Perhaps I should have been posting this entry on my Willow the Vampire blog, since Bratislava Castle (or the Pressburger Schloss as it is called in German) is actually sitting on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube from a hill top position in the Little Carpathians, where vampires begin to feel right at home and garlic breath is said to keep one’s snapping neighbours at bay.
As soon as I started looking at the history of Bratislava Castle I felt an affinity with the people who used to live in the old town beneath the fortifications. Just like them I’ve had my (un)fair share of troublesome neighbours. The latest instalment in the Grunter & Co saga is that the night before last we were woken up at 3.30 am by loud banging on the front door downstairs.
This was followed by noisy feet running up the stairs, entering the flat of the vamoosed lady, trampling about for a few minutes; then the feet’s owner slammed the door shut and vacated the premises, before speeding off in a car that must have been parked outside with the motor running…
I noticed this morning that our house really does appear to be under surveillance…unless the guy who’s been parking outside for hours is just waiting for his shop-a-holic girlfriend returning from Cardiff Bay (the new Dr Who Experience has particularly interesting things for sale, I’m told).
The inhabitants of Old Town Bratislava must have felt similarly agrieved, when a succession of attacking hordes devastated their town and the castle with it. Frankly, if some university professor unearthed evidence of iron-age Grunters in the vicinity, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.
Bratislava Castle marks an important geographical spot that is virtually at the very centre of Europe. In days gone by it protected safe passage for the traders and merchants on the Amber Route, which was part of the trade routes running from the Balkans and the Adriatic Sea via the Rhine River to the Baltic coast, where I come from and where amber can still be found at the seashore today (if you’re lucky and are blessed with eagle eyes that is).
An emblem and landmark of the capital Bratislava in Slovakia, not Czechoslovakia as I erroneously claimed in my previous blog (hey, I’d had very little sleep thanks to Grunter & Co), Bratislava Castle is a perfect example of a fair and square castle. Its four corners have an imposing watch tower each from where crossbowmen and archers could see all the way to Austria and Hungary on a good, sunny day, when no war machines were being pushed up the hill and no rocks were being hurled at them either.
Bratislava Castle was fought over so often and destroyed, remodelled and rebuilt so frequently, the history of this one-time home of King Stephen I of Hungary (1000 to 1038), Friedrich Barbarossa (1182) and Albert of Habsburg (1287 to 1291) fills not just volumes of books, but whole book shelves of them!
The actual origins of Bratislava Castle date back 3,500 years to the Baden culture, a people who first used the hill to construct fortifications. However, the foundations for what can still be seen today dates back the 9th century. The castle was constantly being changed, enlarged and updated until the 18th century. Eventually, the whole complex had to be rebuilt, which was done between 1956 and 1964. In 2012 it is as ever “under construction” and no doubt the present Slovak population is stamping its own cultural face onto the place as I’m writing this.
Besieging armies hoping to succeed as soon as the castle’s inhabitants ran out of water must have been in for a bit of a shock – there’s a water well that’s 80 meters deep right in the courtyard. Apart from the largest tower, built in the 13th century, which once housed the crown jewels, there’s also the Slovak National Museum, the presentation rooms belonging to the Slovak Parliament and the Music Hall for public performances which are of particular of interest. The courtyard also allows access to the Knights Hall.
Bratislava Castle boasts four entrance gates to the castle complex. There is the Sigismund Gate, which is located in the south-east; it dates back to the 15th century and is deemed to be the best preserved original part of the whole complex, which under Sigismund of Luxemburg had 7 metre thick fortifications built to protect the city and the castle inhabitants.
In the south-west there is the Vienna Gate, which is a fairly late edition, dating back to 1712. The Nicholas Gate is located in the north-east and dates back to the 16th century. Finally, there’s the Leopold Gate, which I think is also 17th century.
The castle seen today was really started by archaeologists as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle back in 1953. Actual work on restoration and rebuilding couldn’t start until 1957, when it had been decided to take the castle back to its Baroque design, but preserving the older Gothic and Renaissance elements. The very first reference to the city of Bratislava is connected with the castle and the old town and can be found in the Annals of Salzburg dated 907. Perhaps predictably, it features my own countrymen the Bavarians and a bunch of Hungarians in battle.
I love the idea that the new constitution of the independent Slovakia was signed in the Knights Hall (3rd September 1992). After all the centuries of turmoil, when the castle was occupied by pretty much every crowned head of Europe and those heads who thought they deserved a crown, the Knights Hall was finally instrumental in giving the castle back to the people and re-installing the laws of chivalry again…namely that the overlord in the castle should protect the lands and its people and vice versa.
A new restoration programme started in 2008 and in 2010 the latest phase of a restored courtyard was revealed. The 5-year programme is to finally finish next year.
So who were these knights and ladies who lived in such places? How did they finance building and maintaining such huge “homes”?
I’ve been reading up on how knights got their remuneration and what they would have expected to get in return for the services they might have performed for their king.
Our idea of knights is mainly shaped by Hollywood; therefore we assume almost automatically knights did not much else but fight in wars and laze about in peace time. However, they were administrators, diplomats, estate managers, clerks, civil servants and held all manner of offices, which might bring them social advancement and riches through their connection with the king.
In the 13th century for example an English knight’s pay and “holding”, meaning the land he owned, would have been “proper” at the level of £20 per annum, however, there’s evidence that many knights only had an income of £10 per annum. Cash-strapped kings often paid their knights in land rather than money and the usual remuneration a knight would expect would be around 5 hides of land (a hide being anything between 100 to 120 acres).
The difference between a knight at the top of his game and the common gentry protecting some little back-water abbey or monastery was colossal. A knight who had married well “up the social ladder” could command an income of £4,000 per annum or more derived from his lands and the money or gold and jewellery his wife had brought into the family.
He’d have a huge number of staff looking after a multitude of manors and castles, while a knight with just a few small manors to call his own might have had no more than £400 per annum and perhaps as few as 24 to 45 staff looking after the whole estate with casual labour being brought in at harvest time.
Should you plan to go on a tour of Central Europe this summer, why not drop in on Bratislava Castle and see how you’d manage on £20 per annum and a staff of just 24. The Knights Hall at Bratislava Castle is the venue for an exhibition on the latest reconstruction of the castle – open from 9 am to 5 pm until 31st December this year.
Next week it’s back to Germany and Heidelberg Castle – hopefully, I’ll have found some of my old photographs by then!
(source of animation: heathersanimations.com; source of pictures Wikipedia)