. Trakai is also home to one of the last surviving communities of Lithuanian Karaim, also known as Karaites, a people of Turkic language related to the Tatars but practicing a form of Judaism.

KESTUTIS (c. 1300-1382).

Polish: Kiejstut; Russian: Kestovt. Duke of Trakai, c. 1338-1382, and Grand Duke of Lithuania, 1381-1382. Kestutis was the fourth or, according to some sources, fifth son of Gediminas. While little is known of his early life, it is well established that by the time of his father’s death in 1341, Kestutis was the ruler of Samogitia, Trakai, and Grodno. In 1345, he joined his brothers in a coup that removed Gediminas’s ineffectual youngest son Jaunutis from the throne in Vilnius and transferred power to Algirdas (R. 1345-1377). Kestutis was given the task of defending Lithuania’s western border against Polish and, especially, Teutonic Knight attacks. During the nearly four decades of his rule, he cooperated closely with his brother, Grand Duke Algirdas, and some historians consider this period as practically one of joint rule.

Between 1345 and 1380, the chronicles recount almost 100 incursions by the Prussian and Livonian branches of the Teutonic Order into western Lithuania, and 40 campaigns by Kestutis and the Lithuanians against the Knights. In 1361, Kestutis was reportedly captured by the crusaders, but he escaped the following year. Kestutis was also involved in several campaigns against the Poles who competed with the Grand Duchy for the lands of Volhynia and Galicia; in 1362, he also assisted Algirdas in the latter’s victorious battle against the Tatars at the Blue Waters (Russian: Sinye Vody) in present-day Ukraine. In addition to his military campaigns, Kestutis attempted to deflect the Teutonic Order’s attacks by negotiating the Christianization of Lithuania. In 1358, Algirdas and Kestutis offered to accept baptism on the condition that the lands seized by the order since the 13th century be returned to the Lithuanians and that the Knights be transferred to the east to defend Christendom against the Tatars, but these negotiations failed.

With the death of Algirdas in 1377, Kestutis became involved in a struggle for power with his nephew Jogaila. In November 1381, he seized Vilnius and proclaimed himself grand duke, accusing Jogaila of secret dealings with the Teutonic Knights. Jogaila continued the struggle against Kestutis and his son Vytautas, but a full-scale war was averted in July 1382 when a truce was proclaimed as a prelude to negotiations. About mid-July, Kestutis died under mysterious circumstances. Some chroniclers claim he was murdered by Jogaila, who violated a solemn pledge of safe conduct, while others suggest suicide. Kestutis’s death triggered a decade-long civil conflict between Jogaila and Vytautas. Kestutis’s passing marked the end of an era: he was Lithuania’s last non-Christian ruler and the last to be ritually cremated according to ancient custom.

VYTAUTAS (1350-1430).

Russian: Vitovt; Polish: Witold. Grand Duke of Lithuania (1392-1430), often termed Vytautas the Great in Lithuanian historical literature and widely acknowledged as medieval Lithuania’s most important ruler. Vytautas was born about 1350, probably in Trakai, the oldest son of Kestutis. He first achieved prominence as an ally of his father in the struggle for power that followed the death of his uncle, Grand Duke Algirdas. Following the death of his father in 1382, Vytautas was imprisoned in the castle of Kreva by his cousin Jogaila. He escaped and sought refuge with the Teutonic Knights, with whose support he waged a lengthy campaign against Jogaila, who had seized the grand ducal throne. In 1383, Vytautas was baptized and added the Christian name Alexander to his signature. He secretly reached reconciliation with Jogaila in 1384 and turned against the Teutonic Order. Upon his return to Lithuania, Vytautas was given the lands of Grodno, Brest-Litovsk, and Podlachia, later acquiring Volynia as well.

