The oldest part of Haapsalu is built on a strip of land that was formed of many islets only a few hundred years ago. Narrow streets bring you to the sea again and again. Haapsalu has been called the Nordic Venice for this plenitude of water.
First mentioned in 1279, Haapsalu was granted town rights the same year and enjoyed the following 300 years as the center of Saare-Lääne Bishopric. Unlike many other medieval towns, Haapsalu can prove its establishment with a historic document dating from 1279. It was given out by Hermann I, the Bishop of Saare-Lääne Bishopric and it confirms the foundation of the town. Remnants of those days can be seen by the Episcopal castle, which consists of a small castle and the Dome Church – the biggest single nave church in the Baltics.
In the 14th century, the round chapel was added onto the Dome Church. In every August during full moon a mysterious figure known as the White Lady appears in the chapel’s window. According to legend, a monk had snuck in a young maiden dressed as a choirboy into the castle. The imposter was soon discovered and the poor girl was entombed into the wall of the chapel.
Livonian War (1558-1583) finished the reign of bishops in Haapsalu and the era of the Swedish noble family De la Gardie began. Intending to find a place for a military port, Peter the Great visited Haapsalu after the Nordic War in 1715.
In 1228 the Archbishop of Riga formed a new diocese consisting of Läänemaa, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa and designated an abbot of Dünamünde Cistercian monastery, Gottfried as the bishop. These boundaries of the new diocese were permanently fixed by a legate of Pope, Wilhelm of Modena in 1234. The first residence of the diocese was located in Lihula, where with the help of the Order a stronghold was built of stone. Trying to avoid conflicts with the influential Order the Bishop transferred the diocese´s residence to Vana-Pärnu, which was burned and destroyed by Lithuanians ten years later. A new centre for the diocese was chosen in Haapsalu, where a cathedral was built and an Episcopal stronghold was started. In 1279 Bishop Hermann I granted Haapsalu town bylaws.
On the second half of the14th century a new Episcopal residence was built in Kuressaare. The ecclesiastic council of the Bishop – the cathedral chapel – stayed in Haapsalu, and so did the Episcopal tribune. In approximately 1567 a chronicler named Renner stated: “The Saare Diocese owns the following castles: the Kuressaare Castle, which is located on the above-mentioned island (Saaremaa) and serves as the main castle; it faces Haapsalu on the mainland, where the cathedral and the Episcopal tribune are situated…”. Until the end of the Swedish reign, which was about 300 years, Haapsalu remained the political, administrative and clerical centre of the Saare-Lääne Diocese.
In 1524 Bishop Johannes IV Kievel gave permission to freely proclaim Lutheranism. The heads of state – the bishops- were Catholic and so was the Haapsalu Cathedral. In 1524, after becoming a bishop, Johannes V Münchausen (the Bishop of Kuramaa), sold the bishopric to the Danish King Frederic II. Frederic then gave it to his brother the Duke Magnus. The last ruler of the Saare-Lääne Diocese, the Duke Magnus took the archives and the most precious religious articles to Kuressaare in 1560 and then further to Denmark. During the Livonian War (1558-1583) the whole diocese went under the reign of Sweden. It became part of the Estonian Province in the Swedish kingdom.
The Episcopal Castle of Haapsalu is one of the most remarkable examples of Estonian Middle-Age fortress architecture, the glory of which can be traced today only by ruins.
The stronghold covered the area of two hectares and its construction, widening and reconstruction went on throughout several centuries, with architecture changing according to the development of weapons.
The stronghold achieved its final dimensions under the reign of Bishop Johannes IV Kievel (1515-1527). It was at this time that a strong circular wall for the smaller preceding fortress was finished with an indented balustrade for firearms and with impressive cannon towers. The thickness of the wall was between 1.2 and 1.8 m.
The defence capacity of the stronghold was pushed to its limits during the Livonian War. The inner trenches and blindages, which were built for cannons and as a shelter from bombing, date back to these times, but it was during this war that the stronghold was severely damaged. The walls of the small castle and the outer fortification were left partly destroyed.
At the end of the 17th century the Haapsalu stronghold was no longer considered as an asset as it was excluded from the list of the defence constructions in the Swedish Estonian Province. In the course of the Nordic War in 1710 Estonia went under the Russian rule. The remaining fortress walls were dismantled to half of their former height due to the orders of the Tsar Peter I. It was at this time that the fortress that once displayed seven towered circular wall 803 meters long and 12 meters high became a pile of ruins.
In Estonia and its neighbouring countries only very few examples of medieval weapons have survived. The collection of those exhibited at the Town Museum is really unique. These weapons with ammunition were found at the Episcopal Castle during the excavations in the so called King´s Cellar in 1989. The majority of the finding consists of the weapons and ammunition used to protect the town. The mechanical weapons are represented by arrowheads, the firearms by guns, cannons and numerous lead and cast iron cannonballs.
Among the firearms one can see the oldest gun types – stick guns, chamber guns and harquebuses, and the oldest cannons – both chamber and front-loaded. In addition to these one halberd and some spearheads are exhibited. Very unique is the mould carved from dolomite to make cast iron cannon balls. The arms date back to the period between the second half of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century. The harquebus, the halberd and, very likely, also the spearheads were still used in the second half of the 16th century.
