Castles and Castle Mounds (the Old Fortifications)
There are 8 Castle mounds in the Kaunas city limits that were not used simultaneously. Some of them have recorded history in written sources, others are more difficult to identify. Spots whose location have been destroyed or are still unfound are also mentioned in written sources.
The Known Castle Mounds:
The High Šančiai Castle Mound is in the territory of the Kaunas municipality, on the Nemunas shore. The Castle Mound on the right bank of the Nemunas, upper edge of the terrace. The platform is rectangular, oblong east and west, 4.5 m long, 8 m wide. A rampart on its western edge has been bulked up to a height of 1.5 m, 15 m wide, with an external 5 m slope that descends 25 m to a 17 m wide 2 m deep ditch. On the southern slope, 4 m below the platform, there is a 3 metre wide terrace facing down south. The slopes are steep, 30 m high. There is a staircase installed going up to the castle mound. The mound dates back to the beginning of the second millennium.
Eiguliai Castle Mound and archaeological complex (cemetery, settlement) is in Eiguliai, Kaunas, on the left shore of the Neris. The mound is at the end of Tvirtovė alley at the top of the riverside cape. From the south, west, and north it is surrounded by deep ravines, from the east and southeast it is adjacent to highlands, from which the castle mound is separated by a 50 m long trench. The platform is 70 x 60 metres with rounded corners. A 5–6 m rampart has been bulked up on its eastern edge. The platform and rampart were partially destroyed during the First World War by trench digging and subsequent construction. Thrown pots were found inside decorated with horizontal parallels and wavy lines and a variety of dents, as well as shards, charred pieces of clay plaster, and iron crossbow arrowheads.
It is believed that this is where the Eiguliai Castle stood that is mentioned in records from 1379, which was burned down on 30 June 1382 during the German Order’s assault on Eiguliai (Egollen) Castle.
In the southern part of the mound preserved bunkers can be found, though damaged by vandals, with loopholes facing the Neris. It may be that it was a defensive bunker against attacks from the west.
Jiesia (Pajiesys) Castle Mound, still called Napoleon Castle Mound is in Kaunas on the left side of the Nemunas, between the Panemunė and railway bridges. The castle mound height is 63.6 m. The slopes are steep and overgrown with deciduous trees. On the southeast of the castle mound the Jiesia flows into the Nemunas.
The castle mound dates back to the first millennium—it’s a natural Hill suited for defence. In the southern and the northern foothills there was an ancient settlement wherein rough and thrown pottery has been found from the 14-17th century strata. Since the 19th century the castle mound is still called Napoleon Castle Mound – it is postulated that Napoleon came through this point on 24 June 1812 to oversee the French army moving over the Nemunas. In 1913 the 100 year anniversary of Napoleon’s march was occasion for a visit by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
The castle mound is part of the Jiesia Landscape Reserve established in 1960. The old holidays of the Balts are celebrated there. On 31 December 1997 the Jiesia Castle Mound was included in the list of cultural monuments of the Republic of Lithuania.
Marvelė Castle Mound is within the city limits of Kaunas municipality. The castle mound is on the upper part of the left bank of the Nemunas on the left bank of the Marvelė. The platform is a rectangular, oblong east and southwest, 7 m long, 13 m wide. A 3 m rampart has been bulked up on its southern edge, 19 m wide curving along the edges of the platform inside an 18 m wide 2 m deep ditch. The slopes are steep, 17-20 m high. The north-eastern part of the platform has landslid.
At the northern foothills of the Nemunas valley there is a settlement of about 1 ha (destroyed in about 1986 constructing the Kaunas western detour). One kilometre to the east is the 2nd-13th century Marvelė Cemetery, researched in 1991–2002. The castle mound dates back to the first millennium or beginning of the second millennium. Establishment date: first millennium A.D. based on the pollen analysis method. 1.3 km away another castle mound has been identified with a large, 400 sq. m platform.
Veršviai Castle Mound and the former settlement are in Kaunas District Municipality, in Šilainiai. The castle mount is on the high right bank of the Nemunas. The platform is almost rectangular going east-west, 12×9 m. A rampart on its eastern edge has been bulked up to a height of 3.5 m, 20 m wide, with an external 5 m slope that descends 17 m to a 17 m wide 2 m deep ditch. On the south-western slope, 2 m below the platform, there is a 3 metre wide terrace. The slopes are steep, 37 m high. The castle mound dates back to the first millennium: the XIV century is a Lithuanian cultural monument.
In 1943 Petras Tarasenka investigated the castle mound. In 1986 Vytautas Daugudis researched the 57 m2 platform of the castle mound and found a one metre deep strata from the first millennium B.C. to the 14th century with spots for pillars, smooth ceramics, and, 18th–19th century hill remains.
Vieškūnai Castle Mound overlooks Palemonas at the Kaunas Reservoir, at the former Vieškūnai Village. It’s between the Lakštingalos Valley (in the north) and Pažaislis yacht club (in the south), next to the Railway (Palemonas) Fort remains. Vieškūnai was at the foot of the hill. Defensive equipment shows that the castle mound was an important centre of battles against the crusaders. The castle mound was found in 1992.