Vytautas was a prominent participant in the signing of the Act of Kreva, Jogaila’s coronation as king of Poland in 1386, and the formal re-Christianization of Lithuania in 1387. However, Jogaila’s decision to appoint his brother Skirgaila as viceroy in Lithuania provoked a fierce rebellion from Vytautas, who once again turned to the Teutonic Knights for assistance, initiating a destructive civil war that ended with the Treaty of Astravas (Russian: Ostrov) in 1392. By this agreement, Vytautas was given the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to rule as Jogaila’s vassal, but he later took the title of grand duke and, in effect, ruled Lithuania without any significant interference from his cousin.

During the 1390s, Vytautas undertook the Grand Duchy’s expansion to the east. His daughter Sophia married Grand Prince Vasili I (R. 1389-1425) of Moscow in 1390. Vytautas then shored up Lithuanian power in Smolensk and extended the Grand Duchy’s influence to Riazan and Tula. But Vytautas’s plans to subdue the Golden Horde were undone when his army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Tatars at the Battle of Vorksla in 1399. Muscovy took this opportunity to roll back some of Lithuania’s gains in the Russian lands, but Vytautas renewed his campaigns in the east and by 1408 had recovered the territories lost after Vorksla. In order to pursue his ambitions in the east, Vytautas had ceded Samogitia to the Teutonic Order in 1398, but in 1409 a massive rebellion of the Samogitians against the Knights elicited his support and led to a joint Lithuanian-Polish campaign against the order, culminating in the decisive victory over the Knights at Grunwald on 15 July 1410.

In his relations with Poland, Vytautas always sought to rule Lithuania independently. He achieved this by the Act of Radom in 1401, which made Vytautas supreme ruler of Lithuania during his own lifetime, and the Acts of Horodlo in 1413. During the 1420s, Vytautas’s relations with Poland grew more acrimonious as the grand duke began to entertain the idea of acquiring a royal crown, a plan opposed by the Poles. He was married twice to Russian princesses, first to Anna, who bore him Sophia, and in 1418 to Juliana, who was childless.

During the reign of Vytautas, Lithuania reached its greatest territorial expansion and influence, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. He succeeded in ending the centuries-old Teutonic threat and redefined Lithuania’s relationship with Poland. In domestic affairs, the ethnographically Lithuanian lands began an irreversible Christianization during his reign. Vytautas constructed a number of churches and oversaw the introduction of ecclesiastical administration. He also strengthened the nobility by granting it lands and peasants in return for their loyalty and military service. Vytautas fostered trade and encouraged Jews to settle in Lithuania by granting them extensive privileges. He died on 27 October 1430 amid preparations for his coronation.


Trakai is in Lithuania, 17 miles west of Vilnius. Because the town was set within a group of lakes, it was known as the “Town on the Water.” The castle was built on one of the islands of Lake Galva, probably on a previously fortified site, by Witold, Duke of Lithuania (1398-1430), during the struggle of the Lithuanians and Poles with the encroaching Teutonic Knights. The surviving castle dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. Its curtain walls have three large circular towers, and there is an impressive donjon.

The red-brick castles of Prussia share a stylistic unity with certain structures in Lithuania, the state that was for much of the period under question the Order’s deadliest enemy, although sometimes its closest ally. Kaunas is a prime example, but the most successful example of the direct export of the castle-building skills of the Teutonic Order may be seen at the island castle of Trakai in Lithuania. The first foundation at Trakai is the so-called Peninsula Castle, which is mentioned in the records of crusades to Lithuania from about 1384.

The picturesque island castle was begun by Grand Duke Kestutis and completed by his son Grand Duke Vytautas the Great. Taking advantage of a period of truce between Lithuania and the Order, the Order’s stonemason Radike was sent to supervise the construction.

Trakai is like a miniature Marienburg situated on a tiny island opposite the ‘peninsula castle’. The Flemish traveller Gillibert de Lannoy described it in 1414 as follows:

The old castle stands on one side of the lake, in open ground. The other one stands in the middle of a second lake, and is within a cannon shot of the old one. It is completely new, built from bricks following the French pattern.

Ironically, this was four years after Grand Duke Vytautas the Great had marched out of Trakai to begin the campaign that led to the battle of Tannenberg, where he crushed the members of the Teutonic order whose master stonemason had in happier times designed his castle for him.


