The history of Toompea is actually the story of rulers and power in Estonia. The times and rulers changed and so did power and mentalities – each new ruler built and fortified this place according to his needs and taste. Today, visitors to Toompea can find here buildings mostly dating from three periods: the medieval order’s stronghold with its impressive western wall and towers, the most well-known of which is the tower of Tall Hermann; the Russian-era government administration building with a faÃ§ade representing classical styles and opening onto Castle Square; and the building of the Riigikogu, which originates from the time of the First Republic of Estonia and is hidden behind the walls of the castle. Time has been generous to Toompea castle. The well-protected fortress has been almost impregnable. It has been spared big fires and, even more importantly, the palace has always had its masters. Being a centre of power also meant that the best master builders and architects of their time worked here.
In the second decade of the last century the Estonians had, for the first time in their history, the opportunity to build up a state of their own. By that time, the image of Toompea as a centre of power was so deeply rooted in the people that the voices of those who considered it a stronghold of foreign landlords remained in a small minority. With the construction of the Riigikogu building (1920–1922) within the walls of the castle, the Estonian seat of power was perpetuated on Toompea. Throughout the greater part of our independent statehood both the Estonian Parliament and the Government have worked here. In summer 2000 the Government moved to the Stenbock House on the northern slope of Toompea.
Researchers - architects, historians and art critics – have repeatedly revised their views on the construction history of Toompea palace. As usual with medieval buildings, the number of questions arising in the course of research tends to grow, not to diminish.
According to an old legend, the hill of Toompea was heaped up, stone by stone, by Linda, in mourning for her husband Kalev. The earliest buildings confirmed by historical data originate from the 9th century when ancient Estonians took advantage of the steep escarpment of Toompea and erected here their ancient stronghold of Lindanisa, one of the best-protected strongholds in Estonia. A settlement of tradesmen and artisans began to develop at the foot of Toompea hill. Farmers from the neighbouring counties, mainly from Rävala County, were the masters of Toompea stronghold and used it only in the event of danger. This also explains how in 1219 King Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the stronghold with ease. From that time on the stronghold of Toompea, and about ten years later the whole of Estonia, belonged to foreign rulers until the Republic of Estonia established its centre of power on Toompea in 1918. The stronghold, built up over a period of several centuries as the centre of power of several rulers, is one of the most multi-layered and imposing castle ensembles in Estonia.
Age of Orders
By the end of the 13th century the Crusades had reached the shores of the Baltic Sea and, besides German crusaders, they brought to Estonia the Danes who played a decisive role in conquering North Estonia. After the subjugation of Toompea stronghold in 1219, the Danes immediately set out to fortify it. Taanilinnus, the Danish stronghold, built in a couple of months, was an example of the kind of stronghold that took account of natural features, and had long been known in Germanic and Danish areas. In the following years, the Danish stronghold was repeatedly besieged. However, all attempts to conquer it ended in failure, which testifies to the fact that the stronghold was well protected, had good supplies and could accommodate quite a large number of defenders.
In the course of a crusaders’ internal quarrel, the Danish stronghold was occupied in 1227 by the Order of the Brethren of the Sword who remained there for the following ten years and played a key role in the history of the development of Toompea. The Order divided the stronghold into two parts: castrum maius or the Great Castle, and castrum minus or the Small Castle. The Great Castle was located in the place where the Dome Church stands today and it became an episcopal centre. The Small Castle stood in the same place as today’s castle and became the centre of secular power. On the energetic initiative of Order-Master Volquin, the first castle-type fortress of stone, perfectly protected by towers and deep moats, was built in Tallinn. However, the buildings inside the castle that were all necessary for making the stronghold able to stand long-term sieges – dwellings, storehouses, stables and barns – were made of wood.
In 1238 the rights of the Danes in North Estonia were restored and for the next hundred years Toompea was once again ruled by Danes. It is presumed that they divided the stronghold into two by separating the central part of the stronghold from the forecourt with an east-west oriented wall, and in this way, the simple castle-stronghold became stronger and more comfortable. It is also possible that the castle had already been divided into two parts during the rule of the Brethren of the Sword, and the Danes who settled in the stronghold simply erected a fortified dwelling of several storeys – the residence of the Danish vice-regent – against the exterior side of the western wall of the forecourt. On the western side of the building there was an exterior bay latrine, and beside it on the second floor, the outer gate with its portcullis. Both can still be seen in the western wall of the castle today.
The governing of the overseas provinces was troublesome. In 1346 Denmark sold its possessions to the Teutonic Order which in its turn traded them at a small profit to the Livonian Order. Until 1561 Toompea belonged to the Livonian Order. While the stronghold did not meet the requirements of the time for a fortification, reconstruction work started very soon. Characteristically for medieval times, the living quarters and defence structures were located under one and the same roof. The new main building was a typical convent building: it resembled a quadrangle with a block of buildings consisting of four wings placed next to each other at right angles. Rooms were connected by a covered multi-storey gallery around the inner courtyard.