Kaunas Castle and the City’s Defensive Walls
Kaunas Castle was built in the days of Algirdas and Kęstutis at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris. It was distinguished among the castles of the Nemunas River, a stone castle that was as significant to the crusaders as it was to the Lithuanians.
The first castle was already standing in 1361 when the crusaders sent scouts to survey and evaluate the Kaunas Castle fortifications. In the early spring of the following year, 1362, when the ice on the Nemunas had just melted, crusaders arrived in boats and disembarked on the island right at the confluence near the castle, where they built three bridges, surrounded the castle, and isolated it with a specially equipped ditch and rampart that blocked off aid from the defenders. Then, using a variety of siege equipment and storming towers, the siege began, and lasted for three weeks.
The people of Lithuania, having lost Kaunas, had to find the manpower and time to rebuild the castle. The New Kaunas Castle was built on Virgalė Island for this purpose, which was an integral part of the Nemunas deterrence system at the Nevėžis estuary. The crusaders demolished the system and put their own in its place. The battles at Virgalė lasted a few years and allowed the Lithuanians to somewhat rebuild Kaunas Castle, but it remains unclear what kind of fortifications were in place in 1368-1401. The fragmented data available shows that the castle was an important defensive site. The relationship between Kaunas and Marienwerder is also unclear: Jogaila’s army captured it, but researchers have differing opinions. The wooden fortifications mentioned could have helped to entrench the castle mound temporarily.
The second castle, adapted for shooting weapons, fragments of which remain today, was built in 1401-1409, when the crusaders and Lithuanians were at peace and Kaunas was already growing. The castle consisted of four round towers, some of them on a square base, with a wall as thick as 3.5 metres. The towers were adapted for long-barrelled small-calibre cannons and could effectively defend against enemy artillery. It is possible that at the time it was built and the first defensive wall was also constructed, which according to the plan of the city went along what is now Daukšos Street. Just at that time, after the Battle of Grunwald, the wars with the crusaders ended and the castle was not threatened. However, there is no basis to the claims that after 1410 the castle lost its strategic importance: it was important for both defending against and attacking crusaders. It is no secret that the Livonian Order participated in the Lithuanian Civil War of 1435, and in the middle of the fifteenth century the Thirteen Years’ War took place, in which Lithuanians did not actually participate. However, our sovereign Kazimieras Jogailaitis instigated the war and due only to the irresponsibility of the Lithuanian Council of Lords did Lithuania miss the opportunity to reclaim the Nemunas estuary. After the Thirteen Years’ War important territories were surrendered by the Teutonic Order whose power was ebbing; however, any conflict in the Baltic Sea basin could open the Order’s unhealed wounds, and the Kaunas Castle would have had to take a blow from Konigsberg, from Riga on the way to Vilnius.
Danger from the west truly declined only in 1525, when Prussia became a fief of the King of Poland. After the beginning of the wars for Livonia, we had to reckon with the possibility that the inner regions of Lithuania could be attacked by the army of Moscow as well, especially after the loss of Polotsk in 1563, so at that very moment Kaunas Castle was modernized by constructing a barbican. The unfinished construction of the barbican is evidence that the danger had declined. This can be attributed to Lithuania’s success in the 1564 Battle of Ula or to a change in the overall situation of 1569-1572. At that time, the city grew and the old defensive wall no longer satisfied its needs, so it is likely that new fortifications were built, and maybe wooden or fortified defence constructions.
With the aid of the Báthory marches the Livonian War ended successfully and from 1582 the western Lithuanian lands were in less danger until the coming of the Swedes. It may be that castle maintenance was scant, so the collapse of the walls in 1601 was not random, though it was discussed by the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In the middle of the seventeenth century the city built a defensive wall, fragments of which have survived. Notwithstanding relatively recent construction, we have very little knowledge of it. The Medieval wall itself is not especially thick or high, hence it was unable to withstand 17th century weapons, so it is likely that it was built before attacks by the Cossacks or other enemies armed with siege artillery. The dominant opinion in historiography that the purpose of the city wall was merely economic is not likely because the remaining tower has flanking capabilities and could have been used for defence. The Oaks Hill fortifications became an essential element of the wall that was the key element in the defence of the town after the castle began to dilapidate and had to be fortified even before the Swedish occupation of 1702-1709.
Kaunas castle was suddenly called in from the reserves in 1655. Russian troops took control of Vilnius, then Kaunas, and after brief doubts established themselves in Kaunas Castle, strengthening the derelict castle as best they could. The garrison remained until 1661: after a two-years siege the garrison withdrew to Russia. Thus, the military career of Kaunas Castle ended.
In the eighteenth century Kaunas was still strategically important: as the intersection of the roads from Riga via Žemaitija towards Warsaw and from Moscow via Vilnius towards Konigsberg. Kaunas Castle could have been reinforced by Swedish soldiers, the 1733-1735 interregnum period combatants, both participating in the Seven Years War, or the Russian army that established the Kaunas Prussian military base. Incidentally, a Russian army garrison was stationed in Kaunas in 1764-1777, which could oversee the fortifications. These fortifications are visible in the 1774 map of Kaunas.