Cannon were first introduced into Lithuania in 1382, being given to Grand Duke Jogailo as a present by the Teutonic Knights during one of their rare detentes. The Lithuanians were using these guns successfully by 1384 at the latest, when they were employed (along with trebuchets) in the siege and capture of the Teutonic Knights’ fortress at Marienwerder. In 1385 Hochmeister Zöllner von Rotbenstein was turned back from a river crossing by Jogailo’s brother Skirgailo ‘with innumerable bombards’, and in 1388 was repulsed from Skirgailo’s fort on the same river by what were presumably the same guns. Vytaurus bad as many as 15 large cannon in his fortress at Trakai, and a cannon foundry at Vilnius, and was probably the first Lithuanian commander to take artillery into the open field, as he did against Timur Kutluk at Worskla in 1399.

On the subject of Lithuanian artillery, Eric Christiansen observes in The Northern Crusades that since guns ‘could only be transported long distances by water, … the power upriver had the advantage of the power downriver when it came to sieges; the Lithuanians could get their cannon to the Order’s forts quicker than the Order could haul its cannon to Lithuania.’


Trakai Peninsula Castle (the Great castle) stands in the town of Trakai, 100 m to the north of the beginning of Karaimų St at the end of Kęstučio St on a peninsula between Lakes Galvė and Bernardinų in the territory of the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Cultural Reserve. On the northern promontory is a small wooded hill called Aukos (Victims’) Hill. In the western and north-western part the castle is cut off from the town by the remains of a defensive ditch or fosse. Fragments of a mid-nineteenth-century park survive on the castle territory.

Construction work on the castle was begun by Prince Kęstutis around 1350-77. It is mentioned in the List of Rus’ian Towns (compiled 1387-1392). This castle was part of a defensive ensemble that guarded Trakai and Vilnius that was attacked by the Teutonic Order and ruined in 1382, 1383 and 1390.

Research on the castle began in 1854 when W. Tyszkiewicz, a member of the Imperial Archaeological Commission excavated Aukos Hill from which, in the opinion of certain researchers, work had begun on building the Peninsula Castle. Unfortunately when 582 m² were excavated in 1962 no earlier finds were made, apart from the ruins of the cellars of the renaissance grand-ducal residence which was built before the seventeenth century.

At present an area of some 3,500 m² has been excavated in the Peninsula castle. During archaeological research it was discovered that work began on building the castle after a wood was felled and great labour was expended on dealing with the soil in the territory of the front bailey. During this stage a fosse 12-14 m broad was dug to separate the castle from the town on the southern and north-western side and another fosse around 15 m wide to separate the southern bailey from Aukos Hill. To flatten the castle bailey its edges were filled with a layer of soil up to 2.3 m deep. On the eastern and western edges of the bailey and around Aukos Hill and the second bailey embankments were filled with gravel and clay. There were wooden defences on top. In the preliminary phase of the castle’s existence it had no towers, apart from an entrance tower in the southern brick wall during the first phase of construction to cut the castle off from the town.

Taking into account defensive needs the embankments with wooden palisades were changed for brick walls with corner towers and fosses strengthened with brick support walls. It seems that when the Teutonic Order besieged the castle in September 1385 it was already built of brick because sources record how the walls were bombarded.

In the early fifteenth century a two-bailey defence complex was built covering around 4 ha and having eleven towers of various sizes. The castle was cut off from the town by a deep moat. The plan and structure of the castle were determined by people’s ability to use difficult natural conditions for their own defence needs.

The front bailey in the southern part of the castle, according to research data, was defended by seven towers. The towers were linked by walls of around 10 m in height. All the towers were quadrangular and built of stones and bricks. The first floor was built of stone with the gaps filled with bricks and crushed stone. Bricks were used to form spaces for windows and doors and build the corners and to decorate the upper storey walls. The bricks are laid in Gothic style. The joists between the storeys were wooden.