Since the life of the Order resembled that of a monastery in several respects, the use of rooms was also similar. Housekeeping rooms were in the semi-basement of Toompea castle, the living quarters of the commander were located in the main storey of the southern wing, the two-aisled dining hall in the eastern wing, the chapel and the chapter hall in the northern wing, and the dormitory for the brethren, with its exterior bay latrine jutting out from the wall, in the western wing.
The Order paid much attention to the renovation of the circular wall and the construction of towers. In the middle of the 14th century the western wall was elongated in a southerly direction up to the edge of the limestone escarpment. The limestone wall rising high on the edge of a steep bank is still today one of the most outstanding landmarks of Toompea. Tall Hermann, a quite slender watchtower despite its exceptionally thick walls, was built in the south-western corner of the castle. The construction of such a tower is proof of a firm aspiration to withstand attacks even by artillery. Originally Tall Hermann was one-third lower than the present tower. The ground floor, with its high vaulting, was mainly used for storing provisions. The next floor was likewise vaulted, but it was divided into two storeys by a wooden floor. Both were used for accommodating the guard. The lower of those rooms contained a stone furnace working on the hypocaust principle. After heating the furnace and closing the chimney, the hot air penetrated into the upper floor rooms through a system of ducts and openings let into the flooring, and heated the rooms. Analogous devices, obviously inspired by Toompea castle, were predominant in Tallinn by the following century in all the major buildings, including dwelling houses.
In the south-east corner, the tower of “Stür den Kerl” (which can be translated as “ward off the enemy”) was built, its lowermost storey was quadrangular and its upper part octahedral; in the north-east corner was a round cannon tower Landskrone (“crown of the land”), and in the north-west corner, which offered relatively good natural protection owing to the bank, a small corbelled tower, Pilsticker (“arrow-sharpener”). Three of these towers have been preserved. Stür den Kerl was demolished in the 18th century when the government administration building was being erected.
At the top of Tall Hermann tower, at 95 metres above sea level, the flags of several states have flown. The blue, black and white flag was hoisted there for the first time on 12 December 1918 and after decades of Soviet occupation it was hoisted again on 24 February 1989. Nowadays the national flag of Estonia, measuring 191 cm by 300 cm, is hoisted at the top of the tower at sunrise (in summer, not earlier than 7am) and is lowered at sunset (in summer, not later than 10pm). While the flag is being hoisted, the national anthem of Estonia resounds over Toompea; while it is lowered, the patriotic song "My fatherland is dear to me” is heard. A narrow staircase of stone with 215 steps leads to the top of the tower.
In the course of the Livonian War and other wars that followed it, Estonia’s rulers changed. According to the Altmark peace treaty of 1629, Estonian territories went to the king of Sweden. But already earlier, in 1561, when the noblemen of Estonia sought the protection of the king of Sweden, new rulers had come to Toompea. Times and customs had changed and the convent building was no longer suitable for the ceremonial purposes of the new era of renaissance. In 1583–1589 a new ceremonial building, the State Hall building, was erected on Toompea. It was located against the western wall between Tall Hermann tower and the convent building. The building of the State Hall was the first outstanding renaissance building in Estonia. From that time on, ceremonial buildings were erected apart from fortifications. The middle of the faÃ§ade of the State Hall contained an obelisk-decorated double parade stairway, inspired by the Royal Castle of Stockholm. On the first storey there was a spacious hall with a beamed ceiling and the exterior side of the western wall was provided with a balcony for trumpet-players. In order to provide lighting for the hall, window-openings were cut into the western wall of the castle where they are still visible today. By August 1589, the construction of the State Hall building had progressed to such an extent that the premises could be used as the meeting-place of king Johann III of Sweden and his son Sigismund, king of Poland.
In 1691, in the course of construction work, a new gate was cut into the eastern wall of the castle and it can still be seen there today. The convent building was used as office premises in the Swedish era.
In 1700–1721 the Great Northern War took place. In 1710 the knighthood of North Estonia signed the Harju capitulation treaty. At first the new rulers – the Russians - could not initiate any changes in the country they had conquered. For approximately half a century Toompea fell into oblivion, the old buildings were not repaired and they were becoming dilapidated. The situation changed during the reign of Catherine II by whose order the construction of the Estonian government administration building started on Toompea (1767-1773). The building was erected in the western section of the castle and in the course of its construction, a part of the circular wall with the tower of Stür den Kerl and the State Hall building were torn down. The new building was designed by Johann Schultz, an architect from Jena. While baroque motifs still dominate in the design of the main facade, early neoclassicism is predominant inside the house. The first floor is the main storey of the palace where the ceremonial reception hall – the White Hall – is located. Originally the hall was in early classicist style, the ceiling was decorated by an oval mirror and the walls by suspended ornaments – antique vases, trophies and urns. The government administration and the governor’s living quarters were in the main storey and formed a suite of rooms which extended from the north to the south and looked out onto Castle Square. The government administration building resembled an elegant aristocratic palace. It must have been for this reason that in the last quarter of the 18th century the castle received a new name: “Toompea palace”.
