We often see castles as the architectual epitome of romantic ideals. They are often pictured as having tall narrow towers with high pinnacles and a maiden waiting for her lost love in the upper most window. What could be more romantic than ever enduring love? Even the nasty sides of castles are seen as romantic. The idea that castles have narrow passageways and that they are cold and damp is a source of romanticising the building type. The fact that they are defendable fortresses is a nother source of romantic thinking. Set aside the symbolism of a maiden defending her virtue like a fortress. Think about it how romantically many men see war and everything connected. The heroic ideals of knights and sieges are some of the most strongly romantisized images.

One of the reasons medieval times are seen as a particularly romantic era, is the imagery people connect with romantic ideals. It is true, that in medieval times the leading elements of society had a lot of romantic ideals presented as realistic goals for their lives. As the aristocracy lost political power, long after the medieval times as a result of the great French revolution and during the industrial revolution, the romantic imagery of medieval times was emphasised even more.

A few weeks ago there was a newspaper article about a number of the Polish castles being renovated. The reactions of the web version of the article had a very interresting continuation of conversation. Some castles were seen as the romantic pictoresque “real castles” and others were not. The article was in a Finnish newspaper and so the discussion was about Finnish castles. We have several, but only one was recognized by some of the conversants as an actual castle. The St Olofsborg (Olavinlinna) with its tall round towers, seemed to fit perfectly with the romantic image of a medieval castle. It was originally built in the late 15th century and it is a medieval castle, though the youngest one in Finland. The three surviving tall round towers are medieval. The fourth tower has fallen in a fire. The tops of the towers are easily recognisable and are not at all medieval. They were built in the 18th century to house big guns on top of the towers. Much of the medieval castle is in fact hidden within the 18th century fortifications. So why is this particular castle seen as the foremost representative of medieval castle architecture in Finland?


We have other castles that were centuries old when the constructions for St Olofsborg (Olavinlinna) begun. The oldest of the great castles is Åbo slott (Turun linna) that was originally built on a small island at the mouth of river Aura in the late 13th century. It is also the largest of the castles, as it was the political center of Finland through the middle ages and renneissance up until the 17th century. It has suffered several sieges and modifications during the centuries. Most of it still remaining is medieval, though one more level was erected on top of the main castle during mid 16th century to act as a palace residence of the Swedish crown prince. The former medieval palace was seen as old fashioned by them days. They also built a large round tower for cannons in one of the corners of the forecastle. Why is it, modern people would not see this mighty castle as fitting to the romantic ideals? Is it the bulky form. It certainly has tall towers, but since the castle itself is so big, the towers do not protrude high into the sky more than a couple of floors higher than the main castle. Is it just that the towers are square, so that round towers would be more expected from a “real castle”.

Åbo Slott

A nother of our great castles is Tafvastehus (Hämeen linna) wich was erected during early 14th century on a tall  island along one of the main inland waterways. The main castle is of the square baltic type, with small towers in corners and a mighty main tower as a gate house. the forecastle is built as a ring around the main, and they were originally only connected by a narrow wooden bridge.  A nother baltic characteristic about it is that it is mainly built from bricks not from stones like all the other castles in Finland. Today it also houses two tall corner towers and a round gunnery tower from the 16th century. The top most level built during the 18th century has absorbed the main tower and two of the lower corner towers. It has very pictoresque courtyard, but obviously the remaining square towers though as tall as the round ones at St Olovsborg are not seen as romantic, possibly because they are not much higher than the main building.


Some of the castles have been greatly renovated after medieval times for military purposes, for use as prisons, or for storaging grain like the Kastelholm (Kastelholma) in Åland/Ahvenanmaa archipelago from late 14th century. They have also been renovated for museums during the last century. Sometimes after they had all but fallen into ruin. Perhaps, it is the fact that the St Olofsborg has been in use as an opera stage, accumulates some additional romantic appeal to it.

Ruins are often also seen as romantic, but since none of the ruins of finnish castles have tall round towers they seem to be not romantic enough.  We do have a plenty of them though. The Raseborg (Raasepori) erected on a shore side clif in the 14th century has a tall round tower, but again not much taller than the resto of the building. Then there is the Kustö (Kuusisto) bishops castle also from 14th century, which is in total ruins, though one may witness that it used to be a mighty castle by the sheer vastnes of the ruin.  And these are just to name the big ones.

We also have several smaller castles around Finland. Many of wich were not military bases of the realm as all the aforementioned castles, but more like personal family strongholds, like the Qvidja (Kuitia) from the late 15th century and the Krytzeborg (Korsholma) from the late 14th century, just for examples. The former is still standing and the latter is no more. Neither has tall towers. Many of the older minor castles are down to rubble and there is not even much historical knowledge about them in written sources.

One of the great castles that stood in the eastern border of Sweden in the medieval times was Viborg (Viipuri/Vyborg). Nowadays it is in modern Russia as a result of the WWII. It was originally built in late 13th century, when Sweden established its eastern border towards the Principality of Novgorod. In medieval times it was a famous castle for witholding several sieges, and rumour had it in European courts, that this particular castle had such a complex network of towers and walls that it could never be taken. In deed it had several minor towers in the surrounding wall along the shoreline of the island it was built on, and the mihgty square  tower of St Olof in the middle. Well, it was not taken during medieval times but once, by the very man Erik Akselsson (Tott) who built the St Olofsborg castle as a personal family residence. Erik took Viborg castle from the former garrison by a surprice attack, as they would not let him enter, though he was the appointed new commander of the castle. The former garrison claimed he had no right as he was of Danish origin to rule over a Swedish castle. This was in deed the law, but the Danish king ruled also Sweden at the time and he obviously had given the command of this important and indipendend fortification to an able man. Erik did not only built a nother castle for himself, he also supervised the building of a city wall around the town next to the castle. The silhouette of Viborg castle is known to finns, but it is not seen as a romantic castle other than romantisizing the WWII. The tall central tower was totally rendered during the 16th century, when the two top most levels were demolished and replaced by even taller eight corner guntower.


Why do we not see these ancient castles of ours as part of the romantic idea of medieval castles? Is it because the romantic idea of a “real castle” is something more derived from Disney images, rather than from the very real castles in our own neighbourhood? Is it simply because there are so many of them, and we are so used to them, we do not see them as anything particularly romantic? Is it a good or a bad thing we do not? Do we see them for what they really are, as magnificent pieces of history, or only as some old houses and ruins with no especial value?