The three largest towers formed the most important south-western flank from the town side. The towers measured 15 x 15 m with walls on the first storeys of a width of 3.8 – 3.4 m. The best preserved southern tower is supposed to have been five storeys high. It is the only one in the castle corners to have had buttresses. It is thought that the ruler dwelt on the top floors.

The south-eastern flank separating the southern and eastern parts of the castle has smaller towers measuring 10 x 11 m with walls 2.5 – 2.8 m thick. The present northern tower was built on the ruined and burned foundations of the tower.On the northern flanks there used to be smaller intermediary towers at a distance of 30-40 m from the corner towers. They were 7.8 – 8 m in area with walls that were 2.2-2.4 m thick.

The front part of the castle was separated from the second bailey and Aukos Hill by a defensive moat which had a bridge. Aukos Hill was girt by a defensive ditch with small brick walls. The second bailey and Aukos Hill were protected by the castle walls with three towers.

For a long period the castle bailey was not built up and the garrison lived in the towers.

Research shows that there were three clear stages in constructing the Peninsula Castle:

• the first stage saw the building of a guard-type castle, ca 1375-83, probably;

• the second stage saw the formation of the front castle with seven towers and defensive walls (end 14 cent.)

• during the third stage the front part of the castle was finished and curtained with walls.

Work began on building up Aukos Hill and this stage can be associated with Grand Duke Vytautas reconstruction of the castle before the Treaty of Melno (1422) that ended the wars with the Teutonic Order.

There is not much information about the use of the castle after the death of Vytautas (1430). We do know that building work was interrupted by squabbles over the succession to the throne of the Grand duchy. We know that Grand Duke Žygimantas Kęstutaitis (1432-1440) lived there and that it was in this castle that he was murdered on Palm Sunday (March 20) 1440.

The castle lost its significance. In the early 16 century it was a place where high-ranking prisoners were held and plots of land began to be carved off for donations to noblemen. After 1655 buildings that were seriously damaged during the war with Muscovy were left derelict and unused. In the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries a few single buildings appeared near the walls and at the end of the eighteenth century the castle became home to the Dominicans who began to build their church.

Interest in the castle grew after 1817 when the Vilna Gubernia surveyor, STR. Velikorodov, measured out the southern tower and prepared a sketch of it. The 1827 Atlas of Castles of the Vilna Gubernia presents a plan and sketch of the castle that were made in 1826 when the tsar commanded the old buildings of the Russian gubernias to be surveyed and described. When preparations were under way in 1838 to publish a supplement to the old buildings’ atlas the Trakai surveyor I. Wroblewski made three sketches of the castle. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Peninsula Castle and nearby wooden buildings were sketched by V. Gumiński and in 1872 by the artist E. Andriolis. After the Germans occupied Trakai during the Great War, German specialists came to research the castle and write several articles about how best to preserve it. In 1928 the engineer W. Girdwejn drafted a plan of the Peninsula Castle and under the leadership of J. Borowski he strengthened the northern tower and cleared away the debris from other towers. In 1930 before the visit of the Polish president the castle bailey was tidied but this work did not continue for lonstr. Only on the initiative of the Vilnius conservationist S. Laurenc was the castle declared a national monument in 1933. After Lithuania took the Vilnius District from Poland in 1939 care for the castle was taken over by the Vytautas the Great Cultural Museum (Kaunas) which in 1940 drew up a work agenda for the castle for 1941-49 but after the Soviet Union and Germany went to war this work was not begun. Work continued only in 1953 when the eastern tower was restored partially. In 1953-61 the remains of the castle were recorded, conservation and restoration projects were drawn up and work in these areas began and are still being continued according to the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Reserve directed maintenance and use programme as approved by the Lithuanian minister of culture in 2000.

A dossier was drafted on Dec. 10 1996 and Protection Regulation 81 was drawn up on July 5 2002. At present work is under way on drafting a detailed plan for the Trakai island and Peninsula Castles Cultural Reserve. The castle is the property of the Lithuanian Republic and lies in the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Cultural reserve.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version