During the czarist era the maintenance of the rest of the castle posed some problems because of the great number of buildings. A public park – the Governor’s Garden – was established in the south-east corner of the castle. At the end of the 19th century, an archive building was constructed at the northern edge of the government administration building and the convent building was turned into a prison. During the 1917 February Revolution crowds made their way to Toompea palace and set the prison building on fire.
Era of Independent Statehood in Estonia
The first parliament of the independent state of Estonia - the Constituent Assembly – held its first session in the "Estonia" theatre. Thereafter, the Constituent Assembly (1919–1920) gathered in the White Hall of Toompea palace where there was not enough room to accommodate the one hundred and twenty members of the Assembly. The 1st Riigikogu also held its sessions in the White Hall until the completion of the construction of its own building in the autumn of 1922.
The new building of the Riigikogu was constructed on the site of the medieval convent building, the burnt ruins of which cluttered the courtyard of Toompea castle. The building was designed by Eugen Habermann and Herbert Johanson, who later proved to be Estonia’s most outstanding architects. The building with its traditionalist exterior and expressionist interior is unique among parliament buildings.
The three-storey, four-winged building surrounds a trapezoid-shaped courtyard, following the foundations of the convent building. Three entrances and the windows of the parliamentary chamber above them enliven the faÃ§ade of the building. The traditionalist exterior design stems from the local Lutheran baroque style.
When designing the building for the people’s representation of the Estonian state in Toompea castle, whose architecture had for centuries been shaped by foreign rulers, the architects evidently sensed that they had to erect something quite unprecedented. The modern avant-garde style – expressionism – seemed best suited to that purpose.
The Riigikogu building was the first public building in Tallinn to have electric lighting built into its design. One of the most important features to make the building expressionist was the lighting arrangement – the foyer and the parliamentary chamber serve as its best examples. Behind the walls of a medieval fortress with limited illumination, the architects managed to erect a building with grand rooms. Closeness to the medieval fortress is underlined by the two carved sidestones of the window bay set into the walls of the journalists’ foyer and dating back to the beginning of the 16th century. The fertile and many-seeded vines and thistles depicted on those stones represent the paradisiacal motif of the tree of life. As for the interior design, abstract zigzag motifs can be found everywhere from handrails and walls to the ceiling. The most outstanding room of the building is the parliamentary chamber, with ultramarine walls and a pleated lemon-yellow ceiling, which extends through three floors. A zigzag cornice separates the walls from the ceiling, behind which lamps are hidden; ventilation is conducted through the row of globes below the cornice. The chamber is enlivened by the rust-brown sides of the zigzag window and door openings, the tables originally covered with green woollen cloth and the chairs with blue Manchester velvet covers. The furniture for the building of the Riigikogu was made at the Luther factory in accordance with the design of the architects. The second floor of the western wing of the building houses the dining room and its separate annex in the exterior bay, the private room. In the cellar directly below the presidium of the parliamentary chamber, there is a depository chiselled into the limestone and lined with concrete and steel, which originally was meant for storing valuable state documents. The building was constructed in 1920–1922.
During the years of the rebirth of the state, the Riigikogu building has been thoroughly renovated. In all the more important rooms the original colour schemes and lighting solutions have been restored. The gallery, which had been walled up, has been reopened.
When the construction of the Riigikogu building was completed, a traditionalist house for officials, designed by Eugen Habermann, was erected against the northern side of the castle. After the establishment of the authoritarian era in 1934, the design of buildings symbolising statehood was revised according to the needs of the time. In 1935 a palatial southern wing for the Ministry of Internal Affairs was erected on the southern side of the castle, based on the style of the government administrative building. The building was designed by architect Alar Kotli. The following year, the Governor’s Garden got a new design which matched the southern wing. In the course of the reconstruction of the White Hall, the entire dÃ©cor by Johann Schultz was removed from the walls and ceilings.
The Soviet regime took over a palace which was in good condition. During half a century mainly Soviet-style symbols were added to it, including sculptor Matti Varik’s sculptural portrait of V.I. Lenin looking out of the zigzag ornamentations of the hall, which in 1976 was a rather bold idea, especially considering the then rules for depicting the leader.
In reindependent Estonia, Toompea palace is gradually but steadily getting back its original interior design. In the western wing, the already renovated former living quarters of the governor accommodate the working rooms of the President of the Riigikogu, furnished with original and modern furniture. The suite of rooms has been opened and in the northern part it culminates in an original mirror wall designed by Johann Schultz. In the interior design of the rooms where the restoration of original interiors is no longer possible, one has to take into account the centuries-long traditions of the palace and the dignity of the institution it houses.