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A panoramic view of Spis Castle.

One of the Largest Castles in Europe Was Born to Resist the Mongol Invasion

13th century Europe was under attack by the Mongols and the Kingdom of Hungary was right in the sights of the invaders. Something had to be done, and the creation of great fortified castles was seen as one way to possibly resist the mighty force.

Spis Castle is a castle situated in the northeastern Slovakian region of Presov. This castle dates back to the 12th century, when it was constructed on the site of an earlier hill-fort. In the subsequent centuries, Spis Castle marked the northern boundary of the Kingdom of Hungary. Due to its importance, new structures were added over time, and the castle was even reconstructed during the second half of the 15th century. This transformed Spis Castle from being a mere military structure to a comfortable residence for its owners. Spis Castle was destroyed by a fire during the 18th century, and was subsequently abandoned. The castle gradually fell into ruins, though intervention during the 1970s prevented the total decay of the castle. Spis Castle is today a UNESCO Heritage Site, being a part of the ‘Levoča, Spišský Hrad and the Associated Cultural Monuments’.

Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in Košice region, eastern Slovakia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in Košice region, eastern Slovakia. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Building of a Fortress

Prior to the 12th  century, the site where Spis Castle now stands was occupied by a hill-fort. The oldest written reference to Spis Castle was made in 1120. At this time, the castle, which was built in the Romanesque style, served to demarcate the northern frontier of the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1249, a tower and palace was added to the castle, as the Hungarian king, Bela IV, realized that fortified castles, including Spis Castle, were effective at resisting the assault of the Mongols, who had invaded Hungary during the earlier years of that decade.

Spis Castle may be said to have been owned nominally by the reigning king of Hungary, as it was his nobles who actually occupied it. As a site of great strategic value, Spis Castle became a point of conflict, as many sought to gain control of it. For instance, Matúš Čák Trenčiansky, the most powerful Hungarian noble during the early part of the 14th century, tried to capture Spis Castle in 1312, though he failed in his undertaking.

Portrait of Matúš Čák Trenčiansky (1252 - 1321), Hungarian nobleman. In Hungarian language, his name is Csák Máté. (Public Domain)

Portrait of Matúš Čák Trenčiansky (1252 - 1321), Hungarian nobleman. In Hungarian language, his name is Csák Máté. ( Public Domain )

Modern Structure

It was during the 15th century that Spis Castle acquired its current appearance. In 1443, the castle came under the control of Ján Jiskra of Brandýs, a Czech mercenary. He first had a small fortress built on the slope below the castle, and then connected the two structures with a large courtyard. During the second half of the 15th century, the castle was granted by the King of Hungary to the Zápoľský family, who made it their seat, despite owning over 70 other castles. It was Štefan Zápoľský, the new owner of Spis Castle, who made significant changes to the castle. For instance, the palace, which was Romanesque in style, was rebuilt in the Gothic style, whilst the tower was heightened and thickened. On top of that, the Chapel of St. Elizabeth was added to the castle. The result of this was the transformation of Spis Castle into a comfortable home for the Zápoľský family. It may be added that Štefan’s son, Ján, was born in the castle. He would grow up to be the King of Hungary.

A panoramic view of Spis Castle in Slovakia. Source: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A panoramic view of Spis Castle in Slovakia. Source: ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Ownership of Spis Castle was later transferred to the Thurzó family, and then to the Csáky family. The former occupied the castle between the 16th and 17th centuries, whilst the latter until the middle of the 20th century. It was in 1780, when Spis Castle was in the hands of the Csáky family that it was destroyed in a fire. No effort was made to restore the castle, and it was left in ruins. The family, as a matter of fact, had not resided in the castle since the end of the 17th century, as it was not comfortable enough to live in.

The ruins of Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in eastern Slovakia form one of the largest castle sites in Central Europe. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The ruins of Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in eastern Slovakia form one of the largest castle sites in Central Europe. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Restoration work was done in the 1970s in order to save the castle from falling completely into ruins. This was a difficult job, as the structure was threatened by the instability of the rock base. In 1993, Spis Castle was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List, as part of the ‘Levoča, Spišský Hrad and the Associated Cultural Monuments’. Today, Spis Castle is a tourist destination, and the former palace, which had been reconstructed, now houses a museum.

Top image: A panoramic view of Spis Castle. Source: (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Wu Mingren

References

Kukura, R., 2018. Spišský hrad. [Online]
Available at: http://www.spisskyhrad.sk/en.html

Lonely Planet, 2018. Spiš Castle. [Online]
Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/slovakia/spisske-podhradie/attractions/spis-castle/a/poi-sig/1253574/360703

Slovakia.com, 2018. Spis Castle. [Online]
Available at: https://www.slovakia.com/castles/spis-castle/

slovakia.travel, 2015. Spišský hrad Castle. [Online]
Available at: http://slovakia.travel/en/spissky-hrad-castle

Slovenské národné múzeum, 2009. Spiš Museum. [Online]
Available at: http://www.snm.sk/?about-the-museum-16

UNESCO, 2018. Levoča, Spišský Hrad and the Associated Cultural Monuments. [Online]
Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/620

www.spis.sk, 2018. Spišský hrad (Spiš Castle). [Online]
Available at: http://www.spis.sk/regiony/shrad/en.html

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