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Main: Cēsis Castle in Latvia (CC by SA 3.0). Inset: Inscription found at Cēsis Castle. Inset: Alens Opolskis

Medieval Inscription Found in Teutonic Knights’ Castle of Cēsis

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The famous Cēsis Castle in central Latvia has given up an ancient secret carved within its bloodstained stone walls.

sis Castle is one of the most iconic medieval castles in Latvia. Founded in 1213 or 1214 AD by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, it prospered from 1237 AD during its time as one of the key administrative and economic centers of the Teutonic Order. At this time the original fortifications were replaced by a monumental square castellum with various service buildings and outer baileys resulting in what Stephen Turnbull’s 2011 book,  Crusader Castles of the Teutonic Knights, describes as “one of the largest and most powerful castles of the Teutonic Order.”

Ivan the Terrible damaged the castle in 1577 AD during a siege in the Livonian War and Cēsis Castle fell after the Great Northern War of 1700–1721 AD when the Tsardom of Russia contested the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. Today, this magnificent castle is the most visited heritage site in Cēsis, and one of the best preserved archaeological sites in the Baltic states.

Carved Whispers from A Violent Past

During a recent inspection of a previously hidden spiral staircase located in the South Tower of Cēsis Castle that had been inaccessible for centuries, a stone was discovered bearing a unique inscription from the second half of the 16th century. According to a report on LSM.LV  the carving is written in Latin and German and represents “the oldest, culturally and historically most significant inscription in stone to have survived at Cēsis Castle,” and parts of it has already been deciphered.

The discovery came after Gundars Kalniņš, head of the Medieval Castle Department at sis Museum, noticed light illuminating the previously unknown engraved coat of arms with the initials “WKVA” carved around it, and again in the middle of the ancient design with what is known as a house mark. Next to the carved shield some German text has now faded, but the angled Latin inscription on the right of the stone reads Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos” i.e. If God is for us, who can be against us”: the question asked by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans.

Inscription found at Cēsis Castle. Credit: Cēsis Castle

Inscription found at Cēsis Castle. Credit: Cēsis Castle

Reverse Engineering the Carving

According to Kalniņš, the ancient carving is only visible under particular lighting conditions and similarly to the rest of the tower s inner walls the engraved stone was once coated in limewash, but fortunately the archaeologist was able to find enough contrast between the white coating and the engraving to read the text, and after close examination it was determined that the design had been executed with a “pointed iron tool,” which he says would have blunted during the job.

Kalniņš also says the content of the writing suggests that the inscription may have been made during the siege of Cēsis Castle in 1577 AD, and he says this episode of the Livonian War has gone down in history as one of the most tragic events in 16th century Europe. The archaeologists said that for five days the Russian heavy artillery battered the castle walls until they besieged the garrison. Many ordinary townsfolk who “blew themselves up” unwilling to succumb to Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and many hundreds of Livonians died in this tragedy.

Cēsis Castle in Latvia (CC by SA 4.0)

Cēsis Castle in Latvia (CC by SA 4.0)

Trapped in Shadows For 500 Years

So far as what this symbolic inscription might have represented to its maker, Kalniņš says that in the Middle Ages Latvia town dwellers adopted “rune-like symbols as a kind of coat of arms,” used by owners of property to identify their most valuable possessions. Known as a personal “house mark,” the carved symbol is a form of signature, stamp and seal, and while the specific carver will never be known, this specific decorative shield is characteristically from the second half of the 16th century.

And the reason this timeworn motif has gone unnoticed for 500 years is because it was only last year that archaeologists gained access the South Tower of Cēsis Castle to restore the tower s ceilings and winding stairs, which are referred to at the castle as “Tall Hermann,” matching the name of the tower in the famous medieval tower of the Toompea Castle, on Toompea hill in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, both of which Kalniņš says are excellent examples of medieval military architecture in Latvia, and the example at Cēsis Castle with the ancient inscription is soon to be opened to the public.

Reference: Turnbull, S. (2011).  Crusader Castles of the Teutonic Knights (2): The stone castles of Latvia and Estonia 1185–1560. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 28. 

By Ashley Cowie

Top image: Main: Cēsis Castle in Latvia (CC by SA 3.0). Inset: Inscription found at Cēsis Castle. Inset: Alens Opolskis

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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