The St. Nicholas Dome Church of Haapsalu
The Dome Church of St. Nicholas is the most important historical and cultural monument of the town. The Dome Church of Haapsalu is the biggest single naved church in the Baltic states with its 15.5-meter-high domical vaults and the area of 425 m².
The first written record of the church is the charter of the town of Haapsalu where Bishop Herman, the founder of the town wrote: “…we ,the ones having established the cathedral in Haapsalu and having provided our canons with the appropriate dwellings and income, determined a certain site to be a town, where everybody who has chosen it as their place of living together with us, could gather and find shelter there; and if needed would be able to defend the church with all the means at their disposal”.
Supposedly built in 1260 the church belongs to the transition period from the Romanesque to Gothic style. The Romanesque style can be seen in the plant ornament at the capital of the pilasters inside the choir room as the pointed arches mark the Gothic style. The portal above the main entrance was originally also in the Romanesque having a round arch and ornamental pediment with a niche and a statue of the patron saint. The Dome Church was dedicated to the patron saint of the Saare-Lääne Diocese – St. John the Evangelist.
While building the church certain constructional requirements of the Cistercian Order were followed: the absence of a tower, austere interior of the choir room and the rose window above the portal. The interior walls were covered with numerous paintings and statues of saints with the altars dedicated to them. Under the floor the clerics and noblemen were buried.
In the 14th or 15th century a unique round baptismal chapel was built.
On full moon nights of in August an image of a maiden, The White Lady, appears on the inner wall of the chapel. A legend tells that this young woman having fallen in love with a monk, entered the monastery despite of the fact that women were prohibited within the grounds. As a punishment she was entombed in the wall of the chapel.
There were side altars in the bays of the baptismal chapel and the walls there were also covered with paintings. From the northern vestry a narrow staircase leads to the vaults of the church. This place served as a shelter in case of danger. During the years the Order occupied the centre of the Saare-Lääne Diocese (1297-1302) the Master of the Order named Bruno had the loopholes to be built into the wall above the vaults.
The Dome Church of Haapsalu was a cathedral (i.e. the main church) of the Saare-Lääne Diocese where the official chair of the Bishop, the throne was situated and where the ecclesiastical council of the Bishop, the Cathedral Chapter worked.
During the Livonian War (1558-1583) when Estonia became part of the Lutheran Swedish kingdom the Catholic Dome Church became a church with a Lutheran congregation and was then called the Castle Church. In 1625 the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf sold the town of Haapsalu, the castle and the nearby land property to Count Jacob De la Gardie who planned to rebuild the whole castle. Although the majority of his plans were never implemented, the castle was renovated and an organ and a new altar were built. Also the baptismal stone supposedly made by Joachim Winter in 1634 dates back to this period.
On 23 March 1688 the sheet-copper roof of the church was destroyed in a fire, but the church was restored relatively quickly. The storm in 1726 destroyed the roof again, but the Swedish state was not interested in restoring it anymore as the nearby castle had lost its military importance and become unfit as a dwelling place.
The decreased congregation could not afford the renovation and moved to the town church. In the 19th century the reconstruction of the ruins into a romantic castle park was started. The restoring of the church began only in the second half of the 19th century. Then within three years (1886-1889) the church was renovated and rebuilt. The ruined Romanesque style portal was replaced by the pseudo-Gothic “stepped portal”, the extant fragments of the wall paintings were covered over, the tombstones were taken out of the church, etc.
On 15 October 1889 (according to the old style) the first service dedicated to St. Nicholas the Evangelist was held. The church was used only during the summer months as it did not have a heating system built in. In the winter, the congregation still gathered in St. John´s Church. In the summer, the castle church was also used as a concert hall. During the Soviet occupation in 1940 religious services were discontinued. The church was opened again during the World War II at the time of German occupation. In the spring of 1944 the church was plundered several times. Because of the unpredictability of the times it had no particular function. However, for a short period of time, it was turned into a granary. Then the idea of rebuilding it as an indoor swimming pool was discussed. Finally it was left abandoned to decay.
In 1979 the renovation of the church was started with the perspective to rebuild it as a concert hall. But with the start of a democratic era it was decided to restore it as a house of God. In the interior architecture the relevant changes were made (the Communion table carved from stone, the pulpit and other items were added). According to the architect´s plan by Kalvi Alvere, Aala Bulkas designed the interior of the church, baptismal chapel and the vestries. The designer of the textiles is Maasike Maasik.
In 1990 the first service after a long hiatus was held and the church was re-dedicated to St. Nicholas. On Mothers´ Day of 1992 a Mother´s Altar to commemorate Estonian mothers killed during the Soviet occupation was consecrated. The altar was given to the church by a medical doctor Heino Noor whose mother had been deported to Siberia. The statue of the Virgin and the Child was made by the sculptor Hille Palm.
The church which is now the Cathedral of St. Nicholas is at the disposal of ELCE St.John’s congregation of Haapsalu.